This received an honourable mention for a story in the Darker Times September 2013 competition. I’m publishing it now as it’s dropped off that website.
Who’s for Dinner
By Jason Gibbs
The helicopter swooped over the houses at the core of the village. They were overgrown as the forest retook its territory. The central square was only just clear enough to allow the ‘coptor to land. As it settled Harris heard a distinct snapping sound.
He and Laramie climbed out of the machine, Laramie’s high heels jarringly out of place, but it didn’t stop her walking round the skeleton which had been inadvertently crushed when they landed.
Looking round Harris spotted a few more skeletons.
“That’s why we’re here, dumb-ass.” She rolled her eyes at him.
She surveyed the surroundings and then pointed at the central building, which had a large solar array on the top. “It’ll be in there,” she said as strode towards it.
The building was of modern construction. Printed cellulose bricks formed the walls, with the three internal rooms separated by thin plastic partitions. The largest room, clearly a gathering and canteen area, had open entrances to the two smaller rooms, one of which was clearly a toilet. They headed for the other, gingerly stepping over yet more skeletons. The place was almost filled with them.
Sitting in the middle of the room, happily purring, was a cornucopia machine. It was a basic model, only really able to print simple objects, such as the bricks, as well as food staples. The UN had been shipping them across the planet for decades to finally defeat world hunger.
“Check the machine,” Laramie ordered, and Harris got to work while she clicked her away around the small space.
He gingerly moved aside the skeletons leaning against the machine. In a few minutes he had the diagnostics up.
“All is perfect. Power is 100%, even the hoppers are full, though they’ll need to be cleared out. Last used six months ago.”
“Dead, unsurprisingly.” The biological components of the cornucopia machines tended to last only a few months, and needed their source cells replenishing.
“Any way of determining why?”
He suddenly realised that her short manner was because she was worried by the skeletons. He had to admit that they were creepy. Especially the one sitting on the throne next to the machine, which seemed to be looking at him.
He scrolled through the reports. There was something odd. Biologicals usually survived six to twelve months depending on which animal they were based on, goat based ones survived the longest, but people tended to become fed up with goat.
“The last biological died after only three days. The one before that the same. Before that they survive progressively longer, until we get to a normal pattern of seven month survival.”
Suddenly it clicked. The pattern was consistent with prion degradation, where the same biological source was being used to provide the base cells, and was also eating the output. Harris looked round, and looking at the skeleton on the throne he realised what, or indeed who, that source had been.