In this week's writing prompt, a farmer shakes hands with a pair of aliens as they make off with his cow. But what did the aliens give him in exchange? And what are they planning on doing with that cow?
This piece is "The Six-Million Dollar Cow" by Anthony Wolff (via The Art of Animation). Wolff has tons of wonderful pieces in his deviantART gallery that are perfect if you're ever stumped for a writing prompt, or just want to check out his futuristic visions. If you can come up with a story about this odd exchange, post it in the comments.
The farmer signed the licensing agreement without even reading it. They always did. Yanx logged the contract before shutting down her AugmeR screen. "I suppose it makes sense," she told Hulin, reaching five spindly fingers to stroke the cow in his arms. "The key clause won't kick in until long after he's dead."
They had arrived on Earth just a month earlier, hawking Panstellar Agrotech's chameleonic quinoa. The grain was high in protein, and highly resistant to weather, disease, and pests. Best of all, it took on the properties of other grains. Plant it alongside wheat and its flour would bake like wheat flour. Plant it with corn and it would taste like corn. Yanx and Hulin couldn't give away the stuff fast enough, and they practically were, taking only a token payment from their customers: a goat here, an internal combustion engine there. Once, they had asked for a thousand origami unicorns. Another time, a dozen heart-shaped stones. No one ever questioned it. After all, who knew what aliens valued?
Of course, once Earth entered the interstellar marketplace, PanAg would more than reap the reward in licensing fees. By then, chameleonic quinoa would be the planet's staple crop and PanAg would collect a percentage of each transaction.
Lights crackled down Hulin's back humps. "But what are we going to do with a cow?"
Yanx grinned, recalling her youthful days scouting the rural regions of Earth and playing pranks on the natives. "We're going to have a good old-fashioned cattle mutilation."
Lucas unfolded the newspaper carefully and placed it on the kitchen table. "First news in months, glad the paper is publishing again. Nice of the Thomson boy to drop it off, riding his bike to the city today. Says here the Zondarites are helping to get the power restored. Margaret, coffee ready yet?"
"Almost, not easy cooking on a crummy wood stove. I feel like that poor woman in the Grapes of Wrath. Damn Zondarites, they probably caused that stupid solar storm in the first place. They're aliens, nobody knows beans about them, ugly cusses too. I don't trust them."
"Ah Margaret hush, we're up against it. No choice, have to trust them. They filled out entire pond with fresh water-and fish. A miracle I tell you, the most amazing thing I've ever seen. They've been good to us. Good to a lot of us farm folk, government sure isn't helping."
"Yeah, filled the pond but had to give them half our corn crop. The Zondarites always want something, nothing's free with them. When are they supposed to be here?"
"Early this morning, that's all they said."
The woman sat the cup of coffee on the table. "And they're bringing two, they're giving us two, right? Wonder what they'll want this time."
He walked to the door as he noticed a bright light shining through the kitchen window. "That's correct dear, two. Their demands are always reasonable. Well, well, they're here."
The couple walked to the center of the field where the huge spacecraft sat on six massive legs. The woman looked at the scorched ground beneath it. "Nice, nothing's ever going to grow here again."
The middle section of the vessel's bottom lowered like an elevator, the door opened to reveal an alien twelve feet tall with muscular arms and legs . It approached the farmer and the two shook hands. The Zondarite spoke, "I have what you requested. I assume you are still comfortable with the arrangements?"
Lucas nodded as two more aliens exited the craft each carrying a dairy cow. "Oh, they're beautiful."
The Zondarite guided the cows in the direction of the farmer. "Here you are my friend."
Lucas gestured towards his wife. "And I give you this."
The woman's eyes widened upon hearing her husband. "What are you doing? What's happening?"
Lucas shrugged, "It's for the farm, I'm doing this for the farm. Please try to understand."
The Zondarite picked the woman up and threw her over his shoulder. Lucas ignored the woman's screams as he led the cows to the barn. "A fine trade," he said.
Nebo whined curiously. Even after so many trips, he could not get used to their visits. Loyally, he went alone with Lucky, who had hummed over the bumps the whole way in the bumpy old truck. Nebo was miserable, handing his snout over the leather seat. He could smell them the moment they hit the atmosphere. The towering giants smelled like the cattle barn. They did not smell like the cows in their stalls. Even wrapped in heat, they did not smell like steaks sizzling in this permanent summer. They smelled same as the big pile of fermenting dung that steeped under the tarps and tires next to the barn-if you set them ablaze. Even then, the towering Manurals had one thousand times the pungency of the compost heaps would in the worst of conditions.
The Manurals were kind creatures. Their abundant crops had become the silo for intergalactic colonization and relief efforts, for famine caused by glitches in terraforming, unexpected ice ages, volcanic setbacks, and eco-warfare and other biochemical mishaps. Superabundance on their planet had lead to millennia without warfare. And their introduction to a brutal and greedy universe had fomented pity. They traded halfheartedly and had still met with phenomenal success. Fortunately, they did not care much for the foreign politics of those they considered the underabundants, which was pretty much every species. Rather shy, they took no offense to the lack of invitations to galactic galas and remote-links to dignitary meetings.
Part of the superabundance of their planet's ecosystem derived from the nose-less Manurals themselves. Manural waste was a rich, sticky nutrient that gathered on their backs in the furuncle-ish sacks they called "glinkle blossoms". Glinkle was used domestically and as an export for fuel, fertilizer, construction glue, and a key ingredient in almost all consumer products from caustic oven cleaners to soda pop. Nevertheless, there would never be a great tourist economy on Manural. It also made for uncomfortable client relations.
At great loss of profit, most trade with the Manurals had to be done through intermediaries. Cybernetic emissaries were sent from over half the species in the IG Trade Union, but they were costly and prone to breakdown in the high heat and humidity of Manural, which was rather beautiful and lush from all reports.
Nebo whines again, hoping to hurry along the exchange. There was no one else to be seen around. Other settlers had setup far from the dairy, which was infamous for its giant cows. The colony was ripe for cattle ranching; it was rich in endless grain and naturally occurring airborne bacteria that fed on methane. During high seasons, the bacteria floated like dandelion tufts. But no other settlers had such a talent, or tolerance, for cattle. But Farmer Lucky had lost his nose in the fourth war. He saved a bundle trading directly with the Manurals, never understanding why people bothered with costly cybernetic employees or other middle men. Slightly-refined glinkle was the key to his success. It caused gigantism in the cows and crops. Once distilled to hell, the ginkle also gave a special umph to the Lucky Moonshine that fuelled ships and travellers for long trips.
Nebo hated the regular visits by these galactic rednecks, kind as they were. They would toss sticks far with their branchlike arms trying to include him. Normally, Nebo would find fetch beneath him. After all, he was a psychically augmented dog, fully emancipated. He had stayed with Lucky after the war and never left. Loyalty had not been bred out of the best of them. Besides, he felt too skittish to be a good companion and breeding lots required too much conversation. On these days, he ached to see the stick whiz far into the horizon away from Lucky and the Manurals. He would rush into the wind, fast as possible, to fill his nose with a burning surplus of air and kicked-up dirt. Slowly, playing on his age, he would wander back slowly and look limply up at Lucky.
Nebo finally resigned himself as Lucky shook hands and laughed, "You have to come up to the house one of these days. You're mighty tall, but I am working on a little lounge in one of the barns. You all need to get out more-talk to people. Always better business with a little moonshine and a proper sit." One of the Manurals nodded emphatically-if they could smile, Nebo swore that he saw it then-and the other threw the giant cow over its shoulder and prepared to depart. "Next time," repeated Lucky.
"Next time… " thought Nebo with a whimper, jumping into the passenger side of the truck.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" the ganoobian purred.
"Ah, don't give it another thought," the farmer grinning. "It weren't nothin'."
He was still smirking as he got in his truck, where his wife waited; it didn't matter that there hadn't been a single report of ganoobian violence the entire six weeks since they'd arrived, the aliens still made her feel downright unsettled.
"I can't believe it's true. They really gave you an entire truck bed full of gold leaf."
"I know," he chortled. "And for one stupid cow."
"You really tell them ol' Bessie could fix whatever's ailing them?"
"Sure did. Earth's own miracle cure-all."
"And they bought it."
"I'll say so. How beings that gullible managed to travel I don't even know how many light years is beyond me."
They drove in silence a few minutes, each lost in thought, contemplating all the things the gold would buy, everything they'd ever dreamed of and more, not realizing that the price of gold, even as they drove, was plummeting.
"Hey, you...you don't suppose..."
"You don't think...I mean...there's no chance that somehow WE'RE the ones getting fleeced, is there?"
The rest of the ride was an uncomfortable one.
"So," Glygax13 said, wishing he'd written the instructions down, "we just plant it in the soil, and within two days we'll have a fresh milk-tree?"
Farmer Johnson shuttered. "No," he said slowly, shaking his head. "No, no, no, no, no, no. See, what you got to do, son, is you got to feed it, and then you milk it. Like down, underneath the thing."
"And love it?" Glygax13 asked eagerly, doing his best to remember the bio-emotional meters of Earthling responses.
"Well, I guess you could," Farmer Johnson said, giving the matter some thought. "But it ain't necessary, I don't think."
"Check," said Glygax13. "Lots of food. A diminutive portion of love. And then the fresh milks?"
"And you're certain? The human suspected nothing?" Glygax13's mate asked Glygax13, once Farmer Johnson had driven away in his rickety old pick-up truck.
"Nothing at all," Glygax13 insisted. "He believes has sold us a normal bovine mammal. That is all."
"Well, good, I guess," Glygax13's mate said, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to hide her irritation. "When we get home, you can build a nest for the thing in your cube."
"In mine?" Glygax13 asked woefully. "Why do I have to nest the creature?"
"Hey, you're the one who impregnated the cow-beast with the genetic coding of our next Hive Queen," said Glygax13's mate, "so I figure you might as well be the one to care for the beast."
The setting sun painted flames on the plumes of smoke from their breathing apparatus. Their space suits looked like loose silk around their waist and legs, but the tendons and sacs of their torso could be seen through the fabric. They stood twice as tall as a man, with spider thin legs and arms. They had painted smiles and eyes on the most prominent bulge above their torso, but Tom doubted they had anything similar to those kinds of things.
The shorter one shuffled up to the cow and crouched down on its stilt legs. It held that position while the taller one shuffled toward Tom. He, like many of his neighbors, had traded with these creatures for the recorded history of their town. He had no fear for these strange creatures. More importantly, he had no questions.
The taller one stopped and extended both hands. It bobbed the weird face bump a few times and hummed a rising note. Tom put one hand in the creature's grip, shivering at the cool scaly feel. He felt its question. He nodded yes and signaled a thumbs up.
The shorter one's arms slid underneath the cow, stood up, and started shuffling back towards the hill. Tom could hear the springs on his truck squeal as the tall one paid him. He knew, without turning around, that all the hay had been turned to gold.
It was a good arrangement.
"Zeke, you are the dumbest creature ever to set foot on God's green Earth!" Mildred yelled. "And that's including your cousin who shot his own butt off. What in the Sam Hill possessed you to sell our best cow for some magic beans?"
"I didn't! There ain't no such thing as magic. These are alien beans, from another planet or something. Do you know how much the government would pay for actual extraterrestrial life?"
Mildred examined them again. "They look like ordinary beans to me. I don't suppose these aliens of yours gave you any certificates of authenticity, did they?"
"This is a strange day. Taller milkers have taken me from the short milker. They smell funny. Like rain on fire. You wouldn't understand. They have humps, like Ram, down the path. Their humps are what smell like rain on fire. But I already talked about that. They don't seem to have grass. This feels like the day I fell in the big trough in the land. The one near the fence. There was no fence then. I'm no idiot goat, to go about falling in land-troughs, when there's fences. The short milker called a friend of his. The friend looked like the milker, but he was a lifter. The lifter was much bigger than the milker, and felt cold to touch. The milker feels warm to touch. Even the new milkers feel warm to touch. They are gentler than the lifter. But they have no grass, so I do not like them."
Fran held up her hand to shade her eyes from the midday sun. Two newly launched ships were passing overhead, their contrails giving off that familiar green glow of an FTL ship headed for deep space. She returned her attention to the controls of the massive grain auger she was seated on. It was another sweltering-hot summer on the prairies, and she still had a lifetime of work to do.
That was no exaggeration. Earth still had 430 years remaining in its contractual agreement with the Yarta'l people. Her father worked these fields, and his father before him, and his father before him. The grain they had harvested for all these years wasn't even anything special, really. Just plain old (modified) Earth ethanol. For some reason the Yarta'l were interested in the special kind of corn fuel that only Earth soil could grow for them. Some said it was a culinary delicacy for them, others theorized that it was used as fuel for their more advanced FTL drives. They did something to the seeds or the soil or something, but the corn that used to grow on Earth before their arrival—Fran had been told—was different. It was smaller, and its kernels were yellow, not the bright green that she had become accustomed to. There was another thing, too—Cows. Why they wanted cows was anybody's guess. But their high demand for Earth beef had reached the point where any portion of available soil that hadn't already been given up to "Yar'thenol" (green corn fuel) farming, was used for breeding cows.
Those people who didn't completely give up and switch to a vegetarian diet looked to the oceans for proteine or had decided to breed their own pigs or chickens through either inner-city public farms, or—in more extreme cases—inner-apartment private ones. Cow bootlegging was highly illegal, and was therefore punishable by public execution, so only the very daring and defiant bothered taking the risk. Fran had heard various rumors about underground cow farmers who charged thousands for a single steak. Worst part is that there was always a wealthy buyer.
Fran was among those who had given up meat for good. It just wasn't worth the effort. Plus if you were a Yar'thenol farmer and you were a card-carrying vegetarian, then you were given some very worthwhile tax breaks on equipment (like her trusty auger) as well as living expenses covered.
As of present day, Earth has been entrenched in its lopsided contract with the Yarta'l for 570 years. It's been so long and so many generations have passed since the original signing that most folks don't even know why Earth's governments bothered in the first place. But Fran knew. Her father made sure that she was raised knowing the whole truth. He didn't want any daughter of his being born into a life of servitude without knowing the facts.
The far more advanced Yarta'l people came to this planet with a peaceful offer to all humans: "If you give us the resources we need, we will give you the power to travel through the stars." The curious scientific minds of Earth had gathered in mass conferences with world governments to decide the fate of human exploration. Fran guessed that most of them scientists came to the conclusion that if we had to give up Earth as one big cash crop to some other species, then it would just be a matter of time before we found another inhabitable planet to grow our own corn and cows on. But in the past 570 years, not a damn thing had been found. Humans had made their way to the Yarta'l planet of Yart several times for diplomatic purposes, but other than that, the Milky Way wasn't very forgiving to oxygen-breathing mammals.
But the search carries on. Perhaps, in 430 years or so, when humankind is freed from their agreement, or when another planet is found, all these generations of human labor spent on harvesting and breeding would finally be justified...
But Fran wasn't about to hold her breath.
When she started up the auger again, it roared to life, and then jerked her forward. She still had a lifetime of work to do, and the sun hanging low in the afternoon sky was a powerful reminder to her of her short time left on Earth. She only hoped that one day her ancestors wouldn't have to know how to operate one of these stupid machines just to live a normal life.
She looked up once more at the wispy green contrails floating by. This time without shielding her eyes, and spat into the wind.
The farmer was all smiles and down-home hospitality. "Since you asked so polite-like, sure. What'd you say you need it for again?" After a bubbling pause, it replied, ".....milk?"