The children were dumber now.
Breathing these words brought the guilt deeper into her parents’ lungs; they all found it best not to speak about such things.
Hers, and many other Parents too, set to work to make the world an easier place for their children. They built cars that ran themselves, and robots to fix the cars when they broke. When the children could no longer concentrate in school, they made the world a place of eternal play. Ball grounds and playgrounds, big virtual Skycaps, and auto-pelers too, all the world ‘round.
When the children could no longer find their way home after their days of play, the Parents crafted little neighborhoods called Heiyas, half a day’s walk wide. Each child was assigned a pin with a color and an animal symbol, one way that said TO HOME and the other that said AWAY FROM HOME.
It was one of only two lessons children still had to learn.
The holo-vid in her den flickered. On it a map read that the Heiyas of Mona and Shiy had been delivered Candy. They were not two miles from here, a bit up the mountain.
Her gaze fixed past at the holo-vid. The second lesson was simple: when the Drones brought them Candy, they needed to eat it.
She had learned the truth of Candy from her parents. Perhaps they thought she would forget. She knew she was not as smart as them, but she held onto their words, even if she was sadder for it.
There came a loud snap as the front door smacked against the house frame.
Ri ran into the den. One of her ponytails had fallen out, lost to the winds of the Heiya. Her left knee was scraped up, and her right looked little better.
“Cam said my snow was wrong!”
Her mind pulled back to the here.
“What did Cam say was wrong with your snow?”
“He said it was cold. You tell him he’s wrong! It’s warm and fluffy and not cold.”
A deep sadness, tucked away in long unvisited corners, rose swift and unbidden.
“Forget about Cam.”
This only served to set Ri’s jaw more resolutely.
She sighed, “We need to pick up more RGB today. Let’s go see Aunt Euna. She can tell you all about snow.”
She convinced Ri to wash up, for Aunts would only let in little girls that did not smell of the mud and muck of the Heiya. The sound of the Recyclic hissed as it churned clogged wheels. She cleaned out a pair of visors.
They made their way out to the quiet streets, her steps careful and measured; Ri’s stirred enough dust for three.
The streets of Goah never raised above a quiet whisper. Every third house was boarded up or in a state of being decompiled, either with a Recyclic or accomplished naturally.
Two fox kits followed them for a block, before they were forgotten for some new curiosity.
When they got to Aunt Euna’s house, Euna gave Ri hugs and freshly fabricated ginger snaps.
“Euna, Cam made fun of me. He said snow was cold. But it’s warm! When Jack comes, he gives me a Snowball filled with hot-cream.”
Aunt Euna looked at her, and she shook her head. Ri was still too young to be taught educational games on the Heiya, and she wanted her to go as long as possible believing in Snow. There was no need to tell Ri the last natural snowfall on Earth happened a year before her birth.
“Of course Cam is wrong. Sit sit, I’ll tell you the story of Jack the Frost again.”
Ri leaned against Euna’s shoulder. The air lay warm over them like a blanket.
“Every year on the longest span of night, Jack comes down from the sky through the fabricator pipe to judge the Good and Bad children while they sleep. He wears the softest robes of cobalt blue, bluer than the sky. On his sleeves are golden bells, so he makes music as he walks. And on his chin is a beard of icicles that stretch past his stomach!
To those Good children who did not waste a drop of water when they bathed, and who ate all their vegetables, Jack gives the fluffiest Snowball of purest white, plucked from the deepest Arctic mountains. To those Bad children who waste water and food, he gives only dust. But Jack’s magic only works if you don’t look at him, or else his elves will snap him away like that!” Euna snapped her fingers before Ri’s wide eyes.
“So when Jack comes you must squeeze your eyes shut, and hope to enjoy your Snowball in the morning. That is, if you’ve been good!” Euna laughed and tickled Ri.
“I’ll be good! I ate my vegetables!”
Euna plucked Ri from her lap, “Now, I’ll put the holo-vid on for you while I talk with your aunt in the kitchen.”
Aunt Euna smiled as she put on the holo-vid to play Princess Dana, and gave Ri another kiss on her head as she walked to the kitchen.
Euna gave her a glass of lukewarm water with a tea bag in it, “It was supposed to be iced tea, but the fridge unit has been shaky.”
Her smile had been lost somewhere in the living room.
“I see the air conditioner has been too.”
“You call for a repair bot?”
“There’s only one left in the Heiya. Could take a while.”
“I’ll have a look then.” She bent behind the refrigerator. There was a set of instructions, several lines long.
She looked up “condenser”, only to find she could not remember why she needed to know about the condenser in the first place. New words had always had a hard time sticking with her, but usually she was not this bad. Her head felt fuzzy; each thought seemed to emerge slowly through the mud.
She heard the snap of metal on wood. Euna ran into the living room.
“Ri’s gone! She knows she’s too young to go outside on her own….”
Her heart dropped. She ran into the living room.
There typed on the computer was one word: Snow.
Across the living room the holo-vid plastered the walls with news headlines: “The Snow Shortage” ran across the couch, “The Last Snow Is Coming” scrawled along the ceiling.
Ri was not good at spelling, but the pictures said plenty. She had surely seen enough to know the grown-ups had lied.
“The age level security must not have been in place…”
The rest of Euna’s words were lost as she ran out the door. “Ri!” she called to the wind. The holo-vid network embedded across the whole of the Heiya responded to her voice, and changed the signs for her to read TO RI and AWAY FROM RI. A projector-cast helpfully displayed “0.2 miles away.”
She ran as fast as her legs could muster in Ri’s direction. A minute later the projector updated to .3 miles away and she swore at her hips and knees.
In her haste she had forgotten the visors. The hot air of the Heiya scratched at her lungs, and the dust at her skin.
Her heart skipped a cadence as she saw a black cloud of drones that approached from the mountain. She needed to find Ri now.
She tried harder to run, but her knees were so stiff. The projector flicked back to 0.2 miles away.
Ri appeared in front of her like a mirage. She could see as Ri walked her knees buckled. She pushed himself to move faster, but by the time she got to Ri the girl was bent over, hands clutched to her temples.
“Here here,” she urged Ri to lean against her and they walked to a bench. At the bench was an oxygen-pump. She fitted it over Ri’s head.
“I told you, you shouldn’t run on the Heiya. The air is too thin.”
Ri said nothing. But she kept breathing, first big hungry breaths and then smaller ones as she settled down.
She looked up at the drones, now right overhead. Each drone clutched a bright pink box wrapped with a red bow. The growing heat and head fog, the broken bots; in these boxes there would be Candy.
“I’m sorry I kept the truth of snow from you. The real story is that long ago, humans made all these buildings, and the drones too. But when they did, they didn’t know it meant less snow. Some tried to fight for the snow, but by then it was too late.”
“It’s gone f-wharever?” The words came muffled through the oxygen mask.
“I don’t know.”
She watched how Ri processed these words. Ri did not try to run again, which was good. She did not know if she had the strength to follow her.
“I can walk.” Ri stood and took off the oxygen mask.
They made their way back home. There on the front step, two bright pink boxes, neatly wrapped. She bent down to pick them up.
“Did the drones bring us presents?” Ri asked.
“I think this is Candy.”
“Like our second lesson?” Ri’s body stilled.
She could see the nervousness in Ri’s face, a skittish shift in her feet. Every child in the Heiya created wild stories about the truth of Candy.
“We don’t have to think about it just yet. We can turn on the snow on the holo-vid, and I’ll make you a Snowball. We’ll pretend it’s December. But first, you need to call Euna and apologize for running off like that.”
Ri disappeared into the living room. She shut the door slowly and locked it this time. Her hand rested on the frame. She wondered if the next age would need such things as doors and houses.
She made sure Ri was busy before she unwrapped the boxes of Candy in the kitchen. Her fingertips shook as she untied the bow. She had thought of this day for over fifty years. Ever since her parents had told her the truth of it. She had held the secret of the Parents and the Gene Crafters, from everyone around her for so long.
From each box, a bright pink pill neatly wrapped, and at the bottom another labelled “Extra.” She read the instructions: the Candy could be combined in any drink or food of their preference, or swallowed whole. It was recommended for people to be in a quiet, peaceful place and to lie down when a person took the pill. There was a number at the bottom of the instructions to call if she needed assistance.
She gazed at the pill in her hand. It looked little different from the vitamin packs the drones dropped off weekly. She tried to imagine it was simply that.
She took out a packet of hot cream buns that passed for Snowballs from the fridge and placed them in the fabricator. While they cooked she set up blankets on the living room floor.
Ri sat sullenly on the couch and watched her. Euna’s voice lapped over them, tinged with worry and relief.
She took the buns from the fabricator seconds early so the dough was still soft. She put on cinnamon and extra sugar to hopefully hide any taste the pills had, and slipped a pill inside.
She packaged up the box again and carried the tray out to the living room.
Ri lay on the couch, her eyes trained on her vid-set.
“Come, sit with me.” She turned the holo-vid set towards the ceiling and set on a reel of snow.
Around the corners of the ceiling, holographic mists began to form. She watched as the mist turned opaque and curled in white tendrils.
Ri flicked her eyes towards the ceiling with a scowl, determined to be unimpressed. But her eyes opened a bit wider as the mist grew thicker.
“Best eat these quick, they get cold fast.”
Ri put down her vid-set but did not move.
She shifted nervously; she needed to get Ri to eat.
Each separate cloud from the four corners of the room merged together and moved lower towards them. An odd half-light covered the room, as if they could see the sun past the clouds if only they peered closer through the hologram.
She shrugged, “More for me then,” she bit into a hot cream bun. She could not taste anything amiss.
Ri came and sat with her on the floor. Ri bit into her Snowball. She knew Ri would ask her more questions about the truth of Candy, and she might run again if she was told plainly.
She told herself it was better this way.
The first snowflakes drifted down to rest on the lampshades and couch cushions. The room sparkled, diamond-bright. Ri’s eyes opened wider still.
She watched Ri closely as she ate. First one bite, then two. She did not know where exactly the pill was.
Then Ri finished her Snowball, and it felt as if she took her first breath since they had come to the house. But she did not so much relax as turn her worry to what would come next.
Ri held out her hand. Holographic snow built up into a clump in the palm of her hand.
“It looks like it should be fuzzy.”
“Yes, yes it does,” she said, as she put a blanket over Ri’s legs and a pillow by her head.
The snow piled up on the crests and folds of the blankets. They would look for all the world like bears in deep winter’s slumber.
She looked down at Ri, this beautiful child who had the misfortune to be born hopeful on an Earth tired of its human occupants. She looked around at the room, the comforts of an aging utopia and the nick-knacks of a life well lived.
The first twinges that the Candy was in her system was a slight blur to her vision. The couch seemed to warp and grow to become a tall hill. A memory from far away, of sledding with her father came and her heart ached with loss.
She looked over at Ri. Ri had laid back now, her eyes focused on the dance of snowflakes above her head.
She followed suit, and tried to prepare herself for what was to come.
As she did, words came back to her, long ago from her childhood.
She had been crying, because her parents were always busy and there had been a child in her grade that made fun of her because she could never remember how to tie her shoes. She had asked her parents why they had to work, for Sam’s parents got to stay home all day. Her parents had crouched down to look her in the eyes. Her mother spoke with a kind of seriousness that frightened her.
“In every human there is a story, tiny little words that build themselves up to make you. We messed up and made the world too hot and the air too thin. But we also found a way to rewrite some of the words in your body. One day, when you’re older, you’ll get something,”
Her father added, “I think they’re calling it Candy.”
“Candy, yes,” her mother’s pinky wrapped around hers, “When it comes time you’ll take the Candy. And you’ll start a new story, you and your friends and maybe your own children too. Promise me you’ll take it.”
She cried louder and wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck, because her mother’s words felt like a goodbye.
“She’s too young, we should have waited to say anything,” her father’s voice, muffled through her cries.
Her mother held her and whispered, “It’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright. I’m right here.”
She reached out her hand to Ri. Her mother’s words echoed through her.
These were the last words she said as a human. The next words she spoke would be as one of what would be called the Neuara.