Food for Thought
By Laura Lee McArdle
He didn’t look much like the humans I knew—their eyes squinting out of wind-burnt faces from atop the backs of their rude horses. This one had a face like butter, not a wrinkle to be seen. And he didn’t arrive on a horse, rude or otherwise, just popped out of thin air and started talking to me. Not at me. To me.
“Slow down,” I said flicking a fly off my broad backside. “Wilfred, right? You are responsible for the fence posts?”
“Yeah sure,” said Wilfred. “Now listen to me. I just need a thirty second vignette when I say ‘action’. Can you do that for me?
“Sure,” I said. I love to talk about myself.
“You heard the animal,” he shouted to no one I could see. “Food For Thought, take one. Action!”
“Uh, Bess here. Folks call me the conspiracy theorist. And I laugh. But honestly if you don’t spend some time speculating out here what are you going to do? Me, I walk the fence, count the posts and calculate trigonometric functions. And I am convinced there is a way to get my 1200 lb bulk past these 4000 odd posts and reams of barbed wire.
By the way, I’ve come pretty far with the weight issue, thank you very much. The secret is small frequent meals, so I pretty much eat a little bit all the time when I’m not counting posts. The other trick, that I don’t think any of my sisters have clocked on to, is to just not use stomachs three and four. Sure it takes practice, even surgery for lesser minds, but if you don’t have a project out here you will simply go mad.
But I digress. The fence around East Pasture, the present location of my languid existence, has 4409 posts. That’s a rather large prime number. Coincidence? I think not! The fence is clearly a test to separate the truly intelligent from the herd. Since I am clearly at the pinnacle of bovine braininess and already somewhat estranged from my herd I know it’s only a matter of time before I pass.”
“Cut!” screamed Wilfred beaming. “Bess, my dear, that was gorgeous. You are a natural born… monologist.” He clapped and did a little dance that made his sequined garment bounce and sparkle in the sun.
“Monologist? Is that a word?”
“Whatever. You, the monologue—the viewers are going to lap it up. I,” –he paused for effect- “am a genius.”
I snorted. “I thought you said I was the genius.”
“Did I say that? I meant savant. Anyway, you found the posts and you’re coming in loud and clear on the translator, so season 24 is a go!” He degenerated into dancing again, executing an exuberant pirouette.
“Hold on a minute there Wilf. I did the little self-introduction you wanted. I’ve been extremely cooperative. Now fill me in. What’s the real deal with the fence? Where did you come from and why are you testing me?”
Wilfred poked a handheld device with his index finger and yelled instructions toward some point behind him.
“Frank! Roll cameras I need tape of this!”
“Rolling Wilf,” a disembodied voice answered.
“Excellent. Now Bess, you know those humans who come here, check you over, give you medicine?” He grinned in a way that raised the hair on the back of my neck.
He leaned in close to my twitching ears.
“They grind you up and eat you.”
“I knew it!” I bellowed and stamped. “I’ve said it over and over again, but no-one takes me seriously. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.” I trotted in circles trying not to hyperventilate while Wilfred watched with obvious pleasure. “Wait a second.” I rounded on Wilfred. “You’re one of them. Human.”
“Excuse me. I am not ‘one of them.’ He imitated the swagger of a cowboy and scratched his head with an expression of slack-jawed confusion. “In my time food is robo-cultured in like, another sector or something. That’s the whole point of filming the past.”
“You’re from the future?” I was incredulous.
“Yes, yes. But I don’t expect you to understand, being pre-sentient and all. I film Food for Thought. It’s a massively popular serial where food species compete for a chance to escape their fate. Do or die babe—it’s massively popular.”
“Massively popular, blah, blah, blah. I get that you’re making a show.” I flicked my tail in annoyance. “But aren’t you afraid tooling around in the past will like, erase your present or something?”
“What’s that, the grandfather paradox? Ugh, how pedestrian.” Wilfred rolled not only his eyes, but his whole head to demonstrate the extent of his exasperation. “Seriously Bess, you don’t think we’d fuck with our own timeline. This timeline’s a dud. Your humans blow you all to hell about two hundred years from now. What, are we gonna make it worse?”
“Okay, so you’re operating under a Many Worlds Interpretation. And do you have to swear so much?”
“Uh, not an interpretation genius! And do you have to be such a bumpkin?” He yawned loudly. “I’m bored. Find a way over that fence if you value your skin. Your next interview is in a month. You won’t see them, but the cameras are rolling.”
He vanished with a pop.
I guess Wilfred couldn’t see the weather from the future, because he appeared next in nothing but a red feather necklace and body paint. The downpour plastered the feathers to his spoon-chest and dripped off of his gilded genitals.
“Save the excuses Bess. I need monologue first, then we discuss your monumental failure, then I’m out of here.”
I oriented myself in the direction of his impatient waving, took a deep breath and plunged into the monologue, resolved to put a positive spin on things and stay in the game.
“I don’t like to use the word ‘failure’. I prefer to think of my previous attempts as ‘learning experiences.’ My first foray into fence crossing involved the creation of a ramp using the only materials at my… ahem… disposal. Okay, it was an amateurish scheme. I should have calculated the volume of materials required vs. the area of pasture required to produce said volume. In the end it just became too long of a walk to… ahem… unload at my ‘building site.’
Learning Experienece No. 1: Gained – Resource Management Skills
At that point I decided to undertake physical and mental conditioning in order to leap the fence under my own power. I undertook aforementioned weight loss strategies, took up jogging and performed endless sets of squats and burpees with iron determination. Again, I could have saved myself considerable duress if I had undertaken a mathematical analysis before all that training. Even with my newly developed and truly awesome two and a half foot vertical, 18mph wasn’t fast enough to get the entire length of my body over the fence before landing. The cow jumped over the moon my arse.
Learning Experience 2: Gained – Agility
In any case, further efforts in that vein were thwarted by a well-meaning, but completely misguided intervention on the part of my immediate herd.
‘You’ll never get to calf if you keep losing weight.’
‘The humans favour plump ladies!’
They blathered on. I smiled and nodded. There was just so much concern in their big dumb eyes I didn’t have it in me to argue.”
“Boo hoo hoo,” interrupted Wilfred. “Two and a half foot vertical? Let’s bypass exuse-ville please.”
“Have some respect and let me finish,” I shot back.
“Forget it. We’ve got enough tape to wrap up, seeing as you lost. Let me make that official: Beef will not proceed to round two.” He paused and shook rainwater off his hand-held device with the blinking lights. “Ha. The translator actually picked diagrams out of your primitive brain! Grade school stuff, but I bet the kids will love the visuals. I can already see them building shit piles in the streets.” He chuckled. “I doubt it will rate as highly as the bovine gastric dissection though.”
It took me a second to process his last sentence—put two and two together. “You killed Rosie! They found her quartered at the side of the road.”
Wilfred jumped. There must have been fire in my eyes.
“For educational purposes. We had to explain your comment about multiple stomachs in a way that wasn’t boring. And she was going to die anyway,” he finished haughtily.
“Yeah? And so are you.” I charged forward. I didn’t exactly have a plan, but I was going to kick him in his quivering golden bollocks for a start and so help me God whatever happened after that.
Before I’d closed three feet I heard the tell-tale pop of Wilfred’s escape, but instead of being left alone in the rain I was suddenly nowhere at all. Or maybe I was everywhere. All four of my stomachs protested against the sensation of moving both left and right, up and down, all at the same time. The only thing I could clearly comprehend was the screaming voice that filled the swirling non-space: “You weren’t supposed to take the fucking cooooooooooooooow!!!”
Sunlight. I squinted and made out Wilfred cringing in front of a weathered clapboard wall. He stumbled backward mashing his blinking devise and swearing. I snorted and pawed the ground about to complete my righteous ball-stomping charge, but—what was that smell? I paused half a second and took in sweet hay, gunpowder… blood?
And then the building behind Wilfred exploded. I wheeled around and dived behind a haystack as ash and kindling rained from the sky. Gunshots rang out and were answered by more gunshots, but I didn’t dare poke my head out to see what was going on.
I cowered there, eyes closed, cursing my pride for going along with Wilfred’s stupid contest. Not only could I eat a stray bullet any second—far worse than that, my selfishness had gotten my cousin Rosie murdered. I had been more worried about proving my superior intellect than the fate of my herd. I had to find a way back. I had to undo this.
I opened my eyes to find Wilfred crouched beside me sharing my hiding spot.
“Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” He slapped a hand over my mouth, eyes wide. “Are you trying to get us both killed?”
“What are you even afraid of?” I whispered back fiercely. “Shouldn’t you be armed with some kind or ray gun, or at least have a force shield?” And perhaps I should have thought of that before I charged at him.
“You imbecile,” he said, voice squeaking in terror. “Wars in the future are entirely psychological!”
There was a break in the shooting. I risked a peak around the side of the haystack. A man in a tattered Stetson emerged from the dust. His left shirtsleeve was soaked in blood, but he strolled into the street as though he felt no pain.
“Enough of the goddamn booby traps Doolin. Come out here and let’s finish this off like men,” he shouted.
“You ain’t no honest man Barker,” called a high pitched voice from somewhere in the wreckage of the buildings.
“That’s bullshit Doolin,” said Barker calmly. “Sure, I stole your woman, but I always been up front ’bout woman-stealin’. What did I say when you joined the gang? I said ‘Name’s Clive Barker. Woman-stealin’s my game. Welcome here.’ That’s not a word of lie and you know it.”
Doolin answered with another fire ball.
Behind our haystack Wilfred had gone catatonic and I was beginning to think a huge pile of flammable material was not an ideal hiding spot.
“Hey Wilf,” I whispered over the renewed gunfire. “You dropped us in the middle of this. Why don’t you just use your flashy thingy to get us out of here?”
He stopped his rocking long enough to give me a withering glare.
“I didn’t transport us. Some moron technician caught you in the transport envelope and as a result dumped me whenever-the-hell this is instead of back in my office Jacuzzi like he was supposed to.”
“So what’s the flashy thingy for?”
“Communicator. It’s called a communicator. How else am I supposed to let simple-minded staff know when to transport? How else am I supposed to interview boorish bovines for that matter? For the love of Oh Henry, it is just not worth working with you inane pre-sentients anymore.”
“So what’s stopping you from ordering the simple-minded staff to yank us back to East Pasture.”
“Are you listening to anything I’m saying? Your extra mass fucked up the transport. My asinine assistants will probably be recalibrating for a half hour before they can even pinpoint my position.”
He resumed rocking.
“Well if it’s a communicator, what about a distress signal?” I asked.
I was afforded another eye-and-head-roll.
“You really are ignorant, you know that? Anyone could answer a distress call. Would you prefer lusty space pirates to pyromaniac cowpokes? At least the cowboys don’t know I’m here.”
My eyes narrowed. I could see the gears turning in his selfish little head. If I didn’t think of something fast Wilfred would transport out of here without me the moment his technicians restored communication. I would never have a chance to get home and do right by my herd. But I had a hunch.
“Hey Barker! I give up. I’m behind the big haystack by the stable!” I shouted at the top of my lungs.
Wilfred’s eyes turned to saucers. He tried to scramble away, but I’d already pinned him to the wall with my broad behind.
“Send the distress call,” I hissed and I couldn’t help smiling as I added “It’s do or die baby.”
“What are you playing at?” came Barker’s voice from somewhere nearby. “That don’t sound like you Doolin. Show yourself.”
“I’m hurt,” I yelled back as Wilfred squirmed.
“It’s sent. It’s sent.” He pleaded. “Will you shut up already you insane bitch?!”
I lifted my head in time see Barker reload his pistol and take aim at the haystack. I heard the report of his first shot and then everything stopped. Wilfred wasn’t squirming and Barker was frozen with one eye closed, sighting down the barrel of his gun. Is this how time slows down when you’re about to die? I wondered.
But then the sky split open and rocket engines tore through the silence. A metal craft completed a fiery descent not thirty feet from where Barker stood motionless and came to rest on the scorched earth. A ramp folded out of its side with a hiss of pressure equalization.
The being that disembarked was finely muscled, agile, and clothed, but he was definitely bovine.
“Greetings ancestor,” said the spacefaring future-bull. “I am here to fulfill a causation loop.”
About the Author
Laura Lee McArdle lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba where she produces large babies and small stories. Her fiction has appeared in AE-The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and Daily Science Fiction, and Escape Pod.
About the Narrator
Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.