The Prototypes of Shade Town
by Ljubo Popovich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Proteus awoke in a cell. The ceiling was too low for him to stand erect. When he tried crouching, he slid onto his back because his body was still greasy.
On the other side of a Plexiglas wall, Quentin Snoodhoffer was sitting in a leather chair, working a crossword puzzle. After filling in 31-down, he pressed a button on the console before of him. “How’re you feeling, Proteus?” he asked.
Proteus sat up and realized his ankle was attached to the wall by a heavy chain.
“Do you have a bigger cell?”
“I’m sorry, we weren’t expecting anyone your size.”
“You think I can’t break that phony glass?” His whole body ached and throbbed as he lashed out feebly.
“You can try, but it’s bulletproof. This is, first and foremost, a research facility. You are going to be a part of something very special.”
Proteus was about to ask about Mary Clark, but realized he had no idea if she’d been caught yet. “Why don’t you just kill me?” he asked miserably.
“Oh. In due time. But first you have work to do.”
“So I’m a guinea pig now? Is that all?”
Quentin smiled widely, which deflated portions of his face. “But haven’t you been one all along?”
“Your pal, Larner Rhodes. Shade Town’s pride and joy. The man behind the Weirdest Place on Earth. Haven’t you strutted and roared for his show every day for a large part of your unfortunate life?”
“Yet you do all the work. The tourists come to see you. All your shining muscles. But he’s the one raking in the dough.”
Proteus was stonily silent. Larner had never done him wrong. Sure, he had money, but Proteus had never wanted for anything. The circus was his family, so why had he been so lonely? Why had he let Mary Clark lead him into this mess?
“Tell me, Proteus,” Quentin said, “have you ever been hungry?”
He blinked. “Is that a serious question?”
“I mean really, really hungry. Have you ever felt true, soul-crushing hunger? Have you ever lost control?”
He wasn’t sure what the bloated CEO meant, so he shook his head.
“We live in the greatest country on Earth. Food is easy to come by. Most people never have to feel that kind of hunger. It does remarkable things to a person. For the first time in history, the vast majority remains well-fed for their entire lifespans. No more worry about drought and crop blights.”
“What’s your point?”
“Someone your size must eat quite a lot. I’m guilty of overindulgence myself.” He slapped the front of his silk turtleneck. “It’s so easy to forget these days that such a thing as hunger exists. But the truth of the matter is, people still starve to death. We’ve only put a small Band-Aid on the problem of world hunger.”
“What exactly are you getting at?”
“There is a price to pay for progress. In order to produce vast quantities of food, certain concessions have to be made. Quantity over quality, you might say. Tell me, how do you feel about TMC?”
“It’s cheap. Fills you up. I’m beginning to like it less and less.”
“How does it make you feel?”
“I don’t know. Full.”
“You’ve been chosen to participate in a carefully selected test group. You see, we’ve been experimenting with new additives, to see how far we can advance into the future of food production.”
“How much do I get paid?” he sneered.
Quentin chuckled softly, jostling within the container of his sweater. “Imagine enough food to feed armies. Food that doesn’t spoil. An inexhaustible, immortal source.”
Proteus glanced around his white-walled prison. In one corner was a big red button. In the other was a metal toilet swarming with flies the size of hummingbirds.
“I’ll see you around,” Quentin flipped a switch and the room beyond the Plexiglas went dark.
“When I get out of here,” Proteus said, “you’re dead.”
* * *
When Proteus didn’t show up to work, Larner pounded on his trailer door. He imagined the giant had gotten dumped by the reporter and was sulking. A few days later, when he determined Proteus was not hiding in town, he decided to close up the Cirque Macabre and turn away the lines of tourists so he could mount a search.
If Proteus hadn’t borrowed his rifle, he might have imagined the giant had suddenly set out for a different kind of life.
Larner bribed a few of the acrobats to enter the forest with him, but the other performers were too superstitious. It had come to light that the reporter had been investigating the TMC Corporate Facility, and he worried Proteus had gotten wrapped up in her scheme. Larner had felt nothing but gratitude for the Corporation ever since their generous sponsorship.
They proceeded cautiously, Larner in front, looking absurd in his colorful, tailored suit and eternally lit cigar. The first acrobat lost his nerve when they came upon half-devoured animal carcasses. The second and third whimpered and finally fled when they passed by large wormlike things that lunged at them from the shadows.
Eventually, when dusk was settling over the ocean of trees, he neared the looming walls of the Corporate Facility. He might have turned back with resignation if he hadn’t seen the rifle Proteus had borrowed leaning against a ghostly tree. When he checked, he found it had not been fired. He slung it over his shoulder.
While he was turning over options in his mind, fog descended precipitously. This was nothing new. The supernatural amount of fog was part of Shade Town’s allure. Therefore, he trudged through the foreboding trees without apprehension.
He hadn’t gone far when a figure appeared in the distance. At first, Larner thought it might be Proteus on account of its size, but its movement seemed unnatural, like a living shadow. He flipped off the rifle’s safety and continued cautiously. He got quite close before it noticed him, whatever it was.
It was about three meters high, a soft creature, like a giant slug turned inside out. Large lumps of dirt clung to its jiggling pseudopodia as it reared up. It was the color of fog and smelled heavily of chicken. It was impossible to tell what end of it he was seeing because he could find no eyes or ears, just a whole lot of fleshy parts, most of which served no apparent purpose. It pulled itself upright, as if it had just been born out of the earth itself. Clods of loam tumbled from its bulk as it emerged from the shallow grave. Larner stood frozen with fear. After firing a volley of shots that carved visible tracks through its flesh, he ran.
However, it did not seem to follow him. Instead, something else was on his trail. It weaved through the trees with inhuman speed. A white thing, bulky but quick. Larner mustered his courage and turned to aim his gun, but it was already too close. A powerful blow stunned him. He lay incapacitated at its feet. Terror pinned him to the ground and he felt all of his strength drain out through his bowels as it groveled and tore at his clothes. The gaze it cast upon him was both paralyzing and pitiful as it reluctantly chewed on his twisted leg. Its intelligent eyes were rimmed with pouches of fat, and he thought, as he trembled, helplessly numb, that it wept, since greasy tears slid down its bulging cheeks.
With effort, he directed his eyes behind the monster and wrestled away weakly on his elbows. The gelatinous blob was oozing fast toward him too, shivering off chunks of clay. It bled a jet of steaming, glistening oil in all directions, as it strove closer. Jostling like protoplasm, it advanced as if controlled by a lustful hunger, until it was within reach of the ape-like thing. And as his senses faded, as the blob spread over him like the fog, he felt an immense pressure.
The deformed trees waited and clutched the steam with their lush branches. A group of the creatures materialized from the ground, budding like mushrooms out of the darkness, ready to feed. They were all blind, he thought, letting his eyelids close. They nipped at his tender insides, nudging him to pieces with their jellyfish tentacles. There was something immortal about their strength and something putrescent about their writhing flesh. The last thing he heard was the sizzle of their digestive juices, and the crunching of his bones.
* * *
Mary Clark held out for three days. But it was a losing battle. Her willpower slowly diminished as she wept and screamed and pounded on the walls.
“You’ve got quite the fighting spirit.” Quentin grinned.
She’d despised his tumescent complexion for years. That face had been the very thing that had sparked her crusade, and now it was the only thing she could look at, the quintessence of her anger.
“You’re a monster,” she said.
“We’re creatures of habit, you know.” His smile sank deeper into his folds of flesh. “Work, sex, food, sleep. It all happens in patterns. We can’t exist without imposing these barriers on our activities. The more limited our worldview, the more effective we can be.”
“I’d rather starve to death than take a single bite of your disgusting cloned chicken.”
“Eliminate unnecessary stress like traffic jams, paying taxes, paperwork, putting out the garbage, and just cultivate the necessities: work, sex, food, sleep. The satisfaction of all your desires. Who knew food was the answer?”
“What’s that even mean? And what about health? What about selflessness?”
“No one thinks of health until it’s convenient. Our own wants come first. It’s human nature. With TMC, I plan to satisfy basic human needs. Step by step, little by little, I’m succeeding.”
“You just add different artificial flavor, but people are eating the same thing day after day.”
“By keeping things simple, I can feed more people. Everyone can afford the product I provide, or just about everyone. And it makes them feel good into the bargain. Every time I come up with a new prototype chicken, I put it through rigorous tests. A chicken’s job is to feed as many people as possible. If it isn’t up to my standards, I toss it out. But every failure teaches me something. Isn’t that right?” He folded his pudgy hands into a solid ball of purplish blood vessels.
“You want to grow chickens the way farmers grow crops.”
“That’s just the beginning, my dear. You can do just about anything with science.” He turned his large hand over to consult the wristwatch constricting his wrist. “My, look at the time. It’s been lovely.” Without another word he departed, and she was left to contemplate her solitude, pushing away the gloom.
* * *
Proteus awoke and vomited into the small, echoing toilet. He flushed but it was clogged and ran over the sides. After resigning himself to his fate once more, he crawled back into his bunk to lie down. Then, without warning, vomit began to erupt down the front of his soiled shirt, as his stomach convulsed. Colorful swirls migrated through his field of vision. He lost track of time and felt like a caged animal.
Occasionally Quentin’s voice issued through the speaker and asked him sardonic questions.
Eventually, he broke down and asked about Mary Clark.
“Oh, her? She’s being well-fed, don’t you worry.”
His head swam again. But now his heart was sick as well. He turned his back to his captor, shaking with rage.
“I’ve never much understood vegans myself, but she’s coming around.”
Even though the confined space was beginning to cripple him, his mind was free to wander. After years of training his body to the peak of muscular strength, he found himself helpless against a few inches of reinforced plastic.
When he pressed the button, food fell from a trapdoor in the ceiling onto his lap. It was always a TMC product, and it was always packaged and printed with a code like QSM314159-p1. It was impossible to tell if the food would make him sick or cause him to experience a random symptom or hallucination.
He’d already eaten hundreds of packets of chicken and been bombarded with every conceivable side-effect. The demented joke could go on forever, he thought, because his body was unusually hardy, and it could take years for him to die. He knew this because they were in total control of what happened to him. There were times when a single bite reduced him to crippling agony. The only thing to do was to press the button again and hope the next package contained the antidote to the excruciating pain.
In the corner of his cell was a slowly growing pile of festering meat. There was not much energy left to think, because he was busy fighting against the pain of his aching limbs. Finally, he ate so much chicken that the machine wouldn’t dispense anymore. He did it out of defiance. He did it because he wanted to feel more pain.
The rapidly shifting stroboscope of his eyes flowed with ultra-saline tears, and his gums bled the thin, fatty blood of chicken into his mouth. His ears rang, and his throat swelled. He found himself wanting more of it. There was a demented need in him to fill himself to capacity and then overfill himself with the very thing he loathed. It was as if his mind had been subtly altered so that it was impossible to control this instinctive impulse to devour. They had planted a seed in him long ago, and it flourished until his humanity dwindled to a shadow.
Copyright © 2019 by Ljubo Popovich