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Fiction

Complete Exhaustion of the Organism

“It’s not a real baby,” Jain says flatly. “And we should kill it.”

Another sunless morning in the Waste. She and Stromile have woken up to a gift: a canister of pepto-pink fluid with an infant inside it. The tiny figure is chubby and squirmy and perfect, and it’s only now that Stromile finally takes his eyes off the thing.

“Kill it?” he echoes, rubbing his finger in the hollow of his collarbone. “You serious?”

“Serious, yeah.” Jain nods her head at the canister. “This is them fucking with us, babe. You know that. We need to show them we’re not buying it. We can smash it on a rock, or something.”

Stromile’s face goes lockdown: His big black eyes shrink and dull, his happy-or-sad mouth becomes a flat line, and Jain has to guess what’s going on his head. Probably he’s thinking about the times the gifts have been exactly what they needed. Jugs of potable water when their sanitizer tabs ran out, an inflatable splint when she broke her leg sliding down an embankment.

“What if we just leave it here?” Stromile says. “Leave it here, and keep going. They’ll see we don’t want it, and they’ll pick it up, and they’ll . . .” He wags his head side to side. “They’ll do whatever to it.”

“Sure, Stro,” Jain says. “We can do that, I guess.”

And that was what she was shooting for anyways—the idea of killing something that looks like a baby churns her stomach. But you have to start high and hard, with Stromile, and then let him work down to something he’s comfortable with.

They’ve been walking together for months now.

• • • •

Jain’s not sure of the exact geography, but she knows this used to be sea. There are still slick oily patches of mud here and there, and every so often they find a whale carcass coated in squawking white gulls instead of maggots. And in the distance, the ship: a carcass in its own right, an exoskeletal husk of iron and rust, once a tanker and now an Anthropocene memento.

They are walking toward it, because they have to walk toward something. Walking the Waste is better than cowering in the Town, the bizarre prefab suburbia with the bright green lawns that are really one single organism, a gengineered fungus, and the artificial sky that’s always blue with puffy white clouds and a lemon-yellow sun. But even now that she and Stromile are out here in the darkness, under a canopy of carbon-draining nanosmog, leaving footprints on irradiated dirt, they’re still being monitored.

“I think I get it,” Stromile says, tucking his trousers into his boots as they come up on another slick stretch of mud. “The baby.”

Jain glances over. “Yeah?”

“They’re watching us, right?” Stromile says. “They watched us fucking last night.” He coughs, then gives a sheepish smile. “They think we wanted to make a baby.”

Jain feels some heat waft up to the surface of her skin. “Could be,” she says. “You feeling okay today?”

Stromile nods. “Better,” he says. “Better than ever.”

They walk until the derelict ship is a full thumb taller on the horizon, playing silly games where they hurl clods of mud at other clods of mud, or memory games where they try to list all the dissolved countries alphabetically. Stromile doesn’t cough too often, so maybe he really is feeling better.

When they pitch the foil tent, they try to fuck again. Stro doesn’t get hard this time, but she sucks him for a while and then works at her clit while he fingers her. One, then two, then three’s a bit too much. Back to two and she starts rocking her hips, aching wet.

“You’re switching fingers, right?” she asks vaguely, as he slips one inside her ass.

Stromile pauses. “Uh. Yeah. Yes.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence, but she’s getting too close to care. The warm rush hits her belly, her head, tingles out through her skin. For a moment, everything is beautiful. She and Stromile are in love. The Waste is their kingdom.

She shudders, and opens her eyes to see Stromile grinning down at her. She wraps herself around him until the endorphins trickle away.

• • • •

The baby is back when they crawl out of the tent. The canister sits slightly crooked, bottom buried in the wet dirt. Inside the fluid, the baby’s asleep, eyes shut. It has a small thatch of dark hair plastered to its soft skull.

Jain glares at it, then looks straight up into the void-black sky. “Hey!” she shouts. “We don’t want your creepy baby!”

Stromile inches closer. “Jain, it looks like my little brother,” he mutters.

Jain blinks. “It looks like your little brother?”

“Yeah,” Stromile says. “A lot. Like, I remember there was this photo of me holding him when he was a baby.” His mouth twists into a grimace. “Looks like that.”

Jain puts both her hands on Stromile’s back and starts to rub little circles. She knows he lost his whole family in one of the last big Shrooms. “I’m sorry, Stro,” she says. “That’s so shitty. That must feel bad. Real bad.”

“You think it’s on purpose?” Stromile asks, staring at the baby adrift in the pink fluid.

“Yeah,” Jain says. “They want us to take it back to the Town.” She scratches the back of Stromile’s neck, just gently. “It’s like, nurturing instinct, or whatever. They want us to open the canister, decide we have to take care of the thing, and realize we can’t do it out here in the Waste.”

“So they made it look like family,” Stromile says dully.

“I bet,” Jain says. “Yeah.”

Stromile digs his fingers into his scalp and scratches; Jain sees a dark coil of hair come loose but pretends not to. “That’s so fucked up,” he says. “That’s so fucked up.”

Jain kisses his cheek. “Hey,” she says, and then nothing else.

• • • •

That night, lying together in the tent, there’s a more comfortable quiet. Jain runs her finger up and down Stromile’s arm in a long lazy loop. He has a half-smile on his lips.

“What are you thinking about?” she asks.

“Night we found that bottle of vodka,” he says. “That was a good night. When we were just jumping around and singing and stuff.”

Jain remembers that night in blurry film. She remembers dancing in and out of their lantern beam, both of them throwing back their heads and not caring, or maybe caring even more. Things being both more and less significant.

She smiles and taps a rhythm against Stromile’s rib. “All I wanna do is . . .”

Stromile makes the soft gunshot noises with his cheeks, staring up at the ceiling. “And chk. Ting.”

“And take your money,” Jain finishes, wriggling her fingers into his empty pocket.

They kiss, and the world’s not quite over.

• • • •

“Here’s one,” Stromile says, around a mouthful of cricket bar. “When people used to say ‘it’s like hurting cats.’ Never got that. Do you get it?”

“Dunno,” Jain says, nudging the lantern with her foot to keep its coils running. “What was the context?”

“Difficult stuff, I guess.” Stromile swallows. “Like, organizing a search party.”

“Hurting a cat would be difficult,” Jain says. “Because you’d feel bad about it.”

Something shifts in Stromile’s face, and she knows it was the wrong thing to say. “I feel bad about the baby,” he blurts. “How we keep leaving it. Babies aren’t supposed to be stuck in tubes like that. They’re supposed to have, you know. Interaction.”

It’s been three days and they’re nearly to the tanker. Its hull is big enough to blot out the sky now, a rusty red wall jutting up from nowhere. Every morning, the baby is waiting for them. Jain’s not sure, but she thinks it’s growing, looking slightly more cramped in its canister each time. Sometimes it blinks its big soft dark eyes at them and does a toothless smile.

Jain was fed up enough to kick it over this morning, but before they set to walking Stromile carefully propped it back upright, as if verticality matters to a fake baby swimming in protoplasm or protein slop or whatever the canister’s full of.

“It’s not a real baby, Stro,” Jain says. “It’s something they made to mess with us.”

“It’s something they made to mess with us, yeah,” Stromile says. He bites the insides of his cheeks, sucking them hollow. “But it might be a real baby still. It might even be our baby, Jain.”

Jain gets a crawly feeling in the bottom of her stomach. “Don’t say that.”

“I mean, they got our genes when we were in the Town,” Stromile says. He has a pained smile. “You don’t think? Maybe?”

Her stomach seems to bubble. She feels hot and sick and angry. “No, Stro. I don’t think so. Seeing as how they sterilized everyone in the Town. Seeing as how that was part of the deal.”

“Maybe they changed their minds,” Stromile says softly. “People do that.”

“They’re not people,” Jain says. “And that thing’s not a baby.”

Stromile’s face goes lockdown again. She knows he doesn’t believe her, so she’s going to have to show him.

• • • •

That night when Stromile falls asleep, she waits up for the delivery. They used to do that often, back when they thought they might be dragged back to the Town by force. They would huddle near the tent’s entrance, clutching each other and makeshift weapons. Now the doppler whine of machines rushing through the night is white noise. They sleep through it easy.

Jain stays awake by pinching the skin of her inner elbow, watching Stromile’s bony chest rise and fall. Finally she hears it coming. She crawls out of the tent and looks up.

The delivery worker is about the size of the whale carcass they detoured around yesterday. It has gaunt mechanical limbs but also swathes of soft blue translucent membrane, some bloated knobbly cross between the moose she once saw in the woods as a child and the swarms of phosphorescent jellyfish she once saw in a photo.

It lowers itself down, anchoring itself to the dirt, and the canister slides out of its underbelly.

“We don’t want it,” Jain says. “Why the fuck would we want it?”

They never answer questions like that. The delivery worker positions the canister delicately with one tendril-tipped limb, then departs into the dark. Jain can feel its static still crackling in her hair. She goes to the canister.

The fake baby is asleep, chubby fists clenched in front of itself. At the top of the canister, there is a palm-print that looks suspiciously like hers. She fits her hand into it. The canister unseals with a clank and a hiss. Her heart starts to thunder.

She knows it’s not a real baby. She knows if she pulls it out of the canister and smashes it against a rock, she’ll see the flesh inside is spongy and pink, webbed with circuitry instead of capillaries. There was a fake dog in the Town, and that was how it looked on the inside when someone accidentally beat it to death.

She lifts it out, dripping a trail of fluid. Its eyes blink open. It gurgles at her. She can break its head open, like cracking open a doll, and show the circuitry to Stromile, and he’ll stop thinking it’s something more than it is. All she has to do is get over the block, the biological or social or whatever kind of taboo it is.

Jain tells herself time is linear, and she was always going to smash this fake baby open, and doing otherwise was never even an option. It’s one of her old tricks. But she’s still holding the thing under its pudgy arms when Stromile knee-walks out of the tent.

“Oh.” He looks at her, blinks. “Can I hold it?”

She can feel its tiny heartbeat. Those motherfuckers. She passes it over.

• • • •

The baby doesn’t seem to need to eat, but it grows up fast. By the time they stop to rest in the shadow of the derelict ship, it’s starting to walk, staggering around like a little drunk. Stromile can’t stop watching it.

“Come on,” he says. “It’s funny. Admit it’s funny.”

Jain shakes her head. “I bet it’s recording us, or something.”

“They’re watching us already,” Stromile says. “What’s the difference if now they’re watching from, like, lower to the ground?”

The baby collapses into the dirt between his feet.

Stromile grins at her, kind of pleading-like. “Much lower.”

The fake baby wriggles its way back upright, holding onto his knee for balance. It blinks at him, swaying. Then it looks over at Jain and smiles. She grimaces back. It looks real. It even smells real, human and warm and somehow familiar, no metallic musk like the dog in the Town had.

“They sent us this thing as some kind of weird experiment,” Jain says. “We came out to the Waste to get out of the experiment. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Stromile says slowly, scratching at his clavicle. The baby takes off again, stumbling in a little half circle. “And they let us leave, and they give us what we need when we need supplies. So they’re not all the way bad, right?” He looks up, dark eyes somber. “Nothing’s all the way good or all the way bad. You said that, once, Jain.”

Stromile thinks they were given the baby because they need it. And maybe for him, he does need it, somehow. Maybe it’s a way for him to deal with his vaporized family, his dead and gone little brother. Maybe she’s not enough.

Stromile tries to smother his cough, but it makes his shoulders shake and sends a dart of ice down Jain’s spine.

“Fuck it,” she says, trying to keep her voice light. “Go on. Name the creepy baby.”

Stromile leans back on his elbow and looks thoughtful. “There’s this food we got as little kids,” he said. “From this truck. It was like, a bag of chips, then you dump cheese and lettuce and meat in it. Walking tacos. They were called walking tacos.”

“You want to name it Walking Taco?” Jain asks. “You should eat something.”

Stromile shrugs. “It likes walking.”

• • • •

By the time they get to the tanker, Taco isn’t just walking. It can jump and skip and do a shambling, veering run that always brings it back to them giggling. It’s not a baby anymore, more like a three- or four-year-old. Jain tries to figure out where the mass is coming from. Her best guess is that it’s eating dirt when they’re not looking.

But Stromile’s happy, and livelier than he’s been for weeks. He laughs just watching the thing stumble around, and sometimes he grabs it under the armpits and swings it in a circle, which makes it laugh, too. Jain can see the resemblance even more now. Taco’s face is less chubby. She remembers what Stromile said before, about how fucked up it was, them making it look like his little brother.

He’s over it now. He even sticks Taco on his shoulders as they circle the ship looking for a way inside. For a weird eerie moment, they’re a family on a seaside vacation. Seeing Stromile acting all paternal is mostly unnerving, but some little corner of her brain finds it sexy, too.

“Always thought there’d be a ladder,” he says, thumping his fist on the rusty hull.

“Yeah,” Jain says. “Me, too. Shit.”

They’ve walked the whole way around the derelict and found no sign of one. There are some manhole-looking things, some hatches, but all of them are welded shut. She looks up at Taco, who is clinging to Stromile’s neck, as if it might have some answer for them, some secret passageway into the ship.

The fake toddler has teeth now, tiny and perfect. “Shit,” it says, beaming. “Shit.”

Stromile laughs so hard he almost shrugs Taco right off his shoulders. Jain doesn’t want to, but she feels her mouth twitching toward a smile. Then Stromile’s laugh turns into a choked-off cough, and he has to set Taco down, draw a few deep wet breaths.

“Oh, man,” he finally says. “That is adorable.”

“On purpose,” Jain says, as Taco roves away. “Might be smarter than us already. Like, linked up to some quantum cloud. So I think we should make ground rules.”

“Like what?” Stromile asks.

“Let’s keep it outside the tent,” Jain says. “And if we wake up tomorrow and it’s gotten bigger again, we have to kill it for real. Before it’s big enough to be dangerous.”

Stromile winces. “Why would it be dangerous, though?”

“It’s an experiment, Stro,” Jain says. “Experiments can go wrong.”

Stromile bites his lip, watching the fake toddler scrabble in the dirt. “My brother was six when the bomb dropped,” he says. “I think it’ll stop at six-year-old size. Would make sense.”

She grabs his hand and squeezes it; it’s more bone than she remembers. “Okay,” she says, softer. “We’ll give it to six-year-old size.” She looks up at the towering rusty wall of the ship. “I guess this was a bust.”

“No,” Stromile says. “No, it was good to see it up close.” He holds up his free hand, arm straight, and thumbs an imaginary circle. “Ksh,” he goes. “Photo. Us at the ship at the end of the world.”

Jain smiles. She puts her hand up against the corroded metal. “Yeah,” she says, and pats it. “Take another one.”

They take imaginary photos. They kiss. Stromile’s mouth tastes coppery. Taco comes running up to them holding a slimy black shell in its chubby hand.

• • • •

“Tell me a word I don’t know?” Stromile asks, smacking his boots together to knock the clotted mud off the bottoms.

“Uh. Noctivagant.” Jain nods. “Yeah, noctivagant. Means wandering around at night.”

Stromile grins. “Like we do. Since it’s pretty much always night.” He casts a glance up at the nanosmog, the cool veil keeping things dark, then turns. “Hey, Taco, can you say noctivagant?”

Taco is crouched in the dirt, poking at a dead gull with its fingertip. The fake toddler’s grown a little bigger since yesterday, but not by much. It looks up. “Nockivagun,” it says, and flashes Jain its immaculate smile again.

Stromile’s having the time of his life getting it to say stuff, and Jain’s finding it harder and harder to resent the thing. It’s happy, or at least simulating happy, in a way she figures Stromile and his brother must have been happy as little kids. It’s always bringing them sea shells or gull feathers, like some echo of the delivery worker that dropped it on them in the first place.

And it didn’t complain about the sleeping arrangements, just curled up outside the tent with the spare blanket Stromile insisted on giving it and went to sleep, or what looked like sleep. She knows that’s better than most real kids do.

Taco’s happy, and it makes Stromile happy, and that’s important because this morning she could feel his cough lurking under his ribs like an animal. He deserves to have some slice of his family back. He deserves to be happy. Even if it’s fake.

He’s singing again. “All I wanna do is . . .”

Pow pow pow pow!” Taco chants, eyes wide with delight.

“And chk, ting . . .” Stromile looks at her. “And . . .”

“Take your money,” Jain says, sticking her tongue out.

Taco starts to giggle, and it’s not a creepy uncanny doll sound at all. It’s wild and warm and makes her really want to just laugh along. So she does.

• • • •

They become a trio without Jain’s meaning to: her and Stro and Taco. Maybe it’s when she realizes she can’t call Taco it in her head anymore, or when she gives him Stromile’s spare shirt to wear like a baggy tunic. They move a little slower with Taco along, but it’s alright, because they have nowhere to go.

The vague plan is to see the ocean. If they keep on walking past the tanker, eventually there should be ocean, even if it’s just a sliver of what there used to be.

Taco mainly sticks close to Stromile, hopping along beside him, looking up at him all adoring-like. But today he wants to hold both their hands at the same time. Jain sort of likes it. It reminds her of when she was little, walking with her parents, and how sometimes they’d wink at each other over her head and then hoist her up into the air.

Trust. That’s the feeling. Taco trusts them, or at least he’s simulating it.

“I keep having dreams about bees,” Stromile says. “You remember bees?”

“The flying kind or the not-flying kind?” Jain asks.

“Not sure. I dream about them inside their hive, or whatever.” Stromile gesticulates with his free fingers. “They’re all just kind of gooey and buzzing and making honey. I don’t know how they actually made honey. But in the dream they have these little jars.”

“I don’t think they used jars,” Jain says.

“You think there are any left?” Stromile asks. “Any bees?”

Jain shakes her head. “I think they went extinct,” she says. “Like, before we did, even.”

Stromile nods, his black eyes going soft and sad. Jain looks down at Taco and squeezes his small hand. He looks up at her, questioning.

“Do you want to fly, Taco?” she asks. “Like the flying kind of bee?”

Stromile teaches him to make a buzzing noise. Then she and Stromile take three galloping steps and swing Taco up into the air. He whoops and laughs and for a while Jain understands why people liked having kids in the old days. It feels like she’s the one flying.

They keep doing it until their arms are sore and Stromile starts to cough.

• • • •

The cough gets worse over the next few days. They slow down even more, not for Taco but for Stromile, who is walking gingerly now. He insists he’s fine. He says it’s just a dip and there’s going to be another rise, and Jain wants so badly to believe him, but she knows most things are linear. They stop to camp early.

He’s dozing inside the tent, and Jain’s sitting outside it, close enough to still hear him breathing, when Taco comes up to her holding something. His little white grin looks puzzled, maybe even worried, if he can worry about things.

“Stro,” he says, and holds out his hand.

It’s not a sea shell. It’s a toenail, crusty and yellowed. She remembers: Stromile taking slow careful steps, Stromile wincing as he takes his boots off, Stromile keeping his feet under the covers even though he never keeps his feet under the covers.

“Give me that,” Jain says, feeling suddenly nauseous.

She plucks it out of Taco’s unresisting hand. She scoops a hole in the dirt, presses the toenail down into it, and covers it over. She wipes the spot smooth with her palm. Taco is watching her, somber and curious.

“He was happy before you, too,” Jain says. “He didn’t need you. He didn’t need whatever the fuck this is. Sympathy. Closure. Whatever. He’s got me.”

Taco rests his chin on his fists, unblinking.

• • • •

Stromile gets sicker, and Taco starts to spend more time walking with her instead of with him, like he’s afraid of catching something. Jain hates that. Especially because Stromile doesn’t mind. He smiles when he sees Taco skipping after her.

“He likes you better,” Stromile says one night in the tent. “He’s got good taste.”

“Let’s not talk about it,” Jain says.

Stromile grins. “Let’s not Taco ’bout it.”

Jain rubs the scruff on his cheek. “Dumbass.”

She buries her face in his chest and breathes his smell in, trying to ignore the jab of his ribs. They’re so much sharper than they used to be. She tiptoes her fingers down his hip and gives his dick a hello squeeze. He inhales.

“Do you think things used to matter more?” he asks, while she wraps her fingers around him. “When there were more people? And more futures?”

She works her hand up and down, uses her thumb to rub a little circle around the head of his dick. “I dunno,” she says. “Is that really what you want to think about when you come?”

Stromile tips his head back and shuts his eyes. “Guess not,” he says. “I just. Wonder.” He grunts. “Maybe they matter more now, since there’s only a few of us. Since time’s, you know. Limited.”

Time is limited. Time is linear. Jain doesn’t want to think about it, so she elbow-crawls a little higher up and kisses him on the mouth. She bites his bottom lip, just gently, and tries to remember the first time they kissed. Maybe the third night after they left the Town, high on their own daring.

Even back then, she knew it would end eventually. Stro wasn’t vaporized in the Shrooms, but he was close enough to catch radiation and sear his lungs.

“It’s not going to happen,” Stromile mumbles, and for a moment she thinks he means dying. Then he peels her hand away from his dick and tugs her upward, wraps both arms around her, presses his forehead against hers. “I think everything matters the same amount,” he finally says. “A lot and a little, at the same time.”

“I love you a lot,” Jain says, and the thought that’s been lurking in her background comes forward. “If we ask, they’ll take us back to the Town. It’ll be comfier there. For the end.”

Stromile shakes his head. “I don’t want to go back,” he says. “Neither do you.” He pauses. “Don’t worry about burying me or anything. They’ll pick me up, I figure.”

The words pry her ribcage apart, wrenching her wide open. “Fuck, Stro,” she says.

“Fuck,” he agrees, with a sob in his voice. “I’m going to miss you, Jain.”

But he won’t. That’s the thing. He won’t miss anything once he’s on the other side of that one-way door.

• • • •

When Stromile dies, it feels like the sun really has gone out, like the nanosmog is only hiding darkness, and more darkness behind that, and more darkness forever. It feels like she’s alone at the bottom of the long-gone ocean.

Then it feels like nothing at all, and his unmoving body somehow becomes a pile of meat. Just something she’ll have to move out of the tent so she can fold it up and repack. She watches herself do it: drag him out onto the dirt, shift his arm because it’s at an angle that looks uncomfortable for him, kiss his cheek under his slitted eye.

Taco watches her do it, too. His small face is contorted with grief, confusion. He’s bigger now, six-year-old size, and Jain is beginning to understand. When he lifts his skinny arms out, like he’s going to try to hug her, she lunges at him.

“Get the fuck out of here!” she screams. “Get the fuck away from me!”

He flinches back, eyes wide. But he doesn’t go, so she has to chase him, feinting at him over and over, arm raised, mimicking her own mother and hating it. But Taco isn’t a child. She digs her hands into the mud and hurls clods of dirt at him. He tries to smile at first, tries to throw them back, like it’s a game.

“This is your fault!” she howls at him, then up at the opaque sky. “This is your fault! Your fault! I fucking hate you, I fucking hate you.”

Finally Taco starts to blink fast, too fast, and his face screws up again and tears start sliding down his cheeks. Finally he turns around and runs away.

Jain goes back to Stromile’s body, sobbing. She cries into the crook of his elbow. She gets snot on his sleeve and scrubs it clean. Hours crawl by with her sitting there weeping, shuddering, stopping, starting the cycle over.

When the worker comes trundling out of the dark, lifts Stro up into its biomechanical belly, she beats her fists against it. She bloodies herself. The worker leaves her skinspray and painkillers.

• • • •

Jain keeps walking, keeps heading for the ocean she’s starting to doubt exists at all. She’s vaguely aware that Taco is following her. He keeps his distance, but every time she looks over her shoulder and sees him trudging along, his silhouette is taller, ganglier. Growing. She knows that he doesn’t look like Stro’s brother anymore. He never did.

But it still feels like a slap across the face when she comes out of the tent one morning and finds him waiting outside. Stro’s soft dark eyes, Stro’s pursed lips. Stro’s body, but not how it was at the end, not scabby and emaciated. Stro how he was when they first left the Town, healthy and whole-looking.

Bile pushes up Jain’s throat. “Why would you do that?” she asks. “Why the fuck would you do that?”

The thing that was Taco and is now Stro gives a familiar shrug. “They always give us what we need, right?” he says, his voice warm, slightly sheepish, perfectly intonated.

Part of her wants so badly to throw her arms around him. The thing smells like Stro, speaks like him. He’s back from behind the one-way door. They can keep walking, keep talking, keep playing their silly games. All she has to do is accept this fucked up apology for everything that’s been done to them. Everything done for their own good.

She crouches down in the dirt and finds a wedge of rock. “Turn around, Stro,” she says, using his name without meaning to, starting to cry without meaning to.

He eyes the rock, brow furrowed. “Sure,” he says, turning. “Hey. Tell me a word I don’t know.”

She swings for the back of his beautiful head.

His scalp splits, squirts. He doesn’t shout, but the cracking sound turns her stomach. She swings again, then three more times, until the not-quite-bone caves in. The inside of his skull is spongy and pink, studded with vertices of black glass.

“Sorry,” she says.

• • • •

There’s a canister waiting for her the next morning, embryonic fluid a ghostly rose against the dark of the Waste. The tiny figure inside is chubby and squirmy and perfect.

Jain packs up the tent, and starts to walk.

Rich Larson

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has lived in Spain and Czech Republic, and currently writes from Grande Prairie, Canada. He is the author of the novels Ymir and Annex, as well as the collection Tomorrow Factory. His fiction has appeared in over a dozen languages, including Polish, Italian, Romanian, and Japanese, and his translated collection La Fabrique des lendemains won the Grand Prix de L’Imaginaire. His short story “Ice” was recently adapted into an Emmy-winning episode of LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS. Find free fiction and support his work at patreon.com/richlarson