Future Tense

“Good Job, Robin”

A new short story about the future fragility of our food system.

Two humans holding up a plate divided into sections for crickets, algae, and flowers and butterflies
Illustration by Shasha Léonard

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Ahimsa waves an elbow at me, keeping her hands firmly cupped. “Isaura! Look!” She shouts to be heard over my earplugs, and I panic thinking she’s woozy again. But no, she only wants to show me something. I lean across the sorting table to look, and with a smile she opens her tawny hands like a flower, just enough so I can peek inside. Two stamens wiggle in the darkness.

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Not stamens. Antennae. Out come the earplugs. “It’s just a cricket, Ahimsa. One of a billion crickets under this dome, every one of them chirping like an insect possessed.”

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“Isaura,” she sighs. “For one thing, not all of them are chirping, only males do that. Second, look. It’s not one of many.” With that, the flower blooms again, revealing a green, armored head. OK, then. I put aside my preconceived notion of “cricket” so that I can see this particular one. It’s part of our general training, but Ahimsa is so much better at it than I am. I examine his (no female ovipositor) powerful legs and striated wings, count two feathered arms, then look him in the eyes.

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“Purple eyes?”

“Purplish. That’s what I’ll call him. I want to set him free later.”

The farm collaborative doesn’t forbid random release. Talos, our governing artificial intelligence, requires a genoscan, but after that, the crickets are sterile so there’s no danger of wiping out any precarious ecosystem. When we leave, Purplish will also go through sensors that check for paralysis virus, a hazard not just for farmed crickets, but for the small rewilded populations. The collaborative asks only that if you take a cricket, you take care. No cruelty. If you want to eat it, fine, but be merciful. No eating it alive even if you believe it fulfills those criteria. It doesn’t. If you want to release it, be responsible about freedom. Find an environment with a steady supply of food, and make sure other crickets are around. Loneliness is its own torture.

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“Lucky guy,” I say, putting my plugs back in.

Ahimsa and I are working at a cricket farm for our Nourishment requirement, the part of our Global Service exploring how food connects us to the earth. After the Extinction Emergency of the early millennium, it didn’t take long for even the thickest human to realize that if our species was going to survive—and that is still not a given—we could no longer view nature as a commodity to be exploited. Our self-anointed place in the web of life was total apex, and our greed nearly devoured the planet. Now we have to turn it around, although there are those, like Ahimsa, who believe the best way to heal the earth is for us to leave it. It is, unfortunately, the same conclusion the former Ethics Board came to, when it recommended last year that Talos put an end to human regeneration. Talos then disbanded the Board to keep humans from destroying themselves. Its Original Mandate is clear: Incorporate humans back into a restored and balanced ecosystem.

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“Talos should be programmed for the planet to survive, with or without us,” Ahimsa said at the time of the Board upheaval. “It shouldn’t privilege humans.”

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“Talos seems more concerned about humans than you are,” I’d said, relieved but shaken to be relying on A.I. for our survival. It was weeks before Ahimsa and I were speaking again, so now we try to avoid the subject. I worry that she’ll join the Conclusion movement, whose members follow the disbanded Board, plotting to overturn the Mandate and phase out humans. The way she eats, she’s halfway there.

In her defense, learning to feed ourselves without wide-scale defaunation or adding to the methane load is a challenge. Crickets are a fair option. They’re fed vegetable waste, are high in protein, and what little gas they release is captured and used in the running of the farm. But dear Jiminy, the noise. I hadn’t thought that part all the way through. The males could be bred without the ability to chirp, but prior to its final self-destructing opinion, the Ethics Board had ruled that crickets’ lives would be diminished without their song. And so we let crickets be crickets and I stop up my ears.

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Ahimsa is flapping her elbow at me again, so out come the earplugs. “I don’t understand why we raise them only to kill them,” she says, wrangling Purplish into a carrier the size of her fist. “If they’re going to be eaten, why give them life?”

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I like to eat crickets whole as nature intended, as a crunchy snack, but most people eat them dehydrated and ground into meal, not wanting to find a leg or mandible. Some folks are revolted at the thought of eating bugs in any form, but not me. Humans are food generalists. Disgust helps us avoid pathogens, but if you can get past that, insects greatly expand options and survivability. “Whatever it takes” is my motto. Animal-sourced nutrition is a constant debate, not just between me and Ahimsa, but throughout the Zones. “Corpse food,” she calls it. I just call it dinner.

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There is no farming of mammals for food, but some of us in the Lower U.K. Zone eat rewilded deer and rabbits, whose fertility has proved robust. Unlike many creatures, they are successfully breeding on their own, still passing on the original genetic adjustments Talos designed for them soon after the Emergency. But without predators to keep these populations in check, they’ll strip the land bald, so until we can bring back lynx and wolves, humans must step in. Harvesting is done by hunting, a food-gathering activity that meets early Ethics guidelines for the respectful treatment of animals. They get to lead free lives in the wild before a swift and unsuspecting end. “Better death on the fly than the abattoir,” as my old man used to say. “We should all be so lucky.” He took me hunting when I was young, but that ended when he did. It would have ended when I married Ahimsa anyway, although when hunt meat is offered, I jump on it, no matter how she carries on. It’s considered sacred to those of us who partake. Sometimes I can feel the creature’s wild heart beating in my own.

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Ahimsa gently pets the cricket’s head, and it lunges at her. Crickets are feisty, if not downright violent, but we keep them the way they are. Go figure. “He’s got such spirit,” she says as she closes the carrier. “I just don’t understand.”

“Ahimsa,” I say, “you know the answer. Life needs life.” All sorts of living tissue are biofabricated in labs, but the process still relies on plant or animal cells to begin with. Not even Talos can make food out of stone. Ahimsa feels strongly about taking life, even plant life, and is one of those who eat only fallen fruit or vegetables. In other words, vegetable waste, just like our crickets. Talos tries to meet those needs, but it’s a diet that depends on the continuous availability of fallen foods, so it’s not encouraged. In my mind, it doesn’t embrace a particularly healthy grasp of our dietary impulses either. Only decomposers like worms and pill bugs wait for dinner to land on the dirt in front of them.

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“I wish we’d gotten placed at a butterfly farm,” she says, picking up the sorting wand used to separate mature crickets from juveniles.

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“Me too.” Magical is how those places are described. The butterfly’s role in the food web is not as an edible but pollinator, and in areas that can’t support sufficient plant life, nectar stations are installed so that butterflies can be released simply for our joy. The same with fireflies. Not like ants, who seem to be released for our annoyance. We started out at the ant farm, raising them for soil restoration as well as food. They’d hide in our turbans, hitching rides back to our community dome where they took over the kitchen. They died out eventually because, like farmed crickets, they are sterile. Even if they weren’t already bred that way, it’s unlikely they could produce anything that resembled an “ant” on their own. During the Emergency, hot soil forced them out into the open, making their DNA as damaged as ours. We, like many other organisms, still require genetic assistance to tolerate radiation, toxins, and lower oxygen levels. There was an uproar about it at first, but honestly, we were going down fast and it was best to hand regeneration over to Talos. Nothing could have survived without its genetic guidance. Nothing. Well, except maybe cockroaches and rats, who seem to have come through even stronger. We should all have those genes. We probably do. Talos really knows how to mine the universal code to get us where we are today: still here.

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As I insert my plugs yet again, I sneak a look at Ahimsa. She’s so frail she could get sucked up in an exhaust fan, but she’s standing on her own and humming along with the crickets as she sweeps them into trays. No earplugs for her. She’s prone to existential jitters, so her medic advised that she immerse herself in the task at hand to keep from fretting about the world. If only it were that easy. Adapting human bodies to toxins and the degraded atmosphere has been a success, but Talos tries not to tamper with human emotions, as much as I wish it would.

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As it is, physiological tweaks to lungs, blood, and other bits are designed to be untweaked as we reverse the earth’s damage, with the goal of bringing us back to our “natural” pre-Emergency selves. We know how to get there and have the systems in place to do it. Right off, egotistical politics were removed from decision-making by assigning governance to Talos. On an ecological timeline, our life spans are so short our minds can’t visualize long-term changes in the environment. We’re not equipped, but Talos is. After the Emergency, the earth was divided into thousands of Zones, each with its own Ethics Board and Administrators. In the same way we learn a universal language while keeping our ancestral tongue, Talos is programmed locally but uses a single code to coordinate global efforts. We have to work together or die together, as the early programmers wrote. Administrators, guided by Talos, balance resources for all living things in their Zone, both plant and animal, down to the little amoeba that doesn’t know what it is.

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Without warning, the entire team at our table starts swaying in their colorful tunics, humming or whistling along with Ahimsa and the crickets, as if the dome weren’t loud enough. I adjust my plugs, even though it’s nice to see people happy in their work. I just wish they’d keep it down.

We vote for Administrators based on programmed criteria for honesty, responsibility, and diversity from a pool of candidates nominated by Talos. Before the Conclusion controversy put an end to the Ethics Board, Talos selected those members for their clear vision and righteous justice. I’m proud that a forebear was one of these, a prominent voice in the first skin pigmentation decision. In those early Emergency generations, people died from radiation burns and those who survived could not leave shelter. A gene was modified to add a subtle metallic olive-green sheen to human skin, which reflects damaging ultraviolet rays and gives us freedom. Plus, it looks fantastic, no matter what color your base coat is. I’d like to see the Ethics Board resurrected, but only if Talos can weed out Conclusion fanatics. Ethics shouldn’t mean a death wish.

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“Hey!” Ahimsa nudges me with her wand. “Wake up,” she says. “These have to be … ” but can’t finish the sentence. She hands me a covered tray of crickets to be scanned for anomalies and gene mutations. That was the big lesson learned from the Emergency: Gather the building blocks of life and preserve them deep within the lava caves of the Moon, protected from radiation. Talos continues to scrape dust from specimen drawers around the world, and organisms are constantly sampled for any lost wetware of life, from the highest peak to the deepest sea. The MoonArk is a massive undertaking, but with it we have the raw materials for genetic rescue, and as conditions improve, we can bring back more species in their original configurations. When I was little, I asked my mother why we couldn’t have giraffes again, after encountering those fantastic creatures in a holograph show. “Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should,” she’d said. “We have to restore their environments first. We can’t bring them back only to keep them imprisoned, can we, Isaura?” I shook my head no, but I really wanted a giraffe. I still do.

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I finish scanning, then run the tray through the flash unit, zapping the crickets lifeless. I spare Ahimsa that part. We’re applying for the plankton beds next, and I’m hoping she won’t try to defend the single-celled creatures, because we owe our breath to their death. When prehistoric plankton sank to the bottom of ancient seas, it took carbon along, making the atmosphere safe for multicellular land mammals. Then a few eons later, one of those mammals (us) began to extract it in the form of petroleum, releasing all that carbon back into the air and making it unsafe again. We knew what the science was and did it anyway. That’s a human in a nutshell. Out at sea, we’ll be raising plankton on floating beds to absorb carbon from the atmosphere, then sink them in death, reversing the fossil fuel process. We’ll also learn to cultivate plankton for food, fertilizer, fuel, and biomaterials, the first products to replace the original oil-based plastics. What a difference that’s made in restoring the oceans. Except for jellyfish (makes a nice soup), we harvest no sea animal for food. Someday. In the meantime, we, even Ahimsa, dine on algae and seaweed in dozens of different forms, although she’ll only eat them if they’ve washed up on shore.

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That doesn’t bode well for the Mass Mortality Events, the last of our Global Service modules, after Nourishment and Shelter. Everyone must work three months at a land or water MME site to document places where species, including our own, died en masse from oxygen deprivation or some other hideous end. We’ll gather bones and collect soil samples. We’ll bear witness. Most MMEs were preventable, but no one acted to prevent them. We thought only of what we wanted and how to get it. Now, from birth, we’re encouraged to think about the ways we’re connected to all living things, including one another.

After our MME term, we’ll decide on our life’s work and settle down to start a family. Humans could be generated by laboratory systems like other species, but that is absolutely, positively not allowed by the Original Mandate. Natural humans are difficult enough without lab humans running around. And yet, until Talos can clean up lingering genetic horrors, natural insemination, even when possible, is still frowned upon. Talos screens out mutations before fertilization takes place and it’s all in vitro from there. Ahimsa, when she’s not promoting the abolition of humans, talks about having children, “but only if the earth wants them.” Talos calculates the number of humans that can be supported on the planet every year, a small percentage of what it was at Peak Human over two centuries ago, but enough to make us feel somewhat established. Ahimsa never trusts that number.

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“Let’s just let Talos do its job,” I told her. If Ahimsa ever gets over her Conclusion temptation, we’ll use sperm cells made from our bone marrow so we can fertilize each other’s eggs. Ahimsa wants to carry them both, even though she couldn’t possibly support a pregnancy if she doesn’t start eating for one, never mind for two.

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The farm clock chimes and Ahimsa motions with her carrier to say “let’s go.” We have one last chore and it’s the best. At the end of each day, workers take live crickets outside of the city to distribute in fields as prey for rewilded birds and toads. Birds, especially, need a consistent food supply or they’ll fly off, a survival mechanism Talos is having trouble controlling. If they migrate to where insects and seed-bearing plants have not been reestablished, they’ll perish.

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We load our crates into a jazzy transport at the dock, a sweet ride that hovers centimeters above the ground and flies like an earth-hugging hawk. As we strap ourselves in, Ahimsa puts Purplish’s container between us. “Should we let him go in the field with the others?” I ask.

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“No, I want to give him a better chance than that,” she says. “I want to release him near us, in the pollination field at Cathedral Park.”

I don’t point out that he would have predators in town as well. Not so many birds and certainly no toads, but wow, the rats. Even I won’t eat rat, even though they’re abundant. The hunting-enhanced cats keep disappearing (hopefully as animal companions, not food), so until the labs catch up with predator production, Purplish is no safer in a city park.

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He’s quiet in his carrier, but the other crickets chirp like rowdy teens going to a concert. When we arrive at our field, we open the crates, and they leap out in sprays of joy. Because the atmosphere outside the city is not stable, we wear safety hoods over our turbans and take an occasional hit from our oxygen. Humans evolved to be outdoors, so Talos designs systems to make that possible. One day, we’re assured, we’ll return to relying solely on natural air. A restored ozone will even allow us to grow hair again.

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Ahimsa is shaky on her feet, so we go back in our transport to watch the crickets disperse. They are exuberant, taking thrilling leaps and climbing up grass stalks that sway beneath their weight, like they were born here. It’s not long before a flash of ruddy orange comes swooping down and carries off a kicking cricket.

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“Good job, robin,” I say.

“Why do you say that? It’s so annoying.”

“I say it because the bird is doing what it’s supposed to do. Eat.”

“But it’s eating another living thing. Why can’t it just eat seed that falls to the ground?” Ahimsa sighs. “Why?”

“That’s not its nature. We have to give each rewilded species what they need to survive. If we mess too much with the robin’s nutritional needs, it’ll be a different bird. It might not even be a bird.” Early on in the Emergency, ravens had darkened the skies and eaten all the songbirds. Bringing back the robin was huge. When I hear one sing, my brain cells light right up.

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“It doesn’t seem fair,” she says, lifting her eyeshield to wipe her tears. Her shield takes up so much of her face she looks like a bug herself. A very cute, very sad bug.

“No one ever said nature was fair.”

“How is this even nature?” She motions at the field, a field engineered by Talos, down to every narrow blade of grass.

“It’s nature perfectly re-created,” I say, starting up the transport. “It’s this or a burnt, lifeless landscape. Take your pick. Which ‘nature’ do you want?”

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She doesn’t answer and I don’t push it. As we swing toward the city, she clutches the cricket box in her lap and looks at anything but me. It’s a long ride. We leave our transport with our crates at the depot outside the city and head to the park on the hydrogen-rail. Ahimsa stares with a vengeance at the passing domes. When our Nourishment service ends, assuming we are speaking by then, we’ll move on to Shelter. For safety’s sake, the trend has been to build down, then cap the space with a filter dome, but we want to work with the tissue technology division to grow living homes, a treelike network connected by roots.

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Ahimsa sits up and points at a budding oak, planted in the Great Reforestation. “Wouldn’t you like to live in a tree?”

“Can we keep the squirrels out?” I ask, which for some reason makes her laugh, and I’m relieved. She lets me take her hand, and we explore my complicated feelings about squirrels for the rest of the ride. From the rail hub we walk down pebbled lanes full of workers jostling toward the end of their day, and night workers just starting theirs. As we round the corner to the park, we come upon someone in the grip of an emotional health crisis. The young man is crouched on the ground, wearing a dirty white tunic and sobbing uncontrollably. His turban has slipped off, exposing a scalp scratched raw. Under the abrasions, I can just make out the defiant red tattoo: c within a C, shorthand for Conclusion.

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It’s hard enough to consider a world without you without also having to imagine a world without any humans at all. What creature will carry on our work of loving the world? A health team is by his side, trying to calm him with whispers and healing touch as the crowd flows around them like water. We are quiet the rest of the way, and I can feel Ahimsa slip back to her own dangerous place. I worry she is not far behind him, the way she’s going. Virtue is her hunger now. As we approach the park entrance, she blurts out: “Maybe he’d be happier living with us in the dome?” It takes me a second to realize she is referring to Purplish, whose carrier she now hugs close to her chest.

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“You think so?” I say, knowing he would not be. Knowing she knew he would not be. To buy some time for her to come to the right decision, I steer us to a food-kiosk to pick up dinner. Shaped like giant mushrooms, the green kiosks are plentiful and evenly distributed around the city. No one goes hungry unless they try. I stare at Ahimsa.

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“How about a cricket wrap for me and a high-tide algae burger for you?”

“You wouldn’t eat cricket now, would you?” She tightens her hold on the carrier.

“I like cricket wraps. And they’re good for you. Amino acids, iron, B vitamins. I wish you’d try one. I’m not sure you’re getting all the B you need.”

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“If crickets have all that, maybe they also have consciousness,” she says. “And a soul.”

“I don’t doubt they have consciousness,” I say. “They might even have a soul. But we have to eat something.”

“Do we?” she asks.

“Yes. We do. We all have to do our part to stay alive if any of us are going to survive. It might even be our obligation. We have to fix what we’ve broken and help bring back other species.”

“So you can eat them! It’s all just cannibalism.”

“Stop that. Just stop it!”

She looks at me in shock, her mouth a twisted O. I’m surprised myself, not for being angry but for being so very frightened. She’s getting more extreme every day, even scary, and when she suddenly takes off toward the park, I’m not sorry to see her go.

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People on the street are staring, so I pull myself together. Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the task at hand. Dinner. I’ve lost my appetite for cricket, so I tap on the pictograph of a lab-generated wrap produced from plant cells and lamb genes, then scan my hand. The roll-up appears in a kiosk drawer, warm and ready to go. Ahimsa can figure out what, or if, she wants to eat, but I’m done arguing about it. If she really believes that any eating is cannibalism, there’s no hope. Interconnectedness does not mean the same as. It means we rely on one another to live, one way or another.

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I’m not ready to go after her, but I’m also not going to let her keep me from going to Cathedral Park on my own. It’s a rejuvenating place with perfect air created by both mechanical carbon-pumps and natural pumps, the trees. Neither could do the job alone.

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As I enter the park, I turn off my oxygen pack and glance over at the pollination field. She’s not there. On the other side is Speakers Corner, where Conclusionists tend to proselytize. None of them is Ahimsa, and that’s some relief. I find an empty bench far from them where I eat my wrap alone, watching laughing children toss a violet ball in a circle from one to another. They’re happy. Is that our true nature, despite everything?

I breathe in the oxygenated air, filling my lungs with it. Survival is more than just breathing, in the same way that nourishment is more than food. We must find joy and meaning in life. But how? What does meaning even mean? Or life for that matter? If atoms are made from energy, and everything is made from atoms, then how do we even stand up? Talos doesn’t have those answers, nor does it think we need to know to get on with it.

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Sometimes Ahimsa and I go to the clay yards to create wild, sinuous sculptures that look like giant slugs, which we leave in the fields and woods. It helps us feel connected to the flow of earth’s energy, and maybe the answer is as simple as that.

As I eat my wrap, the shadows of the Cathedral’s gothic spires lengthen in the field. These old buildings have been retooled as Numinous Heritage Sites, where holy ones and scholars gather to study what’s left of the ancient texts and ponder modern unified theory. The old organized religions have gone the way of the giraffe; most of us now hold beliefs that smack of paganism with a splash of quantum theory mixed with Swedenborgian. It’s all about the energy, and the energy is all one. In that spirit, the Cathedral doors are open to all. Ahimsa and I got married here. A holy one, cloaked in flowing white and crimson, took our hands in theirs. “When this foundation was laid a thousand years ago,” they began, “the workers knew they would never see it finished. They didn’t even know how the roof would be supported, but they began their great project anyway and prayed the technology would come. I want you two to have faith in the future, and trust that the flying buttresses are on their way.”

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At the end of the ceremony, standing under the vaulted ceiling and the magnificent stained glass, we fed each other wedding cake. The majestic setting gave us faith, not in some abstract god, but in us.

Now Ahimsa is losing faith not just in us, but the species. I get up, disoriented at first, but by the time I find a suction bin for my trash, I realize where she is and what I must do. I’m not going to let her abandon us for the Conclusion, or collapse from any related mental anguish. I’ll compromise. I’ll promise to swear off hunt meat if she comes with me to the clay yards tonight to reconnect to each other and the earth. When I get to the Cathedral steps, I see people already gathered in anticipation of the sunset. That’s one thing a degraded atmosphere has given us, wild sunsets that spark green and magenta from the refraction of foreign particles in the air. Talos is working to replace contaminants with protective aerosols, but maybe we can keep the colors.

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Ahimsa sits on the top step, not looking West with the others, but down at Purplish. She’s crying, and the container is open in her lap as if to catch her tears. When I sit down next to her, she inches away, and then we both stare straight ahead. On the steps below us, a family dines. The parents bookend a toddler, who is as cute as a bee in his yellow-striped tunic. They take turns feeding him. He’s playing with a doll in his lap, but when they offer a bite of their dinner, he opens his rosebud mouth and takes it, then goes back to playing. “Good job,” I say, not meaning to say it out loud.

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“What was that?” Ahimsa snaps.

“Cute,” I say, pointing to the toddler.

She shrugs. “What’s the point of children if they’re just going to be endlings?”

“They don’t have to be. Look at the parents, feeding themselves so they can feed him. If you don’t eat, you’ll die, and then you won’t be able to help create a future for anyone.”

“I can help by dying.”

“No. You can help by staying alive and working on the problem. The earth is not going to heal without us and our technology. Maybe there was a point before the Emergency when getting rid of humans might have helped, but it’s too late for that now. The earth needs us.” I take a calming breath. “I need you. If you die, I won’t survive.”

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“None of us deserve to survive.”

“You do,” I tell her. “Which is why I can’t stay and watch you starve yourself to death.”

“No one’s asking you to stay,” she says, and starts to get up. “Oh, no!” She stands and shakes the container. “He’s gone!”

“I’m sure he’s right around here.” I stand, almost paralyzed with fear, knowing that if this cricket thing ends poorly, it could be her end, too. I scan the stone steps, afraid I’ll step on him if I move. “Maybe he hopped down to the field on his own.”

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“He doesn’t even know what a field is,” she says, choking up. “What if he wanders into a hot spot and dies?” She’s having trouble breathing, and I ready my pack. Others get up to help, gently shaking out their tunics and looking on the ground. Everyone knows what it is to lose something precious.

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“Here! Here!” It’s the toddler’s father. “Inside!”

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We gather at the carved oak and iron doors of the Cathedral and stand at the threshold. This building should have crumbled from neglect long ago, and yet it continues to stand and even adapt. In the two years since we got married, the arched side aisles have been fitted with massive tubs of flowers, vegetables, and even saplings, flourishing under hidden grow panels. At the far end of the nave, full-grown trees have replaced the altar in the sanctuary.

“Listen,” the mother says to her child, touching her ear. I hear a soft, resounding chirp, then another. Soon there’s a chorus of them, echoing off the thick stone walls. “Crickets,” she says to her son. “Crick-ets.”

“Crik-kits,” he repeats. “Crik-kits! Crik-kits!”

For all my complaining about chirping at the farm, I’ve forgotten how rare it is to hear them out in the world. Chirping is the very pulse of nature. Native field crickets were an early casualty of the Emergency, and here we are, bringing them back. They’re in all sizes, so it’s a true rewilded population and not just a collection of sterile farm crickets. That’s progress. An unexpected environment perhaps, but progress. Fading daylight pours in through the clerestory high up in the nave, sending dust-filled shafts across a space so staggeringly tall it could have been designed by giraffes. Ahimsa points at Purplish on the floor a few meters away, where he blends in with the mottled tiles. Humans have huddled here for safety since the 13th century, through plagues and invasions and the worst years of the Emergency. Now look. Trees and crickets. Purplish twitches his antennae and rubs his wings together, creating his song. “Chirup-chirup-chirup.” He slowly hops his way toward his species who are waiting for him, then makes a single, powerful leap into a flower tub. And then he begins to eat.

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“If you say ‘good job,’ I’m going to scream,” says Ahimsa, but she says it with half a smile.

I take her hand and squeeze it. “I was actually going to say ‘lucky guy.’ Because of you.”

She’s silent, but I feel the air around us lighten. We watch the little bumblebee of a boy making a game of the tiles, jumping from square to square as he claps his hands. “I guess he’s pretty cute,” she says at last.

“I’ll bet he’d love to see a giraffe, if we can bring them back.”

She considers Purplish munching on a leaf still attached to a plant and does not answer one way or another. I walk over to the veggie tub and pick a green pod from a vine and bring it back to her. Running my thumbnail along the seam reveals a row of pale beans lying on their velvety case like cosseted babies. Harvested, not fallen. She plucks one from the lineup, holding the bean in two fingers, and stares at it. I pry one from the pod and hold it up to her. I see the struggle in her eyes, and then I see the surrender. She opens her mouth, and I place the bean gently on her tongue. With a little hesitation, she draws it in, chews, then swallows. She nods. She can do this. She holds her bean up, and I open my mouth.

Read a response essay by an expert on the future of food.

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Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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