The Big Empty by Nick Olson

The body didn’t matter anymore, so it wasn’t much. Some meat. Loose skin over hard bone. A splaying of nerves, biological wires that were always ever misfiring anymore, sciatica, numbness, pain throughout the day. The body was dying, and he needed a way out of it.

There was a jackport in the city, couple models to choose from, but no power to get it running again since the collapse. All the tech in the world and nothing to see it back to life. June had always liked this city, so thoughts of her kept him company as he walked the empty streets most nights, dodging sinkholes, collapsed bridges, ancient stalled traffic to get into another store, scavenge parts, look for food for this damned body.

They’d been married before the collapse. That was, well that had to be forty-three years ago, give or take a couple. It became harder to keep track of time after the collapse, and he wasn’t exactly diligent. It was more than forty years ago, though, he was sure of it.

June would get him on a bike, an old Schwinn that’d been retrofitted to become an ebike, same as hers. Mostly they just cruised on them, flatland, but the motor helped for the hills, their knees. She’d get him on a bike and they’d fly through this city at night, when it was a ghost town, glide down the center of the street and claim it as their own, and for all they knew they could be flying out in space somewhere, pedaling into the big empty.

The rigging didn’t take much. A couple days’ worth of tinkering. It was harder to get the wiring on the batteries right, but trial and error still existed even when so much else did not. He’d managed to salvage an old battery tester from a mostly-picked-through Ubermart, got it running again. The concept was simple: pedal the bike, charge the batteries. Test the batteries, power up the jackport.

June had been skeptical of the jackports then. When they were first announced, anyway. Just another escape, she’d say. A way to run away that was perhaps a little more sophisticated than all the previous models, but not by much. She wanted none of it. She’d rather have her body run out, play its long song and then just stop. So that’s what it did.

Nights now are saltbeeph from the can, a good ride on his bike, up on stilts in a faded-out storefront, wires beneath it like a mechanical root system, splitting off to each of their batteries, more than twenty in total. He’d put a brick through this window, cleaned out the broken glass and hoped that the wind would come down and through. Give him the illusion of flying down the street, going nowhere and everywhere all at once.

It was months of this, but unless the battery tester was lying, it was working. Night after night those numbers would climb, sometimes by amounts so small they’d depress him, with his pedal power spread as thin as it was, but it would be done.

She was already fading out when the jackport salesman came to the door. He let the salesman in, and June seemed dismissive, at least at first, but she let him talk. There were other options. An entire future of possible advancements in biotech. It didn’t have to just be one of the models on sale now. It could be a real body. Stasis at least kept her options open. You never knew down the line what you might want, is all. He let the salesman carry on as he went into the other room, brewed up a couple cups of coffee.

He salvaged one of the last remaining tool sets at the old Ubermart, brought it down to the jackport. Set it next to the duffel bags of full batteries and tried to see in them anything but endless possibilities. Tried to see catastrophic failure, All The Things That Could Go Wrong. But in a life where all those things had already happened, it didn’t take much to get past that initial fear.

He found an old coffee-stained manual in one of the desks, leafed through till he got to electrical. It’d take some rigging, sure, but nothing more than what he’d already done, what he’d been doing to survive in this city for the last forty years, population one.

The rigging took a full day, so he spent that night feasting on his last remaining cans of saltbeeph. He wouldn’t need them much longer, and the body had already lost so much weight from all that daily pedaling. He went to sleep that night fuller than he’d been in years.

It almost alarmed him just how simple it was, how the procedure could be self-performed. But he pored over the manual and made sure he followed all the steps as best he could. He put one of the models in its chamber, looked over its solid metal body and imagined what it would feel like when he was in there, if it would feel like anything. Whatever it was, though, it would not be this. So he climbed into his chamber and started the process.

Blink. June’s there. Then gone again, not here. Flicker, and he’s out of his body, in the room somewhere, not sure where. Blink, and his body’s slumped. Electrical energy running out. He’s in the model now, screaming. Trying to scream. Alive in there, but the batteries have all cut out before auxiliary systems could boot up. The model has no movement. It’s stuck.

All the lights in the jackport go out. He can’t even move the model’s head, can’t move anything. He can’t speak. Can only think now. Only think of June. And in time, beyond that, he’ll think on what it felt like as he flew down the street, through the night. Into the big empty.

Nick Olson (he/they) is the author of the novels Here’s Waldo and The Brother We Share and is the Editor-in-Chief of (mac)ro(mic). In and from Chicagoland, he’s been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, and other fine places. Find him online at or on Twitter @nickolsonbooks.