The next morning the sound of insects was replaced with the
pleasant music of birds chirping happily in a nearby orchard, and Stoney arose
in a better mood. Dressing in the clothes Merrybelle had laid out for him, he
descended to the building’s first floor, only to discover that Stu had already
risen. He wanted an early start on the day’s work before going in to
Vigilanceville.

“Good morning,” Merrybelle said, in a manner that left Stoney
feeling unaccountably thrilled.

“Good morning,” he replied, moving to a place at the table
already set with an empty plate and clean utensils.

“I have breakfast all ready,” said Merrybelle, scooping
something from a pan that rested over an open flame on the stove. “And don’t
worry, it’s not meat.”

Stoney shivered involuntarily. “Thank you for your
consideration.”

Sooner than he had expected, Stoney had completely devoured
the meal Merrybelle placed in front of him and leaned back in his chair,
satisfied.

“That was fast!” exclaimed Merrybelle, who was only part way
through her own flapjacks.

“They were very good, especially with that peculiar tasting
syrup,” said Stoney around a gulp of coffee.

“It’s made from maple sap gathered from our own trees,” said
Merrybelle, not without some pride. “Almost everything we eat on the farm we
raise or grow ourselves.”

“That’s a most interesting observation,” said Stoney.

“After breakfast, you can come along while I do my chores and
I’ll show you the farm,” suggested Merrybelle.

“I would enjoy that very much.”

Not long afterward, the two young people stepped out the back
door onto a porch, where Merrybelle pointed out a small garden through which a
path led to a barn and a pair of long, low buildings from whence emanated the
strangest squawking sounds.

“This is my kitchen garden,” Merrybelle was saying. “I tend
these plants myself. Most of the farm is dedicated to cereals like corn and
wheat, with some potatoes and squash. But the rest of the vegetables we need, I
grow here.”

Moving among the various plants, Merrybelle lifted leaves to
give her guest a better view of the fruit growing beneath; at other times, she
picked those vegetables that were ripe and deposited them in a basket she
allowed Stoney to hold. Soon the basket was full, and after leaving it on the
porch, the two followed the well-worn path in the direction of the barn.

There, Stoney’s senses were assaulted in a number of ways, beginning
with the foul odor that he soon learned belonged to the cows that stood in
specially-constructed stalls, where workers in the employ of Stu Daidin
retrieved the “milk” from a score of bovines. The process itself came as a
shock to Stoney, who had to control his stomach when he learned that the white fluid
being drawn from the cows was intended for human consumption, and that he
himself had already drunk some of it at the meals he had shared with his hosts.

He felt relief when they moved from the barn to one of the
longer, low-lying buildings behind it. There, Stoney was no less surprised to
find them filled with hundreds of chickens all clucking and screaming at the
same time. Merrybelle explained to him that the birds were kept for their eggs,
which were boxed and sold to markets in cities and towns across the state.

“You actually eat these creatures’ unborn offspring?” asked
Stoney, surprised at his own continued capacity to be shocked.

“Of course,” replied Merrybelle, who had come to expect her
guest’s objections to the consumption of anything other than plant-based
foodstuffs. “You do realize that for a healthy diet, a human being must eat
balanced meals?”

“Naturally, but we have long had available insta-foods
manufactured from hydroponically grown sorghum and soy products that can be
fashioned into many nutritious variations. There are a number of cities in
other towers that specialize in their production.”

“So you eat no real meat or dairy products such as milk,
eggs, or cheese?”

Stoney made a face. “Certainly not! Of course, there are
artificial substitutes that can serve just as well.”

“That may be, but I’m sure they don’t provide you with all
the proper vitamins a human being needs,” replied Merrybelle, eyeing her
guest’s anemic-looking physiognomy. “Perhaps that explains your pale complexion
and underweight appearance . . . maybe even your height. You do seem shorter
than most of the men around here.”

Stoney unconsciously straightened. “My appearance is no
different than most citizens of Sunshine. We rarely suffer from malnutrition or
any kind of disease.”

“I’m sure,” said Merrybelle, smiling. “Anyway, I have a
project that will keep you busy for a few hours while I return to the house and
get some of the farm’s accounting done.”

“What do you want me to do?” asked Stoney, happy to be of
assistance.

Handing him a piece of paper with a numerical code written on
it, Merrybelle pointed to a work vehicle and instructed him to take it to the
barn and tell the workers that he was to load it with meal for the chickens.
After he had the car loaded, he was to go to the chicken coops and fill the
feeders with the meal.

“That should keep you busy until lunch time,” said Merrybelle
with amusement. “Think you can handle it?”

“No problem,” said Stoney. He watched as the girl turned and
walked back up the path to the house. For the first time he noticed how much more
fully formed she appeared in comparison to the women of Sunshine. She was
rounded in all the right places, and as he watched her body move he found
himself becoming more and more enchanted. Shaking off the feeling with some difficulty,
he managed to put Merrybelle out of his mind long enough to make his way to the
ground car, punch in the access code, and conduct it to the barn.

The balance of the morning was taken up with his assigned
duties, which he completed with less disgust than he had anticipated. In fact,
the repetitive nature of the work freed his mind and allowed his training as a
designer to come up with a number of improvements that could be made to the
building and the manner in which the chickens were fed, which he intended to
suggest to Stu.

When he saw Merrybelle at lunchtime, it was not without the
realization that he had missed her presence. Having been attracted to other
young women in Sunshine, he recognized the symptoms.

“Well, you must have built up an appetite after all that
work,” Merrybelle was saying.

“I did,” replied Stoney, seating himself at the table and
noticing that the meal Merrybelle had prepared did not include any meat or dairy
products.

“After lunch I thought we’d take a ride into town,” said
Merrybelle, taking her place at the table. “I have some errands to run.”

“I’d be happy to go.”

With their meal over and the dishes safely in the automated
dishwasher, the two young people stepped outside and into a waiting ground car
that Stoney judged to be Merrybelle’s personal vehicle, due to a number of
feminine touches made to its interior. In another few minutes the vehicle
cleared the main gate and reached a road running through the surrounding
woodland.

Turning onto the main highway, the girl picked up speed, and
soon Stoney was treated to a passing view of the neighboring countryside, which
was dotted with farmsteads similar to that of his hosts and surrounded by a
patchwork of fields covered in various crops. Despite his discomfort with many
of their odd practices, Stoney admired the panorama that unfolded before his
eyes for the initiative it represented on the part of the local citizens, a
quality he found lacking back in Sunshine.

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