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Pills Aren't Food

This was written as a result of seeing the call for submissions put out by Subterranean Magazine. (In fact, Mr. John Scalzi was the editor of that particular issue.) The idea was to take a standard science-fiction cliche (or Popular Mechanics' 'In The Future, Man Will... [have flying cars, personal robot butlers, etc.] trope) and make it interesting.

This is what I came up with. I think it's interesting; it certainly was different from what I usually write. I was aiming for a kind of Heinlein's Heyday feel, though I'm not sure if I managed to get _that_ across.

So, here you go. Enjoy, Or Something.

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Pills Aren’t Food

“Glenseven, honey? Your father and I feel that… Well, we need to talk to you.” Momunit looked worried, frowning and wringing her dishtowel with red hands. I’ve never understood why she does dishes, since we as a family didn’t ever eat real, messy food.

I nodded at her, holding up my algebra II book. “Okay. I’ll be down as soon as I’m done with my homework.”

“Sure, sweetie.” She smiled at me, tight and not terribly genuine, and left my room. Despite what I’d said, I couldn’t quite concentrate on the equations in front of me. What could the ‘units need to discuss with me? It couldn’t be sex; everyone went through _that_ set of classes at twelve and I didn’t currently have a girlfriend. I’d gotten high marks on my last set of midterms, especially in Astrogation and Math… My best friend, Bobbytwo, had been caught smoking and had to go to a remedial health class, but it was determined all around that it was an experiment and a phase.

Then my desk-screen pinged softly and lit up as a new message from my 4-H club mailing list popped up. Janeten had entered her calf in the Northeastern Ares Fair’s Livestock Show, so she wanted us to cross our various appendages for her. Some of the other kids had wondered what a hard-core space junkie like myself was doing in 4-H, and I told them the truth (or most of it, anyhow): my parents were afraid that I’d end up completely out-of-touch with “the real world” without regular contact with people and animals… Most kids would get a dog or a hamster; I got chickens.

I like chickens, especially mine — Rhode Island Reds, bred carefully for nearly two centuries, and perfectly adapted to the long Martian years. Their combs flop just right, their little eyes shine beautifully black and beady, and their feathers lay in orderly ranks just-so. They’re smarter than a lot of people give them credit for, too. My chickens know when it’s time to be fed, particularly when I’ve forgotten. Not that I do, mind you, since I discovered that I enjoyed raising chickens and even liked going to 4-H meetings.

Anyhow, so I got this message, and I tapped out a suitably encouraging reply. Sure, there would be a lot of competition, but from what I’ve read, the Northeastern is probably equal to old US state fairs on Earth. She’d do just fine. Thinking about my chickens, I closed my book and went out to the second-floor patio, then down to the back yard to their pen. They were wandering around, scratching and pecking in the sparse grass. Their water pan was full and clean, and the feed in their trough was getting low, but that was all right. I fed them, even though it was early, then went inside to the dining room.

“Hello, Glenseven,” Dad said, folding his paper and setting it aside. I nodded and sat down opposite him, schooling my face into something I hope resembled interested attentiveness instead of complete puzzlement. My ‘units weren’t big on ‘I don’t understand’ as an excuse or reason.

Mom came in from the kitchen, carrying the traditional tray — three glasses of ice-water: slice of lemon for Mom, sprig of mint for dad, plain for me; three little plates that were probably intended to be described as ‘exquisite’ or ‘delicate’ or something; and, of course, dinner. Algae Surprise for me, with extra iron and protein, followed by FunFish Brain-Booster and, because Mom was a traditionalist, chocolate cake for dessert. Mom and Dad were indulging in Soy-Steak Tartare and salads, along with AntiOx and cake.

She served Dad and I, then sat and accepted her plate and glass from Dad. There was a moment of silence, then we all fell to, swallowing dinner quietly and neatly. No unsightly leftovers, no waste, no picky children to whine that they didn’t want this, they wanted something else… I knew the litany of reasons for food in pill-form. Everyone knew, since the invention and refinement of FiPF had occurred right here on Mars.

Once dinner was over, Momunit cleared away the plates and returned to the table, where she sat down beside me.

“Honey… Your father and I are worried about you.” She was twisting the dishtowel again.

Frowning, I asked, “why?” She looked over at Dadunit, who nodded at her.

“Well,” she began, raising her eyebrows at me, “we’ve noticed that you sometimes go out for very long walks.”

“I like taking walks,” I said, shrugging. I did. “I like to see the landscape, and the plants.”

“I know, dear. But… I was straightening your room on First Tuesday this week and… I found a bloody shirt in your hamper. And a knife.”

“I helped Donnasix and Jeremyfour calve their heifer, I told you that — didn’t I show you the pictures?” Panic began to flutter in my chest. I really had helped with the calving, but it hadn’t been nearly as bloody as all that. Did this mean they were suspicious? “I must have left the knife in my pocket, I’m sorry,” I said.

Dad cleared his throat, then, and leaned forward. “Son, I’ve been wondering… What happened to that little chicken with the white splotch on its back?”

My mouth opened and out popped the most plausible lie I’d ever told. “Oh, I gave her away. We’ve been doing an animal exchange program, and I sent her down Southwest way.” I wondered where that had come from. It was a great lie, but now I had to come up with both a reason for not having a new animal… Oh! “And since I knew I had to ask for permission and permits and things for anything else, I wrote a note that I sent with her that said I didn’t need a chicken or something in return.”

“I see.” Dad sat back and exchanged a look with Mom. I wondered if they doubted me, and I tried to come up with reasons why they hadn’t heard anything about this… But Dad was speaking again, interrupting me. “That’s not all your mother found, is it, Maryfive?”

I looked over at Mom again, startled. What else could she have found?

“Glenseven… I found your, what is it called, ’stash’. Drugs I could maybe understand, but herbs and spices?” She leaned over again, reaching out and putting one chapped hand on my arm. “Honey, what…what are you doing with those?”

I folded faster than a paperboard shack in a week-long Martian sandstorm. I hated the lying, I hated the sneaking, and most of all, I hated not being able to share… The whole story came spilling out. Researching chickens, finding the ancient cookbook, reading descriptions of delicious-sounding chicken dishes… It had been too much. The first time I sank my teeth into chicken I had cooked myself (albeit over-done) had been better than anything short of my first shuttleflight. After that, I had looked into cooking and cookbooks as much as I could get away with, gathering the required herbs and spices through a network of slightly-shady contacts and maildrops in false names. I’d managed to only sacrifice one of my chickens every two or three months, though, and every time I did it had been bliss.

Sitting there, in the dining room, as my mother rocked me, I could only sob one thing in answer to my father’s distressed query as to why I’d do such a thing… “Pills aren’t _food_, pills aren’t food…”

I enjoyed reading this

I enjoyed reading this story. Perhaps playing around with some guilt over the protaganist's eating of his pets would add some foreshadowing. Found the naming distracting. Are they robots? And what does making them robots (or robot-like) add to the story. I don't see why a story like this has to involve such a drastic displacement from modern timespace. Why set it in a world where naming conventions are bizzare and unusual when the lonly leap you really need to make is some kind of pharmological one? I suggest that the author's attempts to "sci-fi" this up actually make it a weaker story than what it could have been had it not been so artificially speculative.

--Gabe
---Writelarge.com

What's wrong with pills? ;)

Liked the story--this is the first story here that I actually finished reading and enjoyed!

Not that I've ever watched the Twilight Zones, but the story reminded me of that. It's got that "classic" feel of the future followed by a twist accompanied by the breakdown of a human (child/teen?) at the end, ominously celebrating the triumph of "science" and efficiency over humanity.

My critiques:

1. Why is the mother a "momunit" but father is merely "dad"? (Also, I think a little exposition on their naming convention would've helped.)

2. As much as the cold concept of "parental units" bothers me, THAT is a cliched sf theme and you I thought you worked it in quite well.

Not much of a science guy so I'll let others (like the first commenter) critique that! :)

Mmm pills :)

Just a small note, but it bothered me a little. He would probably need a higher level of math than Algebra II to be taking Astrogation as well, I think.
But otherwise, I really liked the concepts you have in this story. If you wanted to, you could definitely build this up into something bigger, explore a little of the society a bit more. I also like how herbs and spices are contraband. I wonder why they became quasi-legal if not illegal?
The only other note I have is I feel it would help the story a lot if his mom didn't bake a cake. It would tighten the sense of just how strange all this is. Also, I like the 4-H idea, but I'm not really sold on the concept of having chickens on Mars if there is not purpose for them there (i.e. they're not being eaten). Depending on your society, it might not be cost-effective to ship livestock all the way from Earth to Mars. Or if they're cloned from cells on Mars, it might not be cost-effective to raise them. Your characters would have to devote resources to them that might not be practical (e.g. water, air, food...).
I think you can really do something neat with this story. Keep up the good work :)

First, thanks for the

First, thanks for the encouragement!

Also, Glen's mom _didn't_ bake a cake -- everything mentioned as having been served for dinner was in pill-form. I didn't realize that that's how that read, oops. I'll have to fix that.

As for the math... Eh. It's a good point. I shooooould probably have looked up astrogation to figure out what it actually _requires_ in terms of math and science and stuff. (I should also know better than to use a word because it sounds cool/is related to what I'm writing instead of because I know what it means.)

I'd say that the animals are on Mars because all animals are part of the food-chain/ecosystem/life-web/whatever the heck you wanna call it -- they'd help with the terraforming and atmosphere development, yes? Plus you could ship frozen embryos/eggs and sperm to Mars at a much lower cost (in terms of both space and maintenence) than shipping the actual animal itself. Then of course you need someplace for the embryo to finish gestating so's you end up with a live animal...

I guess my aim of making things as plausible as possible and letting the reader fill in the blanks didn't quite work out this time. Ah well, I don't mind -- again, thanks for the feedback.

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