A new story. It’s scifi. It’s good.
A lump of gristle crested the surface of the tank before sinking back below the yellow waves. On the gantry above, Isaac adjusted his mask – the smell was starting to seep through, he would need to change the filter soon.
They had been running the tanks for six days straight now. He had taken the razor to his hair that morning because the damn stench had seeped into even that. There was a very real chance he would have to burn his clothes after this shift. But it was good money and the hours spared him from the worst of the riots.
He moved to the end of the gantry and hung his clipboard on its special hook before stepping through decon and out onto the viewing gallery. The fresh air hit him immediately and he pulled off his mask. Whichever number-cruncher in the tower had decided importing a few plants and removing a couple of windows was a more efficient use of money than paying for workplace counsellors had been right on the money. Shame the noise was ruining the view.
The rioters were down there still, singing and chanting with such vigour that he could almost make out the words nearly a kilometre above them. He poured himself a coffee from a belaboured machine nearby, holding the cup in both hands as he rested his forearms on the railing and stared out at the city.
Before long, another man, Castro, joined him at his perch.
‘Who have we got today?’ Castro said.
Isaac listened for a moment. ‘Sounds like the technovegans are waning today, being pushed out by the vatgate lot.’
‘I miss the ones with the enamel masks and the bagpipes.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ Isaac said, taking a sip. ‘I don’t even remember that group’s name.’
‘The New Caledonian Purity League.’
‘Ha, you look them up?’
Castro shrugged. ‘I liked the music. Wanted to see if I could download a track or two.’
‘It was surprisingly easy listening for a protest, I’ll give you that.’
He offered Castro the coffee, but the big man declined. The man had the build of a retired strongman – all the muscles in his chest had melted and congealed in his belly. Isaac had always considered him good company, and he kept up his end of the social bargain by presenting the man with a sip of his horrible, machine-extruded coffee. Castro, for his part, completed the transaction by always refusing.
‘Ever get the urge to just pour that stuff on the lot of them?’ Castro said.
Isaac shook his head. ‘It’d never reach them; the wind would carry it away. Waste of a good… well, bad, drink.’
Castro nodded and the pair stood in silence for a while. Every now and then, Isaac could pick a word from the crowd. Sometimes enough words floated up to assemble a full sentence. That was his breaktime routine now, map the everchanging landscape of the protests in the street by the cadence and melodies. The rioters had become as mundane a part of his day as the coffee.
Castro sniffed loudly and removed his glasses. ‘The wife’s down there, you know.’
‘My wife. She’s in the protest today. Went technovegan last month after reading some bloody social media guru’s posts. Told me last night she would be joining the protest this morning.’
Isaac sighed. ‘I… Sorry to hear that, man.’
‘Thanks,’ Castro said. He wiped his lenses on the bottom of his shirt before tapping the frame rhythmically against the railing. ‘There’s been friction for a while, you know. I didn’t think it would come to this though. Like, she knows what we do here. I’ve never hidden that from her. She never had a problem with it before.’
‘You told her about the Quickened?’
Castro shook his head. ‘Not in so many words. I’m not that daft. I told her that, sometimes, the meat wouldn’t reach appropriate standards and had to be destroyed.’
‘Very sterile way of putting it.’
‘Yeah, well, the non-sterile way has torpedoed my bloody marriage. Think I’ve learned my lesson.’
Isaac shrugged. He had come to terms with things back when he was interning. It had never even been a secret. They released the monthly reports for god’s sake. Quickened Stilled was plastered on the top of page 74, available for anyone to look at. It had never been a problem before.
But then, it had never been some foppish social-media firebrand reading the reports before, condensing them, publishing them under the title of exposés. Nobody cared when it was Quickened Stilled, but everyone was up in arms at SENTIENT MUTANTS GROWN IN PROTEIN VATS.
‘What are you going to do?’ Isaac said eventually.
‘I don’t know. She hasn’t thrown up the prospect of divorce yet…’
‘But it’s only a matter of time.’
‘Yeah,’ Castro said. ‘I suppose it is.’
The big man tapped his glasses on the railing one more time and put them back on. He slapped Isaac on the shoulder and turned to leave.
‘Hold on,’ Isaac said. ‘You on the rota?’
‘My slot has come up, yeah. Sick irony that, right? If they’d drawn my name a couple of days ago, I’d be sitting out my MHL at home while the wife protested. Wouldn’t feel quite so much like it was me she hated, you know?’
Isaac nodded and tipped his coffee over the railing. As expected, the wind caught the liquid immediately, scattering it into a fine mist. The paper cup danced up and out of view. ‘Want me to cover for you? Go seek out your wife, maybe? See if you can smooth things over.’
‘You’d do that?’
‘Sure. Probably easier to talk things out if you don’t come home smelling of grey matter.’
Castro turned and hugged Isaac. A true bear hug, the kind that could crack ribs. ‘I’d appreciate it. Today’s code is 6969. I bet the tech boys think they’re real funny.’
‘We’re all trying to find ways to cope, I guess.’
Castro released Isaac, slapped him on the shoulder one last time, and left. He clocked out on a terminal by door, an unimpressed face flashed on the screen in red with a message cautioning him against clocking out early. That grumpy little emoji was the only real connection with the upper management – negative reinforcement got results, he betted that was what the business textbooks would say.
Replacing the filter from his mask, Isaac stepped back through decon and took a left, down a set of stairs into the walkways below the vats. At the foot of the stairs, a panel was set into the wall. He tapped the code into the keypad next to it and it slid open with a woosh and a thin spray of sterile mist. Inside, resting nearly on a pair of glass rods, sat a bolt pistol. On a small shelf below lay a single canister of compressed air.
With little ceremony, Isaac picked up the pistol and slotted the canister into the grip. He flicked a switch and a light in the casing flashed green – loaded and armed.
He slotted the gun onto the hook on his belt and started to patrol the walkway for the signal. The vats were huge and open at the top, but down here they tapered into pipes and ducts slightly wider than a man. Dials and readouts were dotted at intervals along each, but they were below his paygrade. A few years ago, maybe he would have been able to still make out what they said, but that knowledge had long since atrophied. There was a vague memory of someone telling him that he should be happy if the needles were ticking against the right hand extreme of their readouts – that meant a bumper crop was cooking.
They had been ticking constantly for the last month. The insistent din had made it hard to keep count of exactly how many of the other noises he was hearing in that time. The bad noises. The ones that required the pistol.
The first one came after about half an hour. Several vats ahead of him, he heard the vacuum seal give way above. There was a swish and a glubbing noise as a thousand precious litres of protein mixture was drained, sluiced, and pumped back into the tank once the offending mass had been sucked into the refuse duct. It rattled and creaked in an irregular pattern as the globular obscenity was pushed down to the nearest inspection hatch.
A red light pulsed next to a handle on the hatch.
Slowly, Isaac fished his phone from his pocket and tapped through to the camera. With some hesitation, he set it recorder and balanced it between a small pipe and valve on the far wall, angling it at the hatch.
He pulled the lever and the hatch opened with a hiss. The light turned amber.
Inside, an eyeball peered out at him. The iris was a sickly concrete-grey and the sclera was jaundiced, gently swaying under the stretched and cancerous flesh in the current of the half-formed meat. He pushed his gloved hand into the mass, around the organ and down the nerve to the congealed ganglion at its source. Gripping it was like trying to hold wet tissue paper and he could feel bits detaching from the friction of him bringing it to the front. The eye stared at him blindly as he unhooked the pistol and held it against the coagulated grey matter.
A pull of the trigger. A mechanical gasp. An aberration destroyed.
Returning the pistol to his belt, Isaac pulled the handle again. The hatch slammed shut and the light flickered green as the refuse was carried away to the incinerator. He slipped off the gloves and cast them into the receptacle provided before pulling a new pair from the dispenser above it. Then he retrieved his phone.
This would happen several more times before his shift was over, he knew. The quickenings had been on an upward trajectory for the last month. The food riots had required an increase in production to help bring things in line, and yet that itself had led to the ethics protests. One problem igniting the next ad nauseum.
Isaac didn’t have a dog in this fight, but he’d take every chance he could to record these routine procedures. Just to be safe. Farm-free meat was a necessity, but that didn’t mean it was invincible. And if it wasn’t, he would need some way to pay the bills.
There’d be some pompous social media windbag who would buy the footage, he had no doubt of that. When the tide started to turn, perhaps Isaac would drop him a line.