Toxic Air: Chapter 1 (1)
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Air sirens wailed in the distance in the city of Main Spring. The wind whipped the cool air as thunder was crashing overhead. The sirens were alerting the residents of toxic air. It wasn’t a foolproof system, but it was all they had after the catastrophic event named The Golden Dust ripped modern society apart.

Dirk smelled the impending rain through his two-way respirator. Quickly he got into a reinvented portal booth before the skies opened to call Directress Millie. The motorized shades darkened the booth before opening up a secure talk channel. Dirk typed in his credit code.

Even though she was in the middle of a disciplinary meeting, Directress Millie ordered everyone out of her office and accepted the call.

“What do you want, Dirk?”

“I have another one for you. Her name is Grace Baston. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

“Any family? You know I don’t pay for strays with tags.”

“There was nothing left but the girl when we got there. All known family died.”

“Did you check her? She say anything?”

“No, she hasn’t talked yet. The neighbors said they heard arguing, and then there was a blue flash of light in the windows downstairs and upstairs. The house is a total loss–burned down to the ground.”

“Do you think she did it?”

“No, the pyromancer was the brother, and he died in the fire like I said. She has no known ability.”

“Good. She’ll be suitable for the field trip. I don’t want to send any of my best girls. Does she have any belongings?”

“Uh, well, no, not really. There was a backpack with a change of clothes, books, and a few other haircare things. That’s it. Oh, wait, there’s a weird toy bird. She won’t let us take it away. She became violent when we tried.”

“I thought she was older. I don’t take anyone younger than seventeen, you know that. Less time I have to deal with these silly girls, the better.”

“She is seventeen. According to her section passport, she has a birthday soon, so you won’t have to worry. She’ll be up for release, then Donny will get her working at his place. He just lost a girl to an overdose. Darn chemist gave her too many meds in her food, and she never woke up.”

“Good. Looks like Donny and I will get our money’s worth. Well, let me get ready to put on a show for the Children’s Guild. Give me a holler when you come. See you soon.”

“Yeah, see you soon.”


Each year a field trip to Main Spring City was sanctioned by the Sluice Watcher, with a few reserved spots for poor families that served the minery. They gave two of those spots to the orphans at the Sinclair Spindle Orphanage, and Directress Millie got quite a bit of credit and rations from it. It was considered the highest honor, and every orphan dreamed of being picked. It was said that the luckiest to go would gain a job and home of their own.

Bernice cracked her knuckles. Her awkward gait left her with a less-than-graceful walk, and her heavy footsteps snapped the twigs around the yard.

She clicked her tongue.

“What is that you’re hiding? Give it to me now.” Bernice was a foot taller than the other girls at the orphanage and often intimidated them by standing right in front of their faces.

Being the bully of the orphanage, Bernice was used to having her way and didn’t realize that Grace was different from the other girls.

But it’s a fact that all bullies have their day, and Bernice’s was coming sooner rather than later.

Hot breath and spittle had hit Grace in the face each time Bernice spoke with a lisp. Grace’s heartbeat quickened. Her breathing was shallow and erratic. Startled by the interruption of her reading, she closed her book.

“I’m not giving anything to you.” Grace, breathing shakingly, stepped back a good arm’s length away.

Grace sized up Bernice with her eyes and dropped her book to the ground next to her right foot. Bernice chest-bumped her, then stared down at her again. Clearly, it was a mismatch if size were a consideration.

“You little shit, you give me what you have. That’s how it works around here. I saw the police and guild workers drop your scrawny ass at our gates with all your things. You had a bird or something shiny. Now hand it over.” Bernice demanded.

Grace grunted softly. “Leave me alone.”

Ignoring her request, two pony-tailed hair girls, one blue hair and the other red, grabbed Grace from behind. They held her while Bernice tore at her clothes and searched her pockets. Grace kicked and screamed.

“No one’s going to hear you on this side of the orphanage behind the second storage house. Everyone knows better than to come behind here. Scream all you want, pissant,” Bernice continued clawing at Grace’s clothes while her wild eyes tried to find the shiny object.

Grace continued to buck wildly.

“I’m going to get you for this,” Grace warned.

Bernice maniacally laughed at Grace’s threats, and the other girls laughed nervously.

“Ah ha, see, I told you guys.” Bernice’s eyes widened as she took out a small golden bird made from machine parts. It had a wind-up lever on its right side.

The artifact chimed.

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