What You Eat
‘You are what you eat’ translates into a darkly humorous tale set to make you think twice about that sandwich…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
The first instance famously happened to anchor Greg Collins at the end of the April 9th, 6:00 p.m. newscast on WNEX-TV.
The intro music faded, and the camera pulled in tight on Greg as he sat behind the shiny news desk. “And,” the young man with the tight curls began, “if you thought you saw a ball of fire in last night’s sky, you’re not alone. Our planet endured what scientists call ‘an astronomical near miss’ yesterday evening as Comet G137 passed within two thousand miles of Earth. For an explanation of this event, we turned to Professor William Travers of State University. I spoke with him during our 5:00 p.m. newscast.”
A whoosh traversed the screen as they went to the taped interview. Collins was in the newsroom. Travers, sporting thick glasses and a scruffy gray beard, appeared on a split screen from his office.
“I realize,” Travers explained, “that a miss of approximately two thousand miles is nothing when compared to what most people encounter during their daily commutes, but, in the vastness of space, such a distance is rather close.”
“What do we know about Comet G137, sir?” Greg asked.
“It was discovered about four years ago by Professor Swenson at the University of Sweden. It appears to be an unusually large comet traveling at high speed. We expect it to return to our galactic vicinity in approximately thirteen years.”
“For the benefit of our viewers, Professor, what exactly is a comet?”
“Comets are hard collections of various matter, including rocks, dust, and ice, which travel throughout the stars. They often sport tails, which makes them visible as they streak through the sky.”
“What’s in the tail?”
“That’s usually the result of the effects of radiation on the comet’s nucleus. Various parts of the nucleus may also shed from the comet and help form or lengthen its tail.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“They can be. That’s why this near-miss has piqued interest.”
Another whoosh across the screen indicated the return to a live broadcast. “And that’s the story,” Collins continued. “We hope all of you are still watching News Center 9 when Comet G137 returns in thirteen years. Until then, for all of the team, I’m Greg Collins wishing you a. . . a. . .” His voice trailed off. He clutched the desk before him and closed his eyes tight.
“Greg,” Tina Masters, his bubbly, blonde-haired co-anchor, asked under her breath, “are you OK?”
“I feel. . . weird,” he answered her, his eyes still shut. “Dizzy.”
“Go to commercial,” Ed Pike, the director ordered. “Quickly!”
Seconds later, there was a blinding flash of purple light as the thirty-year-old, curly haired news anchor – the man who made the girls swoon – turned into a cow.
“Did we make it in time?” Tina asked her director.
“No,” Pike answered. “They couldn’t cue the commercial fast enough.”
“So everyone who was watching. . .”
“Saw Greg turn into a cow? Yes.”
“Sorry I screamed,” she apologized. “What are we going to do?”
“You’ll have to anchor the news on your own for a bit.”
“I meant what are we going to do for Greg?” Tina clarified.
“I don’t know. The phone lines and e-mail are buzzing. Video of his. . . ‘change’ is likely already on YouTube.”
“How many people do you think saw what happened?” Masters asked.
“Lots! The latest ratings book put our newscasts at the top of the heap.”
“What’s the next step?”
“We have to do damage control until Greg can be brought back to the anchor desk in human form – not that a cow delivering the news wouldn’t be a ratings grabber.”
“How do we do this. . . damage control?”
“I don’t know,” Ed admitted, looking down at his shoes. “One crisis at a time.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Pike?” Tony, one of the stagehands, asked timidly. Pike looked up to see a tall man in uniform standing there, a cap on his balding head and fruit salad on his jacket pocket. “This is Gen-General Morgan with the Department of H-Homeland Security,” Tony continued.
“Thank you, son,” Morgan said, laying a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “You can go now.” As the stagehand gratefully walked away, the General said, “Mr. Pike, I understand that you are the director of this station’s news broadcasts.”
“That’s right, General.” He gestured at Tina. “May I present,” he said, “Greg Collins’s co-anchor, Tina Masters?”
“Charmed, ma’am,” he said, tipping his cap.
“How can I help you?” Pike inquired.
“I don’t think I need to tell either of you that the Department of Homeland Security is extremely interested in what occurred here tonight,” Morgan told them. “I trust we can expect your full cooperation.”
“Certainly,” Ed assured him.
“We’d like to start by securing the video of the event.”
“I’ll get that for you,” Masters said, turning and walking away. “Be right back.”
“I can’t guarantee how well that will work, sir,” Ed said when he and the General were alone. “I’d be surprised if the video isn’t already on YouTube.”
“We’re working with YouTube and similar Internet sites to keep the video of Mr. Collins’s. . . bovine transformation off the Web. This is a matter of national security.”
Ed was confused. “Greg changed into a cow. How’s that related to national security?”
“Can you explain what happened?”
“No, but I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist.”
“Nor am I,” Morgan told Ed. “Expect a doctor and a veterinarian to arrive here at 0900 hours tomorrow.”
“Do you know of a better person to examine a cow?”
“Greg won’t like that.”
“What he likes or dislikes is of no importance where national security is concerned. The Department is treating this as terrorism unless I find evidence to the contrary.”
“Terrorists have discovered a way to turn people into animals?” Ed asked incredulously.
“You’d be surprised.”
“What would it get them?”
“That’s what we’re looking into.”
Tina was back. “Here’s the video, General,” she said, handing a small box to Morgan.
“Thank you, Miss,” he said. “May I see Mr. Collins?”
“Sure,” Pike replied. “We moved him to the breakroom and. . . put down some newspapers.”
Ed heard Greg moo twice as he opened the door. “Hi, Chief,” Collins uttered in his usual voice, only from the cow’s mouth.
Tina sniffed at the air and rubbed her nose. “Mind if I open a window?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Greg answered. “Just. . . uhm. . . watch where you step.” Ed introduced the General. “The DHS?” Greg exclaimed. “They’re calling out the big guns, aren’t they?”
“May I call you Greg?” Morgan asked.
“It’s better than ‘Bossie.’”
“Can you describe what happened to you?”
“I was finishing up that comet story, when I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. Then the nausea left, and I felt really dizzy. There was a flash of light and. . . well. . . here I am – the new me.”
“Was the change painful?”
“How do you feel now?”
“Just fine,” Greg answered, “for a cow.”
“You can speak and moo?” the General asked. “I’m confused.”
“So am I. I still have the mind I had before this happened. I can tell you anything you want to know about Greg Collins; however, I also know cow things.”
“Cow things?” Pike asked.
“Yeah, like chew your cud slowly and swish your tail around to keep the flies away.”
“Do you have a desire to. . . to chew cud?” Ed asked.
Greg pondered that briefly. “I’m not sure. I am getting hungry. Can we get some delivered?”
“We’ll look into it,” the General said.
“Get some hay,” Tina told them. “Cud is what hay becomes when the cow eats it for the second time.”
“Second time?” Collins exclaimed. “Gross!”
“It’s natural for a cow.”
“How do you know that, Miss?” Morgan asked.
“I was born in Iowa.”
“Greg,” Ed said, “two doctors will be here in the morning to examine you and see what’s going on.”
“Good. I’d like to know that myself.”
“One of them. . . is a veterinarian.”
“Well,” Greg said after some consideration, “I am a cow now.”
“That’s part of what we don’t understand. You still have your human intellect and the power of speech,” Morgan added, “but you’re definitely bovine. We need to know how much of you is cow, how much is man, and if those percentages are likely to change. That’s what the doctors will tell us.”
“I understand, sir.”
“You’ll behave?” Ed asked.
Greg chuckled. “I won’t bite either of them.”
General Morgan had already spoken with Dr. Weston, the people doctor. Now it was time for his meeting with veterinarian Paul Unger. “What’s your opinion of Greg Collins?” he asked the man across the desk.
“He’s a cow,” Unger reported, “or should I say she’s a cow? Everything checks out. My x-rays show all the internal organs you’d expect – the four stomach compartments, for instance. The brain is larger than average since Mr. Collins is still capable of human reasoning.”
“Do you think that will remain?”
“I have no way of knowing,” Unger said. “I did notice one odd thing in my examination.”
“Yes?” Morgan asked eagerly.
“One of my x-rays showed animal matter in two of the stomach compartments.”
“My guess would be beef – perhaps the remains of a hamburger or a steak that Mr. Collins ate before the newscast.”
“Strange that remained after his transformation.”
“True, but like the old saying goes, ‘You are what you eat.’”
“You are what you. . . eat,” the General repeated thoughtfully.
The breaking news report interrupted Judge Judy: “On the heels of the story of the TV anchorman who turned into a cow on the air two days ago,” the female anchor began, “new reports of human-to-animal transformations are coming in from around the world. We now know of hundreds of people turning into cows, chickens, pigs, ducks, and other animals from such faraway places as Sri Lanka and Qatar, and from more than half of the fifty states. We’ll have more news on this story as it happens.”
The president welcomed General Morgan to the White House. She offered him a seat and introduced her science advisor, Dr. Herman Winchell. “The doctor and I,” the president said, “find your theory that people are literally becoming what they eat very thought provoking.”
“With all the transformations being reported from around the world,” Winchell added, “the Joint Chiefs believe it unlikely that terrorists could be capable of such widespread, rapid action.”
“The Department doubts that possibility as well,” Morgan confirmed. “Then what could explain the changes?”
“The doctor has a theory,” the president said.
“I believe the transformations may have something to do with the comet that passed Earth recently.”
“That was two thousand miles away! How could it have –”
“In astronomical terms, that is very close. Scientists I have contacted report that some small portions of G137’s tail fell into the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Wouldn’t they burn up?”
“Perhaps,” Winchell went on. “Perhaps not. With how widespread the transformations have been, my people can think of no other possible cause besides disease-carrying microbes from the comet.”
“If you’re right, what can we do?” Morgan asked.
“I need to make a national address explaining what we believe is happening,” the president said.
“People are going to be afraid to eat anything,” Winchell added.
“Until we find the cure,” the president told Morgan, “we’ll have to arrange for the distribution of dietary supplements to the entire population.”
The General was astonished. “To every man, woman, and child in the United States?”
“Other countries will be crying bloody murder,” said Winchell.
“We have to take care of our own first,” the president said. “General, can DHS arrange that distribution?”
“It will be an enormous undertaking, but I’ll get my staff on it right away.”
The president said, “My writers are already preparing my speech.”
“You’d better warn any seafood eaters not to stray far from water,” Winchell told his boss. “If someone transforms into a fish, he or she won’t survive long on land.”
“One rather delicate point, ma’am: The thorough examination of an. . . ‘ex-human’ could provide invaluable information towards a cure.”
“Are you asking someone to volunteer for an autopsy?” Morgan queried.
“I’m merely saying that when an ex-human does die –”
“I understand,” the president replied. “The other thing we have to do, and this is an even taller order, is launch a ship to catch G137.”
“Catch it?” Morgan asked. “It must be millions of miles away.”
“NASA is tracking its likely trajectory. If we can’t find the cure for this disease on Earth, then it must lie there.”
Winchell added, “A crew is already being selected. We’ll need to launch as soon as possible. Even with the newfound rocket speed enhancements, the rendezvous could take a year.”
“How do we know that the ship’s crew won’t transform on their way to the comet?” Morgan inquired.
“We don’t,” the president told him. “We have to hope that at least one crew member makes it there in human form.”
There was more breaking news. “This just in: In the current environment, people have been asking about vegetables. ‘Can I eat vegetables?’ ‘Would a vegetarian lifestyle provide safety from the comet’s microbes?’ Many of you referenced the Texas rally, aired here last night, headed by Ellen Jefferson of eatyourveggies.com.”
A whoosh across the screen took the broadcast to tape. Jefferson – thin and pale – was speaking to a group of vocal, often-clapping supporters. “The vegetarian lifestyle is the only choice – now more than ever. There is no evidence that the comet’s microbes have any effect on people who do not eat the flesh of animals. Now is the time, everyone, to throw off the carnivore instinct and embrace vegetarianism. It’s the only way to escape this wrath that has been visited upon us from the heavens!”
“Reports are coming in from Dallas today,” the anchorman continued, “that Mrs. Jefferson has transformed into an artichoke. Scientists are speculating that the transformational process takes longer for vegetarians but that they are, in fact, not immune to the microbes’ effects. The scientists also warned that anyone transformed into a vegetable would face the undesirable possibility. . . of spoiling.”
It was named Rescue 1. In command of a crew of thirty-five was Captain Andrew Lucas, a decorated Air Force officer. As the ship approached Comet G137, he hailed NASA Control.
John Redmond, the man in charge of Earth Operations for Rescue 1, answered. On the screen, Lucas could see a variety of animals roaming uselessly around the blinking control panels, some of them occasionally attempting a nibble on the equipment. The connection was iffy at times, with sudden bursts of static crackling through the ship’s speakers. “Yes, Captain,” an eager Redmond said above the oinks, moos, clucks, and quacks. “I read you.”
“The signal’s pretty weak.”
“It’s the best we can do. Anyone with the skill to repair whatever’s gone wrong no longer has thumbs.”
“How are things back home?”
“Only about a quarter of the population hasn’t transformed,” Redmond told him. “How’s your crew?”
“We’re down to three humans: our pilot, our doctor, and me.”
“When do you estimate comet intercept?”
“In approximately an hour. We’re gaining on it.”
“If you find anything useful – anything at all – let us know immediately.”
“Any progress on a cure?”
“No.” Redmond leaned forward in his chair, shooed a chicken away from his control panel, and looked directly into the camera. “Andy,” he said earnestly, “you three are our last hope.”
With comet fall estimated in fifty-two seconds, the last three humans aboard Rescue 1 strapped into their control room grav couches. Decent was smooth. . . at first.
The alarm shook them all.
“Flight computer has cut out, sir!” Lt. Anders, the pilot, reported. He pressed several buttons quickly as the ship began to accelerate and spin. “I can’t re-establish a connection.”
“Hold on,” the Captain ordered. “This isn’t gonna be pretty!”
The crash tore a gaping hole in the bulkhead, allowing all of the ex-human crew below decks out onto G137’s surface. Lucas, Anders, and Dr. Bonham – except for a few bruises – were fine. They were all at a loss to explain how a comet could have a breathable atmosphere. “Anders,” Lucas said, “check the comm system.”
The check didn’t take long. “Dead, sir. It looks like a total loss.”
“Well,” the Captain said after a sigh, “if the answer to what’s happening back home is here. . . it’s out there.” He peered through the rip in the hull. “Weapons,” he ordered.
Masers at the ready, they left their transformed friends – many eating inexplicable wild grass! – near the ship’s wreckage and headed toward a line of caves not far away. A light wind blew across the surface of the comet. Lucas shook his head. “An atmosphere,” he said, “a comfortable temperature, and food for the rest of the crew? It’s like someone knew we were coming and baked a cake.”
They cautiously entered the first cave. Crystals lining the rock walls cast a brilliant purple light all over. “Hello!” Lucas called out. “We need help. We wish to talk.”
A metal clang resounded through the cave as something impenetrable slid down to block the exit. “What the. . .” Anders began, turning quickly.
The voice was deep and male. It shook the cave walls with its echo and seemed to come from everywhere. “We are the Gonku,” it said.
Lucas paced the ground, unsure in what direction to speak. “We are from Earth,” he said. “We need to talk. Show yourselves.”
“We cannot. We have no physical form. We exist only in the air and the rock. We are the Gonku. We watch over our masters, the Trebe.”
“Could we talk with them?” Bonham asked.
“Impossible. They sleep now to be born anew later. We watch over the Trebe during their maturation and keep them safe. We are the Gonku. That is our purpose.”
“Not even one of these Trebe is awake?” Anders asked.
“Not even one,” the voice replied, spacing its words carefully.
“May we speak with you?” Captain Lucas inquired.
“You are doing so now,” the Gonku answered. “As long as this conversation does not interfere with our purpose, it is welcome.”
“This comet passed by our planet recently,” Lucas began.
“You will have to be more specific. We have passed by dozens of planets in our travels.”
“We’re from Earth,” the doctor clarified. “It’s the third of eight planets orbiting a single sun in the Milky Way galaxy.”
After a moment, the Gonku seemed to remember. “Blue oceans and green land masses?”
“Yes!” the doctor said. “When you passed by our world, you inadvertently infected our people with a disease.”
“Did you see the animals near our crash site?” Lucas asked.
“The Gonku see all that happens here. It is necessary to ensure the safety of the Trebe.”
“At one time, those animals were human beings like us. We believe that a cure to this disease must exist here. We need your help to find it before our race is lost forever.”
“The Gonku did not inadvertently infect your Earth’s people.”
“I see,” Capt. Lucas replied with a shrug.
“It was our intent.”
“What?” Bonham exclaimed.
“The infection of your planet was intentional, as was learning your language, disabling your vessel’s flight computer at precisely the right moment, and providing a suitable atmosphere for you and your transformed crew. You will never leave here. You will not warn your home world of our plans.”
“What plans?” asked Anders.
“We are the Gonku. We care for the sleeping Trebe. We tend to all of their needs – present and future.”
“Why are you turning Earth people into animals?” Lucas demanded to know.
“We passed many planets on our journey. Only yours had living beings. We seized the opportunity.”
“To poison our people? What gives you the right?”
“We Gonku protect the sleep—”
“You mentioned that!” Anders said angrily. “We need to talk with your masters now.”
“The Trebe sleep deep below the surface of this body. They are not to be disturbed before the maturation process is complete.”
“How about I turn this maser up to full and burn a hole in the rock?” the Captain suggested. “Then we could visit them.”
“Your weapons are useless here. We have seen to that. We are the Gonku. We protect the Trebe in all ways.”
“You spoke about maturation chambers,” Dr. Bonham said.
“Thousands of Trebe sleep below the surface. Like unborn children, they are slowly growing. When maturation is complete, they will awaken to take their rightful places as the rulers of all that is.”
“I’ve never heard of them,” Bonham offered.
“You will. Your kind will not soon forget the Trebe.”
“When will the maturation be complete?” Bonham asked.
“In approximately twelve years.”
“Right around the time this comet swings back to Earth,” Lucas noted.
“Precisely,” the echoing voice replied. “We are the Gonku. We tend to the needs of the sleeping Trebe, both in the present and the future. We plan for the future. When this body is again near your planet, our masters will awaken from their maturation. . . and they will be. . . hungry.”
Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won The Columbine Award and a dozen Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories.
His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. His second short film, HOTLINE, is in post-production. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.
Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com