It was a bright, sunny day, and a cool breeze wafted around the shaded north face of Midland to cool the meadows to the west and east. Toy Laird took the scene in with a smile of contentment. It wasn’t often that she had a chance to enjoy such wonderful weather with Gil these days, she reflected. This was what he was missing by working all those long hours at the docks. When he was off, it was often dark, or too cool to spend outside, or raining… but today was perfect. It would be perfect, the perfect time for her to work her Master Plan.
Toy had laid out a large blanket, and placed a wicker basket in its center. Two cylindrical holders on the basket’s side contained a bottle of wine, and silk napkins, respectively. A third holder contained eating utensils and plates. Toy was busy laying the plates and utensils out when she heard a rhythmic swish-swishing through the grass, and looked over her shoulder.
Gil Hamundsen waved as he caught Toy’s eye. He was a ruggedly handsome man, whose well-muscled frame made itself evident through the light shirt and shorts he had on. He was a tall man; but Toy was also tall, as tall as her brother, Teez, and they made a good-looking couple together. He walked through the grass with a lively step that belied his size, and caused his sandy hair to bob in the breeze.
He reached Toy and the blanket and folded his tall frame down into the grass, then leaned forward and kissed her. “Hi, Toy. I’m not late, am I?”
“No, you’re right on time,” she replied. “I got here early, so I just started to set things up.” She opened the basket as she spoke, and began removing small containers and placing them on the blanket. “Today turned out so much nicer than your last day off.”
“Sure did,” Gil smiled. “This all looks great. Can I help with anything?”
“No, just open ‘em up and dig in.” Toy popped the seal on one container, revealing biscuits that immediately filled the air with the smell of salted butter.
“Mmmm! That smells like heaven!” Gil pulled a biscuit out of the container, and bit off half of it. “Stop that, you pig!” Toy chided him amusedly. “There’s plenty here. Don’t get stuffed on the bread alone!”
“Couldn’t help it,” he mumbled around mouthfuls of bread. “It smelled so good. What else do we have?”
“Nothing but the best for my honey,” Toy replied, opening containers one by one. “Peach cobbler. Farmer’s salad. Roman grapes. Munster cheese and crackers… and, especially for you, arctic salmon from Geneva…”
“Oh, boy, I can’t believe you got salmon!”
“… and the piece d’ resistance: Sirloin of beef… and Chateau Bleu to wash it all down.” She opened the container of sirloin and pulled the wine into view at the same time, displaying them like prizes.
Gil shook his head at the spread. “Look at all this! Toy, you really didn’t have to do all this for me.”
“Oh, I wanted to,” Toy explained. “You’ve been doing such nice things for me, I wanted to treat you to something special. Here, let me serve up the sirloin for you.” She carefully removed the two sirloins from the heated container with a fork, and placed them on the plates before them. She picked up a knife, cut a bite-sized piece off of one sirloin, and held it up to Gil’s mouth. Gil took the offering between his teeth and slid it slowly off the fork. He chewed it slowly, and his face took on a look of angelic calm.
“What do you think?” Toy asked.
“Hon, I’ve had beef before,” Gil finally managed after swallowing the morsel. “But this may be the best beef I’ve ever had. And I didn’t even know you knew how to cook beef! Where did you get it?”
“Actually, Teez showed me how to do that,” Toy claimed as she spooned potato salad onto her plate. “Go on, dig in.”
They began to engage in small talk as they filled their plates and ate. Gil’s end of the conversation occasionally came around to the docks he worked in, below Midland, where he loaded and unloaded ships that passed on the river below the mall. Mostly he talked about some of the ships he’d seen, or sailors he’d pumped about world traveling by sea. Then he would swing the conversation back to Toy.
Toy didn’t say much about her work, helping to tend one of the immense rock gardens on twenty-nine. It was very low-pressure work, after all, never a bother to do, always as relaxing as just sitting and looking at it. She was always bringing the conversation back to Gil, trying to find out more about his years on the frontier before he moved to Midland.
Since they had first met, they had found each other intensely interesting, and had quickly developed a strong relationship. They didn’t see much of each other, however, thanks to his work at the docks. Toy wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and it made her crazy to know she was the cause of the situation in the first place. But she had decided that, if she had caused this, she could fix it, too.
Today was the day.
“Isn’t it lovely out here today?” Toy asked. “Remember three weeks ago, when we tried to go for a walk to the south hills?”
“Yeah,” Gil smiled. “My jacket took a week to dry. I must admit,” he said mock seriously, “this is much, much better.”
“We really need to do this more often, you know? I mean, without all this food, but we could come outside more often.”
“Well, yeah,” Gil began, mumbling through a mouthful of sirloin. He took the time to swallow, before he went on. “But you know I work too much to come out here that often.”
“I know. I wanted to talk to you about that.” Toy took a sip of wine, and put her plate down on the blanket. “You know, you really don’t have to work so many hours in a week. No one else works as many hours as you, Gil. Six hours a day, four days on, two days off… it’s so much.”
“It’s not that much,” Gil countered. “I worked a hell of a lot more when I lived on the frontier. Besides, what about the things I get you? They’re nice, aren’t they?”
“Oh, yes,” Toy replied, “they’re wonderful.” She almost unconsciously fingered the bracelet on her left wrist. Gil had purchased it for her last week, a beautiful metal band with jeweled inserts. “But you know you don’t have to buy me that much. And you certainly don’t have to work like a slave to afford them!”
“I’m not working like a slave!” Gil protested. “It’s just loading work at the dock. And I’ve seen how much you liked the things I buy you. I like buying things for you.”
Toy started to speak, then stopped and closed her mouth. She considered a moment, then took a sip of wine. She held up the glass as if to toast him, and asked, “How do you like the Chateau Bleu?”
Gil picked up his glass, touched it to hers with a mild ting of crystal. “It’s delicious.”
“You know, there’s a story behind the Bleu,” Toy said. “Did you ever meet Frank DeJaye’s brother, Tomas?”
“I don’t think I’ve met Frank DeJaye.”
“Yes, you did: He’s one of the Peacekeepers.”
“Oh, I do remember. No, I don’t know his brother.”
“Well, Tomas was supposed to be a big wine connoisseur. He was bragging to Frank that he knew wines so well. Well, Frank decided to play a joke on him. He borrowed a bottle of Bleu from Teez, and emptied it. Then he refilled it with a bottle of Reed Jacobs. That’s a local wine. And he gave some to Tomas.”
“Could he tell the difference?”
“Nope,” Toy said. “Frank ribbed him about it for weeks… he probably still does!” She took another sip of wine. “I told you that to tell you, he never switched the wine back.”
“I wondered if that was where you were going with that story!” Gil smiled and held his glass up to the light, then took another sip. “Well, it still tastes great to me. Of course, I was never big wine drinker, so I don’t suppose I’d know the difference either.”
“Well, all that counts is that you enjoy it, and you’re having a nice time. I’m having a wonderful time, just being here with you. And I’m so glad you like everything I brought. You know, it didn’t take long to prepare all this food.”
“It must have taken a while to get everything together, though,” Gil said. “I mean, the tomatoes aren’t in season around here, and I don’t remember seeing any in the market the last time I was there.”
“I’ll have to take you to Andrea’s store sometime. She has plenty of fresh tomatoes. You just have to know where to find them.”
“What about the Roman grapes?”
“Same store. Andrea’s.”
Gil looked at the blanket in mild disbelief. “Okay… the salmon. That didn’t come from around here.”
“Well, that was a lucky break,” Toy said. “A friend of mine was coming out to visit from Metropolis, and I had him bring me some.”
“Humph…” Gil was looking intently at the picnic now, clearly dubious about the ease of obtaining all the dishes before him. Finally, he leveled an arm at the beef. “The sirloin! No one has beef in Midland. No one eats beef in Midland! And it costs more than that salmon! Where did you get it?”
“Did you really like the sirloin?”
“Yes, it’s great, but…”
“Good, because we were sort of guinea pigs. It’s not beef.”
“It’s not beef,” Toy repeated. “Teez got it from a guy who’s hoping to market it for the inventor, some guy named Gino… something. His last name’s got half a dozen syllables in it.”
“But if it’s not beef… I mean, I know it’s not vegetable…”
“Well, I may be wrong when I say it’s not beef. But, from what Teez told me, it’s not taken from a cow.”
“What animal do they get it from?”
“They don’t. It’s supposed to be vat-grown.”
“Grown?” Gil stared at the meat on his plate. “No way. It looks just like beef… it’s got the right grain. It tastes like beef, and I’ve had real beef! Vat-grown muscle tastes different, and has no grain at all. How could they grow this?”
“Well, it’s supposed to have something to do with this guy’s new process,” Toy replied, taking a bite of her sirloin and considering her words. “Teez said he grows the muscle cells on racks that simulate the shape and load of an animal’s body… like synthetic bones and tendons. So the meat grows into the same shape it would on a real animal. And he uses a chemical solution to feed it that has the same elements and impurities found in the grains most cows eat. Then he just harvests the fully-grown muscle and sells it for food. Great, huh?”
“That’s wild,” Gil nodded, taking another bite and chewing it slowly. “And I sure can’t tell any difference. But isn’t it expensive?”
“I don’t know. Teez got it from his friend for free, to try it out. I don’t know how much it’s costing Gino to make it. But I think it’s a marvelous idea, myself. It may mean we’ll all be eating beef regularly again, like our ancestors used to. And without all the cost and environmental problems caused by keeping herds of cows for food. Not to mention slaughtering them.”
“You may be right,” Gil said. “But are you really telling me that all this,” he waved a hand to take in everything on the blanket, “was either cheap, or free, and all gotten locally?”
“That’s right,” Toy said. “And it still tastes just as good.” When Gil didn’t respond, Toy continued. “Look, Gil, I just want you to understand that I don’t care if you give me expensive presents… but I don’t want to not see you, because you’re spending all your time working to make money to buy me expensive presents. I’d rather see you, then stare at this bracelet, nice as it is. Besides, how are you going to get used to living in Midland like everybody else, if you’re going to be working three times harder than everyone? I mean, it’s not like you have to work for a living anymore.”
“I know, but I can’t get used to not having to work for a living. This ‘living level’ just seems so strange.”
“It’s not, once you get used to it. Everyone in Midland gets the same ‘living level’ credit, plus special needs, so no one goes without basic necessities. There’s enough for everyone. You only have to work for extra credit, to buy expensive items. Plenty of people don’t work at all, and it’s no big deal.”
“Okay, I’m getting the message,” Gil nodded. “But I’m just… so used to… you know, hard work. What’ll I do with myself?”
“Oh, I’ll think of something,” Toy purred at him. “In the meantime, why don’t you cut your hours back to, say… a three day week, five hours a day?”
“Well, we’ll see how you get used to that, then we can cut you back to standard working hours later… four hours, twice a week.”
“Geez… how can you mallers do so little work and still keep in shape?”
“We find other ways to exercise,” Toy replied.
“Yeah? Like what?”
“Eat your biscuit.”
“So, the Master Plan worked, huh?” Teez took a bite out of his salad, chewing through a big smile. His sister sat across from him at the table, tearing a piece of bread from the loaf. The two siblings regularly ate together, since they lived separately and alone, so they could keep up with each other’s goings on.
“It sure did,” Toy replied. “I got him to cut back to a 5/3 week, and I’ll cut him back even more later.”
“He isn’t freaking out over less money, is he?”
“No,” she said. “I’ve been taking him to some of the places I shop, and showing him how to find the best places. He’s already found places where he can save a lot of money shopping.”
“That’s good. According to most stats I’ve read, a lot of landers have this kind of trouble adjusting to living in the malls. Especially farmers. They just can’t get used to the fact that they don’t have to work all day, just to make ends meet. Most of them come around, though, in about a season.”
“Well, I don’t want it to take that long with Gil,” Toy said. “I’d go nuts if I had to go through this with him all summer. Better I speed up the process now… he’ll thank me for it, later.”
“That’s the spirit,” Teez said wryly. “Adapt him, or kill him. Oh: How’d you like the beef? George was asking me about it the other day.”
“Hey, that stuff’s great! It’s hard to believe that beef isn’t taken from an animal.”
“Incredible, isn’t it?” Teez agreed. “I’d love to see how this guy Gino does it. He’s supposed to be putting a presentation together that’ll be on the network at some point, but I don’t know when he expects to finish it.”
“Well, if he manages to keep costs down, I’d love to buy some of it… you can tell George that, and have him pass it on.”
“I will. That’s just the kind of feedback he’s looking for, so he can decide whether he wants to be a local supplier.”
“Well, if he doesn’t, let me know, because I know just the guy to do that job,” Toy said.
“No… not Gil!”
“Sure,” Toy said. “You should have seen how he raved over that meat… and he’s eaten real beef, so he knows what it should taste like. Besides, if it’s as successful as I think it will be, it would make Gil plenty of money. That’ll make it easy for him to keep me stocked in jewelry!”