Winner of the Plymouth Writers Group Short Story Competition

Hearing the Meat – by Rex Bromfield

It’s quiet here at night. Dark. Restful. Unlike most folks who sign up for this job, I don’t mind the constant sound of the meat. Some people choose solitary careers precisely so they can be left alone; night security guards; long-haul truckers; forest rangers. Night shift work lets you gather your thoughts―think about things that others normally don’t have the time or inclination for during the hustle and bustle of a busy working day amid the crush of other people. Not me, I’m one of those solitary people. There are studies that say shift work disrupts circadian rhythms, causing hormone imbalances, heart disease, psychological disorders and obesity. This can’t be true. I think those tests are being conducted on people who aren’t suited to shift work in the first place. People who sleep at night, afraid of the dark.

Of course there are no forest rangers any more, not since they put up all the satellites and realized, that in most cases, it’s a good idea to let wild fires run their course. It’s been many decades since forest decline was a problem. Everyone used to be worried that deforestation was causing a serious buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now we have more trees than we know what to do with. Everything is covered with plant life. In Brazil, they’ve planted a genetically engineered tree called the Patriarca da Floresta that will take the form of a twenty story condo when fully grown.

Humans should be in partnership with nature, to relieve it of the constant struggle to adapt and thrive. Nature is a wonderful thing and we are a part of it. It was my respect for this partnership that got me into this work. I’m more than a night security guard; I’m trained as a biological technician. It really only takes three or four people to run this plant during the day. At night all that’s needed is someone to recognize and report malfunctions before they can get out of control. It never happens.

Growing meat in vitro is so simple it could be monitored by the computers full time, but the law requires that a human always be present. My plant has nine floors, each over thirty thousand square feet. The building is packed with row upon row of light alloy scaffold frames. Every floor-to-ceiling frame is loaded with cultured beef cells in various stages of development—a genetic hybrid of bison/beef muscle that is constantly exercising and growing. The steady flow and drip of pulsed acetylcholine liquid nutrients, the constant movement everywhere, makes it seem that the whole place is alive. I have to admit that at first it was a bit unsettling—especially in the dark. But you get used to it. Marjorie, the head of personnel, said it reminded her of crickets on a warm summer night in the country. Marjorie is older than anyone else here, and she’s been to the country, so I guess she would know. “Technically, it is alive,” she said on my first day, then waved her hand at a four hundred pound rack of mature squeezing, pulsating muscle tissue. “It’s anxious to be harvested and loaded into trucks for delivery,” she said as though she believed the meat to be not only alive but conscious. I didn’t understand it back then, but I do now. After a few weeks of living with the growing meat, exercising itself into nice lean steaks and roasts, my body kind of got into sync with it. Transformers in the basement supply the electrical impulses that stimulate the muscle tissue to contract and relax about twenty-five times a minute. Everything throughout the building runs according to those signals and pretty soon your own metabolism falls into step with it. You become a part of the living meat plant.

Marjorie told me that some people can’t take it. It gives them the creeps. Not me. To me it’s a perfectly natural thing. It’s regeneration and growth. She gave me a key to the roof and told me I could take my breaks up there to get away from the meat whenever I wanted to. She said there was psychiatric counselling available, too, but I don’t see how this peaceful environment could create any problems. Okay, so there have been a few issues. Some suicides. But again, I think those people were simply not suited to this kind of work.

We’re doing a service to humankind here. This single plant feeds a neighbourhood of more than one hundred thousand without harming a single animal. In the old days they used to corral thousands of terrified cows and pigs, herd them through long, filthy runs of wood and steel and onto the stinking slaughterhouse kill floor where they would be hung by their hind legs, drained and gutted. Efficiently processed by bloodied butchers wielding razor sharp knives, carving each animals down to extract the muscle tissue we call steak or hamburger or pork chops.

Now all there is is this soothing meat music—the voices of nature and humans working together.

There is no longer a global food crisis. Factories like this are feeding the world. My plant started with a single line of about 10,000 stem cells. You could keep that many cells in a fridge in a shot glass. Within a few months of opening we were shipping twenty-eight tons of beef a day. We only produce beef here. Other plants make chicken or pork. Pork is difficult because the start up cultures keep wanting to differentiate into brain cells instead of muscle. The scientists can’t quite understand why pork is so finicky that way, but they’re working on it.

There’s a hand-written sign on the tiled wall down in the cafeteria that says ‘The Meat Shall Inherit the Earth’. You can see that they tried to clean it off—I guess because the guy who wrote it was one of the three night technicians who killed himself—but he wrote it with a fat black permanent marker pen, so even though it’s faint, you can still read it. I think I know what he meant. Most living things are meat. We are the meat. The meat is us. That’s why I listen to the meat. I care about it and I know the meat cares about me. It talks to me. It probably sounds strange, but it’s not.  People have long conversations with their phones—not on their phones, with their phones. They call it artificial intelligence. I don’t think there’s anything intelligent about it, by the way. It’s mostly sports and entertainment gossip. What I have with the meat here at night is meaningful. The meat tells me that everything is alive and that we humans are part of a planetary ebb and flow of life. I listen, and the meat tells me its great story of our mutual natural history.

I’ve been at this job for three months now, but I’m still up early every afternoon anxious to get to work. I don’t bother with a social life—too much trouble. Anyway the hours don’t allow it. Being with the meat is better anyway.

Lately I’ve been thinking about becoming vegetarian. I guess I already am. The place where I used to eat, is one of those cafes where you order on the touch screen tabletop and a robot brings your food. The video menu shows real people preparing the food, but I don’t think there’s anyone back there. I think everything is machine-made. I’d rather eat machine food anyway—it’s more sanitary. I don’t feel much like eating meat lately, though, not even if it’s from my plant. I guess this seems hypocritical but I just don’t seem to have a taste for it anymore. I have a real rapport with the meat at the plant. It feels wrong to eat it.

I stopped taking my breaks on the roof about a week ago. I don’t really like being away from the meat. Besides, nine floors is pretty high up and it kind of makes me dizzy just thinking about it. The wall around the edge is only about a foot high and that scares me a bit, too. I’d rather be down here communing with the meat. There is more meaning in what the meat says than what you can get from any conversation with someone outside. That’s why I pack a peanut butter sandwich lunch and come straight to work. I try to arrange it so I’m leaving in the morning just as the day people arrive so I don’t have to get any more involved than I need to.

Last night the meat said it was probably better for me to stay by myself anyway.

The meat is right.

I really would like to get over my fear of the roof. The fresh air of nature is good. Maybe if I leave the door open I’ll still be able to hear the meat, still be able to take my breaks up there.

Tonight I’ll try that.

I know I’ll be more relaxed on the roof, as long as I stay away from the edge, as long as I can hear the meat.

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