Flash Fiction: Paula

And now for something completely different…

Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge this week is something-punk.

“The literary subgenre -punk contains, as I see it, a couple key features –

a) A world taken over by the technology or fuel source or by humans (often in an authoritarian role) attempting to control the utilization and implementation of that tech or resource.

and

b) Characters who represent an anarchic, rebel “punk” vibe in this world.”

1000 words.

As I’m naturally lazy, I pulled up the RNG. And as laziness is naturally punished immediately, I drew a 3.

Cowpunk. I’ve never written any-punk ever, and now that.

Here we go.

=================================

Paula

“Look, Papá… it can walk!”

The six-year-old scampered by his side, little fingers sweaty with excitement clenching Carlos’ hand as they approached the natal box in the back of the byre. It was a stale joke. Byres were long gone, byres meant life and shelter and coexistence of human and animal. And even if it still stunk, of slurry and the pre-fermented feed pellets that cost a fortune all by themselves, this was as far from a shelter as possible.

They passed lines of motionless bodies, linked up to a network of cables and tubes that led in and out of their torsos. Digestive automatons, put something in and get something out, like in every plant. The rhythmic hiss of the pumps that carried the methane directly from the four rumina into the giant steel tanks outside were a background noise he didn’t even hear any more.

He didn’t admit why he always placed the methcows with their rear towards the aisle. Despite their shapeless masses, their vestigial extremities and their outsized, annealed dentition, the creatures had still a single feature that marked them as what they once had been. Back then, when he was a little boy scampering at his father’s hand and they had been called Alba, Carmen or Paula.

He couldn’t bear to look into their eyes. When he had to, he hated what he had become.

The heap of flesh in a corner of the box was only worth a fleeting glance. The gaping carcass, the edges of the long cut through the thick, desensitised leather of its belly ragged and bloody, would be disposed of later. All he saw was the calf trying shakily to stand on spindly legs.

It shouldn’t be able to stand, shouldn’t even be able to try. The agent supervising the delivery feigned disinterest, the grey suit immaculate and blending with the concrete of the wall. His face, lit eerily by the blue shine of his pad even against the piercing light of the neons, gave nothing away while he recorded the results in unintelligible mumbling.

The data of the scanner confirmed his direst fears. A fourer, another, the additional rumina it needed for methane production missing. The third failure in only two years, it would cost him a fortune he didn’t have. Carlos let go of his son, his hand clenched around the animal’s jaw and yanked its head up, the sudden movement causing the calf’s hindlegs to give way. Huge, moist, innocent eyes looked up to him, shadowed by impossibly long lashes.

For a second, he wanted to help it up, wanted to rub the mess of blood and mucus out of the curly brown fur, wanted to hear the slurping sounds when it sucked on the udder of its mother. For a moment, he wanted to tell his son that it would be his, that he could name it, that it would become big and strong if he cared well for it. Like he had done it when he was a boy, under the watchful eyes of his own father.

But it was nothing but a failed investment. A useless regress. The morula had cost him a fortune, damned agency bloodsuckers, and it had been worthless. No refund, of course not, they knew how to whitewash their incompetence with vague explanations of nature taking its course. Nature! Laughable. Nothing here was natural any more.

He rubbed his palm over his face and suppressed a sigh as he turned to the nameless agent. Perhaps he had introduced himself, Carlos didn’t remember. It didn’t matter anyway. With a few pushs, the relevant data was transferred, signed and sealed.

“Nail it.” The voice of the man was as bland as his appearance. “Good luck next time.”

Carlos nodded in acknowledgment, but made no move to see him out. His gaze followed him quietly until only a silhouette in the gateway was left, roaming further over the ragged line of the mountains in the distance. The salient cone of Payun Matru spit a single line of vertical smoke, dark against the pale sky and so deceptively peaceful after the cataclysmic eruption that had wrecked his land. The snowline came down too fast and too early. They needed the gas.

A strange sound brought him back into reality. A slurping sound. “Papá, that tickles!”

His son knelt at his feet in front of the calf, one arm slung around its neck. It sucked vigorously on two fingers he had recklessly stuck into the animal’s muzzle. The boy looked up to him, tousled hair and a streak of dirt smeared over his cheek, but with a broad, toothgaping, happy grin.

Carlos went to his knees beside him, laid an arm around his shoulder.

“Juan,” he said lowly, “Juanito. Listen to me.” He took the boy’s wrist and pulled it back, felt the strength of the suction and the resistance of the child. The calf stretched its neck after the retreating fingers. “We can’t keep it. It’s useless.”

The beaming smile fell into utter bewilderment. “Useless?”

The white blaze at its forehead was soft under his palm, the calf nuzzling its head into his touch. Shaped like a star, the point where the bolt would pierce the cranium. They couldn’t keep it. They had nothing to feed it, and it had no purpose. If they nailed it now, they could at least sell the meat. Veal was highly sought after.

But if it grew up, perhaps it would give milk. If they could let it calve at least once. It was a female, after all, and normal. Suddenly, the stench in the air was drowned out by another memory of his childhood, not the first time that day. The taste of a foaming, luke-warm drink, poured from the huge, dented can into his mug. The taste of butter on fresh bread. The taste of curdled milk, iced with a thick layer of sugar.

His son had never tasted milk – real milk, not this synthetic crap. His son, who bit his lip anxiously as his father didn’t answer that simple question. “Useless?”

He gave him a hesitating smile. “Perhaps not.” He ruffled the boy’s hair. “If we kept it… would you like to name it?”

“Name it?”

“Yeah. Cattle needs a name.” Automatons didn’t.

The beaming smile was back. His thin arm clutched firmly around the calf’s neck. “Paula. She’s called Paula.”

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