Author: Amy Neufeld

Three of the school’s four walls were no longer standing, destroyed by vandals after the virus swept through. There was no need to rebuild. Norah’s earpiece clicked, and a loud belch echoed in her ear, followed by laughter.

“Uncouth,” came Marnie’s voice from control. “Can’t you say your name like everyone else, Graham?”

Graham belched his name, then laughed harder. Norah turned her earpiece volume from the standard 4 to 3. It was worth the reprimand she’d get.

“All done,” Graham said.

“Good,” said Marnie. “Norah, how about you?”

Norah clicked her mic on. “Norah,” she began. “I need a minute.”

She looked at the rows of desks, at least 50 packed into the cramped room. A heavy layer of dust and debris carpeted them.

“What’s the hold up?” Graham said. “Just click your scan button at the densest concentration.”

“Norah knows how to do her job, Graham,” Marnie snapped. “But Norah, the countdown has started.”

Norah looked at the red blinking numbers on her wrist com panel. She checked her magnetic glove lock, then dragged a finger through the dust as she walked along the rows of desks. Her boots crunched on broken glass scattered near the reading corner. She reached down to pick up a book, and the pages crumbled in her hands like ash. She didn’t even have a chance to read the title.

“Jesus, Norah!” Graham exclaimed in her ear, “Would you hurry?”

“Can you find the concentration centre?” Marnie asked.

“Just get the goddamn reading!” Graham boomed.

Without thinking, Norah flicked her speaker off. That would look more suspicious than lowering the volume, might even mean a discipline meeting with control, but she needed the voices out of her head. The ticking countdown, steady as a metronome, continued.

There wasn’t time to search every desk. Norah moved to the rear and looked at the remains of the whiteboard hanging at the front. In her mind she saw a series of equations written in precise black marker. The ticking grew louder. She focused on the desks, calculating the angle of the board, then hurried over to the far right row. The first desk was empty. The next was jammed full, and Norah pulled everything out, bending down to sift through it. Nothing. Tick, tick, tick. Her heart was speeding. The third desk held only a pile of rocks, but the moment Norah looked into the fourth desk, memory flooded back. She pulled out the notebook, preserved under a binder, the pages of it thick with ink. She traced her gloved finger along the name written on the front in childish flowery cursive – Norah Thistle.

Norah shoved the notebook in her bag and pressed the scan button. She snapped her speaker on. The countdown blared in her ear as it raced to zero. Louder still were the voices of Marnie and Graham. She turned on her mic.

“I’ve got the reading,” she said. “We can go.”