The technical ideas for this short story are not new – I worked them out over ten years ago – but the human angle came from my own more recent feelings of guilt at keeping a worm farm. Memories of my Grandmother keeping live chickens in her tiny apartment also had something to do with it but that is a story for another day. Enjoy.
2083 – The Christmas Roast
Christmas was supposed to be a time of happiness and good cheer but fourteen year old Caitlyn Nguyen knew that Christmas, or to be more exact Christmas lunch, was going to be horrible this year. That was why she was still awake at 3am on Christmas morning.
Caitlyn’s two younger brothers, Jeff and little Michael, had gone to sleep hours before and she could hear them snoring softly in the bunks below. They were probably dreaming of the presents they would find under the tree when they got up in the morning. It wasn’t a real tree of course, it was illegal to grow pines anymore because of the bushfires but the fake Christmas tree was still very pretty and Caitlyn had been happy to help decorate it until the moment her mother started talking about the huge roast she was going to bake for Christmas lunch the next day – real potatoes, real carrots, real pumpkin… and their very first, home-grown SL’ick.
The boys had jumped up and down in excitement, wanting to know if they could help get the SL’ick out of its tank. Neither one of them had given a single thought to the fact that taking the SL’ick out of its tank would kill it. All they had cared about was that there would be meat for Christmas lunch…
Carnivores! Caitlyn thought as she stared up at the ceiling just a couple of feet from her head. All they care about is food!
Before being assigned to their very own apartment in the undercity, Caitlyn had been much like her brothers. They had never gone hungry, her parents worked very hard to make sure that never happened, but still, meat was not something they could afford to eat. There had been special occasions of course, birthdays and anniversaries and such, when they would all go out to have a hamburger as a treat but the meat inside the bun had been mostly soy anyway, with just a bit of SL’eef for flavour, so Caitlyn had never really had to worry about where the meat came from but eating a whole SL’ick was different, especially when it was a SL’ick she knew…
Like everyone else, Caitlyn had grown up knowing about Synthetic Life Animals. She knew they made precious compost because they were engineered from earthworms. She knew they had no bones, or eyes or anything and she knew that her family was incredibly fortunate to be assigned an apartment with its own SLA tank but none of that changed the sense of horror she felt. No matter what anyone said she knew the SL’ick in their home tank were not just giant worms!
When the Nguyen family had moved into their apartment everyone had been given one special chore, even four year old Michael. As the eldest, Caitlyn was given the important task of feeding the five tiny SL’ick her mother had bought. Three times a day she would have to scrape the leftovers from their meals into the SLA tank and three times a day she would have to look down into the tank and see the brown, segmented things that moved around inside.
While the SL’ick were small she hardly even noticed them, however once they became bigger a curious thing began to happen; instead of staying below the surface of the compost in the tank, the SL’ick began squirming up to the top, their toothless mouths opening and closing as if in anticipation of the food she was about to give them.
When Caitlyn told her parents about the SL’icks’ odd behaviour they both laughed it off, saying that it must have been a coincidence because SL’ick were too rudimentary for such ‘purposeful behaviour’.
Even the boys had laughed at Caitlyn’s fanciful story so she had not brought the subject up again but the strange behaviour of the creatures in the tank continued. She did notice however that the SL’ick only seemed to respond to her. Whenever anyone else opened the tank they would hide below the compost. It was almost as if they recognized her in some weird way.
And then two weeks ago the biggest one, the one that was going to end up as Christmas lunch, began bumping its mouth-end up against Caitlyn’s hand, almost as if it was saying hello or something. The first time it happened she had fled to the holoscreen, desperately searching for answers but all the wiki clips said the same thing – SLA did not have heads as such because they didn’t really have any brains so there was just an in-end and an out-end. Nonetheless every time the big SL’ick bumped her hand it was always with the mouth-end, the end that would be its head if it had a brain. Could it be that these SL’ick were different? A mutation maybe?
Fearing the ridicule of her friends and family, Caitlyn told no-one of her latest suspicions but in the privacy of her own mind she began thinking of the big SL’ick as Buffa. It was a silly name from a little kids holo but somehow the name seemed to fit because just like the fat cat in the story, Buffa really was very smart. Before each feed it would bump up against her hand as if telling her to hurry up but afterward it would slide gently beneath her fingers, back and forth, for all the world as if it was saying thank you.
Buffa is smart, Caitlyn thought as her throat tightened up and the first tear slid down her cheek . More tears followed, leaving cold, wet trails down her face before pooling in her ears. Rolling onto her stomach she buried her face in the pillow but the tears kept coming. Soon the sound would wake the boys and then they would wake her parents and…
Sliding to the side of the bunk Caitlyn grabbed the guard rail with both hands and swung her feet onto the rungs of the ladder that connected the three bunks. Once on the floor she tip-toed from the small cubicle and slapped the panel that closed their bedroom off from the round hallway at the centre of the apartment.
Like all of the apartments in the honeycomb of the undercity the Nguyen’s 20 foot square of living space had a circular multifunction ‘hall’ in the middle that provided access to the two bedrooms, the kitchen and the communal living space. However when all the openings in the hall were closed, the circular space automatically turned into a bathroom. The toilet and basin would rise up from the floor while the shower-dryer would drop down from the ceiling. The bathroom was also the only space in the apartment that was sound-proofed.
As the door leading to her parents’ room was already closed Caitlyn only had to close off the living and kitchen spaces to gain the privacy she needed. In moments she was alone in the bathroom but she made no attempt to use any of the fixtures. Instead she just sat on the toilet, hugging herself and crying. She had already made up her mind that she could not, would not eat any of the SL’ick her mother served up for lunch, no matter how much trouble she got into but now, as she sat there with snot running from her nose and her shoulders bouncing up and down with hiccups she knew that refusing to eat was not going to be enough; Buffa knew her and trusted her. She couldn’t just stand by and let it die. She just couldn’t.
When the hiccups finally stopped Caitlyn took a deep breath, washed her face and hands and opened up the doors. Creeping back into the room she shared with her brothers she grabbed her coverall, shoes and school bag before creeping out again. She now knew exactly what she had to do but her hands were clammy with apprehension as she crept into the tiny, compact kitchen.
The only light in the apartment came from the dim night light that always burned in the hall but the apartment was so tiny that even that was enough to see by. In fact, as Caitlyn pulled on her coverall and sealed off the opening with a quick swipe of her hand, she could not help wishing that there was no light at all. If one of her parents got up to go to the bathroom and saw her standing in the kitchen fully dressed they would know that something was up.
Placing her shoes and the bag on the floor with exaggerated care, Caitlyn held her breath as she opened the SL’ick tank. During the day the soft hiss of the servos was impossible to hear against the background noise of five people moving around inside a very small space but now, in the silence of the night even that slight sound seemed unnaturally loud. Caitlyn spun around and stared at the door to her parents’ room, expecting to see it slide open at any moment. She could almost see father standing in the doorway with a cricket bat in his hand, ready to repel intruders but as the moments dragged by with malicious slowness the door remained firmly closed.
Trembling with fright Caitlyn turned back to the SL’ick tank, desperate to grab Buffa and leave before her imaginings turned into reality but when she looked into the tank she could not see the big SL’ick anywhere. The little ones were all coming to the surface but there was no sign of Buffa. Had her mother killed it already? Was that what her parents had been doing after the rest of them had gone to bed?
Sorrow, relief and guilt battled it out in Caitlyn’s mind as she stared at the small SL’ick waiting hopefully for an unscheduled feed. I’ll never see Buffa again. I won’t get into trouble. I should have rescued Buffa sooner…
After all the crying Caitlyn had done in the bathroom she should have been all out of tears but there they were, blurring her vision all over again.
“I’m so sorry Buffa,” she whispered as she gently patted the surface of the compost. “I did try. Really I did.”
Caitlyn was just shaking the compost off her fingers when when something wet and slightly slimy rose up and nudged the palm of her hand. It was the big SL’ick and it was still very much alive!
Thrusting both hands into the compost Caitlyn scooped up the big SL’ick and placed it gently in the bottom of her bag before quickly covering it with some of the moist compost from the tank. SL’ick could survive in the air for a short time but she knew Buffa would never survive the trip to the surface without compost. She was just about to close the tank when two of the medium sized SL’ick slithered up, still looking for food. They were only about half the size of Buffa but as she watched their little mouths open and close in entreaty Caitlyn knew she couldn’t leave them behind either. Even though they were small her mother was a very determined woman and she had set her heart on having roast SL’ick for Christmas.
Sorry Mum, Caitlyn thought with a silent giggle as she grabbed a SL’ick in either hand. They too went into the bag with a blanket of compost. Catching the two smallest ones was a little harder as they were only as big as her index finger and quite fast but she kept combing her hands through the compost until she had them both.
After covering all the SL’ick with a few more handfuls of compost Caitlyn quickly sealed the bag and hoisted it onto her shoulder. Five SL’ick and a load of compost turned out to be a lot heavier than she expected but desperation and a strange, wild excitement gave her the strength to slip into her shoes and tip-toe away.
A few moments later the front door irised shut with a soft snick as Caitlyn and her SL’ick made their escape.
* * *
The first, unconfirmed sightings of feral SL’ick hit the news about six months later. When she saw the holo someone had taken of the SL’ick in the wild Caitlyn just smiled.