“You have to do it,” Retim heard Papa’s new wife say, as he listened through the thin plastic door. Xeni looked at him, a deep worry in her eyes. “The radiation leaks are killing us,” the hag continued. “If you don’t use them, it will kill us all eventually. Do you want that? At least with therapy, we can survive.” This was the seventh night in a row the hag had spent nagging at Papa. Retim desperately hoped he continued to resist.

Their father gurgled, the only sound he could make since the sickness overtook him. Somehow, Retim knew Papa had just agreed. His stomach clenched as despair flooded over him. Xeni began to shake, and Retim pulled her close, smoothing down her curly blond hair. “We’ll be alright,” he whispered, making a plan.


In the morning, Papa could no longer see. His eyes had become solid yellow orbs. “We are going to apply for assistance—for your father,” the hag said off-handedly. “Move quickly or else we’ll be late and the Ashamine will deny our claim.”

Retim didn’t have the heart to protest, either to his father or to the hag. Xeni held his hand tightly, and he mouthed ‘We’ll be OK to her. With his other hand, he checked his pocket, making sure he still had the small electronic device. Retim had finished configuring it last night. It wasn’t a quantum computer—or even an old binary one—but it was close. He’d scavenged the parts and built the primary systems long ago. Now it would save them.

The hag led them on a path passing by Papa’s work, and the sight of the huge facility made Retim angry. The place created energy for those who lived up in the clouds while posioning everyone in the under-city. When the hag wasn’t looking, Retim made a profane gesture towards the complex. Looking up, he imagined he could see shiny sky transports flying far above the smog. Retim made the same gesture towards them too.

When they arrived at the clinic, the fat receptionist motioned towards a door. “Tell the case officer the truth about your father,” the hag spat through crooked teeth, roughly pushing them inside. “I have to go fill out terminal forms.”

“What’s going to happen?” Xeni said, her blue eyes wide. The small room was a harsh white that made Retim uneasy. It was void of table or chairs.

“We’ll see, little sister.” Retim waited a few moments, then tried to open the door back to reception. Locked. He pushed on the door across the room. Also, locked. Retim had expected something like this, so he removed his device and placed it over the keypad of the first door. Two of his friends would be waiting, the ones involved in activities that scared him. Once Retim and his sister escaped this building, they would assist them. In exchange, Retim had made promises, promises he didn’t want to think about.

As he was about to take out his device, Retim saw the door open. He stepped back as a tall woman entered the room. Her beauty was stunning, and Retim felt off guard for a moment. “Hello, children,” the woman said, smiling. “How are you today?” Something about her mesmerized Retim. He couldn’t take his eyes off her face. The woman laughed. “Of course, you are worried. It is very hard to get assistance from the Ashamine.” She scrutinized them both, looking down over the tops of her narrow glasses. “Stand still,” she ordered, holding up a small tablet. She tapped the screen. “Good,” the woman said finally. “I need to check something.” The door closed behind her.

“We’re really going to get assistance? The government will save Papa?” Xeni asked excitedly.

“No, of course not. You heard what the hag said last night. She’s selling us.”

Knowing he didn’t have much time, Retim pulled out his device, selected several options on its tiny screen, and held it next to the door’s control panel. It let out a small chirp, and the hatch began to slide open. “It worked!” he whispered excitedly. Xeni cheered.

“You can’t leave,” the woman’s voice said behind them, “you haven’t finished your application yet.” Retim turned to look, and she was now in a white smock, a hideous smile distorting her face. When he looked back to their escape route, several guards blocked the doorway, his own image reflected in their mirrored riot helmets. “Come, children,” the woman said, her tone escalating Retim’s fear, “I need to take some samples.”

Retim grabbed his sister’s hand and tried to force their way through the guards. The act had no hope of success, but he had to try. Retim knew what was coming, had heard the stories. They would extract genetic material from them, modify it, and inject it into Papa and the hag so they could resist the radiation for a few more years. The gene therapy companies gladly took children as payment for the expensive procedure.

The guards pinned Retim to the floor, his head forced down so he couldn’t see his sister. He could hear her plaintive sobs, though, and it broke his heart.

“Careful,” the woman snapped. “Don’t damage them.” Retim struggled to get free, but they forced him down even harder. “Darkness take you,” the woman whispered in his ear. Retim felt a pinch in the side of his neck, and the room began to fade. The last thing he heard was Xeni’s scream.

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