When the Meat Begins to Sing
written by Gary Emmette Chandler, performed by TG Macklin, and followed by an interview with Andrea Johnson
"Next," the guard says, toneless, as he scans my ear tag.
He gestures with his rifle, and I step across the threshold that separates the rest pods from the health club. The health club: what this place was once, before everything changed, and we became meat.
I linger for a moment, watching the bodies that pack the corridor ahead. They shuffle forward, dressed in plain blue gowns. Each day, for so long, it's been the same: enter, work, return, regenerate.
"Move it, meat," the guard says to me, from behind the security checkpoint.
I glance at him without emotion. I look at the door mechanism without looking at it. I recall the exact placement, the time it takes for the guard to get inside once the lock is disabled. I imagine what it will be like when that man, like me, is nothing more than meat.
He gestures again with the rifle and I look away, stepping forward to join the others and get on with the pain.
It wasn't always like this. We lived in this facility in peace, and secret, as children. From our earliest years, we learned who we were, and what our role was to be in this world: the next stage of humanity; the key to erasing famine.
We were grown, not born. Our parents—a collective of independently funded scientists—created us in a batch of one hundred. Fifty boys, and fifty girls.
We weren't the first artificial humans, but our engineering made us unique. Each night we slept in large pods where a self-sustaining series of nutrients fed and restored our bodies. It allowed us to regenerate tissue and bone in a matter of hours. As long as the pods functioned, we could survive almost anything, and didn't need to eat.
In the first decade of our life, our creators also served as our teachers, educating us on everything from arithmetic, to mythology, to what life was like beyond our walls. We learned the history of Earth, and were taught rigorously about the patterns of religion and violence. Even so, it all seemed so distant. What were the worries of the world beyond, to us?
The daily rotation puts me in the butcher section of the health club. We enter in pairs and pull our tickets from the machine.
I draw Cutter. 23 draws Meat.
"Four days in a row," he says, with half a smile. "How about that."
There was a time when I would apologize, or offer words of consolation. Now, it's just work. When you're in the butcher section, you either deal the pain, or deal with it—even today.
He hops onto the table and takes off his shirt. I take the rotary blade, and begin to cut.
In one of our lessons, we learned about hidden currents of sound. A circuit, tapping into the electric resistance of a plant, can produce a tone. Each of us built our own capacitor, for our own plant. The sound they produced together was strange, and beautiful, and sublime.
Then we found a sound of our own. When we held hands, a wave of emotion would rise through us, and as one, we would begin to sing. Each time, the song was different, unpredictable, and it seemed to come from somewhere deep within. To our creators, it was a side-effect. Lovely and amusing, but nothing more.
At the age of ten we left the facility for the first time. It was our unveiling: our creators had arranged to present us, at last, at a conference in the UK.
I remember shuffling onto a vast stage, dressed in a tight black tux, nervous as the spotlight fell upon us. Through the glare I watched hundreds of cameras flash and focus as thousands of people in the auditorium looked on.
We held our breath, and each other's hands. Then, in front of the world, we began to sing.
Unrehearsed, our song came in a perfect, imperfect harmony. Hands held tight, a current ran between us, channelling our emotions into sound. To us, that was the proof of our humanity.
When we finished the hall was completely silent. There was no applause. No shouting. Just . . . silence. One of our creators, a woman with fine brown hair and a rough voice, took the stage and began the presentation. We stood and watched the men and women in the audience, who watched us in turn. We saw horror, and awe, and anger, and felt the same sensations ourselves.
After the conference we returned to the facility, where we witnessed the reaction to our existence bubble and implode on the screen. To most we were abominations, an affront to every religion. To others we were captives—orphans of progress.
And perhaps we were. But we were also more than meat.
Once I've stopped the bleeding and bandaged his stubs, 23 is wheeled back to the rest pods to regenerate his limbs. I separate out his meat, and place it on the conveyer for the rotation crew in processing to cure.
As I get out the disinfectant and begin cleaning the table in preparation for the next unit, I try to remember my first rotation as a butcher.
I can't. All I can remember is the separation of flesh and bone, from me, by me, without end.
82 stands several feet away, patiently washing down the floor at her station. I watch, for a moment. Her work is methodical, precise, and betrays nothing. I shift my eyes away, turning to 6 as he's released from the holding pen. 6 approaches, and lifts himself onto my table.
He locks eyes with me, expressionless, and says nothing as he undresses. It doesn't matter. I understand.
In the fall of our fifteenth year, the world changed. It started in the slaughterhouses: a disease that sank into the flesh of the animals, leaving only tainted, venomous meat.
The world beyond fell into chaos as panic swept throughout the world; humanity couldn't live without its meat. First, terrorists were blamed. Later, gods. In the end, it didn't matter. What had happened, had, and the world crumbled. When I think about it now, about all those generations of life bred for slaughter, again and again, I know only that some things must end.
We hid within our walls, terrified, waiting for the madness beyond to cease. It didn't. Three months later, a small militant faction stormed our facility, restraining our creators, pointing weapons at us and shouting, corralling us into an isolated section of the building.
We watched through surveillance cameras as our creators were interrogated. The militants demanded that we be put into full production, so that children like us could "feed the world."
We knew that we had been created to solve the crisis of hunger. Self-sustaining life, that's what our creators had been after. But, not like this.
Our creators—our parents—refused. They were executed in response, one by one.
After that, it was just the militants and us: their small, renewable source of meat.
When the day's cutting has finished and the floors and tables and equipment have been cleaned, I move with the others to our next rotation: packaging.
As we walk, we speak in code.
"Having a good day, 36?" 18 asks.
"The best," I reply.
He nods and falls behind, repeating the question to the others in line. Their reply will be the same.
Each day, the plant manager changes our rotations, splitting us up. Never two together, two days in a row. They thought we would lose hope, that we would stay docile, that we would never be more than meat.
Later, at packaging, I take my time as I lay the meat out on the steel table, folding it in plastic.
Lift. Fold. Staple.
There is a pause between each action, pointed and slow. A guard comes over, watches me. I keep the pace.
Lift. Fold. Staple.
He takes the scanner from his waist and presses it against the tag buried within my ear. It's the only wound my body refuses to heal.
"36," the guard says, "you're moving too slow. Quota's falling behind."
I keep the pace.
He shifts his grip on the rifle, leans close.
"How about I start carving a little off you right now, for myself?"
I say nothing. I keep the pace.
"Faster," he says, raising his rifle and placing the muzzle against the back of my head. "Now."
Somewhere, in another section of the facility, someone begins to sing. That's my cue. I stop, turn to the guard, smile.
There is shouting. Then, a gunshot. Then, another.
"What the fuck is going on?" the guard yells, into the radio on his shoulder.
I start to laugh and his eyes narrow, his shoulders tense.
They won't shoot unless they have to—they need us, for their meat—and we won't give them the time.
The guard curses, again, and pulls the muzzle away from my face, flipping it around and raising the stock into the air.
I smell the sweat on his skin. The meat on the table. The moment as it slows.
As he brings it down, I step to the side and tear the weapon from his hands. Turning, I fire three shots at his head, where the riot armor ends. One passes through his neck.
He slumps to the floor, grabbing at his throat in shock.
"You stupid animals," the guard sputters, choking on the blood. "You're meat. That's all."
I kneel down and look at him, without emotion.
"If that's all we are, then you deserve to starve."
The gunshots continue throughout the building until there is only a dull silence. The remaining men won't be able to stop us, now. I look at the guard once more, at the familiar substance that pools in a small, dark puddle beneath him, then stand and join the others.
As we walk, we take each other's hands. And then, for the first time since I became meat, I too begin to sing.
Please note: this story was selected for publication several months before Gary came on board as Associate Editor. He will be serving in this role exclusively moving forward.
A Brief Interview with the Author
conducted by Andrea Johnson
Gary Emmette Chandler is a writer, copywriter, web developer, and Associate Editor of The Semiotic Standard. His compelling short fiction has appeared in Bastion, Pantheon, Fantasy Scroll, and Plasma Frequency, among other markets. Gary lives and works in Portland, OR, and you can follow him on Twitter at @TheWearyLuddite. He was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about his story “When The Meat Begins To Sing,” a post-apocalyptic story with and underlying theme of where does your food come from? and its creepy corollary, if you are starving, do you care where it comes from? It's interesting take on immortality, playing god, survivalism, and power dynamics. This story is also a great example of everything I love about the challenges of flash and short fiction—the author has to remove every unnecessary scene, sentence, and word that doesn't move the story to its conclusion. I imagine it's hard to carve away chunks of your creation, but that's got to be easier than what the characters in “When the Meat Begins to Sing” have to carve.
Andrea Johnson: The protagonist, 36, is an artificial human. Along with his 99 brothers and sisters, these artificial humans were designed to help fight disease and hunger. When the world changes, they still help, albeit not in a way no one could have imagined. How did you get the idea for this story?
Gary Emmette Chandler: It's an odd story, and one that feels a bit hypocritical to me. I'm not vegan, but it's very much a vegan story to me. For the average modern American, there's a large disconnect between the food that ends up on our table, and the process of how it got there. If you put humans in the place of animals in a slaughterhouse, it becomes a stark and horrifying image. And yet, that knowledge doesn't stop me from perpetrating that cycle in my own personal life. It's a rather bizarre moral dilemma, and though I wrote the first draft of this story several years ago, that's likely where it came from.
AJ: This is a short yet emotionally effective story. Do you have any plans to write more about 36 and his world?
GEC: Not directly, though I've always liked the idea of taking the protagonists from several of my published stories (specifically the ones about resisting different power structures), and finding out what it would be like if they met, then joined forces to build a better world. So one day, perhaps - but not for quite a while.
AJ: What do you hope for 36 and his siblings? Where do you think they might be a few years down the road?
GEC: The optimistic part of myself sees the characters establishing a home somewhere else, where they can live in peace, for as long as they have to live. I'm not sure if that's a realistic answer, though. The world beyond would likely be a place of great turmoil at that point (not unlike Cormac McCarthy's The Road), and I'm not sure how they'd fare without the technology that sustained them.
AJ: You've been published in a number of magazines, including Daily Science Fiction, Fantasy Scroll, Bast10n, Pantheon, and Plasma Frequency. What are some of your favorite themes or ideas to write about?
GEC: I'm mostly drawn to finding beauty or hope in bleak situations. I doubt I'll ever write something which is relentlessly grim, or cheerful. There's a great deal of sadness in this world, but there's also a great deal of beauty, and the intersection between those two concepts is where my interest lies.
AJ: How long does it take you to complete a short story? What is your writing process like?
GEC: I am a painfully slow and self-conscious writer. My mind moves at a slow pace, and if I'm dissatisfied with the words (which I often am), I'll rewrite entire sections before moving on. When drafting, I have to force myself to keep moving, or I'll start the editing process too early and never reach the end. I'll also rewrite a story to some degree each time it comes back from a publication, until it's eventually accepted somewhere. I never consider any story finished until an editor thinks that it is, and decides to publish it.
AJ: With so much newly published short fiction out in the world, do you have plans to work on a novel, or a collection of your short fiction?
GEC: I've started and abandoned several novels at this point, but I have a pretty solid outline for a new one, and I'm hoping to write that in full at some point later this year. I love short fiction, and prefer short stories to novels, but publishing a story collection is a goal I'm saving for much later in my career.
AJ: I'm one of those readers who likes to tell people what I got out of a certain piece of fiction. So I'm going to flip that question around for you: What do you get out of writing? What do you get out of the act of short story creation?
GEC: I started writing just for the sound of it; I enjoy words and how they fit together. Fiction is an extension of that, and it allows my dreams a place to stretch their legs and run wild. I do very little plotting for short fiction, and I tend to marvel at where the stories take themselves as a result. It's a strange and gratifying feeling.
AJ: I hear you wear pajamas a lot, and that you are a "crazy cat-man". What's your favorite pair of pajamas, and how many cats do you really have?
GEC: This is entirely accurate. I have ten pairs of pajamas or so, and they mostly look the same—just in various shades of mostly-blue plaid, with varying degrees of thickness. I have one cat, but my roommate has one as well, so I suppose that makes two. They are an endless source of entertainment, and I will happily identify as a crazy cat man for as long as I live. Truly, it's a wonderful life.