“This crime most heinous shall be punished by death.” He knew they were coming, but the words still pierced his heart like no others. The simple act of defiance had seemed so innocent just 48 hours ago. A single tear rolled down his cheek, and he turned his head to one side, so Sarah and Lucy wouldn’t see. They would rather see him die astride his white horse than fall off. He wouldn’t take that from them, not after everything else he had put them through.
The recently formed death squad were clumsy and slow to finish tying him to the stake, and slower still to light the dry kindling below. Smoke and ash quickly filled the air, blowing directly towards the Gorgesk president and her staff in the cool breeze. The humans in the smokes’ path were starting to squint as their eyes watered, but the Gorgesk were protected by the genetically modified keratin mesh over their eyes. Bastards. The Earth Defence had capitulated just over 3 years ago, but Kursk still had trouble accepting his new rulers. They declared Earth a republic of the Gorgesk Federation of Independence (a loose translation at best), expecting humanity to be happy with the gifts of technology and longevity, but they underestimated how highly humans value freedom and autonomy.
The fire began to lick his boots, which insulated his soft feet from the better part of the searing heat. For now. Little Lucy was looking up at him with a brave face. She was just too young to remember an Earth under human rule. She would not weep for her father for she had already been taught the truth at school; Earth had always been the rightful property of the Gorgesk. To defy them didn’t result in death, it was death itself. A spark rose from the shifting kindling, sailing up ever so slowly on a gust of wind, finally landing on his cotton trousers, which burst into flames. Don’t fall off.
He had trouble believing he was the first human to stand in the path of a Gorgesk minister. How could he have known she was uplinked? When she collided obliviously with his solid, meaty mass she rebounded and landed awkwardly, twisting her spine. Gorgesk and their brittle spines, he cursed inwardly. They had sentenced him to a life of labour on Mars, an existence of exclusion but relative comfort, but after Minister Les’qua passed from coma to death the verdict was quickly revised. The Gorgesk high judge was jittery after hearing the description of Kursks’ actions. It was almost as though challenging the Gorgesk challenged belief.
The firestorm was sizzling his skin now, and crept up his clothes, almost reaching the collar. His face was flushed, and it was only partly from the shame. Don’t fall off. He resisted the urge to squirm as he felt his chest baking from the intense temperature. His blood boiled out and congealed over his stomach like a rich red sauce. The basted body roasted away in a most tantalising manner.
The presidents’ attendant shifted uncomfortably as the smell of the crackling, seared meat reached him. It wasn’t long before the whole attendance was getting restless and looking around. Only the president herself stood impassively. Sarah looked away, embarrassed, unable to meet his eyes. The stake itself had caught alight, infusing the heady concoction with a hint of cedar. One of the Gorgesk guards had lost his stance of attention and stared, salivating, at the grilled human. Kursk was now but a shell of his self, mentally and physically. As he passed, he was thankful the inferno was hot enough to evaporate the waterfall before it could be seen.
Having consumed most of its fuel, the fire began to burn out. The stake broke off at the bottom and rolled across the coals, resting near the feet of President Nah’dok. There was a minute of silence as the crowd looked at Nah’dok expectantly. Sarah shuddered with realisation at what would take place next. She felt no fear, and that terrified her.
Nah’dok took a laser knife from her guards’ belt and bent down. The still scorching flesh was overpowering in every way, fat oozing from holes in the crisped skin. A charred bone protruded from a large hand, which Nah’dok effortlessly liberated. Holding it up to her nose, she breathed deeply. Her skin flushed dark green. She had never been so… ravenous. She sucked on the morsel, gently at first, and was rewarded with a cut of ambrosia. She chewed, and it just melted in her mouth. Unable to control herself, she popped the rest of the plump sausage in her mouth, crunching on the blackened bone. She gave a small squeal of delight as her taste buds were received by the chewy marrow, the best part of all. Closing her eyes, she swallowed and sighed. It was a long time before she opened them.
Remembering she was not alone, she forced herself to stand. “All humans are to return to their dwellings and assemble at the city centre at noon tomorrow. There is to be a grand announcement.” As they filed obediently out of the room, she handed the knife back to her guard. “I want this in my room in an hour. Tell the rest of the inner cabinet to join me. We have a new export.”
My mother was eaten last year. My father will be butchered tomorrow. And I will come of age in 16 years. It is 2182, and we are food.
Tony stared listlessly at his nutri-string, twirling it around his fork without eating. Alex was shovelling high fat coconut paste into his mouth with one hand and mending his shoe with his other. The image made Tony sick.
“Dad, doesn’t it strike you as odd that –”
“Not today Tony.” Said Alex, looking up and grinning broadly. “I’m in a good mood.” He turned his attention back to his food and shoe.
Not ever then. Couldn’t he see the senselessness? Tomorrow night Alex would be on the dinner plate of a Gorgesk politician or bureaucrat as steak, sausage, pâté, or all three. It was a great honour to be eaten by a high-ranking Gorgesk; the cause for Alex’s high spirits today. A high fat diet for the last 6 months had allowed him to finally crack 200 kg, amidst much celebration. ‘A good eating size’, as the Gorgesk children would say.
A blast of air through the old mechanical whistle signalled 10 minutes to shift-start. Alex noisily slurped the last drops of paste off his bowl and placed it in the wash trough. “See you tonight Tony!” he sang, not even glancing back.
“Yeah, see you.” Tony whispered. He handed Lucy her high protein lunch which she took without a word, skipping out the door on her way to trade school. Now that Tony was 14 he had started working in the fields, doing whatever odd job was required. He hadn’t done that well in trade school. Too much thinking, the headmistress said. If Tony was lucky he might work his way up to taskmaster, increasing his lifespan by 4 whole years. Good taskmasters were far too valuable to eat so young.
Tony stepped out of the small cabin and looked up. It had only taken 15 years for the Gorgesk industrial might to demolish the skyline of human cities and replace it with their own, but the knowledge that another version of this world had even existed was lost to humans. Tony had known no other sight, but something told him that things had once been different. Flashing neon lights and holo-screens lit up the grey morning sky showcasing the ultimate neural-holo entertainment or the finest cut of human, and how good it was with a rich mushroom sauce stuffed in between two slices of lightly toasted bread.
The whistle blew for the second time. Startled out of his reverie, Tony sprinted down the dusty path to his designated land plot.
“Stop eating them?” Sta’bek laughed. “What have you been dripping? I want some.” He rose from a leather-backed chair and started gathering his crystals for work.
“I’m serious,” groaned the exasperated Gorgesk child. “It’s cruel to keep humans locked up. Rin’des was saying –”
“Rin’des says a lot of things. Such young radicals ought to be incinerated. Lucky for your friend I’m not the Minister for Intelligence.” Sta’bek looked despondently at his daughter. “I used to be like you, you know; so young and full of idealism. But then I grew up and realised there are two sides to every story. We don’t treat humans cruelly; we keep them in wide open spaces so they have room to move and be happy. Besides, they wouldn’t exist at all if we weren’t breeding them.”
“But what’s the difference between humans and other animals?”
“Why Law’bek.” Sta’bek smiled patronisingly. “We breed them. Food is what they’re for!”
“That doesn’t make it right! Besides, papers from the Academy of Health on Gres’nak all show how unhealthy human is.”
Sta’bek’s shrugged. “Vested interests. Gres’nak produces high protein grasses and has lost half its market share since we started exporting human.”
“Can the same not be said of us?”
“That’s enough. I’m the Minister of Agriculture, and I’m not going to stand here and be lectured by an uneducated girl. I’m banning your hexalink access for a week. You’re becoming radicalised.” His insides burning, he covered the distance to the meta-wall in three strides. Just before he passed through, his hearts softened and he sighed. “What if you were stuck on a deserted planet and there was nothing but humans to eat? What would you do Law’bek? You wouldn’t starve yourself, be reasonable.” He glanced back, hoping to see some change of heart.
“What if you lived in the Gorgesk Empire where there was an abundance of all types of food and we didn’t have to cause suffering to other life forms?”
Bile rose in Sta’bek’s mouth and his face turned a dull orange. Pincers shaking, he struggled to contain his rage. “One month.” The door closed.
Dust. Tony trod through the soft, ashen soil, dragging his heels. He was carrying water for two humans pushing a plough through the earth who were apparently accustomed to the dry air. Tony was so parched he drank almost as much water as his work companions. Their muscles were well defined from 8 years of back breaking farm work, 14 hours a day. It was a wonder they had made it, plough pushers were notorious for dropping dead within a few years. A lack of will to serve the Gorgesk, the superintendent would boom. An unjust system, Tony would murmur.
Finally summoning the courage to speak his mind, he quickened his pace to catch the pair and spoke as quietly as he could. His voice caught for a moment as he fought through the bottled up emotions. “My father is being slaughtered tomorrow.” He croaked.
“Congratulations.” Said the female neutrally said without turning. The male just grunted.
“No, that’s not what I-”
“Stop, we get it. Alex was lucky enough to get a token desk job and grow fit for a bureau’s belly. Pushers can only dream of being such delicacies.” The male scowled but remained silent.
“It’s all wrong! We shouldn’t have to live for the Gorgesk. We are our own people, we deserve to be…” Tony trailed off. He couldn’t think of a word that described what he felt. Tony stole a glance at the taskmaster who was eyeing him warily from a distance, whip in hand. The ultimate insult, surely, to have convinced humans to whip humans. Tony waited until she had turned away before continuing. “We shouldn’t let the Gorgesk eat us.”
The woman paled but kept pushing. Thinking perhaps he had not been heard, Tony got a little closer. “We should-”
The force of the blow sent Tony and the jug flying to ground, the precious water greedily guzzled by the soil. Tasting blood mingled with the dust, he tried to stand, but was struck down by another fist. The male was standing over him, eyes wild. “You would have us all incinerated! And for what?”
“Jim, he’s so young!”
“I’m done Liz, this has to stop. His words will poison us all. This is how it has always been, and this is how it always will be.” A buzzing noise caused Jim to turn just in time to see the whip, which caught him on the bridge of his nose instead of the ear it was aiming for. The pain was so intense that for a moment, he could only bring a shaking hand to the ruined mess.
“Did anyone else hear the whistle? I didn’t. Is my hearing shot in my old age?”
“No taskmaster.” Liz answered for Jim as he struggled to come to terms with his new face.
“Good. Back to the plough.” The taskmaster lazily powered down her electro-whip and slung it over her shoulder, stroking it with one hand and watching the plough pushers go. A gift from the superintendent for her years of service. A good taskmaster will live 4 years longer, the best maybe 5. Tamara was 36 and still had not received a call to the slaughterhouse. Tony had heard this was against even Gorgesk agricultural regulations, but loopholes were always found in extenuating circumstances. “It’s unfortunate that the superintendent chose today to show our plot to the off-world visitors.” Tony only now noticed the 6 Gorgesk on the hill behind them, their gaze following Jim and the plough. One was the superintendent and two were armed guards, but the other three were unfamiliar, wearing exotic colours and cloths. One was holding a small recording device and watched the scene unfold with wide, panicked eyes. “Why was he hitting you, boy?” Tamara knew his name. Holding his nose, Tony rose to his knees.
“I’d tell you if I knew, taskmaster.”
“Always a trouble maker.” Tamara said softly, still watching Jim go. Tony wasn’t sure who she was referring to.
As soon as Sta’bek left she pulled out her hexalink crystal and downloaded every political journal in reverse chronological order to physical storage. Just 30 seconds into the download her connection went dead. She was lucky he hadn’t just accessed the house computer with his neural implant the moment he left the room. No matter, she had the last 3 weeks of every political article written on human agricultural policy to play with.
She read through each article, almost all of which were pro-human consumption (those that weren’t were ridiculed and published in less mainstream news outlets), and thought of ways to counter each claim being made. The nutrition part was easy. There was plenty of research that linked human consumption to long term health issues, and it was surprisingly easy to show that the studies which ‘show’ that human is healthy were funded by the regional planetary government or humaneries. The environmental part was a little harder, but it was still true that it took hundreds of kilograms of food to make just one kilogram of human, not to mention the extra water, fuel and land required. Some of the newer colonies had stagnated and couldn’t afford the exorbitant prices charged for human exports, and would certainly benefit from the extra resources.
Law’bek glanced up at the window – already dark. Curse the short days on this forsaken rock. She rubbed her eyes and went searching for food. On phasing into the cold room, an overwhelmingly pungent scent ambushed her senses. Leftover human. Her appetite evaporated, she slid back through the meta-wall and ran back to her room. She reached for her crystal to bury herself once more in research, but it wasn’t there. Icy tendrils crept down her neck. What if he had seen-
“Not bad so far Law.” Law’bek jumped to her feet and whirled around.
“Drak’sah Rin,” she cursed, “how did you get in here?”
“The old fool’s security system could do with an upgrade.” Law’bek went orange. She despised her father, of course, but he was hers to despise. “With a bit of flourish it might be worthy of one of the top outlets.” By ‘we’ he meant ‘I’, of course. Why are the most gifted ones such glandings? Somehow she was able to swallow her pride and calm herself until the orange dissipated. For the humans, she reminded herself.
“Well, let’s get to work.” She said, smiling frostily.
Alex squeezed through the front door, sweating slightly under his own weight. “Take care of your sister, won’t you?” Alex wasn’t really looking for an answer; he was too caught up in his own ecstasy. Without looking back, he strutted proudly down the road towards the slaughterhouse. Jealous eyes with murderous glints followed him the whole way. Tony held back his tears for a moment, building a painful pressure, before succumbing to loud, violent sobs. Lucy looked up at him in innocent confusion. Not that she didn’t know her father was going to be eaten shortly; she was confused about Tony’s reaction.
“Itsa natural Tony.” As if that made everything better.
Later, at his lunch break, he sat apart from the rest of the farm gang, aimlessly sloshing his bread through the thin nutri-gruel. He was on water duty again today. Jim was absent, probably put down for disrupting the work gang, and his pusher-partner had been reassigned to fertilising. He was startled by the sound of the bench creaking across from him. He looked up and recoiled. The taskmaster only sat across from you if you were in trouble.
“Tony, I’m not here to hurt you.” She said in a surprisingly gentle voice. Tony didn’t believe it; he had seen her lull workers into a false sense of security before. She touched his hand. He looked up and saw her smiling. “I know how you feel.” Her voice went softer, almost impossible to hear. “And I feel the same.” His heart almost stopped. He felt dizzy and could hardly respond. “I’ve felt the same way as you since I was your age, and I’ve been working my way up from the inside ever since. I’m so close to being able to do something, but I need your help.” Tony was incredulous. It was all he could do to nod. Her gaze went from kind to serious. “But this sulking won’t help anyone. You need to be strong, or you won’t be of any use to me. Eat your food Tony. For me. For us all.”
She released his hand and sat back. Tony smiled up at her and raised the sopping wet bread to his mouth. He gingerly placed it on his tongue and swallowed. He closed his eyes, allowing himself to enjoy the flavour. When he opened them, they felt puffy. He tried to blink but found that he couldn’t, his eyes were slowly expanding and his eyelids wouldn’t reach around anymore. He struggled to his feet and knocked over the rest of the gruel in panic. He writhed on the ground as the pain took hold of his whole body. The taskmaster stood over him. He reached his hand up to her, silently begging, hoping. But she didn’t take it. The gruel was already a distant memory. All he could taste was the dust.
The sound of metal on metal was occasionally punctuated by a polite exclamation of wonder and compliments to the chef at the discovery of some subtle new flavour. Steak, sausages and pate were brought out in varying configurations and combinations for Sta’bek and his guests to enjoy. Law’bek sat sullenly at the end of the table. Her father gave her a reproaching look as she piled her plate with boring legumes which were supposed to be a garnish, but otherwise ignored her, focussing his charm and guile on the off-world delegates.
“Exquisite Sta’bek, simply exquisite. I’ve tasted human in holo but the reality is just so… enthralling. My delegation and I were just this week wondering why it’s so hard to come at Parliament Central on Gron’lek.”
“I’m actively campaigning for an increase in production. Our new breeding program has increased output by-”
“Yes very clever I’m sure, but we were wondering why no one has implemented farms on other worlds.” Sta’bek almost dropped his skewer. He had been dreading this moment. The exclusivity of humans being bred on this world was what had helped it grow so rapidly from a border colony to a bustling economy. If they were to lose the monopoly their way of life would surely end.
“Ah yes, the Minister for Finance and I were just the other day discussing how we might get financing for such a venture. All it would take is-”
“Minister Foy’gra.” Said the delegate, his smile hardening. An old political opponent. “Well I think that’s a terrible idea. Humans obviously belong on this world. You’re a fool for even listening to such nonsense.”
“Yes, of course Minister Grep’san, it was foolish of me to say.” Sta’bek averted his gaze and felt his face burn blue. Grep’san took this as embarrassment and turned away.
“Young Law’bek, you are saving the human for last I see?” Sta’bek’s colour flashed a panicked purple. Law’bek looked at Sta’bek, perhaps begging for reprieve.
Don’t make me say it. Her face seemed to say, a complex mix of colours swirling. But Sta’bek did not yield. “Show Minister Grep’san how much you enjoy our fine produce Law’bek.” For what seemed like an eternity, Law’bek held her father’s gaze. Finally she could suffer it no longer.
“This food is not what you think it is!” she blurted. “The humans are intelligent, they are treated cruelly and-”
“My dear Law’bek is suffering from protein deprivation.” Sta’bek announced, signalling to the guards. “Will you escort her upstairs?”
Law’bek rose to her feet before the surprised guards could start towards her. “No no, I’m old enough to escort myself.” As she turned to leave she noticed the younger, quiet delegate looking at her with wide eyes, which were averted so quickly she couldn’t be sure he was looking in the first place. As she left, the conversation gradually returned to normal.
Law’bek woke later from a fitful, broken slumber to a loud ping emanating from her crystal. Message. As she reached for it, she remembered that her hexalink access had been revoked. Odd, only ministers could override such a block. There was an item on her crystal from an anonymous author titled ‘The Truth’. She watched it, then re-watched it, then laughed. From footage of human working and living conditions taken the day before to old health publications that had been covered up, it was all the evidence she needed to convince Parliament Central to abolish human breeding. Of course, she would have to forge the author’s credentials, but she did have access to a certain minister’s hexalink account. She had never met a live human, but she knew how overjoyed they would be when they found out they would never end up on the plate of a Gorgesk politician or bureaucrat again.