Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nature Vs. Nurture

Sasha reclined indolently in the chair opposite my desk, crackling gum and staring out the window. Never had a school uniform looked so disreputable. Her mother leaned forward to make sure she had my full attention. “I’m sure it was simply a mistake,” she said in that saccharine shade of politeness that went right out the other side to rude.
I managed to contain a sigh, and valiantly restrained myself from rubbing at my forehead. “I assure you,” I said in that strained tone that meant it was taking all my willpower to be polite, “there’s been no mistake. I’d be happy to provide you with copies of Sasha’s assessment tasks if you’d like to see them. The ones she handed in, anyway.”
Alison glared down her nose. “What do you mean, the ones she handed in?”
This time I did sigh. “Mrs Young, surely you received the—”numerous“—emails I send home, and the letters, about Sasha’s essay in first term and her creative just this month?”
“You should have kept her in,” Alison pronounced.
Oh, yes, because I have nothing better to do with my lunchtimes than babysit your brat while she does nothing. I smiled thinly. “We tried that. For a week. Nothing was forthcoming, if you recall.”
Further glares. “My Sasha is a good girl.” Alison put her hand on Sasha’s shoulder.
Sasha’s glance flicked ever so briefly to her mother’s hand, then to me. When she realised I was looking straight back at her, she held my gaze, as if daring me to comment.
I filed that one away for future examination. Sasha was usually the touch-me-and-die type, and she didn’t strike me as one to make allowances for her parents.
“I’m sure she is, Mrs Young.” Deep down. Way deep down. “Which is why I have no doubt that, if you wish to see her grade for this semester improved, she will hand in the two missing assignments.” I transferred my gaze back to Alison, who, apart from the second chin, could have stepped straight out of a magazine with a title like Country Vogue. “Usually the late penalties would mean that she would receive a zero for the tasks, but in this case I’m sure we could see our way to moving her up from a D to a C overall if the tasks were of sufficient quality.” Any second now, my brittle smile was going to crack.
“A C? A C! I didn’t pay for my daughter to get Cs!”
I opened my mouth for a cutting retort about school fees, but Alison continued.
“I can’t believe this.” Her diction had slipped and I got the impression she was no longer talking to me. “We paid a fortune for her and the Association promised us we’d got the best genes there were. Top of her year, they assured us, no problems. And instead we get this ridiculous nonsense—“ She broke off abruptly with a glance at Sasha, as though just remembering she was in the room.
Sasha maintained her bored stare out the window, but I thought I could see a tension in her jaw that hadn’t been there before.
If Alison meant what I thought she did, I didn’t blame Sasha one bit. I opened my mouth, considered my words, closed my mouth, and tried again. “Mrs Young,” I ventured. “Do you mean to say Sasha was—is—a PAM baby?”
Sasha flinched at the term, and I resolved not to use it again. It was a whole lot less direct than the other terms people used—designer babies, GMs, or if the speaker was feeling particularly cruel, Chihuahuas, after the dogs a certain type of women back in the early decades of the century carried around in their handbags—but while the acronym ‘PAM’ wasn’t so bad, it stood for Pick-And-Mix, and I guessed that wasn’t really a great phrase either.
Alison had the good grace to look flustered. “I thought you know. You should have known! We told the school when we enrolled her! I specifically asked for that information to be disseminated to her teachers.” Somewhere in her speech she’d gone from embarrassed to accusatory, and I bristled in response.
“No,” I said shortly. “I didn’t know.” I made a show of glancing at my watch. “I’m sorry but I have another meeting to get to. We’ll have to continue this conversation another time.”
I swept Alison up despite her protestations and escorted her out the door.


“Did you know?” I asked Sharryn, Sasha’s year coordinator.
She shrugged. “Of course. But admin thought she deserved the chance to go through school like a normal kid, so they didn’t tell anyone. I only knew because I was there for her interview.”
“Heh,” I said around a mouthful of sandwich. “That must have been a barrel of laughs.”
Sharryn gave me a dark look. “You have no idea.”
Actually, though, I kind of thought I did.


Sasha confronted me at the end of class the next day, waiting until the other students had filed out before hauling herself out of her seat and sauntering towards me. She stopped about half a foot closer than comfort and good manners allowed, and I breathed deeply, trying to remind myself that she had good reason to be belligerent about life.
“So, you gonna shut me in the back corner of the classroom now and let me do my own thing?”
I raised an eyebrow, pretty sure that I’d handled the lesson we’d just had the same way I always did. Then something clicked. “Do you want me to?”
She fidgeted—just a little, just a shifting on her feet, but it was enough to confirm my sudden suspicion.
I sighed heavily. “Look, Sasha, this isn’t going to work.” I sat on the edge of my desk, suddenly too tired to stand. “First of all, I’m not going to let you go do your own thing on my time just because you’ve decided to check out. Know what that means?” I waited for eye contact before I continued. “It means I’m not giving up on you. Sorry. And second of all, this is a crappy way to punish your mum.”
She startled visibly at that, eyes darting to mine, wary.
Teenagers. Always think they’re so subtle and no one understands them. Oy. I smiled wryly. “It wasn’t really hard to figure out, kid. She obviously treats you—“ I’d be going to say like a show dog, but that was probably a little harsh, even if it was true. I shook my head. “I get that you hold her responsible for your life and that there’s more than a little resentment there. But this isn’t the way to fix things. What are you going to do when you graduate with fail grades? Go cut grass for a living?”
She raised her chin. “There’s nothing wrong with cutting grass.”
“Yeah, and I hear it’s a super interesting and engaging profession, too.” I gave her a look.
Her lips twitched like maybe she’d once dreamt of a smile. It was about five times more positivity than I’d ever seen from her before; I’d take what I could get.

I handed her a copy of the creative task she was supposed to have handed in three weeks ago that I’d re-copied. “Don’t do it for her. Do it for you.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dream Away

"Sir, how would you like to take your dream vacation today?" The women, really no more than a girl, smiling at Jazin was a perky little thing. Cute button nose, cinnamon colored hair, and pale gold freckles on skin a few shades darker than her hair. She waved a synthpaper brochure at him. "Where do you want to go?"

"Home," Jazin said. "My bank account doesn't match my dreams."

She stepped in front of him, her ivy green skirt flaring a swirling as she moved. "I have dream vacations for all budgets."

"Yeah?" And he was going to get a promotion to a corner office. Just as soon as the moon turned blue. "Does this dream vacation come with paid leave 'cause my boss isn't the type who likes to give people time off." Company CEOs weren't famous for caring whether their worker bees had rest and relaxation. The only thing that mattered to the boys calling the shots upstairs was the company's bottom line and their fat quarterly bonuses.

The girl smiled impishly. "No leave time required. This really is a dream vacation." With a touch of her finger the brochure projected a hologram of him on a white sand beach. "Do you know the average dream lasts less than five minutes? With Dream Away's new REMtech Dream 6K you can have a week's worth of luxury in five minutes."

Jazin pushed the brochure away. "Thanks, but no thanks. I can't afford a vacation, real or otherwise."

"Oh, but you can!" the girl insisted. "Give me a minute, I'll give you the perfect day. Give me five minutes, and I'll give you a week in paradise. Give me an hour, and I can give you a lifetime!"

"You'll give me a sticky chair to nap in that stinks of other people and hasn't been sanitized in a week. Pass."

Her face lit up in an infectious grin. "Don't be that way!" She hit him playfully in the chest with the brochure. He noticed her brown eyes were luminous as sunlit topaz, and for just a moment he wanted to stay.

Shaking his head, Jazin tried to sidestep her again. Pretty girls were easy enough to come by in the beauty capital of the system. But he knew the sales pitches and the tricks. The way the sellers would befriend you, ask you your name, create a need. Oh, they were good, it's what kept the companies in business and the populace in debt.

"Come on," the girl cajoled. "What would it hurt to try it?"

"I'd like to pay my rent this week, thanks all the same."

She licked her lips. "What if I... gave you a taste? For free."

"Sounds like you're pedaling hard addictives, lady."

"Oh, no!" She shook her head and her beaded earrings jingled a soft melody. "Dream Away's product is one hundred percent non-addictive."

Jazin rolled his eyes. "I bet. I nap, I walk away and the dream's forgotten in ten minutes anyway. Everyone knows dreams don't last."

"Dream Away dreams do." She placed a small, elegant hand on the crook of his arm. "In one minute I can give you the perfect day. You want the corner office? It's yours. Do you want to be the star of your favorite sports team? Done. Do you want a day to catch up on your reading? I have all the books waiting for you. You'll feel the pages in your hands, smell the paper and ink, and when you open your eyes you'll remember the book just as if you'd spent the day reading."

"And then I'll want another hit which will cost me – what – a day's wages? A week's? It's not worth it."

"Dream Away provides no more endorphins than you would get from a thirty minute run at the gym. And while we can't burn calories for you like a run will, we can offer you a reduction of mental distress. Five minutes and you'll feel as if you took a week to relax. Think of it as the perfect vacation, all of the benefits and you've lost no time!"

He frowned skeptically. "Things that sound to good to be true..."

"... usually are!" She pointed at him and smiled cheekily. "I know! Dream Away isn't the real thing. You won't get a real sunburn at the pool in the Jawamai Mountains. You won't really eat draris fruit in the orchards of the Old King. The new friends you meet won't be real. But you'll remember all of it like it was."

"How?" he demanded. "Are you going to dribble fruit juice on my chin?"

"Everything you experience is a secondary sensation as processed by the brain. If the brain misinterprets a signal a sound can become a color, or a light breeze can become a burning fire along your skin. When Allerd Wria first started working on his theory of Unified Brain Function he was looking for a way to address those inconsistencies in damaged brains. Further research allowed him to develop a method of retraining brains after traumatic injury. The REMtech Dream 6K is the delightful outcome of his otherwise serious work.

"While hospital may need Dr. Wria's more serious projects this one was created to let people play."

Jazin's eyes narrowed in thought. "What was the original purpose of the machine? Torture? Interrogation? Punishment?"

Her lips flattened into a frown. "Treating depression." She held the brochure up. "Overworked people suffering from seasonal depression or sudden loss were able to use pre-programmed dreamscapes to work through their difficulties. The commercial model is less structured, you will design your own dream as you dream."

"So you can't guarantee I won't have a nightmare." There was always a catch.

The girl hooked her arm through his elbow and steered him toward the store. Brightly colored travel calendars and pictures of famous buildings lined the walls. "We do exert a little control. The REMtech Dream 6K reads what the brain is dreaming of and enhances the thought by triggering the respective neurons. You think of a fruit and by your first dream-bite you will taste the perfect fruit. Using the same technology we can steer dreams so that you stay in a pleasant and happy state, whatever that may be for you." She shrugged. "Or not. We don't judge."

He watched as the door open and a smiling man accompanied by a blue-skinned woman wearing the same green dress as the girl walked past chatting happily. The man's uniform was of a low-level maintenance worker, someone who did manual labor ten hours a day, but instead of a laborer's perpetual frown the man looked as if he'd never had a bad day.

"A regular customer," the girl said. "He comes in every few days for a three minute dream. Says it's like getting an extra weekend."

"And how much of his pay are you stealing."

"Small packages have small prices," she said. "He pays two credits, only a quarter of an hour's wages for him. Fifteen minutes worth of pay and he gets three days in paradise."

Jazin snorted in disbelief. "I bet he can't tell reality from fairyland anymore."

Her smile grew amused. "Dream Away does complete product testing before putting anything on the market. You'll find, as our researchers did, that it is easy to differentiate from dreams and reality. You retain the memory of the place, but the human mind always knows where it is. That gentleman has been doing classes and training prep during his dream sessions. Dream Away is helping him get a better job."

The blue-skinned girl started chatting up another prospective customer in the busy transit corridor.

He sighed. That was life, wasn't it? Rush to work, hustle all day, rush to catch the next tram home. Every day was regulated down to the minute. His pay meant he had sixty minutes a week of running water, four hours a week of electricity, and a single meal box with seventeen nutritional meals a week. The other meals he either had to skip or spend money on at a company restaurant.

The girl nudged his shoulder. "One minute and I'll make all your cares go away."

"One minute?"

"The perfect day. And the first time is free."

"Fine." Jazin waved to the back of the store. "Fine. I'll try it. It's the only way you'll let me go."

"You won't be disappointed!" she bubbled. Grabbing his hand she dragged him back to a small parlor painted all black. "Don't worry about the color. This is just to keep light reflection down. Please, have a seat."

A black plethasynth chair sat in the middle of the room with a green light shining out of diodes along the headrest. "That's it?"

"The REMtech Dream 6K is a very advanced machine. We don't need wires and cables everywhere to do this. After all, this is the age of nanotech!"

"All right." Reluctantly he shrugged off his coat. "Um..."

The girl pointed to the wall. "There a locker right there. You can code it to your handprint just like the lockers at work."

Quaslin LockerShop lockers than. They were ubiquitous. Seventy years ago Quaslin had been a minor repair company and now a person couldn't turn around without seeing their logo plastered on some piece of metal. That was the advantages of having one of the only metal refineries left in operation in the system.

He tucked his briefcase and coat in, double checked the lock, and reset the code.

"You'll only be asleep for a minute," the girl said. "You're things will be perfectly safe."

Spoken like a woman who wouldn't lose her job if the boss found out she'd been casual with the security of a company briefcase. It didn't matter that he didn't have rank or secrets to hide, the company was in open conflict with three other big corporations and any sign of indiscretion meant a pink slip and your name on the station blacklist.

"Sit here, sir, and I'll adjust everything for optimal comfort."

Jazin eyed the chair and then heaved a sigh. "Fine." He sat down and noticed wrist braces on the arms of the seat.

The girl followed his worried gaze. "Those are there for your safety. About twenty percent of our clients experience sleep-walking tendencies, involuntary and uncontrolled movement, while dreaming. The straps keep you from waking up with a black eye." She snapped the locks shut and a screen on the ceiling lit up.

The words I AM FULLY AWAKE glowed softly in the darkness.

"What's that?"

"That is the voice control panel for the retraints. When you wake up you read the words provided and the machine will release you. Would you like to try it?"

"I am fully awake," Jazin read aloud.

The word RHUBARB appeared in the same soft pink glow.

"Rhubarb," Jazin read obediently.

The restraints unsnapped with metallic click.

"Ready for your perfect day?" the girl asked as she locked him back in.

He settled back into the soft arms of the machine. "Sure, let's do this."

"Where would you like your perfect day to be?"

Jazin shook his head. "I don't know. The beach sounds nice. I've never been there."

"Then the beach it is. Sweet dreams!"

The lights dimmed and he heard the door shut. He took a deep breath, blinked, and he was standing on the beach with a hot sun beating down on his bare arms. A white bird swooped overhead screaming. Just ahead he saw a shack of some kind that looked like it was selling drinks. It seemed like a promising direction, so he walked that way...
***
She lifted the ident card off the corpse in the chair. Jazin Reirs, software technician second-class. Middle aged, overweight, single, and stupid as a box of rocks. He'd carried encrypted documents to and from work every day and never known the value. Poor fool. If he'd guessed maybe he could have sold the papers and bought some protection.

Her ear comm crackled. "How is our friend?"

"Dreaming. Permanently. I have everything we came for."

"Then get out. We have another target for you."

Folding the papers she tucked them into a locked carrying case hidden in the garter on her thigh and locked the dream parlor behind her. The nice young lady she'd rented the room from waved as she showed another perspective client the latest in TuyongTech virtual reality. Experience the beach in real time, sand in your shoes is extra! 

It was true what they said, people who spent their lives dreaming of a better future never were awake enough to make one.

Monday, September 7, 2015

War Games Make Children Of Us All

Bomb shelter
A hundred metres underground

“Marni, I want to pop the bubbles.”
Delighted clapping. “Oh yes, Marni, please? Please can we pop the bubbles?”
Marni casts a sidelong glance at their mother, curled against the absence of their father by the wall. She nods. “Let’s pop bubbles.”
The twins squeal in delight.


Bomber
Four and a half thousand metres above ground

“Reckon you can hit something today, Dan?”
Dan laughs over the intercom. “I’ll hit more than you!”
He can practically hear Pete’s grin as he replies. “You’re on.”


The Strategy Room
Miles away from chaos

General Robinson rubs his hands together in glee. “We’ll get ‘em yet, Sir. Those smarmy bastards’ll be running with their tails between their legs.”
The President nods. “Go get them.”


Bomb shelter

Marni blows a shiny sphere, faintly iridescent in the shelter’s dim light.
Jordan grabs his sister’s shoulders. “Wait! Wait for it to float first!”
“But I want to pop it now!” 
Marni lets loose a stream of perfect orbs.
The twins squeal and dance, leaping up and down and left and right as they try to catch them all.
Pop.
Pop pop pop pop pop.


Bomber

“Bomb’s away!”
Dan hears the sound of Pete’s plane dropping its load, even over the sound of his own engine.  He laughs and releases his own. He imagines the sound of it hitting its target.
Boom.
Boom boom boom boom boom.


Strategy Room 201

The President leans forward over his desk, fingers gripping the edge whitely. “Well?”
The General smiles. “Got ‘em. Every last one.”
Mr President rocks back on his heels, exhaling. “Damn, but that feels good.”
“Yep,” General Robinson agrees. “Perfect desolation. They’re gone. Gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.”


Bomb shelter


Marni can hear the scream of the bombs approaching. She ignores it, watching the twins as they whirl and dance, writhing with pure delight. They catch the final bubble, and the perfect sphere explodes. They laugh. The lights go out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Anything For You

     I turned to Jacquie and tilted my head under the bright dressing room lights. “What do you think?” 
Her face fell. “Oh, honey. That colour is all wrong for you!”
My stomach sank. “What? No! I asked the woman at the counter! She did a skin test and everything!” I whirled back to the mirror and scrutinised my jawline. Sure enough, if I craned my neck up and tilted to the right, a line of orange traced my jaw from chin to earlobe. “What am I going to do?” I turned to Jacquie in a panic. “The formal’s in”—I checked the big old train station clock on the wall—“ three hours and I have a hair appointment and I have to get dressed and we have to drive there, and besides all that, I’m broke!” I buried my hands in my face and tried to pretend I wasn’t sobbing over makeup. After all, children in Africa were dying. Children in Africa weren’t preparing simultaneously for their senior formal and their first date with the love of their high school life, though, to be fair.
“Return it,” Jacquie said. “It’s the only thing you can do.”
“It’s opened!” I wailed. “They’ll never take it back! I’m broken! The whole evening ruined!”
Jacquie took me by the arm and marched me to the door as I waved the open tube of foundation vaguely. “You’ve clearly never seen me negotiate,” she promised as we climbed into the car. “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. You know I’ll do anything to make this date perfect for you. It’s going to be fine.”

We waited as the shop assistant served three other people ahead of us. Finally, it was our turn.
“How may I help you?” the perfectly-coiffed woman with blonde hair piled atop her head and flawless makeup smoothing her cheeks asked.
Jacquie pinned her with a steely stare. “We need to exchange some makeup,” she said firmly, placing the tube down on the table.
The woman gave it a cursory glance and plastered a false smile in place. “I’m sorry, this has been opened. No returns on opened items.”
Jacquie plunked our ace down on the table: the list on store letterhead detailing the makeup the previous assistant had recommended for me. “In this case,” she said, “I believe you should make an exception. As you can see, the colour”—she squinted at the list—“Sharryn recommended for my friend is all wrong.”
The store woman glanced at me and I tilted my head obligingly, clearly revealing the line of orange along my jaw that we’d left in place for evidence. She frowned. “Well. I am sorry about this, and you can be certain that Sharryn will be reprimanded. In cases such as this it is sometimes possible to make an exchange, but I’m afraid you’ve purchased Hellfire foundation. Did you read the fie print?”
Stomach fluttering with trepidation, I shook my head. She handed back the list and I skimmed to the bottom of the page. The usual disclaimers were there, indemnifying the store against skin damage, allergic reactions and so forth—and there, right at the end, in print so tiny I had to hold the paper an inch from my nose to read it, a final clause: Purchasers agree that along with any financial exchange the store sees fit to apply, all purchases of Hellfire products shall paid for with the irredeemable giving over of the purchaser’s soul. Purchases of Hellfire products are final, non-refundable, and non-exchangeable, except where a soul of greater value may be applied with the willing consent of the soul-owner.
Great. Where was I going to get a willing soul of greater value at such short notice? I pressed the list to my forehead and sighed. There was one option, of course… “Jacquie?”
“What is it? Why can’t you exchange it?” She peered worriedly at me, brown eyes wide.
My heart pounded. “You know how you owe me that favour?”
Her brow creased. “Well sure. But—”
“Would you be willing to do it for me now?” I said, cutting over her.
“Um, yes? I guess so. I don’t know how that will help, though.” She turned to the shop woman, puzzled.
The woman lifted a considering eyebrow at me.
“Well?” I said. “She’s willing. Hers is of greater value, isn’t it?” Of course it was; Jacquie was an angel. I, on the other hand, was self-evidently not.
The woman’s other eyebrow joined the first. “Yes.” She turned to Jacquie. “If you’ll just come with me, Miss, I’m sure we can get this all sorted out.”
“Um, okay?” Jacquie shot me a puzzled glance before following the shop assistant out the back.
I smiled and nodded encouragingly. “Thank you!” I called. “Thank you so much!” I couldn’t give up a date with Matt. He was the love of my high school life, after all. Jacquie would understand. Eventually.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Last Gift

 “I’m sorry.” The doctor spoke in low tones as we stood in the hallway outside my apartment. “There’s nothing else I can try. Nothing’s working any more. Your only chance is one of them.”
My throat tightened and my fingers fisted at my sides. I nodded. “Thanks,” I said. “For trying.”
He gave a curt nod by way of farewell and headed for the stairs – up, not down; clearly he had other patients to attend to in the building.
I let myself back into the apartment and bowed my head against the closed door, allowing the despair and exhaustion to flood over me for a slow count of ten. At ten, I straightened, shook myself off, and headed to Gabrielle’s room.
“Hey,” I said from the doorway when I saw she was awake.
She twitched her lips, approximating a smile. “Hey.” Her dark face stood out against the pale lemon pillows, hair frizzing around it in an untamed mess.  I needed to wash it. Maybe she’d let me cornrow it later on. “Any news?”
I shook my head. “Nothing works any more. The ‘corns have destroyed it all.”
She bit her lip fretfully and looked up at me, eyes wide.
“It’s okay,” I said, hurrying to perch awkwardly on the bed next to her. “We’ll find one. I’ll take you to one if it kills me.”
Gabrielle’s wide-eyed stare became a hard-edged glare. “No you won’t. Don’t say stupid things like that.”
I sagged. “I know. I’m sorry. You know what I mean.”
She nodded.
“Tomorrow then,” I said, patting her hand. “We’ll try first thing.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, and I stroked her fingers until she fell asleep.

As it turned out, moving Gabrielle was pretty impossible; she was just too far gone to be able to tolerate me bumping and bashing her about, even though I tried to be as gentle as I could. In the end, I stood back, looked at her with grief squeezing blood from my heart, and told her I’d go alone. It was a measure of how desperate she was—we both were—that she agreed without a fuss. I left a couple of days’ worth of food and water within her easy reach (easy, as though anything was easy for her any more) and set off.
From the outside our building looked even worse than from the inside. The buildings in this part of town hadn’t been that great to begin with, concrete crumbling at the corners and paint flaking off in layers, but now they looked downright demolition-worthy.  For whatever reason, there hadn’t been many  ‘corns in our district, so for the most part they were still standing –but only barely. The business block at the corner of sixty-fifth and ninth had come crashing down last week, and odds were better than even that it was just the first.
Our building had stood up this long; that was great. And having few to no ‘corns in the area meant that we at least still had a steady water supply, and that the food we’d all frantically stockpiled in the first few days of the disaster hadn’t suddenly perished.
But on the other hand, it meant I had no clue where to start looking for one for Gabrielle.
It occurred to me as I reached the outskirts of our area that I’d both underestimated and overestimated the damage the ‘corns had done to the rest of the city, and consequently was terrifically underprepared. I hadn’t brought food or water—not that either would survive if I actually found what I was after—and I had no cash for buying, nothing to trade for bartering.
I ran a hand over my head and inhaled deeply. Never mind. Half the city had nothing left anyway; what difference did one more vagabond drifting with the wind make?
Back in the first few days when the news reports had still been functioning, it had seemed as though the attacks were centred downtown, so when I finally reached the junction with Main I turned right, walking on the road when the sidewalks became too cracked and uneven.
All around me, chaos rippled like an alligator’s pond. Everything concrete was decaying, crumbling, melting or just strewn in chunks all over the ground, exposing wood or metal beams where walls had once stood. Sidewalks cracked and crumbled, overtaken by tufts of knee-high grass and weeds as tall as my hip. The roads hadn’t faired much better, asphalt split and gaping, cars scattered hither and thither like those abandoned after toddler’s play—or a tornado. Most of them were rusting out, plastic dashes melted into garish shapes, synthetic upholstery already nearly weathered away.
Someone honked behind me and I glanced back in surprise. A little [car], one of those new-fangled solar-powered cars that couldn’t top more than [speed] but were supposed to be totally green. Figures they’d be able to survive, although as it wove its way closer I noted it no longer had its original plastic dash, and the seats had been replaced with bare wood benches.
The driver, an older lady probably in her sixties, pulled the car up beside me and wound down her window. “Need a lift?”
I shrugged. “Got no money. No goods for trading.” I held out my hands, indicating that all I had was what she saw.
She smiled, a warm fuzzy thing that seemed far too genuine for the circumstances. “I’m Frankie. Come on, I’ll give you a lift.”
“Jayla,” I said, nodding. “Thank you.”

Frankie had been a nurse, back in the days before, just a year or two away from retirement. She’d spent the intervening weeks since the ‘corns arrived driving up and down any roads she could find that were still passable, helping out as she could. She was more than happy to drop me off in the centre of town, waving me farewell and wishing me luck. “You’ll need it, Ducky,” she said as she shoved the car back into gear and reversed away. “They don’t grant wishes.”
I knew that all too well.
The centre of town was, contrary to expectation, quiet as a rural meadow—or a graveyard. It gave a passable impression of either, knee-high grass rippling through the square, an unbroken blanket of green, building rubble sticking up at odd angles like headstones laid by a drunken mortician. For twenty, thirty, forty minutes I walked, through ways that used to bustle and hustle but now only rustled in the breeze. My hopes fell with my shoulders and stomach. I sat on a stray boulder that looked suspiciously like it had once been a granite head and considered my options: continue on my probably-futile quest for a ‘corn indefinitely, or head home empty-handed and concede defeat to Death.
A shout off to my right drew my attention: a short, black-haired fellow came running into view, waving his hands frantically. “Make way!” he shouted. “Move out of the way!”
I jumped to my feet, staring at him.
“Move!” he shouted again, hands flapping.
“Where?” I called back, gesturing at the lack of cover around.
“Anywhere!”
An instant later, I realised why: not one, not even two, but a small herd of glorious ‘corns burst into view, long white limbs stretching, pastel manes and tails flying like streamers, sharp-tipped silver horns glinting in the cold sunlight. Adrenalin shot through my body. I scooted behind some nearby rubble and slammed my back against it. I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed for sanity as the herd thundered past.
Hoof beats began to die away and I let out a cautious breath. It appeared I’d escaped unscathed. I dared a peek over the rubble mound and froze, a scream in my throat. In the second it took to convince my body to work again I realised what I was seeing: not a second herd as I’d feared, but a single, lavender-maned creature being driven by three or four men on horseback. I ducked back behind my rubble, took a few steadying breaths, and peeked out again.
The ‘corn frothed at the mouth, saliva a pale purple that matched its mane and tail. Patches of its cloud-white fur had worn thin on its flanks, and a silvery-steel liquid seeped through. And although the ‘corn still ran, it stumbled and staggered, not at all surefooted like its cousins.
One of the men on regular-horseback threw something at the flagging ‘corn. It hit the ‘corn’s rump and exploded in a puff of dark green powder. The ‘corn screamed and bucked, gathering itself up as though to try for greater speed. Instead, it tripped and fell.
As it slammed chest-first into the ground I realised I was running towards it, and stopped. The hunters were closing in, the ‘corn screaming furiously, but I didn’t dare move. I couldn’t. Everyone knew the stories: ‘corns hurt more than they helped, and through their rabid mission to ‘purify’ the world they were utterly destroying it. If I went close to it while it was angry  and hurting, who knew what it might do.
The hunters launched another powder puff. It exploded over the unicorn’s withers; the unicorn screamed. I clapped my hands over my ears and winced at the agony. It tore at my chest and for a moment I couldn’t tell if the agony was mine or the ‘corn’s.
I couldn’t let it suffer like that alone. I darted forward, sprinting hard to make it to the ‘corn before the hunters dismounted. “No!” I threw myself in front of them just as they launched a third powder puff. It hit my shoulder and burst. I cringed, expecting pain, but instead was enveloped in a spicy, herby smell. I frowned at the green mark, confused.
Behind me, the ‘corn screamed again and I whirled towards it, ignoring the hunters striding towards me with murder in their eyes. I dropped to my knees by the unicorn’s head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Can I do anything?”
A rough hand grabbed me by the shoulder. “What in the blazes do you think you’re doing?” The man spun me around to face him.
“You’re hurting it!” I said.
“Of course we’re hurting it! It’s a bloody unicorn!”
I glanced around at the creature writhing on the ground. “I know. I know it is.” I tugged at my hair. I shot the hunter a desperate glance. “Just… give me one second with it, will you?”
He shrugged and tossed a powder puff in his hand. “Your funeral. You got sixty seconds before I lob this at its nose. That’ll finish it off, and you don’t want to be within blasting range when that happens. You seen what the ‘corns do when they’re happy?”
I nodded, remembering the first time I’d seen one parading down the street, radiating light that cleansed everything in its reach. It sounded great in theory: magical unicorns that appeared out of nowhere, cleansing and purifying the world. The problem was, their definition of clean and pure was pretty darn strict. Synthetics? Gone, and that included building materials, clothing, food—and medicines. Sure, disease and sickness was also purified, but there’s a difference between a cancerous tumour suddenly disappearing, and whole chunks of ‘faulty’ DNA being ripped from someone’s cells. The former you could survive; the latter not so much.
“So you can imagine what will happen when one dies, then.” He stared me down.
I stared back, determined.
The hunter nodded. “One minute.”
I knelt by the unicorn’s face as the hunter retreated to talk with his partners. It whinnied softly and I reached out, fingers trembling. I hesitated right before I touched it. “What are you going to do to me?” I asked, uncertain why I felt so much sympathy for this creature of destruction as it died. Maybe that was part of the power of the ‘corns, luring me in on its deathbed. Maybe it was hope.
I let my fingertips rest against its cheek, pure white hair impossibly soft, like down, or superfine velvet. Heat seared my fingers as energy shot up through my arms and into the base of my skull. Waves of colour and sound shot through my mind, hot, cold, loud, soft, crimson, magenta, viridian, gold. I tried to pull back, but the current of energy held me tight. It poured into me, filling my fingers and toes, hands and feet, wrists, ankles, legs, arms… Warmth suffused me and lifted me to my feet, off the ground, and spun me gently so I scribed a golden circle in the air. I couldn’t tell if the warmth was pleasant or if it hurt; it straddled that strange boundary between pleasure and pain and all I could do was try to breathe through it.
With a sudden burst, the connection severed and I dropped to the ground. I blinked, disoriented, then realised the dark shape in front of me was the hunter, standing over the unicorn’s body as dark green powder dispersed into the air. “Ow.”
The hunter glanced at me. “You okay?”
I looked down at my arms. A frisson of fear travelled through me as I realised my arms were glowing. I stretched, wriggled my fingers, and looked back at the hunter. “Yeah. I think so.”
Another man laughed behind me. “We thought you were a gonner.” He clapped me heartily on the shoulder. Energy sizzled through me and stung his hand. He snatched it back and stared. “What the hell?”
I looked at my fingers again and wriggled them. Energy sparked from fingertip to fingertip. I met the second man’s eye and smiled. “Your skin. It’s perfect.”
He lifted his hands to his face and dragged his fingers slowly down his cheeks, eyes wide. “You,” he said.
I didn’t give him the chance to finish. Who knew what that powder might do to me now? All I knew was that I had to get home. I might not be able to take Gabrielle to a unicorn, or take one to her, but this? This I could take home. I laughed into the wind as I ran. “I’m coming, Gabbi. I’m coming.”