Zen shared his shoebox apartment with a girl named Ratter, who ate vision-pills for breakfast and tattooed her dreams on her skin. She had grown up in the Wastes and was missing her dominant arm from the elbow down. Versatile as flesh and blood, her tattoo gun was a whirring prosthetic she had built herself, configured to strap on at the shoulder. The needlepoint twitched like a fingertip, and she drew her designs with bold, exact marks.
“What do they say?” Zen asked, as she etched lines of prophecy from unknown alphabets over her ribs.
“That the world isn’t really ending.”
It was the plant tattoos Zen liked best, all roots and tendrils.
“I see them in my dreams.” The gun buzzed as she dug the needle into unmarked skin. “Everything’s getting green again.”
“Prophecy’s not a science. Some god or angel—They’ll bring the green back when they’re ready.” She wiped away the excess ink and the shape of a child emerged, blotted with blood like something being born.
The Citadel didn’t know about her. She’d never even seen it, never been recorded in their files. “They wouldn’t want me anyway,” she always said. “Waste-living fucked up my insides; I can’t grow a thing in here. You can put whatever you want into me, but nothing’s ever coming out.”
She was invisible to the Citadel’s roving eye, but Zen wasn’t, and when the military stomp of boots sounded outside their door, they both knew it was him the mercs were after.
“You could jump,” Ratter offered.
They were thirty storeys up, nothing waiting below but the wet splatter of insides coming out to paint the dirty concrete red. Zen’s smile was a slash as he opened the door.
The merc was a tall, shapeless figure hidden under a heavy jumpsuit, head obscured by a gas mask with thick black goggles and a protruding proboscis like some misshapen insect. A blaster was strapped on at the hip, the muzzle flashed and smoky from constant use.
“You are registered as a female body,” said a toneless voice through the mask. “All healthy bodies belong to the Citadel and are required to perpetuate the species. Please sign here to verify identification.” The merc held out a solar pad with a name that wasn’t Zen’s anymore and a picture that didn’t look like him.
The merc’s goggles never betrayed a hint of thought. “Your body is property of the Citadel. Cooperation is non-negotiable.”
“You want to shove some test-tube spunk up into me so those crusty old bastards who run the joint have one more shot at prolonging the human race. We should’ve died out years ago, and no amount of half-dead radioactive embryos are going to save us now. So, with all due respect, you can take your repopulation efforts and shove them up your ass. Sir.”
The sharp crackle-punch of a blaster pulse hit Zen in the chest, and everything went black.
• • • •
The kind of green he could only remember in the backs of his teeth and the corners of his dreams, lush and creeping in around the edges of his consciousness, tendrils pushing through the cracks, looking for somewhere to take root.
• • • •
Zen was thirteen when his body changed into something unexpected. He spent the next five years on the run, too chickenshit to escape to the Fringe Zones or the Wastes for good. At eighteen, the Citadel caught him, as he’d known they would. Kids could run and hide, but the Citadel had uses for adults.
“You can’t be trusted to sustain the population,” the doctor told him. “Your generation isn’t interested in procreation, so the government has to step in to ensure the species’ survival.”
“Who wants kids right now?” Zen asked blankly.
“The children are the future.” The doctor held out a gown so thin Zen could put his fist through it if he tried. “Let’s begin.”
“What, I don’t even get to meet the guy you’re going to use to knock me up?”
“We’ll find a match based on genetic compatibility. A new generation specifically designed for the world as we know it.”
Zen snorted and snatched the gown from his hand. Citadel doctors loved to talk like they had any reliable way of testing for genetics or immunology anymore. All they could do was pair up the people whose symptoms weren’t too similar, and hope the differences would result in a sum greater than its parts. Every few years the Citadel announced some new success: a decrease in infant mortality, an increase in babies born without any obvious defects. The right ratio of boys to girls.
Zen knew better than to trust any of that shit. He knew how they kept the numbers even, cutting into soft little baby parts until they matched the cold, exact images in the surviving medical texts. Male or female, with nothing in between.
Let the doctor see what happened when they fucked around with babies’ bodies, then. He had barely dropped his pants when he heard the doctor’s sharp inhale, his audible frown. Zen bit back a vindictive smile and pulled the gown on.
“You should have a female body,” the doctor said, like Zen had done it on purpose. “When did this happen?”
Zen shrugged, tugging his gown down to cover his junk.
“Very well,” the doctor said, finally. “It doesn’t matter what the external organs look like, as long as the womb is still viable.”
Zen tasted bile, same as he always did when he heard that word. He’d have cut the thing out years ago, if he thought he’d survive the process. It didn’t matter whether it was viable—and it probably wasn’t. He’d only bled once, a few months before his body decided it was a lot less female than the doctors said.
“I need to piss,” Zen said. “Can I do that, first?”
The doctor scowled but pointed Zen to the bathroom, and Zen skipped inside and shut the door before the doctor could tell him not to. Standing on the sink, he could reach the ceiling vent, and after a good shove it came loose. He dragged himself into the opening, knees and elbows banging against the corners. All he had to do was follow the air flow and he’d find the outer edges of the building, and then it was just a matter of evading the mercs until he could escape to the Fringe. There he would meet other people like him and introduce himself as Zen and no one would know whether he was registered as a female body or not, because—
• • • •
Zen woke to starry vision and the crude metallic stink of battery-truck. Almost everything ran on solar now, but some of the older models were still squeezing juice out of archaic energy sources. When he was out on his bike he could smell them a mile off, circling like hulking metal scavengers hunting down the carrion-husks of rebel Wastoids. He blinked the headache away and pushed himself up to find that his wrists were bound, metal cuffs digging into the skin. Thin sheet metal and the bars between him and the merc at the wheel separated him from the outside world.
The merc had removed the gas mask, revealing a rough-hewn jaw and hard, flat eyes. The blaster was visible in a way meant to intimidate. Zen didn’t have a blaster but he did have a switchblade, and could handle that even with his hands tied. It was a messier way of doing business than he preferred, but blood was blood and dead was dead, squirming guts and gushing arteries and all, and he wasn’t about to let a mess stand between him and freedom. What was one merc’s life worth? Nothing, same as his. Absolutely nothing.
He would have lashed out right away if it had just been his life on the line, but he wasn’t the only one rattling around in the back of the truck. The merc hadn’t taken Ratter’s prosthetic; that was a point in their favour. Zen had seen firsthand the damage that needle could do when Ratter set her mind to violence instead of art.
“They don’t know who I am,” she said. “Just grabbed me on the off chance I was a healthy body, I guess.”
“Why’d you cooperate?”
Her eyes were sharp, same as they always were when he asked her about things bigger than either of them. “Because I’ve got a feeling that something’s coming.”
“Yeah? Well, can it hurry up and get here before we hit the Citadel?” He sat up, cracking his back. “Who’s the kid?”
The truck’s third prisoner sat huddled behind the merc’s seat, staring at Zen with wide, dark eyes. The kid was brown and androgynous, with a huge mass of tangled curls, and wearing more layers than most people bothered with. Nothing but their face and fingers were bare. Prepubescent, which didn’t rule them out as part of the repopulation effort, and they hadn’t tried to sink their teeth into him yet, so probably not a Wastoid.
Before he got an answer, something sent the truck lurching to the side. They hit a wall hard, metal buckling on impact, and from outside, the snarl of engines and the shouts of half-feral Fringe gangs erupted. Zen struggled to his feet, coursing with bright-eyed adrenaline. Across from him, Ratter found her feet, too, but the kid stayed curled tight, watching them unblinkingly.
“Move,” Zen snapped, reaching over to pull the kid up by force. He stopped short when they scrambled away like he was pointing a blaster at them.
Something hit the truck a second time, tearing the side open like it was meat, and everything exploded in a riot of colour. The Fringe gang surged up in a wave, reaching in to pull the merc to the ground. Zen kicked at the rear door until it gave way with a scream of metal, and slid out without looking back. The gang was more interested in shredding the truck for parts than taking prisoners, even as Zen shouldered his way through to grab one of their sturdier looking bikes. The merc lay motionless underfoot as the gang stripped the truck bare.
“Can you drive one of these things?” Zen asked the kid as Ratter hauled her own bike upright and swung a leg over. The kid was smaller than they’d looked now that they were out of the truck, and the bikes needed a long reach to steer them.
Before the kid could answer, one of the gangbangers broke off from the frenzy to clap a hand on their shoulder. The kid whirled to face him, wide-eyed but silent. Zen had his knife out, but he’d hit the kid if he threw it. He and Ratter would be better off gunning it and leaving the kid behind.
“Stealing?” the gangbanger demanded.
The kid wrapped their fingers around the gangbanger’s bare wrist, and he froze like he didn’t understand what was happening. Zen sure as hell didn’t. Something squirmed under the skin like an infection, pressing right up against the surface until it split open and a tiny shoot burst out. It was green like Zen had never seen before, delicate leaves unfurling like one of Ratter’s tattoos. The gangbanger stared as his arm opened from wrist to elbow and the plants that had taken root in his veins grew, crawling over him. By the time he started screaming, it was too late.
“What the fuck,” Zen said.
Ratter’s eyes were all pupil, like when she had the best kind of vision trip. “Come here, kid. Ride with me.”
They only hesitated a second before climbing up behind her, wrapping their skinny arms around her waist, taking care to avoid bare skin. There was no power on Earth that could have made Zen offer to share his bike, not after what he’d just seen, but he wasn’t going to tell anyone else how to live their life. Dislocating one thumb, he slipped his cuffs and kicked the bike into gear. Behind him, the gangbanger was a mere shape on the ground, already shrouded by thick, fast-growing moss whose tendrils waved in the air like fuzzy antennae as it made its way towards the truck, swallowing the metal until it too disappeared. The rest of the gang was yelling, scrambling away from the fast-moving green. Some of them escaped.
“You ever been beyond the Fringe?” Ratter asked the kid. “If the Wastoids catch us, you better run fast and not look back.”
Zen tugged his scarf over his nose and followed Ratter out of the Fringe with a shriek of tires, tearing past body-mod shops and tattoo mechanics and burnt-out vehicles, their skeletons charred wrecks, some still on fire. No one had the materials to build anything new, hadn’t in decades, so people crushed into smaller and tighter spaces and fought over scraps, drinking dirty water and breathing in each other’s pollution as they waited for the end.
Fuck that. At least in the Wastes he could die on his own terms.
The Fringe Zones didn’t give way to the Wastes so much as come to a sudden stop. The last line of buildings fell back before a poison sky that stretched like an open wound, and then there was nothing but sand. If you survived the radiation fields then there were the Wastoids, and if you survived the Wastoids—But nobody survived them. Not for long, anyway. They were barely even human anymore.
• • • •
They stopped when the sun fell low enough that their bikes were struggling. As Zen rooted through the storage compartments to see what the Fringe gang had left, Ratter sat down to examine her prosthetic. She unscrewed bits and pieces to clean the grit, swearing under her breath as she worked, a mantra so familiar to Zen it sounded like white noise. It was only when the cursing stopped that he stalked over to see what the trouble was.
A tiny green shoot winked up at them, stem so thin it could hardly support its weight. Zen reached over to yank it out, but Ratter stopped him, shaking her head.
“The roots go deeper than you think.”
Zen looked closer. Sure enough, the roots were tangled in the heart of the prosthetic, wrapping around the metal pieces and digging their feet in like little claws. It rankled, the thought of her going green like that gangbanger had. Zen had seen plenty of deaths, but there was something eerie about watching a body turn unrecognizable like that. Eerier than the gnarled bodies of a car wreck or even the slow burn of radiation poisoning. Maybe because he’d never seen a green death before.
Ratter shifted closer, elbowing his ribs with her flesh arm. “I never thought I’d be able to grow anything, inside or out. This makes me feel like I’m bigger than my body. I like it.”
“You’re fucked up.”
She laughed, sharp and barking. “I know you don’t understand. You’ve never believed in anything other than yourself. But I want this. It’s the start of something good.”
The kid sat across from them, watching the shoot worm its way out of the metal, looking for the last dying light of the day.
“You got a name?” Zen asked.
The kid shook their head, arms looped over bony knees.
Zen blew out his breath and turned to watch the sunset, mirroring the tiny plant. “Yeah, me neither.”
• • • •
The Wastoids found them that night. Zen pulled his switchblade the second he heard voices, but there was nowhere to run, and without the sun to power them, their bikes were dead. He angled himself in front of the kid, Ratter on the other side with her prosthetic humming a warning. He kept his stance low and wide as the gang circled them, communicating in soft growls and bursts of staccato laughter. The leader finally stepped forward, dressed in layers of colourful scraps, his hair long, mane-like, and matted. He held a makeshift blaster in one hand, one of the old types that still ran on battery. Good in the dark.
“Bikes,” he said, in a voice like broken glass.
The gang swarmed in like flies on a carcass, hauling the bikes out of sight. Zen flexed his fingers around the blade, trying to count the figures in the dark. Too many for him and Ratter. Maybe if the kid set the green on them—But he didn’t like his chances of surviving that.
“Food?” the leader asked.
“Meat?” he pressed, edging closer. His teeth were filed to points and his eyes glowed like they had their own light.
“No,” Zen snarled. “Back off.”
Raising his blaster, the Wastoid laughed, mouth parted like he could already taste them, and Zen bristled. Behind him, Ratter spat a curse and shifted closer.
But the Wastoid paused, looking past them. For a second, no one moved. Zen watched the gang watch the kid, who stared back with a burning calm Zen couldn’t match. The leader shifted again, like he was being drawn forward, and though Zen growled and shoved him back, the kid stepped out to meet the Wastoid head on, stony and unafraid. Zen itched to drive his knife into somebody and bring things back to actions he understood.
“You know this guy?”
The kid slowly shook their head, never breaking eye contact.
“But I know you,” the leader sing-songed. “I’ve been waiting. Recognize you from the dreams.” He tapped his temple and smiled knowingly, like dreams meant anything real.
“You a prophet?” Ratter asked.
If he was a prophet, then so was every half-mad junkie in the Fringe. But Ratter said it like it meant something, so Zen kept his mouth shut.
The man cackled, and in a move faster than Zen could anticipate, grabbed Ratter. She swung her prosthetic up, the needle poised to scratch his eyes out, but he caught her arm before it could connect. His mouth stretched in a wide smile, baring his teeth as the little green shoot blinked at him from in between the lines of metal.
“There it is,” he crooned, and Ratter stilled, no longer trying to wrench out of his grasp. “You don’t know what you have,” the Wastoid whispered, his breath fetid and urgent. He never stopped smiling, glowing eyes boring into Ratter’s. “You have the end and the beginning of the world and you never even realized.”
Ratter stared back at him, enrapt, until Zen shoved the man against her needle. As it broke skin, Zen slashed at the gang to drive them back. Ratter pulled away, reeling her prosthetic in to minimize the damage done—Zen hoped she was more concerned about the machinery, but she was still staring at the Wastoid—and the man howled with laughter like a wild thing.
“We go to the Oracle,” he finally said, choking down the last of his wails, “and then we see how the world ends.”
• • • •
Besides the radiation, the Oracle was the only thing keeping the Citadel out of the Wastes. Ratter talked about her every so often, filling their apartment with stories as she etched away at some new design. The Oracle knew how the world was going to end.
“Did you ever meet her?” Zen asked.
“And did she tell you?”
Ratter smiled, the expression incongruously soft on the otherwise hard crook of her mouth. “The green will come back.”
“Wouldn’t that be good?”
“Yes. Just not for us.”
Zen had been dreaming about the green for years. It spread like oil over water, rippling on top of the surface and smothering everything beneath, taking root in Zen’s skull and growing out from behind his ribs. He always woke up from those dreams feeling restless, like he was running out of time.
• • • •
In the heart of the Wastes where civilization had gone feral and the Earth’s bones lay flayed and exposed like the gnawed-bare carcass of some ancient creature, Zen slouched along a pace behind the others. There was something magnetic about the kid: the quiet ferocity in their eyes and how they still hadn’t said a word this whole time. Zen had met people whose vocal cords had been fried from radiation. Maybe the kid had lost their tongue. You run your bike into a wall, bite down too hard at the wrong second—it didn’t take more than that.
The Wastoid leader guided them through the hazy mirage of the Oasis to a tent on the edge of camp where the city of mismatched patterned fabric butted up against an orange cliff face. As they passed, the Oasis inhabitants emerged from their shelters to bear witness, all of them sun-dark, lean, and hungry like the last flare of a solar cell before it dies at dusk. Inside the tent stood a guard wearing a merc’s stolen body armour under his wrap, and beyond him waited the yawning mouth of a cave.
“Come.” The Wastoid was still smiling that sharp-toothed grin. “We see the Oracle.”
The kid walked through first, passing under the sweep of fabric where the material gave way to stone. Ratter stayed by the kid’s side. The sprout in her prosthetic had grown in the hours since it had taken root. Tiny buds poked their heads out from the metal architecture, and tendrils crawled up towards her elbow, where the prosthetic met flesh. Once the shoots found skin it would be over in seconds, but Ratter didn’t seem concerned.
As they walked deeper, the walls grew wider and more decorated: figures etched in charcoal and ash, and lines of poetry or prophecy scribbled up and down in alphabets Zen recognized from Ratter’s skin. The air hummed with urgency, like they were waiting to be spoken aloud. A few yards deeper the walls retreated to offer up a huge, dome-shaped room, the sun burning white through a hole at the very top. In the center of the room sat the revered Oracle, surrounded by her acolytes. A towering headdress covered her eyes, shrouded in a hundred layers of shawls and scarves, only her hands and her mouth visible. Paper-thin and brown, her skin absorbed the orange light reflected from the walls. She lifted her head as they approached and broke into a smile like a fissure in stone, raising her hands to welcome them.
“I’ve been waiting.” Her voice creaked like a sigh. “Come forward, child.”
The kid approached, allowing the Oracle to grasp their covered forearms and draw them out of Zen’s protective reach.
“Yes,” said the Oracle, seemingly satisfied with whatever she sensed in the kid. “You are the one. You bring blessings.” Turning her unseeing face to Ratter, she continued, “And you’ve already begun to share them.” Her headdress swayed precariously when she moved, a mountain of stitched scrap metal and cloth. The weight must have been enormous, but she didn’t bend. She turned next to Zen, who prickled under her blind scrutiny. “And you. They call you . . .” She tilted her head fractionally to one side. “A healthy female body. They keep you in their files.”
Zen curled his lip and the Oracle smiled. “They’re wrong, of course. About many things.”
The Oracle was only an old woman, nothing holy or prophetic about her, but something in Zen’s chest eased when she said that.
“What could I have been? If they hadn’t cut me like that.”
“You are exactly as you are, and you were always going to end up exactly here, now, with the God-Child. Your purpose was to bring them to us.”
He bristled, hot and irritable and uninspired again. “I’ve had enough of people telling me what my purpose is, if it’s all the same to you. I’m not here to donate genetics or save the human race or this—the God-Child?” He turned to the kid. “Is that supposed to be you?”
The kid blinked at him impassively.
“Okay, great. What does that even mean? Are you here to save us? Because honestly, I don’t think we deserve salvation from anybody, god or not. We fucked the planet into oblivion, we wiped out every living species—including ourselves—and now we’re too dumb to roll over and die already. Everyone’s always talking about these goddamn prophecies like their dreams aren’t the same scattershot neural bullshit as anyone else’s, but we’re finished. The last thing I want is some god stepping in to rescue us and prolonging the whole fucking mess for another generation. No offense.”
The kid shrugged. Ratter wore the same smile she always did when he talked like that—not patronizing, but like she had a secret she couldn’t tell him yet.
“But the planet’s still here.” The Oracle’s smile mirrored Ratter’s, and it stopped him in his tracks.
“You said we destroyed the planet, but it’s still here, and it will keep turning long after we’re gone. And we’ll be gone soon,” she confided, her smile stretching wider, “now that the God-Child is here.”
“Oh yeah? You some kind of weapon?” He prodded the kid’s skinny shoulder. “Somebody tattoo instructions for the next atomic bomb onto you?”
“Even better.” The Oracle’s lips peeled back to reveal more gum than tooth. “They contain multitudes, as you do. Alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. Show him, child. Show us all what you have.”
Ratter held her breath, pressing up against Zen’s side and taking his hand, her fingers digging into his. Against his will, adrenaline boiled up inside Zen too, like he was balancing on the top edge of a skyscraper, staring straight down. Slowly, the kid raised both hands to their mouth and pushed something past their lips into their palms. Zen couldn’t see it, but the acolytes all gasped at the same moment: a hushing intake of breath like a prayer.
He elbowed them out of the way to look over the kid’s shoulder as they cupped the thing between both hands. It was smooth and round, a dark, rich brown that reminded him of things from a thousand years ago. That restless feeling under his skin shivered up, anticipatory and breathless. The end of the world. The start of a new one. There, at the very top of the dome, a tiny crack ran through the outer shell, and poking out from inside was the smallest, brightest hint of green.
“Bless us, child,” the Oracle murmured, reaching out.
Zen took a hurried step back, breaking the ring of watchers, but Ratter didn’t move.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Ratter told him. The sprout in her prosthetic had reached her shoulder and dug into the joint around her clavicle like an insect. “You can run, if you want. You can watch it take the Citadel. And then, after, you can stand on a fresh planet, the last body left, and tell me what it looks like. It’ll be so beautiful. All that green.”
• • • •
It was quiet, at the beginning of the world. Thick moss carpeted everything, absorbing sound. What used to be skyscrapers now stood as towers of silent green, and streets became valleys. Zen walked through all of it, the kid at his side. The kid was as quiet as the landscape, skin brown as soil, their curls turned yellow and gold with pollen. Ratter was right: it was beautiful. He didn’t know whether her consciousness had survived the green, so he talked to her like she was everywhere. He told her about the trees.
They were his favourite. Straight, red trunks that towered almost as tall as the buildings, crowned with dark green leaves casting shadows like clouds. The smaller ones were slender, silver-trunked with light yellow-green tops that shimmered and shivered in the breeze like metal chimes. He understood how Ratter felt, looking at trees like that. He understood what the Citadel had always wanted from him. Bringing that kind of beauty into the world: that might be worth giving up his body for.
“Was human extinction a side effect of bringing back the green, or was that the whole point?” he asked the kid.
They sat side by side on top of a little hill that used to be a battery truck, overlooking what used to be the Wastes. Now it was a sea of blue-green grass, each blade as wide as Zen’s hand and as high as his waist, rippling in the breeze like an ocean. The kid rested their chin on their arms, folded over their knees. They were careful not to touch him, but Zen had started sitting closer, lately. The pollen didn’t scare him so much anymore.
“When I’m done, turn me into a tree, okay? Something that’ll live for a long time. I want to see whatever happens next.”
The kid turned to face him. Slowly, they extended one hand, letting it hang in the space between them, fingers outstretched. A silent, patient offer.
Zen inhaled, pulling all that green into his lungs, and reached out to take it.