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The Garbage Flotilla in the Pacific Ocean Is Not Your Problem

Isaac Pickle grew up in the paperback section of his father's used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. He is currently a PhD student down the road in Detroit, where he teaches writing and scribbles down stories during lecture. Isaac also publishes poetry, has taken a seat in all fifty states, and can smell old paper from blocks away. Before pressing send on this short, I had the same worry that must trouble the makers of many near future dystopias: how to raise concern over the direction we're headed without reifying or even glorifying the warning, without making it into a blueprint. In 1500 words or less, this challenge is more acute. Who can be written with compassion or treated with care? How can systems be skewered without making characters two-dimensional heels? I don't think I've done it right, but I hope we keep trying.
Lewis had gotten into the habit of wandering the decompression halls to pass the time before work. Eyes down and shuffling, he looked like any other dizzy employee regaining his balance. Lewis breathed deeply, patiently waiting for his bracelet to flash yellow, alerting him to the start of his shift when he'd have to make his way down to the metal pasture where the Cows waited in tidy rows. The walls were covered in propaganda, which always did just enough to buoy Lewis' mood. Collections was a dirty job, but the shiny posters with colorful reminders of progress outside lifted some of the load.
He saw it every day on his commute, the progress. Agricultural sprawl was no longer an idea floated in the academy; it floated clean on afternoon breezes. And his role at the pasture, while not life-defining, allowed him a certain swell in the chest at family gatherings. There would be a story to tell, or news to share from the wars' fronts, and he was part of the solution. He took warmth from the happy truths plastered to the walls. Do Not Worry About Space Debris. No, he wouldn't, not with all the hope here on the surface. Hell, even the Tibetan Plateau had seen armistice just these past few months. Drink In the Peace. Yes, he would.
Imbibing these simple truths were usually enough, and rarely if ever did he succumb to the database or other more direct forms of systemic optimism. It was easier when he didn't name the Cows.
Lewis was light on his feet from the excess oxygen necessary to make up for air lost in the controlled static atmosphere of the pasture, when the nerves of his left arm sprang to life, blinking yellow.
His shift began the same as always. As he stepped into the pressurized warehouse, stacks of Cows greeted him, and he stretched each hamstring to prepare for his long walk checking vitals and boxes. Lewis used to consider himself distant and disconnected. Perhaps because of the contrast to his work's jargon, he was happier now.
The fourteenth Cow on his list he called Patricia. Patricia had straw-colored hair that looked just as brittle, and even in sleep always seemed to be smiling, slightly. She had become Distant a few days ago, a term used to explain Cows that were still living but had stopped producing milk. As he approached, Lewis let himself silently hope something had lit up on her panels. But no. He couldn't dismiss protocol any longer. His shoulders tightened as he reached for the first release. Looking past Patricia, he rolled a thumb back and forth across his wrist, remembering that there was nothing wrong with accessing the database; perhaps on his way home he would let the green button on his bracelet connect him to an experience curated to redouble a commitment to progress.
It was easier if you didn't name the Cows.
After Lewis Disconnected f:1038 he pressed on without complaint. Sometimes there were mechanical or digital malfunctions. He carefully checked meters, then pulled each swollen nipple from the draw. After his fleeting troubles with f:1038, he left the prostrate bodies nameless. There were a couple of others gone Distant, but no more plugs to be pulled. The round lasted four hundred seventeen minutes. Lewis always counted.
During compulsory decompression after the shift, he read again the same posters. Rolling his feet back up the ramp, he mouthed along with the written words as he passed them. 8 Billion and Shrinking. Honor Their Ultimate Sacrifice.
Lewis caught the tram home across the spreading waves of grain. This country, the beautiful, was remembering her roots. This country, the world really, was always built on the sacrifices of some.
Opening the front door, he was greeted by his wife. He told her I love you every day. He left her notes in the early mornings saying the same. He started every evening with a smile. Lewis' scores were not quite high enough for reproduction. Sometimes he thought back to his final test, a few days after his twenty-fifth birthday. She had helped him study, weeks of pouring through every possible question. When the results reached his bracelet, she hugged him before she said a word. Before he had even processed the failure.
An hour after she had fallen asleep, he carefully eased out of the bed to stop himself from anxiously stirring her awake. Staring blankly at his closet of uniform clothes, Lewis pressed the green button on his bracelet. He hoped the algorithms would realize he needed to sync into an empathy deeper than happy thoughts.
"I love you."
"I want to put my head in the sand. I can't believe we're back on provisions." She laughs and tilts my head up with a firm grip on my chin before I continue, "Look, I just really relate to ostriches. Except that they're bigger than me. And are birds."
"At least you're not a bore. And you're my pig, besides."
"But the world is going to shit, Tayla. The Himalayan Glaciers are drying up and China and India will be full of plutonium before long. The suburbs have eaten away the grazelands, our leaders are vapid, the sun is a weapon, and there's a garbage flotilla filling the Pacific the size of Alaska. What are we going to do?"
This wasn't a new conversation, and Tayla knew I had an answer to my own question. Lacking protein and vitamins and water and space and facing a worldwide brain drain, something had to be done.
"That woman, across the street. What good is she doing for the world?"
"I can't make those judgments! You're talking about eugenics! She has a husband. And kids."
"You won't have to, Tayla. But imagine all that space, the bodies working for us and not against the common good. Imagine those billions in Asia, the billion in Africa, starving masses from whom we'd no longer have to steal. I know it's cruel. I know, I'm Hitler. I get it. But it is time for this planet to stop fighting natural selection."
"You never know who we'll lose."
The humanity of Cows was still a generation or two from becoming only memory, and so polite apologies to the families were still acceptable. Patricia's husband didn't cry around the children when his bracelet flashed a pale golden warning. He saved his mourning. And he shelved his shame. Holding his thumb over the green button on his bracelet, almost caressing it, he looked outside the bedroom window. He had to give it to them: even down here in the valley, the air was clearer than it used to be.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 11th, 2019


Isaac Pickle grew up in the paperback section of his father's used bookstore in Ann Arbor, MI. He is currently a PhD student down the road in Detroit, where he teaches writing and scribbles down stories during lecture. Isaac also publishes poetry, has taken a seat in all fifty states, and can smell old paper from blocks away. Before pressing send on this short, I had the same worry that must trouble the makers of many near future dystopias: how to raise concern over the direction we're headed without reifying or even glorifying the warning, without making it into a blueprint. In 1500 words or less, this challenge is more acute. Who can be written with compassion or treated with care? How can systems be skewered without making characters two-dimensional heels? I don't think I've done it right, but I hope we keep trying.

- Isaac Pickle
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