Add a steer? the dialogue box queried. It had to be from Minta. Unreal! Clay had never seen a food item of that value traded whole. After a couple drinks last night, he’d bet her she couldn’t, and she’d bet him he wouldn’t.
He hesitated, then clicked the “yes” button.
Send to FarmLot? the computer inquired. He entered his own lot, 1461, and moved the icon onto it, brown pixels shimmering against the bright green background. After three years managing multiple accounts, he’d finally amassed enough shares to purchase his own FarmLot just last month. He’d never tasted natural steak, didn’t know anyone who had. Sometimes he would treat himself to a FabBurger at the end of a good week.
It was hack, not a true trade. Minta must have coded the thing in by hand. She was going to do well on the Exchange. The Colony’s entire food supply was traded here. If you didn’t come from money, it was the best career for keeping yourself well fed. Better, if you could hack the system.
They’d met offscreen for the first time last night at Eden’s on the Green. They’d been helping each other out with the Lots they managed, bartering feed and livestock to leverage better trades. Clay set the walls of their booth to Rain Forest. They talked and drank for hours as monkeys chattered and swung through the deep green understory projected behind them.
She was slender and dark. Her short hair was so bleached he wondered how much she spent in the tanning booths. But instead of looking like a poser, she looked exotic.
Clay looked up into the dim vaulted space overhead. The cavern’s floors had been razed flat, but the ceilings were intact. Hundreds of lights inset into the stalactites transformed them into lumpen chandeliers.
He’d wasted the morning playing Zap-the-Vermin onscreen and waiting on a couple help tickets for his clients’ Lots. He logged off for lunch and walked through the tunnel to the cafeteria. There he dispensed an algae icee, bought a cultured protein bar, and dug a couple linty Vit-D pills out of his pocket. All the tables were taken, so he sat on the curved ledge cut into the wall. He closed his eyes, leaned his pounding head against the cool stone and smiled. The hangover was totally worth it. He would message Minta about going out again tonight.
He washed down the pills with the dregs of the icee and grimaced—they were gelatinous once they warmed up. Walking back to his station, landscapes of greens and golds lit the screens as traders moved livestock and bartered feed. His screen was littered with gray dialog boxes. He clicked through the messages, each more dire than the last. The last box read, Error Code 101: Account Deleted.
Impossible. Everyone in the Colony had an account. A cold sweat bloomed under his sweater. He tried every key, but the screen remained frozen. He got up and headed for the Sysadmin suite. Up on the ticker, all his Lots were frozen.
The Sysadmin suite was a smaller cavern with a more troglodyte feel. It was set up like a cafe, complete with a barista. He eyed her: God he could use some coffee, but he continued to Elio’s table, pulled up a wobbly chair, and sat. Elio continued typing. Clay tried not to fidget.
Finally, Elio sat back and ground at his eyes. “What?” he asked irritably from behind fat fists.
“I got an error code I’ve never seen before.”
Elio dropped his hands to the table. His eyes widened in mock surprise, “One-oh-one. It’s the code for cattle rustling.”
Clay laughed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m serious, Clay. Your account’s deleted.”
“But it’s a mistake.”
“Where’d you get that animal?”
“I don’t know,” Clay said, not wanting to give Minta up. “It just popped up on my screen.” His voice kept rising, like it was being squeezed through a straw.
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t reactivate you.”
“It’s not like it’s real.”
“I know the Exchange plays like a game, but if the software thinks it’s real, then it has food value.” Elio looked back to his screen.
“So, cattle rustling is, like, stealing?”
“It is stealing.”
“An imaginary cow!” Clay protested.
“Six futures traders have put in theft tickets, and that’s just,” he consulted the antique digital watch choking his wrist, “in the last fifteen minutes.” When it became clear that Clay wasn’t moving, Elio continued, “We all want to believe there’s some natural beef walking around up there like the last goddamn unicorn.” An alert pinged on Elio’s screen, and he returned his attention to it.
Clay felt light. His life suddenly looked as ephemeral as the animals he moved around onscreen. He tried to focus on Elio. He wasn’t so much fat as soft—and so pale. In the light from the screen, he appeared to glow from within as if perfectly adapted to subterranean life.
“So what’s the penalty?” Clay asked.
“You have to pay for the stolen item.”
“How do I do that without an account?”
Elio flicked his eyes up to the ceiling.
“It’s either that or take your chances with a Referendum. A simple majority will get you banished to the surface.”
Clay sat speechless. The people who worked on the Lots were either criminals or debtors. He realized the system now considered him both. No one ever earned enough shares on the Lots to move back down. He couldn’t even imagine at how much a whole steer might be valued. But the surface was a death sentence. Numb, Clay left the Sysadmin suite.
He went to the Green. People strolled through the public space. Through Eden’s open door, bleary neon outlined the booths. He keyed in Minta’s username at the public kiosk; he could at least warn her.
No user by that name came up. Impossible. They’d messaged this morning. She couldn’t just vanish. He walked over to the long wall of biome dioramas. Last night, Minta had been unimpressed with his choice of booth backdrop. “Nature Porn,” she’d called it.
He stopped in front of the Boreal Forest display. A painting of a mountain ridge covered the back wall. Three small plastic conifers stood between the wall and the smudged Plexiglas. Behind him, the Green fell silent except for the sound of footsteps: Colony Ops Officers. He didn’t move. Blobs of glue showed where needles remained on the branches. More needles littered the taxidermied doe. She stood at attention, ears forever cocked, glass eyes blind, her hide dull and dusty. Her fawn stretched its neck to browse among the detritus at their feet.
“Clay Cutler?” a quiet voice asked. A hand squeezed his shoulder. He tried to say yes, but his voice failed him, so he just nodded.
There were two of them: a man and a woman in plain black uniforms. The woman repeated what Elio had explained to him in more official terms. He could either take his chances with a Referendum or start earning back the shares on the Lots. After he signed the citation, they escorted to a set of large steel doors. The elevator.
The heavy doors lumbered shut. They plunged upward for a few nauseating moments before the elevator slowed to a stop. The doors opened to the black mouth of a tunnel.
The man shoved him, sending him stumbling across the elevator’s threshold. He spun around, terrified.
“Someone will come for you,” the woman said as the doors slid shut.
Then he was alone under a dim bulb that shone on the elevator’s dull metal doors. Behind him the tunnel exhaled an endless breath of tepid air. Water plinked somewhere in the darkness. After what felt like hours, the sound of footsteps coalesced. A beam of light bounced toward him. A burly man in a hardhat and headlamp strode up to him and held out his hand. Clay took it, the man’s palm felt harder than the soles of his shoes.
“I’m Jack,” he said.
“Come on then.”
Clay followed close, keeping in the backwash of Jack’s light. His heart thumping in his chest, he scrubbed the tears out of his eyes, afraid to stumble and fall, to be left behind in the pressing darkness. Finally, they arrived at a small door. Jack grunted, struggling with a key before wrenching it open.
Light poured from a narrow room filled with boxes. Jack rummaged through them until he came up with a denim jumpsuit like the one he wore and handed it to Clay.
“You won’t need the sweater,” Jack said. He handed Clay a pair of work boots. All Clay wanted to do was curl up into a ball, but he took the sweater off and changed his shoes for the boots.
Jack secured a screen over his left eye, put an ear bud in one ear, then rigged Clay up with a spare set of gear from another box.
“We’re linked while you train. When tickets come in, I’ll tell you what to do. Pay attention, and keep your mouth shut.”
Jack turned and left. Clay trotted down the hallway after him, then slowed to a walk, gaping at the glass wall to his right. The people on the other side wore clean suits. One stood on the platform of an enormous steel vat, stirring the contents with a pole; another checked gauges at the base. Past the vat, huge frames stood at different angles. The fine netting stretched across them pulsed rhythmically. Pink flesh clung to the fiber, bunching and jiggling as the nets tensed and released. The BioFab, he realized. At the last station, workers pulled strips of meat off a frame and fed it into a large grinder. FabBurger beef came out the other side.
The hallway opened onto a balcony overlooking a massive cavern. Dust layered the stagnant air under the lights. Heat soaked through his uniform. Rows of large metal containers stretched the length of the cavern. Farm techs moved among them, facilitating trades. A woman pushed a handcart of wire cages filled with squawking poultry, feathers drifting to the floor in her wake. Another tech led a dozen tethered goats. What he guessed were dogs slunk in the shadows between containers.
“This ain’t hardly any trades,” Jack said. “Some idiot down on the Exchange crashed the system. He looked at Clay meaningfully, then snorted. “Anyway, it’s mostly maintenance and help tickets.”
Words and numbers began to scroll across Clay’s eyepiece.
“Let’s get after it.” Jack charged down the wobbly metal stairs to the floor. Clay gripped the handrail, trying to track the scrolling numbers and navigate the steps. Open ticket 2214: Drain Fail, scrolled across his screen. At the bottom, Jack was already receding down the aisle between containers. Wall-eyed, Clay jogged after him.
Animal sounds emanated from the containers, hooves scraped against metal, somewhere a rooster crowed. Clay choked on the thick air that smelled of dust and sweat, but mostly of manure. The techs didn’t notice him other than to get out of his way, but the animals did. Tethered to their containers or stacked in cages, they stared at him with an unsettling frankness.
Jack keyed a code into container 2214’s keypad and the door rolled up, releasing a stench that knocked Clay back. Jack strode in and started kicking something on the floor at the far end.
“Get in here,” he ordered.
Clay covered his mouth and walked in, past a couple sheep tethered to the wall next to a stack of caged of chickens.
“Drainage is always a problem,” Jack said. He slammed his boot against the drain again, scattering food pellets and a brown liquid that Clay was sure was excrement. With a sucking sound, the drain cleared.
Jack tapped his gear and said, “FarmLot 2214, close ticket.”
They stepped out of the container and Jack pulled the door shut. “See? Nothing to it.”
“How close to the surface are we?” Clay asked, mopping sweat off his forehead.
Jack pointed to the far end of the cavern. Past the containers, a narrow strip of light formed an orange curtain in the dusty air. “Fissures,” he said.
Sunlight, Clay realized. Actual sunlight. It looked strangely beautiful.
At the end of the shift, Jack showed him the rec room and the mess on the way to the sleeping quarters. Rows of bunks filled the long room, mirroring the arrangement of the containers in the cavern. Jack looked up an empty bunk on his gear and gave Clay the number and a piece of advice: “If you’re going to last up here,” he said, “you can’t feel sorry for the animals.”
Clay nodded and then found his bunk. He took off his stinking boots and flopped on top of the blanket. Ceiling fans plowed the stifling air. Somewhere a tech snored. He sounded just like the sheep with the occlusion in its nose when it struggled to breathe. Clay couldn’t stop seeing them. The geese tilted their heads up to meet his gaze, and the goats with their weird eyes, moving their lips as if about to comment on their condition—or his.
Everyone at the Exchange took losses; that was just part of the game, as long as there was a net gain. Most people started with broilers. They were the easiest since you only had to keep them alive for six months, but now Clay knew what a container of two hundred “cage-free” chickens looked like. He and Jack had waded through them, pulling carcasses away from the intake vents and logging attrition numbers. Feathers were everywhere, floating in the air, lying wet and filthy on the ground, but mostly not on the chickens. The sight of their dimpled flesh horrified him.
At lunch the next day, Clay watched Jack clear his plate of hash. Lumpy and brown, it looked like the animal feed, but Clay had to admit it was better than supplements and algae. They had fifteen minutes before they went back on shift. Jack tipped his chair against the wall and closed his eyes. Clay was about to do the same when his gear pinged. Feed Interrupt: Lot 1461. His lot! He stood. Jack didn’t move, so he left.
At 1461, he keyed the door and walked in. There were his six hens stacked against the wall, and his two goats. A creature the size of a small mountain lay in the sandy substrate at the back of the container. A tech stepped out from the shadows. He didn’t recognize her at first, in the jumpsuit and with her gear covering her eye.
Then he did. He remembered their online banter, the drinks at Eden’s, her laugh. Was Minta even her real name?
“Look, I’m sorry,” she said. “The plan was just to move it through your lot. We didn’t think the Sysadmins would act so quickly.”
“You’re sorry?” He turned and kicked the wall so hard his foot hurt inside his steel-toed boot. “They deleted my account!”
She looked at the beast. “The Exchange will reclaim it as soon as they figure out who owns a majority of the futures.” She looked back to him. “And they’ll move him before we can get him out.”
“What? We who?”
“You’ve been lied to, Clay. There’s life on the surface. It’s hard, but not impossible.”
“I think I’m still being lied to.”
She sighed. “This isn’t a steer. It’s a bull. My people, we have a heifer—a young cow. We could breed them.”
“Look, I can’t afford to get into any more trouble.” It came out sounding like a damn apology.
“The Exchange,” she spat. “Speculating on who gets to eat. It’s a perverted game. You don’t need to live like this. That’s the truth! Imagine a whole herd of these. Milk and meat for all of us.”
The beast swung its head toward them, rattling the chain that ran from its halter to the wall. A grimy plastic tube snaked out of one huge nostril and dangled free.
Minta flipped on her headlamp and stepped closer to the animal. Its flank was divoted with hundreds of round scars. “Punch biopsies,” she said. “All the FabBurgers you’ve eaten have been cloned from this guy.”
Clay stared at the creature.
“This is no place for man or beast.” She held her hands out to include the lots and the levels below. Clay should be angry at her. She’d erased his life. She turned away. “Come on, let’s get him on his feet and hooked back up.”
“How are we supposed to do that?”
“Just pester him a bit.” She gave the animal a slug on the shoulder to illustrate. The bull looked up but didn’t move. Clay stepped up to the animal and shoved its massive belly. It bellowed and let out an extensive fart, the sound reverberating as the smell hit them. Minta fell to her knees, laughing and coughing. Clay stumbled back as the bull struggled to its feet.
“You’ve got the magic touch.” Minta got up.
Clay moved his eyepiece and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
“I’ll hold his head. You plug the feeding tube into that port.”
The tube whipped around as the steer bobbed his head. Minta laid a hand on his forehead settling him while Clay secured the end into the wall port. Green liquid moved up the tube. The bull began to chew.
“What’s he chewing?” he asked.
“They burp up their food and chew it again.”
Clay looked at the tube. “What’s to chew?”
“Well, old habits die hard,” she said.
Clay ran his hand over the scars on its flank; each plug of tissue a trade. When he turned to Minta, she put a hand on his neck and kissed him on the cheek. She smelled the same as him, like sweat and manure, and something else, too. Something that made him think of the orange curtains of sunlight at the end of cave.
“Think about it, Clay, but don’t take too long.” She walked out of the container.
Clay rolled the door down on 1461 and jogged through the aisles, until he found Jack tossing some skinny piglets into a container.
“Where the hell were you?” Jack asked without pausing.
“I got a ticket—at lunch. You didn’t get it?”
“Nope,” Jack said over his shoulder. He closed the container door and started up the aisle. Clay fell in next to him. “Don’t follow me,” Jack said.
“If your feed is live, then training’s over.” He tipped his hardhat and walked away.
Clay checked his gear; a dozen new requests populated his queue. He headed for the container at the top of the list. The hours dragged as his tickets piled up, the oldest ones blinking red. The animals blurred together into a single living mass of needs and misery.
He kept thinking about Minta and the bull. Everyone knew that banishment was a death sentence.
He was loading a dead ewe onto a cart bound for Fertilizer and Feed when klaxons blared and the lights dimmed. Hazard Alert scrolled across his eyepiece. Laser sighting beams swerved through the room. Everyone scattered. A tech grabbed him and yanked him out of the aisle. The Zap-the-Vermin icons on his computer at the Exchange were funny-looking little ogres with enormous frowns.
Minta ran up the aisle with small pack of scraggly dogs barking and weaving around her legs. She carried two kid goats bleating pitifully under each arm. Clay’s mouth went dry. Gear gone, her golden hair glinted in the dim light. A remote-controlled gun fired from somewhere in the shadows. One of the dogs yelped and fell thrashing in the dirt. Minta didn’t look back, didn’t slow down. All the techs stood as still as statues to avoid the motion detectors. Bullets pinged off the containers and threw sprays of dust into the air.
“Stop!” Clay screamed over the din as if the bored traders clicking away at their computers could hear him.
It ended with a soft thump and a sudden silence. Clay broke and ran up the aisle. He yanked his gear off and crouched by her. She lay on her back, gasping, blinking at the overhead lights as they flickered back on. One dog stood by her, barking fiercely. Blood soaked through the fabric of her uniform, spreading across her chest and running in dark lines up her neck. She moved her hand up and stroked the wiry brown fur on the dog’s leg. He whimpered and sat. Clay could see now that her uniform was a counterfeit: a rough tunic and loose pants, dyed blue. Her eyes shifted to him.
“I liked you,” her voice less than a whisper, her lips forming the shapes of the words, “and that’s the truth.”
“I believe you,” he said.
She smiled. Her breathing slowed, then stopped.
Clay gulped air. Everything went soft and bright as tears ran down his dusty cheeks. Somewhere the kid goats continued to bleat.
Jack pulled him up by his uniform and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Remember, if you’re going to make it up here, you can’t feel sorry for the animals,” he said.
“Damn,” a female tech replied. Tears stood in her eyes too.
“Doesn’t mean we gotta like it,” another agreed.
Jack snorted and left the circle. Two more techs arrived with a canvas stretcher. The dog was gone.
“Shift’s over,” the first tech said. “Go on and get some rest.”
Clay nodded and walked away. He went to 1461, punched in the code, stepped inside, and rolled the door shut behind him. The bull swung his head toward Clay, his jaw still moving in that lazy sideways motion. Clay sunk down against the wall. He couldn’t stop seeing Minta bathed in the bright lights. He’d noticed tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Her skin was more than tanned it was weathered.
He jerked awake when his gear pinged. At some point during the night he’d laid down in the substrate and slept. He rubbed his eyes and put his gear on. Morning mess call. He went to the rec room instead, sat down in front of one of the game terminals and activated the screen. All his hacks had only been jokes or petty theft. This one, if it worked, would be something else.
Back on the floor, he didn’t even look at the help requests, just went to the containers listed. Once inside, he used his utility knife to cut the tethers attaching the animals to the walls and opened all the cages. He slipped out of each container after freeing the animals, closing the door quickly and marking the ticket resolved.
He hit as many containers as possible before the lunchtime lull. When the techs left the aisles for the mess, he returned to 1461, cut the bull’s feeding tube and unhooked the chain from the wall. He stroked the thick, white fur curled at the center of its enormous head and started toward the open end of the container. The beast was as solid as a mountain and as unmoving. Clay wrapped the chain over one shoulder and leaned into it.
“Come on. You want to spend the rest of your life being perforated?”
The bull sneezed a shining spray of green onto Clay’s back and began to walk toward the door, hooves booming.
Clay tapped his mic and voiced his request, “Door release: Lot 0000.” Then he waited, listening to muffled animal sounds from the neighboring containers.
It didn’t matter. He leaned into the chain and the bull started moving. The first lock popped and another, then a deafening cacophony as all the locks released and the doors to every container rolled up.
He led the bull into the aisle. Animals and birds scrambled out of their containers, bleating and squawking. They flapped and trotted around his legs in a confusion of freedom. The bull bellowed. Clay gripped the chain and pulled as hard as he could, but the bull planted its feet regarding Clay with a terrified brown eye ringed with a white crescent.
“Come on!” he pleaded.
Techs poured out of the mess. Clay pulled. The bull began to walk, but at an excruciatingly stately pace. Clay looked back. Several techs ran up the aisle toward them.
Then the klaxons sounded and the lights dimmed. The techs melted into the shadows between containers. A few animals still milled in the aisle, though most had wandered off. They continued toward the far end of the cave and the faint curtain of light leaking in from above. A laser sighted a fat turkey walking a few feet ahead of him and a bullet sent it sprawling. He would die chasing that sunlight, just like Minta.
Something yipped and ran between his legs, nearly knocking him off his feet. Minta’s scraggly dog circled them, nipping at the bull’s legs. The bull broke into a tremendous gallop, knocking Clay to the ground. He rolled away from the hooves slamming down and got to his feet. The three of them ran up the aisle, through the swirling, sunlit dust, and into the shadows beyond.
Clay switched on his headlamp and grabbed the bull’s jangling chain. The dog raced ahead through a narrow opening. The bull trotted along following the beam of Clay’s headlamp. A curving footpath wound through a forest of enormous stalactites and stalagmites until they arrived at a wide, empty space. Boots clattered somewhere behind them. Colony Ops. The dog whined. Clay directed his light to the sound. The dog paced in front of a tarnished set of doors. Clay pulled the bull toward them and pushed the button on the panel. The doors slid open with a screech.
The elevator was going to be a tight fit. The bull shied, shuffling back with a gooey snort. Clay snapped off his headlamp plunging them into total darkness, hitched the chain over his shoulder and pulled. The dog scrabbled around underfoot, urging the bull through the doorway. The elevator bobbed alarmingly. Clay snapped on his light and found the buttons. There were only two. He hit the top one and waited. He could hear voices now. He turned his light off again and stabbed the glowing green button over and over. At last the doors squeaked closed. The elevator groaned and they ascended.
He turned his light on. Minta’s dog sat panting at his feet. The bull let out a long flat note of complaint. The feeding tube still dangled from his nose. The elevator ascended for several minutes, before it stopped with another precarious bounce. The doors opened to a gust of hot, dry air.
Bright light. The bull eagerly moved out into the spacious hallway and disappeared around a corner. The dog followed at his heels. The penetrating light was everywhere. Clay didn’t want to leave the elevator, but if he waited they would be gone and he would be alone. Squinting, he followed the hallway to a large, cluttered room.
Hot wind blasted his face. He stumbled in the brilliant light that washed through the floor-to-ceiling windows in front of them. Beyond the glass, the bleached land ran on and on to an impossibly distant horizon. The dog drove the bull through the chaos of the gift shop’s ransacked shelves.
Clay dropped to his knees, picking his way through tiny metal spoons, decks of cards, and stuffed bats. The bull knocked over a stand, scattering shot glasses across the floor. Glass crunched under his hooves as he walked through a shattered window section, the dog at his side. They receded into the blinding light.
Clay got to his feet and stumbled after them, heart hammering in his chest. He didn’t know how they could help him survive out here. At least he didn’t want to die alone. Grains of sand skated across cracked pavement. Shards from the broken window glinted. The light came from everywhere and it was burning hot. Tears sprang to his eyes as he blearily watched the ground pass under his feet.
When he reached the end of the parking lot, he looked back. The building they’d just left seemed tiny and far away—the land around it expanding beyond already its boundless measure. Above, the blue vault of the sky flew away from him. He closed his eyes and fell to the ground, the sand burning his cheek. Tufts of dry grass rattled. Some small thing scuttled by. It looked like the desert diorama’s landscape, except that that was a painting; cool and small and no further away than the length of his arm.
Sometime later he heard the dog yip, then slow, steady footsteps. Someone rolled him onto his back. A shadow fell over his face.
“You Minta’s friend?”
He thought of her bleached hair, of the fierce look in her eye when she’d told him the truth about the surface. Clay opened one eye just enough to make out a man crouching over him. Wild white hair framed a dark, deeply creased face.
“Yes,” Clay said.
The man pulled Clay to his feet, wrapping an arm around his wiry shoulders.
“Come on, Let’s get you some shade,” the man said.
“She’s dead.” The tears running down his cheeks now weren’t from the brutal sunlight.
The man nodded as he led Clay away from the gift shop and the caverns below. Shimmering in the distance, a group of people led the bull along a path that cut through the scrub. Children capered around it. The wind carried the tinkling sound of their laughter back to him.
By day Rebecca Schwarz is a mild-mannered editorial assistant for a scientific journal, by night she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. Her work has appeared in
Interzone, Bourbon Penn, and
Daily Science Fiction. Read about her writing life and link to more stories at www.curiousworlds.blogspot.com.