Henry's Dilemma

Short Stories Jul 3, 2024

The voices of dissent had finally been crushed beneath the boots of an oppressive regime; now the purges and retribution had begun. The ruling coalition of hardline religious extremists, militias of vigilantes and their sympathisers had prevailed. To “re-educate and de-program” the vanquished, a huge hostel had been built in the desert of the Australian outback. Escape would be futile. There were no windows. Each tiny room, off the kilometre-long hallway, housed one detainee.

 Henry had been reported anonymously to the authorities. As a prominent climatologist he had, for years, regularly warned of multiple factors contributing to global warming. Apart from the burning of fossil fuels, he’d consistently pointed fingers at intensive cattle farming practices and the volume of methane gas it released into the atmosphere. Personally, he was a vegetarian but his reasons for that choice primarily related to moral and ethical questions about the farming of sentient beings. Vegetarianism was his personal response.

Armed with a warrant on a November evening, the Correction Police had rapped on Henry’s door. Despite the protestations of his wife and children, within 24 hours he was frogmarched down a long corridor and roughly pushed into room 1702. He was almost 2500 km from his home and family. According to his interrogators, Henry was one of the fortunate interns. The luxury of identifying the error of one’s convictions was only afforded to a few. Perhaps Henry’s familial connections had something to do with it. The black sheep of the family, he was the son of a longtime mega-donor to the ruling political party.

 Reflection Room 1702, one of 2000 cells in the Vegetarian wing of the compound, comprised a narrow bunkbed, toilet, handbasin, and a wall mounted TV. Integral to the de-programming process, the TV screened endless broadcasts about the Australian meat and livestock industry and the invaluable contribution it made to the Australian economy. It featured happy families socialising around a barbecue, raising glasses of wine, children playing cricket in suburban backyards. The video was on a loop. Within a week, Henry could recite the propaganda by memory. Internal piping ensured that all 2000 cells had aromas of barbecued meat pumped into the tiny confines. Sighs of distress and resignation emanated from the walls of nearby cells providing evidence that Vegetarianism was being ruthlessly and systematically eliminated. The ruling party was unashamedly in the pocket of Big Meat. Behind his back, Henry had frequently referred to the party’s supreme leader as Big Meathead.

 Delivered through cell doors in the Vegetarian wing twice daily, all meals were a carnivore’s delight. Henry was determined to survive and return to his family, but this threw up an ethical dilemma. To survive, should he eat another sentient being, or should he resist? Should he chew, gag and force himself to swallow, or should he refuse to eat and consign himself to a tortuous spiral into semi-consciousness and eventually death? Was the constant stream of the Meat and Livestock’s de-programming video beginning to break down his own convictions and resolve?

 But Henry’s dilemma was circumvented by the movement of money, as is the wont of most politics. Leaders are usually glove puppets worn by the grubby hands of powerful background people. When the wealthy hand of Henry’s mega-donor father was thrust deeply inside the political puppet Big Meathead, the Vegetarian wing was quietly closed down. It re-opened, with supportive shock-jock fanfare, as a re-education centre for bothersome tree-huggers and anti-coal activists.

 Aware of how and why he was so quickly returned to his family, a conflicted Henry was consumed with the dark secret of his release. When discussing principles and moral autonomy around the dinner table, could Henry look his children in the eye, or would he quietly avert his gaze downwards towards his bowl of curried cauliflower and lentils?


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