by A. D. Won

Cail Singh glided her bicycle downhill toward the replicator site, bracing herself for the dueling protesters flanking the left and right of the entry gate. Both protest groups had long ago exhausted their fiercest shouting matches, settling into a lethargic enmity that baked in the Summer heat. Only a skeleton crew of guards were stationed outside. It’s too hot to fight.

That all changes when anyone approaches the gate. Now there’s an audience! Cail did her best to pay neither protest any mind. Her wrist blinked three times in green and she entered the opening gate without braking once.

In the front atrium, chief guard Birch (“Just Birch”) welcomed her with a curt nod.

“Howdy Birch, what’s it this time?” She removed a small satchel from her bike. Birch took the bike’s handles from Cail as she adjusted the satchel on her back. Together, they walked the winding path toward the main replicator building.

“Another one got in. Young, too. Might be touchy. I’ll take care of your bike. Good luck in there.”

Cail shook her head sideways, an old habit from home to gesture “Whatever happens, happens.”

Inside the replicator building were an enormous tangle of valves, vents, vats. It was quiet and cool now, which was the problem. The machines weren’t running. They couldn’t run while anyone was inside the building, for safety reasons, or so she was told.

“Hello? My name is Cail, is anyone in here?” Her voice echoed through the empty pipes.

“I am! And I won’t let you continue this sin against nature!” She couldn’t pinpoint the source of the voice through all the echoes. Birch was right, they were young. Couldn’t pin any gender though.

“That’s okay, I’m not a cop. I’m just here check on you to see if you need any food or water.”

“I will take nothing from this machine!”

“It’s not replicated. It’s the real deal. Just plain old rice noodles in fish broth. Still warm, if you want it. Anyway, I’m eating mine. You do you.”

She found a spot where she could sit down cross-legged and be seen from multiple angles. From her satchel, she set down a blanket, two dented metal bowls, two metal spoons, and a fat thermal canister. She paused a moment to pray.

“We thank you for this food we are about to receive.”

“We?” The voice scoffed.

“I’m being optimistic. More for me then.”

Her canister split into two halves, the lower contained steaming amber broth. The upper contained two nests of dried noodles, thinner than hair. She carefully placed one into a bowl, making sure to recover any stray strands. Then she poured some broth over the noodles slowly, making sure to soak the nest completely.

She let the noodles soak for a few minutes so the pungent aroma could float around more. It’s going to be a long day.

“You know, I get it. This replicated food tastes odd and the whole process is pretty off-putting. Nothing like the real stuff.” At this she slurped a few noodles.

“It’s unnatural is what it is. You don’t understand. It’s not a matter of taste, it’s immoral.”

“I’m not here to convince you otherwise. I’m just here to make sure you’re safe and that everyone gets to eat whatever they want to eat.”

“You’ve wasted your time. I’d rather starve then let this sin continue to rot anyone's stomachs.”

“Easy to say when you’ve been here a few hours, my friend.” Cail savored another ladle. “I remember before the reps got here, I was so hungry. Nevermind the food, we barely had any clean water rations.”

“My parents told me about those times. Hard times made weak hearts desperate enough to live off refuse. This place is unclean and unnatural.”

“Unclean? I dunno. Unnatural, definitely, but what isn’t at this point?” She laid back on her blanket, letting the contrast between a warm belly and cool metal floor interplay. “Back then we didn’t care anymore. Way I figured it, this machine isn’t doing anything that farmers and livestock haven’t been doing for ages. It’s just a more efficient path to the same result.”

“Spare me your dogma.”

“I’ll spare you this broth, too. It’s going to get cold and I won’t let it go to waste.”

“It won’t, if you people had your way. Waste is a natural part of life. This isn’t right, having a closed system.”

“It’s not completely closed, it’s not 100% efficient yet.”

“It shouldn’t be anywhere close to 100%!”

Cail let the kid recover their composure a moment, then sat up to serve herself a second bowl.

“Wait. Save some for me.”