Content Warnings: transphobia, mention of a deadname, slaughterhouses, animal death, mention of murder
"You Can’t Grow Corn on the Moon" by Brendan Williams-Childs
4,008 words, Short Fiction
CW: transphobia, mention of a deadname, slaughterhouses, animal death, mention of murder
Nina smelled like cow shit. Her boots were caked in it up to the cuffs of her jeans. She could never smoke enough on the regulated fifteen minute breaks to get the scent of it out of her nose, her mouth. All-permeating. She was sure she should have been used to it, but the chemical stench of the waste that passed through the intestines of the creatures and onto the floors of the slaughterhouse burned the lining of Nina’s nostrils until she was leaking snot into the rivulet of her upper lip. Every fucking day.
Ten years, and Nina still wasn’t used to the shit. Well, the shit and the screaming. No. Not screaming. Cows didn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, scream. They made a noise somewhere in the bottom of their fourth stomach that oozed out of their body like their bile. Nina adjusted her mask, adjusted the stun gun, and closed her eyes for a moment when the solid metal rod emerged from the barrel in her hands like a scorpion striking, shaking the skull and stunting the brain of the shitting thing in front of her. The animal stood paralyzed in the mechanical grip of the chute, spit streaming from its mouth, froth dripping from its snout. There was a moment of stillness before the animal was shuttled down the line, and then slit open with unremarkable efficiency. Above her head a whistle blew, a shriek loud enough to be heard over the radio and constant chatter from the butchers’ stations. Nina’s job, perched in the stun box, was a solitary operation. She placed the tool in its designated hold and climbed down, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
“Hey, Nina!” Manuel approached with a wide grin, cap already off, his hands pale from his latex gloves. His voice carried over the sound of his co-workers cleaning up their stations. “You going to the info session?”
“That one in Sul Ross tonight? The hell would I do that for?” Nina took her mask off.
Behind them, climbing up into the stun box for the swing shift, Tom put his own mask on. “Innovations in Martian food sourcing.” He was quoting the pamphlets left strewn around the break room the week before. His accent, which Nina knew was Midwestern but not specific to any state, made the slogans from the Martian Habitation Foundation propaganda sound the way Nina was sure it was intended to: like a farmer in a TV commercial. “It’s the future.” Tom was squaring up to receive the next cow, intently focused on its eyes.
“The hell it is.” Nina looked away. It was against her principles these days to watch an execution without getting paid for it. “That’s the same shit they been saying since they got folks on the moon.”
“How would you know? You’re old, but you’re not ancient.” Manuel rolled his eyes as he held the exit door open, nodding at Nina to pass through with him. Nina obeyed, walked ahead, trying not to breathe through her nose.
There was a single locker room in the slaughterhouse. Instead of creating a new women’s space, the company had decided, several years ago in a petulant fit after the state finally started forcing the plant to recognize Nina’s new legal birth certificate, that the cheaper option was to add a toilet stall and declare the space “unisex.” It was decorated with grim posters reminding employees that sexual harassment was both bad for workplace morale and illegal, in that order. Nina and Manuel changed side-by-side, looking anywhere but at each other as their conversation continued.
“My mother’s father was one of the first moon farmers.” Nina pulled her sweat-stained shirt off before shoving it into the aluminum locker. “They said the same shit about the future of food whatever then, too.”
“They actually did pretty well up there for a while.” Manuel took his boots and socks off and slipped his wide, pale feet into sandals. “I mean, yeah, their soil viability predictions weren’t, you know, one-hundred-percent accurate, but they still got a water purifier up there I read about it. It’s different, on Mars.”
“The hell it is.” Nina hung her apron on the hook in her locker. It was limp. It didn’t fight back. She could hear the screaming from the other side of the wall. Not screaming, not screaming, they’re goddam cows. Tom’s voice, muffled by the walls, a command to fire. The sound of a gunshot that made both Nina and Manuel jump for a moment. “Fuck.”
“That’s the worst part of this job.” Manuel grabbed his empty lunchbox. “When people fuck up the stunning.” His face, when Nina looked at him, was serious. “Apparently it’s easier on animals up there, you know. On Mars. Because they don’t get the same oxygen tanks the people do. So it’s easier. Nobody has to have a gun.”
Wishful thinking if Nina had ever heard it. She remembered her grandfather’s corpse in the burial pod they sent him home in, how black the hands had been, how white the nails were, save for the dusty, grey dirt below them. Earth, Nina’s father had called it, look at the earth under his nails. But it wasn’t funny because a man was dead and it wasn’t really ironic, either, no matter how many times Nina’s father would later insist it was. The corpse’s face had been covered in a black bag sealed tight around the neck. The plum-dark pigmentation that occurred from sudden de-stabilization on the Moon was acceptable for extremities only. It was inappropriate to show the head of a man when it was such an ugly color, dark like the void that had suffocated him when the terradome had cracked and sucked the oxygen from the farmers in a single deep inhalation.
“I’m telling you,” Nina said, though she doubted Manuel was really listening. “It ain’t no different anywhere up there. Whatever you read is a lie.”
Manuel looked offended, like Nina had smacked him, and Nina did feel bad about it for a moment. It wasn’t a secret, how much Manuel had been reading. If anything, it was a fact that inspired both admiration, both real and grudging, amongst the butchers. Manuel’s exploits were well known: searching through history books at the public library, hitch-hiking to El Paso to talk to an old man who had been one of the Lunar Terraforming engineers. For a boy who hadn’t bothered to graduate from the only high school in a twenty-six mile radius, Manuel was notoriously determined to learn.
There was a short, cold laugh from the other side of the row of lockers, and then again as a man rounded the corner. Nina didn’t turn to face the source. She tucked her clean shirt into her jeans hastily and grabbed her hat, wishing she had sandals like Manuel so she could slip them on and make a quick exit.
“No difference anywhere? Our resident existentialist.”
Daniel Everly was standing in the doorway that separated the locker from the break room. His shirt, splattered with blood like a knock-off Pollack, was unbuttoned to his sternum revealing tightly wound muscles, thick veins, a prison tattoo. Also from prison: an inflated sense of his vocabulary. He’d read the dictionary, he claimed. But Nina suspected he had, in fact, read half the dictionary because around the time that Daniel got to words that started with “m” he lost his touch and was reduced to the same flatland insults as his co-workers.
“You know what you just said doesn’t make sense, jackass.” Nina tied her boots tight, watching him from the corner of her eye. Daniel had been around for five years, had known about her for just as long and never made much of it, but Nina still got the impression he was maybe waiting to hatecrime her. He wouldn’t need a reason. He was an offal sorter, he got his hands in guts and enjoyed it and Nina had known enough of those sorts of men in her life.
Manuel moved, subtly but directly, between them. “You going to the info session, Dan?” He was grinning, the smile of a 19-year-old set on going to space, the smile of a man intentionally creating distance.
“Of course I am. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Daniel lit a cigarette. His hands, like Manuel’s, were pale and cracked. Hours of sweating in plastic left the butchers with red, flaking skin. “Better than this shit, huh?” He exhaled smoke into the air around them.
“There are better ways to leave a job than to go to Mars and do the same work you’ve been doin’ here.” Nina pulled her hat down, prepared to make an exit. “I hear they’re looking for wind farmers up north.”
Daniel laughed. “As though I’d want to go live in a work camp and hook up wires with the androids in Montana.” He said the name of the state like he’d bitten into something sour. Like the arrogant son-of-a-bitch wasn’t from Idaho.
“Hey, you got a car, right, Dan?” Manuel had followed Nina, but paused in the doorway, weighing the benefits getting a ride from his co-worker. “Take me to Sul Ross for the Mars presentation?”
“Only if Nina agrees to come.” Daniel extinguished his cigarette on the floor, grinding his heel against the concrete, fixing Nina with a smile that said ‘crush this kid’s dreams, bitch’ and knowing that her refusal wasn’t going to happen. “Getting out once in a while is good for old men, right?”
Nina ignored the insult, small enough that she could reasonably pretend not to have noticed. “Fine.” What was the difference, really? It had been a long time since she’d spoken to the recruiters. At just past forty, Nina had defied the odds about life expectancy both for deep-space travelers and trans women. Whoever had recruited her when she was nineteen wouldn’t remember, would have retired, or would have died. She followed Manuel to Daniel’s truck, sat in the back, and watched the harvest plant disappear behind the bend, blend into the dry brown arms of the Davis Mountains.
“Don’t worry,” Daniel said, his eyes appearing in the rear-view mirror, hoping to catch Nina’s. “I’ll drive y’all back, too. I’m not gonna leave you stranded before work.”
“Yeah?” Nina accepted a cigarette from Manuel as Daniel drove them out of the mountains and on to TX-118. “That’s big of you.”
“I’m not heartless.” He looked at her for a moment longer before returning his sight to the road. Whatever he wanted, Nina wasn’t sure she was feeling up to giving it to him.
The auditorium at Sul Ross sat on the highest hill in the valley between the mountains. When Nina had been young, the lights from the university’s football stadium had flooded the roads, brightened the surrounding three blocks around the university compound. But there were restrictions about that, now. Rations of electricity, water, cooling, all went to the slaughterhouse and the hospital. Even the hotel rooms on E Ave East, and the lots full of cars with out-of-state and Mexican license plates were dark, though Nina could see human shapes in some of the windows like ghosts. Nina quickly looked away as Daniel pulled his truck into the parking lot of the Dollar General. “I’m not fucking with paying an entry ticket to park for a free event.”
“Yeah, they ought to be paying us.” Manuel laughed, but there was a seriousness and nervousness in his face that Nina knew. In his mind, he must have already been in a rocket, waiting for the impact of passing through the atmosphere, waiting for the mask over his face that would place him in a dreamless sleep until arrival on Mars.
The Mars Inc. recruiter looked nearly identical to the one Nina had met twenty years ago. In a dark red uniform, holding his bright white hat to his chest while explaining the benefits and very minor risks of a space mission, framed by an oversized picture of a reinforced terradome behind him on a PowerPoint, the recruiter may as well have stepped out of a poster from any time in the past fifty years. Even before the Sovereign Colonies Initiative reached Mars, before they had purified the planet, they dressed in colors suited to their ambitions. Nina wanted to respect them for it. But, hidden in the darkness, she could see the way the recruitment assistants looked at Manuel, sitting in the front row. Like coyotes in heat circling a lured-out dog.
“Hey, what the hell’s your problem anyway?” Daniel stood next to Nina in the back of the auditorium, both pressed against the wall, smoking despite the signs that strictly commanded them not to in both English and Spanish.
Nina looked away from the recruiters. “I thought you knew. You’ve been plenty fucking nosy about me.” She didn’t look at him when she said it, not ready to turn her accusation into a fight. Instead, she watched the slide wipes in the PowerPoint and tried not to read the words. “I was on Mars when I was twenty. They clear your debts, you know. They always have.”
“You’re not a well-kept secret, little lady.” Daniel crossed his arms, cigarette hanging from his lips like he was an old-fashioned cowboy.
“I’ve never tried to be a secret.” That was a lie, of course, but she gave up trying to be a secret years ago. It would have meant leaving Alpine, fighting some other state court to recognize her documents, hiding. What was the point? She would have been trans wherever she went, why bother keeping it under wraps like it wasn’t worth being?
A man in the audience turned back to look at them, glaring, a middle finger pressed against his lips for a moment before hissing, “Shut the fuck up.”
“You shut the fuck up,” Daniel replied, pretense of an indoor voice dropped.
“Jesus…” Nina covered her face with her hat and dropped her cigarette on the floor, stomping it out with the heel of her shit-crusted boot. “Let’s just go outside.”
The summer air was warm on their faces, a breeze sucking any moisture away down to the border. Daniel pulled himself in to the bed of his truck, nestling up to the back. “Shit, I think I’m gonna go with Manuel, Nina. Adventure. Change of scenery.” He emphasized the words like he was trying to believe in them. “New job, you know.”
Nina sat on the edge of the flatbed, her feet dangling over the side, knocking against the tire in a dull, repetitive rhythm, the kind she tried to get into at work. “You’ll never go outside again. It’s too dangerous, up there.”
“Am I gonna find some armed and enraged natives?” Daniel asked, laughing hugely, until he saw that Nina wasn’t so much as half-smiling. “Come on. I didn’t think the stories were true.”
“About Martians? Nah.” Nina lay back on the metal and looked up at the stars, tracing the constellations with her fingertips. There were no Martians. There were no space slugs. There were no diseases that turned a man’s skin to stone. There were no beautiful alien women waiting like a promised afterlife. There was only an ocean of emptiness on all sides, threatening drown out the life of everything around it. Nina struggled to find the words to explain this in a way that would matter to Daniel. “There’s no hope out there, though. The ground’s poison. Go for weeks without good rations.”
Because it had been the hunger that was overwhelming. The hunger and the darkness. No amount of artificial sunlight could repair the situation. The soldiers and their charges had withered under the force of it. Reports of cannibalism from the first mission had been grotesque. Reports of madness from the second mission had been horrific. Reports of suicide from the third mission had been disheartening. But the fourth time would be the charm. That’s what the men in dark red uniforms had told security-recruit Nina, barely nineteen and fresh in the service, anyway. And Nina, never the best at math, had believed the odds were good. Better than what they were going to be if she stayed on Earth, anyway. Nina, never the best at math, could still count to five: the number of colonists she had been forced to put down. The number of colonists screaming at the blackness, sick from toxins in the soil that had infected the wheat, miserable, disoriented, in pain and so afraid.
You are making a difference, making the planet safe and habitable, the recruiters had said to Nina. You are the first line of defense and offense in this expedition. And to the colonists, You will have the chance to live an authentic and meaningful life in a new, exciting place. And that was what appealed to her most. The idea that there was a place she could go to live authentically. Like she couldn’t have done that on Earth.
Daniel popped his knuckles and shrugged, the dismissal of a man young enough to believe in the best and old enough to temper that confidence with rationalizations, “It’s been, what, twenty years since you were there?”
“Twenty-three.” Nineteen had been a good age to go adventuring, a good age to be in debt and afraid. A good age to start a new life. A good age to have aspirations worth crushing. There was a lingering moment of silence, the hot breeze tinged with the smell of road-repair plastics. “You were up there when people got the mad-Martian rot, weren’t you?”
“Cyanotoxin poisoning,” Nina corrected him. That didn’t mean anything to her, technically. But that was what the newspapers had called it when they ran their headlines: Fourth Expedition Suffers Setbacks: Cyanotoxins Destabilize Crops to Fatal Effect.
“I hear nobody gets that anymore.” Daniel spoke quickly, but he couldn’t get his face to unstick from an anxious expression.
“Go to Mars, then, if you’re so sure.” Nina closed her eyes while the applause from the auditorium leaked into the parking lot. Would Manuel find what he needed up there? Nina doubted it. There wasn’t a thing that Mars could provide that Earth couldn’t. She moved her fingertips lazily in the air, tracing empty shapes, circling a distant, glowing planet and reaching beyond into the navy blue of the evening.
Manuel’s replacement was a woman named Sierra. She was strong, strong enough to do her job at least – hooking the dead cows up to the racks that would send them down Daniel’s way, or what used to be Daniel’s way. Nina didn’t know who replaced Daniel. She doubted that they were a woman, whoever they were. Sierra’s hiring was a surprise, to say the least.
Sierra didn’t smile. She was silent at lunch, silent in the break room, and she didn’t smoke. She had dark eyes and watched Nina curiously, like the concept of her existence was a new idea. For three months, Sierra had been working with her and said nothing, just stared, unblinking, a shadow who took lunches at the same time as Nina, who changed in the locker room right next to her, the corner of her eyes searching Nina’s body for some kind of sign.
They ate lunch together, mostly. Sierra’s was always the same: two peanut butter sandwiches and a fruit cup. She ate these while looking at Nina out of the corner of her eyes, face strained like she was holding in something secret that she needed to share. It was starting to drive Nina crazy, frankly. If Sierra was holding in an insult, she ought to just come out and say it. If Sierra was trans, too, which Nina tried never to assume, it would be better for both of them to be honest with each other.
Finally, on a lunch break, Nina asked: “Is there something you need to know?”
“I just…” Sierra hesitated, stabbed at the fruit in the cup with the wooden spoon that accompanied it, “Were you Nick Wells? From the Fourth Expedition?”
Nina flinched, but at least Sierra was being direct. It wasn’t like it was impossible to learn her old name. The library in the town next to the slaughterhouse had two rooms and while what little history could be found there was confined to encyclopedias and periodicals about the Texas Revolution, it did have an archive of “Notable Citizens.” Sierra must have found the newspaper there, right next to the Texas Monthly magazine profiling the only politician to come out of the area in the history of the state. Nina knew what she looked like in that newspaper. She saw the picture more recently than she would have liked, when Manuel discovered it and began asking about space. She was happy to talk to him about it, then, because at least it wasn’t another boy asking her about “the surgery.” Would it have been better if he had been? Nina doesn’t know, but she knows he probably wouldn’t be en route to Mars if he had been interested in surgery instead of rockets.
When the article about Nina’s involvement in the Fourth Expedition had run, an older trans woman, one of the ones who made all her money in AI had offered Nina money, surgery, a place to live. Nina took some of it, left some of it, and now wrote a Christmas letter to a woman in New York every year. It was the postmaster’s favorite to send, the card that went furthest away.
Sierra was blinking more rapidly, like a bot trying to process conflicting data. “I heard,” she said, her voice very quiet, “that the colonists turned on each other. Is that true?”
“No.” Nina kept her face straight as she lied. “It was the Martians. I don’t know what kinda papers you’ve been reading, but they only send the best up there. Not people who act like damn animals.”
“So there are Martians.” Sierra’s voice was high and tight, perhaps delighted though still unsmiling. “I knew it.”
“The boy who worked here before you, you know,” Nina stood and closed her lunchbox, “He’s out there now. On his way, probably. He’ll have to fight ‘em off. It ain’t done out there, no matter what they say.”
“What do they look like? The Martians? Did they get to you? Is that why you…”
Nina paused for a moment, trying to think what the hell a Martian would look like, what kind of thing would be able to survive independently on such a godforsaken wasteland. What kind of thing would enjoy that darkness, that eternal cover? “Like coyotes,” she said, finally, “Like they got out in the ridges around town. They look like coyotes. They don’t kidnap people. They howl. They scream. They sound like ghosts.”
Without looking at Sierra, uninterested in a response, Nina returned to the locker room and closed her lunchbox in her locker. She punched in five minutes before her schedule told her to. The sound of the radio from the butchers’ section droned in her ears like wind off the Guadalupes. The weight of the bolt gun seemed immense and her hands too small, unable to keep a firm grasp. Maybe she would float away. Some of them did. The colonists. Some of them released themselves from the compounds and simply drifted into the void. The cow on the line had big, dark eyes, like black holes. Nina looked the cow straight on and it screamed, disoriented until the bolt stunned it stupid, unfeeling.
Outside, the sun was reaching beyond its highest point. The sound of an approaching truck set the cattle in their pens to bawling, stepping forward, pushing through their waste in anticipation and terror. Nina closed her eyes, imagined a constellation, the froth on the lips of a man screaming in confusion, a discolored corpse, a yawning emptiness. She took a deep breath. Everything still smelled like shit.
Brendan Williams-Childs is a Colorado-based speculative fiction writer. His work has appeared on NPR, in Midwestern Gothic Magazine and in the Lambda Award nominated anthology Meanwhile Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Writers. He has been the recipient of the Larry Neal Writers’ Award as well as a Literature Fellowship from Queer|Arts|Mentorship, a NYC-based program that supports emerging lgbt artists.