The Data Eaters
by Anna O’Brien
At first, Agent Clarke believed she had entered a room with a pair of skeletons, carefully arranged in the derelict house like some person’s idea of a joke. Jameson, she initially thought standing in the doorway. Pulling some trick on the rookie. Where’d you find the time, you bastard? A smirk crossed her lips. Good one.
When she walked in from the cornea-searing, high-noon summer Texas sun, her eyes adjusted to the faded, interior dimness of the dilapidated clapboard ranch house. She saw that the emaciated elderly man sitting in the threadbare high-back chair was breathing.
He stared at her, or rather through her, to the open front door, his eyes so sunken and hollow that they appeared half-swallowed by his skull. A woman was standing at the back in a doorway between the front room and what was presumably the kitchen. Her rail-thin frame swayed slightly against the wall as if she could barely fight the feeble breeze that entered from the open door.
Startled, Clarke realized this wasn’t a prank. “I didn’t mean to barge in on you folks.” She cleared her throat. “I knocked. Three times. No one answered.”
Silence. She shifted her weight in her standard-issue boots and self-consciously pulled at the tan button-up that was the federal field officer uniform. Everything was unisex, so nothing really fit. Clarke feigned consultation with her databoard, peering down at the glowing screen in front of her. She tried again. “You’ve got a deer feeder out on your property. I need to check it, make sure it’s in working order.”
The old man moistened his lips as if to talk, but no words came.
“It’s federal property. Routine check, that’s all.”
Clarke looked up from her databoard and sighed. Maybe this was still a joke, albeit a more cynical one. Typical Jameson, sending a rookie out on this call.
A signature. That’s all she needed. One digital icon allowing her on private property to check a government-run bin that doled out medicated corn to the tick-infested, disease-spreading, livestock-killing white-tailed deer in south Texas. She fingered the shiny ID badge clipped to her left breast pocket and felt the weight of her stun gun in its holster on her hip.
“Look, I know it’s been a spell since someone’s been out this way.” She changed tactics and directed her monologue to the woman in the back of the room. She raised her voice. Maybe they’re deaf.
Along the wall in the front room stood a dusty oak bureau leaning to one side. On top sat a radio. Clarke wondered if it contained a universal translator. She hadn’t spoken Spanish since elementary school. No need for bilingual field agents now. Except if you found yourself in some backwoods outfit that just refused to keep up with the times. Damn you, Jameson. You got me.
They always sent the rookies out on these sorts of calls. Fifty miles out in the middle of the desert with no satellite signals, no air conditioning, no solar set-up. Nothing but sagebrush and jolla cactus, yet you were expected to do your civil-servant duty. Clarke was only six months in but she’d heard the water cooler stories. I guess this is my hazing.
“If you don’t mind signing right here” — she indicated the form on her databoard — “I’ll just go ahead, check the bin, and be on my way. No further bother.”
Still nothing. Clarke swiped over to her audio notes. Into her databoard she dictated, “Case 3-GH-230. Inability to obtain prior consent...” She glanced at the man, then the woman. “Occupants are mentally deficient or...” She shook her head, still struggling with proper regulatory vernacular. This would need editing before she submitted to Jameson. “Revise. Occupants are non-responsive.”
From somewhere in the back of the house, a door slammed and through a grimy window, Clarke saw a young girl in a faded yellow dress sprint across the yard. Outside, a cow bellowed, momentarily filling the room with a sound other than Clarke’s own breathing.
Bringing her attention back into the house, Clarke jumped. The old man, the skeleton who barely appeared alive, now held a gun, an actual bullet gun gun, between two claw-like hands. The barrel pointed at her head. A dry, reedy sound came from the woman in the doorway; Clarke realized she was crying. The woman held onto the doorframe as if trying to wrap it around herself.
“Hush now, ma,” the old man said, his voice sandpaper. He stared at Clarke. “Close that door, lay your stunner at my feet, and have a seat.” He indicated the second worn high-back chair in the corner. When he turned his head, Clarke saw a protrusion at the base of his neck.
Clarke did as she was instructed, all the time distracted from her immediate sense of danger by her incredulousness at what she had just seen. Is this shell of a man a data eater? She felt she had stepped back in time — the new old Wild West — with cattle robbers, gunslingers, and cerebral feeding units.
“Read that,” the old man ordered, pointing to Clarke’s databoard.
Clarke looked at the property permission form on the screen. “I told you, I just need your signature-”
“I said read it. All of it.”
Clarke cringed at the gravel voice. The woman in the doorway cried more loudly.
Clarke had never actually seen a CFU. It was something taught in history class, an antiquated topic like the Transcendalists or the Civil Rights Movement. Decades ago, technology had produced a neural implant that rewired metabolism. Instead of food, a person could gain nourishment from data input either by reading or listening to data being read. Lines of code, reams of binary numbers, the dictionary; facts and hard numbers were to be the diet of the future.
Heralded as the cure to world hunger, global leaders hoped this would lead to not only healthy but also educated mass populations. Ignorance would be quashed. World peace a possibility. Government subsidies meant free CFU implantations and ads were strategically directed at low-income communities.
The irony came too late. The majority of poor, uneducated masses either couldn’t read or didn’t have reliable access to adequate data outputs. Soap operas, sports scores and talk shows weren’t enough. It turned out they couldn’t feed themselves. CFUs couldn’t efficiently convert low-quality data to adequate calories: junk in, junk out. In affluent circles, the poor with CFUs were called data eaters, often with an air of contempt. Clarke’s terror temporarily replaced her involuntarily scorn.
CFUs went out of fashion soon enough, and many simply stopped working. The implants predominately remained in those who had them, now mostly an older generation, although rumors existed of clinics that still offered the surgery to those who wanted one, free of charge. Removing them was another matter. Few had the money to get the boxes — the size of a cigarette pack at the base of the skull — surgically disconnected. Sometimes people were paralyzed afterwards.
With a shaky voice, Clarke read the regulation citations on the form. She included the fine print about civilians’ obligations to comply with federal laws by not tampering with the feeders on their property, subject to penalties of fines and jail time.
Clarke looked up as she finished. The old man’s eyes were closed and the woman had turned silent, her lips slack.
The quiet stillness in the junked house hugged the trio long enough that Clarke began to think she could take the drooping gun away from the old man. It no longer pointed at her head but somewhere aimlessly between her boots.
A second slap of a screen door in the back of the house pulled the room out of its false composure. The old man opened his deep-set eyes. His gaze was no longer feral.
Clarke realized she had just fed them their last data meal since... when? The couple was starving. The woman turned in the doorway, looking toward the source of the sound. There, at the base of her skull, was her CFU, barely hidden by her thin, mousy hair.
The old man refocused his eyes on Clarke and adjusted the gun to her chest. “More.”
Clarke swiped through her databoard then noticed her signal. She had no connectivity and no other documents downloaded. “That’s it. I don’t have anything else to read you.”
“More.” The old man cocked the gun.
Clarke’s heart shook her chest as the reality of the situation descended upon her. A hostage. Her emergency training protocol hadn’t covered this. Not by a long shot. “Christ,” she whispered. She began to sweat.
Behind the woman in the doorway came footsteps and the young girl in the faded yellow dress — the girl from outside — entered the room. Barefoot and without hesitation, she walked up to the old man and whispered something in his ear. Clarke stared at the girl, who was probably no more than ten, and wondered how the child could be so accepting of the scene currently playing out in the living room. Bits of corn clung to the girl’s feet.
As the girl stood on tiptoe beside the man, Clarke was struck by the contrast: chubby cheeks against wrinkled, sunken cheekbones. Despite the girl’s own CFU, which was visible due to a lop-sided ponytail barely containing wild strawberry blond hair, she wasn’t starving at all.
The old man nodded, smiling wanly. He mumbled something that sounded like, “Good girl.”
The girl in the yellow dress straightened and looked at Clarke. “Red or black?” the girl demanded, her voice loud, clear.
“I’m sorry?” Clarke’s eyes darted from the old man to the girl, her sense of control continuing to fray as panic pulled at her.
“She means rare or well done. No in-betweens here,” the old man said. When Clarke still didn’t answer, he demanded, “How do you want your damn steak cooked?”
Clarke blinked. “You can’t.” Can’t what? Feed a hostage? Show some hospitality? Clarke was most surprised that there was meat in the house. Well, what the hell. “Black,” she answered, shrugging her shoulders. The woman in the doorway turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
* * *
At gunpoint, Clarke entered the surprisingly bright kitchen, lit mostly by the noon sun filtering in through a large dusty window. She sat opposite the old man and the girl at an uneven Formica table, which was gouged but clean. The woman was standing at the stove, her back to them. Her shoulder blades cut outlines in her thin blouse like buds of angel wings, and the nobs of her spine marched up her back until they met the CFU. The sizzle of fat filled the silent kitchen and soon Clarke smelled charred meat.
The woman turned and placed a chipped, white china plate in front of Clarke. On the plate, which had faded silhouettes of cacti dancing around the perimeter, was a thin strip of greasy steak, black with a scorched crust.
“Thank you,” Clarke managed. There was only one steak. The man and the girl had nothing. Only the gun rested on the table in front of them, the old man’s spidery fingers draped over it. The woman stood behind Clarke, her bony arms folded across her chest impassively, waiting.
Clarke cleared her throat. “Aren’t you all going to eat?” As soon as she asked, she remembered. Functioning CFUs killed natural appetite. Data eaters rarely ate food.
The old man shook his head, an almost imperceptible gesture. “Go on. We’ll get ours in a bit.”
A wave of nausea almost knocked Clarke over. The next to last thing she wanted to do was eat. The last thing she wanted to do was anger her captors. Where was this scenario in SOP 34.12? Where was the protocol for “How to Choke Down Burned Steak at Gunpoint?”
The table, uneven on its legs, wobbled as she sawed through the tough meat, a metronome in the quiet kitchen as the short leg hit the peeling linoleum floor. No one said a word as bite by bite she methodically worked the gristle between her perfectly straight, white teeth.
Clarke considered the animal she consumed to keep from staring at the gun on the table. The very reason she was here in the first place was indirectly related to this steak. Damn cattle. She didn’t even like them, alive or on her plate. Big. Wild. Horned. And yet, the death commodity. That’s what they called them in her Proto-Econ 101 class. South Texan cattle were dying and the cause was moving north.
“Do they have a cure yet?” The old man startled Clarke out of introspection. She almost dropped her fork.
Her eyes trailed to the base of the man’s neck, although she couldn’t quite see the CFU as he directly faced her. “I’ve heard there are centers where you can get them surgically removed if, if you wanted.”
The man’s sunken eyes narrowed and his lined, gaunt face came to a point just beyond his hawkish nose. “The cattle,” he clarified. “They got a cure for the fever?”
Clarke blushed, her ears burning. Idiot. Then she recovered, embarrassed at herself for being embarrassed. She remembered herself, remembered her badge, remembered who she was compared to these people, these box-heads, data eaters. “For tick fever? No.” She sat up straighter, authoritatively. “It’s the ticks. They spread it. We’re working on eradicating them. You know, this medicated corn, out on your property—”
The girl giggled. Her dark eyes, distantly similar to the man’s, danced and she swung her short legs under the table, causing the air to stir. She swiped a bare arm across her mouth. She was drooling.
“The corn is for the deer.” Clarke stared at the girl, repulsed. Bits of corn fell off her feet onto the floor. “Not your cattle. The medication only kills ticks on the deer. The deer eat the corn, which kills the ticks, which—”
“What’s in your truck?” the old man asked. Clarke noticed he had started to drool, too.
Clarke shrugged. “Spare feeders, replacement fencing, wire cutters.”
“Now you feed us!” the girl in the yellow dress exclaimed. The man shushed her.
The plate finally empty, Clarke sat back, laying her knife and fork neatly to the side. The woman unfolded her bony arms, like a spider rising from a web, and picked up the dishes to place them in the sink. She set a water glass in front of Clarke. It contained floating black specks.
The old man picked up the gun and pointed it at Clarke.
“Look, I don’t have any more data to read to you,” Clarke said. “I’m sorry. Thank you for the meal, but if I could just get going—”
“Lunch time!” the girl announced in a singsong voice. She clapped her small pink hands.
The old man furrowed his brow. “You go with this one to the truck,” he said to the girl. “You make sure she comes back.” Then, to Clarke, “I know you got something in that vehicle of yours. It’s only right. Coming out here, pestering us. You’ll find something.”
The girl nodded vigorously and hopped over to Clarke, grabbing her hand and pulling her from her seat. “Let’s go, let’s go!” she said, tugging the field agent to the front door that had been left ajar the whole time. The gun dangled from the girl’s hand like a rag doll.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Anna O’Brien