Hunger was supposed to have ended, but something went wrong
|In row after row, the great rounded tanks stretched farther into the distance than the human eye could discern in the warehouse below. The occasional robotic tender rolled down the aisles, adjusting temperatures or replacing hoses. Jenna, mumbling about the sheer cruel audacity of the murderer and the brilliance of the lovely detective who had brought him to heel, lowered her reading pad, and brought wide her arms to stretch her shoulders. She was redundant here, and she knew it; the robots could run this warehouse without human supervision for decades at a time at need. Still, there were forms to observe, and she hauled herself to her feet to peer through the window at the tanks below and then to the control room readouts. Still nominal.
The steel steps rang under her feet as Jenna bounded down them to the tank room. She spared a glance for her athletic shoes, their worn threads, and their thinning soles. She was due for another run, but she wasn't feeling it. Instead, she strolled up to the nearest tank, taking a moment to marvel at what they represented. Over the course of a very few years, tanks like these had replaced 98% of the world's meat production, at a fraction of the cost. A good 20% of the world's "chicken" was grown here, in this very building, with no animal suffering involved. Millions had been rescued from starvation, and vegetarianism had been redefined virtually overnight. Some had complained about the risks involved in putting so much of humanity's food production in a single building, one that ranged several kilometers in a single direction. But the security was good, and the building itself was buried a few hundred meters beneath the surface as a precaution. And technology itself was damned reliable, and as a further measure, it was subject to daily human oversight. That was Jenna's job - that and reviewing every pop Mystery and Sci-Fi novel that hit the top 100. After all, watching robots work was in the same category as keeping track of how long it took paint to dry.
Still, someone had to do it. Probably. Jenna stepped up to the nearest (the readouts were still green) and peered inside the small window. That was when her heart stopped. She saw nothing. No chicken, no liquid, no errors - nothing. The racks were just empty. The world's food was gone.
Jenna literally held her breath as she moved on to the next window, and the next, and the next. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Shit.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Hands shaking, Jenna punched the emergency code in her phone and lifted it to her cheek.
"Jenna?" a voice replied irritably.
She took a deep breath. "Houston? We have a problem."
Jenna hoped the cheer in her voice felt more sincere than it felt. "Thanks for coming on my podcast. I've been meaning to talk to you for a long time."
Nathan Willoughby's smirk was not improved by his low-quality webcam. "Well, I had to admit I was curious. I hadn't intended to show up on a podcast about Vegetarianism hosted by an ex-Vegetarian, but how could I resist after what just happened?"
Jenna flushed. She'd known this was coming, but she still couldn't help it. "I'm not against meat protein, just harming living creatures. Cloned meat cells don't have any feelings, you know. No harm, no foul."
"What about all the health benefits of plant fiber? What about the carbon footprint of those enormous factories, all the extraction that keeps them running, all the subsistence farmers being displaced to support the new breed of new Colonial Globalist Capitalists? You're just one more feel-good liberal selling out to the machine while the world burns. It's just one more excuse to avoid doing what must be done, cutting the population and going back to nature."
Jenna shook her head. "Please, Nathan, I've heard all this before. Population growth is falling fast, and when you consider land use and advances in green energy, this is a huge step forward. You constantly underestimate human ingenuity, and - "
Nathan was beginning to hit his stride. "Underestimate! Species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, temperatures continue to rise, and meanwhile, you want to keep -"
Jenna cut in smoothly, "What I was hoping to talk to you about, Nathan, is what happened at RealChix."
The smirk was back. "Oh, you mean the theft? The one that cost you your job? It couldn't have happened to a nicer Agricultural-Industrial Complex."
Jenna bit her lip. It was time for the question. "I know your friends are thrilled about it. I can't go on social media without getting drowned in their gloating. Maybe one of them had something to do with it?"
Nathan shook his head firmly. "You should know better. They used to be your friends too, Jenna, back when we thought you cared. We're just watching karma in action, but the first rule of finding the bad guys is to follow the money. People are buying up schmeat futures like hotcakes. Who's selling?"
Pretentious bastard. Unfortunately, he was the one with the contacts - and an overwhelming heap of pride. "I don't suppose you know, Mr. hot shot?"
He scoffed. "Of course I know."
Jenna raised an eyebrow. "$50 says you can't tell me right now."
Nathan squirmed. "I can find out. One hour, or I'll eat my hat. Have your $50 ready. Actually, wait a minute - why do you care? It's not your fault it happened, and it's not your job anymore. They fired you."
Jenna shrugged. "Chicken is going to double or triple in price, and families are going to go hungry. Stopping that may not be my job anymore, but if I can, it's still my responsibility."
"What the hell are you thinking, girl?" Jenna asked. She knew better than to expect an answer, but she could at least hope something persuasive would come to her. It didn't.
Prices for chicken had skyrocketed in the past week, but despite all his confidence, Nathan hadn't been able to find a thing to show someone might have known it was going to happen. He'd been very put out about it too, but that hadn't quite made up for her own guilt and curiosity. And so here she was: just outside of the factory where she used to work, preparing to make the biggest mistake in her life. She'd taken some precautions; her car was parked at a hiking trail a bit over a mile away, put on a pair of cheap plastic gloves, and she'd left her cell phone (and anyone's ability to track her location) inside. But Jenna had been lucky to get a job at RealChix, and now she had a few years of experience under her belt, and she'd be able to get another one like. To save face, the company had been forced to fire her, but no-one really blamed her personally. If she turned around and walked away, life would go back to normal pretty quickly. But if she screwed up here, she was going to jail. She guessed she'd better get this right, then.
One deep breath later, Jenna was creeping up through the bushes in the camera's blind spot. Her hood was pulled down to obscure her face as she crossed the last few seconds to the access panel, and then entered the special code which triggered a firmware update. This not only shut the cameras down for five minutes while the system rebooted but incidentally happened to wipe any of the camera footage or motion sensor alarms that hadn't made it into long-term storage yet. Step one complete.
The warehouse maintenance door on the side was a short run from the access panel, only thirty seconds or so, and it was only guarded by a keypad. Luckily, her old boss had had a habit of leaving his 14-character password written on a post-it on top of his desk, and Jenna had an excellent memory. And, of course, he'd never changed it when the plant was shut down. It took forever for the door to open, but then she was inside and bolting toward her old boss's office. Left, left, right, straight, and second door to the right - and his keycode still worked. She still had two minutes. Probably, if she hadn't lost count.
The factory looked eerie with only backup lighting on, not at all like the warmly lit workspace she'd had almost to herself for the past two years. But she had no time to think about that right now, no time at all. It took a minute for John's workstation to boot, and another 20 seconds for Windows 25 to bring her to the desktop. She spared an anxious look for the camera pointing right at her over the workstation, and at its blinking yellow light, fighting the urge to wave at it. Instead, she opened a session to the security hub, logged into that, and typed "sudo umount -f /mnt/disks/sec". That solved two more problems. First, the security system was totally hosed, and second: that leering asshole John was so going to get fired. That and Jenna had finally made good use of her Computer Science minor at CMU. But it also meant that the security company monitoring the feed would read the system was done and send someone over. Jenna had seen that happen once - it had taken them 15 minutes for the cops to arrive. Hopefully, they would be slower this time.
Now it was time for the real work: browsing through John's recently opened documents and his browser history, and she had very little time to do it. His weekly status reports were uninteresting, and his browser history was polluted by clickbait articles and photoshoots of starlets, but there had to be something...
Five minutes passed, then ten... and sweat began to bead on her forehead as she failed to find anything and the police response drew closer, but then - what was this? The on-site incinerator had been busy, very busy - but there was no record of what it had been burning. Jenna cursed, turned off the workstation, and ran out the door, flying down the halls toward the incinerator. It was always dirty, and there usually were at least a few robots in line, ready to burn or recycle spent chemicals. Tonight, the bots were all lined up in a row outside the control room, shut down along with the RealChix factory itself. John's credentials let her in again and into the incinerator terminal, and Jenna found - almost nothing, with the incinerator disabled and the files scrubbed clean. But almost wasn't quite nothing: Windows had apparently saved a backup of a file John's supervisor Ditya had had open - and it showed incineration had gone up 1000% percent - in the week right before Jenna had been fired. Jenna swallowed hard. All the schmeat had been burned! But why? And why the hell hadn't she noticed?
Suddenly, Jenna's eyes widened. Servitor number 8 had been on garbage duty - John had mentioned it had been on the fritz, and he had been meaning to send it to maintenance. What if he hadn't gotten around to it? She turned off the terminal and stepped outside to the row of robots - number 8 was still in line. That was when the lighting went on. Shit! The cops were here.
Against what remained of her sense of self-preservation, Jenna stooped to examine number 8, opened it's carrier bay, and discovered it still held a full tray of schmeat - and not one with the red marker she would have added to indicate bad batch, but with the blue that indicated it was ready for sale. She reached in to remove two liter-size vacuum-sealed "breast" units, and noticed they were new-formula units, the ones that were supposed to double the nutrition and lower cost by 20%. It was time to go.
She moved for the door at the loading dock, not the one she'd originally entered, but much closer, only to freeze as she heard voices. Cops were searching the building, and there was nowhere to run. But then she looked again at the robots - she couldn't could, she? Then she gritted her teeth and shoved herself into the storage bay of servitor number nine, leaving the door open just enough not to lock herself in.
"Yeah, someone was definitely here," one of the cops said in a bemused tone, though she could not see him.
"Gone now, though," the other muttered, in a more feminine voice.
"Damn straight - whoever did this meant business. Still, we need to take a look around, note anything out of place. A break-in at the factory a week after it gets shut down? They catch us cutting corners on this one, the commissioner is gonna have her foot so far up our asses, she gonna get last night's pizza on her toes."
"Cole, anyone ever tell you you have a way with words?"
"Maybe." The man sounded satisfied.
"Just so you know, those people are full of shit," the lady replied.
The man laughed. "Whatever. Just go check out the offices again. I'm gonna hit the warehouse."
When the voices passed, Jenna crept out, and slid out the door. The cameras were still down, and leaving was easier than entering. Now the only question was - what was she going to do next?
Jenna smiled. The anchor from "The Dirty Scoop" was sitting across from one Nathan Willoughby, though she doubted the camera was doing justice to just how smug his smile was, and she was just as glad to be watching it from the internet. Nathan waved his hands emphatically as he explained his heroism to the perfectly coiffed young lady in condescending tones. "That's right. RealChix screwed up big time: the additives that were supposed to improve the taste and nutrition of their little monstrosities ended up causing severe allergic reactions in about 5% of people that tried their product, even those who never had another food allergy. And they would have known that if they hadn't slipped the FDA a little something to expedite their safety trials and started production even before those were finished."
The blonde bombshell's voice was as perfectly manicured as her nails: lively, but sharp and incisive also. "That's a pretty serious allegation there, Nathan. Our audience should know you're pretty active in anti-schmeat activism circles, and a dozen other causes. You've made some other fiery accusations in the past, and they haven't all turned out. Why should we believe you this time?"
Nathan held up a tablet with lab readout before the camera, then pointed a finger at one particular line that was underlined in red. "Because I have physical roof. The schmeat samples I delivered to the FDA lab were still sealed - and the inspectors will testify to that. The DA will also tell you how the RealChix VPs sang like canaries as soon as government inspectors gave them a chance to land a bigger fish. Too good for them and the rest of the capitalist cronies, if you ask me, but all the proof is there."
The anchor nodded, her eyes intense. "And the schmeat samples? How did you get those? There were reports of a break-in at RealChix - was that you?"
Nathan's smile was secretive. "You know I can't comment on that. Let's just say I have my sources, and leave it at that."
Jenna raised a glass to Nathan, and then took a sip of the sweet red wine. Let Nathan have the limelight if that was what he wanted. She surely didn't. She had her pride back, and her reputation - and a very sweet job offer at one of RealChix's competitors. "Cheers," she said out loud, and closed her laptop on the rest of the interview.