Jens Rushing brings us this fine tale about a conflict between energy wranglers and the bureaucracy, in this, our 10th article to appear on SpaceWesterns.com. — ed. N.E. Lilly

I love my job. I’m a man of merely modest accomplishments; I rode herd on the King Ranch down Brownsville way, and if I was the best cowpuncher on the crew, maybe it was a sad thing for the crew overall. But the best I was, so when Mr. D. Richardson started his Dark Matter Husbandry Initiative, I was on the short list. Never mind that I’ve never been out in the black before, which is a rare thing these days. Seems like everyone’s jumping up to the moon and back before lunch. “You’re the man I want, Jake,” he told me. “I’ve seen you work, and you got a natural instinct with beeves. This job’s the same thing.” It pretty much is.

About fifteen years ago, when we swore off coal, ran out of oil, and fusion and solar turned out to be pipe dreams, things looked bad for the US of A. Energy rations, electricity riots, martial law—everything got real ugly and real scary. Then Mr. Richardson, who I always said was the cleverest of men, came up with dark matter husbandry. Rather, the husbandry of what we used to call dark matter, but we now know for non‑baryonic elementary radicals. I know—“dark matter” is a lot easier. The universe was full of this stuff, just waiting for us to harvest it, if only we could find a way. And Mr. Richardson, while gazing over the waving South Texas coastal plain, had this humble epiphany:

“We don’t eat the grass,” he said. “We eat the cow. But the cow eats the grass. So it’s like we’re eating the grass.”

Bear with me. He went on to explain that the dark matter is the grass; that we just need a “cow,” so to speak, to transform it into something we can use. Then we harvest the cow. It took eight years, dozens of scientists, and maybe a million billion dollars in funding, but he found his cow. They invented one. That’s where I came in.

When I was a plain‑old rancher down on Earth, I loved the loneliness more than anything. I loved getting out early, when the morning dew and the rising sun filled the fields with soft light, and riding out, feeling like the last human living under that endless sky. Cutting through the high yellow grass, my jean‑cuffs soaked with dew, and feeling just as natural, insignificant, and peaceful as a horned frog sunning himself on a rock.

So now, I have a little rocket‑scooter instead of my mare (though I painted “Bandit” down the side), and I have a vacuum‑suit instead of flannel and a ten‑gallon, but I’m working the biggest range of all. The sun is huge, and the sky is even more endless. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I give Bandit some gas and cruise along, searching for the herd. Mr. Richardson was right. I have a natural instinct for this work, and that’s the only thing that makes the job possible. The cattle don’t show up on radar or sonar or anything ‑ar, so it’s up to the naked eye to keep track of them. You have to understand how a herd moves, or you’d lose them in the black within an hour. There.

I approach the herd, firing Bandit’s brakes (reverse thrusters) and slowing in a wide curve. They’re clustered today, not spread out to graze as usual, and they seem... agitated. Make no mistake. The void‑cows (that’s what we call them) don’t resemble normal cattle in the least. They’re not real animals, either, not living beings. They’re a sustained chemical reaction, like nuclear fission or fire. They appear as cow‑sized clouds of purple smoke, flashing with veins of lightning that ranges from bright yellow to dark green. So when I say that they appear agitated, I mean that the lightning is dark green and flashing like anger, quickly, darkly. You get the impression of a cat with its back up, or a porcupine curled and ready to quill you good. I don’t know the science behind this; maybe they’re grazing on a particularly high‑radiation piece of dark matter. Maybe sunspots are getting them riled. Whatever it is, I have my job to do.

I look for the older ones, the void‑cows that have been grazing for a while and are good and fat; “fat,” again, isn’t entirely accurate. They don’t actually increase in size when they’ve consumed a significant quantity of dark matter and are ready for harvest. The lightning is less frequent, their movements less frenetic. They just feel fat.

When I spot a fat ones, I carefully cut it from the herd, just the way I’d cut a real beeve from horseback, driving it apart from the herd, and, just like a real beeve, the void‑cow protests. The lightning flashes a vicious yellow, and it tries to swerve around me, but I’m quick with Bandit, blocking it from the herd and driving it further away. Bandit, and the Corral, too, are electromagnetically shielded with internal magnetic generators. The void‑cattle can “smell” the magnets, and are repelled by them. I get out my lasso. It’s a foot‑long wand; it generates an electromagnetic bubble that ensnares the animals and baffles their movement. The eggheads call it a Resonating Magnetic Spectrum Projector, but it’s a lasso.

I zap the beeve, and wince as a lowing pours through my headset. The cattle can generate certain “sounds” inaudible to the human ear, yet any speaker (which, after all, just transforms electric signals to sound waves) picks it up and relays it. When I lasso them, the baffling stifles the ongoing reaction, and all the electrons zipping around inside grind down to half‑speed, which produces the sound the lowing. My headset bursts with it, followed by a roar of static. It’s one of the bugs we’ve yet to iron out.

I cut two more head from the herd, lasso them, and head back to Corral 152, the small station where we hold and slaughter the void‑cattle. I’ve been out here for seven months now with none other but Leo, the head wrangler, and a couple other cowpokes for company. Leo runs the slaughterhouse and keeps the station in tip‑top shape. He’s not too bad, and the other hands are all right, but seven months with only three or four other human beings will drive you to singing at odd hours and digging out your freckles with dinner forks, if you aren’t careful. Thank God our rotation’s almost up, and then we’re back at Europa Base for a couple weeks of whiskey and faro.

Oh, Jesus. A ship, a big‑bellied cargo scow, makes for the Corral, piloted very poorly, I can tell from way out here. But that’s not what alarms me. As the scow makes for the corral, I catch just a glimpse of forest‑green light sternward a couple hundred yards—a cow split off from the herd, heading for the scow and its sweet‑smelling, unshielded electronics. If the cow hits, a flash and a bang, and we’ve got a dead ship and a dead crew. I’ve seen it happen. It’s not pretty.

I kick Bandit up and speed for the ship. Why the hell would anyone be out here in a ship like that? Goddamn space‑trash, going to get themselves killed, and I can’t be responsible for that, so I squeeze the throttle, squeeze every last bit of juice out of my pathetic Bandit, tearing through the black atop a roaring jet of flame. Getting close—cool the throttle, fire port thrusters, drift in sideways at three hundred miles an hour, more port thrusters—there. I come in at just the right speed, and the beeve, startled with a blaze of yellow light, shies away. I nudge it toward the herd, and it goes, still crackling yellow‑red. The scow docks safely, and, once docked, the Corral’s electromagnetic shielding conducts through the ship, protecting it as long as it stays connected.

Mister Leonard McCall, I presume?” says the first fellow, and you can probably imagine him pretty well just from the way he hisses “Mister.”

Heart thumping, mad as a panther with his tail a‑fire, I retrieve my three head and tow them back to the Corral. Leo snares them with the Corral’s Resonating Whatever and gives me the thumbs‑up through the big porthole. Even at this distance, I can tell he’s rattler‑pissed at our visitors, too. I head for the barn, dock Bandit, and wait for the airlock to cycle, then, fuming, stomp down to the deck to see just what the hell is going on.

Leo’s beat me down there, and he’s giving them an earful. “Restricted space! Shielding! Dangerous!” he’s screaming red‑faced at the newcomers, who are still wiping white decontamination dust from their hair.

Mister Leonard McCall, I presume?” says the first fellow, and you can probably imagine him pretty well just from the way he hisses “Mister”. He’s thin, with wire glasses and a hawk nose and thinning but well‑kept hair. I’m an easy‑going fellow, but something about this man makes my punching muscles itch. His wheedling voice, maybe, or his clammy handshake. “And Mister Jacob Bellows?” He flashes a little smile like how you might flash a business card, then put it away in your wallet. “I’m Lefferts,” he said. “From the Department of Agriculture, Regulatory Division.” He indicates a screw‑faced blonde kid. “My assistant, Reed. I hope we can count on your full cooperation during our investigation.”

I swear, I could park a combine harvester in Leo’s mouth right now.

I pay my taxes,” Leo says. “I pay my taxes just as much as the next man, maybe a little more. And what else does the government want? I was in the army, too. Semper Fi, Lefferts. Do you understand what that means?” He thumps his chest. Lefferts is sifting through a mountain of paperwork on Leo’s desk. Occasionally he wrinkles up his nose like a document might make him sneeze in horror or consternation, bites his lip with his rabbit teeth, and says, “Mm‑hmm,” and with each long sighing hmm Leo’s fists clench and unclench. “It means ‘Do your duty.’ We have a duty. We do important work up here.”

“Actually, Leo, Semper Fi means—” I begin, but Lefferts cuts me off.

“Then you appreciate that I have a duty as well, Mr. McCall. The Department of Agriculture—”

“Which has no business here! This is an energy station!” Leo interjects, but Lefferts holds up a hand.

“I’m coming to that—the DOA is concerned that your ‘void‑cows’ are not raised and slaughtered in accordance with the International Animal Cruelty Accords.”

Leo explodes. “But the Accords only apply to living creatures! These aren’t living!”

“That,” Lefferts says, all brisk and official, “is precisely what I am here to determine. And should we produce evidence to that effect, then your operation would naturally fall under the jurisdiction of the DOA.”

Incredulity floors us. I speak up. “But... they don’t even have a tangible form. They have no mass. How the hell can they be living creatures?”

“I got something that responds to stimuli,” Leo grunts, “right here in my—”

“The Department has taken the matter in hand,” Lefferts says. “Under observation, the void‑cows—Singularity Fission Incidents, rather—demonstrate distinct behavior patterns. They respond to stimuli and exhibit basic cognitive abilities.”

“I got something that responds to stimuli,” Leo grunts, “right here in my—”

“What Leo’s saying, Mr. Lefferts,” I say, “is that basic cognition isn’t sapience. We have computers with cognitive abilities, and we don’t worry about their living conditions. I tell you—these aren’t animals.”

“They demonstrate other characteristics of basic lifeforms. They consume food, or fuel, and reproduce.”

“They’re a chemical reaction,” I say, “like fire. Fire consumes fuel and reproduces, too.”

Lefferts arches an eyebrow (he’s very good at eyebrows), and sniffs, “We’ve projected the possibility of energy‑based life‑forms before. Even if they don’t possess sapience or self‑awareness, the fact that they can sense and feel—that they have the ability to suffer—means that we must treat them accordingly. That’s all.”

This whole time the kid Reed has just sulked in the doorway, looking moodily from me to Leo and I wonder if he’s going to stick a knife in my back or something. He doesn’t bother to hide his disdain for us. He speaks for the first time. “Butchers is what you are!” he cries. He seems one of those shy kids who speak only under intense feelings, like he just bottles it up until it explodes out. His face reddens. “Not enough to murder flesh and blood animals, you gotta create new animals to kill!” He spits. “Make me sick.” He turns away, embarrassed at his own temper.

“Reed, please,” Lefferts says. Leo and I are speechless. “We’re not here to judge, only to gather evidence from which we may draw irrefutable conclusions. I apologize for my young colleague’s outburst. He’s—passionate about his work. Rest assured, gentlemen, we will do our best to remain fair and objective, but ultimately we must follow the dictates of conscience.

“Perhaps you do not understand the Animal Rights Accord and why we strive to protect and uphold that piece of legislation. Before the Accord, the food industry was red‑handed in the extreme. We received not a mouthful of food except through pain and suffering. I could tell you of the charnel‑houses—the flaying‑machines—the interminable hells of chickens crammed ten to a cage, born eyeless, beakless, footless to be the more perfect foodstuff. As subjects of life, they are entitled to protection. To an existence free of cruelty. Now, the Accord mandates painless slaughter and cruelty‑free husbandry. As long as the industry operates within these guidelines, we can consume meat with spotless consciences. I enjoy a good Chicken Kiev from time to time.”

He continues. “But the possibility of SFIs as the first energy‑based life‑forms would require a drastic overhaul of the system. Should we gather sufficient evidence of their sentience—well, we would certainly have to suspend all operations for the period of further investigation.”

“What do you need?” Leo sounds beaten.

Lefferts’s eyes gleam. “Take me to the charnel‑pits, gentlemen.”

Charnel‑pits” is an overstatement. We have the condenser room, where we convert the SFIs—void‑cows, dammit—to storable energy, and the tank adjacent. Both rooms are heavily shielded. At Leo’s prompting, I trigger the hatch—it opens, and Leo lassoes a beeve and yanks it, protesting, into the condenser. Leo prods it to the center of the room and a magnetic shield pops up around it—a humming energy field, with the scared void‑cow inside. I say “scared”—what I mean is the lightning is a mere flicker, almost a dark blue, and the thing hardly moves at all.

“This is an older one,” I say. “It contains enough converted dark matter to power Houston for fifteen months. Cover your ears.”

I hit the switch, and the intercom speakers burst into squalling static. Lefferts and Reed slap their hands over their ears, Leo and I put in our earplugs as a hideous high‑pitched shriek fills the room and quivers us down to our teeth. The void‑cow flashes orange, yellow, red, purple, then all those colors at once, elongates vertically, and vanishes. The screaming stops and a drawer on the computer pops open. I remove a fist‑sized bulb that weighs about twenty pounds and toss it to Lefferts. He fumbles it.

“Careful with that,” I say. “It’s worth seventy million dollars.”

He handles it, amazed. “But that sound,” he says. “Dear God, what was that sound?”

“The valence bonds ripping in half, transmitted through the intercoms via electromagnetic waves. We haven’t figured out how to stop that... the signal overrides our system every time, and we can’t just disconnect off the intercoms.”

“It’s a death‑scream!” Reed shouts, red‑faced again, punching at the air. “It’s their last breath!”

Lefferts silences him with a sharp look. “I am inclined to agree with Reed,” he says. “Such—agony in that cry...”

“Agony nothing,” I say. “Look at the science. A void‑cow is a sustained chemical reaction. The condensing process—”

“The slaughtering process,” Reed says.

“The condensing process is the end of that reaction. Like a campfire hissing when you dump water on it, that’s all.”

Lefferts returns the bulb. “I think I’ve seen enough for now. Allow me to finish sifting through your paperwork...”

Leo stepped up. “Look, Lefferts. You have a job to do and I respect that. So you understand that we have our own job to do. You remember the electricity riots? Do you remember just how bad it got? America depends on our power—the world does—and the sad fact is that we’re the top of the food chain. We can’t stay there without some cruelty.” I winced, but Leo barreled on. “After the Arctic petrol fields ran dry, I knew people who were shooting ringed seals and squeezing them for oil. Christ, we used to kill whales to light our lamps at night. We aren’t doing that. These are just blobs of energy. We’ll eat meat, we’ll condense—slaughter—these cows. That’s the price of living.” Thank you, Leo, I think, for screwing that pooch in the most amazing way possible. The man has a bona fide talent, I tell you what.

But he isn’t done! “And if you can’t understand that, Lefferts, maybe it’s just for a lack of living yourself. I bet—I bet you’ve never punched cows, for‑real cows on a for‑real ranch. Never chased the herd on horseback or—or worked a day in your life!”

“Sir,” Lefferts says, exhaling dignity, “I am a bureaucrat.”

“And I ought to knock you right on your bureaucrat ass,” Leo says, hands balled up.

“What he means to say,” I begin, but Lefferts interrupts.

“I think I understand just what Mr. McCall means to say. The stakes here are much too high to allow personal differences to interfere. I will report to the Department with the evidence I have, and should further investigation be required, we will dispatch new employees.”

“They’ll send someone else from the Department?” I ask

“Oh, no,” Lefferts gave us one of his creepy non‑smiles. “I mean you two will be recalled for a performance review and replaced by employees on whom we can depend to cooperate. Mr. Richardson is very eager to work with the Department on this case.” As he talks, he retreats to the office and scoops up our paperwork. We follow, and Leo keeps clenching and unclenching his fists, and I’m just worried that he’ll wring Lefferts’s neck for him before Lefferts can get away. I try to pacify Lefferts and Leo at the same time.

“I’m sure we can work something out. Leo here has had a long day. I’ll show you around the rest of the Corral if you want. There’s no need to make split decisions.”

“Your goddamn monkey’s loose on my Corral.”

“I assure you, Mr. Bellows,” he says majestically, “None of my decisions are split. I depart forthwith—where’s Reed?” The kid has vanished, when and how we don’t know.

“Ah, hell,” Leo moans. “Your goddamn monkey’s loose on my Corral.”

“I’ll find him!” I dash through the door.

I find him right away—he’s in the condenser room, fiddling with the controls. “What are you doing?” I howl, and leap to the computer. The red light labeled “exterior hatch” blinks; he’s thrown it open, and I watch through the porthole, horrified, as a dozen void‑cows, a week’s hard work in rounding up, stream through the hatch and into the black.

“I set them free!” he shouts. “Free from your tyranny, you murderer!” I reach back to belt him one, I’m so mad. He sees my quivering fist, and the color drains from him, and he raises his hands in protest. “Sorry!” he cries. “Sorry!” I lower my hand. He’s not worth it. A smile snakes across his face, and he is clearly not sorry. My blood boils.

“Get on down to the deck,” I hiss. “Your boss is lighting a shuck. He’s going to hear about this, you moron, I promise.” He scrambles through the door, and I follow the idiot kid to the deck.

Leo has refrained from murdering Lefferts, who finishes the preflight check on their rustbucket scow, and Reed, sullen, gets in beside. Leo leans through the hatch for one last reminder of his thunderous stupidity: “What if I gave you some cash?” Lefferts shakes his head scornfully, and Leo and I leave the deck. The hangar bay cycles, the ship is off, and we watch the vidscreen as it pulls away, taking our jobs and futures with it. It coasts, the big chemical thrusters spooling up for a great burst of speed to bear it away. I think about the scathing letter I’m going to write to Lefferts and maybe Mr. Richardson, too. That Reed kid will pay for letting the cows loose, dammit. Eight hundred and forty million in void‑cows, out the window (airlock). He had no right to do that, and now I have to pick up the mess.

“Look!” Leo grips my arm and points at a corner of the screen. The void‑cows just released by Reed drift away from the Corral in a herd, and pick up speed, making straight for the scow. Leo grabs the radio and bawls, “Lefferts! On your six! Burn, burn!” but a peal of static is his only reply. “Damned interference!” We watch the void‑cows, drawn as flies to honey, collide squishily with the scow, slipping through the unshielded innards and sucking them dry of their sweet electricity. The ship founders, gliding along on inertia, but dead in the water; the chemical thrusters continue to spool and erupt in a great gout of flame, and, without the electronic regulators, overload and shatter in a tremendous explosion that rips the little ship in half.

We are stunned.

No other word for it. That’s us, stunned. The pieces float in their different directions, and we see the two cold forms of Lefferts and Reed drift off into the black.

“Well,” Leo says at last, “I guess we get to keep our jobs a while longer.”

“Yeah,” I say, gruffly.

“D’you see the way those void‑cows headed straight for the scow? Normally they would have taken off to rejoin the herd, but I guess they waited around after they were released, like they knew the ship would leave soon and they could get ‘em as soon as they left our shielding.”

“Huh,” I say. “That does seem like intelligence to me. Guess they are alive.”

“Hell,” Leo says. “Well, what do we do now?”

“I don’t care to do anything.” I sit on the floor. “I’m so depressed I can barely move.”

“You that torn up over Lefferts and the kid?” Leo asks.

“No,” I say. “I just hate being wrong.”

Jens Rushing Jens Rushing is a native Texan living in South Korea with his wife and dog. He was hatched from an egg. Visit his website for his journal, some stories, and nightmare bursts of galimatias.

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