When I enter the control room I can hear Ned singing; Ned singing while he works. It's another western song, of course. It has to be a western song he learned from Randolph. Randolph brings in old songs and they kill time that way, singing together. Ned is singing, 'Sweet Betsy From Pike', and he is about a hundred choruses into the thing. He sings a couple lines, where Ike and sweet Betsy have sex like Italian film stars; that's because Ned and Randolph build their own versions, add their own verses, and some of them are a little risque'.
I turn off the big speakers and take the headset and put it on, and then sit down. All the lights on the control panel are green; that part is fine. I look at the gages, everything looks good enough, that is if you look at them individually, but collectively there is definitely room out there for some kind of improvement.
"He quits singing and instantly answers me, "Here".
That answer always makes me smile. Where else would he be?
"Ned. How is it going in there?"
"Everything's fine. Everything looks OK to me."
"Ned. I know we're fine. All the lights are green, and the temp and strata flow seems right; but something feels off. A little off."
"Off..?" Ned asks. He isn't convinced.
"Yeah. Just a feeling. Look, can you go up-stream and just have a look around?"
"You want me to stop now and do it?"
"Are you real busy? What are you doing?"
"I'm testing some blood Mi Amigo... stickin needles in some of these big ol' Aberdeens we got milling around out here."
"What say we do that later. Just make sure you remember the ones you've already got to."
The conscientious diver tags the big suspended bundle of sustenance, and he turns to face the upstream portion of the tank. "Ok then... I'm off." he says.
I know he'll be passing by the window, so I sit up and watch. He is in aisle 57... that means he'll be more than a hundred feet away from the glass, and he's on the third level so he'll be 20 feet below the surface... but I can watch his progress as he crosses the tank. The line that supplies him with air is anchored high up on the ceiling. All I have to do is look for the line and I can locate Ned almost instantly. He passes between me and the far lights. I can see him as a dark shadow, and I can see bright diamonds of light as they dance upward... that's his expelled air, sparkling as it wiggles up towards the surface. "...Oh and Ned." I whisper.
"We don't raise cows here, Ned; we just grow meat."
"You don't have to tell me, pilgrim... I spend every minute down here in this soup."
Ned is making his way up-stream... swimming between big leather-covered living-but-headless; warm, succulent, bundles of beef. If you can forget the fact that they are suspended by wires, and are fed, watered, and breathe their air through tubes, and that they inhabit a warm water tank 300 feet wide and 1000 feet long... if you can forget those minor details... and just casually look at the contents of the tank... you can see, that they are definitely of the family B. Taurus... Bovidae. Cattle. Little dogies. The animals that inspired the phrase; "Would you like some fries with that...?" or the phrase "It's my own special bar b que sauce, and I wake up early to slow-cook all day."
Ned says, "Tom are you there?"
"Go ahead." I answer.
"Did I tell you I found out what 'dallies' are."
"You know... in that song you said you liked. The one that goes, '...he roped the devil by the horns, and took three dallies true...".
"No, you never told me..."
"It means to turn a rope around a saddle horn. A Dallie is a turn of the rope. That's how they caught cows, with ropes."
"I know." I answer.
"I'll always wonder if I could have been a cowboy..?" Ned waits for me to reply. I can't think what to say. I can't answer him.
We've been at this work for seven years now. Seven years I've worked with Ned. Seven years ago, in answer to the growing concern for how man was exploiting lesser specie; science and agribusiness put their heads together and decided that they'd put an end to the mis-treatment of animals. They would "un-animal" the meat supply. About the time we learned how to grow replacement organs for men, they learned how to grow... herds without actually having cows. Who could object to a thick steak being sliced off a creature that was, to all intents and purposes, already a thick steak. So what, if they still had their fat round sides and their moving-van shape and their pointy-cornered hips. They didn't have minds, so they didn't have thoughts, so they didn't have advocates. So now everyone was back with their elbows on the table... and they were chewing things rare.
Up-stream we find the little problem. Broken wire or loose metal, something like that. The gages swing over to better positions. Ned starts back. This time he is in aisle 3. This time he'll swim near the control window. Ned is singing again. A song I know this time. I join him; singing softly.
"I'm going to leave..."
Ned is nearing the glass.
"ol' Texas now..."
I can see the big suspended quarter-pound two-ton servings as they are bumped out of his way.
"...they have no use..."
He comes past the window. Ned's arms are specialized things; built to aid him in his work,
"...for the long horn cow..."
his right arm ends in pneumatic tubes and his thin fingers are pre-loaded syringes and sharp scalpels that can pull back into thick... clear... plastic sheaths.
"...they've roped and fenced..."
Ned's legs end at the knees,
"...my cattle range..."
Ned's face is made from petri dish gathered interlocking simple cells and coplex interconnected electronics. His mouth is a perfect circle... with holes in it that constantly stream a soft tiny fog of expelled breath. The sounds heard in the control booth are produced from impulses captured by an electrode buried deep in the diver's brain.
"...the people there..."
and that's all he is. A brain floating above two aluminum collarbones and a plastic heart beating somewhere inside an engineered container, musn't forget the short section of elastic passageway that handles his waste.
"...are all so strange."
he sings the last bit by himself. He knows I'll never get used to the sight of him. He laughs and turns back to enter the stationary suspended herd.
A cowboy..? He wants to know... if I think... he could ever have been a cowboy. I'm not sure. So... What do you think..?
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith and Bewildering Stories.