art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Colum Paget
"I see the acid-elms have a new predator," says Zina, pointing out a vine that's strangling them.
"Good," says Olesia, "Death to traitors."
This sets Zina to laughing, until the laughing becomes the girl's trademark hacking cough. Olesia waits, and waits, and waits to the point where she starts to worry. She takes a step towards her companion, but Zina waves her back and manages to gasp, "I'm all right." Zina accuses Olesia of "mothering" her. The age gap is about right, and Zina's mysterious ailments persist despite all treatment, it's only natural to worry. But Zina can look after herself; after all, she came to the refuge from outside. In the refuge people call her "Jungle Girl," because she's a walk-in from outside, because she's more comfortable with the forest than most, and because of her middling-brown skin. Zina makes no objection to the appellation, probably having no knowledge of history.
"You can't blame the trees," says Zina.
"They started it," says Olesia. "They were the first to change." The Change began with this mutant tree that was not only resistant to acid rain, but actually preferred an acidic environment, promoted one, and reaped the benefit that their competition couldn't stand the heat. These elms poisoned the earth and air about them, so only they could grow in it. But they could have been dealt with, could have been cut down. The wheels really came off the world when a species of fast-growing weed developed the same trick. Then the race was on. Creatures that had become resistant to pollution became polluters themselves, creating new environments in which they could thrive unmolested. It became an arms race, it became a feedback loop, it became a holocaust. In two hundred years the creatures of Earth have undergone more evolution than in the previous hundred thousand.
"We started it," says Zina. "We changed the environment. We changed the rules of the game."