by Aeryn Rudel
Victor stared down at the naked corpse of a man in his forties. Slight paunch, tanned skin (burned on the shoulders), and a tragically handsome face. His chest had been cut open, the ribs removed, heart, lungs, and intestines cleared out, leaving a red, glistening void in an otherwise intact body.
“What are you waiting for?” Uchida asked, looking up from his own corpse, an elderly woman with a shaved head. Cancer, probably. The Senior Planter was tall and muscular, with dark eyes over a crooked nose and cracked lips set in a perpetual frown.
Victor swallowed a lump of bile and looked away. It didn’t help much. The Sacramento body farm was the largest in California, and there were corpses arranged in neat rows as far as he could see in all directions. “I, uh, didn’t think it would be like this.”
Uchida wiped bloody hands on his apron and repositioned his planter’s pouch on his belt. He regarded Victor with a pitiless stare. “How did you think it would be?”
“I don’t know. Why . . . why can’t we just use dirt?”
Uchida uttered a short barking laugh. “Tell me, bright boy, where you gonna get enough dirt to plant six hundred acres of apple trees? On what fucking planet does that much arable soil exist?”
“I know, but these are people,” Victor said, looking down at his plot. They sewed the eyelids closed, for which Victor was thankful. He didn’t think he could handle thousands of blank, empty stares.
“No, not people. Resources. Resources that cannot go to waste when they could help feed people who are literally starving,” Uchida said. “So do your job. I guarantee there are thousands who’d be glad to do it in your place.”
Uchida’s words conjured a deeper, more penetrating fear than even ten thousand corpses. Victor needed this job. “I’m sorry,” he said, almost whispering.
“Good,” Uchida replied flatly. “Then get your sorry ass to work.”
* * *
Victor squatted, reached into his planter’s pouch, and put three black apple seeds in the chest cavity of his plot. He poured in a liter of water mixed with a quick-grow solution. In a week, the seedling would take root and begin breaking down flesh and bone as fertilizer. The seeds were genetically altered to make better use of this readily available food source, and they'd been instrumental in stopping the food shortage of 2037 after a combination of rampant pollution and global warming reduced the Earth’s fertile soil to inert dust. Body farms had replaced traditional crops throughout the United States. They supplied food to millions and provided thousands of desperately needed jobs—if you had the stomach for it. Victor wasn’t sure he did, but his wife and kids couldn’t survive on government subsidies for much longer.
The next plot was a young woman. Her cause of death obvious—a puckered, bloodless hole in the middle of her forehead. Victor had never seen a bullet wound. Never seen someone who’d died violently. How many other murders and suicides lurked in these plots? Maybe their families took comfort that their loved one’s body would help feed the hungry. Maybe they didn’t. It’s not like they had a choice. Corpses became the property of the state the second brain functions ceased.
Uchida kept pace with Victor, but not because the Senior Planter couldn’t go faster. The man was making sure Victor did his job correctly. After a while, Uchida stopped watching so closely and even made the occasional approving grunt when Victor finished with a plot.
As they moved down the rows beneath the bright California sun, Victor heard a faint keening. At first, he thought it was the wind. Then they moved to a new set of plots delineated with bright red seeding mats.
Uchida tapped Victor on the shoulder. “The next plots are two-person jobs. You gonna be able to do this or are we gonna have more of that soft-hearted bullshit from this morning?”
Victor swallowed. “Are they awake?”
“Of course they’re awake,” Uchida snapped. “You think the state is gonna spend good money to let these assholes sleep through their punishment?”
“Isn’t it cruel?” Victor said feebly, trying not to wince from the inevitable rebuke.
“Cruel is what each of them did to end up here,” Uchida hissed. “Cruel would be letting them rot away in prison when their bodies could be put to good use. Now toughen the fuck up and come with me.”
They approached the new set of plots. Each one writhed and squirmed against the restraints holding them to the ground. Their moans and screams were all open vowels because of the oversized plastic feeding ports holding their jaws open. The ports were connected to a tube that ran down the plots’ throats and into their stomachs. Planters simply dropped in seeds, quick-grow solution, and an acid neutralizer through the open port.
Uchida squatted next to a muscular man covered in tattoos. The plot’s eyes rolled with terror, and his open-mouthed screams were choked O-shaped barks. “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Uchida took the man’s head in a firm grip, holding it steady, and looked up at Victor. “Plant it.”
Victor choked down his moral outrage, knelt, and pushed seeds and a full syringe of quick-grow solution and acid neutralizer through the man’s feeding port. The plot gagged, but the feeding tube kept him from vomiting. Uchida stood up and nodded, a satisfied look on his face. “One down. Our quota is seventy-five today.”
Seventy-five. Victor’s legs went rubbery, but he followed Uchida down the endless row of squirming plots. He tried not to hear the cacophony of horrified moans and shrill vowel-heavy screams. He especially tried not to look at the next row over where the saplings had begun to sprout, pulling nutrients from plots that struggled weakly beneath them and would for days to come.
Aeryn Rudel is a writer from Tacoma, Washington. He is the author of the Acts of War novels published by Privateer Press, and his short fiction has appeared in The Arcanist, On Spec, and Pseudopod, among others. He recently released the flash fiction collection Night Walk & Other Dark Paths with The Molotov Cocktail. Learn more about Aeryn’s work at rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn-Rudel.