2055, September 2nd
Collapse + 6 years
Winnie was back home the next day. After arriving mid-afternoon, she and her mother spend hours on the couch.
“The roads are all muddy,” Winnie said. “It’s mostly frosted over. There are a lot of farms here. Did they used to be rice paddies?”
“No. It was tea,” Winnie’s mother said. “Is the old house still there?”
“I don’t know where it is.”
“Of course you do. It is the farm house with the red roof and the big willow out front. Remember?”
“No, Mom. I was three.”
“Just look around. It’s the biggest willow tree in the town. You’ll remember when you see it.”
Winnie’s moved her mental image around the small town. It had taken her long enough just to find the place. Her mother had given directions on how to get there from several nearby South Korean cities, which didn’t work, since she was severely overestimating how much Korean Winnie remembered. She ultimately had to point it out on the internet. Winnie visualized the earth from far above, and then flew down to the right place. Victoria had taught her that to help find places she’d never seen before. After spending an evening and a morning with Victoria, she’d already developed a repertoire of tricks. Instead of searching for the farmhouse by flying around like a drone, she zipped around at a breakneck speed, halting at each house to inspect it, and she trusted the visions entirely, even after a single day. The distinction between them and her own imagination became clearer with every use.
“Okay. I see a willow tree,” Winnie said.
“Do you? Do you recognize it?”
Her mother sighed. “Oh, okay. Look in back, in the woods behind the garden and off to the right. Do you see it?”
“There are two graves.”
She clapped excitedly. “They’re still there. Your grandparents. Oh. So lovely.”
“Yeah.” Winnie didn’t mention that the farmhouse was abandoned. The front door was missing. The inside was ransacked. The roof had sunk inward. The surrounding town was likewise deserted. Rows of frozen brown rot took the place where the crops should have been. This was another town forfeited during the nuclear winter.
“I can do more than just visit places we know,” Winnie said. “I can go anywhere. Yesterday, the queen had me fly to the moon. I mean, it was in my head, but I got there.”
“What’s it like?”
“It’s… rocky. I guess that was a stupid example. You can’t really see it in my head the way she can. But it’s more than that. On the plane ride back, I finally got to Mars. It’s really hard to find planets in space unless you know exactly where to look, but the queen says she can help me get better at that. Right now when I’m visualize, I pretend I’m looking at stuff through a camera. She says it’s really limiting, and she’ll help me come up with better ways. Once I get good at it, I should be able to visualize anywhere in the universe. My power could help astronomers find habitable planets.”
“She gives your power away?”
“Yeah. She’s like me, only she draws these pictures of other people’s powers. She calls them glyphs, and she made a ton of mine yesterday. They all looked different because of how fast I was growing. She says that’ll slow down after a while. I’m just picking all the low hanging fruit, but there are still a lot of ways I can get better. Like right now, I can’t see a place unless there’s light. She thinks I can work through that.”
“She would train you?”
“Yeah. She’s the expert. There are a lot of things she says my power should be able to do, and she says she’s never wrong. It’s part of her power or something. She’s trained a whole lot of other flairs, but my power is one of the most promising she’s ever seen.”
“And you would have to move to the capital?”
Winnie’s excited babbling ended. “Yes. I would have to move.”
Winnie had only been back a few hours. All through dinner as Winnie had shared her adventure with her mother, this conversation had been lingering just out of sight.
“Do you want to?” her mother asked.
“I don’t know. I feel like I should want to. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime, right? I’d go to the school there. It’s supposed to be really good, and there would be other people like me. And I’d get to go to college, which I know dad always wanted.”
“It sounds like you should do it.”
“All I have to do is pack up everything and say goodbye to all my friends.”
“Would you really want to stay and wonder what your life would have been?”
“No. I don’t. I want to go, but it’s just… I don’t want to leave you here all alone.”
“No,” her mother said. “Don’t think about me. Do what is right for you.”
“But you’d have no one.”
“Winnie. Stop it. You will not stay here because of me. I will be okay. You take this, Winnie. This is your chance.”
“You could come with me! Mr. Matthews said they would relocate you too. They wouldn’t put you on the campus, but you’d be in the city.”
Her mother smiled sweetly.
“Don’t do that,” Winnie said. “I’m being serious. It’s supposed to be the best place in the world to live. They say everybody has assemblers there. They’re as common as refrigerators. And it’s clean, and beautiful. You haven’t seen it, Mom. But there are so many trees. And there’s so much to do in Porto Maná!”
She shook her head. “Eun-Yeon, dear. The city would swallow me up.”
“You’ve never tried living in a city.”
“I am an old woman. I—”
“You’re not that old.”
“Hush. I am an old woman. I have my roots here, and my friends. I don’t have the energy to move again and regrow new roots. I’m too old and too tired. But you are young. You have your young friends and your late nights and your fashion design. You were not meant for a small town like this. If you stay, you will become an old woman like me. Go. It is a better future for you.”
Winnie stared at her own hands despondently.
Her mother hugged her.
“You will call me. Okay?”
Winnie returned the hug.
For Winnie, school on Friday was a surreal experience. She attended class knowing she would never complete another homework for those teachers. She at lunch with friends knowing she may not see them again for years, if ever. Once, Winnie thought these girls would be with her for life—cheerleading squad now, bridesmaids in a few years, and house moms after. That’s what girls did here. There wasn’t a more glamorous life to choose, but that wasn’t true anymore for Winnie.
Now she was going to be a city girl, more than that, an empire girl. For years, people from the distant empire would come and tell the town how their lives were about to change. Empire representatives were more like prophets than civil servants. They spoke for their God. Take comfort, for our empire sends you food, but eat no other food, for it comes from false idols. Our queen has decided that no man shall bear arms; trust in her to protect you. Gather your children, for you must migrate south to others of your kind.
The empire had given the Washington settlement four weeks to prepare before moving everyone to Redding. Then they loaded everyone into military trucks and carted them off.
Winnie had two days: Friday at school, then Saturday to pack. A van came in the afternoon. Muscular men hopped out and did all the work. And with a hug and a kiss to her mother, Winnie was gone. Her friends would wonder where she was come Monday. Mr. Matthews had told her not to tell people. The fewer who knew about her gift, the better, not to mention that moving to work for the empire would make Winnie a class traitor in some eyes. When people would ask her mother, she was at boarding school.
It was technically true.
She set her backpack down by the door of her new dorm room. It was a single. One bed—four poster, wooden carved, and wide enough for her to sleep on it sideways. All the windows were inset, creating nice cushioned cubbyholes—perfect for reading. Outside, birds chirped, honest-to-goodness birds. This building was more of a home than a dorm—a cozy place to unwind while downy snow drifted outside.
“I trust everything is to your liking,” said Mrs. Montes.
Winnie turned. The stern, worn woman stood at the door after having shown Winnie in.
“It’s all fine. Awesome, actually.”
“Good. You’ll stay here alone, though you’ll be sharing the bathroom with the other students. It’s the door to the right of the stairs.”
“Is there internet?”
“Yes, Yes, of course. God forbid you children should actually have to interact to enjoy yourselves. Talk to one of the other students for the password because I have no idea.”
“I just need to call home.”
“Your time is your own to do with as you wish. I don’t have many rules, but those I do have you will follow. Dinner is between five and five thirty. We eat together in the dining room. If you do not show up, fine, but you must fend for yourself for dinner, and I do not keep snack food in the house, and there will be no raiding of my kitchen. All students are to be in their room by ten. I will not check up on you, because you are nearly an adult, and you are living on a high security campus. I expect you to behave responsibly. If you want to go into the city, you’ll need permission from me so I can clear it with imperial security.”
“Cleaning services take care of the house. Do not leave messes for them to clean up or I will instruct them to leave it alone, and you will be responsible. They don’t clean bedrooms. I expect you to keep yours presentable. The laundry room is downstairs. Fetch your clothes promptly after the machine finishes. There is also a Series five assembler which we all share. Use it as you will. Do not flood it with requests. And use the reclamator correctly. If you put in something that cannot be disassembled, you will be cleaning out the sludge bin. Questions?”
“No,” said Winnie. It sounded like Ms. Montes was going to be her substitute mom. Unlike her mother, who was easy and lovable, this one mothered professionally. Professionals brooked no nonsense.
“Good. Tomorrow you will meet with the queen for your first lesson. Your first day of school is on Monday. For now, get settled. Dinner is in twenty minutes. You can meet the other students.”
Ms. Montes marched off.
Winnie threw herself onto the bed. Unimaginably soft. She had assumed her living conditions would be good, but this exceeded her expectations. A Series Five assembler? She didn’t even know there was a Series Five.
She still had to call her mother. Visualizing home, Winnie saw her reading a book in her chair by the window. The house was silent. This was her mother’s first day alone.
Winnie needed to find someone who knew the wifi password so she could make her call. Mentally, she scanned the building. No one was here except for Ms. Montes in the kitchen. Winnie found only three other bedrooms, and one was Ms. Montes’s. That can’t be right. Where were all the other students staying? Were there other dorms. She scanned around the campus. There were many buildings with lots of bedrooms. Maybe this was just the girls’ building.
She’d find out soon enough.
Rich, sweet smells drew Winnie downstairs. They were unlike any foods she’d smelled before, but she was willing to try. The dining room was by the kitchen. The table had four place settings, just like four bedrooms. The different houses ate separately then.
One girl was already there. She was young enough that her crayons and construction paper were fitting. She glanced at Winnie. Winnie waved and smiled. The girl snapped her attention back to her work.
“Hello,” Winnie said.
“Hi.” The girl didn’t look up.
“I’m Winnie. What’s your name?”
Her response was slow coming. “Sara.”
“Are you a student?”
It made sense that some students were as old as she. Hopefully not all were this young.
“Where are you from?” Winnie asked.
The girl reluctantly looked up, pondered the question, then shrugged. She resumed scribbling. Not much of a talker. Fine. Winnie sat across from her. Carefully, she reached across for a crayon. “Can I draw with you?”
The girl stared wide-eyed at the kidnapped crayon.
Winnie set it back down. “Or not. It’s okay.”
“She doesn’t like to be bothered when she’s drawing,” said a young voice.
Winnie glanced. A boy had entered. His age was about half way between Sara and Winnie. Like Sara, he looked to be from South or Central America. He had an accent to fit.
The boy dropped a backpack by the door and sat beside Sara. Sara hardly glanced. No wary eyes tracked the boy’s movement.
“You’re the new flair, right?” the boy asked. His bright yellow shirt and khakis made him look like he’d come here from a prep school.
“What can you do?”
“I can see things from far away.”
“Like, a telescope or something?”
“No. Like, I can see anything in the world if I imagine it.”
“Oh.” He took the knowledge of her superpower like he’d just heard a mildly interesting animal fact.
“I’m Winnie, by the way.”
“Yeah, I’m Bryan. So you can see my room and stuff?”
“I could. I won’t.”
“No, do it. What’s on the poster on my wall?”
“Where’s your room?”
“It’s right there at the stairs.”
Winnie looked. Clothes were strewn about. The bed was unmade. On the wall was the poster.
“It shows a guy kicking a soccer ball.”
“It’s a football, and that’s Ali Boheman.”
“Oh, right. But you see what I mean though.”
“You could have just gone in my room before and remembered.”
“It was your test.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“What’s your power?” Winnie asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“Oh. I thought everyone on campus had one.”
Bryan frowned. “My sister has a power,” he said, as though that should clarify any misunderstanding.
“What is it?”
“She’s a shield. Nobody can read her mind. The exemplars couldn’t when they found us, none of their stuff works on her, cause she’s got a shield.”
“And you’re here because of her?”
“She only trusts me. So yeah, I go to all my sister’s lessons. The queen needs me to help her sign stuff, but she’s getting better about it.” He saw Winnie’s confusion. “Victoria can’t make a glyph of my sister’s power because my sister’s power stops her, so Victoria makes a glyph of her own power and gives it to Sara. Then my sister draws her own glyph.”
“Oh.” Winnie glanced at Sara’s drawings. Glyphs in crayon.
“Yeah. Those aren’t real,” he said. “Victoria only lets Sara have her own glyph when they’re together.”
“Ah. So your sister makes the glyphs for all the exemplars?”
“Just the high exemplars, and the one Victoria uses. That’s, like, four, I think.”
“Are they all in crayon?”
Bryan grinned. “No. There’s a machine for it. You should see it. It’s pretty cool. I guess since Victoria can make your glyph herself, you’d have to ask.”
“Did everyone else get to see it?”
Again, Bryan frowned. “Who?”
“The other flairs.”
“The high exemplars are there when Sara is doing her thing.” Again, he said it like it answered her question.
“But what about the other flairs?”
“The other flairs,” Winnie said. “The other people on campus with special powers.”
Bryan stared at her without comprehension, and that’s when Winnie finally got it. One house. Four table sets.
Ms. Montes came in carrying a casserole dish. She placed it on the table before them.
“I see you two have met our new resident,” she said to Bryan and Sara. “The other dishes are in the kitchen counter.”
Without further prompting, Bryan slid off his chair to fetch them. Two quick trips and several more plates came out. It was plenty of food, but it was meant for only four people. Ms. Montes sat at the final place setting.
Every assumption Winnie had was wrong. There was no girl’s dorm or younger dorm. No other houses on campus were sitting down to dinner. The school she was promised wouldn’t be stocked with students, each with their own unique abilities, where supernatural cliques would form. There’d be no sharing of each other’s powers or showing off to other students. Winnie wouldn’t be struggling to make friends with other students with powers like her own because there weren’t any others. It was her, and this little girl. This was it.
This was the community of flairs for which she left all her friends behind.