Scott Bowen

The March-April Featured Story is by Scott Bowen

Please feel free to email Scott at: scott@beaufinn.com

Scott Bowen

by Scott Bowen

I work in a MegaMeat factory farm. Every day when I punch out, I have once again escaped with my life.

I started out in chickens, in a four-man crew. Live chickens arrived in crates by truck, birds just barely adults. We'd zap our chickens with an electric gun right in their brains, lobotomizing each one, not killing it. The guns had cords that went to a computerized machine that calibrated the shock each time—you just had to get the needle stuck into the skull at the right place. It took a lot of practice. If you killed more than twenty chickens after your first week, you got fired.

We'd take the lobotomized chicken to a machine similar to a belt sander, and we'd clean off the feathers. Feather growth is a waste of food energy, so off they go, along with the legs and beaks.

After that came the sheaf, a two-ply plastic blanket with molded sections for ten chickens, and all kinds of tubes coming out. Each crew member had to stuff this thing full of ten naked, lobotomized chickens, and hook up the tubes and the electrodes the right way to each bird, including the shit tube, and then plug in the sheaf to keep the whole thing warm, and hang it on a frame in the production area. Twenty-four sheaves per man. The MegaMeat system flavored the birds here while they were still alive. Some birds got barbecue-sauce solutions, or teriyaki, or sweet-and-sour. Everything was bar-coded.

My crew did well in chickens and moved up to pigs in six months. The pig process was the same as the chickens, only each pig required two men for handling. They were hard to lobotomize. We had to lock them in stanchions, aim right between their eyes, and really shove that needle in hard. They squealed like a person. In two-man teams we packed two pigs per sheaf, on a hydraulic-powered frame, because pigs're too heavy to lift yourself. The hooves stayed on, of course.

After six months of pigs, my crew—C.J., Reese, Gordy, and I—were harder men, aged faster than is right, but we were pros, too. We could whip those pigs right in and right out. C.J. and Gordy were larger men, Reese and I a bit smaller, all of us strong.

But there were accidents. Rumors abounded about what happened in Quality Stock—why the crews burned out so fast, and why a few guys died. Some said that the cattle in there were dangerous hybrids, as rough as rodeo bulls. Others said that the MegaMeat Quality-Stock quotas were too demanding. Crews made mistakes, and guys died in mechanical accidents.

Funny thing was, I never heard or smelled any cattle around the farm. I never saw any coming in or going out, even in a plastic sheaf. The Quality Stock section of the factory was walled off. It took up nearly half of the huge warehouse, and had serious security gates inside and outside, at the loading docks. Security was tight around the factory farm in general, but the Quality Stock area was truly protected.

Every crew had been briefed in security, how we weren't supposed to talk to anyone about MegaMeat procedures or methods. None of us did, although at least one-third of the local population worked at the factory.

Quivers was the only MegaMeat company man we saw all the time, muscle and policy in one body. He was our foreman and was built like a car battery, with short thick arms and big hands. He liked to backslap and arm-grab the employees, this roughness his way of letting everyone know they had no power over him. He had a big head set on a short neck, a large, hawkish nose, insane blue eyes, and sandy hair. He talked with a Georgia accent.

One blazing-hot September day while we were on break, Quivers approached us and clamped a hand on Gordy's shoulder, and then on Reese, like grabbing playground buddies. "Boys," Quivers said, "I got an opportunity for all of you. You're one damn fine crew, and I think it's time you moved up. Come with me."

We did, without a word. No one looked back at the oily sheen of the rows and rows of plastic sheaths full of lobotomized, flavor-injected pigs. The four of us had talked about staying in pigs, quitting, or taking what came. So we took what had come. In bad times, you will risk your life for an extra $10 an hour.

In his small, neat office, Quivers read quickly through a new contract and nondisclosure agreement. We managed to follow along with the barest of comprehension. The main thing I understood was that I was signing on for another year, and that I could not hold MegaMeat responsible for anything. The words "in the event of my death or severe injury" appeared way too many times in those papers. I should have known then the set-up was no good.

But we all signed, and once we had, Quivers could show us our new gear: an orange rubber jumpsuit with a build-in helmet, and Kevlar plates on the shoulders, chest, and hips. It had its own ventilation and communication systems, and with a vital-signs indicator on the left side of the chest. All new Quality Stock crews went on the night shift.

We showed up for our first Quality Stock shift and Quivers told us, "Remember what you signed, boys. You have taken a legal pledge to protect the MegaMeat brand."

We moved quickly through a pressure-locked door and into a bright, giant room.

At first, I wasn't sure what I was looking at. I saw rows after row of large plastic tanks filled with convulsing, slimy masses of flesh. The tanks were laid out twelve in a row, across the thirty-meter width of the room, sixteen rows in all. Numerous men in their orange armor dashed around, pulling hoses or reading various meters on the outsides of the tanks. Many hoses crossed the rubber floor. The place was loud with the most awful animal sound I've ever heard, a low howl of anger and agony.

Quivers led my crew down a side aisle, moving quickly toward the back rows of the gigantic set-up. We came to a row numbered 16, the very last, and here Quivers patted the shoulder of a massive man. I heard the two of them speak over the inner-com in my helmet, and our new foreman, Mears, said in a loud, gruff voice, "Welcome to Quality Stock, Crew 9."

I had to force myself to listen, because here I finally saw clearly what lived in those tanks, and a sickening sensation came over me so powerfully that my legs began to shake.

Massive creatures lurched and heaved behind the Plexiglas, hairless animals like big, slimy, pale-brown manatees, with four small, stubby limbs capped with soft hooves. Each creature had two large, dark bovine eyes packed into folds of flesh on either side of a flattened snout. Those eyes fixed us with a gaze of madness and fear. Rubbery mouths opened and closed in gasps for air quickly released to make that horrible moan.

"What you are looking at is MegaMeat Ultramodified Protein Stock. Or Quality Stock," Mears said. "These animals have been engineered from top-line Beefmaster cattle into what you see here. Each one is nearly eighty-percent edible meat, quality beef. Skeletal and digestive systems have been minimized. The MegaMeat system feeds their flesh directly, through the bloodstream."

These monstrosities took up nearly the entire space of their tanks, their ugly faces pressed against the glass, their bodies squirming like larvae, lubricated with a thick, snotty fluid. Full-grown, these beasts were as big and long as bulls.

"These here are ready for slaughter," Mears said, pointing at the largest ones, in the tanks that were about five-feet wide by five-feet high, and maybe ten feet long. "Their bodies conform to the space of their enclosure, so you can stack 'em tight when they're shipped. Total weight we're shipping is eighty-percent meat. No wasted space."

I could see the physical demands of Quality Stock would be huge, and the system required much more attention to the feeding and waste systems. Every one of us, four crews to a shift, also had to keep a close eye on the behavior of the largest stock. From a motionless state they could suddenly turn wild, shuddering and heaving with great effort, making more of a belch-cough sound than a moo. The place stank of the animals' slime and shit. I wondered how long I could last at this.

The process started with calves, shipped to the farm in tight crates. These things were bawling, slimy sausages like hairless basset hounds with babyish pug faces. Once hooked up to the system, they grew amazingly fast, so fast you could watch one grow over a shift. At a certain size, we'd put calves into junior-size crates. When a junior hit about 400 pounds, we struggled to shove it into a full-sized crate for maturing. Free of its junior crate, the young stock would grunt and thrash wildly as we steered each one with electrified prods and hooks, moving their bulk on dollies because they could not walk on their own.

Every eight-week cycle ended with a slaughter day for the dozen mature stock. Through a slot in the Plexiglas door of the tank, we'd hook-up an electrode between the slug's eyes and electrocute it. Then we'd pull it out of the tank onto a dolly and wheel it down to the processing stations.

All we had to do was cut off the legs and tail, and grind off the mound of head and snout. The potato-shaped result, sometimes as big as 900 pounds, got stuffed by machine into a lengthwise container, the ends bulging with ruptured meat, oozing blood. The containers went into trailers, stacked like wooden blocks, and truckers drove these away for processing.

The first week on the job, Reese, C.J., Gordy, and I found out about something the stock did called "lurching." One of the cattle-slugs in a line of adults would start to vibrate, just shaking in place, throwing a shower of slime. The stock in the surrounding crates quickly caught on, and would begin to heave in rhythm until the entire row of stock heaved left and then right.

Those crates were made of the kind of thick Plexiglas you see in liquor stores in bad neighborhoods, almost unbreakable stuff. The trouble came with the fittings, the thick polymer joints and corners, and also the floor attachments. The syncopated heaving of twelve 900-pound animals was more than the hardware could handle. Doors broke open. Seams cracked.

In those early days, I went home so physically and mentally tired that I slept all day, in dreamless sleep. The nutrient and flavoring systems weren't complicated, but required constant monitoring on the sub-adult and mature stock because the beasts moved around so much. The feeding hoses often detached from the direct bodily connection. We had to carefully monitor the animals' weight, blood pH, and fat content.

What really freaked me out were their eyes. I could not bear to look at them, because they seemed terrified, yet filled with intent to kill. When my endurance built up, and sleep was not a complete blackout, I dreamed of those eyes set in that folded, ugly face—they came closer and closer, as I felt smaller and smaller, until they loomed over me and the massive animal came crashing down. That was, I'd say, the last thing C.J. saw

One night we had a whole row of full-grown adults lurching like mad, shaking and flexing their crates. Gordy ran to the electrical box to give them all a shock, but when he hit the plunger, nothing happened. He pressed it again and again, but the crazed slugs kept heaving. I could see Plexiglas separating from the frames.

C.J. dashed down in front of the last tank to check the cable connection when the row of stock threw to the left, sending their whole shock wave into the last spot, and the polymer frame cracked just above C.J.'s head. When he looked up, the slug had already broken out the door. It heaved upon him, belching and braying as it mashed him into the rubber floor. In our headsets we heard his rattling scream.

Gordy shot the slug through the skull with a pressure gun, blowing its brains and blood all across the other tanks. We slammed hooks into the hide of the beast and heaved and pulled to get it off C.J. Another crew jumped in, swinging their meat hooks, too. Finally, we rolled the slimy dead mass off C.J., and Gordy eased him onto his side. C.J. had been crushed in a crouching position. He convulsed for a long time, as Gordy held him, coming to a halt in rhythm with his dying heart.

Behind us the stock were still heaving and flopping in their tanks, but no longer in unison. Gordy spun around, went to the control box, and shocked them all repeatedly until Mears came running down, bellowing, "You'll ruin the flavoring!" C.J. had fixed the connection, his last effort in this world.

You'd think the death of a crewmember would be a big deal to the operation, but it wasn't. Each witness filled out a standard questionnaire, and gave it to Mears, who filed it. Gordy had the nerve to tell Quivers and Mears that the tanks weren't built right. The foreman and the crew chief just stared at him, not even pretending to be sympathetic. We all went home before dawn, feeling very cold deep in our gut.

Reese died next. It happened while we were putting a sub-adult into a new tank. At this age, the stock were just flexible and light enough that they could swing their hindquarters like a big circus seal.

Reese and Gordy were prodding the slug off the dolly, directing it headfirst toward the open door of its new tank. It turned broadside to the tank, and then came around, pointing the wrong way. Reese and Gordy had to turn it, so Gordy began to prod it on its right side, and Reese went to prod it on the left, in back.

Reese stepped too close, and this cattle-slug knew exactly where he was. It heaved its hindquarters and slammed him into the doorframe of the tank. When he hit the floor, half in the tank, half out, the goddamn thing went berserk, slamming him again and again while Gordy beat its head with his electric prod.

I grabbed the pressure gun from the locker. Hearing Gordy screaming, "Shoot it!" and hearing Mears shouting, "No—shock it!" I fired a blast of hard air through the slug's ears, and it rolled on its back, quivering.

"Goddamn you!" Mears said to me, yanking the gun out of my hands. "I told you to shoot only adult stock in these situations."

I had killed a hunk of quality stock before full yield. It had not yet been flavored.

We didn't hear through our headsets any sound from Reese. He wasn't moving, but he still had vital signs flashing on the panel of his jumpsuit. A security crew took him in a stretcher to the loading area, and an ambulance came after much too long a time. Reese died in the hospital that night. We knew then that we were worth less than the slugs, at least in the eyes of MegaMeat Inc.

Replacements arrived. Gordy and I each partnered with a new guy, because Mears wanted us to show them what to do. I told my new partner in ten seconds every important thing I knew: "Stay on your feet. Don't pass beyond the mid-point of a slug's body. When in doubt, shock them. Don't kill a sub-adult. Your body armor wasn't designed for this."

The sweaty new guy nodded, his eyes bugging out. His name was Wally. I didn't think he'd last.

Mears had nearly fired me for killing the slug that killed Reese, but the other crews had become so unstable and shaky, with so many mistakes and problems with their stock, that Mears kept me on. The only thing I had going for myself was a very high safety rating.

Mears locked away the pressure guns, whether that broke federal law or not. I thought Gordy would be furious, but he held his tongue. A week later, Gordy opened the locker at our control panel and pointed. I looked in and saw two pressure guns with large tanks strapped to shoulder harnesses.

"How the hell did you get them in here?" I said.

Gordy shrugged. "Don't think twice about using them."

I nodded. We had entered into a pact. At least, I had, because Gordy had given me the means to save my own life.

In addition to securing the two secret guns, my old teammate did loudly point out everything else that he thought was a safety violation and Mears ignored him. I don't think my joining Gordy in his protests could have prevented the disaster, if somehow the two of us complaining together would have made a difference in the inevitable, although these days I think about it a lot.

At 2:30 in the morning a week before Christmas, a row of the biggest slugs began to vibrate with a murmuring moo that resonated in our chests. I had never heard this sound before.

"They're starting up," Gordy shouted, running to the control box. "Get away from the tanks!"

The crew scrambled as Gordy flipped on the shock switches. He turned to look at the row of tanks, his finger over the plunger button.

Yet the slugs weren't going full tilt. They were vibrating and mooing, their flesh trembling with so many fast wiggles they showered the tanks with their slime. They didn't go faster. Their lowing became a deep murmur, a vibration that passed through the entire section of the farm. All the crews watched as all the slugs came to attention, caught on the vibe, and all of them—all 192 calves, juniors, sub-adults, and the big ones—began to vibrate their flesh. Then they began to slowly lurch their bodies in unison to a guttural sing-song moan. It was the beginning of a stampede.

The other crews panicked, and ran to the shock buttons. Mears came running from the security door, yelling at everyone not to shock the younger stock.

With a horrendous bellow, the biggest slugs threw themselves to one side, straining with all their terrible strength to break the tank panels. Rebounding, they swung to the other side, heaving against the Plexiglas. I heard plastic cracking everywhere.

Gordy grabbed a pressure gun as I ran to the monitor station. He shouted over the inner com: "Shock the shit out them." If they broke out, he meant to kill them all.

Then Mears screwed everything up. That stupid fucking shithead crew chief came running down the aisle and began to fight Gordy for the gun, yelling out crazed bullshit about MegaMeat policy. With all the crews shocking the shit out of their stock, Mears had gone crazy as the slugs themselves, and was bellowing at Gordy to give up the gun, and then screaming at everyone else to stop shocking.

I mashed that plunger down again and again, shocking those goddamned disgusting animals over and over, but it did no good. They lurched faster and faster, and bellowed louder and louder. Then I heard the blast of the pressure gun.

I turned and saw Gordy fall to the ground right in front of the tanks. Mears tumbled backwards, holding the gun.

With a terrible crack, most of the adult stock broke out from their tanks. They filled every fourth row, too big to move far very fast, but they heaved and wobbled in every direction. Crews ran like hell for the security door. The sub-adult slugs slammed harder and faster at the walls of their tanks, knowing they could break free.

Gordy sat completely still between the slugs that had landed on the floor to either side of him. They did not seem to notice him. They were all facing Mears.

I heard Gordy in my earphones: "Drew—get the other gun."

I reached down under the control panel and felt along the shelf for the other pressure gun, and I pulled it out, slinging the tank across my back.

"Start shooting, Drew," Gordy said with great calm.

As I stepped forward to blast the first beast in its left ear, the line of eight cattle-slugs began heaving their bulk with wicked speed toward Mears. He aimed his pressure gun at the first one and got it, but missed his second shot, and then they were on him, slamming him into the back wall.

I ran across a mess of broken hoses and slug shit to Gordy, and saw the bloody hole in his jumpsuit where Mears had shot him. He was bleeding a lot. I helped him to his feet and we staggered down the aisle toward the security door. We scampered so quickly past the crazed sub-adults they had little time to react and missed us both with their spinning and slamming. But they and all the other loose slugs began to follow us, and when Gordy and I arrived at the security door, I knew it was locked. Everyone else had bugged out, the door shutting and locking automatically behind them.

I sat Gordy on the floor, putting him between myself and the door, and I waited with all the calm I had. I knew I could try to shoot out the door lock, but that might not work, and it would waste gas. I had to kill the first four or five slugs, for sure, and as many more as possible.

They came as a wall of flesh, fronted by two giant adults with two sub-adults on either side, surging toward me as a great slimy wave. I took three long steps forward and pressed the muzzle into the head of the first adult and fired, then stepped back while shooting the second adult. I shot the younger one to my right, and then the one on my left was ramming my shoulder when I blasted a hole in its forehead.

I had timed it perfectly: the dead slugs formed a protective wall. The fuckers behind them could not heave themselves over the carcasses, or shove the dead ones very far.

I knelt, watching the four carcasses wobble and shake as the enraged slugs pressed and hammered from behind. I had maybe three shots of air left, and wondered if the sub-adults could somehow propel themselves off the floor.

Gordy's arm was limp when I took his hand. I looked down at him, and saw how much blood had smeared the outside of his jumpsuit. I called to him over my microphone. He did not respond.

I sat down next to him, the pressure gun pointed forward. I heard voices shouting through my intercom, and I realized a security detail was coming through the loading bay. They had shotguns, and I sat listening to them shooting everything they saw.

Afterward, I slept in a closet for two weeks. It was the only place I felt safe.

I found out that MegaMeat didn't pay to fly the dead men's bodies' home. The company paid ground freight only. That's why Gordy's body moved for ten days through various shipping stations. His girlfriend told me this. She had found my phone number, and wanted to know what had happened. All I ever said was, "I didn't see it. It was an accident."

Yes, I went back. I'm on the day shift now. What else was I going to do? Where was I going to find another job? I was put in charge of a new crew, me and three guys who just got out of the National Guard. I went back to work with a twitchy energy that filled me every time I went onto the Quality Stock floor. Part of it is too much energy drink, and part of it is the pills I take before I leave the house. The rest is walking around a place where I saw my old crew die.

Quivers was the one who asked me to come back. He was even nice about it. He offered me what he called a "signing bonus" after I signed ten different documents that all amounted to a single sentence: You will never tell anyone about this ever.

I was back on the job after a three-week furlough. MegaMeat technicians needed that long to install new Quality Stock tanks, new models with stronger frames and thicker glass. The whole Quality Stock section of the farm was rewired. The techs must have worked in 24-hour shifts, because the place was totally different when I went back.

The slugs are the same. They moan, and moo, and lurch. They try with all their might to break these new tanks. One day they might. And then we'll have trouble, because all the pressure guns are gone. We shot too many sub-adults during the stampede. Too much good product was destroyed.

Scott Bowen is the author of a short story collection, The Midnight Fish, and a satire, The Vampire Survival Guide. His short fiction has appeared in various publications, including Hospital Drive, the on-line journal of the University of Virginia Medical School, and the Yale Anglers’ Journal. He lives in the very haunted Bucks County, Pennsylvania. 
















































































































































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