“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” – Oscar Wilde.
It would have to be a fox. A rat wouldn’t impress anyone, not after Roberto had managed to run over a pigeon with his bicycle. At last month’s meeting he’d produced the feathery mess from a plastic bag sewn inside his trouser leg. The bastard hadn’t had to buy a drink all night.
A man in a dirty trench coat tipped a tin of worms onto a pavement and hid behind a meditation booth. He imagined bringing the group some beef. Beef would get him laid for sure, once he had explained what it was. How the hell did you kill a cow anyway? Strangle it with your legs? The idea was ridiculous. Cows were huge, way bigger than dogs, judging from the photos. Still, they did say people were smaller back in those days, because of the diet. At the very least, cows were big. Getting one into an electrocab would be like trying to shoulder a piano up a flight of stairs.
The scene played out in his mind in sepia tones, as if a vintage movie. He imagined the mellifluous voice of the electrocab warning of an inappropriate cargo. Then a brief pause as its hard-limited artificial intelligence linked up with Transport for London’s hive mind. Then the drones arrived.
He wondered in what order. The police first, obviously. Then a psychiatric drone? Maybe re-education? The hypersonic cameras of the official media? Afterwards, a swarm of vloggers and bloggers and trolls. A few closed-circuit drones of the merely curious. Maybe the pickings would be rich enough to attract the drones of the criminals who preyed on others’ drones.
Knowing his luck he would somehow end up trending, his head forced briefly above the parapet of anonymity which so many others detested. For the rest of his life there would be an ASBO drone hovering over his shoulder. At work. As he slept. Looking at his dick while he pissed. Monitoring and recording. The game would be up. He might as well be dead.
None of that mattered. A cow was as about as likely as a unicorn. There weren’t cows any more, now that mankind had no use for them. Not even zoos to imprison them. There were rumours of cows, cows bred in converted bunkers and disused mines, rocket silos in the Appalachians, China and Eastern Europe. Cows grown under artificial light, to be sliced and served at the secret banquets of oligarchs. Same as always. One set of rules for the poor, no rules at all for the obscenely rich.
There were no cows for the likes of the man in the trench coat.
So it would have to be a fox.
He breathed a sigh of relief as a beautiful red slinked nervously towards the small pyramid of invertebrates. Its whiskers twitched in the air. The fox had nothing to fear from humans, not those who obeyed the law, but the city-living animal still retained some of its natural dignity – the finely tuned senses of a creature designed for a world of predators and prey. It had not yet succumbed to the sterile utopia that humans had created, a place where aspiration and competition had been exchanged for unlimited leisure time and group hugs. The fox retained some nobility.
It was confused, though, by the battle between its stomach and its brain. The artificial intelligences had been able to convince the dolphins and the whales to turn vegan, but the minds of other beasts were not yet open to them. Society’s solution had been an appeal to laziness – an attribute to which species seemed no barrier. Most city-living animals ate nothing but the vat-grown meat substitutes placed cleverly by algorithms to prevent them from meeting and hurting one another. It worked most of the time. No animal was so noble as to prefer a hunt over effortless indulgence.
The worms moved. That was the problem. To the fox they smelled good; they smelled like food. Too few centuries had passed for the beast to lose that intuition. But the worms kept moving, and in the fox’s mind, food was not supposed to move.
Foxes don’t have minds, the man in the trench coat reminded himself. He looked deep into the creature’s eyes to remind himself that there was nothing there to see.
That was hard, even for him. Most people didn’t consider such things any more. If something moved, displayed emotion and looked cute, people were more than happy to assume it was a person. The way the world was going, it wouldn’t be long before the electrocabs had rights. Then the jovial pleasure-walls in the men’s lavatories. But the man in the trench coat knew his history – the hidden things they didn’t teach at school. In the darkest corners of the web he had discovered the secret histories of how the progressives had slowly changed the meanings of words like person, intelligence, empathy, until the whole morality of society had been bent to their way of thinking. That was where he had met the group.
The fox took the bait and turned its back on him. It began to gorge. Gripping the haft of his mop as he imagined his ancient ancestors had grasped their spears, and hunched low, he crept from his hiding place.
Less than half a step and the fox heard him, bolted for the safety of the street. With a scream of frustrated rage he hurled the mop like a javelin, watched it bounce harmlessly off a wall. The man in the trench coat looked at his unbloodied, useless hands.
What have we become? he asked himself.
The man in the trench coat sat at the back of the room above the garage and waited for the show to start. The evening had been chosen well. The Omnigender Frisbee World Championship was on pay-per-view, and tonight the crowds gathered around illegally hacked view-screens would number in their billions.
“Where’s Roberto?” he sullenly asked the group’s leader, wondering what the bastard might have run over this month.
“He’s not coming. I think he’s getting nervous.”
“Nothing to eat then.”
The leader winked conspiratorially. “Never mind that, we’ve scored some Attenborough.”
“No fucking way.”
“I bought a ton of data from a man in Breslau. Unindexed. He downloaded the science and nature off iPlayer and National Geographic the day before the UN had it all wiped. I paid by the minute. You wouldn’t believe some of the shit I had to sit through, but at the end of it all – Attenborough. Some Weaver too."
The room fell into reverential silence as obsolete two-dimensional images began to flicker across the screen. The man in the trench coat feared disappointment. Watching penguins affectionately rubbing beaks to the strains of sentimental music was little different to the transspecies empathy sessions he had endured at school. But then came the shocking glimpse of a broken egg shell, a dribble of bloodied yolk hanging over its side. An illicit frisson shot through the room.
The next image was of savannah. Some of the group rose to their feet in anticipation. A pair of lions harried a water buffalo at a river’s edge. The group’s members cheered them on. One, frenzied by excitement, picked up his chair and smashed it to splinters on the concrete floor.
“This is living,” he screamed.
The lions closed in. The man in the trench coat put his hand into his mouth, and tasted the salt of his skin. He probed tongue with his fingers, then the inside of his cheeks, felt intense pleasure at the soft resistance of his flesh. As the lions made the kill he clenched down, yelped as his teeth pierced his knuckles, and let a warm trickle of blood run down the back of his throat.
© A.M. Steiner
The idea for this one arrived while I was watching Simon Amstell’s satirical mockumentary “Carnage”, on the BBC. It occurred to me that the vegan utopia he described, like all utopias, would be a dystopia for some. The story seems to have ended up as a two-fingered salutary. Who it’s aimed at, I’m still not sure.