Science Fiction dystopian

The Structure

By Marlee Jane Ward
Mar 7, 2020 · 3,562 words · 13 minutes

Yellow shopping carts stacked on a parking lot

Photo by Clark Young via Unsplash.

From the author: This is one of the first short stories I finished when I refocused on writing starting in 2012. I got the idea when I was lost in a multi-storey carpark, trying to find my car. This was one of my Clarion West application stories (I mean, one of the successful ones!) It took 2nd place in the KSP Foundation's annual short-story prize in 2014, and was originally published on the now-defunct but totally rad Australian science-fiction short-story site 'Slink Chunk Press'.

Kia from the next car over was having a baby. Destiny wasn't sure how ladies had babies, but she thought it must hurt a lot ‘cause Kia was screaming like she was going to die. Mama told Destiny to stay in the car, but she crept out very quietly to look. It wasn't every day that someone had a baby.

            Kia lay right there in the back of her car, big belly bare and streaked with a corona of red and purple stretch marks. She was crying and saying lots of words that Destiny knew were bad. People from the cars close by yelled at her to shut her trap and have the baby already 'cause they were trying to sleep.

            Kia's Mama, who lived a level up, waddled down the ramp to help Kia with having the baby. Destiny's Mama was helping too, and didn't notice her peeking through the back window until the baby's head was crowning.

            “Destiny, you get back in that car! Go on, there's a bag of chips in there you can have!”

            “Okay, Mama, I'm sorry!” Destiny ran around their SUV and jumped inside. She dug around the front seat until she found the little snack-bag of chips, then settled in the back and clicked to the folder with her favourite movie on Lantra's battered laptop. The movie was about a robot who cleaned up the world. The robot collected junk from all over the place, just like Destiny and her Mama. Except, she thought, we aren't robots, we are people. So it's different like that.

            In the morning, Lantra asked if Destiny wanted to see the baby, and she did. They climbed out, squeezing into the space between the two cars and when Lantra opened Kia's door, Destiny clambered inside. Kia was lying in the back with the baby swaddled beside her, one swollen breast plugged into its mouth.

            “Are you feeding her from the boobs?” Destiny whispered. Kia laughed and said yes. Destiny thought it was gross that milk came out of Kia. Everyone knew that milk came from the ALL-MART in big plastic bottles.

            When it was done eating, Kia let Destiny hold the baby. It was light and warm when she placed it in her arms. Destiny was very careful. It was a little baby girl. She smelled good and Destiny liked holding her. She started to cry when Kia took her back, because holding the little baby made her feel happy but they were going out today, which didn't make her feel happy at all.

            Destiny had been born in the back of a car parked in the First Street Parking Structure as well, with all the neighbours yelling at Lantra to be quiet so they could get some sleep. Just like Lantra, and her Mama too. Destiny and Lantra had their very own Holden 4x4, a stationary, hulking monster. Acid-green in most places, it rusted ochre only at the edges. It sat on a pair of flattened, cracked tires. A bigger boy from a few floors up told Destiny that their cars never used to be lived in. He said that folks used them to get around, that they rolled like shopping trolleys. When Destiny told him how dumb it sounded, he got mad.

            "Why they gots wheels, then?" he said, grabbing her favourite stuffed bunny from her arms. He hurled it from the barricade to the ground below and Destiny cried until Lantra went down and found it for her. She still thought the idea was stupid. She meant to ask Mama about it one day. She'd know.

            The girls kept the back seats folded down and piled stuff up along the sides, leaving a nice big strip down the middle where they could stretch out to sleep. It was getting cramped in there. Destiny snuggled tight into Mama's soft belly each night, using her big, padded arm as a pillow. She thought it was pretty lucky that she didn't have a Daddy any more, there was no way he'd fit.


            After breakfast Lantra held Destiny's hand and lumbered down the ramps. She took forever to pick a shopping trolley from the big jumble by the boom-gates, then grabbed Destiny, lifting her up high. She made a zooming sound as she plonked her into the trolley, and Destiny forgot herself for a minute, squealing with a sweet combination of pleasure and fear. They rattled over to the boom-gates and the guards let them through. Destiny wasn't exactly sure why they called the big yellow pole a 'boom-gate' but she thought it had something to do with the noise the guns made when they shot at the bad guys who tried to get in.

            Destiny held tight to the side of the trolley as Lantra pushed it over the buckled pavement towards the bridge. The Structure receded behind them. It was the biggest thing around, and Lantra told Destiny that if she ever got lost all she had to do was look up and find it on the horizon. She could follow the shape all the way home. The Structure stood out like a huge, gray box against the sky and it shrank slowly in Destiny's view as Lantra wrangled the trolley across the cracked asphalt.

            The river served a dual purpose as local sewer and garbage repository and they smelled it long before they saw it. Lantra started across the bridge, puffing, her round face red with the effort as she wrestled the trolley up the slope. There was a man walking towards them with a plastic sack slung over his shoulder, full of bulging shapes and enormous. He whistled as he walked.

            Destiny crouched down in the trolley and peered up over the sides as he got closer. She was scared of the people on the outside of the Structure, people she didn't know. In her experience, they could be either very nice or very mean. You could never tell which one just by looking at them.

            An old lady who she thought looked very kind once hit her Mama on the head with a chunk of concrete and twisted rebar. She grabbed their full trolley and took off, with Destiny in it. Destiny jumped out, skinned both her knees and as she cried the lady laughed at her. Lantra cried too. Destiny tried to help by collecting a few bits and pieces on their way home. Mama told her she was a good girl, hugged her and smeared blood and tears all over Destiny's best t-shirt.

            This man looked very dirty and scary and his face was all dirty and peeling. Lantra stared forward as he approached. When he passed the man reached into his sack and pulled out a bottle. He flicked it into the trolley and it rattled in around Destiny's feet.

            “Luck for the day, ladies,” he said, and tipped his hat, even though he wasn't wearing one. Lantra smiled a tight-lipped smile back at him and Destiny picked up the bottle.

            “Thanks mister!” She called after him. She felt good that the man had been okay, but even more assured of her theory. You could really never tell what people were going to be like out here.

            Lantra crouched over the edge of the water, using a long piece of plastic tubing to bat a number of bottles closer to the bank. Her pants were slipping down and Destiny laughed at the wide band of white skin showing across her back and the beginnings of her butt-crack poking up from the waistband of her jeans.

            “Coinslot, Mama! Coinslot!” Destiny bellowed, dancing about and rattling the trolley as she laughed.

            “You shut your mouth, little one, and come help me,” Lantra said, grunting as she hunched over her big belly, breasts crushed up against her chin. The bottles finally came into reach so she fished them out and handed them to Destiny, who carefully dropped each one into the trolley. The bottom of the trolley filled with junk. Destiny had even found an ancient, busted iphone underneath a rusted out car, which earned her a crushing hug from Mama and face full of little, tickly kisses. Ever since the dirty man gave them the first bottle that morning, the day felt like a good one.

            Afternoon light gilded the edges of the buildings as Lantra pushed the loaded trolley back over the bridge. Lots of people were out now, heading in the same direction, some with trolleys and others with big sacks dragging behind them, or bags slung over shoulders and forearms. One pretty but stone-faced lady carried an enormous basket filled with plastic bottles balanced perfectly on her head. Destiny peered at her, fascinated, until Lantra told her to stop gawking.

            “But Mama, how does she do that?”

            “I don't know, baby. I think it's magic.”

            Lantra grinned, but Destiny nodded, solemn. It was the only explanation.

            The line wasn't long, though it stretched out behind them quickly as they waited. Folk with trolleys, bags and kids gathered behind the ALL-MART at the collection center because the corp paid coin money for recyclables and it was one way to scratch a living. There was always more junk to be found. No matter how much they collected every day, it just piled up again. They picked up the garbage and it went into the ALL-MART to get made into more stuff that would be garbage.

            The whole world was garbage, wasn't it? Destiny thought so.


            In the early evenings some of the grown ups would clear a big space for the kids to play in. They’d stand around, taking turns watching as others ducked away for a moment alone, away from the kids. Though, a lot of the time these quiet moments just led to more kids.

            On one of these evenings, Destiny had gathered up some dolls and wandered over to the rail and paraded her naked, wire-haired plastic girls around on the edge. She’d thrilled that at any moment one might drop and fall, tumbling to the ground. She couldn't decide if she wanted it to happen or not.

            In the distance the last shreds of light were fading, the horizon dark but for a bloom of purple at the seam of earth and sky. The city was a jumble of dark shapes, lights twinkling here and there. The Structure, with its rigged power, floor after floor of hot yellow flood lamps and cool white lanterns mingling, shone with the glow of humanity.

            There was one other spot of light, though, far off: The Parklands. Destiny had asked Mama about it once, and she had said that it was where the rich people lived, that the green glow came from all the trees inside. Destiny had only seen trees in picture books, great trunks of uniform brown and fluffy clouds of green atop. When she asked Mama what the trees were for, Lantra couldn't say.

            “Not sure, babygirl. Rich people just like 'em.”

            As Destiny and Lantra approached the ALL-MART the doors slid open soundlessly. The giant letters glowed red above and hot white light spilled out. Destiny thought walking into the store was like stepping out of life and into a movie. The colors were brighter an everything was shiny, just like her favorite CG cartoons.

            Mama pulled a trolley from the row by the door, lifted Destiny up and slid her into the baby seat. The trolley was new gray plastic and it didn't wobble or pull to either side. Aisles loomed over Destiny, things on the shelves so boxed and bright. She liked to look at the pictures, but couldn't understand the words. Some she knew the shape of, like 'Coke' and 'Pringles', so she smiled at the familiar packages of her favorite things.

            They wheeled quietly up and down the aisles, Mama stopping now and then to pick something off the shelves. She got some nappies for Kia and put the big box into the trolley behind Destiny. She threw in a bunch of canned beans and soup, boring dinner stuff. Destiny fidgeted in her seat, hoping that Mama would grab some chips or a big block of chocolate that the two of them could eat while they watched cartoons late at night. She knew better than to ask, though. Lantra didn't like it when Destiny begged for things, and one way to be certain that there would be no treats was to start whining about it. Destiny thought her desire at Mama, round face going red with the effort, and her patience was rewarded when Mama pulled down some barbeque-flavoured chips. She poked Destiny in the tummy with the big tube and she squealed with delight. Destiny thought her Mama was just about the best one in the whole world.

            When Lantra stopped to talk to Nova, who lived one floor down from them in the Structure, Destiny climbed down out of the trolley.

            “Don't you touch anything, little one,” Mama called after her, and Destiny nodded. She prowled the aisle further, eyes roaming over big square boxes of cereal with their capering cartoon designs.

            A colourful display capped the corner, filled with tiny plastic toys, and Destiny's eyes roved over them. Almost at the top she spotted a tiny robot figure. It looked like her favourite movie robot, and her fingers itched to have it. Maybe Mama would let her? Maybe if she was very good? Destiny knew she wasn't supposed to touch, but it was such a little toy, surely Mama would understand. Resolved, she reached up and plucked it from the shelf. It fit inside her hand perfectly and felt good there, the edges pressing against her sticky palm.

            Lantra was still talking, so Destiny waited, trying her very hardest to be patient. Still gabbing, she hefted Destiny up into the trolley again.

            “Mama? Hey, Mama?” She asked in a tiny voice, but Lantra didn't hear her. At the checkout, Destiny tried again in her most unobtrusive voice but Lantra told her not to interrupt while the grown-ups were talking. She wasn't sure what to do. Maybe she could throw the toy into the trolley and Mama could just swipe it with everything else? Maybe she could put it down and ask for it again next time?

            Lantra didn't have much to pay for, and was finishing up as Destiny furiously thought about what to do. She was trembling and her heart started to pound. Lantra took her receipt, she and Nova both piloted their carts towards to the door with Destiny trotting behind, the robot clenched tight in her sweaty palm. It didn't feel nice there any more, it burned. They passed through the first set of doors, but the second set didn't slip open. An alarm began to trill.

            “What's going on? Oh shit! Nova, did you forget to pay for something?” Lantra's voice was high and it quavered.

            “No, no, I swear!” Nova began to sort through her bags. Mama turned to Destiny and it felt like all her insides turned to warm water, some of which spilled out of her bladder and down the leg of her little pink sweats. Destiny opened her hand and the little plastic robot fell out onto the floor.

            "Oh, baby..." Lantra sighed, paling.

            "I'm sorry... I tried... I know I'm not supposed to touch nothing!” She gasped and Lantra picked the toy off the floor just as the interior doors whipped open behind them again.

            “Don't move!” someone bellowed, but they could only see the guns. Lantra pushed Destiny behind her, shielding the child with her bulk.

            “You are under arrest for the crime of theft,” one of the security guards said in a rigid voice. “Do you understand?”

            Lantra nodded, and a fat tear slipped down her cheek.

            “By entering the ALL-MART, you consent to the user agreement. Do you understand?” He gestured to the big sign above the door, crammed with bold letters, none of which Lantra could read. The ALL-MART's user agreement didn't require you to understand it.

            “Can my daughter go home?” Lantra pleaded. “Please? She didn't do nothing.”

            One guard conferred with the other. Their guns didn't waver or drop. After a few seconds of quiet muttering, he faced her again. “The child can leave.”

            Destiny clung to her Mama's leg, trembling but not crying. She didn't know what was happening until the guard pried her off. He heaved her up and out the door, set her down on the pavement with a jolt.

            “Go home,” he said. He stepped back inside and the doors slid closed behind him. Destiny launched herself at them, pounding on the glass.

            “MAMA! Mama, don't leave me! I want to go with you!” The screams ripped her throat. They were leading Lantra away as she sunk to the ground, little hands beating on the glass.

            “Go, Destiny. Go to Kia. She will take care of you. I love you baby girl...” Then she was gone. Destiny beat hands, head, little body against the doors until the guard came back and pointed the gun at her again. She paused, a shriek catching in her throat.

            “I said go home, car trash. Get out of here.” The guard tapped the barrel against the glass. Destiny, hiccuping but hushed, backed away. Then she turned, seeking the boxy shape of the structure on the horizon. She wired her eyes to the shining block, seeing nothing except its glow as she fled through the darkness.

            Lantra packed shelves at night, so that was the best time to find her in the harsh-lit aisles of the ALL-MART. Destiny hated the place. She got the shakes just seeing that big red sign and the sick plastic smell inside set her belly churning. She was glad that the plastic collection operated from the back, through a massive rolling door. She only went inside when she had to. Just to visit.

            Destiny still lived in their old Holden, which was just the same except for the rust that bloomed and crept further up the sides. She had the car all to herself, with room to stretch out in the back, but not for long. She rubbed her distended belly underneath the thin cotton T-shirt. She was fifteen years old.

            She found Lantra in the fifth aisle, stocking shelves. Lantra rested her hand first on Destiny's cheek, then on her belly. Quickly, though. She wasn't allowed to stop.

            “Baby girl, you look ready to bust.” Lantra said.

            “The guys all have bets running. Old Merc put a twenty on tonight, and he's been asking me all day whether I feel like it's dropped. I tell you what, Mama, I can't wait to have this baby. Trying to scoop bottles outta the shitriver with this belly is impossible. I almost fell in yesterday.”

            “I think it'll be soon, Destiny.” Mama said.

            “Me too.”

            “Yeah, any day now,” Lantra sighed, taking a second to pause, bend down, and rub under the thick anklet clipped above her foot with a well-practised gesture. Destiny heard her knees pop, and Lantra groaned. By day she sorted garbage in the back, by night she stacked shelves, and she slept when she could. She looked haggard, like an old lady. After all, she'd be thirty in a few years.

            Lantra finished filling the shelf and pulled the next box over. Destiny passed her the box cutter and she sliced it open, folding back the flaps in a fluid motion.

            The bright lights, the soft music, the gentle hum of the air conditioners all fell away as Destiny stared down into the box. They weren't exactly the same. Not quite, but close enough.

            “Baby girl? Destiny, what's wrong?” But then Lantra saw it too. Without a pause she started to load them onto the shelves. Neither said a thing.

            As she left, Destiny took one of the little robot toys from the box and carried it to the exit. This time, before she left, she paid for it.

            Destiny was coming up the second ramp when the pain started to really lay on. She held tight to the rail and rode the ache. A sleepy-looking woman took her hand once she could move again and walked her up to the car. She opened the back of the Holden up wide and Kia helped her to spread some plastic sheets out over the upholstery. Destiny took off her pants and lay in the back, huge belly striped with a corona of red and purple stretch-marks. Kia sent her oldest girl up the ramp to bring her Mama to help.        

            By the time Destiny started screaming like she was going to die, the neighbours had gathered round to gawk and further down the row someone yelled that she could shut up and have the baby already, 'cause some folks were trying to sleep.

Marlee Jane Ward

Marlee Jane Ward writes speculative fiction and dreams of the future.