I’m not going to say a word today…’cause I’m just going to curl up with a story… Christmas is a good time for stories…
The Christmas Roast
A. C. Flory
Christmas was supposed to be a time of happiness and good cheer, but fourteen year old Caitlyn Nguyen knew that Christmas 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 had started talking about the huge roast she was going to bake for Christmas lunch – 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 of them had given a 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 in disgust as she stared up at the ceiling just a couple of feet above 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 her family was incredibly lucky to be assigned an apartment with its own SLA tank. However none of that changed the sense of horror she felt at the thought of eating one. No matter what anyone said, she knew the SL’ick in their home tank were not just giant worms!
When the Nguyen family had first moved into their apartment, everyone had been given one special chore, even three year old Michael. As the eldest, Caitlyn was given the important task of feeding the five tiny synthetic life chickens 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, 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 laughed it off, saying it must have been a coincidence because SL’ick were too primitive 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 made differently to normal SLAs? But why would the company that made them suddenly give them a brain?
It didn’t make sense, unless the company hadn’t meant to make them this way. Maybe Buffa and the others were part of a batch that went wrong. Glitches did happen. Usually they were caught before people bought them, but there was that Eterna face cream recently. It made hundreds of women’s faces turn blue…
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; 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 swiped the panel that closed off their bedroom from the round hallway.
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 and cried.
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. However, as she sat there with snot running from her nose, and her shoulders bouncing up and down with hiccups, she suddenly realised that refusing to eat was not going to be enough. Buffa knew her and trusted her. She couldn’t just stand by and let him 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 clothes and school bag, and crept out again. She knew exactly what she had to do, but guilt still made her shiver as she crept into the tiny, compact kitchen. SL’ick were expensive.
Placing her shoes and the bag on the floor with exaggerated care, Caitlyn stared at the door to her parents room as she pulled on her coveralls, and slipped into her shoes.
The only light in the kitchen came from the night light that always burned in the hall, but the apartment was so tiny even that dim light was enough to see by. If one of her parents got up to go to the bathroom, and saw her standing in the kitchen fully dressed, they would know something was up.
Nervous sweat made Caitlyn’s hands feel wet, and she wiped them on her coveralls before she reached out and 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 even that slight sound seemed unnaturally loud.
Caitlyn held her breath as her eyes flicked to the door of her parents’ room. She expected to see her father standing there, cricket bat in hand, ready to repel intruders, but the door stayed closed.
Breathing out in relief, Caitlyn turned back to the SL’ick tank, desperate to grab Buffa, and leave before her imaginings turned into reality. However 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.
Cold hands seemed to clutch at her heart. Had her mother killed Buffa 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 shaking the compost off her fingers 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 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 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.
* * *
As soon as Caitlyn stepped out into the corridor running past her home, the guilty elation fled. She had never been out this late before, and the corridor looked spooky, and somehow alien with only the dim blue of the floor panels to light the way. They led off in either direction like the footprints of a ghost.
Maybe this had not been such a good idea after all. Passive sensors guarded every corridor of the undercity, but Caitlyn knew they wouldn’t be much help if some psycho jumped out of the shadows. Security would come, but not in time to save her.
That was a lesson the whole undercity had learned two years ago when a nightshift worker had been found, raped and strangled. Security had caught the psycho responsible, but that had not been much consolation to the victim, or her family.
Maybe I should just put the SL’ick back, Caitlyn thought as her hand groped blindly for the access panel next to the door. Surely if she made enough of a fuss her mother would change her mind about the roast…
Yeah, right. And maybe we’ll have snow for Christmas too.
Ever since Caitlyn had put the SL’ick in her bag, they had been quiet and still, but now she could feel them squirming around against her back. There really wasn’t enough compost in her bag to keep them alive for long. She would have to decide one way or the other very soon.
It’s not that far to the recycling plant…
Caitlyn’s parents both worked at the recycling plant, so she knew the way. All she had to do was walk to the first main intersection, and ride the strip until she hit the Hub. From there it would only be a short ride up to the recycling plant on the surface.
C’mon, c’mon you can do this!
The SL’ick seemed to agree as they intensified their squirming. Or perhaps they were just getting more uncomfortable.
What if they died before she could get them up to the recycling plant?
That was one of Michael’s favourite sayings, and the thought of her four year-old brother steadied Caitlyn’s nerves. Both boys would think this was a great adventure. How could she wimp out now?
Hitching the heavy bag a little higher, Caitlyn took a deep breath and started walking up the corridor. The floor panels brightened at her approach, and dimmed again as she walked on. The added light should have been welcome, but being in her own cone of light just made her feel more exposed. She longed to run, to get this all over with, but the bag seemed to get heavier with every step, and a slow trudge was all she could manage.
It seemed to take forever just to reach the first side corridor, and when she got there, Caitlyn had to put the bag down, and catch her breath. She did not rest for long though; the sound of her own breathing seemed terribly loud in the silence. Picking up the bag again, she trudged on.
The main corridor was much wider than the narrow residential one she had come from, and the lighting was brighter, but the emptiness stretching ahead and behind scared her in a way she could not define. During the day, this corridor teemed with people and bots, all hurrying to someplace else. Now it was as if she was the only person alive in the whole of the undercity.
If Caitlyn had been less tired she might have given in to her fears then, and trudged home again, but with the moving strip just a few feet away it seemed easier to keep going.
Hefting the bag onto her shoulder once more, she turned the corner, and stepped across the west bound strip at an angle so she would not be carried too far in the wrong direction. Once on the east-bound strip she lowered the bag to the moving pavement, and stared at her feet, refusing to look at all the empty corridors trundling past. Yet not seeing was somehow even worse than seeing, and her head quickly snapped up again. The back of her neck crawled, as if hundreds of tiny insects were marching up and down in feathery little boots.
Adding to Caitlyn’s fears was the lack of movement from her bag. The SL’ick had stopped moving, and she was terrified they would all die for nothing.
By the time Caitlyn finally saw the Hub in the distance, its massive ramp corkscrewing its way through the centre of the undercity, her coveralls were sticky with fear sweat. The only thing that kept her from crying like a little kid was the sight of one of the freight elevators standing open, its interior bright with light. Sanctuary beckoned, and she shuffled inside like a lost soul coming home.
“S-surface,” Caitlyn whispered as the massive doors slid shut.
With no other passengers getting on or off, the ride up from the nineteenth level of the Hub took only seconds. All too soon, the great doors slid open once more, and the AI’s impersonal voice was wishing her a Merry Christmas.
Caitlyn had never felt less merry in her life. The plexiglass dome that protected the entrance to the undercity was awash with stars, but their light was too fragile, and too distant, to relieve the immensity of the blackness pressing in from the Outside. Even the strip lighting that led the way to the brightly lit portal of the recycling plant seemed ineffectual. Each cone of bright light just made the shadows beyond its reach even darker.
Anything could be hiding in those shadows, absolutely anything.
Almost there… Almost there…
Making herself walk that last quarter of a mile to the recycling plant was the hardest thing Caitlyn had ever had to do. Every time she left the light and stepped into shadow, it felt like walking into the maw of a ravenous beast.
By the time she reached the portal she had reached a level of fear beyond terror. Mouth open in a silent scream, eyes wide and dry, she walked like an automaton with just one program functioning – get inside.
Five paces from the portal, the sensors detected the presence of a human, and the massive, metal petals of the portal irised open.
Caitlyn kept walking, hardly aware of her surroundings. Only when the rich smell of humus assaulted her nose did she stop, and look around like someone waking from a terrible dream. To her left were the sealed vats where human wastes were processed by a series of engineered bacteria. In the middle were the administrative areas, and behind them were the compost farms that turned all food waste into rich, soil-nourishing humus.
But the young girl with the tear-stained face had eyes for just one thing – the neat rows of hover-trains lined up against the right hand wall. That was where she had to go. And then her job would be done.
Too tired to carry the bag any longer, Caitlyn dragged the SL’ick behind her on the brightly polished floor as she staggered to the nearest hover-train. The huge container was resting on the ground, waiting for the teleoperators to arrive in the morning. She knew it would be full of precious soil for the farms.
With the last of her strength, Caitlyn opened the floor level door and climbed the narrow plasteel steps of the service hatch. When she reached the top, she opened her bag and wrestled it to the top of the guard rail.
As the bag fell, compost and five brown shapes fell onto the pile of humus. The drop was not that long, but none of the five SL’ick moved.
Caitlyn knew she should be feeling something, but there was a strange emptiness in the middle of her chest where her heart should be. Only the need for secrecy still drove her, although why it should matter now was lost in the fuzzy concept of ‘tomorrow’. Turning from the railing, she trudged down the steps, and closed the access door to the hover-train behind her.
She had to hide.
Looking out across the expanse of faux marble, Caitlyn’s eyes brightened a little when she saw the curved reception desk facing the portal. There.
Beneath that desk was a safe, dark place. She had played there many times as a small girl. No one but her mother would know to look for her there.
Moments after crawling under the desk, Caitlyn was asleep.
* * *
Caitlyn was eventually found by the skeleton crew who came in to keep the recycling plant ticking over during the holidays.
She spent the rest of Christmas day in hospital, under observation. Despite being questioned by Security, hospital staff, and her own family, she refused to say what she was doing at the recycling plant.
The only person who did not question Caitlyn was her mother. She did not need to. As soon as she had found the SL’ick gone that morning she had known something was very wrong. Finding Caitlyn missing as well had confirmed her worst fears.
She had known Caitlyn would be upset by the idea of eating the SL’ick, but she had hardened her heart, telling herself the child would outgrow her squeamishness. Now she just prayed her daughter had not paid too high a price for her soft heart.
Mother and daughter were finally reunited in the hospital where they spent some time alone together.
When Caitlyn was allowed to leave the hospital, she looked less stricken than she had when she first arrived, but it would be another six months before the haunted look finally left her eyes.
The family were eating dinner, and watching the nightly news, when an odd little story appeared on the holo. Apparently a group of young men had gone Outside during a drunken binge, and one of them swore he had seen a giant earthworm burrow into the ground just a few feet from where he was taking a leak.
The newscaster made a snide reference to pink elephants before going on to discuss the latest findings published by the Global Climate Change Authority.
Caitlyn and her mother just looked at each other…and smiled.
About the author
acflory is a science fiction writer from Australia whose favourite questions are ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’
Favourite novels include ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, by Ursula K.LeGuin, ‘Dune’, by Frank Herbert, ‘Otherland’ by Tad Williams, ‘Cyteen’, by C.J.Cherryh, ‘Shift’, by Hugh Howey and ‘The Farseer’ series by Robin Hobb.
When not reading or writing science fiction, acflory spends her time playing mmorpgs [such as Elder Scrolls Online], listening to epic trailer music, landscaping her garden and cooking.
She also loves dogs, cats, motorbikes, computers, biology, genetics and psychology, not necessarily in that order.
You can find acflory on her blog, Meeka’s Mind, at: https://acflory.wordpress.com
…or on Twitter, as @acflory.
Find all A. C. Flory’s books on Amazon.
An Invitation from the Small Dog
If you would like to help Ani make her advent calendar this year, send your letters to Santa, festive memories, short stories, flash fiction or poems to the Small Dog. She will post them every day through December until Christmas…and there are still spaces left!
She would especially like to hear from her four-legged or feathered friends (she has a special place very close to her heart for turkeys)… but she says that two-legs are better than none, so she will accept submissions from humans too (and even no-legs if there is the odd literary snake out there…). To get in touch, please use the form on the contact page or email Ani at email@example.com