Three children rode in the van. They wore complex headpieces that covered their eyes and ears. A cone filter capped off each nostril. Though the van jolted as it traveled over an uneven road, the children sat still and docile as penned sheep.
Maryanne rode in the back with them. She knocked on the partition separating the cargo section of the van from the driver’s seat. The privacy screen slid open, Vincent cocking his head back so he could listen and still keep an eye on the road while driving.
“We should uncap Will,” Maryanne said.
The privacy screen snapped shut.
Maryanne knocked on the partition again.
“He’s the oldest, he’s had the most discipline,” she said as Vincent slid the screen back an inch.
“It’s too risky,” Vincent said and closed the door again.
“We’ll have to eventually anyway,” Maryanne called through the door.
Vincent opened the partition, taking his eyes from the road to glance at her. “At best this is a mild inconvenience. You stay your hand until I say otherwise.”
He left the partition open.
Maryanne drew her knees up and gathered them to her chest. The children sat perfectly still and straight in their rumble seats. They had been trained to do so in a facility that lay six day’s travel behind them and they did it well. Not for the first time did Maryanne wonder what went on in their heads under those hoods.
Vincent hit the brake hard and swore. The children were thrown out of their seats, landing hard on elbows and knees. Only the girl cried out. Maryanne helped them back to a sit before she put her face to the gap in the partition.
The road before them was gone, as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply swept the matter away. Vincent gripped the steering wheel and looked to either side of the hole, searching for a way around.
“Can we try it now? Maryanne asked.
Will stepped out of the van confidently, even though he was both blind and deaf with the headpiece on. Maryanne took him by the hand and led him in front of the van. She put his hand to the road, then guided it to the edge and the steep drop. She took out an earplug and spoke directly into his ear.
“Imagine a smooth road ahead of us. Just a nice, flat surface that extends for about a hundred yards.”
With a slight smirk, Will obeyed. The flat white began under the van’s wheels and swept before them as if some great painter’s brush was laying down paint on a canvas.
“That’s good.” Maryanne kept her tone even though her relief showed clearly on her face. “Keep it just like that. I’m going to re-seal you now.”
She caught a look from Vincent on the way back to the van.
“I don’t trust that one,” he said, “he’s having too much fun with it.”
“He’s been with us since he was small,” Maryanne argued, guiding the boy up steel steps.
“A toddler. The rest were babies. It makes a difference.”
Once they were back in the van, Vincent took them across the white surface. The van skidded almost instantly. Vincent swore again, pumping the brakes.
“What’s happened, what’s wrong?” Maryanne clung to the edge of the partition.
“The goddamn thing’s frictionless! The little bastard made it that way!”
They sledded helplessly in an uncontrollable direction until they hit the rutted, ruined ground again. Vincent turned the key in the ignition with shaking fingers.
“Out,” he said, “all of them. Now.”
The three children lined up: two boys and Hope, the only girl.
“I’m sure I just forgot to specify,” Maryanne said as Vincent inspected the boy’s headpiece, “I simply said smooth surface. How was he to know?”
Vincent stopped by the left earpiece. A slight gap, almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, between skin and steel. Vincent gestured Maryanne over with the barrel of his pistol. She bent low, face falling. She looked to Vincent and shook her head. He nodded. Maryanne straightened and paced away, keeping her back to the children. Vincent leveled the pistol at the older boy. A sharp crack from the gun and Will fell. The other two children did not even jump at the shot. Maryanne led them back to the van.
“You had no right to do that,” she said in a voice gone nasal with tears, “none.”
“His damn hood was unsealed. No telling what he heard. You can’t take chances with these things.”
Maryanne rode in silence, arm flung over the opening in the partition.
“You should be nicer to them,” she said meditatively, “they’re the future.”
Vincent snorted a laugh.
“I mean it. They can give us the world back.”
“Give it? Like it’s their goddamn gift to give?”
Maryanne was quiet. Vincent drove for some time in this silence before he brought the van to a halt.
“Why are we stopping?”
“Get them out.” He unholstered his pistol. Maryanne obeyed, mouth drawn to a thin line.
They had stopped at a place where the land fell away into the sea. Maryanne lined the children up well away from the edge. Vincent pointed at the remaining boy with his pistol. “That one.”
Maryanne unhooded him, passing hands over his face as if petting it. The boy was smaller and rounder than Will, blinking owlishly in the sudden light.
“Ernest,” Maryanne said with a slight crack in her voice, “I want you to do something.”
Ernest looked from Vincent with his pistol drawn, to her, to the girl who still sat docile and hooded, to the world around them.
“Please miss,” he said, “where are we? Where’s the lab? Where are the others?”
“Ernest, I need you to concentrate. Remember your exercises.”
The boy was hyperventilating slightly. “Is this ‘outside’? Miss, we can’t be out here. Please put me back.”
“He’s panicking,” Vincent said, pointing the gun at his back.
Maryanne threw her hands up. “Give him a chance.” She turned to the boy. “Please make me a bridge. Simple suspension.”
An excess of saliva dripped down the boy’s chin. His pupils had dilated and his gaze fixed at the middle distance.
“He’s having an episode. I can’t wait.” Vincent cocked the pistol.
“Wait, goddamn it! Ernest, please—”
The van became liquid, collapsing into a steaming puddle. Vincent emptied the clip into the boy. Ernest gasped and changed the bullets into goldfish, far too late. He fell to the ground, errant fishtails sticking out of his back and shoulders. His breath became shallow and erratic, his eyes rolled up to stare at the adults standing over him. He died. Not quickly enough.
Vincent fell to the ground screaming. Maryanne ran to his side, fruitlessly trying to administer CPR. Beneath her hands, Vincent’s skin became cotton fabric and his body sagged bonelessly. Vincent managed one last scream before his throat was overtaken with stuffing. He lay where he’d fallen, transformed into a stuffed toy.
Maryanne gulped breath, too upset to cry. She looked over to where Ernest now lay dead. Her gazed moved to the last child. Hope.
Maryanne gathered the girl to her. Hope calmly accepted the hug. In her world, nothing exceptional had happened. Her nasal filters didn’t allow the coppery blood smell to touch her olfactory nerves. The hood blinded her. The ear plugs deafened her. Only the sea breeze pushing her hair back intruded on her dark world, and the girl smiled at the sensation. Maryanne removed the headpiece bit by bit as she walked the girl slowly to the cliffside.
“Hope,” she said softly, “do you remember the picture I showed you of the seaside? Bodega bay?”
Hope nodded, curiosity dawning as sounds trickled in. “please, miss, are we in the hydro facility?”
Maryanne didn’t answer. She gazed listlessly out at the crashing waves. “I want you to imagine it. I need you to imagine it for me. Green hills. Blue sea. Can you picture that?”
“Yes, miss,” Hope said, hesitating.
Maryanne nodded. “Good girl. Make it for me.”
She removed Hope’s hood. The girl blinked in horror. The sea lay rusty and red at their feet, eating the broken coastline wave by tremendous wave. A planetary body sat in a bruised sky, many times the size of the moon, waxing form grinning at them like the greatest joke the universe ever played. Hope tried to step back and found the immovable wall of Maryanne’s body.
“Please miss, I’m frightened. I want the hood back on.”
Maryanne walked forward, pushing the girl to the cliffside with slow, measured steps.
“Please, miss!” Maryanne’s fingers sunk into the girl’s shoulders, trapping her.
“I want you to fix this,” Maryanne said in a flat voice. “Fix this so it’s back the way it was. It’s what we raised you to do.”
“Please, miss, I don’t know what you mean!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face.
“Fix this.” Maryanne’s voice rose with every word. “you need to fix this! One of you did this and one of you can goddamn fix it!”
“I can’t!” The girl scrabbled at her hands. “I don’t know how!”
With a scream of inarticulate rage, Maryanne pushed the girl from the cliffside.