‘At What Cost’: 2021 Ubyssey sci-fi contest runner-up

Even if their bones were Gen’d stronger, that just made their teeth more efficient at driving that stress straight into their brain, it felt.

Each step sounded like shattering glass. This was the wrong type of snow.

I’m not asking for it to be colder but fuck, is consistency too much to ask?

The past week had been frigid, but cold nights meant powdery, soft, quiet snow. When temperatures rose and fell, like they had in the early morning, the snow’s upper layers thawed and refroze, forming a brittle shell, broken with each step.

Nish unclenched their jaw, rubbing their tired cheeks and wishing they had, for the umpteenth time today, their mouthguard. Even if their bones were Gen’d stronger, that just made their teeth more efficient at driving that stress straight into their brain, it felt.

God, I wish I had my Aprexol. Anything to make things a bit fucking quieter.

Nish considered what their parents would think about that — about them using cheap blockers to ‘forsake the gift’ they gave them. They laughed, despite the surrounding canyon throwing the sound back at them a dozen times.

Even after, like, 23 years of me complaining about this shit, it never got through to them. Not ’til I walked out that door. Maybe not even then.

Crunch.

Nish kept trudging through the annoyingly loud snow, feeling like they were breaking the Earth’s crust each time they set their foot down, disturbing the soft innards of the planet. They felt saddened by that, considering how much the planet had been through.

I’ll stop bothering you soon. Promise. All I gotta do is get to Silicon and I won’t need to hurt y— This is dirt. I’m talking, apologizing even, to fucking dirt. That Socialite Gen really put to good use, eh Mum? God, you and Dad really set me up to be a walking torture chamber, huh?

Used to its regular rumble, Nish heard their heart beat quicker with emotion, the blood near their ears flowing faster. They tried to take deep breaths, to take solace in hearing their lungs stretch and expand like a balloon. The crack and crunch of the snow was drowned out by the orchestra of their organs.

An excess of money and lack of sense, that’s their problem, they thought. They were convinced that I needed to be ‘custom Gen,’ proof that their company is trustworthy. That they were seen as trusting the jagged, bleeding edge of voluntary evolution. To think, the only ‘evolved’ siblings I’ve got are a bunch of lab mice that tend to throw themselves off their cages.

Nish scoffed, hearing the sharp exhale cut through their teeth before seeing it fog in front of them.

I mean honestly, how the fuck didn’t anyone see the contradictions? You made a kid that can hear a pin drop a hundred metres away, but they’re Gen’d to love striking up a conversation at a packed cocktail party? That’s gold.

Nish thought back to the first party they’d gone to, only a few years after their Gens activated. They didn’t have much of a handle on them now but back then, they were holding a sword with no hilt. Back when their parents could still guilt them with the ‘We paid millions for your gifts!’ gambit.

Nish always listened.

They remembered the dark purple dress their parents bought, how it had too many cutouts that slid around as they moved, constantly showing different parts of their arms, legs and midriff. They felt like they were on display. Their mom whipped around the room, primping, preening and steaming her own dress.

“Mum, I can hear the sequins every time I move and this feels a bit... revealing. Don’t make me wear this tonight,” Nish pleaded, hearing their voice’s high peak. Mum set the steamer down, turning to look at her child.

“Nishana, you look splendid, and the dress tells the world who you are! We’ll all be in the family purple and the only thing being ‘revealed’ is how much evolution you’ve been blessed with.” She turned back and set about flattening the stubborn wrinkles in her dark dress. Nish was far from content.

“If you need something to show off the family business, get a billboard or something! Why can’t I wear what I want to!” Nish’s cry hurt their ears despite the sound-dampening walls.

They stood in the middle of their parents’ room, begging for understanding. Their mom crossed the floor and stood in front of Nish, clasping their hands in hers. The steamer gurgled, boiling water for no one to use.

Hiss.

“Nishana, my beautiful daughter, I’ve told you many times how important you are to this family. You were the main project of ours for years. We took every precaution to make sure you would never be confused with the masses.” Her breath was quick, her eyes had that familiar, fanatic shine.

“Other people simply have their mother’s eyes or father’s nose. You are made of our hopes, our dreams. So much went into making you the best Kohli possible. And here you are.”

And there I was: 21 and a walking advertisement for my fucked-up family’s play at being God.

The party had barely started when Nish was overwhelmed. The glasses clinking, the grating voices, the fake laughter — it all hit them at once, so they ran. The cavernous parking garage delivered each piston’s explosion and each door’s slam right to Nish’s ears, but they ran to the family Benz, finding familiar peace in the industrial soundproofing’s protection. One thing their parent’s money did right.

Nish’s heart beat slower as they remembered the comfort of the Benz. The snow’s splintering came back to the fore.

Maybe Silicon will have something to soundproof with.

This hope raised the ugly issue of exactly how little Nish knew about this place they were trekking toward. They remembered curling up in the Benz and pulling up their favourite app, ‘Hu-map-ity,’ which showed the regions of the world proving too hostile for modern corporations to grasp at, or national terraformers to flatten and make palatable. The long-abandoned Silicon City had been the object of their interest when they’d fled home.

Exploited to shit ’til things collapsed, then left to degrade into the snowy, grey waste — and I’m gonna go live there? Fuck, no, focus — imagine the safety, the isolation, the quiet.

Nish reminded themselves of the necessity of being off the grid. Their parents might object, but the board of directors would surely send someone.

They shifted their weight, centring the rifle’s weight on their back.

I can only imagine the mean mugs the company sent to get me back. To get its investment, its proof of concept, back.

They’d never fired an early-21st-century rifle before, but wasn’t worried — the ‘Renaissance Woman’ Gen was made for adapting and fine-tuning skills, even if the title wasn’t accurate.

I guess I can call the Gen whatever I’d like, since only me and the mice have it. Renaissance Rat? Rat-aissance? Ooh, maybe Rode—

CRACK.

Nish dove to the snow. They pulled their rifle from behind them, scanning the horizon for the hunter, the shooter, whomever had broken the clear, cold air. Nish had reached the end of the shallow canyon they’d made camp in last night, walking up a steep incline to reach level ground on the north side.

Still prone, Nish crawled up the few feet to reach the end of the incline and looked further north. They heard it before they saw it.

A large moose kneeled 150 metres or so away, crying and examining a spot on the ground.

Looking through the rifle scope, Nish saw what was distressing the moose.

Bastards got ahead of me.

Its leg was caught in a modified bear trap, the teeth were shaved blunt but the spring was upgraded to make it snap shut with more force. For Nish’s physiology, that much force would bruise heavily and might cause a hairline fracture but, more importantly, it would be inescapable. For the moose, however, it was too much — through the scope, Nish saw its leg and realized what the noise they’d heard earlier was.

Nish wasted no time, knowing their food was meagre and that whomever laid that trap would be back. With the moose facing north, Nish had no shot on the heart, so they aimed for the head. Clenching their teeth as hard as they could, they put pressure on the trigger.

You don’t deserve this.

Click.

The explosion next to their cheek sounded like pain, manifest. The gun kicked and the moose slumped.

Letting out a shudder, Nish walked over to the body, glancing at the trap that’d doomed it. They froze.

As the blood flowed, steaming in the subzero air and congealing on the cold metal, they saw another colour amid the red. A rich, familiar purple.


This story is part of The Ubyssey’s 2021 Sci-Fi Contest. Our theme this year was ‘Biopunk.’ You can read the rest of the winning stories here.