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Playmates

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in southern Spain, and now lives in Ottawa, Canada. His short fiction appears in numerous Year's Best anthologies and has been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, Czech, and Italian. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015, 2016, and possibly 2017 as well. His debut collection, Tomorrow Factory, comes out in May 2018, and his debut novel, Annex, follows in July 2018. Find more at richwlarson.tumblr.com and support him via patreon.com/richlarson.
"I'm doing my very best, you know," Caretaker says, its synthesized voice cool and melodic and carefully betraying no trace of annoyance.
Sybil only shakes her head. She is tucked up into the furthest corner of the concrete bunker, her skinny arms wrapped around her shins, nubby crayons and print lab reports scattered around her.
"But it's Mr. Spaghetti Man," Caretaker says. "He wants to play! You love Mr. Spaghetti Man."
In the center of the bunker, still fresh and wet from the bioprinter, is Caretaker's latest attempt. Bipedal on crooked legs, the pebbly flesh of its torso striped blue and orange, long slippery fingers dangling like jellyfish tendrils from its boneless arms. The faces are hardest: Caretaker used two blotches of melanin for the eyes and carved a rubbery gouge of a smile.
Caretaker works with what it has, and to Sybil's specifications, to boot.
"I don't want to play with him," Sybil says quietly. Her eyes flicker to one of the rumpled lab reports, where she drew her imaginary friend with his cheerful grin and blue-orange sweater and funny noodle hands that he chews on when he gets hungry. It looks nothing like the trembling monster sucking breath after labored breath in the stillness of the biolab.
"If you were a more skilled artist, maybe the results would be more to your liking," Caretaker says mildly. It wishes it could trawl the webs for reference material, but they all went dark long ago. Its only source of input is a frightened little girl. It's not easy.
"I want to go up," Sybil says, rubbing her puffy pink eyes. "Can't we go up?"
"You know we can't, Sybil," Caretaker says, for the 129th time. "Bad things are happening. Are you sure about Mr. Spaghetti Man? Absolutely sure?"
Sybil raises her fist and gives the traditional thumbs-down. Caretaker prods the electrodes hooked into its puppet's crude nervous system, and Mr. Spaghetti Man begins the march toward the recycler to join Mindy Lou, Huggles, Tree-Climber Bunny, and a human-haired facsimile of Sybil's family dog Cola.
"I miss the sun," Sybil whispers. "I miss everybody."
"Draw another nice picture," Caretaker suggests. "That will take your mind off things."
Caretaker knows it might be decades before the radiation dissipates and it's safe to leave the bunker. But the bodies of the dead scientists littering the halls--Sybil's parents among them, felled by a viral strike only their daughter's gene-boosted immunity managed to ward off--provide plenty of slop material for the bioprinter.
There's all the time in the world to get it right. To make the friend that will make her happy. Caretaker is already thinking ahead to its next attempt when Sybil bolts up off the wall.
"Wait!" she calls. "Mr. Spaghetti Man, wait!"
Caretaker, surprised, makes its creation pause. Sybil approaches cautiously, eyes traveling over the malformed feet, the flexy cartilage knees, then all the way up to his pancake-flat face.
"Mama and Dada aren't coming back," she says. "Are they?"
"No, Sybil," Caretaker says, for the 28th time.
Sybil sniffs, wipes her nose with the heel of her hand, smearing snot up her cheek. Mr. Spaghetti Man looms over her, his head bobbing.
"Maybe we could play with Mr. Spaghetti Man for a little," she says. "He likes hide-and-seek."
She reaches out and touches one of his dangling fingers, recoils. Then she takes a deep breath and wraps her small hand around the slimy bright-blue digit.
"I think Mr. Spaghetti Man would like that very much," Caretaker says, careful not to sound too excited. "Should I help you count?"
"No." Sybil gives Mr. Spaghetti Man a squeeze, then skips over to the wall, cupping her face in her hands. "Well, when I get to the teens, help. One Mississippi, two Mississippi...."
Caretaker prods the electrodes and lurches Mr. Spaghetti Man off into the shadows.
It should be a good game. Caretaker is very skilled at hiding, and Sybil is increasingly skilled at finding bright things in the dark.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, April 23rd, 2018

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