Crowded With Ravenous Mouths - Sarah Cline
A water-balloon launches from the screeching protestors and splatters crimson paint across the window pane. Darius jolts, watching acrylic dribble like blood down the reinforced glass. The crowd on the far side forms a dense wall behind bright yellow tape, like a howling, many-limbed monster. Unperturbed, Dr. Li strides smoothly along the corridor. Darius hustles to keep up.
“I guess you get used to it after a while.” He presses a lighthearted tone from his clenched jaw, darting another glance at the row of windows.
END THE CRUELTY reads one sign as the protestor ducks the tape and rushes the building, shrieking. Eyes like glass. A security guard grasps her around the middle and drags her back behind the line. Her sign falls, lost under trampling feet.
Dr. Li flashes an ID at the scanner beside the door at the end of the corridor and continues into the elevator. The slanted light of the grand foyer vanishes behind the sliding metal, and the screeching of the crowd falls away. Darius exhales a breath.
“The truth, Mr. Angler, is that people seldom know what’s best for them.” Dr. Li’s voice is cool, calm. That of a doctor explaining a difficult procedure to a patient. “But what we do here at Panetics is important work. You were very brave to answer the call.”
“More desperate than brave, truth be told.” The elevator sinks into the earth, and the doors sweep open on a complex of subterranean labs; chrome surfaces, white walls. “I’ve been out of work for eleven months.”
“We’re glad to have you.” Li’s scarlet heels click on the tiles.
“So,” Darius scratches at his stubbled chin, “what exactly are my, uh, expected duties? I applied for the Waste Removal position, but they were a little vague at the interview.” In truth, the application had consisted mostly of personal questions. Why have you been so long between jobs? Why haven’t you finished college? Why did you decide to move to the city? Do you know anyone here? Describe, in 500 words or less, your responsibility to the greater good.
He’s still surprised they hired him. But then, it doesn’t take a genius to shovel mutant animal shit out of lab cages, or whatever he’d be doing here.
“You’ll see soon enough. It’s quite self-explanatory.” Li leads him deeper into a warren of laboratories.
Light pours through a glass wall up ahead, a group of scientists peering in, and drawing level with the room, Darius glances in – stomps to a halt.
Inside the enclosure, a chicken three times as tall as an elephant picks its way through a habitat of wheat-fields beneath a digital sky. Darius exhales a curse.
Li returns to his side, wearing an expression of sardonic patience.
“The common chicken, you know, is the closest living relative to the tyrannosaurus rex.”
“I believe it.”
“This is what the protestors upstairs take for granted. Do you know how many people we can feed with livestock of this size, Mr. Angler? Whatever their qualms may be, they’re happy enough to eat the meat provided to them. Like it or not, genetically enhanced livestock is the future.”
The chicken picks its way through the field, pausing to peck at hidden treasures in the wheat. A light, feathery down peppers her enormous body, though here and there, the feathers have worn thin, and reddish skin, rough and almost scaly, hangs in fatty folds.
Li resumes her swift stride down the hallway. “Environmentally, the earth has reached a crisis point. Mass deforestation to clear grazing lands for livestock. Habitat loss and widespread extinction. Air pollution, water contamination. We have made our own planet toxic to ourselves. The lead cause? Human overpopulation.”
“Ten billion and counting,” Darius quotes the now famous headline.
“Indeed. So how does one feed ten billion people without doing further damage to the already ravaged environment? We get creative.”
“So, what can I do about it?”
Coolly, “You will be helping solve the overpopulation problem, as advertised.”
When they stop next, it’s to unlock access to a door labeled HATCHLING FEED 1B. A small room; a desk cozied into one corner, and a wall of technical apparatus and machinery crowding the opposite side.
“Sign here, Mr. Angler.” She presents him with a document on a clipboard, and he signs without reading it. “Stand there, Mr. Angler.”
She turns to the touchscreen computer on the desk, fingertips tap-dancing. A pane of glass shoots up, sealing Darius into a tight cell.
“We appreciate your commitment to the cause. It takes a brave man to admit that in a world of ten billion people, not every individual is valuable.”
“What?” Darius pushes against the glass. Hears machinery of unfathomable size working unseen in the walls around him. “What the hell is this?”
“The only real solution is to have not let the problem get this bad in the first place. But alas, it’s too late for that. It’s a shame, but we all must do our part to make the world a better place.”
Li taps the screen, and Darius is flung backwards and down as the floor zings open, the glass tilts, and he plunges through the ground into a cacophony of juvenile birds sounds, cheeping insistently, deafeningly. A vast hall spreads below him – an unimaginable sea of baby birds – each as tall as he himself – and crowded so close together that their ugly, bald heads seem to sprout from a single quilt of pressed skin, all forced together by the sheer magnitude of their own immense number – and each one bobbing its head upward, toward a ceiling punctured with dozens of glass chutes, from which dark forms fall. Darius hits
open air, flung out over the sea of scabby, pecked flesh, of gaping-wide beaks, of blind, orb-like eyes covered in translucent flesh; black pupils roll beneath the tracery of veins. And all tilting their heads skyward as he falls; a sea of agonized pleading; a sea of ravenous mouths.