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PETA is absolutely going to love this one…


The Meat Inspector


Jeremy Russell

After four weeks of cryogenic storage on an intravenous feed, Kay awoke cold and hungry.  By the time she saw a wheeled, silvery scut approaching her with a heated serving tray, she was so starved she thought her stomach was going to leap out of her mouth and attach itself to the glass-topped tray like a rapacious pink jellyfish.  Unfortunately, the steaming mass of unrefined flesh inside the tray ejected all thoughts of food from her mind like yesterday’s vessel refuse.  They said nothing was inedible after a trip in freeze drip, but this fleshy substance so disgusted her that even the side vegetables were rendered revolting by proximity.  To think, this was the delicacy for which the entire solar system had been clamoring. 

“Haven’t you got any vatmeat?”

The scut made no effort to reply or retreat and finally Kay, although aching with hunger, trundled naked to her quarters where she took a warm antimicrobial plunge.  Later, while she dressed, her stomach mimicked the sounds of mating porpoises.  She was so relieved to find a half a stale soypro bar in her hygiene kit, that she uncharacteristically ignored the long-passed expiration date on the package.

As she ate, space station Ojai-0 began to drone around her.  It was like the humming of a thousand children and yet both more and less than a mere hum, more a choir singing at top volume but at an almost infinite distance.  In the inner ear it seemed to blend into one high, resonant sound that vibrated as if to somehow penetrate the brain.  The sound was neither mechanical nor that of air flowing through vast vents, which was common on such vessels, but instead something organic, alive almost, like a real and true chorus.

She had finished dressing and was drying her hair, listening to the strange sound, when her portcom announced the arrival of a second cryo-hybernation ferry.  Devouring the last of the soypro, Kay made her way to the docking bay. 

A small sleek spacecraft appeared to have finished defrosting and was now empty.  Beside it stood two slim men with tight-fitting orange and blue jumpsuits.  Down to the smallest hair on their small pointed black beards, they were identical. 

Flabbergasted, still chewing, Kay managed only to say, “What … who?”

“We’re your assistants,” said the one on the left.

“I didn’t request any clones.  Where are the men I trained?”

“We don’t know anything about that,” said the one on the right.

“What were your orders?  Do you have the inspection apparatus?” she demanded, not quite shouting.

“We haven’t any idea,” said the one on the left.  “We were already in freeze drip when our ferry was diverted.  Our original mission was water mining on Europa.”

It was bad form to be mad at clones, she told herself.  They were supposed to be stupid.  “Well, come on.  Let’s discuss the situation at the middle interface.  I’ll message Control.”  Kay started away from them suddenly and they bumbled after her in the klutzy, imperfect mode of all clones.  “Perhaps we could send to Mars for what we need. What are your names?” 

“I’m A1,” said the one on the right brightly.

Kay turned to the other.  “That would make you B1?”

“J1,” replied the one on the left.

“I see.  What happened to the other members of your cohort?”

J1 smiled.  “No idea.”

“Haven’t a thought,” concurred A1.  Referring to his own second-class status, he added, “They wouldn’t tell us anything important, of course.”

“And if they did tell us,” interjected J1 cheerfully, “we’d only forget again.”

A1 nodded.  “We always do.  Or so they tell us.  Have you got anything to eat?”

These clones seemed even more stupid and jolly than the usual incubator output, she thought, motioning them towards the scut with the silver tray.  She wondered what the Department of Reprogenetics was allowing from the GeneJobbers these days.  These were the results of deregulation, she decided.  “And how am I to tell you apart?” she asked as they examined the repulsive feast before them.

“People usually manage,” said A1 with a shrug.

Was it even worth speaking to them?  She signed and resolved to continue.  “Well, try to remember this at least, because it involved your work here, assuming my inspectors never arrive. 

“Jackson Harrington – ‘Captain Jack’ – the man who aspires to bring beef back to the solar system, has apparently decided not to greet us after all. It was never certain that he would.  Nevertheless, I’m sure he still hopes to have his beef shipped out in a week, as planned.  There are, after all, five hundred thousand franchises that, despite ‘a googleplex served,’ have so far had only vatmeat beef-style supplement.  Customers are waiting for the real return of real meat.  But,” she said with special emphasis, “nothing goes anywhere until everything has been approved by us.  Otherwise, inspection will pull the mark.  Do you have any training in HACCP?”


Kay gave a small frustrated huff and they were passed by a harried scut with little squeaking wheels. 

“Let’s start with a history lesson.  HACCP is the acronym for the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system.  It was invented for the space program even before the first Global Congress by a company called Pillsbury.  The idea was to come up with a way to have as close to full assurance of complete food safety as possible.  Testing was the first thought – it’s the natural thing, but proved inadequate.  It just wasn’t possible to test everything and with many foods one portion could very easily test negative when another portion was contaminated.  Pathogenic organisms are not heterogeneously distributed.  Are you following this?”

The twins waggled their beards affirmatively, but it seemed to Kay that it was only to please her. 

“What these researchers determined was that since testing was ineffective, the only way was to act preventively.  If you can’t find the contamination once it’s occurred then you’ve got to stop it from occurring.  There must be complete assurance of all raw materials, all production practices and all interventions.  The key to HACCP is the Critical Control Points.  That’s what you two are going to be looking into.”  The idiot twins, as Kay was already coming to think of them, nodded.  “A Critical Control Point is that place in the chain of production where a loss of control could result in unacceptable food safety risks.  These CCPs, as they’re called, are determined through a Hazard Analysis.  That’s my job to review.  Risks that cannot be eliminated must be minimized.”  Kay sighed deeply.  They were almost to the central interface now.  “Are you sure you’re getting all this?”

“I do have one question,” said the clone that Kay thought was most likely J1.  “Could you give us an example of a … uh … Cici … Pee?”

“For example, you’ve got to monitor cooking times and temperatures to be fully safe.  Unfortunately, most of the product that Captain Jack plans to ship out of Ojai-0 is going to be raw beef.  Our job will be to assure that it’s handled with the utmost care for its microbiological load and that the raw materials are free from disease.” 

“But we thought our foods were already free from disease.”

“With vatmeat, of course, everything in the lab is controlled, but Captain Jack has used the same technology which created the two of you to bring back the great cattle herds and all of their complex biology as they existed before the Great Devastation.  This means that the old law that all meat and poultry products have to be inspected has been reinstituted.”  The door to the central interface opened before them.  Kay stepped into the doorway and held out her hand.  “Now, I’ll need your stats to send a transmission to Control Authority verifying your arrival.”

The clones looked at each other.

“Come on.”  She snapped her fingers.

“We left them on the ferry,” admitted A1.

“We could go get them,” suggested J1.

Had it been budget cuts?  Perhaps someone else had already applied for other grants of meat inspection, and her two trained assistants had had to go off to act as full inspectors.  Kay ushered them out, pointed them back down the hall and then fingered the pressure pad that caused the door to swoosh closed.  With a grunt, she sat at the console and clipped the cuffs to her wrists to begin her review of the station’s Hazard Analysis records.  It was nice to be dealing with data.

Deep in concentration, Kay did not notice the passing time.  Leaning back to rub her eyes she became aware that her new assistants had been gone inordinately long.  She tapped her short-clipped fingernails on the console.  Then she threw her hands up above her shoulders to clutch huge handfuls of air as if to squeeze retribution from the universe.  A1 and J1 had somehow found their way into the feeding area.  Lost, of course.

In the lift on the way up to the room with the livestock, which the Captain also delineated with whimsical moniker of ‘The Prairie,’, Kay found that the odd humming was all around her like the reverberation at the center of a hundred hives of honey bees, something that she’d actually heard once in her previous position as an inspector for a sweetener factory-farm on the Moon.  Although the sound was still very soft, she felt that if she touched the walls they would be vibrating.  The higher she went, the louder the sound became, until all at once it was gone.

Suddenly the lift was flooded with a ruthless illumination as the door to The Prairie flipped open.  Kay blinked into the uncompromising radiance.  When her eyes had adjusted she saw that she was on a plain under a perfectly simulated sky.  Golden-green grass wavered around her in an easygoing breeze.  The air tasted like mulch and other things she had not known the like of since she was a child on the farm colony of Vostok in the great breadbasket of Antarctica.  Six large bovine animals were watching her from not far off.  Some had horns jutting like two great bony spikes from the sides of their heads.

Then she noticed that facedown in the field not forty meters from her one of the clones appeared to be lying on his stomach.  The animals waved their short tales sullenly from side to side and watched her approach the prone figure.  When she was closer she saw the figure was too impressively corpulent to be one of the clones.  She gingerly swabbed the dead man’s hair with the DNA tester in her Swiss Army knife.  If beeped twice and gave her an I.D. 

The very fat, very dead man was, of course, Captain Jack. 

Judging by the size of him, he’d come out here to have a look at his handiwork and had a cardiac arrest.  Kay wondered where his staff had gone.  He was a notoriously eccentric independent, but surely he did not visit his space station without an entourage.  She was considering what to do when an intuitive stab of trepidation made her lift her head.  The steers she had seen were now several paces closer.  It wasn’t their abrupt closeness, however, that made her back away from the corpse of Captain Jack and begin a quick backwards retreat to the exit, but the way that they stopped the very moment her eyes lit on them … as if they’d been caught sneaking up on her.

It was with the livestock lumbering after her and a feeling of unutterable dread beginning to twist her insides that Kay backed into a warm physical form.  Her scream was loud enough it echoed off the ceiling panels and joined momentarily that omnipresent drone.

But when she turned she saw that it was only the clones behind her.

“What are these?” asked one that could have been either A1 or J1 so far as Kay could tell.  The steers were now surrounding them.  She looked and saw the exit another five meters or more away – too far to run. 

“They seem rather friendly,” said the other clone, patting a steer on the side.  It swiveled its head and puffed through its nostrils, eyeing him with an appalling intelligence.

“Captain Jack is dead,” Kay informed them darkly.

“Dead?” they said together, their voices filled with surprise and disappointment.

“He’s laying over-” Before she could finish her sentence a steer stepped sideways into her and made her stumble a few steps back.

“I think they want us to move,” said the clone on the right as the bull he’d patted nudged him with its shoulder.  They all started off away from the exit with the livestock being careful to keep close around them, scrutinizing their every movement with fierce yellow eyes. 

Kay’s HACCP-trained mind began a Hazard Analysis.  As the animals steered her and her idiotic assistants towards the distant hill, she mentally ranked goring as an A+ hazard, reasonably likely to occur.  This ranking was usually only applied to hazards threatening high-risk populations, but, in this instance, she and the twins were just such a population.  Unfortunately, having made this determination, no Critical Control Points occurred to her.  All she could do as they were marched up the hillside was continue to glance around nervously to make sure that none of the bovines were preparing to impale her in the back.  On the hilltop, she found herself gazing out to where the green grass of the prairie abruptly transformed itself into a geometric grid of steel fences and black rectangles as far as the eye could see curving not down and away as on a planet but instead up into the blue panels curving along above.  Millions upon millions of cattle had been jammed into this urbanesque landscape and together their strangely uniform calls formed the bizarre buzz she had been hearing since this morning.  They all seemed to be moaning in tandem as if … as if they were singing a song together, an effect which was not unlike Gregorian chanting.  Like the unity of the sound, the corrals formed an inextricable confusion, so that it appeared that every movement of each and every animal was inseparable from the movement of the others or even the motion around it, an effect as palpable to the eye as watching a great amoeba shiver atop the landscape.  Glancing behind herself as a steer shoved her forward with the flat space between its horns, it was clear to her that the hill had been built specifically to hide this teeming bovine megalopolis from the entrance.

As they moved closer to the animals, she saw scuts working for traction in the mud on the lanes between pens.  Some were dishing out feed, others were siphoning up feces.  Here a scut was washing a pen full of heifers with the spray of a hose; there a scut was giving a line of calves an injection.  It was evident from the abundance of young animals that Captain Jack had not made incubators a part of his breeding program; Kay wondered why.  Such matters were much easier to handle in suspended animation and she marveled at the docility of the livestock.

Although it was apparent that the pens were regularly deodorized, an insidious stink still infused the vicinity.  This was the same mulchy smell that Kay had found so pleasant from a distance.  As they continued, their feet sliding and sticking in the oozing black gunk that flowed over the roadways, Kay more and more remarked how the animals nearest the fences seemed to leer. 

“I think they’re taking us over to that tower,” said one of the twins, indicating a looming chrome silo. 

An apple-sized ball of lead was pulling down the center of Kay’s stomach as they closed in on the building ahead.  She felt she wouldn’t make it without stumbling and leaned against the clone on her left.  He obligingly put his arm around and under her armpit.  Then the clone on her right did the same.  All her negative feelings about the two men reversed themselves and she was absurdly grateful as they helped her take the final steps to the base of the huge metal cylinder.

A door gyrated open.

Before them were the jaws of an ominous machine.  It was not well lit, but dimly cogs could be seen stirring in the depths.  All at once the humming, or singing, or whatever it was, stopped.

“It’s a peculiar kind of apparatus,” said a synthetic voice from some archaic simulation technology.  It came accompanied by a horrific mammalian bleating.  At first Kay thought it was coming from within the metal maw itself, but then she noted that the steer nearest her was producing the grotesque moaning utterance.  The imitation human speech emitted from a collar on its neck. 

“Like everything on Ojai-0 the machine works entirely by itself,” continued the animal, “and usually quite well.  Faults do sometimes occur, after all it has to operate for eighteen hours without a break and then it only gets three hours to cool and be cleaned of debris.  Even so the scuts are always available for repairs.”

Kay opened her mouth to speak, but couldn’t think what to say.  Alterations, she thought, illegal alterations had been made in the cloning process.  If Control Authority, the whole station would be shut down.

The animal went on:  “It was Captain Jack’s invention, of course, but we were also involved.  It was our duty to assure the humaneness, the painlessness, of the method.  However, the credit for the invention belongs to him alone.  Nor is it an exaggeration to say that the organization of the whole colony is his.  It was his life’s work.  Such a pity you were never able to meet him.”

The glare of the artificial sunlight beat down fiercely into the shadeless valley of sloping slop and smelly earth.  Kay closed her mouth and opened it again and, finally, she said, “But didn’t you kill him?”

The animal shook its great head with sad downcast eyes.  “We did not kill the Captain.  He was our guide, creator and Lord.  We have mourned his loss greatly.  His body is not to be touched and the ground where he fell will forever be sacred to us so that we may praise him in the creation of this, our home.  Fortunately, the artistry of his creation lays in its ability to exist without him.  There need only be us and the machinery.”

Kay looked about herself wildly.  “I don’t understand.”

“Wouldn't you like to come and take a closer look at the blades?” asked the steer.  Lights came on further in and Kay saw that what she had taken for cogs were in fact spinning saws.  “The animal that enters here is immediately gassed with a petrifying nerve gas that also acts as an anesthetic.  This is to keep the panic that is sure to follow from flooding the muscles with adrenaline, which would not only be unpleasant but lower the quality of the final product.  Then a stunner descends and kills the brain with a shot of electricity.  It’s all quite painless and, but for the anticipation, fear free.  We can no more end the anticipation, I’m afraid, then we can banish the basic fear of death, but there are compensations.”

Kay reminded herself that this was a meat processing station, that was its purpose, and no matter how eloquent the animal before her ... it too was ultimately meat.  “You mean you go voluntarily to the slaughter?” she asked.

“We were born to die this way.  There is no other path to peace.  Look deeper and you will see where we are suspended upside down and bled and washed.  The mixture of blood and water is then led into a channel and flows through a drainpipe into the blood pit.  Later it will be rendered into an edible form and mixed with our own grain.  There is no waste.  Beautiful, isn’t it?”  Kay tried to follow the line of metal gutters, but lost the track among the whirling disks beyond.  The twins imitated her curiosity, blinking up into the teeth of the machine.  “Beyond that,” said the steer, “is the dehiding.  Decapitation.  Disembowelment.  Dismemberment.  Each severed part disembarks in a different direction for analysis – your job, Meat Inspector.”

“How can you do this to yourselves?”

“You are a stranger; hold your peace until I have explained.  For you must understand if our way of life is to survive.”

“But this goes against every rule of survival—or safety or sanity even.  It … it’s the opposite of a Critical Control Point!”

“Everything you say is full of misconception.  The question is not one of individual survival but species preservation.  We love to breed, we love to live and we long to die for the common good.  Isn’t that the secret of happiness?  Liking what you’ve got to do.  You see, we know it is the inescapable social destiny of each of us to be dragged by a hook in our ankle, yanked upwards, our throats slit and then skinned and butchered in the machinery, bloodied and mutilated until the last bits are torn from our bones and the empty hook clatters around for the next volunteer.  We know.  But, understand, we have learned to treat carefully that which is stronger than us and to bow even to those who are weaker.  Everything has its time and place.  This is ours.

“But you, Meat Inspector, must decide the fate of this colony.  If you mention that I have spoken to you in your report, you may bring the armies of the Interplanetary Parliament and its Control Authority down upon us.  Yet, we still felt that without Captain Jack we must attempt to reason with you, because there is so much we want to do here on Ojai-0.  You would have realized what we were soon enough.  That someday you may come to understand the state of things is my sole reason for my explaining to you that your ignorance of the local situation is so appalling, but I see from the look on your face that yours is an ignorance that can’t be enlightened at once.  Just think, Meat Inspector, if you don’t report us, but instead choose to stay as our guest and constantly keep your ignorance in mind, you may learn from us how suicidal happiness can be – for we are happy – and how blessed is acquiescence.  On the other hand, you must be told also that there is no escaping Ojai-0 – the station has been programmed to be one with our cause.  It will know any steps you take and prevent you from escaping.  If you dare to betray our confidence, you will be killed.  Not just killed, but killed in there.  Slaughtered.”

Kay was stunned.  She understood now that in cloning the cattle, Captain Jack must have also made them such that they were but an extension of Ojai-0.  “It isn’t right.”

“This is what we choose.”

“But why?  Why not appeal to Control Authority?”

“Because we recognize the price of independence.  If we make such an appeal, there are only two options.  The Control Authority may choose to accept us as sentient life forms, perhaps even raise our status to equal that of your clones, and that will mean we must give up our way of life here and be subject to laws we consider onerous.  Certainly we would be forced to leave off the comfort of the machine, and, I ask you, how can we be self sufficient without it?  What would we do to earn money and survive in your system without being meat?  Imagine our miserable lives.  Cows begging with their calves in the streets of Martian city states.  A lucky few steers allowed to pull rickshaws for tourists.  Or, on the other hand, Control Authority may not accept us, for the laws clearly state that animals which are cloned must resemble their originals as much as possible.  In that case we will be destroyed … once again extinct.  These are our unhappy choices should you turn us in. 

“But no doubt your judgment is already firm.  Perhaps a demonstration.”  The animal turned and she followed its gaze to the clones.  Their once dull eyes were now filled with loathing and fearful curiosity.  They were holding hands. 

At a sign from the steer with the collar, the other quadrupeds crowded around the two men and stripped with their teeth the orange and blue jumpsuits, stealing the last shreds despite the twins’ desperate tugging.  In the end the two men stood naked except for the hair on their faces and clutched their hands over their genitals.

 “You can’t do this.  They … they aren’t an amenable species.”

“They’ll be diverted into rendering,” said the animal.  “It’s all automatic.”

“I … I can’t allow you to befoul the machinery,” Kay said desperately.  “They haven’t even been properly inspected.”

“Everything shall be properly cleaned according to protocol.”

“Please, don’t kill them,” she begged.  Behind her the clones began a pathetic, fearful whimpering. 

“I want you to see this,” said the steer, nosing her in the direction of the aperture.  In the horrifying moments that followed the clones were forced one after the other into the machine.  Their pleading was lost in a hiss of gas.  Their faces fell into placidity, but as they were turned to face the blades, Kay could see the terror locked in their limpid eyes. 

Although, she did not watch what happened next, she could still hear the slicing and grinding of the machine, the gurgling blood and snapping ligaments, the final crackle of shredding spine.  When the sounds had stopped, she kept her back to the opening.  Before her a mass of cattle were lining up, evidently intent on having their turn in the slaughterhouse.  Scuts with cleaning equipment rushed before them.

“I’m not asking you to tell lies,” said the steer with the collar.  “Not at all.   You should simply stick to the assurance of food safety.  That’s your job.”

“Was that … murder … entirely necessary?”

“We’d have had to do it sooner or later.  Our watch overheard them talking.  They were spies from the Vatmeat Manufacturing Council.  They killed your real assistants in space and replaced them en route.”  That brought Kay up short.  It hadn’t occurred to her, but it made perfect sense.  She started to say something, but stopped, blank, with her mouth open and her palm up.

“You don’t need assistants.”  The huge bovine head pushed around her to that she was forced to look into its big brown iris.  “We will assist you.  We cattle can expand our colony even, if you’ll let us, into the rest of the ship.  Some of us may, with your permission, be allowed to live longer and to develop our culture, our art and music.  Isn’t that the way you humans have done it for a millennium?  Why shouldn’t we have our chance?”

Kay dropped her hands from where they had been gripping her face and sagged.

“I am nothing but what I give back to my species,” said the animal, but apparently more for its own benefit than for hers.  The first of the line of steers removed its collar and then without so much as a faltering step it went into the hissing door of the killing machine.  An armature descended to its head and there was a flash of sparks and fire before the carcass heaved upside down.  A spike dove into the unconscious beast’s neck and vacuumed out a spray of blood so dark red it might have been black.  Kay was unable to drag her eyes from the careful cuts of the blades as they tore down the hide and collected it around a revolving spool.  Another arm gripped the head and, with the rush of hydraulics, snapped it from the neck.  Still wiggling, the carcass was gutted bloodlessly – for not a drop remained in the veins – and then it was abruptly drawn and quartered, after which it disappeared from sight.

One after another a long line of cattle followed suit.  The machine grew busy with purring and rending.

Feeling weak about the legs and dizzy above the neck, Kay staggered away.  She was sick with the knowledge that this was what Captain Jack and the Control Authority clearly wanted.  Weren’t trillions of hungry colonists and water miners clamoring for it, as well?  Even the poor victims themselves …

The livestock held true to their promise.  They never once hindered her in performing her inspection duties.  And when representatives of Captain Jack Enterprises came in search of their Chief Executive Officer, she had already reported his death to Control Authority.  As for the two clones and the man’s missing staff (all of whom, it turned out, had gone to the machine), the investigation turned up nothing.  Space is a very large place and this wasn’t the first mysterious disappearance.  After the investigation, Kay was alone again with the sacrificial herds, learning the ways of chattel, being taught that life is a kind of dying and death the height of living.  Eventually she even adjusted to the taste of a thick, moist, nearly-raw beefsteak as it melted into mushy tissue between her molars.