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This is the Way the World Ends

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Plasticware was the next thing to disappear. Danny noticed it at breakfast, eating in another stamped-out, bland, King McWendy Subs. He slid into the booth and opened the food pod to dig into the soy-based sausage Hungry Person's Lumberjacks special. There were no utensils. He checked the bag, and rummaged in the bottom. There was no paper napkin, either. He looked under the sterile aluminum table, even though he knew he had not dropped anything from the bag. The patron across from him grinned, showing six teeth.

“Something wrong, sport?”

Danny stared at the other man for a moment, and then another moment, just to indicate both his right to the seat and the inappropriateness of the other's intrusion on his privacy.

“There was a time when people had manners.”

The gargoyle across the table laughed. “Yeah. Well, everything's in short supply. What's your probb, anyway? All I did was ask a question. The way you're floundering around like a seal on meth, I'd think you just misplaced a million yuan or so.”

Danny stiffened. “If you must know, I'm looking for my plasticware. Specifically, the spork.”

The other man chewed. “You won't find one. McWendy's doesn't give them out anymore.”

“Since when?”

“Since about forty-five minutes ago. Since I came in. Since I sat down.”

Danny rose.

“No sense asking. They don't have any. Hey, fingers were made before forks.” The man wiggled his own ketchup-covered digits.

“That's ridiculous. How am I supposed to eat these pancakes without plasticware?”

“The name's Earl. Earl O'Neill. Yes, it's Irish, and thanks for asking.”

Danny paused. “I didn't ask. Ethnicity discussion is illegal. I'm moving. And I'm getting some plasticware.”

Earl laughed. “You do that. If you can find another seat, go for it. And if you want to turn me in for illegal discussion, do that too. At least I'll eat.”

The restaurant was a hub of bustle and noise. Few people bothered to try to make meals at home; grocery stores had died out fifteen years before. The smaller ones died first; too weak to survive the enormous, faceless cooperate giants of prepackaged goods. The population dutifully trekked to the outlets, and as the cost of fuel to get there continued to soar, they spaced their trips out. Free lunches in the schools led to free breakfasts, and then free lunches. During President Chelsea Clinton's third term, the government allowed parents to dine with their children. The giant grocery stores died overnight, and most restaurants withered within a year. Only the McWendy's survived, and the prices there were now in yuan, only the Chinese currency held any value for the Beijing owners of the last bastion of choice.

And now, no plasticware.

Danny felt defeat rise inside, like a rotten apple floating in a steel tub. He looked around the crowded, dirty room. There were no other places to sit, no other options. Like life itself. The only other choice was nothing. Take it or leave it. And if it was left, there was someone else, another one of those twenty billion struggling human beings, only too happy to take it. It was the dark November of the world, cold, and increasingly, empty. Danny slid his breakfast out of the bag and stared it it, willing it to be better, to be eggs, and bacon, and sausage, and pancakes with butter and syrup. If he closed his eyes, he might be able to fool himself.

“That's better, sport. Accept the hand the fates have dealt you. Name's O'Neill. Earl O'Neill. I didn't get yours.”

“Danny. Danny Patrick.”

“Another son of Ireland!”

Danny glanced around the room, his dark eyes darting to and fro. He saw no one wearing a uniform, but anyone in the place could be Chicom, He leaned across the table. “You'd better knock that off. You don't know who's listening.”

Earl smiled and smacked the table with the palm of his hand. “Friend, it doesn't matter anymore. They're coming for all of us, anyway, sooner or later. Now, how about a chorus of 'Oh Danny Boy' to accompany your breakfast?”

Danny studied his meal and tried to imagine a lumberjack not only eating it, but being satisfied by it. There was a small, circular disk of soy flour, representing a pancake, or, he supposed, a flapjack. In the middle was a light, smaller circle mimicking butter, surrounded like a bulls-eye with a darker circle meant to convey the idea of maple syrup. The minimum daily requirements for a breakfast for calories, fiber and nutrients were concealed inside. Everyone received the same; there was no provision for extra, or seconds. And since the mass of the breakfast did not fill his stomach, he knew he would be nearly as hungry after finishing as he was before starting.

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