Σάββατο, 1 Ιουνίου 2019

Butcher Make-Believe

Published in Issue 11, Volume 11 of Schlock! Magazine 

Liese watched the long, unbroken length of meat shiver and hiss, as Dad eased the fretsaw’s mono-wire across its mass, cutting it into wafer-thin slices. Its juices hissed as they dripped from its freshly-severed veins and pattered, gently, on the floor.
The piece of plastic in her hands sagged as each slice plopped the steadily growing pile of flesh. The pieces seemed to writhe as they slid across from one another, dripping a fine trail of mucus and blood across the creases and between her legs.
“Why is it screaming, Dad?” Liese asked, halfway through wrapping the first dozen of Dad’s fresh, dripping batch in plastic. She was halfway through tying the red bounty with gaffer tape, when Dad put down his saw and motioned her to come closer.
“It’s not really screaming, sweetheart. It’s more of a reflexive response. Kind of how frog legs jump, when you run a current through them?” Dad said, taking her latex-clad hand in his. “It’s not really alive, unless you make yourself think it is.”
Liese nodded, even as Dad’s fingers wrapped around her hand and edged her palm closer to the smooth, evenly cut surface of the meat. She watched the length of red, dripping mass spill out of the aperture in the Plexiglas wall. It seemed as if it wanted to inch itself closer to her touch. Liese struggled to get away, but Dad’s grip got just tight enough to keep her in check.
She closed her eyes, just as the tips of her fingers began to brush against the surface. Even through the latex she could feel the soft, gentle pulse of the meat. Liese imagined its heart pumping blood along tens of kilometers of veins, its valves as large as school buses, each beat like a miniature earthquake.
“They give it a heart and kidneys and livers, just enough to keep it pumping, but it has a very simple brain without a nervous system, Liese. It comes out of a vat all fat and stupid and unable to ever really feel pain.” Dad said, even as he pulled her away and grasped the length of meat, hoisting it over his shoulder to replace it on the table before it touched the floor. “Alright, break time’s over. Go get the rest of the wrap; we need to finish this before it grows too long.”
Liese rushed for the length of plastic and spread it out across her lap, looking up at the edge of the tube-steak growing over the lip of the table. Dad’s fretsaw began cutting at it again, the familiar mess pattering like rain.
“But it can still be sad, right?” Liese asked, as she stacked four fresh slices neatly atop one another. “If it just sits there and grows all day, waiting for someone to cut out all its bits.”
A large, unevenly thick slice plopped down on Liese’s carefully set-up stack, toppling her little glistening tower. Dad cursed under his breath, his fingers slipping across the length of the meat, gripping it roughly to cease its growth. Liese watched bruises erupt across the tender flesh, just as Dad’s saw began to slice at it again.
“That’s why they feed it and pump it with electricity and water. It’s not alive, Liese. Not like we are alive. It’s not even an animal, really.” Dad muttered, as he began to cut across the length of bruised matter, tossing it into the little bin of pilfered flesh that he stashed away for home. Liese knew that Maddy wouldn’t be too thrilled about this. Then again, Maddy was never thrilled about anything, these days.
“So it’s okay to hurt it then?” she asked, as she maneuvered the plastic wrap closer, letting a quarter of sloppy slices bounce between her knees.
“You can’t hurt it if it isn’t alive.” Dad said, as he kept on cutting. Liese didn’t push the issue, even after the factory shift bell rang and the packets of tube-steak were neatly stacked in boxes and the robot workers descended from the ceiling for their night shift.
Liese caught the look on Dad’s face as he watched the robot’s spindly, spidery arms working at the meat, pushing the slices into wraps and tightly packing them, neatly placing them on the shelves at 20 cartons a minute.
For a moment, she wondered if Dad ever thought if it would be okay to hurt them, too.
“Momma says they keep it happy with TV. They play cartoons all day, so its brain won’t grow” D4nn13 said, as he leaned against the bars of his KiddieKage™.  “She won’t eat the stuff, though. Says it tastes the way real meat did when it went bad.”
“How did people make real meat, though?” Liese asked. “Did they really grow it from animals?”
“They killed the animals and took the meat out of them.” D4nn13 said, matter-of-factly. Liese look into the comfort-bot’s smiling screen-face, horrified. D4nn13’s expression shifted into an expressionless emoticon.
“What? Like cats and dogs and pigeons?” Liese asked, shivering.
“No, not those. They don’t have that much meat in them.” D4nn13 reassured her. “They used cows and pigs, mostly. But those needed lots of food and places to walk around in and make babies. Except for chickens. Chickens made babies everywhere.
Liese shivered at the thought of a chicken. She remembered Maddy’s last job at the Hatchery; sifting through the smooth, hard things that plopped out of the puckered, clucking masses of pink flesh in their mesh cages. Liese had poked one, once, when it poked a bony length of flesh toward her. It had made a strange, clicking sound through the tiny hole on the tip and drooled.
“They had to make them smaller. D4nn13 said, as if reading her thoughts. “So they would have space to grow. Not much of that left, nowadays.”
“But your Momma still won’t eat the meat.” Liese spat.
“Momma won’t eat anything, unless she has to. Sometimes, I pretend to be hungry just so she’d cook something.” D4nn13 said, peeking conspiratorially in the living room. Liese leaned closer. She caught a glimpse of Momma, plopped down on her armchair in front of the screen, watching the parade of flashing colors go by. “And sometimes, even when she’s done that, I can still hear her stomach rumbling.”
Liese nodded and pulled her knees close to her chest. She could feel the tiny rumble bubbling in the pit of her belly, slowly coming to a boil. Dad had given her the biggest unbruised portion of the meat and made her eat the whole thing. Liese saw Dad’s lips twist just like when he would see a particularly succulent dish beckoning him through the TV screen, a packed little bit of heaven just out of his reach. She had left just enough on the plate to make it seem like leftovers and knew Dad was thankful for it. She’d probably find what he left behind stuffed in her lunchbox tomorrow, chopped into tiny pieces for her to nibble on during recess.
“Think she could get sick? From being hungry all the time?” D4nn13 asked, “I asked the doctor, but he told me I should keep giving her the tablets. They don’t seem like they’re doing anything.”
Liese simply nodded and dug her nails into her shins to fight back the wave of nausea. The pain didn’t help much, but it kept her mind off her hunger. She thought of how Maddy used to dig her nails into her thigh to keep herself from heaving when she thought Dad wasn’t looking. Maddy had been taking the tablets, too. She went to the roof and perched with all the other worried women in the apartment building, hunting the few rays of sunlight that peeked through the cloud cover. She stopped smoking and drinking, slept 8 hours a day and lied about how much better she felt, even though Liese could see the way she wilted in the middle of the night.
“No, they don’t do anything.” Liese muttered.
“Oh.” D4nn13 said. His emoticon-face twisted into a scowl.
Liese kept hugging her knees, staring straight ahead until the rumbling in her stomach was slowly replaced by the throbbing ache of hunger. When she looked up, D4nn13 had left his KiddieKage™ and crawled into bed.
Beneath her, the city-state groaned like a wounded animal. From the living room, Dad sobbed through a mouthful of Nyam-Nyam© fungal mush.
Liese crawled under the covers and kept telling herself she wasn’t hungry, until she fell asleep.
The next day, Dad let Liese pick her favorite piece of the tube-meat, as they let it slowly slither out of the tiny aperture.
“How am I supposed to tell?” she said. “It all looks the same to me.”
“Just pick a piece. Make sure it’s a good one.” Dad said, his hands shaking as he glanced around his workstation, his eyes darting up to the hatch on the ceiling where the night-shift robots would descend. “Maddy’s birthday is coming up and we need to get her something juicy.”
Liese nodded, understanding. There was this gleam in Dad’s eyes, the one he got when the doctors shot a glance at her real mother, wasting away on the hospital bed and diagnosed her as a terminal case without laying a finger on her. The kind of look he had for days after they realized Maddy would never be able to give Liese a baby brother. That worried little glint that Liese could see in the mirror, when she lied to Dad about school.
“That one.” Liese said, pointing at a length of meat that slipped out near the end of the tube, all fat with blood, veins sticking out against the thin film of skin. Dad grasped the end of it and squeezed hard enough to bruise the meat, watching the dark blue splotches spread out across it. He brought down the fretsaw and cut through the piece in one clean slice. Moving across the spread of the bruise, he made the next incision and then tossed the piece in the bin. Liese bit her lip when she heard the thing crash inside.
“Should be enough.” Dad muttered, as he began to slice the rest of the tube-meat in quick succession, dumping the slices into the plastic wrapping. “We need to get twice as much as yesterday packed and ready. Think you can handle it?”
Liese rushed for the plastic wrap, began to tie up the slices into a tight bundle. “Dad? Are you in trouble?” She asked, as she stacked the pieces in the cartons and shoved them up into the shelves. Dad’s lips where pursed into a thin line, his face gone ashen.
“Just…work a little faster, okay?” he muttered, as he slowly massaged the length of meat out onto the chopping block, slicing the next dozen cuts. Above them, the digital clock clicked the final hour of his shift. “I know you can do it.”
Liese glanced at the clock face, the LED dots counting down the time left: barely an hour and the shelves were barely stocked. She kept stacking, wrapping and pushing the cartons one after another on the shelves. Dad’s hands became a blur, hissing their way down the length of tube-steak. “Dad? Are you okay?”
Dad nodded and shot her a worried little smile, even as the slices piled up. Liese pushed a good two dozen slices together into a single wrap, bundled them together and pushed them into an overstuffed carton. Already, she could see the fluids soaking into the carton. “Come on honey, just a little more!”
Liese bent her knees to hoist the carton. She felt the cardboard give from under her. She chanced a glance at the clock-face, saw the lights continuing their perpetual procession and bit her lip. Dad looked at her, tossed the fretsaw on the cutting block and reached out for the carton. “No, Dad!” Liese warned, too late. The entire cardboard box fell apart in his hand, as the gauze unraveled, sending the wrapped meat plopping down on the floor. Dad stared at the red mess in horror.
“I can fix it! Don’t worry, I can fix it!” Dad said, dropping on his knees with Liese, poking and checking every wrap, sifting through the mess for the slices that had made it through the drop.
Liese caught Dad’s eyes darting up to the ceiling hatch. She could imagine the robot-worker’s dozen legs, flexing it arms. “Liese! Help me out here, goddamn it!” Dad barked.
The tube-meat had already slipped from the edge of the cutting block, the tip of it inching closer to the floor. Liese grasped the slick mess, pushing it back on the metal surface of the cutting block into a loose, curving loop. The meat settled for a second and then began to absorb its length back into its own mass. Liese let out a tiny yelp, but Dad didn’t listen. The meat was cannibalizing itself, the carefully-groomed tube fusing itself into a giant blob of flesh. She grasped the fretsaw and brought the mono-wire down on it. For a second, it seemed as if it cut clean through.
Then the blood erupted like a geyser.
“Liese! What the hell are you doing?” Dad gasped, pushing her away from the chopping block. The mass of meat let out a tiny screech, like a choking baby. Dad spat the blood from his mouth and kept cutting at it, pulling at the fused bits of meat that came together at the slightest touch.
“I’m sorry…” Liese moaned, as she watched Dad’s hands come away slick with gore. The chunks of used meat writhed in his hands as if they had suddenly come alive.
“Just burn them. Burn them all.” Dad shouted over the harsh ring of the shift-bell.
The hatch burst open from above, releasing the spindly-limbed robot worker. It stopped a few centimeters short of the table and hovered there, assessing Liese’s mess. After a few moments of careful calculation, the ends of its arms blossomed into a bouquet of sprinklers and rotating brushes that eliminated the gore on the chopping block. A tiny holographic display projected from the robot’s back:
Liese kept her cool, all things considered. She didn’t let Maddy see her cry and she smiled all the way through dinner, even though Dad would snap at her over the slightest thing.
She nibbled just the right pieces, sliced the biggest bits of meat into little bits so Maddy could manage, nodded at the small talk and then kissed her goodnight. Dad simply waved her away.
“What happened to the rest of the meat?” D4nn13 asked her, leaning closer to his KiddieKage™ “Did your Dad get in trouble?”
“Dad took most of the blame on himself. They’ll take away his bin and they won’t let me help out after school anymore.”
“But he’s still going to keep his job, right?”
Liese shrugged. They hadn’t let her come into the office with Dad, but she could hear the rumble of the manager’s voice even through the padded doorway. Apparently Dad was making quota, but his work wasn’t ‘up to standards’. The manager had asked Dad if he would consider a ‘change in direction’ but Dad had politely declined and offered compensation for the ruined meat.
Turns out, there was a whole lot of it.
“They’ll cut down his pay for a while.” Liese said. “He’ll just have to work more hours than before, to keep up with the robots.”
“Momma says she won’t have any food made by robots. I told her almost everything is made by them these days, so she’ll probably starve.” D4nn13 said, his expression rendered into a frown. “She told me that would be okay.”
Liese looked through the bars, at the little ersatz boy in his cage. She thought how great it would be, not to be able to go hungry or get sick or ever have to run a fever. How easy he had it, just by being himself, all shiny and perfect with that silly pixelated grin on his face. Liese wondered if her parents would ever replace her with something like D4nn13, if they had the chance.
She certainly would, if anyone offered.
“I’m hungry” Liese moaned. D4nn13 didn’t offer any insight.
Liese thought of the hissing meat and the robot workers. When Dad started shouting at Maddy from the bedroom, she shut her eyes and lied to herself that she was having a nightmare.
When Liese came back from school the next day, she saw Maddy writhe uselessly on the linoleum, her legs kicking frantically at her wheelchair.
“Don’t tell your father” Maddy said, as she struggled to pick herself up from the kitchen floor.
Liese helped her up, clasped the belt around her waist and began to mop up the worst of the mess that had dribbled down her chin. “Please” Maddy muttered. “He can’t deal with it. Not with work the way it is.”
She daubed at the blood with a rag, wheeled Maddy into the bathroom. Liese watched her as she ran her fingers over the stick-thin remains of her legs. “Not even enough meat for a nibble” Maddy, cackling like a mad woman.
Liese didn’t talk to D4nn13 that night. By the time Dad came home, she pretended she had gone to sleep. The next day, she went hunting.
Cats were tricky to catch, Liese realized. D4nn13 had shown her a few videos on how to lure them, but they wouldn’t stick around long enough to get bagged. A few of the stairwell strays would let Liese get close enough to pet them, but they’d jump out of the way the second she tried to grasp them in earnest.
The alley ferals were even worse. Those wouldn’t emerge from the shadows until she was well enough away and when she’d grab them, they would dig their claws into her arms and rake fiercely. The dogs were more trusting, but Liese knew she couldn’t eat them, not when they wagged their tails and pushed their muzzles against her outstretched palm to lick for crumbs when she fed them.
That left nothing but pigeons. Pigeons were stupid and fat and lazy enough to fall for a few soy-bread crumbs left on the roof, slow enough not to mind the rumbling of her belly as she sat perched in the shadows, but even then she couldn’t do it.
“I can’t do it.” she hissed at D4nn13 from the top floor. “I need you here.”
D4nn13’s little emoti-screen lit up with joy.
Liese spotted a fat old cock with grey plumage, its breast large as a bellows. It cooed, stupidly, as Liese dropped a few crumbs for it to peck, inching closer to her and D4nn13. They stared at the bird, as it examined them with its huge idiot eyes. From the corner of her eye, she caught her own distorted reflection on D4nn13’s screen-face as she pulled up her schoolbag and brought it down on the pigeon in a single, fluid motion.
The bird cawed and flapped inside the bag, just as Liese zipped it shut. She watched the fabric bend and twist as the pigeon plucked and beat at it confines, still cooing in outrage.
“Now what?” she asked.
Without missing a beat, D4nn13 took the bag from her hands, moved it in a perfect arc over his head and then slammed it down on the concrete. Liese let out a horrified gasp.
There was a moment of perfect silence, before the pigeon exploded into a flurry of horrified activity. Liese bit her lip in horror.
“I think you should let it…” she began, just as D4nn13 smashed the bag into the concrete harder than before. There was a slight crunching sound. Then a gurgling noise. Finally, there was silence.
“Can I…see?” Liese said and immediately regretted it. D4nn13 unzipped it, unceremoniously and offered it to her.
Liese reached her hand into the mess, grasping at a handful of feathers and the outline of a wing. Her fingers wrapped around the pigeon’s chest, just as its beak plunged into the soft flesh of her palm. She squealed in pain, with the pigeon still gurgling in agony, its beak drawing blood. D4nn13’s fingers reached inside, pinched its neck and twisted.
There was a soft sound, as the pigeon’s beak went terminally limp in her hand. Liese let out a tiny whimper as she felt its heart cease to beat.
“Now, we prep it.” D4nn13 said. “To get the meat.”
“The trick is to pull and twist” D4nn13 said, his motorized fingers a blur as they ripped at the blood-caked mess of plumage, tossing handfuls into the waste-bin. Liese kept her nose pinched shut, struggling to block out the awful odour of pigeon-flesh.
A streak of blood stretched across the kitchen floor, dripping from her upended schoolbag. She didn’t have to look to know that the streak zig-zagged up the stairs all the way to the rooftop, possibly being lapped out of existence by a pack of staircase strays.
Liese held her breath as Maddy broke into a brief fit of hacking cough, before drifting back to sleep. On the kitchen counter, a tray carefully coated with layers of margarine waited for their cityscape game.
Liese watched D4nn13 slip his finger into the opening between the pigeon’s flesh and its meat and tug once, fast enough to tear the skin off its body. The meat flopped uselessly, barely hanging on the mess of shattered bone. D4nn13 laid it on the tray, spreading the flesh carefully across the metal surface.
“You think they’ll be able to tell what it is?” Liese said, biting her lip.
“I’m told it tastes a lot like chicken.” D4nn13 reassured her. After catching a glimpse of Liese’s horrified expression, he added: “Not the breeding kind.”
“Thank you.” Liese said, patting the ersatz boy on the back “For everything.” Her palm clanged gently against the aluminum chassis of his body.
“Next time we have some real meat, I want you to cook it for Momma. Maybe she’ll eat it then.”
Dad didn’t ask where the meat came from. Maddy was too happy to bother. The pigeon’s meat was stringy, but it was succulent and no one bothered to give up their portion for anyone else’s sake. They ate in silence, hands digging deep into the flesh, teeth working the white meat into a lovely paste that filled their bellies and eased their minds.
When it was all done and Liese was perched back into her KiddieKage™, D4nn13 crawled closer and whispered:
“How can you tell if someone’s dead?”
“I don’t know. You check to see if they’re breathing or you look for a pulse.” Liese shrugged.
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Then you need to call the police.”
“I don’t know how to do that, either.”
“You don’t know how to call 3 digits on a holo-phone?”
“I can’t. Momma didn’t program that into me.”
“You want me to call them for you?”
“No. Can you…come over? See for yourself?”
“Alright.” Liese sighed. “You better not be getting me into trouble.”
“Cross my heart and swear to die.”
Liese had no problem undoing the clasp on the KiddieKage™ and climbing over. D4nn13 reached out his hands and grabbed her in mid-air across the gap between buildings, like they used to do when she was 4 years old and dumb enough to not care about dying.
D4nn13 eased her into the apartment, over the racecar bed, into the cozy little boy’s wonderland that was his room. There were wall-to wall posters of AnimauX and Build-A-Buddy sets and pictures of smiling women looking down from castles on the Moon. The carpet was strewn with toy cars, abandoned halfway through the Big Race and fully constructed little castle sets that no real boy of D4nn13’s age would ever have the discipline to put together on his own.
It was the room of the Boy That Wasn’t Meant To Be, kept in perfect working order by a machine. Liese tip-toed across the carpet to the door.
“She’s asleep, right?”
“Momma’s on the couch. If she’s up, you’re going to have to lie.”
Liese groaned as she pushed the bedroom door open, tiptoeing into the tiny hallway that led up to the living room. The TV was blaring its usual tirade of nonsense into the cluttered living room. Liese pinched her nose shut, to keep out the stench of overcooked food going bad at the foot of the king-sized couch. Something stirred under the velvet covers, writhing slightly beneath the thick woolen blanket.
“She’s moving. She’s okay.” Liese said. D4nn13 put his hand firmly on her shoulder.
“You haven’t even checked.”
“Dead people don’t move.”
“Please” D4nn13 said and his pixelated face turned into a simple, pleading emoticon. Liese bit her lip and turned back, struggling to keep herself from glancing hatefully back at the metal boy. Clenching her teeth, she stepped over the trays of stale take-out food and softly pulled at the blanket’s edge.
Something soft and grey and bruised in places looked up at her, its tongue swollen and sticking out past its lips. Liese gasped in horror and breathed in its smell (so much like candy, left out in the sun). Something writhed just under the hairline, sexless and eyeless and perched in the curve of its ear lobe. Liese stumbled back, fell on her back and crawled away, kicking at the air as she went.
“Did you check her pulse?” D4nn13 asked.
“Oh no, not this one too.” D4nn13 said, after Liese was done retching halfway through giving the bad news.
“You knew about death? And you made me check?” Liese cried out, hoarsely.
“I’ve never seen anyone get this bad. Usually someone noticed.” D4nn13 nodded, matter-of-factly.
“You can’t keep her here. You need to call the police.” Liese explained, calmly.
“No. If I do, they will void my warranty. That means they will wipe me again!”
Liese stared at the ersatz boy, dumbfounded. D4nn13 retreated to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water.
“I am a comfort-bot, Liese. I’m supposed to keep my owners company. They set up a personality for me and I stick to it. But when they die…”
“Someone…resets you?”
“Almost. They wipe most of my memories, but not all of them. They’re not really good at their job. But I’ve been through it before and…it’s terrible, Liese.”
“How many…have you gone through?”
“About 3, I guess. But maybe there’s more. I’m kind of old. You can’t tell the police, Liese.”
“What am I supposed to do? You can’t keep her here!” Liese croaked, fighting back the wave of nausea.
“I won’t, honest. But you have to promise you won’t tell anyone.” D4nn13 said, cupping her hands into his aluminum fist. “Please, Liese. I’ll do anything. Catch pigeons and bring you meat, as much as you want!”
Liese nodded, staring up at the comfort-bot’s blank screen face. “I don’t want to stay here anymore.”
“Go.” D4nn13 said, letting go. Liese was halfway to the door, when she heard the ersatz boy call out. “You promised!”
D4nn13 came back, two days later. Liese saw him, crouched in her apartment-building’s stairwell, with a plain brown paper-bag perched in his lap.
“It’s for you” D4nn13 said, as he offered it. Liese Weighted the thing in her hands, feeling the soft, raw thing inside.
“Where did you steal this from?” Liese gasped, as she opened the bag and checked the glistening bounty inside.
“I didn’t. I got it. It’s about 4 kilos of the stuff. Should keep your bellies full.”
“Oh my God, what is it?” Liese asked, beaming. D4nn13 flashed his reassuring-smiley face emoticon at her.
“It’s the least I could do. I’ll see you tomorrow, won’t I?” D4nn13 said, with a reassuring grin. Liese nodded, running across the flights of stairs to home. She whistled at the veal, still warm and soft in her hands as she stuck it in the freezer. Dad was going to love this.
Dad didn’t come home until late in the night, his hands raw from working the fretsaw all day. Maddy didn’t bother asking where in the world she had ever found the meat. There was food on the table and that was that.
“You’re such a good girl, Liese.” her mother would mutter between bites. “I’m so proud of you.”
D4nn13’s gift lasted for a week. Liese loved how much Dad loved the taste of it. The doctors were amazed by how quickly Maddy was recuperating. Every night, Liese slept to the cooing of her own contended stomach. For the first time in her life, she dreamt: Liese saw, in the chambers of her mind, the city studded with light, fusing into the star-studded expanses of the night sky.
D4nn13 didn’t show up for a while in the KiddieKage™ and Liese felt silently grateful for that. Talking to the comfort-bot didn’t feel quite the same, not after seeing the mess that was Momma.
D4nn13 came back on the day that the freezer had run dry.
“We’re out of meat.” Liese said.
“I can help you find more. Just pick your fill.”
“Will pigeon be okay?”
“If you think so, then yes.”
“Won’t it be too lean? Too little?”
“I can get you more, as much as you like.” D4nn13 said, reassuringly.
Liese nodded.
Maddy got sick the same night she ate the pigeon-meat. Dad’s worrisome frown, his awful mood, came flooding back. There was food on the table, but it wasn’t enough. Liese went with cats after that, but they were too wiry. Two days of dog and Maddy was sprawled on the floor again.
“We need more veal.” Liese whispered through the bars of the KiddieKage™. D4nn13 nodded. “I’ll come with you, where you get it.”
D4nn13 took her to the Pit, where the people and the things no-one had a use for anymore ended up. D4nn13 led her through the maze of rusted iron and the mountains of garbage-bags, into the pens.
“What is this?” Liese hissed, staring into the writhing, crying mass that pushed against the bars of the pen. Brown-eyed children stared up at her, between mouthfuls of slop.

“It’s meat, Liese. Real meat.” D4nn13 said, grasping one of the cubs from behind the bars. He coughed and squealed, kicking at the comfort-bot. A tattered t-shirt hung from his chest. “It grows all over the place.”
“Is that the meat? Is that what you’ve been feeding us?” Liese asked, choking back her horror.
“They’re not alive, Liese.” D4nn13 said, reaching for the cub’s fingers and shattering one in a flash. The child-cub didn’t even flinch. “Declawed, defanged, debrained before they’re even born.”
“They just eat and grow.” Liese said. D4nn13 grinned, reassuringly.
“Is it clean? The meat, I mean.”
“I’ll make it clean, Liese. It’ll only take a minute.”
“There’s my little girl” Maddy would say, between mouthfuls “there’s my little healer.”
And Dad was happy and Maddy would walk again, very soon, the doctors said, now that the treatment was finally working and D4nn13 would pretend-play with his toys in a dead boy’s room.
And Liese would smile and she would dream, every night, of the city lights and the night sky and the cubs, in their pens, below.
Sometimes, she would cry.

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