by Sandra M. Odell
A poster on the far wall of the crowded cafeteria chamber shows an identical man and woman in coveralls and happy smiles with their hands on the woman’s pregnant belly. The caption at the bottom reads: A REPRODUCTIVE WORKER IS A HAPPY WORKER. MED CALL TO SCHEDULE YOUR NEXT SEXTIME TODAY.
Ollie puts her hands to her belly, her empty belly. Three miscarriages in the last eleven cycles. Only two more chances for a live baby before the overseers stuff her in a containment suit and ship her to processing half a kilometer below the meat farm. No one comes back from processing. “My baby won’t look like everybody else’s. It’ll be different. Better. Everyone will know it’s my baby.”
Across the table, Charlie shrugs and keeps shoveling meat porridge into his mouth. Like everyone else in the meat farm.
She looks around the cafeteria. The same faces, the same voices. Sluggo. Mary. Abner. Patty. Gwen pulling her hair out one strand at a time. The woman who eats rats. The bald boy who constantly bangs his head against the wall until he passes out. All crazyheads.
Ollie picks at a few of the darker lumps in the center of her bowl, takes a bite, says to Charlie, “How many babies do you have now? Five? Six?” When he doesn’t answer, she continues, “I went to the nursery before shift. You have six crib babies and two in the walker room. Do you ever go to the nursery?”
Charlie shakes his head and keeps eating.
Ollie pushes her bowl away. “What’s your fertility rating? Nine? Nine-point-five?”
Charlie scrapes the last bits from the side of his bowl. “Don’t care.”
Ollie stares at him. “How can you not care? I don’t have one baby and I care.”
Charlie taps the side of her bowl with his spoon. “You gonna finish that?”
Ollie pulls a jagged piece of metal no longer than her thumb out of her personals box, then crawls to the metal mirror at the head of her bed. She tilts her head up and down, left and right. The bare bulb above her stretches putty shadows from her brow, her nose. The same shadows, the same recycled meat air, the same cubby barely big enough for the bed. The same reflection.
Charlie hasn’t noticed her sores even though she left them untreated so they’d stand out. She needs something to attract his interest so he’ll want to sextime when her rating improves. She presses the sharpened tip to the side of a scab above her left eye and cuts out a bloody crescent, digs deep to get the muscle underneath. She swallows the screams and pain. Continues to carve down to the pink-white bone, gouges a line to a second sore a finger’s width above her nose. Blood streams down her face like a ripe vat of meat.
Ollie mops at the blood with a dirty sex wipe. An electric burn stick to cauterize the edges, and it’s done. A fertile Ollie smiles at her from the mirror. The reflection licks the blood from its fingers.
Zonker rolls off of her and against the wall. His gooey sperm thing twitches, a drop of milky white oozing from the tip. He reaches towards her forehead. “What happened to your face?”
Ollie jerks her head back. That’s not for him. “Nothing.”
“It looks – ”
“Zip up. I gotta plug my vag.”
Zonker likes to talk after sextime, but Ollie isn’t interested. She’s done her job, now he needs to get out so she can clean up and pump hormones. Processing. Ollie shudders, drops the vag plug between her legs.
Zonker hands it to her. “Here.”
She takes the plug, rolls away.
Plug and pump. Plug and pump. Think pregnant thoughts. Think Charlie thoughts.
Workers hump and haul in the vat room. Yellow steam hangs thick and fatty in the air, slicking down hair, seeping into coveralls, filling every thought, every breath, with meat. It curdles the overhead lights and stings the eyes.
Charlie works head man at the big vat, slicing off thick, ripe slabs of meat with the saw, hauling them out of the vat with hooks for the crews to cart away. Other crews work the smaller vats, while fixits rebuild and scour the older vats in back.
Ollie strides over to the big vat. “I have this,” she tells Dick.
The small man stares at her forehead a moment, shrugs, and walks away. Ollie slides into the routine, loading slabs until the bell sounds and the next shift takes over.
She falls into step beside Charlie on the way to the shower room. “Good shift, huh?”
Charlie grunts. He wipes his hands through his hair, smearing it with red.
In the shower room, white steam mingles with yellow and swirls around sallow bodies like a bruise. Everyone talks the same words under the water: “Good shift, huh?” “Loaded fifteen carts.” “We hear anything from processing yet?” “Not yet.” “What’s your rating?” “They got another dead baby.” “Who’s your next sextime?”
Charlie takes a place at the end of the far wash wall and begins to scrub himself with a wire brush. Pink tinged foam runs down the sores on his back and legs to the sludge swirling around the center drain. Snoopy moves one shower closer, sidles over with a shy smile. Ollie pushes her out of the way and steps under the spray. Snoopy pushes back. Ollie pushes harder, bares her teeth, balls her fists. Snoopy moves off to find another shower.
Ollie puts her face under the water. Thousands of tiny needles drive themselves under the new scabs on her forehead. She turns her back to the spray, tipping her head enough that she wets her hair and not her face. Better. She foams up her own brush. “Hey, Charlie?”
He grunts and thrusts his brush under the foam dispenser. He does not open his eyes.
He turns, squints at her, spits out a stream of water. “What?”
Ollie gives him her best profile, scabs and all. “Notice anything different?”
Charlie stares at her. “About what?”
Ollie tips her head to the side. “About me.”
“. . .No.”
She faces him directly. “Nothing? About my face, maybe?”
Charlie frowns and continues to wash his sperm thing. “You got your hair chopped?”
“No! About my face.” He has to see. She jabs a finger at her forehead. “Something. Different. About. My. Face?”
Charlie shakes his head. “No.”
Ollie throws her scrub brush at him. “Are you blind? The sore right there? It’s bigger, not like the others. It looks different, don’t you think? I look different. No one else has a sore like this.”
Voices around them grow quiet. Water snickers behind her back.
“I said it looks different!”
Charlie shrugs and began to rinse.
Ollie stalks towards the dry room. Behind her, Snoopy says, “Charlie? I saw you have an open sextime, and. . .”
A smiling naked woman holds a stimulator pack to the underside of the testes of a giant, erect sperm thing. REMEMBER TO KEEP HIM STIMULATED. Men hold up cellophane pill packs. VITAMINS FOR HEALTHY SPERMING.
The air in med call is muggy and heavy with meat. Ollie leans forward to get a better look at the report screen on the rickety metal desk. “You sure?”
Linus nods and taps the single word in red at the bottom of the report: NEGATIVE.
“No pregnancy this time,” he says, turning the screen back to face him. “Maybe you didn’t stimulate him enough.”
“I did everything right.”
Linus chews on his mustache, the right side a mat of brown and gray whiskers, the left a stubble of gnawed ends and tiny pimples. “This says not, so. . .”
Ollie puts her hands to her empty belly. She’d felt the baby move, had even chosen a name from the registry. Popeye. “Is it already in my record?”
Linus nods. “Went automatically.”
Ollie picks at her forehead. She’d been so sure.
“ – hormones for next time,” Linus is saying.
She pulls herself back to the conversation. “What about next time?”
“Your sextime next month,” he says, and taps the screen. “I’ll get you a new kit with the increased levels. That should do it.”
Ollie’s attention wanders as she counts. Cracks in the wallpaper in front of her – 24. Spots of rust on the stirrups at the end of the exam bed – 7. Number of drawers in the supply cabinet – 14. Drawers that didn’t close properly – 5. Pick. Pick. Pick. She flicks away a bit of scab. “Can I schedule my next sextime with Charlie from E Sector?”
Linus squints at the screen, taps it again. “He’s scheduled for Hazel from J Sector the same three days as your cycle. You’re partnered with Bozo, C Sector.”
Ollie hates Bozo, his fumbling hands, the way his breath whistles through his collapsed nose when he sperms. She drums her heels against the chair legs. “Bozo has trouble with his sperm thing.”
Linus shrugs. “He has a four rating, and is the only clean genetic match in your category.”
“I’ve sextimed Bozo three times already and no baby. Let me try Charlie, Linus.”
The medic shakes his head. “I can’t. I don’t know what women see in him, anyway. He really has a sub IQ.”
“Because he has the best rating.” She leans forward, needs him to understand. “Please. Charlie’s a better match than Bozo.”
Linus chews on his mustache until Ollie is ready to scream.
“Lots of women want Charlie sextime,” he says finally.
Desperation claws at her throat. “I’m not lots of women, I’m me, and I need a baby.”
Processing, processing, processing, processing. The word twists around her head, a spring wound too tight. Ollie begins to rock back and forth.
Linus looks at her sidelong. “All that attention on him doesn’t leave many sextime chances for the rest of us.”
Ollie wipes at a trickle of blood running into her eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
The medic fiddles with something under the desk. “I may be able to change his schedule.” Points to her forehead. “And I can get you an ointment for that when we’re done. It looks infected.”
Ollie stops rocking. Cold rot fills her belly. “When we’re done?”
Another shrug. Linus watches her with pale, hungry eyes.
Ollie feels a containment suit breather mask against her cheeks. She closes her eyes, hears the medic come around the desk.
Ollie grabs the piece of metal from the personals box and positions herself in front of her mirror. She presses her body to the cubby wall, Linus still sticky in her unplugged vag. Her hands shake. She can’t stop crying. Why can’t she stop crying? “He sextimed me, Charlie, but it doesn’t matter. He can’t give me a baby, only you can do that.”
Hot breath blurs the lines of her mirror self. “I’m not other women. I’ll be different for you, and we can sextime a baby, Charlie.”
Charlie still thinks she’s like everyone else in the meat farm, but she’s not. He’ll see. She grabs her left upper eyelid, pulls it taut, and slices through it top to bottom in one clean stroke. Ollie laughs at the searing, red pain. The right eyelid, same cut. She gags, howls, pukes with laughter.
It takes three attempts with the burn stick to cauterize each eyelid, and Ollie laughs, and laughs, and laughs.
“All right, now open your eyes.”
Charlie does. “Why are we at the nursery?”
Ollie bares her teeth in a smile. Her eyelids are lined with gristle and grit. It took two soak pads to remove the caked blood and loosen the cut edges from one another. Every blink makes her roar with silent laughter. “I thought you might want to visit.”
Behind the nursery glass, orderlies tend to six listless babies with pinched faces beneath harsh, yellow lights. Dark-skinned or light, you could slice the face off of one baby and put it on another and they would all look the same. At the back of the room, an accusation of eleven empty basinets are lined up beneath a poster of a pregnant woman giving the thumbs up sign. IMPROVE MORALE. WE’RE COUNTING ON YOU.
The orderlies do not smile.
Charlie looks at the swaddled figures on the other side of the glass. “They’re babies.”
Ollie nods. “They’re your babies.”
He scrunches up his face. “So?”
“You should be proud of your babies.” Ollie taps the glass. “That one there, the one with the dark hair, that’s Olga. She was born five days ago. The one beside her is Mortimer. I think he got that weird lip from his mother.”
Charlie watches as an orderly attaches a line from the baby’s feeding tube to the nutrient pump at the head of the bassinet. His brows draw down as if trying to corner a memory or a stray thought. “His mother?” He shakes his head and stuffs his hands in his coverall pockets. “We’ll be late for shift.”
Ollie stares in wonder at the tiny fingers and toes, the round bellies and wrinkled ears. She presses her left hand to the glass, blocking out one of the babies to make room make room for hers to come. “When we have a baby, we can visit it every day. Won’t that be nice?”
But Charlie is no longer there; he’s headed down the tunnel to the elevator. Ollie hurries after him. “Wouldn’t you like that?”
He doesn’t stop walking. “Like what?”
Ollie gets in front of him and walks backwards until she bumps against the elevator door. “We could visit our baby together. Would you like that?”
Any minute now he’ll notice her eyes, how she’s not like the others.
Charlie grunts and reaches around her to push the call button.
Any minute now. Her smile is brittle with laughter. “When we have a baby, I mean.”
“We’ve never sextimed.”
They’re going to send you to processing. That’s what he really says. Ollie is sure of it. “Yes, but, but we will.”
Charlie shrugs, gaze wandering to the flashing blue floor indicator above her head.
She licks her lips. “Do you like my eyes?”
He doesn’t look at her. “Mmmm.”
The elevator door opens, but she doesn’t move, can’t move. Any. Minute. Now. “I made them just for you.”
Charlie steps forward then back, frowns. “Move.”
Ollie grabs either side of the door so he can’t get around her. “Do you like them?”
“We’re going to be late.”
“I don’t care. I don’t care!” Laughter claws its way up her throat, leaks out the corners of her eyes in salt and blood. Ollie trembles with laughter. “You’re like the rest of them.”
The doors jerk back and forth against her hands. The elevator buzzes with a reminder to step away.
Again Charlie tries to step around her. “C’mon, move.”
Something cracks deep inside her belly. “You really are too stupid to care about anyone but yourself, aren’t you?”
Charlie sighs in exasperation. “What are you talking about?”
The crack widens, hot and jagged. “My eyes! That’s what I’m talking about! My eyes!”
Charlie throws up his hands. “So what? You have eyes!”
Processing. Processing. Processing. Processing. “I’m not like everyone else! I’m different!”
She’s screaming so loud an orderly steps out of the nursery to see what’s going on.
Charlie pushes her into the elevator and steps in after her. “Different. Crazyhead. Fine.”
The laughter balls Ollie’s hand into a fist and punches Charlie in the face. Blood spurts out his nose and he falls back into the tunnel on ass and elbows.
The orderly hurries towards them. “What’s going on?”
“I’m different!” Ollie screams at him.
The doors close on the jagged edges of Ollie’s world.
She lays on the exam table. Linus climbs on top of her, says, Call me Charlie. Say it for me.
Ollie rolls her forehead across the cool metal mirror.
Linus says, It may take more than one try to fix his schedule. I’m sure it will.
His hands are clumsy between her legs.
She is alone in her cubby save for the memories. She pulls back and her reflection considers her from beneath a thin layer of grease and blood. Ollie wipes at it with the cuff of her coveralls, smearing the image. She curses, uses the other cuff. No good. Red streaks slice her face into slabs of meat ready for the carts, her eyes thick black clots.
Charlie and the orderly will report her; they have to. The overseers will send her to processing along with the crazyheads, but she’s not crazy. She just wants a baby. Needs a baby. A low moan uncurls between her lips, caresses her ears with razors.
Charlie walks up behind her, eyes bright and attentive. She whirls around. No one is there. She turns back and Charlie stands behind her reflection. He smiles at her through the streaks of red. Look at me, only at me, he says, and Ollie can do nothing else. I see you. I know you. Look at me.
Charlie wraps his arms around her reflection. Ollie wraps her arms around herself in sympathy. The moan becomes a whimper, the whimper a sigh.
He holds up her piece of metal, shiny and sharp. Ollie’s reflection smiles at her from the circle of his arms. She rests her head on his shoulder and turns her face toward his sunken chest. Charlie bring the piece of metal up and strokes Ollie’s reflection from the corner of her eye to the corner of her mouth, again from her nostril to her ear. Ollie’s reflection shudders and presents her other cheek with a smile. One tender cut at a time, he peels away the lie of skin to reveal the exquisite truth of her face, the ring of muscles around her eyes and mouth, the tiny pads of fat that are her cheeks. Her meat, her fertile, rich meat, all that she is and ever will be. Irresistible.
Ollie reaches out to the mirror; the glass flows up and around her hand to her wrist. She curls her fingers in the red ribbons spilling down her reflection’s neck, feels the exquisite warmth of their laughter.
I see you, I know you, Charlie’s reflection says.
Ollie’s reflection, beautiful and red, fingers laced over her swelling belly, smiles at Ollie.
Ollie pulls her hand out of the mirror and licks the laughter from her fingers.
The cubby door slides open and Charlie stands there in his undershirt, rubbing his eyes. His nose is a swollen black lump of meat in the middle of his face, a white steri-strip across the bridge. “What?”
Ollie smiles. “Hello, Charlie. Can I come in?”
She slaps him in the face with a stun module and he falls back onto his crumpled bed, muscles fighting one another to move. Ollie steps into the cubby, closes and locks the door behind her. She had sextimed Linus to get at the stun module, completely worth the hassle of stuffing his body in the supply cabinet.
She felt lightheaded earlier, but now her mind is clear, her vision pure. She is the breath of every shift and sector, the blood in their veins, the perfection of the meat beneath their identical skins. The fans roar her name, scream devotion from the belly of beasts below. The air is sweet.
Ollie slides onto the bed beside Charlie, excitement rumbling in her belly. She strokes Charlie’s face; dried blood from her palm flakes off in the stubble of his cheeks. “Do you like my face? I did it for you. I am made new, a fresh vat. I am the Lady of Meat.”
Charlie cannot look away, transfixed by her beauty. Ollie takes his palsied hand, presses it to the slick curve of her cheek, laughs. This moment, this perfect moment. She rises up on her knees and slides the blood-stiffened coveralls to her hips, revealing the red traceries across her breasts and stomach, a map to her puckered, hairless mound.
“You like it? I knew you would. I’m not like the others. I’m different.”
She catches a drop of blood oozing from her left nipple and paints his mouth. “I see you. I. See. You.”
Ollie pulls an aid kit, a stimulator, and a scalpel from her coveralls, more gifts from Linus. Off comes Charlie’s trunks; she places the stimulator below Charlie’s scrotum. A flick of her finger, the light flashes blue, and Charlie gurgles again. His sperm thing twitches, then begins to swell.
She draws a red line down her tongue with the scalpel to anoint the blade, then touches the tip to the corner of Charlie’s left eye. “We’ll make beautiful babies, Charlie, so many babies, and they’ll be different just like us. You’ll see.”
The Lady of Meat pushes the tip of the scalpel into Charlie’s meat; blood wells up in celebration.
PseudoPod wants to draw your attention to an anthology that dovetails nicely with Artemis Rising.
Sycorax’s Daughters, is a new volume of dark fiction and poetry and it is our understanding that this is the first horror anthology written entirely by Black women. It explores the intimate details of cultural nuance, race, and gender. Sycorax’s Daughters mission is to work “as a visionary space where Black women explore horror on their own terms.”
Those familiar with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest may remember Sycorax. She is an African sorceress operating as “the absent presence” throughout the play. While never on the stage, she is influential. She haunts the white male characters. She refuses to be excluded from the story.
While we’re talking about anthologies, let’s mention For Mortal Things Unsung.
If you liked “Standard Procedure” by Dagny Paul at the beginning of this month or “The Lady with the Light” by Mel Kassel, you should go pre-order our anthology. Both of those stories were originally published in our 10th anniversary anthology. If you backed our kickstarter, your copy showed up in February. If you missed out, it will be available for purchase at the end of March for your reading pleasure.
About the Author
Xander M. Odell lives in Washington state with their husband, sons, and an Albanian miniature moose disguised as a dog. Their work has appeared in such venues as Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, PseudoPod, Cast of Wonders, and PodCastle. They are a Clarion West 2010 graduate, and an active member of the SFWA.
Their collection of speculative fiction holiday stories, THE TWELVE WAYS OF CHRISTMAS, and debut short story collection GODFALL & OTHER STORIES are available from Hydra House Books.
Support them on Patreon at: http://patreon.com/writerodell
About the Narrator
Linda Hamilton is an American actress best known for her portrayal of Sarah Connor in THE TERMINATOR film series and Catherine Chandler in the 1987–1990 television series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, for which she was nominated for two Golden Globes and an Emmy.
About the Artist
Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.