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Fiction

The Plastic People

Rhea found the feral child on the edge of the garbage park on the last day of the group’s vacation. Garrison, passed out from drinking the better part of a bottle of hundred-year-old Islay Scotch, had dropped a cigar onto the edge of the canvas tent and set it all on fire.

“Damn it, Garrison!” Agunye shouted as personal air quality alarms blared. “You and your fucking retro addictions.”

There’d been scrambling and shouting among the five old friends as they tumbled out into the fetid, methane-rich air outside.

“Go easy. It isn’t something he can do back upstairs.” Susi stumbled out of her own tent with a fire extinguisher.

Everyone coughed and spat as she blew the fire out in a cloud of chemical powder.

“Don’t defend him,” Agunye snapped.

“Ten years!” Garrison shouted, clutching the almost empty bottle triumphantly. His heavy boots crunched in the ground, knocking styrofoam chunks into the air. “And I still love you all!”

“That’s the last bottle,” Agunye said, anger suddenly as banked as the tent fire.

“On this world,” Garrison said.

“Ever. The last bottle of Islay anyone will ever have,” Agunye said, and snatched it from Garrison.

Rhea listened to the bickering with half an ear as the orange glow of the fire faded away, as she’d been sure she had seen something skitter past the shadows on the edge of the camp.

“Something’s over there,” Rhea whispered to Susi. “By the fridge.”

London had been listening to them. She pointed in the direction Rhea indicated and snapped her fingers. The night lit up, and two drones dropped out of the air.

“Was using them for dance lights,” London muttered. “But . . .”

Trash rattled and slid down the pile as the intruder scuttled away from the stunningly bright light. Rhea shielded her eyes and tried to follow along as the drones ducked and weaved around the compacted hills of old Earth debris.

“Cornered it,” London said triumphantly.

“Is it a bear?” Garrison asked blearily. “It’s a bear, right?”

“There are no bears idiot,” Susi said.

“They’re extinct,” London said.

Rhea clambered one of the unsteady trash hills they’d parked the tents between.

“I see it,” she said.

It was a little boy, streaked in grease and mud, ribs visible as the drone lights played over him. His wide, dark eyes stared fearfully at her as he tried to hide behind a cracked porcelain tub.

“Oh my,” London said, clambering up behind Rhea. “The poor little thing.”

“Does he live here?” Susi asked, disgusted. “How?”

“We just spent three days,” Garrison said. “It’s not that bad.”

“Idiot,” Susi said. “It’s a shit hole. It’s miles and miles of trash. It reeks. Everywhere I step there’s old world crap.”

“I agree. While it was fun to see what the old world was like—” Agunye threw the last bottle of Islay off into the dark. It shattered against something invisible out there. “—I think maybe it’s time to call it. Let’s go home.”

“I’m tired of the gravity,” Susi agreed. “It’s oppressive.”

“We can’t leave the child here in the trash!” Rhea protested.

Garrison groaned. “Oh, come on. That’s what it’s like down here. You know this.”

They’d flown down into the heart of the dump for their mini-reunion. Partying in an exotic location would make an incredible story.

“All the termites down here can survive just fine without our help. They love living in places like this,” Susi said. “Don’t think you’re doing it any favors.”

“Living here must be a hell.”

“It’s a hell they chose to make,” Garrison said. “This is all theirs. They made it. They know how to live in it.”

Rhea clambered her way over rusted-out heaps and winced when something jabbed through her boots into her skin. She’d had all her shots, though. A prerequisite to coming down.

“Hey there,” she said softly to the scared child. His hair was matted and clumped. He was so covered in muck that he almost blended into the night.

She held out a candy bar in her right hand.

The child snatched it from her, shredding the plastic wrapping as he ripped into it with jagged teeth.

“What’s your name?”

The child just stared at her.

Rhea held out her hand. “Would you like to come with us?”

He scuttled back from her, and right into Agunye’s arms. He’d circled around and snuck up from behind.

The child wailed and screamed, but he was a small creature, and Agunye tucked him under an armpit with a quick smile. “Shall we go?”

Everyone agreed it was time to end the party, and with Rhea placated, the reunion trickled back into the shuttle for the trip home.

Susi strapped into the pilot’s seat and activated a return sequence. The main engines lit up and scattered all their camping equipment off to mingle with the rest of the trash park as the silvered ship thundered into the sky with the feral child screaming all the way up to orbit.

Rhea tried to give him a chocolate bar, but he ate the wrapper and bar, pointed teeth ripping into the whole package.

Then puked it up all over the cabin.

“You’re cleaning that up,” Susi shouted as Rhea tried not to throw up herself.

• • • •

Scrubbing the mangy child clean took five domestic assistants an hour. It fought free of the butler’s first attempt, and he’d called in the chef and three clean team professionals to get the kid into the tub they washed the dogs in.

Mighty Tim, Gonzo, and Ophelia, the three poodles usually the ones unlucky enough to get hauled up into the plastic tub in the middle of the mudroom off by the kitchens, barked and ran around in the middle of all the chaos, making the most of the fun.

“He’s a wiry one,” the butler observed. “Stronger than you’d think.”

“It’s all that full gravity,” the chef said, drying herself off.

Rhea watched the chaos unfold on a tablet, patching into the house video feed while enjoying a calming soak in the marble-trimmed “upstairs” bathroom attached to her unit as she scrubbed away the stink of the old world and half-digested candy bar.

The gold-leafed floor-to-ceiling windows in front of the bathtub framed the stars beyond. A stunning view, when she stopped to think about it. Mostly she found that it kept entrancing her personal assistant, so Rhea usually kept the window darkened.

On one of the other orbital cities, Rhea spent the night with a man who had his whole bathroom floor transparent. You could look down on the mother planet slowly passing by underneath you every minute while taking a shit.

Her view won for class, his was the one everyone talked about at the party.

Rhea stood up and toweled herself off. Candy, her P.A., had a selection of evening gowns waiting in her room. The one with microblades that could produce enough lift to waft around her legs at a pre-programmed height got the nod.

Then it was off down the hall to mother’s dining room, where she was fussing over the layout.

“Why is there an extra setting?” Alize demanded, hovering over the table as the chef directed set up.

“It’s for the child we found,” Rhea explained.

Her mother looked utterly perplexed, so Rhea showed her a picture of the site and one of the child, screaming as they rocketed back up to orbit.

“It’s a feral,” Rhea said. “Living in the garbage dump we went to.”

“The dump?” Alize looked horrified. “You went down?”

“Susi piloted, it’s safe.”

“How much did that cost?” Alize’s horror had turned to a vaguely scandalized expression.

Rhea had to think about that a second. “It was Susi. You know her father owns the shipping—”

Recognition flickered across Alize’s face. “That Susi.”

“Exactly.” Most of the founding families knew each other well enough by first name, but mother always struggled with the names of Rhea’s friends and which kid matched to which parents. They were just a blur of little people in and out of the house to her.

Of course, the house staff knew Rhea’s cohort by name. They’d served them enough dinners and requests over the years.

“Bring the child in,” Rhea ordered, and then, to her mother, “you wouldn’t believe the squalor we found the poor thing in.”

“Well, it is the old world,” Alize said. “There’s a reason we left. Look at what they do to it. It’s barely inhabitable.”

“It’s hardly a child’s fault it was born to it.”

“I’ve been saying for years we should just put birth control in all the medicine we ship down there from the factories.”

“Don’t be so gauche.” Rhea rolled her eyes.

“You always tried to rescue strays. Remember that little kitten you found over by the garment factory?”

Mittens.

Rhea clenched her jaw. “You had it put down.”

“I told you, sweetie, the cats have gotten out of hand in the greenways. They’re killing everything and throwing the ecology nets off-kilter. We keep having to pull species out of storage to repopulate the gardens—Oh God, it’s here.”

The little boy stood at the servant’s doorway, two domestic assistants behind him with hands on his shoulder. They’d cleaned all the dirt off him. He was pale, almost sickly so, and so skinny that his shirt and trousers flopped baggily around him. One of the domestic assistants had brushed out his long, stringy hair and braided it.

“Oh, look at how nicely we cleaned him up,” Rhea said.

“You’re supposed to return a baby bird to the nest,” Alize whispered to Rhea as she sat down. “Doesn’t this feral have parents?”

Rhea caught her breath. She hadn’t thought about parents. She’d just seen a near-starving child and acted. “Not good ones, if he was living in a dump.”

“It stays in your quarters,” Alize huffed. “I don’t want it anywhere near my Rembrandts, or the silver, and never, ever, in my rooms.”

“Come on, little one,” Rhea waved at the child. “Come sit with us. Let’s eat.”

He approached, poor thing, so tentatively. Much like the kitten Alize mentioned, nervous about trusting the outstretched hand.

Unlike Mittens, the child pulled out a chair and sat down as instructed.

“Does it speak?” Alize asked the domestic assistants.

“It screams, Ms. Rhea.”

Rhea patted the child’s hand, and he flinched.

“Don’t be like that,” Rhea said. “We rescued you! Everything’s going to be better now!”

The child whimpered.

Rhea looked out over the first course being set out and frowned. “Let’s get you something so magical it’ll cheer you right up. Something you would never have experienced in that nasty dump.”

Ice cream.

Now that was the ticket.

Rhea ordered it delivered, with chocolate sauce drizzled across the top.

“There we are,” she said, pushing the bowl over. “Try this.”

The child bared teeth.

“Good God, they’re filed to a point!” Alize shuddered.

Rhea scooped a spoonful of ice cream and held it up. “Try it.”

She took a chilly bite and smiled at him.

He nibbled at the spoon when she moved it back over, persuaded by her enjoyment. He shuddered as his tongue hit cold, smiled, then ate the rest of the bite. Soon he had his face in the bowl, licking it clean.

“That’s a boy,” Rhea said.

He sampled more food, but right when Alize and Rhea started on their Kobe beef, he clutched his stomach and looked at them with an almost comical confused look.

And then threw up all over the dinner table.

Alize stood up, threw her napkin down at the mess, and declared “I’m going to go visit Lars at Lunar North. Call me when you come to your senses.”

The domestic assistants swooped in to clean up the mess and the boy. Rhea, in a funk, retired to her room to brood over what had gone wrong.

She’d started this with the best of intentions, but it wasn’t going to plan now. Her mother had her judgy face on, the domestic assistants looked annoyed, and she could hear the child screaming and fussing away from somewhere deeper inside the family estate.

Hell, she still didn’t even know the child’s name.

One of the engineering staff came back in with the boy. “We weren’t sure where you wanted him to stay?”

Before Rhea could say anything, the child ran toward the window in the back of the living room.

“Earth,” he said, pressing against the thick glass.

His large brown eyes filled with tears.

“He can speak,” Rhea said. “Thank goodness.”

She’d started to worry that maybe the ferals back down on the planet had started to lose the capacity to speak. But that didn’t make any sense, as they all purchased medicines, weapons, and other supplies from many of the family businesses that still did trade below them. She assumed you had to be able to speak to do that.

“Earth,” the child said.

“Back to that nasty dump?” Rhea shook her head. “Look around you. Look at everything I can give you. I rescued you.”

The wealthy had left Earth long ago. Moved manufacturing to orbit. Moved all their wealth up. Even scraped off all the good soil so they could grow whatever they wanted in orbit.

Some people felt they had abandoned the Earth, or turned their backs on its suffering. That only the very rich could afford to get to orbit, and they’d walked away from their responsibility to be stewards. It was the ancestors of the wealthy who had done so much damage on their way to being rich.

For Rhea’s family, it was mainly held that if one really wanted to work hard enough, anyone could get into space. Those left behind had simply not applied themselves. This child’s ancestors had not applied themselves, but Rhea had rescued it.

The least the child could do was show some gratitude.

Instead, he wiped snot from his nose and sniffled at the window until Rhea’s patience broke. The only word the child seemed to know was “Earth.”

She left the estate for a walk to clear her mind and meet up with Agunye for some actual conversation.

• • • •

Erewhon Orbital’s carefully landscaped gardens curved up until they met the ceiling, a transparent metal that let you look in toward the center of the orbital, where the heavy infrastructure and docks all clustered around a needle-shaped hub. The ring shape of the orbital let it spin, and the insides of the hoop dripped with greenery that teams of biota specialists worked overtime to keep in balance. Getting a forest to stay alive against cosmic rays, occasional pressure losses from punctures, and the gyrations of a life support system closed in so tight that problems cascaded around in dizzying complexities.

Rhea had studied systems management for a whole, agonizing three months, idly toying with the idea of becoming part of the eco-system management team on one of the orbitals.

But five minutes near a sewer processing plant deep in the bowels of Erewhon had her change her mind.

She’d joined her father’s team of orbit arbitrage specialists, flipping futures contracts based on complicated hohmann transfers and cargo manifests throughout cislunar space. A much more dependable income stream.

Not that she needed much. The family endowment, created back when her great grandfather lived on Earth and decided to start building orbitals as a lark with the extra billions lying around, would always take care of her.

You had to do something, or life became awfully boring quickly enough.

Agunye met her in the scent garden, running his hands over lilacs and breathing them in with a smile.

“Hung over, or still drunk?”

“Hi.”

“Hello to you,” Rhea said, stopping by a striking clump of mini cedar trees.

“No, I am high.” Agunye took a deep breath.

“Come on, Agunye, really? After a retreat like the one we had?”

Agunye smiled and joined her by the cedars. “Just a small buzz. Take the edge off. Susi still mad at you?”

Susi wouldn’t speak, or return messages, right now. “She’ll get over it in a week.”

“That little creature threw up everywhere.” Agunye picked up a stick and scratched at it. The smell of cedar filled the air between them. “Then I threw up. It was a horror movie in there. It’ll take more than a week.”

Rhea sighed. “Maybe I need to send her an apology.”

“Ah, there you go. Something decadent and not easy to find anywhere on Erewhon.” Agunye took out a lighter and ceremoniously handed it to her.

“I’ll have to have my people think of something,” Rhea said, flicking it off and on. It would be a good thing to set her personal assistant to. She hadn’t spoken to him since she’d stuck him researching equipment for the trip that caused this whole mess.

“That’s the spirit. It’s the personal thought that counts,” Agunye said. “That should help her forget all the vomit in her hair.”

He looked pointedly over at the cedars.

“The child’s still throwing up,” Rhea confessed. “It’s pissing me off. I try to do the right thing, and it all goes wrong. It’s the story of my life, Agunye. Everything is always a struggle.”

Rhea held the lighter up to one of the branches in front of them. The flame flickered as it scorched the bark, and they both patiently waited for it to catch and quicken.

“You know,” Agunye said thoughtfully as the tree began to burn. “You might need to get checked over.”

“Mmm?” Rhea stepped back as the flames leapt higher.

“A doctor. You didn’t take the child through customs, like they have to,” he nodded at the grounds crew respectfully approaching with extinguishers. Agunye held up a hand, so they stopped twenty feet away and waited.

“Oh shit,” Rhea said.

“We could all have been exposed to some exotic Earth bug,” Agunye said. “I’d get yourself checked up or you might be the one vomiting everywhere.”

“We had our booster shots.”

“Nevertheless . . .”

The smell of burning cedar made her mouth water. Rhea made an appointment to have a doctor come in tomorrow, and she left the gardens to go have dinner with Agunye. A floating restaurant with a liquid menu nestled into, of all places, the docks at the center of Erewhon.

“What do you think the grounds crew would do without us?” Agunye wondered later, as they hung in the air near an old wooden deck taken from some famous once-sunken ship and sucked at galactic sworls of soup carefully deconstructed in the air between them.

Rhea poked a dumpling with a finger and watched it wobble its way toward Agunye’s nose. He dipped his head at the last second to bite at it, but it tumbled away from his chin.

“They wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for us,” Rhea said. “We’d have to send them away.”

“Where? We’re an orbital.”

“It’s not my job to think about those things,” Rhea protested, and splashed broth droplets at him.

• • • •

The doctor came much later the next day, held up by an accident at the docks or something silly like that, and by then the vomiting kid had been passed from assistant to assistant all through the house and then exiled to one of the pool rooms.

But after a painful blood draw, some checks on his machine, and a few scans, the doctor looked over his glasses to clear her. The scan results on the glasses, full of complex imagery, reflected off his green eyes. “Everything comes in normal, and you had a full complement of booster shots before you left.”

“Thank goodness,” she said.

“But I’m glad you checked in. Can’t be too safe.”

He started to pack up his equipment.

“I’m so relieved,” Rhea said, letting out the breath she’d been holding as she waited for the verdict. “I thought maybe the boy had given me something.”

The doctor turned back, eyebrows raised.

Rhea groaned and rolled her eyes. “No, not that. It’s the child we brought back up with us. He keeps vomiting.”

“Well, maybe I should see him,” the doctor said.

Rhea sighed. “Okay, sure.”

She explained how they found the child as she led the doctor through the hallways to the pool room. The large clear blister that held the pool bulged out beyond Erewhon’s metal hull. If you dove down into it, you could look out along the outside of Erewhon, or down at the Earth. You could swim out into space.

The domestic assistants had put the child in one of the bamboo cabanas around the pool, but he was sitting on the edge of the pool and looking down through it to Earth.

“Home?” he asked. A whole new word since she’d last been around him. Rhea idly wondered if they were, indeed, passing over his home as she looked down through the pool at the blurred landmasses below them.

Rhea took off her diamond-tipped heels and sat with her feet in the water as the doctor ran scans, and then had to fight with the boy for a blood draw.

“He’s malnourished,” was the pronouncement. “And you’ve been feeding him the wrong food.”

“The wrong food?” Rhea frowned. “I don’t understand. We gave him the best food. He ate our table. The house chef prepared the meal.”

The doctor carefully unwrapped a candy bar and handed the wrapper over. The child chewed on it, his sharp teeth shredding it quickly before he swallowed in a noisy gulp.

“He’s modified,” the doctor said, his tone patient and completely polite, yet infuriating somehow. “All the surface folk are, since the turn of the century. There are microbes that eat plastic, those capabilities were grafted onto the human genome. He eats plastic. They had to do that, or they’d all starve. Don’t you remember this from history class?”

History class?

She remembered the Exodus. Her great-grandparents leaving the messy, despoiled Earth behind for the skies and other planets. Boring talks about trans-Lunar independence movements. The old democracies failing on Earth and the great die-offs. She vaguely remembered something about plastic. She should have paid more attention, but Eric had sat next to her in history, and she’d been so distracted.

“I guess I need to call Susi and see if we can put him back down,” Rhea said, finally.

• • • •

Susi couldn’t do it. Her family had found out she used the ship without clearing it and she was, ha ha, grounded. Nothing Rhea could say about humans being modified to eat trash in order to survive after being left on the surface made a difference. The child was stuck on Erewhon.

Garrison agreed to come over, but he didn’t have anything to offer other than too many attempts to touch her hand, or knee, and get close to her.

“I think, he really needs to get put somewhere where he can eat,” she told Garrison. “It’s not going to be good for him in our house. We don’t have that much plastic, on a house scale.”

No oil in space. Plastics came from plants, and it made more sense to eat plants than waste them on packaging.

But Rhea knew where most of the plastics ended up.

“Come on, Garrison, help me take him to the vats.”

Garrison groaned. But she finally promised him she’d make it up to him afterwards. He was convinced he was going to get laid, but she was really thinking about the bottle of Macallan in the family vault.

Or maybe she’d save the priceless scotch and fool around, sex wouldn’t be a bad way to kill some of her frustrations later.

Garrison helped wrestle the child into a cart, and they drove over to the vats where they pulled him through the airlock.

“It reeks,” Garrison said.

It wasn’t quite the trash parks of Earth, but it was the holding area for acres of Erewhon’s own trash before it got scrunched off into the recycling vats.

“Here you go,” Rhea said. “You can live here now. All the food you need.”

The child looked at her, not getting it.

“Go on!”

It took some convincing, some shouting, and a little subterfuge, but then finally got the boy to settle in between two hill-sized mounds of trash, munching contentedly away on some plastic carry bags.

At the airlock, Rhea took one last look back. “This is where I had to leave Mittens,” she said sadly.

“Mittens?”

“My cat.”

“Oh.”

“I wish . . .” Rhea trailed off, forming her thoughts. “I wish our families hadn’t been forced to leave Earth and take everything with them. If they’d been allowed to stay, maybe they could have used their resources to help make things better.”

Garrison stared at her. “Who said they were forced?”

Rhea frowned. “My family, that’s—”

He laughed. “We left because we could. Because we’re better, richer, superior.”

Garrison hit the button, and the airlock doors thudded shut, leaving the Earth child alone in their trash.

He tried to take her back to the family house, but she dropped him off at his penthouse, disappointed. Garrison would be on his own for the night, and without the antique scotch.

Rhea sat on the edge of the pool, looking down at the Earth passing by on each rotation of the orbital’s great wheel, until it was time for dinner.

By then her vague sense of guilt, or responsibility, had passed.

You couldn’t save every broken stray, even with the best intentions, she decided.

Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias Buckell by Marlon James. A male person of British and Caribbean descent that looks pretty pale wears a black flat cap turned backwards, and rectangular, black-tinted glasses. He’s smiling slightly at you from under a salt and pepper beard. He wears a blue blazer and silver shirt underneath.

Called “violent, poetic and compulsively readable” by Maclean’s, science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell is a New York Times Bestselling writer and World Fantasy Award winner born in the Caribbean. He grew up in Grenada and spent time in the British and US Virgin Islands, and the islands he lived on influence much of his work. His Xenowealth series begins with Crystal Rain. Along with other stand-alone novels and his almost one hundred stories, his works have been translated into twenty different languages. He has been nominated for awards like the Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and the Astounding Award for Best New Science Fiction Author. His latest novel is A Stranger in the Citadel, an Audible Original free to anyone with an Audible account. He currently lives in Bluffton, Ohio with his wife and two daughters, where he teaches Creative Writing at Bluffton University. He’s online at TobiasBuckell.com and is also an instructor at the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program.