BOULDER, COLORADO, 2040.
Radical Terrorist Found Dead in U.S. Capitol with Self-inflicted Toxic Exposure.
The article says that she had co-conspirators (who they are now searching for) tie her to the pole with duct tape, and allowed her bare skin to blister in the acid rainfall that occurred overnight. The morning sun and greasy smog caused her injuries to pus and rot in a matter of hours, rendering the terrorist's face almost unrecognizable. In another article, a pair of solemn-faced parents renounce their 14-year-old daughter. "There will be no funeral service," they say to the Sacramento Times reporter. "We are deeply ashamed and want to extend our sincerest apologies for her despicable actions".
All of the gruesome images and descriptions are forwarded to Fiona in a group chat by 9 AM, complete with a cheerful emoji from Shailene who says big changes are coming!!!! Fiona smooths back her strawberry blonde hair and sighs. She swipes away. She swipes back.
In solidarity, across all the major cities in what remains of America, other bodies have been found similarly. In all instances, there'd been coordinated attacks in other parts of the city to distract the Compliance Order. It looks to be a coordinated instance of mass radical terrorism, announces all news articles, which are nothing more than propaganda machines at this point. Do you think Left Behind did it? asks an anonymous forum commenter. On a mapped article of the bodies, Fiona finds a dot right down the street from where she works.
Well. What a perfect start to breakfast. Yogurt or pancakes?
Fiona considers the two boxes of powder, kettle whistling and rattling on her dingy stove. The only thing that indicates morning is the steaming cup of coffee on her laminate countertop — the murky sunlight that slips into her apartment can just as easily indicate a waning evening as it does the smoggy morning. It's the worst type of day to wake up to. Nothing bad to look forward to, but nothing good either. Just a whisper of sun behind an endless sludge of gray.
Most days look like this.
She'll have to leave early today to make sure that they've cleared the body from the street. She studies the blinking interactive map in the Sacramento Times website, zooming into the Boulder area, unsure if the marker is on the corner that her students usually cross to get to school.
The boiled water hisses as it hits the grayish powder, before mixing into an echo of what Fiona remembers of yogurt in her childhood. It tastes more or less the same, if maybe a little more watery and grittier than she remembers. Today it tastes like despair.
Just like any other day, Fiona straps up in her civilian model Sheltersuit, paying extra attention to make sure that everything is zipped up right. It's a bit tight. Did she gain weight? She mindlessly checks herself in the full body mirror before going out. When Sheltersuits were first released, Fiona would wear some type of clothes or coats on top, feeling somewhat exposed. Over time, her prudence gave way to the most basic instinct. Survival. She inspects the helmet for any cracks and wears before putting it on, and steps out of her apartment.
Just like any other day, she's immediately bombarded by the brilliant neon billboards and cacophony of metals clacking as soon as she steps onto the street. A soothing, robotic voice repeatedly announces, "There is an unusually high trace of aerial toxins today. Consider upgrading your Sheltersuit or staying indoors." Just like any other day, she ignores the message and trudges alone to the abandoned storage unit she calls her workplace.
When things started to turn to shit, a lot of people killed themselves. And even more people racked up countless debts on random shopping sprees, indulged in wild fantasies, lived like there was no tomorrow… and then killed themselves. And apparently, people will now kill themselves as political statements. Not Fiona. Maybe it's because everything snuck up on her before she even realized so much had changed.
Who knows? For whatever reason, she's still here.
To Fiona's great relief, they've cleared the remains of the dead terrorist by the time she arrives at school – or rather, some makeshift version of one. Over the years, she's attempted to spruce up the space with lively drawings and hand-made grammar charts. But even vintage Hello Kitty stickers and bingo stamps don't take away the fact that it's a dingy, water-stained room with less than a dozen mismatched desks.
"Good morning, Ms. Leigh," says Kira Yeung, Fiona's oldest student of the class. Kira sets her scrappy school bag down on her desk. Everything about Kira's small frame indicates her youth, but the precision and scrutiny with which she examines the world is beyond her ten-year-old self. Over the years, Kira's taken it upon herself to be Fiona's teaching assistant of sorts and already, she's slicing a banana (a pricey delicacy nowadays) into perfect slices to share amongst the students during snack time. "Was the walk over okay for you?"
Fiona smiles warmly at the girl. "Of course. How was yours?"
Kira remains solemn. "It was good." She hesitates. "They've cleaned everything up? We don't need to tell the other students to use the other entrance?"
Fiona's smile wanes slightly. They always spoke like this — in half-questions and semi-facts, both aware of everything going on outside but unwilling to bring it to the classroom. "Yes, everything's been cleaned up." Kira nods and the serious gesture stabs at Fiona's heart.
The students filter in, one by one, and Fiona starts to feel more at ease as she watches the children chatter amongst themselves. There's Dev Gupta, who is always asking for a classroom hamster even though hamsters went extinct years ago. And next to him, Kimmy Le, a 6-year-old who loves painting lessons more than anything. Fiona's biggest nightmare is coming to an empty classroom, all of them realizing that they'd prefer doing something else. Realizing that education means nothing in this new world. People don't have such luxuries anymore.
It's then that they hear urgent footsteps running down the street. Fiona's heart immediately jumps to her throat as Ryo Takashi, an ever-frail freckled student she's had for three years, stumbles into the classroom. "Ms. Leigh," he gasps in relief when he spots her, bending over to cough vigorously.
Fiona is by his side in seconds, frantically flipping his small frame back and forth to examine his Sheltersuit. "What's wrong? What's wrong? Did you see the girl?" She gasps when she finds a small rip at his elbow, where a sunburn is already developing. "Ryo, we need to take you to the medics immediately."
Ryo, barely catching his breath, looks down at the rip at his elbow. "Oh, I didn't even notice that. That's okay. What are you talking about? What girl?" His weedy voice comes out thinly but not quite as worryingly as when he first entered the classroom.
It's then that Fiona sees the horrified faces of the children around her and she realizes that she needs to calm herself before losing control of the classroom. "Didn't you hear about the unusually high trace of aerial toxins today? And the acid rain? You should have stayed home if you had a ripped Sheltersuit." She tries to keep her voice soothing and smooth, ironing out the tremors as best as she can. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
Ryo blinks at her confusedly. "What high traces? What rain?"
Fiona tries to examine his Sheltersuit but he twists away from her, fidgety and confused. Already, Kira's by her side with the classroom medical kit. "Why were you running so urgently then?"
Ryo fumbles around his rucksack for a slightly crumpled piece of paper. "I just wanted to show you my new drawing I did last night." He unfolds the page to show a sketch of everyone in the class, penciled in with various crayons. The tension pops like a bubble and all of the students instantly forget the last few minutes, crowding around the skinny boy.
"You even included my hamster!" Dev giggles with joy.
With Ryo bandaged and beaming, perfectly fine, a part of Fiona wants to scream at him for scaring her so much. Not that Fiona's the screaming type. But maybe the image of the 14-year-old affected her much more than she expected. After all, Fiona wasn't much older than 14 when this all started…
"Do you like it, Ms. Leigh?" Ryo asks,
She can't help but smile. "Of course, Ryo." The gray skies she wakes up to doesn't matter. The dehydrated yogurt that tastes like shit doesn't matter. The dreary news that inundates her phone every day doesn't matter. This is what Fiona wakes up for, day after day. "Come to school tomorrow with a new Sheltersuit, okay?"
ASAN, JOSEON, 1578.
The silence spills thick across the lush forestry. On any other day, there would be magpies calling to one another, darting back and forth between the rustling leaves of the bija trees. On any other day, there would be glimpses of field mice frolicking across the sun-bathed shrubbery. On any other day, the forest would be a breathless sight to see.
Instead, a boy cries noiselessly over a lifeless body. Around the boy, torn pieces of paper are scattered and float about.
The forest is still beautiful. The yolky sun still permeates the forest canopy and the willowy trees are ever-so-graceful. But the smog of grief hangs on every dew drop, tinted by the tendrils of guilt.
And something else, too. A presence. Not a person, not an animal, but a wordless presence that presses in against the crying boy.
The boy, in his daze, turns around –
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