Kenny was one of only a few people he knew who had ever eaten soulflesh. It wasn’t out of any religious sensibility, it was simply because he’d grown up on a private family-farm and his grandfather and elder brothers enjoyed hunting.
“What’s it like…eating it?” Sally asked him as they sat in the break room before his shift. He munched on a cultured-ham sandwich and answered between swallows.
“It’s not really much different than the stuff they grow here,” he said. “The game-meats have the biggest difference. The stuff from an actual wild animal tastes wild – like the grasses it ate. The technicians can’t quite duplicate true venison or elk yet, but they’re close. I don’t even think they’re going to try bear!”
“Bear would be a little difficult,” Sally agreed. “So, it’s not like you feel the animal’s life-force entering yours?” she joked.
“It’s not like that at all,” Kenny laughed, “not even with hunted meat. Put away all those thoughts you’ve ever read about the romance of hunting, or even about farm life. It’s as dull and grimy as anything you do in the city.”
“Anything different about the texture?”
“Anything that was once actually alive is going to be a bit tougher – unless you grind it up for sausage.”
“Hmm,” Sally said, cupping her chin in her hands with her elbows on the table, on the edge of a yawn. “They’ve show you the skele-mechs, right?”
Kenny’s shudder told the janitor all she needed to know. Kenny despised the skele-mechs and he’d only seen a few of them. They were supposed to come in diverse models. They were apparatuses designed to texture tissue by mimicking the movements of a living animal. They were, in his opinion, not at all pretty. One of the biomechanics nerds here charged with tweaking the designs and coming up with new ones thought they were the pinnacle of beauty, but she was considered an eccentric even among the higher-ups of the science team.
Kenny had just taken a job at Fry’s Variety Meats, a laboratory-factory for the growth of artificial protein. It was one of the largest suppliers of meat to institutions and supermarkets in the Delaware Valley. This was a relatively new form of agriculture. It was common to the sensibilities of Kenny’s generation, had started to become an efficient process and widely accepted in his parents’ generation and was in the idea and experimental-stages in his grandparents’ youth. His grandfather still called factory-grown meat “newfangled” and insisted that he preferred “real” meat from real, whole animals, but he’d eat cultured fast food burgers all the same.
Kenny had toured the facility and had done a couple of day-shifts in a general orientation process, but this was to be his first night working at what was to be his stable position – night watchman. He’d be sharing the duty with an older gentleman named Carl, who assured him that “nothing happens here” and who had warned Kenny of boredom. In truth, a promise of boredom was part of the reason that Kenny had sought the position. He’d been told that in between walking the rounds, that as long as he kept a reasonable mount of attention on the monitors that he could spend his time in the guards’ room studying if he’d wished. This made the job perfect for a college student.
“Do you see too much weird stuff doing cleanups around here?” he asked Sally.
Sally was a heavyset woman with sand-brown hair – not a color much different from Kenny’s own, save the graying, which was prominent close to her face. She was obviously a good deal older, and, Kenny hoped, a little wiser than he was.
“That’s why there’s a bonus for working here,” she answered, reaching over her hair with both hands to tighten her ponytail. “I’d have to get a second job if I’d had my kind of position anywhere else. Custodial staff don’t exactly get hazard-pay, but a certain amount of creep-out pay is nice.”
“Kinda like being a tour guide for a haunted house?” Kenny quipped, an edge of nervousness readable on his voice.
“It’s not that bad, kiddo,” Sally assured. “I’d much rather do sanitation here than on the killing floor of any of the old fashioned processors. Most of my duties consist of emptying the trash, reporting leaks and scrubbing the toilets. The machines take care of most of the heavy work. The machines make up for human-error and we humans make up for machine-error. It’s that simple.”
“Carl told me that as soon as I get used to the…um…sights… that the job gets pretty dull.”
“It does. Yours is a part-time thing. I’ll probably try to stay on here part-time if I ever get into a position where I can quit full-time and go back to school. I had to quit that a while back.”
“Aw, I’m sorry. What were you studying?”
“I wanted to be a nurse,” Sally sighed. She reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out a wallet. She opened it and pulled out a folding sheet of photographs.
“Oh! An old accordion-folder!” Kenny chimed, “I didn’t know they made those anymore!”
“I prefer my keepsakes in physical form rather than just keeping all my pictures on a phone,” Sally explained. She pointed to a little boy standing beside her in one of the pictures. The child had a distinctly darker skin tone than hers and tightly-curled hair.
“If you ever catch me overworking myself, it’s all for him,” she said with a smile. “That’s Kevin. Takes after his father, you see. His dad snapped the photo. Ah! There’s a picture of Greg, right here.” She pointed to another picture on the sheet. “I don’t have a lot of him because he was the shutterbug – with that old Kodak of his. Have you ever smelled a darkroom? Worse than the bologna vats.”
“Was,” Sally sadly sighed. “Car accident a few years ago. He was alone, on his way home from the office. Some asshole kid drunk driving. The kid came out of it with no more than a few scrapes and a slap on the wrist from the courts. He had a case of ‘affluenza,’ you see – and appropriately ‘affluenza’-infected parents to get him all the right representation and probably more than a few bribes.”
“Rough luck. I’m sorry.”
“I had to choose: Pawn my kid off on my sister and keep up with my schooling or take whatever job I could find and hope for better days. I’m happy enough for now. I get a good balance of keeping us housed and spending time with him. I’d have no time if I tried to work and do school at the same time right now. This job pays well enough that I don’t much care what the skele-mechs do at night.”
Kenny dropped his sandwich on the table with a dull plop.
Sally laughed. “I’m messin’ with ya! They don’t do anything. Well, mostly. They have a low-level AI, but they’re still tethered by the nutrient-feeds and penned. You grew up on a farm. Real animals are much more dangerous.”
“Yeah, you’re right” Kenny said, tentatively picking up the half-eaten sandwich. “I was almost gored by a bull once, our breeder. We were trying to move him to the secondary pasture. Interesting how a person can suddenly gain the catlike reflexes needed to leap a fence in two seconds flat when you’ve only got two seconds flat.”
“I thought ranchers kept electric fences.”
“We did,” Kenny replied flatly. “A critter might ignore it if he’s mad. And it wasn’t a whole fence – more like a hot-wire along the top of a fence. I just barely cleared it. Twisted my ankle when I landed.”
“I ought to be getting home,” Sally said, pulling herself away from the table and standing up.
“Yeah,” Kenny replied, munching the last corner of his sandwich. “Thanks for staying after your hours to talk with me. It was nice.”
“I figured you might need a little pep-talk on your first full night. Thanks for coming in early and giving me someone to jaw with. I don’t get that often. Toodles.”
With that, Sally grabbed a cherry soda from the vending machine and let herself out. Kenny looked at his wrist-screen to get the time and decided that a five-minute-early clock-in was in order. After he pressed his finger to the reader on the wall in the hallway, he walked down the back workers’ corridor to try to find Carl.
Kenny walked past a long window with a view into a room with enormous stainless steel vats. There was water everywhere gushing down from sprayers in the ceiling and a chemical-foam all over the room. It was being cleaned out in preparation for a new batch of stem-cultures. The chrome-hoofed feet of empty skele-mechs hung from the ceiling along embedded rails.
They were, if Kenny were to put it bluntly, like “headless horses,” not to be confused with the Headless Horseman – the alliteration first in his mind. These skels were not horse-based, however. There was not enough of a demand for horse meat in the area for it. These were beef-mechs, representative of cattle.
The skele-mechs were made of various metal components as well as durable, food-safe flexible plastics. Aside from the wiring and tubes struck through them, they resembled skeletons – only with metal limbs, translucent white plastic joints and ribcages made from that same material. They were built for a certain amount of flexibility – a mimic to living bone. The mechs had no heads. There was not enough of a demand for head-muscle and fat to justify the expense of incorporating skulls into the design. Kenny was grateful for at least that.
He was even more grateful that this factory didn’t try to clone animal brains for the meat-market. He had an uncle who was fond of the occasional fried calf-brain sandwich, a rare delicacy these days. They’d become fairly uncommon even before the days of meat-automation. In part, this was due to changing cultural tastes, but the larger issue was public fear of prion diseases. In Fry’s factory, this threat was eliminated entirely. The carrier of mad cow disease was infected cow brains. When brains were eliminated from the butcher-process entirely, so too was the danger.
Brains: They were also the difference between common meat and soulflesh.
Soulflesh: That was the general name for any meat that had come from a once truly-living animal. If an animal had a working brain, it had a “soul.” This had become a common term even among people with no spiritual inclinations. “Soul” had just become a convenient shorthand in this case. A few people liked to brag that they “didn’t like to eat anything unless they knew it had a soul,” a bit of dark-humor among old fashioned farmers, hunters and the foodies that sought out their products, but the majority of society preferred to eat things that had never had a thought.
The process with the skele-mechs was pretty simple. Kenny had seen it described in orientation, even though he was a mere night-guard. He’d heard about it all long before then, but without the details. First, stem cells that were to become muscle-fiber and associated fat were suspended in a solution in the vats. The mechs would be dipped into this “primordial soup” fluid from their suspension-ports, lowered down from their ceiling-rails. After a few days of being submerged (this went differently every time, each mech was checked for progress daily), a “meat-moss” would begin to take on the chassis. After that, the mechs would be withdrawn and slide along their grid into another room with “pens.” These were sterile rooms separated by glass that had treadmills. Commands were fed into the remote-control modules in the necks of the mechs, as well as a nutrient-rich flow of artificial “blood” pumped into the meat-moss. The headless beasts would run and walk upon their respective treadmills with regular periods of “rest” and other movements, all while tethered by where their heads should have been. They were supposed to be in a resting state at night.
Both muscle and a requisite amount of fat would grow on the things. There were no internal organs – those were grown elsewhere by another process to fill the demand for organ-meats - and no skin, at least not a true, full hide. The skele-mechs (sometimes called “meat-mechs” at this point) were treated with a transparent organic coating that formed a pseudo-skin to keep the flesh as juicy as it would be in a real body.
Kenny did not know the particulars of the science of it all (he was majoring in business); he just knew that the other day, when he’d seen his first fully-dressed meat-mech ready for harvest in full daylight hours (though under fluorescent lighting) it had nearly given him a heart-attack.
His new managers had explained to him that the skele-mech process was the gold-standard that their company had set for the industry. Mimicking life so closely was, apparently, the best way to get the correct texture for steaks and chops.
Ribs were out of the question as the skele-mechs needed to keep them for future processing. Rib-meat was just flayed off them. For “bone-in” ribs, a different process was devised. It was still being worked out and no artificial-meat factory had gotten it right by the standards of anybody who’d had the soulflesh version from any animal. Kenny had tried a plate of cultured-ribs once at a barbeque restaurant and they’d tasted to him like so much mushy hot dog meat wrapped around a curved plastic stick. Artificial rib-meat did much better when flayed off a full-textured skele-mech carcass and pressed into patties for rib sandwiches. Rib-eye steaks, on the other hand, being meat located between bones, fared much, much better.
The new night guard looked up at the empty skels in the clean room and mused to himself. “No thought, no guilt.”
“Eh, you’d think some people would be on the dinner plate, then.”
Kenny jumped at the voice.
“Didn’t mean to spook ya,” Carl said. “But, yeah – if having not a thought in your head makes ya okay to eat, maybe ya oughtta slather some steak sauce on yerself, son!”
The old man gave Kenny a wheezy laugh before clapping him on the back.
“I was thinking,” Kenny said, trying to recover, “Perhaps…too much.”
“Come on. Gotta show ya the West Wing – where you’ll be makin’ the rounds tonight.”
Kenny followed Carl’s lead.
“I thought you were going to be with me.”
“Nah!” Carl answered; patting his hip to make sure the passcard was in his pocket. He pulled the flat piece of plastic and coding out and handed it to Kenny.
“I’m sure they have your fingerprints in the clock-in system already so you can get your wages, but they probably forgot to do that on the lock-systems.”
“Um,” Kenny responded, twiddling the card in his fingers, “They put me in the payroll at orientation. Ms. Pratch said that they wouldn’t get me into security until after a couple of shifts and that I’d be using the card. That’s why I figured on being with you. You know, the standard of a trainer watching me, making sure that I wasn’t some kind of risk, making sure I don’t screw up.”
“I ain’t no babysitter!” Carl groused. “I’ll be in the East Wing and you’ll be in the West Wing. Everyone else you can hail on yer com-unit.” Carl handed him a small pin. “There ya go. Press the button and talk into it, just don’t bother me unless it’s important.”
“That seems pretty risky.”
“You don’t seem like a security-risk to me. A screw-up, maybe, but we’ll see by morning. Easiest job in the world, kid.”
“You barely know me.”
“You’re not the type to be a thief. You look too stupid be to be a corporate spy. You’re more the nervous student-type who really needs a job because yer loans barely cover the cost of course-materials, am I right?”
“Besides, things here have a way of taking care of themselves.”
Kenny sighed. “If you say so.”
“The West Wing is easy. It’s the East Wing that has the butcher-floors and the Chicken Room.”
“The Chicken Room?”
“I don’t think you’re ready for the Chicken Room, son. All that pink.”
They came to a sealed door. Carl pressed punched a number on a keypad next to the door and pressed his index finger to a touch-screen. He gestured to a slot mounted on the pad’s side.”
“Slide your card.”
Kenny obeyed and the two men entered a brightly-lit room filled with cylindrical glass tanks mounted top and bottom with metal caps and bracers. Gelatinous pink and reddish blobs danced within each tube like the “lava” in a lava lamp.
“Pork cultures,” Carl explained. “Not to be textured. “This is the smooth stuff that’s grown for hot dog and bologna-meat – that kind of thing.”
“Potted-meat food-product?” Kenny asked.
“Exactly. It gets ground up all the same, mixed with spices, but, you know, there’s no need for it to be more than blobby.”
“Well, common knowledge dictates that no one wants to know what hot dogs are made of.”
“One reason not to eat ‘em.”
“Not a fan of a good ol’ dirty water hot dog?
Carl turned to him with a grin. “I’ve been vegan for about forty years now, kiddo.”
“Bothered by the place?” Kenny asked, “Seeing how the sausage is made?”
“Not at all,” Carl replied as they walked among the tanks. “No philosophical or spiritual reasons for it, either.”
“Nah, just never liked the taste of meat. Was raised with it as a kid. Drove my ma crazy bein’ such a picky eater. Never liked any of it much, not beef, not pork… could stand chicken just fine when fried… Don’t get me started on fish. Kept up with it for the sake of the wife, but after a while I just quit. As for eggs and milk… they just upset my stomach.”
“I did wonder,” Kenny confessed. “It’s not like abstaining from meat is a matter of animal-rights anymore, well, except for those very strict folks who think of even cloned meat as exploitation.”
Carl pointed ahead. “Anyway, some of the organ-rooms are ahead. They’re pretty small, not much demand… mostly beef and pork livers for stuff like liverwurst and scrapple. There’s a room that grows eggs, but that’s in the East Wing, next to the Chicken Room. Some of the skele-mech rooms up ahead. There’s cameras on all of ‘em. The main labs are at the north end. Benny’s the night guard there, and some of the techs work dusk to dawn hours.”
Just as they were about to open the door at the end of the tank-room to further tour the West Wing, Carl turned around.
“Hold tight,” he said, “I forgot somethin’ Lemme go back and get it.”
“Hey! Wait!” Kenny called as Carl went back the way they’d come and the door closed behind him.
The lights in the room immediately dimmed.
“Wait!” Kenny called again. He punched his identification-code into the lock-pad and slid his card. The door refused to open. He repeated the procedure and found himself jostling the door-handle with furious motion.
Meat burbled in the tanks behind him.
“Carl!” he cried out, “Carl, I’m stuck! Something’s wrong with the door. Can you open it from your side?”
“I’ll try,” came the muffled reply from the other room. “Hold on.”
After a pregnant pause Carl cursed. “Dammit. Doesn’t seem to be workin’. Did you do something to the keypad? It’s got me on lockout.”
“I didn’t do anything!” Kenny complained, balling a fist and bringing it down uselessly by his side in frustration. “The lights went on the dimmer-switch, too! I’m really eager to get out of here!”
“Pretty damned spooky when yer alone for the first time, eh? I’m tryin’ kid.”
Kenny jostled the door handle again, regardless of how brute force was not working.
“Yer not gonna like this, son,” Carl said at long last. “I’m gonna go up to the labs, see if we can get you an emergency key-card. Meanwhile, if you don’t want to wait by the door, you can go through. The rooms lead out to the main hall. Go on through them and you’ll end up there eventually.”
“That was not what I wanted to hear, Carl!”
“Yer gonna be walkin’ the round alone most nights anyway, kiddo. You might as well get used to it.”
“So I don’t even get a guided tour before digging on in?”
“Like I said, I ain’t yer babysitter. I’ll be back when I can. You can wait where you are or go on through. Your choice.”
Kenny was met with silence.
He sighed and fumbled in his coat pocket for his flashlight. The room was not completely dark – just dimmed as an apparent power-save. All the same, turning on the flashlight made Kenny feel a little safer. He walked through the room attempting to ignore what was around him. He gave thought to how he ate such material all the time. As he had said to Carl earlier, no one wanted to know what was in hot dogs – not really. It was, perhaps, worse in the days when factories processed soulflesh. He tried his com unit, pressing the tiny button on it until his thumb hurt.
“Is anybody there?” Kenny called. “Hello? I’m Kenny – the new hire. I’m trapped in the first room of the West Wing! Bologna vats.”
He carefully listened. There was no reply. He tried again. “Hello?” He fingered the device and something felt off about it.
Someone had apparently forgotten to put a battery in the thing. There was nothing more to be done but to move forward.
He passed through another room – liver and kidney-tissue. It wasn’t much different from the previous room.
“Look ahead,” he told himself. “Just keep looking ahead. You signed on for this job. Watching Grandpa dress a deer was far more disgusting.”
In spite of himself, Kenny began singing a popular commercial jingle designed to sell hot dogs. It was from one of those companies that had been around for a long enough time that they’d started with soulflesh and switched to automation, purchasing stock from Fry’s for their local plants.
He entered another tank-room, yet another for smooth tissues – beef cultures. The lights flickered and then went out. Kenny bit his lower lip to suppress a scream. He had his flashlight already turned on full.
“Just a lighting malfunction, Kenny,” he said to himself. “Keep it together. It’s not like any of this can hurt you. It’s just dead meat… technically-living dead meat, but it’s not like it’s a charging bull.”
He stifled a short laugh. “Heh, Bruno this ain’t. Bruno made such good pot roast… a bit tough from all those years we kept him around, but flavorful.”
That was one contention that Kenny had with cultured meat. It wasn’t much different from soulflesh most of the time, but when an animal had lived a rich life, slaughtered somewhat old or taken from the wild, there was something more to it. Of course, it took knowing how to cook it to make it tender enough to be edible.
As he walked along, Kenny felt the muscles in his shoulders tense. “They sure have a weird way of operating, just one guard per wing…”
He remembered his uncle taking a post-retirement pocket-change security job. It had consisted of him driving alone for a few hours nightly around a gated community. Kenny supposed that the outside security measures would keep any would-be criminals out before the likes of he and Carl would ever meet them. They hadn’t even been issued weapons.
Kenny entered another room and dropped the flashlight with a start. It skidded along the floor, illuminating resting figures in brief flashes.
“Good night,” he breathed. He clenched his teeth and bent down to retrieve the torch. He shook his head. They were still. They were all still. Meat-mechs nearing butcher-readiness lay curled up behind the glass windows of their pens.
Kenny startled again as one of them stood to its feet, its shoulders and haunches bunching as the neck-apparatus raised it. It had a skinless tail, which it twitched.
Kenny winced. “Just two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he sighed.
As his footsteps echoed upon the hard floor, he could not help but imagine the beasts coming loose from their mountings and surrounding him. “Perhaps I am in Hell,” he mused. Red flesh in the darkness: It was all uncanny. Here he was surrounded by skinned demons, catching his rapid breath.
“They are not alive,” he assured himself.
That was when he remembered the words that both Sally and Carl had said about things around here having a “way of taking care of themselves.”
He made haste for the next room on the row. He slammed the door behind him as he found a source of light. The lighting flickered back on from pitch to merely dimmed.
“An office of some kind?”
This room was not like the others. There were rows of sterile white desks, set into the wall and black office chairs with wheels. There were thin computer monitors and narrow tower-units. Kenny’s errant hand found a touch-pad as he braced himself on one of the desks. He spooked when a monitor came to life, adding illumination to the room. A moment later he smiled. It seemed that some folks here favored cheesy old desktop images. Flying toasters. Classic.
His eye caught a window on the right-hand side of the room from where he was standing. It looked fluid-filled. Great, another tank, even in here. Maybe this was some kind of experimental area that he was not told about?
In the low, gray light an image formed.
His jaw dropped.
“No…no…” the young man whispered.
That was when he decided that Carl had sinister intent in regard to him and that he wasn’t getting out of here without a fight, maybe not alive.
A distinctly humanoid shape bobbed within the tank.
“Good God!” Kenny gasped. “They’re growing long pig?”
The hair on his arms rose. His heart was racing. His blood pounded in his ears. Why? Why would they do this? What possible reason would there be for human tissue-growth? Some part of him tried to explain it. Sure, a lot of the reasons for the new ways of growing meat did lie in environmental protection and issues with land-allotment, but the world wasn’t at the level of 1970’s dystopian films just yet.
He thought to the strange ways of gourmets. Human cells would be easy enough to come by. It wasn’t likely that cannibalism was for the general market, but Kenny knew enough about rich people to assume that some of the super-wealthy grew bored with the same old thing and wished to break taboos – without committing actual murder to do it.
Kenny ventured into the room beyond the window. His curiosity got the better of him and he had to observe this. “What the-?” he began.
A small fish darted in the tank. Kenny blinked.
The human shape he had found beyond the glass had, in an instant, disappeared. Turning around, he found a coat haphazardly draped across a chair in the interior office. He looked from it back to the tank. Tiny fish that he hadn’t seen before swam about.
He’d been fooled by a distorted image behind an ornamental aquarium – one with murky glass, in bad need of cleaning. He breathed relief and smacked himself in the forehead.
“Get it together, man!”
What he’d thought he’d seen was merely a product of the distortion of the aquarium’s glass and water, the dim light and his own runaway imagination. Even so, he remained wary as he exited the room and examined the office equipment. After that, he entered what he was sure and hoped was the final room before reaching the main hall. At least, he thought it was the last one from the facility-map he’d been reviewing before he and Sally had gotten to talking. He’d absentmindedly left it in the break room and sorely wished that he had it right now.
The scrap-metal sculpture of a stag’s head on the wall above him was a nice touch. Below it was a sign reading GAME ROOM.
“I don’t think this is the place where they keep the foosball table,” he joked to himself.
He hitched his breath when a mech turned to “look” at him with a metal, box-like head. It and others – all draped with growing muscle tissue, milling behind the glass of a large “pen” had the lithe forms of deer. They were different from the other skele-mechs Kenny had seen so far in that they were not tethered to feeds in the ceiling, but roamed independently, their “heads” alight with sensors colored red and green. They must have had their required nutrients administered in some way besides tubes in tethers and were apparently gifted with a more advanced AI-model, probably for the sake of twitchy, deer-like movement.
Two of them jumped when Kenny moved, getting the whole of the small herd riled. He shook and clenched his teeth. His grip tightened on his flashlight so hard that his knuckles turned white. At least it wasn’t pitch in here, but the dimmer made it feel distinctly too much like a horror movie in here for him.
He caught something in his peripheral vision. He looked to his left. Another glass-walled cage held small mechs with “heads” that roved curiously. A few jumped in simulated fear, a stimulus response to Kenny’s own responses, caught by their sensors. He thought that the cattle, lambs and deer were bad enough – they had nothing on meat-mech rabbits.
Kenny let loose with a scream as the lights came up to full and the door on the far end of the room opened.
“Glad to see you came this way,” Carl greeted, “Finally got the first door workin’, then saw you weren’t in there, so I came around.”
“Well, I didn’t’ see any intruders,” Kenny reported with a shrug and a half-insane grin.
“Yer as white as a ghost,” Carl observed. “Come on. We’ll get you to yer guard station and you can spend the rest of the night viewing the monitors.”
“There was an issue with the lights.”
“Well, they do like to keep ‘em dim to save on power at night.”
“No…they went completely out for a while.”
“I think I almost died.”
“Why do you think they demanded a physical report when they hired you? No new hires with heart-conditions.”
Kenny spent the remainder of the night looking up at screens in a cold metal chair in a room where the air conditioning was turned up too high. It felt safe and warm to him, like sipping hot cocoa before a fireplace despite the actual air temperature. Every so often, he found himself nodding off to half-dream of leaping deer and skinless cattle screaming vengeance at him.
The world owed a lot to the popular abandonment of the use of living animals in agriculture. Facilities like Fry’s existed as a way to cut down on the waste of the livestock industry. They had become a necessity in a rapidly changing climate. The technology also fed people while alleviating the guilt many might otherwise have had for what they ate – by need or by choice. Kenny knew that and the new processing labs did a fine job. However, the un-naturalness of all he’d seen grated upon his soul. In the end, the artificial beasts and the lava-lamp vats were harmless. There was no conspiracy of growing human flesh here and no demons, even if some things looked the part.
Sally met him in the morning as he was clocking out, just as she was clocking in for a day on the morning-shift. Kenny told her his story.
“Carl’s a jerk,” she said flatly, her hands on her hips. “Oh, I was hoping he wouldn’t pull that crap on you, but knew that he would.”
“What do you mean?” Kenny inquired.
“The door-jam? That was no accident. Carl does that to everybody. It is his way of testing the mettle of the new guys.”
“Does he even have the authority to do that?!” Kenny demanded.
“Yeah,” Sally replied. She regarded Kenny with a sympathetic gaze. “Everyone knows about it.”
Kenny gesticulated with his hands. He could have strangled Sally, or preferably, Carl, if he was the murdering-type. “Why didn’t you warn me?!”
Sally made a “zipping lip” motion. “Sworn to secrecy,” she said. “Send the watchmen in alone, mess with the lights… it’s an initiation ritual, of sorts, to see who is fit for the job. The place has electrical emergencies now and again. Carl wants to make sure his juniors can stand the weirdness around here.”
Kenny rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, I…uh…survived,” he concluded.
“Most new folk quit right away. So, Kenny, wasn’t it? Will you be here tomorrow?”
Kenny set his face grim. There was no way an old man fond of pranks was going to get the better of him.
“You can count on it.”