The Class Exemplar

Author: John McNeil

“You won’t get it,” said Granan. “I’m better.”
They strode the polished halls of the Mentalist Academy. Marcus tossed his head. “No you aren’t,” he said. “But I’d get it even so. Preceptor Elius likes me, and knows you’re an arrogant foistling.”
There it was, the insult. A student foisted on the Academy by rich parents who paid for tutoring and the entrance exams. Best to ignore it.
“I’m a foundling,” Marcus continued. “I wasn’t coaxed and pampered. Natural talent. They recruited me for it.”
Granan just smiled. “Today at the plenum, you’ll see. Elius will name me the Class Exemplar.”
Afternoon sunshine filtered in through the skylights. Wisps of mist floated over their heads, creating patches of shadows around them. The hot floor toasted their sandaled feet. From the forest outside they could smell rotting fruit and hear insects humming. Granan twitched his head and tapped his fingers while they walked.
“Your parents couldn’t buy you talent.” Marcus’s voice quivered.
“Discipline matters more,” said Granan. “And I’ve got talent, too.”
“Do you really?”
Marcus stopped. “Then prove it,” he said.
Granan continued another pace, then stopped also, and turned. “You want me to flip something?”
“Flip me,” said Marcus. “To Alpha Hall.”
Granan didn’t blink, but his eyes widened. “We don’t flip people till fifth year.”
“Before I could walk, I flipped my father,” said Marcus.
“That doesn’t mean you knew what you were doing. I might kill you!”
“But you wouldn’t,” Marcus replied with sarcasm, “because you have discipline.”
“You could split between dimensions,” said Granan, “or show up inside a rock wall.”
“Not so confident. All right then, I’ll flip you. Get ready.”
Granan blinked, then gasped. Marcus was pulling a gas mask over his face. It would be connected to an orange flask at his belt. Granan didn’t use his outside class. Marcus was taking deep breaths. He had closed his eyes. He was serious. He was really going to.
Granan felt a hole inside him. That would be contents of his digestive tract disappearing. He felt thirsty and short of breath. Marcus was smiling. How could he be so reckless? Granan would have screamed if there were air in his lungs. The nerves would be next, then muscles, organs, and bones last.
Beyond the third moon, Granan’s consciousness hovered. He saw the cratered planet and the sun, a bright distant ball. So this is my end, he thought. Death before greatness. My potential wasted. At least Marcus will be punished.
In the well of Alpha Hall, Granan’s body reassembled, molecule by molecule, ready for his consciousness to slip back into its shell. There were the familiar rows of seats, high windows, and textured cement walls. He was alone. The humming of insects was no longer audible but he still smelled fruit rot.
A side door creaked open. Preceptor Elius strode in, his formal magenta robes emphasizing a ruddy bald head.
“Granan!” said Elius. “First to arrive. Very good. The Class Exemplar!”
“It’s decided. You ought to know. That talented Marcus. We’re so impressed.”
“Marcus is the Class Exemplar?” Granan felt like he were being flipped again.
“You’ll deliver his peer tribute. What an inspiration he is to you foistlings, and so on.”
“But preceptor! Marcus just flipped me here! Recklessly!”
Elius’s head tilted back in surprise. Then he grinned. “Indeed? What an exploit! I always knew he’d shine. Found him myself, actually. Put that in your speech.”
“Preceptor!” said Granan, then composed himself. “Preceptor,” he said, “I shall.” The smell of rotting fruit thickened in his nostrils.

Trial by Future

Author: John McNeil

“Before you plead, remember you lived your whole life under surveillance.”
She’s right. There is no defense. I grew up during the death of privacy, when everything was recorded and stored, never to be forgotten.
“A foothill of trash. A kiloton of carbon. Two hundred billion joules of energy.”
“I installed solar panels in the 2030s,” I say, with little hope.
“Too late by then, wasn’t it?” She waits for an answer, arching her burned eyebrows.
“In some regions, yes. But if you get to my age, it will be because of what we did, eventually.”
“Because of what you did,” she repeats. “You lived like a million people do now. And there aren’t a million people now.” The tribunal chamber has an earthy smell. Morning light comes in through skylights.
The infernos of the late 2020s changed my life. The west coast furnace, we called it. I was traveling. Flying, the worst kind. Melbourne to Los Angeles. You could do that with a sail freighter now, but why would you? One ash heap to another. While my house burned in Oregon, I was drinking from a Styrofoam cup on the plane. Surveillance makes knowing a little thing like that possible.
You never recover from losing your closest people, but I still needed something to do. So I took the insurance money, enrolled in a training program, bought work gloves and wire cutters, and spent the 2030s standing on ladders on hillsides, lifting glass onto a framework and tightening the bolts. We had known all about the danger, in a general way, my wife and sons and I. We even thought we were doing something about it. Recycling, voting the right way, donating the right way. We secured our home against robbers, not fires.
I had a hardhat on when I fell off the ladder. I remember the pain and the pine smell while the paramedics lifted me. And I remember the antiseptic smell in the hospital, where the doctor said I wouldn’t climb any more ladders. Since then, the disability checks, physical therapy, wheelchair marching, testimony to whomever will listen. Fewer people deny it as it happens around us. I come to be known as the oldest man, a survivor of the fires, floods, heat waves, and the geriatricidal pogroms, when youth took revenge on the elders who stole their future.
Again and again, the sound funnel carries the word “guilty” to the crowd outside, as I plead to each charge. The crowd’s noise rumbles back in. This is what they need, the young. They’ve prosecuted their parents and grandparents in dining rooms, living rooms, rocking chairs in senior homes, even on their death beds. Nothing can be denied or defended. The old folks can only look away in shame.
I stand for everyone’s parents in this trial. The prosecutor reads the charges one by one. Energy expended for trifling conveniences, the future burned to bake for the present. After each charge I say guilty, and the crowd roars.
“Your selfishness denied a future to millions, and so you deserve no more future yourself. You will drink poison at midnight.” I am led away.
We drink water at sunset in a quiet park.
“They liked it,” she says.
“Your timing’s getting better. The pause between each charge.”
“And you break down a little more with each ‘guilty.'”
“Three hamlets left this tour.”
“How do you keep going? Taking the hate?”
I shrug. “Better they have me to hate than someone worse. That’s a reason. But really, I do the show because it makes my life seem to matter.”

In My Defense

Author: John McNeil

Excuse me, I thought it was my turn. You had your hours and hours to say your so-called evidence, and now I’d like to talk about what really happened. Can we have Javert with a clipboard over here stop interrupting?

Thank you. As I was trying to say, the trespassing was a complete misunderstanding, first of all. Maybe I noticed the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign. Do you know how many signs there are on this space station? There are probably about a million signs nobody pays any attention to. Oh like say, the one in this tribunal chamber that says “No Eating.” Half of you are chewing clams right now and I believe Mister Inquisitor had a panini before his enthralling presentation. Look at the crumbs on his lapels.

Yes, it was the power reactor chamber, and yes, if someone messed up the controls we’d all be blown to stardust. That’s why I was being careful, not wasting time reading signs, okay? So this trespassing thing is a complete joke.

Secondly. Let’s be honest. Things fall into people’s pockets by mistake all the time. If a power crystal fell in my pocket what does that prove? I have with me, in fact I’m wearing it now, the same light jacket I was wearing on the night in question. I’m going to give it to the evidence robot and roll it over to you. Now I ask you, members of the tribunal, to inspect the left-hand pocket in question and tell me — remembering your oath to follow the facts wherever they lead — does or does not the left-hand pocket of this light jacket in question have a simple cloth flap that could be tucked inside it, allowing something to fall in? Rather than say a zipper? There’s no zipper.

So it’s undeniable that the power orb could have fallen into a pocket through no cognizance of my own. And then maybe I did notice the signs you keep talking about, “Authorized Personnel Only,” and thought to myself, hey! I’m a law-abiding guy. I don’t eat paninis when I’m not supposed to. I’ll obey a sign even if some people don’t. I’m on my way out.

Sure I noticed the lights going out, the alarms and people running around, and the orders to evacuate. It’s an emergency. Am I asking “what have I got in my pocket?” At a time like this? What am I, Bilbo Baggins? I just got on the first shuttle I saw. Lucky there was one idling right there, but lucky’s not a crime.

I’ll tell you what is a crime though. To wantonly search a man’s bank account for an alleged transfer of funds. Did you give your bank special instructions to refuse all large sums that the Gorgonoids might ever send you? If not, you’re as guilty as I am. And if the Gorgonoids have power crystal technology all the sudden what does that have to do with me? Proves nothing. The real crime here is that I was interrupted in the middle of a well-earned vacation and made to sit and listen to Crumbs the Inquisitor and his wild imagination. I put it to the tribunal that he is the true robber, a robber of my valuable time, and I rest my case.

The Mushroom and the Cold

Author: John McNeil

The weather was too good. It should be twenty degrees with snow on the ground, but it was sixty-five and sunny. Milo hiked the forest outside Edgewood with unease. Edgewood was a mean, hypocritical, self-regarding city, a place of enlightenment so bright that all the people sleeping under the bridges couldn’t even sleep in the dark.
While he hiked Milo’s sweat evaporated from his neck as soon as it formed. They didn’t deserve this pleasantness, he thought, and would pay for it. He gathered mushrooms often in these forests, and today he searched for one that looked like a rotting orange peel. A mycologist by training, he was three years unemployed since the beginning of the Unraveling. That was what they now called the cascade of plague, depression, and strife they had thought was just one bad year when it started.
In his days as a scientist, he hadn’t believed the myths about healing mushrooms in the forest. The world so plainly needed healing now, though, that he tried to believe. If he were a doctor he would have researched a cure, if he were a sociologist he would have proposed a social program, but he was an ex-mycologist, so he searched for magic healing mushrooms.
They would like the shade over this hilltop. There might be some there. But “I got them before you,” said a familiar voice as Milo stepped over.
“Hi Blake,” Milo sighed. A rival from grad school, the only other person in Edgewood who cared as much about wild mushrooms. And indeed, Blake already had a basket full of orange.
“You don’t need all of those.”
“No, but you don’t get any.”
“We need them to fix us.”
“That’s stupid.”
“They could stop the Unraveling.”
“It’s sad you talk like that. You used to be a scientist.”
“Used to be.” Milo lunged and tried to grab the basket, but Blake picked it up too quickly, so Milo just tripped and fell into Blake, knocking him over. They both rolled down the hill, twigs, and brambles dragging against them till they stopped.
Milo imagined grabbing a sharp stick, raising it high, and plunging it into Blake’s heart, killing him. Then he’d stand and with the basket of mushrooms held high in the air, inhale a deep breath of pleasant air on a sunny day, skip out of the forest and catch a bus to the Water Treatment Facility, bribe someone to drop the pulverized mushrooms into the water and then kick back and watch the world get better.
Instead, he sat up. “Never mind. Keep them.”
“You’re giving up?”
“Yeah, it’s stupid anyway.”
“Okay,” said Blake, “is this a trick?”
“It’ll be cold tomorrow,” Milo said. “This can’t last.” He stood and dusted himself. “Keep them,” he said, and walked back over the hill.
“I’m glad you gave up,” Blake yelled after him, “but you look a little pathetic right now.”
Once out of Blake’s sight he walked faster, then run at full speed, until he crashed out of the forest onto the streets. Inside his jacket pocket, his hand clenched the mushroom he had grabbed during the scuffle. He ran till he reached the bus stop. There he halted, doubled over and panting. As his body heat from the run dissipated, Milo felt chillier, like a cold front had come in just then. The cold and the mushroom, Milo thought. One of them had to work.

The Bicyclist

Author: John McNeil

A yellow bicycle leans on the sign at the trailhead. Its narrow tires are completely unsuitable for the trail. The sign says “Closed For the Season.” It’s November and there are several inches of snow on the ground. These are just foothills, not mountains, but still. The snow and ice get worse as you go up. What’s a bike doing there?

That’s what Morton Serm is wondering. Middle-aged, balding, Caucasian, he works for the Park District, works at the Visitor Center by the parking lot near the trailhead. Now, during the offseason, there aren’t many visitors.

There are tracks in the snow near the bike, he now notices. Not footprints, but tracks of some kind. Not animal tracks. Sixteen small perfect circles in two rows. They’re printed in the snow in a few places near the bike, near the sign, and going up the trail.

Morton looks back at the parking lot. His car is there. It’s already 3:00 pm, and the sun will go down soon. He’s on the clock till 4:30 pm, but if he left now no one would notice. Stacey had the day off, and no one else is working today. Visitors aren’t likely to stop by this close to sundown, in winter. The phone doesn’t ring much either. He could just drive home. Pretend he never saw the bike.

He sighs and starts walking up the trail, following the tracks. It must be some new winter activity I haven’t heard of, he thinks. Why would you wear shoes with round pegs on the bottom for hiking in the snow? Sort of like the opposite of snowshoeing? Peg shoeing? He can ask when he finds this person. After scolding them for ignoring the sign.

The bicyclist is sitting half-way up the hill. Its two eight-pegged feet are what’s puzzling Morton Serm. They are dangling from a boulder where the bicyclist is sitting, facing a clearing in the forest, having chosen this spot so the last rays of sunshine will fall on its face before the sunset. It is not human, not from Earth. Its hydraulic joints and fiber optic sinews bend and flex. Photovoltaic eyes drink every remaining drop of light before the fast begins at dusk. Up on a hill, it can eat for longer.

Morton Serm rounds a bend in the trail. He can see the bicyclist now. It is wearing loose clothing and its head is blurred by the sunlight. He can’t tell its gender or age. “The trail’s closed,” he calls out.

The bicyclist doesn’t look at him. Morton feels ignored and gets angry. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he shouts, striding closer.

Now the bicyclist turns to him. It prepared for this, learned what to ask a human of Earth: “Do you have a flashlight?”

The question confuses Morton. He stops. He says no. He left his phone in the car. The bicyclist turns to the sun again. Morton lunges forward, but trips and lands on the ground. The bicyclist leaps down from the boulder and pinches Morton’s head between the soles of its feet. “That’s all right,” it says. “You store enough charge for one night.”

The next morning Stacey arrives. Mort’s car is there, but he’s not, and the Center is locked. At the trailhead, there’s a bike and strange tracks. Two rows of eight circles. And footprints in the snow, going up the trail. They’re Morton’s, but why would he head up the closed trail? Stacey sets off after him. The bicyclist will be glad to meet her on a cloudy day.