Future Tense

“Universal Waste”

A new short story about a small-town cop, a murder, and a massive recycling plant.

A brightly colored aisle of a store with various objects jumping off the shelves into shopping carts.
Illustration by Rey Velasquez Sagcal

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.

It was Levin’s bad luck to be running the night shift when the call came in about the arm. The station was manned by a skeleton crew at this drab hour, and the on-duty officers, a total of four, were out patrolling the few sleepy clusters of rural life and back roads that stitched the small township of Claremont together. The detective, meanwhile, was microwaving a cup of lukewarm coffee in the break room, whistling something tuneless, and reading a text from his wife:

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Brian’s almost out of diapers. Get some on the way home?

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He began to punch in a response when the dispatcher hurried into the room with a look of deep anxiety creasing her face. Levin stopped whistling.

“Everything all right, Janet?” he asked her pale expression.

“They found an arm.” She walked forward, clutching a Post-it note between her fingers as if it were diseased. “Out at Universal Waste.”

Levin tried to process the implications, pocketing his phone without ever sending his response. “Like, just out on the ground? Not attached to anything? Did someone lose it?”

“I don’t know,” the dispatcher quivered. “But they’re sure it’s dead.”

The detective took the Post-it and read over the scant information. His pulse quickened. People didn’t find stray limbs floating around in Claremont. It was unheard of. “See who we’ve got near UW,” he finally croaked out in a dry voice. “And call the hospital. Tell them we’ll need an ambulance, a gurney, a couple of paramedics. Clear an emergency room. The K-9 unit? Cadaver dogs? Do we have those?”

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“I don’t know.”

“Well, look into it.”

The dispatcher scrawled her orders down on a notepad.

Levin was missing something. He shut his eyes and snapped his fingers urgently in the hope it would fill in the blank. “The chief,” he said, and then reached for his coat on the way out the door. “Wake him up.”

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By 11:13 p.m. the detective’s drab electric sedan was barreling toward the sparse fringe of town.

He was still in a mild state of disbelief as he drove, taking the occasional deep breath to moor himself back to reality while the radio hissed static. It all felt oddly surreal and fated that he would be the one to catch this case. His family’s move from the East Coast to this slight corner of the Midwest had occurred only two years prior, and the great uprooting had closely coincided with the arrival of Universal Waste.

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At the time, Levin was barely through his first month as the department’s new detective when the waste management firm from Maine came to offer Claremont a vision for its future. What this future involved was the total excavation of the town’s long-buried and defunct landfill. The spokeswoman explained the process—what she called exhuming—in the smoothest of voices before the part-time politicians and anxious hayseeds crammed inside City Hall.

“One way you can think about landfills is in terms of tragedy. If the average person knew how much has been tossed out since we started keeping records? They’d be horrified.” She had related this thought in a purposefully wounded tone, catching the eyes of each curious face watching her, stopping lastly on Levin’s dark features at the back of the room before she suddenly brightened and resumed her pacing. “We, however, see things differently. Our research division has done an exhaustive study of every major North American landfill both active and closed. We believe the wealth of materials currently buried in the dormant McMerchant property, all that copper and coltan, the complex plastics and steel, is absolutely unparalleled. It’s just been waiting for someone to rediscover it.”

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A large presentation screen loomed behind her. It displayed a high-res photograph of the property in question. The landscape sprawled on for miles, with nothing but tufts of sickly grass dotting its bald surface. It was a far cry from the verdant cropland that constituted the majority of the local Kansan geography. The earth here looked sick.

“Excuse me, but you want to dig it back up? And do what again?” an incredulous, sunburned city councilman asked with his hand raised. “Pick through the trash?”

“That’s exactly right,” the spokeswoman said. “Now, you might be asking yourself, ‘Why here? How did we get so lucky?’ Well, this,” she began as she turned and pointed a manicured finger at the screen, “was the second-largest landfill in the United States during its operational life span from 1953 to 2011. With the endless barrage of tariffs and the increasing regulations our EPA is placing on domestic manufacturers, we believe that recycling divisions such as ours might play a significant role in both the future of waste management and heavy industry. But simply picking through the trash, as you put it, isn’t all we hope to accomplish.”

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The spokeswoman nodded to her assistant, seated in the front row. The fresh-faced MBA clicked a button on his computer. The on-screen landscape began to dot with mock renderings of buildings and roads, production and purpose.

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“I don’t have to tell you what this community’s facing. You all know about the droughts you can’t predict, the trade wars that don’t end, the honest jobs you’ve lost and that you’ll only continue to lose as automation takes over more of the agriculture sector. We’re offering a hedge against that. If you’ll have us, we will become equal partners in this undertaking. Imagine Wall Street and Main Street”—the spokeswoman’s fingers interlocked to highlight the union—“ working together to create the single largest salvaging operation in the Midwest. It’s really a win-win, don’t you think?”

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She let the possibility of job creation linger for a moment in the minds of the impoverished citizenry, and then nodded again to her assistant. The screen changed to a diagram of the landfill’s various levels: the thin veneer of its surface soil, the plastic and clay liners, the drainage systems, the trash itself, drawn like a friendly but misunderstood monster occupying a cave. “I’ll explain how we’d begin,” she said. “It’s not as difficult as you might think.”

Levin had liked the sound of it and was glad when civic leadership agreed to the proposal. He read with eagerness about the outsider business’s advancements in the few pages the Claremont Clarion could afford to print on Thursdays, and made it a point to be there when the company initially broke ground in a tiny ceremony, feeling a kinship with its mission—the idea of “salvaging” spoke to his own life in myriad ways. The grand facility was set far back from the main road, and one could be forgiven for mistaking the cluster of warehouses ringed by dull gray fencing and the towering refinement centers darkened by industrial dust as a far-off feudal village in the daylight.

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It had been ages since Levin came this way, and as his car approached now, the night obscured the facility beyond recognition. He could, however, smell the stench.

“Detective Levin?” a baritone voice boomed.

After parking in the central campus parking lot and leaving the safe interior of his vanilla-scented car, Levin could hardly breathe. He stood, keeling over and choking on the hellish fumes rising from the earth, raising a hand in recognition at the sound of his name. When he managed to straighten up, he saw that his liaison was a stout man who appeared born without a neck. The man zipped toward him in a small golf cart from across the parking lot.

“I’m Greeley,” the man called. “Hop in.”

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Levin did so.

“Sorry about the smell,” Greeley said over the noise of unseen machinery grinding and clanging from somewhere nearby as they sped off. “I think we get so used to it around here that we don’t even notice. Keep your face covered. I’ll get you something.”

“No, the arm,” Levin pressed weakly between coughs.

“I’ve got someone guarding it,” Greeley urged. “Trust me: You won’t last five minutes out there if you think it stinks now.”

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Levin gave a pitiful nod in acquiescence, and the cart swerved wildly to the left at a sign labeled “Sorting Arena.”

The detective’s instinct was to look at everything happening around him, but black particles swirling in the atmosphere stung his eyes and forced his face back into the crook of his arm as the cart rolled down a wide avenue, each side of which was buffeted by Quonset huts made of corrugated steel. The landscape beyond was populated by a tumult of dump trucks and floodlights and workers. Figures in color-coordinated hazmat suits dug through large heaps of trash inside the open warehouses running parallel to them, their uniforms scarred with strips of thick duct tape. In one, he saw workers laboring to deconstruct retro air conditioning units and washing machines. In another, their mission appeared to involve breaking down old television sets and electronics, dropping bits of circuitry and cathode ray tubing into smaller plastic containers. Blue glass glimmered across the floor and crunched audibly beneath their heavy boots.

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There was another wide turn, and the cart settled at a trailer situated behind one of the warehouses. Levin rushed to follow Greeley’s languid steps inside the trailer, allowing himself a tiny unprotected gasp of air. “Christ,” the detective sputtered, and let his eyes adjust to the dark interior. “How do you stand it?”

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The trailer’s cheap floors bent beneath Greeley’s weight as he rummaged through a messy desk. “It’s not so bad,” the man said. “I’ve got an office in the main campus, but it smells too much like a hospital.”

Levin thought longingly of the office building he had glimpsed on the opposite end of the parking lot before being ferried away. It looked like a modern bank—a rectangle of glass and automatic doors, three stories tall, clean.

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“Here you go.” Greeley tossed the detective a small travel-size container of Vicks VapoRub. “Don’t cops carry this stuff everywhere they go?”

“That’s just television.” Levin smeared some pale gelatin below his nose and took a wincing, familiar breath that conjured up evenings and early mornings spent in the city morgue. He squared up to the doorway. “I’ve got a train of people coming in behind me. You might want to tell the guard.”

“I’ll have him keep an eye out.” Greeley turned away to send the message. “You know, I think I saw you once before.”

“Yeah?” The sulfuric stench persisted. Levin applied another glob closer to his nostrils.

“That first dog and pony show my company put on? I was down front.”

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“Seems we both had the bright idea to move.”

“I thought that was an accent,” Greeley said. “New York?”

“Newark,” Levin corrected. “But no one here knows the difference.”

“How do you go from Newark to Claremont, Kansas?” Greeley snorted.

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A newsreel of what Levin had escaped ran through his mind: sagging homeless encampments blooming across city sidewalks like a fungus; teenagers hemorrhaging through the doors of a shopping mall to ransack the place en masse; officers in battle dress clanking toward screaming protesters while onlookers flanked their sides, myriad ghostly faces illuminated by cellphones held up to document the insanity of another riot. Because society is collapsing, Levin thought bleakly, and then said, without much conviction, “The weather agrees with me.”

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“Really?” Greeley was bemused. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff on CNN about city cops like you quitting in droves. Kind of an epidemic, right?”

“I didn’t quit,” Levin said defensively. “I moved.”

Greeley held his hands up in apology. “Sorry. Poor choice of words.”

A moment passed, and Levin gave the man’s concerns a dismissive wave. “If you really want the truth,” Levin began, feeling glad to reaffirm aloud the choice he had made with his life, “it was like a revolving door back home. They were letting people out faster than we could lock them up. A lot of guys I worked with started thinking the job was becoming pointless and took early retirement. It was fast—like overnight you didn’t have any backup when you needed it. Everyone was having to act like their worst selves just to get through the day in one piece. That only caused more problems. The last straw, though? I had some tweaker pull a gun on me.”

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“No joke?” Greeley asked.

Levin turned, tossing him the Vicks. “The big irony is I wasn’t even on duty. I was at CVS picking up a prescription. My wife put her foot down after that. Said the rot had set in. We were about to have another kid, and I don’t know how to do anything else. So, I started looking. Claremont, statistically speaking, is one of the safest places in the country.”

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“Safe?” Greeley chuckled darkly. “They’ve got tornado sirens on every corner in town.”

The men stepped outside and lumbered back into the cart, driving toward a distant gate tasseled with barbed wire that lay at the end of the Sorting Arena. The cart shuddered for a moment next to an empty dump truck while Greeley shouted a dirty joke up to the security guard standing watch in an observation tower. Satisfied with the toll, the snickering guard pressed a button and waved them through.

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Levin was about to ask which one of the workers discovered the arm, but the slow revelation of the landfill’s awfulness stupefied him as the gate groaned apart. Bulldozers revealed themselves to be chortling everywhere, cutting deeply into the dark mountains of trash that rose and fell endlessly, pieces of flotsam and debris tumbling down in their wake. It was like a stilled sea, a hundred thousand shimmering black and white bags sagging and slumped beneath makeshift lampposts to illuminate the work. Levin’s heart sank at the sight of cardboard scraps and beer bottles, dead technology and decomposing magazines, the faces of supermodels stuck to milk cartons. It was like peering onto another planet, one that was desolate and depleted and doomed, all of it pinioned by a noxious ozone.

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Greeley steered the cart coolly down a pathway, flipping its headlights on to navigate the murky darkness as the trash rose high around them. Levin shifted nervously in his seat.

“The boys in research say there’s northward of 40 billion tossed out in gold and copper alone,” Greeley shouted, noting Levin’s stunned expression. “The main focus right now is electronic waste and heavy metal. We’ve got a contract with the Pentagon. They’re going crazy trying to build aircraft carriers and satellites, but there’s not enough of the stuff to go around. Everyone’s scrambling for resources.”

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The pathways carved into the trash ran like tributaries, breaking apart and snaking away from the main stream toward unknown destinations with only flimsy hazard flags to serve as a guide. A large cart screamed around the corner laden with figures in yellow hazmat suits. They waved, and Levin found himself dumbly waving back.

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Elements continued to whiz by in dizzying streaks. Saran wrap, Coca-Cola bottles, plastics, corkscrews, nails, undefinable slush, children’s clothes, a grandfather clock, the armrest of a deck chair, the letter L from an encyclopedia set. Greeley accelerated, and the trash turned into an impossible streak of images, the prominent color schemes of branding becoming the only possible clues to what the bits and pieces might have been in their former lives as products or things.

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“Just how big is this place?” Levin yelled out into the roar, anything to take his mind off the thought of perishing in a landslide.

“Over 5 square miles, but we’re doing it in stages. Guessing there’s close to 97 million tons.”

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“Hell,” Levin said. “I never would have thought.”

“Well, that’s the thing. We don’t want you to think about the trash,” Greeley said. “Ours is an occult endeavor. That’s what they’re always saying at Corporate, anyway. We just want you to put out your little can, have one of our trucks comes by … poof! It’s gone. When it comes right down to it, waste management is really just about who’s got the real estate to disappear all the things you want to forget. It’s a business of black holes.”

They came at last to a large opening gouged out in the detritus.

A massive heap of trash sat in the center, resembling an illustration Levin once saw in a motel Bible depicting the Tower of Babel. A redheaded woman with a porous face sat in another golf cart picking away at some flaky skin on her left palm, guarding the crime scene.

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“Sam!” Greeley called, getting out. “This is Detective Levin.”

Sam gave a friendly nod.

“Where is it?” Levin walked quickly across the damp earth. The landfill’s cacophony was suddenly muted, faraway sounding.

“Come on around,” Sam beckoned with a hand.

The trio circled the perimeter of the great debris clump to see a delicately shaped arm sticking out from the crushing pile near the bottom, dark and rubbery from extreme age. A trickle of blue detergent cascaded down from a laundry bottle buried deep within the mess. It spread in a toxic, syrupy puddle across the deceased’s palm and dripped down farther.

“Looks like the Wicked Witch of the West,” Sam said with an awful grin.

Levin pulled thin examination gloves from his pocket. He felt the pressure of eyes on his back as he crouched down to look, touching one of the protruding fingers to make sure it was real, hoping against hope that it was just a mannequin and this was all a laughable misunderstanding.

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Simple contact disabused him of this notion.

“What about the rest of the trash that was here?” the detective asked.

“It’s over in the processing bays” was the response.

“Tell them not to touch it.” Levin turned back to the pair. “We’re going to have to sort through all of this.”

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The boy who discovered the body looked like a corpse himself.

His name was Paul Gasquet, and the detective’s nerves bristled at the sight of him sitting at the table in the central campus’s cafeteria. Paul was dressed like anyone else who worked there. He wore a pumpkin-orange hazmat suit unzipped to reveal a sunken chest. The hood of his suit was thrown back, while a ventilator mask dangled around his neck like a yoke. His head was shaved down to a dark stubble, with a few ringworm scars across the dome of his skull. This was how all the men and women who worked within the wasteland wore their hair.

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“So you’re the one that found it.” Levin stated this with a controlled, dispassionate voice. In all his time as a resident of Claremont, he had yet to encounter a truly serious crime. The most disconcerting thing he had personally witnessed was an old farmer brushing his teeth while driving his tractor down Main Street. He was predisposed not to like Paul, before they even met, for having brought this ghastly problem into his life, the way it was already corrupting his view of things here. Levin liked Paul even less now that he saw him. “That must have been a shock.”

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“Uh-huh,” Paul nodded, and then coughed into a balled-up fist. The interior of the cafeteria was dim, the only illumination coming from blue runner lights at the bottom of the walls. Even in the dimness, Paul looked out of place, given the sterility of the environment. The air conditioning was on, and Levin could smell the ripe scent that wafted from him. The boy took a sip from a can of grape soda, set it down, and then flipped the can’s tab nervously. “So am I, like, a suspect?”

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“This is informal,” Levin said noncommittally. “But I’m more than happy to wait if you’d like to have a lawyer or a union rep present?” He posed this question toward Greeley.

“No unions here,” Greeley said.

“Look: I’ll tell you whatever.” Paul wiped the back of his hand across his lips, amplifying a pathetic peach-fuzz mustache with moisture. “I don’t need a lawyer or anything, but there isn’t anything to say.”

“Well, like I said,” Levin continued, “maybe start by telling me what you do here.”

“I work metals,” Paul said. “Anything that can be stripped or is floating around free.”

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“So, you were looking for metals when you saw the arm?”

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Paul nodded. “We just got to Zone B. I noticed a bunch of birds messing around on that heap. There was a big one that kept trying to get something—you know, working at it. When I came up, the others flew off, but the big one didn’t care. So I threw a bottle at him. He popped up, and that’s when it fell out, just like—” Paul lifted his arm and then let it fall down on the table like a tree being felled in the forest. “Scared the shit out of me. I fell back on my ass. We come across old Halloween stuff, like severed heads and monster masks, all the time. I thought it was something like that until I got a good look.”

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“And what did you do next?”

“I got Mr. Greeley.” Paul’s teeth clicked together for a moment, and then he took another sip of his drink.

“You OK?” Levin asked.

“I’m fine.” Paul wiped at his irritated nose, twisting it left and right.

“How long have you worked here?” The boy was pale, but Levin couldn’t decide if that was from weak overhead lighting, drugs, or malnutrition.

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“With UW? A couple months.” Paul picked at the tab on the soda can some more. “They were signing people up downtown. I needed work. That’s about it.”

“Our downtown?”

“No. I came in on the bus from Wichita.”

“Have you told anyone about this?” Levin asked.

“Just Mr. Greeley and the guys I was out there with.”

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“I’m going to need you to keep the details to yourself,” Levin said.

Paul peered at the detective with a momentary sharpness, his features becoming hyenalike. “Who is it?” he asked. “Is this, like, a murder?”

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A small muscle twitched on the right side of Levin’s face. “You don’t need to worry about that,” he said, reaching into his jacket to find a card. He slid it across the table in a sign of dismissal. “In the meantime, if any other details pop into your head or you hear anyone say anything, you call me.”

“Sure, sure.” Paul turned the card over in his hands in contemplation.

“What?” Greeley asked after a lull of theatrical silence and inaction.

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“I was supposed to work a double shift,” Paul said.

“I’ll punch you in.” Greeley rolled his eyes. “Hit the showers. Go home.”

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Paul pushed away from the table.

Levin followed the boy’s sloping gait. He had done the calculations in his head before ever sitting down at the cafeteria table. Whatever else they could find in the trash along with the arm was, conservatively, already several decades old—making anyone involved with the crime middle-aged or beyond at this point. Paul was barely 19. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t guilty of something, a dull instinct from the detective’s previous life reminded him. “Hey, Paul?” Levin called out softly.

“Huh?” Paul stopped, turning back.

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“One more thing?” Levin asked. “You mind emptying your pockets for me?”

“Why?”

“I just want to be sure you didn’t accidentally take anything from an active crime scene,” Levin said. “Maybe a wedding band that was on a finger or something else that could help us identify the victim. I’m not saying you would, but I’m saying it could happen. I’d hate for evidence to wind up in a pawnshop.”

Paul eyed the two expectant men for a moment. “Fine,” he finally sneered, and then pulled out all his pockets in dramatic fashion to show they were barren, apart from a cellphone and several wadded-up dollar bills. “You happy?”

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“Oh, I’m ecstatic,” Levin said, satisfied by the momentary humiliation.

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Paul muttered an insult under his breath and turned around. His skinny frame was hit by a blast of warm air from a set of powerful, motion-activated vents above the automatic sliding door. The vents pointed downward, keeping several struggling flies pinned to the ground.

The detective listened to the hum of fluorescent lighting, wondering how many people already knew about the arm and how fast word would spread. He didn’t like the idea of what this information could do to the psyche of his adopted home; he didn’t want its vocabulary expanded in such a way. Big cities possessed an ability to absorb a certain amount of insanity, he believed. They could dwarf crime in a way that rendered it meaningless to the people who lived inside the churning landscape of traffic signals and crosswalks and massive computerized billboards. Claremont wasn’t built for such things.

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Murder.

A queasy wave of fatigue rocked Levin. He pressed his fingers against his tired eyes until they threatened to pop. A slight uptick in fentanyl-related crimes was threatening to stretch their provincial police department thin. He hadn’t come here to right old wrongs. He had come here to suppress new ones, to keep things as clean and picturesque and beautiful as they were during his first visit. This case did not belong to him. It was practically ancient.

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“So, what’s next? An autopsy?” Greeley prodded.

“Something like that.” Levin dropped his hands and began to collect his things.

“Well, just so you know, if anything more toxic than your garden-variety PFAS pops up in the lab work, that would have come from an exporter cutting corners. That’s not us, OK?”

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“What’s a …” Levin sounded out the acronym, bungling the order of letters.

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“Forever chemicals,” Greeley explained.

“Oh.” Levin stood. He took one step, paused, and look over his shoulder. “And what do you mean by exporters?”

“Just that,” Greeley shrugged. “Most of the trash here is from out of state. You didn’t think a town this size—how many people live here? Maybe 6,000?—could produce that much waste?” He pointed a calloused finger toward the wall, indicating the landfill beyond. “The major cities have to export their trash; otherwise, places like New York or San Fran would be drowning in it. I mean, you must have seen those waste barges back east. Where did you think they were going? Claremont was in the import game.”

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“You have records for this?” Levin asked, his slumped shoulders straightening with interest.

“Sure, we’ve got records,” Greeley said. “Off the top of my head, the major markets were Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois. Lots of Rust Belt and auto waste. That’s the main reason your little town was on our radar. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but we don’t want your trash. We want their trash.”

A processing bay in the Sorting Arena was given over to the police so they could hunt through the piles of refuse that had previously surrounded the stray appendage in private. Chief Alvarez, looking discombobulated from the twin shock of his abrupt rousing and recent LASIK eye surgery, arrived not long after with reinforcements and coffee.

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The detective brought his superior up to speed while Greeley disappeared to make phone calls. A sole forensics officer did her best to oversee the clunky work of two conscripted paramedics and the handful of available officers tasked with sorting through the garbage, all carefully removing any piece of the body they uncovered. The K-9 handler, meanwhile, let the department’s brutish dog sweep its nose over everything. As the newly discovered remains—an upper torso, a left leg, a right foot—were placed across a tarp, a bleary-eyed photographer snapped pictures to punctuate the findings. It was a horror show, but Levin was oddly composed at the sight of it. It was beyond dignity in the state they unearthed it, the body broken apart by either time or someone’s hand. Levin guessed that it was an adult woman.

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“You know, Charlie Starkweather was a garbage man.” The chief eyed the terrible scene, pressing a red bandanna to his nose to guard against the smell. He clucked his tongue twice, and when Levin didn’t immediately reply, he offered, “I’m just saying, maybe this line of work attracts a certain personality. Someone knew how to get this body out here. Whoever did this knows how this world operates.”

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“I think we need more information,” Levin said flatly. “I think we need a pathologist.”

“I don’t disagree.”

“With the volume of imported garbage we’re looking at, chances are high this body is foreign to us,” Levin said, an edge of yearning optimism in his voice that he hoped was infectious and urgent. “If we get a positive ID on this, we should be able to kick the case back to the city, where it belongs. Maybe we can do everyone a favor and unload it on the feds, since we’re talking about crossing state lines.”

“And if it’s, let’s say, more of a local concern? You don’t think we could handle it?”

“Let’s see if the State Bureau will take it off our hands,” Levin suggested breezily. The chief clucked his tongue some more, lapsing into silence.

“What is it?” Levin sensed the aura of conspiracy, the premonition that something was being kept from him.

“It’s nothing.”

“Chief, come on,” Levin urged.

“OK, look,” the chief confided in a low voice. “I got a call on my way over here from the mayor. Apparently UW expressed their concern about this whole thing getting out of our hands before we knew what was what. I think their lawyers are writing up new protocols right now just in case the ground crews dig up another one of these things. Can you imagine that? Like this place is some kind of psychopath’s dumping ground?”

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“All the more reason to loop in some bigger players,” Levin urged. “We’re not equipped to deal with this. This is the coldest case I’ve ever seen.”

“They’re not asking for any special favors,” the chief soothed. “They’d just like to keep things in-house for the time being, see how far we can take our investigation before we start reaching out to others.”

A feeling of apprehension seeped through the center of Levin’s chest. “Why?”

The chief leaned closer to the detective. “They’re in the middle of some kind of merger with another company—Capital Waste or Continental Waste or something like that. Either they’re getting bought out or they’re doing the buying, a big billion-dollar deal from the sound of the mayor’s rambling. I’m assuming the point he was trying to impress on me is that a story about someone discovering a dead body on one of UW’s premier properties wouldn’t be the most beneficial thing for this deal, and I certainly can’t imagine they’d enjoy having the FBI comb through their books at such a delicate time. So, anything we can do to stop this from being amplified would be appreciated.”

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“And we’re being told to do what, exactly?” Levin needled. “Cover this up?” “No.”

“Slow-walk it?”

The chief was becoming perturbed. “They just want us to work it to the best of our ability. If we’re absolutely stumped? Then we reach out. If that happens after their deal is done? So much the better. Meanwhile, I’m confident you’ll get us off to a strong start.”

“Me?”

“You’re the only one with this sort of experience,” the chief shrugged. “You’ll be free to work it as hard or as easy as you see fit.”

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Levin dwelled on this sour thought as they trailed behind the paramedics pushing the collected remains toward the parking lot on a gurney. They were in time to see the shift change, passing several rumbling buses that were either picking up or letting off fresh workers from parts unknown. Even though it was covered, the paramedics hurried to get the body out of sight before it caused a commotion.

The dawn’s light was spreading across the sky like an egg cracked into a frying pan.

Levin thought he saw Paul Gasquet trudging up the steps of a bus, but the boy was lost almost immediately in the bobbing uniformity of the other shaved heads. A new bus rolled into the lot, and then settled with a hydraulic hiss. The Universal Waste slogan was printed boldly on its back. “The Future Is Buried,” it read.

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The chief looked for a place to throw away his Starbucks cup, but there wasn’t a trash can anywhere to be found. With a shrug, he set it down on the pavement. “OK.” He clapped his hands. “I’m going to get them set up at the morgue. We’ve got a meeting at 9 o’clock sharp in City Hall. Friendly observation—you smell like ten kinds of shit. Go home and take a shower before you come in.”

The detective was only too glad to obey.

The journey home, though, wasn’t without its own complications. His wife’s request for diapers, which had been nearly forgotten, was brought back with flinching remembrance after Levin was already halfway there. The adrenaline of the past several hours was turning into disorientation, and hunting for diapers inside the local Foods Plus did nothing to help his state of mind. His gun, which had for the longest time been like a vestigial organ, now felt heavy and cumbersome against Levin’s body as he plodded down the aisles, its weight asserting its function and separateness, the danger it both possessed and implied.

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There was a startling new intensity over the surrounding products as he searched, a nauseous dread emanating from the vacuum-sealed tombs that housed lunchmeat and pudding. He anticipated the nearing pressure of expiration dates ticking down, the words best if used by stamped along the tops and bottoms of packaging. Levin couldn’t help but think of the landfill here in this place, superimposed over everything. It was all simply in another form, on its way to becoming, an unrelenting inevitability. He hurriedly made his purchase and headed home in an acidic mood, feeling like the punchline to some great cosmic joke.

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When he finally arrived, he idled in the driveway for a moment, hoping his foulness might dissipate before he had to encounter his young family. He took in the sight of the world that was now his—an old farmhouse sitting between a two-lane road and a colossal stretch of farmland. The property broke through the swaying monotony of golden wheat with its dental-white exterior and red roofing. Their neighbors were in view but distant, and they knew them only a little.

“Hello?” Levin called warily as he entered the front door.

“Hey,” Annette’s voice called back. “We’re in here.”

He walked into the messy kitchen and set the diapers down on the countertop as he joined his wife and children, stung by a pang of guilt at the dishes he had neglected to wash still stacked in the sink. Annette sat at the table wearing her bathrobe, bouncing their youngest in her arms. The two other children, a boy and a girl, were watching a cartoon on an iPad, each picking at a bowl of dry Cheerios and a plate of banana slices. Annette looked her husband over from head to toe, her nose crinkling as he neared.

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“Where have you been?” she asked.

“The landfill,” Levin said, ruffling his squirming son’s hair. “All night.”

“What’s a landfill?” his daughter asked as she smashed a banana slice with her thumb against the table, smearing it back and forth.

“It’s where the garbage goes when we’re done with it, honey,” Annette said, and then looked at Levin. “Did something happen out there?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ll have to tell you about it at lunch. I’ve got to get back into town.” “Look.” Levin’s daughter pointed a doughy finger toward the open pantry door behind

him. He turned but saw nothing. “What is it?” he asked.

“Did he ride home with you?”

After a moment, Levin realized what excited her 6-year-old mind so much. A horrendously large fly circled the bare lightbulb in the back of the narrow pantry. The insect bumped its hairy body mindlessly against the hot white glass with an audible clink. Had that creature actually followed him?

“Oh, that’s Spot,” Levin confirmed. “Our new pet.”

“I suppose he’s housebroken?” Annette asked with playful sarcasm.

“More than me.” He gave his wife a kiss on the forehead, and then clomped up the steps to the bathroom, where he undressed and turned on the shower, twisting the dial so that the water was close to scalding. He didn’t know how long he would have to scrub to get rid of the smell, but he gripped the bar of lime-green soap in anticipation and waited to see steam, the old plumbing rattling within the walls. When the water was hot enough, he stepped forward beneath the flow, his head hanging to watch the suds swirl and disappear down into the mouth of the dark drain.

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He felt the creep of distant metropolises beneath his feet, the slow and steady stalk of civilization.

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A black hole, he thought.

Read a response essay by an expert on waste management.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell
The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” by Cat Rambo
Out of Ash,” by Brenda Cooper
This, but Again,” by David Iserson
All That Burns Unseen,” by Premee Mohamed
The Only Innocent Man,” by Julian K. Jarboe
Yellow,” by B. Pladek

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

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