The horse neighed as it trotted to a stop. The rider dismounted, his boots digging into the dirt softened by last night’s rain, as he led it to the hitching post. Normally, he’d give a firm pat and a stroke, a sign of his newfound respect for the creatures, but today Maxwell Baine was late.
Lillian Morgan had sent word for him the night before, asked him to meet her here at the Morgan Cattle Company’s R&D Ranch. It was a special place off the beaten path, built for secrecy as a handful of scientists worked to develop new gadgets and innovations to keep the company’s momentum high. Even Max, who oversaw most of Morgan’s operations, never came out here unless asked to by Lillian herself … like today.
Max straightened his overcoat from the ride as he set out across the field for the main paddock where he could see the meeting had begun without him. Lillian was there, hard to miss with her slim, red gown and long, blond curls billowing gently in the breeze, a stark contrast against the bright yellows and greens of the fields behind her in the sun. The three men with her similarly contrasted the scene, but for entirely different reasons.
Louis Pasteur, a French chemist and the Research Institute’s new director, stood back a bit from the fence, turned away from the others holding up a stalk of some kind, carefully examining the local flora through his spectacles. Elander Boldman, the inventor responsible for most of Morgan’s security innovations, was lost in animated conversation, his hands and shock white hair swaying with his words, no doubt relaying the details of his latest work with great enthusiasm. Max rarely sees him like this because as friendly as he can be, such a sight usually only comes when Elander is talking with someone he believes capable of understanding him. His conversation partner wasn’t as forthcoming. Prof. Eustace True was turned away from Elander, leaning on the fence and gazing into the paddock.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Max said, mildly winded as he approached. “A bit of business to take care of this morning, but I’m here now.”
Lillian turned at his arrival. “Oh, good! I was worried you were going to miss us.”
While her voice still carried the same sense of determination as usual, she was surprisingly cheery. She smiled as she continued. “I’ve been waiting a long time for you to see this.”
“Gentlemen,” her tone took on a different air, like that of a diplomat beginning a grand speech. Pasteur tossed the stalk down and turned to face her as Elander’s explanation finished with a trailing whisper. “As you all know, I founded the Morgan Research Institute to show the world that the future of innovation can be found within the circle of our brand, and I’ve gathered the best minds to carry us there. But before that vision, the Circle M was used for something else … marking cattle.
“But not just any cattle. My late husband, Nathaniel, God rest his soul, was known all across America as providing the best beef in all the world. Once word got out about his new hybrid Angus, the finest butchers and restaurants from New York to Charleston to Chicago and beyond were lining up to place orders. Forget ‘top dollar’, we took in twice that for every pound sold.
“Sadly, the Storm put an end to all that. Every last one of those amazing beasts was lost. I didn’t know what to do, but I was determined not to let that horrible event destroy our future.
“Fortunately, our animals not only attracted those with discerning tastes, but also those with discerning minds. Members of the Distinguished Collegium of Interspacial Physics had come to study our breed, and with Morgan Cattle at a crossroads, I turned to them for help. Most of them were stumped, but Professor True offered a possible solution. Professor?”
Eustace True pushed himself up off of the fence and turned to reveal the perpetual scowl that had come to put the “mad” in “mad scientist” for Max and many others. “Nathaniel Morgan’s ranch wasn’t in Ghost Creek by accident. The entire area was an oasis, fed by the creek, and an ideal spot to settle and raise his herds. What he didn’t know at the time was that the water of the Creek ran over an enormous vein of ghost rock.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” Max interjected. “When it was discovered, Sweetrock wanted us to stake claims along the banks, but we were busy with our own … problems. So they sent someone else — Dixon was his name, I believe.”
“A ruthless man,” Lillian said. “I’m sad to say we were all too familiar with him.”
“As I was saying,” True’s annoyance broke through, recapturing the conversation. “As we members of the Collegium began investigating, there were a number of theories as to how the Morgan Bos tauros came to be. One of my associates was convinced that it was evolution at work, that the beasts met the hostile environment of the Maze and made themselves heartier to survive it. Another had just read a paper by some Moravian monk and believed the species to be the result of unique breeding with a similar species that unlocked various traits, manifesting upon maturity.
“Both of them believed this to be a change in the natural development of the animals. However, I had a theory that this was instead a transformation due to a change in external conditions.”
“Fascinating,” Pasteur interjected with excitement. “So they believed it to be a singular transformation that affected a single generation, resulting in the new species. But you saw something different … a large number of individual transformations taking place simultaneously.”
“Yes, which is why when the Morgan herds were eliminated, my colleagues washed their hands of it and moved on.”
“But of course. If they are correct, this was merely a new species that came into existence and went extinct in a short amount of time.”
“But if you’re right, True,” Elander interrupted with a big smile, “all you had to do was repeat the conditions that led to the initial transformation and you could repeat the results! But what are those conditions?”
“That’s the trick, isn’t it?” True returned. “That goes back to Ghost Creek. As it turned out, the entire watershed around the town ran across and through the ghost rock deposits. The minerals in the water supply were dramatically different from anything we may have seen before. So I created a mechanism for imbuing the animals’ food supply with trace elements of ghost rock.”
“Yes, the uh — how do you say — automatic feeders?” Pasteur said. “An elegant design, I must say.”
“Of course it is. But it was better than elegant. It worked.”
Boldman and Pasteur both perked up, moving closer to the paddock before them. Lillian offered a look of smug satisfaction as she turned as well, waving and calling across the paddock, “If you would be so kind, Mr. Patterson.”
On the other side of the fence stood the Morgan Cattle Company’s foreman, his large handlebar mustache incapable of hiding a look of extreme trepidation. He paused for a moment, unsure of what to do next until Lillian’s face shifted from smug confidence to impatience. Upon seeing that, he reluctantly moved to the barn door. Irving Patterson likely never moved slower than he moved to remove the door’s lock, and once the door was open, likely never moved faster back over the paddock fence.
The air became heavy as the scientists waited to see what would emerge through the opening. There was a slight gasp when the head rose into the sunlight. Bright red eyes lifted to the sky as dark nostrils snorted in the morning air. A pair of black horns turned outward and upward from the crown of its head, gnarled slightly with overgrowth. The beast trotted out into the paddock to reveal its massive bulk. The creature was certainly a steer of some sort, but all of the familiar characteristics had disappeared. Its leathery hide had been replaced with black scaly flesh. The skinny tail had become stronger, ending with a set of barbed spines.
“C’est magnifique!” Pasteur gasped. “A miraculous creation!”
“You really outdid yourself this time, True,” Elander reached back to grasp the Professor’s shoulder in congratulation without taking his eyes off of the creature that was now exploring the paddock.
“Indeed,” True said, pulling away from the black man’s hand. “The breed has shown tremendous promise. The transformation has resulted in greater muscle mass and a more expedient growth rate. So slaughter will produce greater product with only minimal additional investment of time and resources.”
“And on top of it all,” Lillian began, fiery excitement in her eyes. “The meat is just as tender and delicious as Nate’s ever was. Together, it all means that the Morgan name is about to become the only name in beef for the entire continent.”
“I’m curious, though, True,” Pasteur interrupted, his mind clearly bypassing all that Lillian just said. “With such enhanced growth, has the necessary consumption increased as well? Do we have pasture to sustain such creatures?”
A wicked smirk creeped across Eustace’s face. “That’s the thing, Doctor. They don’t exactly graze like the other herds.” He reached his fingers to his lips and whistled to signal Irving across the paddock once again. The old rancher quickly climbed onto a horse waiting along the far side of the barn. As he reared it around, a large bundle of white, mottled with soft red splotches, could be seen tied down behind the saddle. Irving signaled to another farmhand at the far end of the paddock, who quickly opened a gate as he approached. He spurred the horse on to a light gallop as he entered through the opening, the creature raising its eyes to watch the approach with dark intensity. As he rode, Irving reached back to pull on the rope that held the bundle in place, allowing it to roll off the horse’s back to the ground a few yards from the steer, before turning back to leave the paddock quickly, the younger farmhand closing and locking the gate behind him.
The bundle tumbled across the grass, the canvas unraveling to reveal a large leg of beef, freshly skinned. The beast sniffed the air a bit at first before approaching the meat. It lowered its head and opened its jaws to reveal slightly pointed teeth just as they dug into leg. The crowd watched in astonishment as it raised its head once more, ripping off a large strip that dangled from its mouth as it chewed.
“They’re carnivorous?!” Pasteur gasped. “Simply unbelievable! The anatomical changes must be extensive, but if they remain stable …”
“As it turned out, that was the hardest piece of the puzzle,” True continued. “But once we locked it down, there was nothing stopping us. The lesser herds will be used to support the development of the new ones where necessary, as it should be.”
“You’re all insane!” The group’s revelry interrupted, they all turned together to see Max Baine standing behind them, an incredulous look on his face. The expressions on their collective faces showed their confusion not only at the statement, but at the reminder that Max was even there. “Every single one of you is insane,” Max repeated.
“I beg your pardon,” Lillian said. “What is this about, Max?”
“It’s about that monstrosity, Lillian!” He thrust a finger at the creature in the paddock, absentmindedly chewing a piece of fresh sinew. “That thing is an abomination, a complete and utter disaster of science and nature, and you’re all standing here talking like it’s the Second Coming. You’ve created a steer that eats its own kind! You transformed a head of beef into some kind of demonic nightmare … and you want people to eat it!”
“Monsieur Baine,” said Pasteur. “I assure you that this is quite possibly the most significant leap in the new science. The opportunities for exploration here are endless: chemistry, biology, husbandry, medicine … I can’t even begin to –”
“Then don’t, Doctor! Don’t begin! There is still time to put a stop to this. You can’t have bred many of them at this point. Stop development, stop the slaughter, stop all of it!”
“I most certainly will not,” Lillian said, anger rising in her voice. “Max, not only is this the most significant development in American agriculture since the grain thresher, it’s going to make us all incredibly wealthy, and ensure the Morgan name is etched into the history books forever.”
True stood, shaking his head with knowing satisfaction. “I told you he wouldn’t be with us on this, Mrs. Morgan. I told you he lacks the foresight and imagination to see the value in all of this.”
“This isn’t a value, True,” Max continued. “This is a security risk. We have no idea what that thing is capable of, and I won’t ask our men to risk their lives in finding out. Look at Irving and the others … they’re terrified to go anywhere near it.”
“Now, Max,” Elander said, sensing his moment to save the conversation. “This is exactly what we built the stockyard for. It’s cut off from the public and fitted with the strongest equipment I’ve developed so far. And now that I’ve reinforced the stalls following the accident, it’s all completely –”
“Wait, what? What accident?!”
Lillian sighed. “There was a slight mishap at the stockyard last week. A number of the animals escaped their stalls while Mr. Wagner was working late and –”
“Kyle?! That’s how he died?! He was killed by one of those things?!”
“A dozen of them, truthfully.” Lillian dismissed the comment with a wave of her hand. “But he shouldn’t have been working so late alone like that. And as Elander just said, now that we understand the situation better, we have taken the proper precautions to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“And without Wagner’s sacrifice,” True said, continuing the defensive salvo against Max, “we may have lost the breed without ever discovering the dietary changes. He is the one who made this possible.”
“I doubt he’d agree that it was worth it,” Max fired back. “Lillian, listen to me.” His voice took on a more desperate tone as he pleaded with his boss. “You sought me out to help you run this company because I know Gomorra. Well, I know Gomorra well enough to know that this is a bad idea.
“When I worked for Howard Findley, ghost rock mining in the Maze was proving to be more difficult than he’d imagined. But he had an idea, and as crazy as it sounds, he began using dead workers to mine the stuff. He made some kind of deal with the Devil and was actually able to raise the corpses and put ‘em to work digging out ghost rock! Oh, they dug out the rock, all right … when they weren’t killing their foremen or any other living thing they set eyes on. And still, despite all the warnings, despite all the death, he kept on going, as if somehow he might escape the hole he’d made for himself by digging deeper and deeper, until he lost his mind. Right along with his soul.”
Max sighed heavily as he continued. “And like a fool, I kept it going after he was gone. I knew it was wrong; I saw the danger. But I let the forces of that God-forsaken company keep me silent.” He pointed past them all to the creature in the paddock once more. “I’m not doing it again! You say you’re worried about Morgan’s legacy, Lillian? Well mark my words. That thing will be the end of it … it’ll be the end of us all.”
“Max,” Lillian began, her voice rising in self-righteous anger, “Progress isn’t free. How many men died in the mills that made clothes on your back? How many others were boiled, burned, or maimed to make the railroads that brought you here? Where would we be if you’d been there at the dawn of this age, screaming that steam power was an unholy abomination?
“I am well aware there are risks working with ghost rock. Some of the finest minds in the world today are working on those risks, and all of them are confident in what we’ve accomplished. This is the first step towards the future for the Morgan Cattle Company. With the founding of the Institute, we said we were going to change the world, Max. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Max looked around at the faces of the scientists and inventors before him. Each one of them stared back, resolute in their passion and commitment to this new project. It was then that he finally recognized the look in their eyes and where he’d seen it before. Just behind the rimmed spectacles, hiding within the deep recesses of their powerful brains, sat a glint of the very same thing he’d seen in Howard Findley’s eyes so long ago, that spark of conviction, that prideful certainty that said “If I make a deal with the Devil, I’ll take him for everything he’s got.” And as he looked back to Lillian, determined to lead this charge towards greater innovation and discovery, he noticed it for the first time in her as well. And for the first time in a long time, Max both knew what he had to do and realized he had the strength to do it.
He took a deep breath, steeling himself to say what perhaps he should have said a long time ago. “Not ‘we’ … not anymore. I sold my soul once, and somehow managed to get it back. I won’t do it again, Lillian. I’m done.”
And with that, Maxwell Baine turned and walked back to his horse, certain of his salvation, but unsure of everything else.