Jioni only had three days—a mere seventy-two hours to find something valuable as payment. She tossed clothes and books into the air, her movement quick, her search frantic as she feared a cold prison cell. For now, she resided in a library filled to the brim with some of the most useless items imaginable: tall and damaged shelves with worn-out dilapidated books. Her eyes darted left and right.
She hopped over the old books on the floor to get to a tree—one that invaded the center of the room. Panic swelled inside her as she now searched this area; hidden inside the tree’s hollow was the ticket to her problem, but it gave the opposite effect as she drew a sharp breath.
It was expensive: a brochure with a purple and orange jungle, old but still in decent condition; at the top, it had “Outergen” in bold letters. Behind the title displayed a wild landscape, new-looking furniture, and happy faces. Jioni flipped through the pages and analyzed its detail. The heirloom had few words and blurbs listing a price too high to count, the location, and the year 2062. Despite its capability to solve her problem, she realized the brochure’s value and set it back on top of her hammock. She groaned.
Jioni sat down in the messy library and it didn’t take long for her mind soon drift. She paused for a moment as she imagined being in the brochure; it felt illegal; it was illegal, and most important: the fantasy wasted her time. She stood up again and began to rummage through her items.
“Nope, nope, not this either…. no one would want this. I don’t even want this,” Jioni said. She tossed the junk to the floor.
After thirty minutes, Jioni gave up. She put her satchel on and pulled her braided hair into a tighter ponytail. As she yanked on the doorknob, her eye caught something—something tacky that hung by the door. She ran the fabric through her fingers and held up the most useless item of them all.
It was the infamous ugly flannel—tackiness didn’t come from its condition, but its outdatedness—a 21st-century green plaid design. Jioni’s face scrunched up, and she lowered it as she hesitated to put it on. She eyed it up and down before tying it around her waist to carry. Then drew a harsh breath at the thought of getting caught wearing it; It must have lasted 100 years because no one wanted to wear it in 100 years.
Jioni paused, then her face relaxed into a smile. “Wait a minute, what if I could—”
Jioni took the flannel not to wear but to trade for it. It wasn’t payment material–she’s tried before—but someone, somebody out there, may want it. She tapped her foot and looked up at the sky. Perhaps Hippie Girl would make a trade.
Jioni’s face fell the slightest at the thought of having to interact with her this late in the afternoon, but she managed the dread, shaking it off and standing straight: Hippie Girl wasn’t all that bad. It was worth a try, even if it was an ill-fated one.
She left her home in a hurry but was stopped by an uncooperative door; Jioni attempted to shut it several times with no success. Using her body to push it, then she slammed it, but in her impatience, she left it closed but slightly cracked, then sprinted down the steps; she jumped over the last three onto the sidewalk.
Her speed made the hot air feel even hotter. Anxiousness took over, and she couldn’t find the patience to slow down. She sweat either from heat or nervousness. At her fast pace, Jioni’s black nubuck leather boots hit the uneven payment, causing her almost to fall. But despite that–she always kept a good balance.
City Two had cracked sidewalks and streets everywhere. You’d be lucky to find a stretch of flat pavement that a car or bicycle could ride on. Every building in the city reciprocated the condition of the streets, burned and flood-damaged. With an out-of-date 20th to 21st-century style. Leaf vines and tree roots shot out of the windows of crumbed and fractured skyscrapers. Jioni jumped from the street to the sidewalk, distracted by her own worry.
In her scurry, Jioni didn’t see LaMesha: an Agent on patrol, but she was able to recognize those habitual robotic footsteps from anywhere. LaMesha was tall—to talk to her, you always had to look up. She wore her dark hair in a braided bun. Her blue and white uniform was clean as she paced the streets mechanically. The corners of Jioni’s lips downturned.
“I’ve been looking for you,” LaMesha said. “Specifically to discuss the Trials.”
Jioni rolled her eyes and whispered under her breath with a whine. “Ugh, not now, please, not now.”
LaMesha appeared from an alleyway and confronted Jioni, then pushed her back. LaMesha’s modern uniform was athletic and clean until Jioni touched it in the collision: dust stained her shirt. Jioni couldn’t figure out why she clenched her breath every time they spoke: maybe the lack of expression or her uptight nature; either way, Jioni’s eyes had already scanned around for an escape.
Jioni hesitated but looked up at LaMesha, who had an intense stare full of hatred.
“Where are you going in such a hurry?” LaMesha asked in her dull, flat voice.
Jioni swiftly went around her. She remained silent at first, not wanting to answer LaMesha’s question, but sighed, then obliged, knowing the possible repercussions.
“Going to practice, of course, with a friend,” Jioni said while fidgety. She ran off.
“What friend? Aren’t your friends at the park?”
“Sorry, I can’t hear you–too far away!”
Jioni ran even faster with panted breaths, relieved that LaMesha didn’t even attempt to pursue her. She took a detour to make it seem like she was going toward the park. This deviation from the main road wasn’t as vibrant: It was an alleyway that was dark and smelled minty from the specific plant that invaded there. Vegetation took over completely.
As Jioni slowed her run to a jog, several distinct sounds bounce off the brick walls: Squeaks, footsteps, and shuffles—none seemed natural. Something different from the typical empty silence. Jioni didn’t turn around. Whatever made those dreaded noises ahead couldn’t be worse than confronting LaMesha again.
Jioni got closer—the sound got louder. In time, she could put an image to the noise; Something not scary but inconvenient: Mac, a Junior Agent. A lance was clutched in his right hand. Not a homemade one, a new one. Then there was some kind of animal that shrieked and pierced Jioni’s ears; she covered them with the tips of her fingers. Jioni soon put the pieces together. Her now careful stroll became a fast jog. She called out to Mac with impatience.
“Mac, you’re better than this,” Jioni said.
“Jonesy, I’m just testing out my new Junior Agent lance,” Mac said, showing it off in his hand. “Isn’t it nice?”
The weapon made Jioni burn with envy, and it must’ve shown because Mac responded with an even wider smile. But Jioni’s attention shifted to the sound of the squeaking. There lay a rodent of some kind: long tail, furry body, mutated three eyes—the most noticeable thing was the cuts on its body.
“What did you do to the rat thing?” Jioni asked. Her eyes lowered in disgust, and she folded her arms.
“I think you’re confusing the word rat with mutant?” Mac replied before he tossed the lance to Jioni. “Wanna test it out? I know you weren’t able to get one.”
Jioni observed the lance. It was nice only because it was new; she rarely saw anything new. Not a single scratch or dent on it–a true oddity in these times. She held the weapon white-knuckled and incensed, amazed at its beauty–It should be hers instead. Jioni was urged to run off and practice with it, but a sinking realization reminded her that she didn’t deserve that. Jioni shrugged as if she didn’t care for it.
To the side remained the rodent: hurt and injured. Up went Jioni’s eyebrows as she avoided its three-eyed gaze. A worried expression marred her face the moment Mac came closer. She spun the lance as a warning and nearly dropped it–then caught it mid-air before it hit the ground. She then pointed it at him and he didn’t flinch, didn’t move; instead, he had a mocking smile.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Jioni said as she rocked back and forth. “You should stop whatever you’re doing.”
Mac held his stomach with tears in his eyes. “Fight me? I know you won’t.”
Jioni held the lance higher and took a step closer.
“And that stance, your posture, oh, that’s embarrassing,” Mac said between laughs. “Clearly, those community lessons don’t work to your advantage.”
Jioni briefly looked away and tucked her arms at her side. Before she could react—Mac crouched down, spun, and threw off her balance–she hit the ground hard, shoulder and ribs aching as it collided with the pavement. Her eyes remained shut, changing positions from lying on her face to her back. Mac snatched the lance from her hands and shook his head.
“Congrats, consider this the second test you failed,” Mac said. Then he ran off.
Jioni sat up and held her side, then attained a headache that throbbed—she owned no lance and failed one test—but now that’s all anyone ever talks about: It had only been a couple of days. Jioni’s mind concentrated on her most recent pain instead—her side was tender to the touch and ached as the strong wind blew against it.
To her side the mutant that was still there. Jioni didn’t know which eye to focus on—the two at the top or the one on its forehead—despite being a rat of some kind, she made the ill decision to compare herself to it. Jioni sat up straight and stared at it. The rat didn’t care about its appearance or what it needed to do tomorrow. The thing lacked any sense of agency, running around a wasteland and minding its own business.
Jioni’s hand fell next to her as she reached out to help: It responded with a bite. The pain was intense as its two teeth pierced into her skin. It latched onto her hand, digging in deep and shaking its head until Jioni pried it off.
Jioni shook her finger and bit her lip. “Make that three failed tests.”
The rodent then found enough energy to run away; it left the teen alone with teeth marks on her hand. This new pain caused by the animal distracted her from the pain she felt in her ribs. She groaned and put her arms around her knees.
In her pain, Jioni had no animosity toward this rat. She struggled to get up and found herself seated once more. Jioni couldn’t help but notice how it was able to defend itself against others while she couldn’t fight against Mac. The rodent’s weapon wasn’t shiny or new either, so Jioni’s eyebrows lowered, and realized her skill was the real problem.
Jioni then got up and dusted the flannel to make it look more presentable. Nerves hummed, and Jioni wondered why walking a couple of blocks here was always such a chore.
In the distance was the alley where Hippie Girl resided. Jioni stopped and fixed her ponytail, buying herself time to think. She sighed, then stretched, thinking of every persuasion tactic she could use. Jioni threw away any pessimism and pushed away the vines blocking the entrance.