Noontime Dawns

You wait until the only sounds come from the environmental systems before using the stolen codes to leave your room. From now on, the best case scenario if you're found is a lifetime in a black site: journalists don't get much forgiveness for wandering through restricted research stations, even when they had been invited there to write a puff piece.

Spy, you correct yourself, as if silently humming the old James Bond theme could give you the skills you know you don't have. They'll handle you as a spy, and, if you're being honest — the code you just used to open the door having been provided by an anonymous foreign-agency-looking entity that's bribing, blackmailing, and helping you do this — they wouldn't be wrong. But in your head you're still a journalist, and the main reason you're currently creeping your way out of the areas open to you, hoping that the cameras have been taken care of by your remote benefactors, is that you want to know what they are doing elsewhere.

Yes, researching crops capable of surviving the quickly extending deserts is vital. And, yes, the heart of the Abandoned Countries is a reasonable place to do it, even if they aren't fit for human habitation without constant refrigeration. Specially right now, at noon, when everybody in the base is sleeping.

You're in the part of the base you most definitely shouldn't be, deeply unsettled by how cheerful it looks. Bright colors and cozy furniture isn't how the secret wing of an already restricted research base should be decorated. Walking through an empty corridor, as weirded out as you're scared, you stop by a window. It's the first one you've seen in the base —they make keeping the temperature down more energetically expensive, and the landscape outside isn't the kind of nature that keeps you psychologically healthy — but it's not the window what stops you.

There are animals outside, moving under the noontime sun. That shouldn't be possible, not at noon this close to the Equator.

And then you see what they are. Who. Kids. Their skin is strange, parts of it looking unsettlingly active yet non-biological, but they are upright, and you recognize the game they are playing as a version of one your own kids love.

"You've found the children," says a voice behind you, and you know with sudden certainty you'll never see your son and daughter again.

"Where are the parents?" It's perhaps not the most important question, but you're a father as much as you're a journalist, and it's the one that comes to your mind.

"We all are, in a manner of speaking." The Base Director's voice is wistful and sincere. She's a believer without being a fanatic, and that sends shivers down your spine despite the phantom heat coming from the uncannily almost-dead landscape even through the sealed windows. "We aren't going to survive the next century, you understand."

You know she means the species. She doesn't sound sad. She is standing next to you now, watching the kids play. "But death doesn't matter if you leave someone behind."

The kids you're seeing aren't human. It's not just their skin and the thousand biological modifications that must be under it for them to survive in that environment. You've read and heard stories about experiments with brains and machines, a couple of decades ago before the accelerated ecological collapse led among other things to the Genetic Treaty. If they are doing something as forbidden as this, they are going all the way, and these kids... They aren't human.

But your kids are different from you, too, and that's fine. Perhaps not different enough, and you feel a vague need to apologize to them for that, for everything you can see through the window, now that you'll never have the chance.

You'll die in an accident the next day, locked out of the base under the scorching sun, in the place where the children are playing.