The clay that makes bodies is found underneath the Fissure Basin. If you dig past the white sand, there is dark clay below. It dries to a pale finish when fired. There is no chemical difference between the clay that makes bodies and the clay that doesn’t.

Modern bodies are made in large quantities. Factories line the edge of the Fissure Basin. Workers scoop sand and mud into large churning vats, feeding extruders that empty into molds in the standard shapes. Factory supervisors smooth out imperfections and align the bodies in the kilns. In optimal circumstances, one in twenty bodies come out of the kiln alive.

There are accidents, often. There are explosions within the interior of a kiln when a body is improperly created—when the skin is too thick, the clay too wet to fire. The shards can damage the others in the batch, leaving jagged tears through limbs, torsos, heads. Sometimes this destroys the bodies. Other times it leaves them with disfiguring scars, reminders of violence.

One of the bodies in Emmanuel 7.18’s batch exploded. It left him with pockmarks across his face and a deep dent in his neck. He speaks in a whistling voice. He tries not to talk too much.

Emmanuel 7.18’s first memory is of hands pulling him out of the kiln. He remembers the supervisor clucking her tongue as she inspected him and his batch. She noted the location of his divots on a clipboard, silently pausing as she measured the depth of the dent in Emmanuel 7.18’s neck, her fingers brushing briefly, not unkindly, against his skin.

“You’ll do,” she said. “It’s a pity about the explosion. Say something, won’t you?”

“Something,” Emmanuel 7.18 repeated in his cracked voice.

The supervisor smiled. “It’s good that you were fired with a sense of humor.”

Emmanuel 7.18 was meant to be a court servant. Other than the disfiguration, the Emmanuel 7s have fine features and handsomely turned limbs. But the explosion meant that Emmanuel 7.18 and his living batch siblings—Emmanuel 7.21 and Emmanuel 7.9—are no longer fit for that Debt.

They are told they will be couriers instead. Even with Emmanuel 7.9’s absent left arm, the large gash in Emmanuel 7.21’s torso, and Emmanuel 7.18’s whistling voice, they are fit to carry messages to and from the court-city built along the shoreline.

A Debt is a double-decade of labor in retroactive exchange for the privilege of being shaped and fired. This is considered fair.

Roads need to be built. Buildings need to be raised. Machinery needs to be constructed. Messages and supplies must be sent. There is always a need for workers. But the economists caution against expansive creation. More workers means the need for more housing, roads, universities—more stores, which means more workers to build and staff them, which means more housing, which means —

The men and women who run the factories on the shore of the Fissure Basin are silent on the subject. The bureaucrats who run the court smile and talk about upcoming studies, further research. The clay pits are off-limits to civilians. The kilns run long into the night.

Emmanuel 7.18 doesn’t pay attention to politics; he enjoys his courier work. It is a light Debt—far easier than hauling carts or stone. He’s luckier than the granite-faced Debtors with chipped hands who dig ditches in the midday heat. There’s less chance of Emmanuel 7.18 cracking his porcelain as he carries missives, and every two weeks he receives a three-day furlough to catch up on personal errands, to laugh in taverns with his batch-siblings, to watch outdoor concerts in the warm seaside air. There is room in his life for appreciation.

He learns the streets of the court-city on the edge of the Fissure Basin, the winding roads built in the days of the first firing. He hikes across the rolling foothills covered in swaying grass and flowers. He lies on the bright and beautiful beaches admires the view of the clear water across the bay, the fine white sand. He ferries his messages down newly paved streets and knocks on the doors of important politicians and officials, who thank him for his hard work and tip him a few coins.

Sometimes they look at him with pity, and those are the bad days. The mis-firing of his face and neck is difficult to hide. But he’s better off than his batch-siblings, so he tries to feel grateful instead.

When he is not working, Emmanuel 7.18 spends most of his time with his batch-siblings. Emmanuel 7.9 is quick with a quip and has an extensive library of terrible arm-related puns. Emmanuel 7.21 is kind and tells wonderful stories. Emmanuel 7.18 is lucky that they are easy to love.

When they are together, he is not so self-conscious of his voice, though he is jealous of Emmanuel 7.21, whose chest disallows heavy lifting but is easily concealed with a shirt. He wishes that his own damage was not so bluntly visible.

The Emmanuel mold was a delicate build. They were meant to be decorative, to serve in court. Sometimes Emmanuel 7.18 wonders if his vanity is a byproduct of his form. Perhaps he would not be so self-conscious had he been a bulky bricklayer.

But the other Emmanuel 7s seem content with their forms, so the envy might be a flaw of Emmanuel 7.18’s alone.

His ninety-fifth courier assignment is to a man in a riverside town, to whom he has been instructed to deliver a letter sealed with golden wax. The letter was given to him by one of the court servants, a woman with beautiful slip patterning across her limbs who spoke seriously. This letter is not to be looked at. This letter cannot be given to anyone but the addressee. Emmanuel 7.18 did his best not to roll his eyes at the lecture. It is his 95th assignment, it’s not as though he’s new to this.

The letter only holds an address – no name. He’s deeply curious as to why such an important letter is being sent to the middle of nowhere. He daydreams about what it might hold—perhaps an inheritance, or an appointment to court.

When he reaches the riverside town, he stops by the general store to get directions. The shopkeeper—a stout man with puckered divots twisting the skin on his cheek—draws a map and tells Emmanuel 7.18 to follow the smoke if he gets lost. “Abe’s usually got his fire going. Can’t miss it.”

“Is that his name?” Emmanuel 7.18 asks. He hasn’t heard of that model.

The shopkeeper shrugs. “It’s what he calls himself.”

Emmanuel 7.18 thanks the shopkeeper and leaves the store. Above the tree-line, there’s a winding plume of smoke in the air. He trots in its direction.

The road quickly narrows to a dirt path. This far from the court-city, there are still great undeveloped areas. The dirt path eventually leads to a small house built in the older style. The smoke seems to be coming from somewhere outside the building. Emmanuel 7.18 steps up to the door and knocks.

No one answers. He knocks again, harder.

“In the backyard!” a voice shouts, and Emmanuel 7.18 startles. “Come to the back!”

Emmanuel 7.18 does. And then he stops.

The backyard is filled with broken bodies. Jagged ceramic legs and arms, torsos and heads with unseeing eyes. They’re displayed along the side of the yard, laid out on rough wooden benches. Emmanuel 7.18 is reminded of the minutes after his birth when he looked back at the broken body that had disfigured him in his making.

Past the bodies, smoke rises from a large brick dome. A man crouches in front of it, poking at the fire through a small door.

“Are you—are you Abe?” Emmanuel 7.18 calls, not wanting to walk closer. The man glances back at him. His face is rough, and there is none of the smooth porcelain shine that Emmanuel 7.18 is used to.

“Yep, that’s me,” the man says, and rises to his feet. “You delivering something?”

“A letter.”

“Oh a letter!” Abe says. “So they’re brushing me off again. Well, take your letter and go throw it in the kiln.”

“That’s a kiln?” Emmanuel 7.18 asks. “Do you... Do you make... prosthetics?”

Abe stares at him for a moment. Then he begins to laugh. It’s a loud, cracking thing, at odds with his appearance in how joyful it is; perfectly in tune with how crass. Emmanuel 7.18 fights the urge to look away. He’s embarrassed of his voice, even though the emotion is shot through with fear.

“Oh, you’re scared I’m some sort of mad scientist? You’ve been listening to too many radio serials.”

“You have a yard filled with broken limbs!”

“I do,” Abe agrees. “But I can assure you they were all ethically sourced. Some of them are prototypes. Hell, if I were a killer, don’t you think I’d clean up after myself before letting a courier see my boneyard?”

“Maybe I’m to be your next victim,” Emmanuel 7.18 says, and immediately regrets it.

Abe laughs again, wipes dirt off of his hands onto a rag. “Toss the letter in the kiln and then come inside. I’ll make us some tea. Can’t have you taking harebrained tales back to the capitol.”

He walks past Emmanuel 7.18 and claps him on the shoulder before going inside. “I promise I won’t kill you.”

The hand that brushed his shoulder had three broken fingers. Emmanuel 7.18 does not feel heartened, watching the strange man with his strange laugh leave his strange yard, but he does feel curious, so he sighs and follows Abe inside.

The inside of the house is far less gruesome. There are no torsos on the kitchen counter, no limbs stacked hand over hand and piled against the walls. It’s a bachelor’s home, with plain tables and chairs, a single cushioned sofa, and a radio. Abe ushers Emmanuel 7.18 in unceremoniously.

“Sit wherever you like,” he says. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

Emmanuel 7.18 sits at the kitchen table, placing the letter in front of him.

Abe glances at it. “Thought I told you to get rid of that?”

Emmanuel 7.18 shakes his head. “It’s illegal for me to destroy it.”

Abe rolls his eyes. “Oh, if it’s illegal.” He goes back to puttering with the stove.

“Gold-stamp communications require receipt and reading by the recipient, followed by a signed reply confirming receipt,” Emmanuel 7.18 recites. “What’s in it that you don’t—” He stops. Asking recipients questions about their messages is impolite, and asking questions about official factory correspondence is the height of impropriety. It’s his Debt to deliver. It’s not his Debt to ask.

Abe sighs and sits at the single other kitchen chair. “See, the thing is, if they’d accepted my request, you would have come with a whole cart and entourage. It’s just another refusal.”

“Refusal of what?”

“Fissure Basin clay,” Abe says. “Open it up, then. Bet it says Your request for clay has been denied.”

Emmanuel 7.18 opens the message, silently pleased to have out-maneuvered Abe into reading the letter. The cream-colored paper unfolds with a satisfying crispness. The message is written in script, under factory letterhead made official with a court seal. It reads: Your request for clay has been denied. Abe peers over the table to look at the paper. “See?” he says. “Misers, the lot of them.”

“Fissure Basin clay is only approved for official court-sponsored factory production,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “Of course the factory is rejecting your request. Isn’t the clay running out as it is?”

Abe nods. “That’s precisely it,” he says. “There’s a finite amount of clay, a finite number of bodies, and the waste! Twenty bodies’ worth of clay for each living body. And the explosions! The entire process is wrong. We never should have built the factories.”

“What do you mean, never—”

The kettle whistles, and Emmanuel 7.18’s voice is cut off as Abe gets up, busying himself with pulling mugs down from a shelf and a little metal box of loose tea. When he returns, his face is set again.

“Let’s just say I think it’s a little hypocritical, if we’re talking about waste, for the factory supervisors to tell me I can’t have a single body’s worth of clay to use for experiment in fixing their mistakes.”

“Is that your reply?” Emmanuel 7.18 asks, taking the offered mug from Abe.

“No,” Abe says, and leans back in his chair. His eyes narrow. “You need to get a signed reply before you can leave, right?”

Emmanuel 7.18 nods.

Abe smiles and crosses his arms. “Alright, then I’m afraid you’re going to be stuck here for, oh, about a month? My reply won’t be ready until then.”

“A month?” Emmanuel 7.18 says, dismayed.

“A month.” Abe nods. “It’ll take me that long to make it.”

“You could just send back a letter,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “What do you mean, make?”

“I’ll show you, when it’s further along,” Abe says. “It’ll be easier than explaining.”

“This is kidnapping,” Emmanuel 7.18 says to cover up his genuine dismay. He has a life, back in the court-city, even if it is doled out in three-day increments. He’ll have to break the news to his batch-sibs that he won’t be around for the next two furloughs.

“Think of it as a vacation,” Abe suggests. “And if you help me with my work, it’ll be faster.” He leans forward. “It’s important,” he says earnestly. “My getting that clay means saving lives, Emmanuel.”

Emmanuel 7.18 stares at Abe for a long moment. Abe holds his gaze, doesn’t blink.

“Fine,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “But you’re paying for the telegram I need to send home.”

Abe gives him the coin needed to wire a very long telegram home, to be seen when either of Emmanuel 7.18’s batch-sibs are back from their duties. Emmanuel 7.18 doesn’t expect a reply anytime soon, but it feels good to write it all down on the little sheet and watch the shopkeeper painstakingly tap at the device. It’s a more expensive telegram than he’s ever sent, but he’s not the one paying.

Emmanuel 7.18 spends his nights in Abe’s spare room and his days begrudgingly helping Abe with his work, stoking the fire and cleaning clay off a variety of strangely shaped tools. The things Abe asks for are small, and Emmanuel wants him to finish his reply, whatever it is, as fast as possible.

Emmanuel 7.18 is less grudging once Abe shows him the beginnings of his reply: the bare bones of a fully formed body.

“If they don’t trust the quality of my work enough to send me the clay, then I’m sending my work to them,” Abe says. “Maybe that’ll show them I’m serious. Time to stop making bits and make the whole thing instead.”

Emmanuel 7.18 finds himself a glorified errand-boy, hauling the local riverbed clay up from the basement where it is kept cool and wet in sealed containers. It’s more physical labor than he’s used to while on his Debt, but he finds he doesn’t mind. It reminds him of being home—when he’s home with his batch-sibs, he’s the default heavy lifter. He has two good arms and no gash in his chest.

Between loads, he talks with Abe, learns about working clay and about Abe himself. “Abe” is a nickname. The man doesn’t go by his batch anymore, which confuses Emmanuel 7.18, who has always treasured the connection between him and his batch-siblings. This is the longest he’s been away from home, and he finds himself missing the strangest things, like Emmanuel 7.9’s quips or Emmanuel 7.21 bickering about which radio program to play. Home is never quiet.

It’s a striking difference to the way Abe seems quite content to be solitary, to spend his days in the backyard with a bucket of clay and his tools. Emmanuel 7.18 listens to the radio alone, the volume turned up so that he can hear it over the sink as he washes dried clay off his fingers.

Dear 7.18,

You always get the weird jobs, don’t you? As requested, I’ll let your supervisor know why you’re being delayed, and 7.9 as well, when he returns from his most recent delivery. Lucky you, getting to lounge about in the country for a few weeks. Go fishing or something, isn’t that what they do out there? We’ll miss you—who else will carry the groceries home? 7.9’s only got one arm, you know!

All jokes aside, sorry this is short—not all of us can afford the wire time! Send us a telegram, or if there’s a courier who happens to pass through, a letter.

Love, 7.21

“Where did you get the clay for those?” Emmanuel 7.18 asks, gesturing at a grouping of limbs. It’s a week into his stay, and he’s noticed that the coloration of some of the body parts is different from the reddish-brown cast of the clay from the basement—more like Emmanuel’s own porcelain. Abe looks over.

“I didn’t make those. That’s all from the last Francis batch—used those as a guide.”

The last Francis batch had a record number of explosions—seven bodies, and the only survivor was disfigured to the point where the supervisors deemed it kinder to destroy him. That wasn’t supposed to be public knowledge, but even the newly born have ears. It circulated in hushed whispers around the court city. The Francis model was quietly retired.

Emmanuel 7.18 is stunned. “You mean these are body bodies? From the factories?”

“Sure,” Abe says easily. “They won’t give me anything else, but they’re happy to give me the broken bits.”

“I thought—” Emmanuel 7.18 feels very immature, because he had never considered where all the unalive bodies go—the dead are in graveyards, but the bodies of the never-living... he’s never given those a second thought.

“What, that they’re buried? That’d be a waste of land. No, what do you think that fine Fissure Beach sand is made of?” Abe asks. “It’s ground-up porcelain. Where did you think they went?”

“I never really thought about it,” Emmanuel 7.18 admits, numb with horror as his mind dredges up memories of the clean white beaches that are so popular to visit. He’s been to them on furlough, hauling beach umbrellas down the shore for his batch-siblings, mock-complaining about how he’s the one who always has to do the heavy lifting. He’s sat on the pale sand and basked in the sun, run fistfuls of the fine grains through his fingers.

“They’re all ground into sand,” Abe says. “Every single one.”

Emmanuel 7.18 has never been alone. He’s spent solitary days on the road delivering a message, but that is different from being alone. When traveling, he has a clear purpose bestowed upon him by his Debt. By completing his Debt, he is doing something necessary, something that connects him to the whole of humanity. He walks on the roads that his countrymen made. He brings messages back and forth from important offices and officials. He performs his duties thoroughly, efficiently, and with a minimum of delay.

Here, the only communication with society beyond the general store telegraph is the old radio in the living room. Emmanuel 7.18 keeps it on when he’s in the house. He likes listening to the national broadcasts. Ava 4.02 has been the announcer since before Emmanuel 7.18 was fired, and her voice is comforting, even if the information she conveys now unsettles him. She talks of the slowing birthrate sometimes. The border expansion. The families vacationing at the Fissure Beach, how the weather is perfect for a seaside holiday.

Emmanuel 7.18 preferred when he didn’t know what the sand is made from.

Abe’s model body comes together in stages. First, the approximation of the form, roughly proportioned into a body but with a smaller build than is typical.

“For the sake of transportation,” Abe explains.

The form is then divided into individual clay lumps for easier working. These will be shaped into the limbs, torso, and head, each to be spritzed with water and wrapped in oilcloth when not being handled. Abe forms each part carefully, working outside or at the kitchen table with the oilcloth draped over the old wood. He takes the flat lump that will become a hand and delicately molds it into fingers, a thumb, the curve of a palm and the dents in the rise of the knuckles. There’s a gentleness to the way he deftly works the clay. When he catches Emmanuel watching, he scowls.

“You’re making me self-conscious with all the staring,” he says. “Go do something else.”

“It’s interesting,” Emmanuel 7.18 protests. “Is this how all bodies are made?”

Abe scoffs. “Of course not,” he says. “They use plaster molds and layers of slip in the factories—it’s faster, more consistent, and it makes the bodies hollow without having to carve out the interior.

“Hm,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “Your hand is very impressive, though.”

“It only matters if it impresses the supervisors,” Abe says. “Hopefully it’s of high enough quality that they agree to send me the Fissure Basin clay, so I can test how it moves, not just a static specimen.”

Emmanuel 7.18 watches Abe shape the clay in silence, before Abe glances up again and makes a dismissive shoo-ing gesture with his broken hand, prompting Emmanuel 7.18 to roll his eyes and leave.

The model body comes together over the weeks. First, the hands, which are attached to delicate wrists and forearms, biceps, shoulders. The torso, which goes from a cylinder to a sturdy trunk. Legs and pelvis, feet and ankles. Fingernails and toenails pressed into the clay, so that the body could have an easier time scraping things. The head, which Abe spends a full week on.

None of the parts are completely finished. They don’t have the smooth patina of a perfected body from the factories before it’s fired. But the body still looks like it might open its eyes any moment, and it unnerves Emmanuel 7.18 a little, how it looks like it’s just sleeping.

The second telegram comes three weeks into Emmanuel 7.18’s stay. It breaks the routine that had begun to blur the days together, days that were all the same, punctuated with visits to town. He walks into the general store and the shopkeeper waves him over with the unexpected message. He takes it blithely and reads:

Emmanuel 7.21 shattered. His chest gave out.

Emmanuel 7.18 reads the telegram again. Then he reads it a third time. The shopkeeper asks if he wants to send a reply, and he hears himself say “yes,” and he gives his reply—be home soon—without hearing himself speak, and he thanks the shopkeeper and walks out of the general store, one foot blindly in front of the other.

Emmanuel 7.21’s shattering—too large a concept to grasp. His mind shies away from it, the idea that Emmanuel 7.21 could no longer exist.

He walks faster, avoiding the glances of the townsfolk who have come to know him. What was Emmanuel 7.21 doing, when he shattered? Had he picked up something too heavy? Emmanuel 7.18 starts jogging, staring at the ground to make sure that he doesn’t trip on the dirt path.

It’s Emmanuel 7.18’s job at home to do all the heavy lifting, just as it’s Emmanuel 7.9’s to manage the bills and Emmanuel 7.21’s to do the laundry. Emmanuel 7.18 has been gone for more than a month. When did Emmanuel 7.21—How has Emmanuel 7.9 been hanging the laundry?

Emmanuel 7.18 starts running. He stumbles on the rough path, but he doesn’t stop. He’s been still for too long.

“You need to give me a signed reply today,” Emmanuel 7.18 says, when he reaches the garden, gasping to catch his breath. “Sign a piece of scrap paper now. Forget the body. I need to go back tonight.”

“I told you I can’t.” Abe shakes his head, not looking up from the body, scraping a bit of clay away from the hairline. “What’s got you in a hurry? You can’t leave now. It’s not ready yet.”

“How can it not be ready? It’s been weeks! You’re practically keeping me hostage.”

“And why would I be keeping you hostage?” Abe says, and then he laughs, as if that’s the funniest thing he’s heard.

Emmanuel 7.18 is suddenly angry. Here is Abe, surrounded by limbs like none of them mean anything. “I don’t know!” Emmanuel 7.18 shouts. “Maybe you want someone to haul all your damn clay for you, maybe you’re scared of breaking more of your fingers, maybe you were lying and you’re some sort of grave robber, stealing corpses, breaking them down, and decorating your yard with their shards!”

He takes a breath. He’s thinking about Emmanuel 7.21’s chest. The gash across it that he kept covered by a shirt, so no one could see that there was an opening large enough to put a hand through. If it wasn’t from picking up something heavy, how did he break? Was it just a defect of his firing? Repeated stress? Did he twist in the wrong way? Did someone hit him? He’s imagining Emmanuel 7.21 lying in the middle of the street broken in two, broken into parts like the Francises lining Abe’s garden. Emmanuel 7.18’s throat feels tight, but it always feels tight. He can’t tell Abe about Emmanuel 7.21. What if Abe asks for the body? “I need to leave tonight. Please.”

Abe stands and looks at Emmanuel 7.18 with concerned eyes. “Has it really been such a hardship?”

“Yes,” Emmanuel 7.18 lies. He’s thinking about the coffin that he and Emmanuel 7.9 will bury. “I’m going to leave and tell them you didn’t answer, and you’ll never get your clay, if you don’t give me a reply right now.”

Abe gets up. He gestures at the body with his hands. “I can’t send them this. It’s not enough, yet.”

The body is visibly unfinished, compared to a factory body. Its eyes are closed. It looks close in model to the Francises, but Emmanuel 7.18 can see traces of Abe’s own physiology in the lines of the fingers, the shape of the ears. Even without the Fissure Basin clay, it still has the same rough, tender quality that Abe’s own flesh has.

“Can you see? It’s not perfect yet. Not precise enough. And without it, I can’t figure out what I need to tell them,” Abe says. “How to convince them there’s worth in doing it by hand. That it has the same precision, that a little care in the making could prevent later harm.” He scrapes a bit of debris off of the torso. He touches it so tenderly, this body that is a reference for one that could live.

“One in twenty,” Emmanuel 7.18 says, “if you’re lucky. They can’t waste it on experiments. Even if you send them this.”

Abe shakes his head. “This is my best shot. I need to show them that my work can be as perfect as the machines. I need them to give me the clay. It’s not experiments—it’ll work.”

“How would you know?” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “You don’t work in the factories. You’re not a supervisor. Either give me what you have or give me a piece of paper, but this doesn’t matter anymore.”

Abe wipes his hand on his pants and looks at Emmanuel 7.18 like he has committed a great crime. “It’s the only thing that matters. And I know. I was there. I lived it. My full name is Abraham 1. When I was born, it was on the dark clay rim of the Fissure Basin, and there were thirty of us. All alive, all different. No broken bodies. Why would you say this doesn’t matter?”

“My batch-sibling is dead,” Emmanuel 7.18 blurts out. “I need to go home and bury him.”

“Oh, kid,” Abe says, and awkwardly pats Emmanuel 7.18 on the shoulder, the gesture surprisingly kind.

Things move quickly after that. Abe gives him money and digs out an old train schedule. There are no more trains running until the next morning, so they sit at the kitchen table and Emmanuel 7.18 stares off into space while Abe makes tea and tells him he’s sorry for Emmanuel 7.18’s loss.

“I don’t, I can’t talk about it,” Emmanuel 7.18 says in a creaky whistle. It’s too big to carry, the idea that Emmanuel 7.21 is gone. To talk about it would be to make it true. “Tell me about... talk to me about something else. About yourself.”

Abe acquiesces. He tells Emmanuel 7.18 a long, strange story.

Abraham 1 was a supervisor before there were supervisors. He made bodies before there were factories, before there were the white sand beaches, sitting on the dark Fissure Basin clay at the shoreline soon after his birth. He saw the court city founded; saw the first men and women build the roads, the towns, the kilns.

Now he is old, and his hands are broken, though that doesn’t much matter because the factories were built when he was still young. But now only one in twenty bodies bear life, and half of those living are maimed by kiln-explosion scars.

“Manually shaping would be a stopgap measure,” Abe admits. “But it would force the factories to slow down. One in twenty means they’re firing hundreds of bodies per batch, means they have to rush production to meet that volume, means the work ends up slipshod—wet greenware, bubbles between the slip layers, blocked ventilation holes, firing fast and dirty. All problems that could be repaired through taking time. But their excuse has been that time doesn’t create quality; that mass, standardized production creates quality. That’s just an excuse, but it’s an excuse that will stand until someone proves them wrong. I just wanted to help. But it’s been a long time since anyone wanted that from me, I suppose.”

He looks sad, for a moment. Emmanuel 7.18 thinks about the past weeks. It is an easier subject than: Emmanuel 7.21 no longer exists. Sitting at the kitchen table with Abe. Talking about new radio plays and old books. Watching Abe work. It’s the longest Emmanuel 7.18 has been away from home since he was fired.

“I lied, earlier,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “It’s been good, being here. But. I can’t stay. I’m sorry about your body. I’ll take it with me.”

Abe shakes his head. “No, it’ll only slow you down. It’s too heavy. And it was a fool’s errand, I suppose. Never could’ve matched the precision they have with the molds. Just tell them I’m repeating my request. Not that they’ll listen. Sorry to take so long, when it’s so anti-climatic. I’ll go write it down. Could have told you that on the first day.”

“I’m sorry I can’t stay,” Emmanuel 7.18 says, softly. And then, hesitant, “Do you know if maybe—if I brought my batch-sib here, and we added some clay and re-fired him—”

But Abe is shaking his head.

Emmanuel 7.18 can’t sleep for thinking. He turns away from the window to the backyard, but he thinks about the body, wrapped in layers of oilcloth, lying near the kiln. It’s better than thinking about Emmanuel 7.21.

Had the body been of the right clay and were it fired, it would have no batch-siblings, not unless Abraham 1 made more of the same model. But it’s not a model—not the way Emmanuel 7.18 is a model. It would be rough with Abraham 1’s fingerprints. Would it have a Debt? It’s not society that would have created it—it’s Abraham 1. Would its whole Debt be to Abraham 1? How horrible that would be, to be beholden to a single person. Or perhaps it would have no Debt at all, not like Emmanuel 7.18 who was created for a purpose.

What would that be like? If it chose to serve, perhaps that would be its own choice. It wasn’t made to carry, to dig, to haul supplies. It wouldn’t have been kept away from home when home needed it the most, Emmanuel 7.18 thinks ruefully. It would have no batch-siblings to mourn for.

The way Abraham 1 touched its cheek, like it was something precious—the way he wiped away the imperfections on its surface with something that looked like longing. Emmanuel 7.18 remembers his first moments out of the kiln, when his supervisor touched his throat briefly, silent and efficient but not unkind, as she measured the divot there and marked it on her clipboard. How light her touch was, as if she understood the damage and everything it meant. Did she touch him like that before he was fired? Did anyone touch Emmanuel 7.21 like that?

Emmanuel 7.18 wipes his face with his hand. He’s going to feel Emmanuel 7.21’s gash in his own chest for as long as he lives. But it would have been worse, had the shards hit differently; had Emmanuel 7.21 never existed.

Thirty bodies born on the dark clay rim of the Fissure Basin. Their skin imperfect, their measurements imprecise. There were no factories then. The dark clay must have been worked by hand. Their limbs, their faces, their hands and fingers must all have been shaped by hand.

Emmanuel 7.18 throws the covers off and gets out of bed.

“You should fire it,” Emmanuel 7.18 says, as soon as Abe blinks his eyes open. He stops shaking Abe’s shoulder.

“Whuh?”

“The body—you should fire it,” he repeats.

“What time is it?” Abe says, through a bewildered yawn. “Are you crazy? It’s not the right clay.”

“Abe,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “Fire the body. You were wrong, we were all wrong. It was never about the clay.”

He thrusts forward one of the practice hands Abe made, near-identical to the ones attached to the body.

Abe takes the hand in his own and stares, turning it over in his broken fingers. Even unfired, it’s the same rough texture, shaped by fingertips; worked by hand.

“Oh,” Abe says. “Okay! Yes.”

They stoke the fire all night. It’s nothing like the electric-ceramic tanks they have in the factories. It’s hot work. They take turns, though neither of them speaks much.

Around dawn, Abe says, “Enough,” and “You need to leave, to catch the train.”

Emmanuel 7.18 shakes his head. “I’m staying.”

Abe says, “Okay.”

Neither of them moves to go back inside, so they drag the bench-box closer to the kiln and wait. The sky lightens. The sun rises.

Emmanuel 7.18 will go home, regardless of what happens. He will go home and grieve with Emmanuel 7.9, and they will buy a better box than either of them could afford without Abe’s generous donation. The size of Emmanuel 7.21’s death will always be too large to comprehend, but perhaps the weight of it will get smaller. Emmanuel 7.18 will dig the grave because Emmanuel 7.9 only has one arm. They will lower their batch-sibling into the earth.

But at least he will not be the fine sand on the seashore.

“You know what it means if this works,” Abe says.

“Yes,” Emmanuel 7.18 says. “It means no one will die like my batch-sibling.”

The kiln cools, the surrounding air becoming less oppressive. Abe drums his hands on the bench. Emmanuel 7.18 composes apologies to his batch-sibling in his head. He’s sorry for being gone for so long. He won’t do it again. He missed him. He’s sorry he didn’t send more telegrams.

The sun arcs higher. Abe gets up to inspect the kiln. He touches it gingerly, then with more confidence as he confirms that it’s cool. Emmanuel 7.18 watches as Abe takes a breath and then knocks on the kiln door as if it’s someone’s home.

“Come on out,” he says, softer than when he speaks to Emmanuel 7.18.

A long moment passes. And then—

A hand like Abe’s, pushing the door open.

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Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s either attempting a legal career or co-hosting Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture--equally noble pursuits. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld and Khoreo and at Cast of Wonders. Find her at http://isabel.kim/ or @isabeljkim on twitter. 

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