Sawdust mingled with the shit of the halves on the corral floor--the afternoon had grown hot and the aroma attracted thick clouds of flies. Only the hardiest buyers stuck it out, with handkerchiefs at their noses and mouths. The rest of the buyers had already fled for the fairgrounds and were enjoying reconstituted powdered lemonade or watching their small children brave the merry-go-round. The animals themselves, they could only be called that, were bunched up in one corner, moaning. The halve-tender was suited up in his sweltering chain-mail, prodding at them with with a long two-pronged electric fork while the auctioneer, an squirrelly-faced little man, rattled off a string of numbers. His cadence was only interrupted when one of the buyers nodded or tipped their hat or raised two sweaty digits from a dirty pair of jeans.
Roberta sat in the stands, on the edge of a plank that hadn't been repainted in decades. The plank was indicative of the state of the whole town. Everything was in decay but life went on. Roberta herself wore overalls handed down to her by her grandfather when he died, when he was eaten by one of their halves, and the overalls were so patched and restitched that they were more sinewy, cordy, thread than proper fabric. She was fourteen and this was her first auction as sole buyer for her farm.
The auctioneer bleated out "SOLD!" and the halves in the corral were prodded and pushed through a gate by the halve-tender. Everyone in the stands relaxed a little, communally slumping from the brief break. Once all the halves had shuffled out, another gate was opened a new lot shuffled in. Roberta leaned forward to better inspect the new halves, of which there were five--three bucks, an elderly she, and a younger she that looked like she just might be pregnant. Roberta felt a sudden wash of excitement, and for a moment the heat of the afternoon didn't feel so oppressive.
"Look at this one folks," said the auctioneer, pointing to a big buck, "look at the muscles on him! See how healthy he is? Both eyes intact. Prime for fighting stock if you're into that, but good for breeding too!"
The halve-tender shocked the buck in the abdomen so that it instinctively spread its legs and squatted, and everyone could see the evident health of its genitalia--not mangled or diseased. The other bucks took a slight notice--it was one of the first things they ate of each other if given the chance, but these ones were smaller and weaker and wouldn't risk it.
The auctioneer went on to describe the other bucks, enhancing them as best he could in order to increase the sale price, but when he came to the elderly she he didn't have much to say. The older ones weren't worth much, and often were more ornery than the younger ones--they had to be if they survived not being eaten for so long in the wilds beyond the great fence.
That was the great risk in keeping halves. If you left them together for too long without feed they would turn on each other. It was also best to keep them in separate pens with high walls--cement if you could afford it, compacted earth if you couldn't, and dug pits if you had no other option. The feed was simple enough--you could shovel in almost anything organic and they would eat it when hungry enough. Their shit had to be cleaned out of their pens once a month or so, and burned, before it was safe to use as fertilizer. Roberta had spent her childhood years mucking out the halve pens, covered in plastic sheeting and enduring scalding hot showers afterward to prevent infection. She sometimes gave herself small cuts on her hands to get out of the work, but when her mother found out she was yelled at for three days straight and wasn't allowed to eat anything but grits.
Roberta long since resigned herself to a life on the farm, and it would be solely hers one day. She would be responsible for the employment of many cousins and second cousins and eventually their offspring. She thought about dividing the farm amongst them and just leaving, but there was nowhere to leave to. She could leave for service at the great fence on the frontier, but only the most desperate people would go there since the average lifespan once you entered duty was about two years and death was almost always painful and horrible. There were a few workshops here and there that produced durable goods, like the batteries for the prodding fork, and she could have taken an apprenticeship with one of them, but the pay was nowhere near what she would earn as a landowner. And so there was only one option for the course of her life and it meant that she had to sit in the stinking auction sheds every summer and not complain about it.
The auctioneer then described the young she, the one that Roberta had a hunch was pregnant.
"A fine young specimen! Look at the teeth! Barely any touch of rot! Her thighs are strong and her hips are wide--a breeding she if I ever saw one!"
Roberta peered at the she, but tried not to look too intently. She didn't want to telegraph her interest to the other buyers too soon. The she was a bit shorter than average, and her hair, even matted with leaves and dirt, showed a healthy gloss. The abdomen was slightly enlarged and perhaps the other buyers would think it was just fat. Roberta estimated that there were maybe three or four ripened eggs with more fertilized yet to come, judging by the way the bulge moved as the she shuffled.
The auctioneer signalled to the halve-tender to give her a prod so that her arms could be shown to better effect, and the halve-tender poked her just below the neck, with one prong pressing against each of her clavicles. Roberta bolted up, knowing what could happen, and not thinking in that moment of the other buyers. The she squealed and her arms flew up, trying to grasp at the fork but the halve-tender withdrew too quickly for her. The she doubled over, her hands and knees in the sawdust, moaning. All the buyers knew now, and even the auctioneer was shocked.
The she vomited up her last meal, a gray and black mess, and the other halves swooped in to eat it up. The halve-tender worked to separate the pregnant she from the group, entangling his fork in its hair and pulling her away through the sawdust. Another halve-tender jumped over a gate and rushed in. He wasn't wearing full mail but the halves needed to be separated as quickly as possible.
The she lay curled and moaning, then she righted herself onto all fours again. Amniotic fluid began dripping from her backside, then out popped the first egg.
"It's second generation!" screamed out one of the buyers, an older man with an unhappy, clearly disgusted child sitting next to him. "I'll buy that she! I'll buy her!" He waved a wad of bills in the air.
Others around the corral started chiming in, expressing their own ardent desires to bid. The auctioneer looked flustered.
"Now, now! We can't start the bidding just yet! I'll have to talk to the owners." He tried to urge calm by waving his hands up and down, but the buyers all started shouting and screaming, wanting in on the action.
Roberta sat down hard on the plank, slapping it with the palm of her hand. A prod anywhere near the spinal cord of a pregnant she could induce premature labor. This one would have ripened dozens more eggs if left alone, then labor would have come next winter. There was no permanent harm in the premature delivery, but it meant that Roberta couldn't take advantage of the hot laziness of the afternoon to buy a fertile she well under market value.
Another egg came out in a stringy mess, and by now the other halves were locked safely behind the gate. The halve-tender in full mail went up to the she and stole away the first two eggs while it was distracted in pain. He passed them to the other halve-tender who brought them to the auctioneer for inspection. If they were viable, they too would be auctioned off, as third generation halves.
The halve generations were the subject of much informal study and fireside rumination. First generations were once real, living people, merely the victims of the disease that ravaged across the lands on the other side of the great fence. It wasn't very pleasant to think about how the real people there lived, always in fear, and probably very feral by now, seventy years on after the outbreak. The first generations had short lives and often suffered from the horrible wounds and bites that gave them the disease to begin with. If they managed to fend of the others, and maintain a high caloric intake by eating just about anything, and if they found a similarly well-fed partner, they could live long enough to reproduce.
The second generations were born much the way humans are, in live birth. They were smaller at birth than human babies, but could stand and walk within hours. This was fortunate for them because they would not be cared for by their parents, other than having their amniotic sack licked off and eaten. The instinct of the second generations was to forage and run. If they survived, they matured to reproductive age within seven years, and had a strong drive to mate, and a single pairing could produce hundreds of offspring over the course of several years, in the form of eggs.
These were the third generations. In the wild, the second generations tended to eat the laid eggs, which is why they were quickly separated on the farm. The third generations, if raised in incubators, were safe enough from human consumption and didn't transmit the disease. They also had minds enough to perform basic labor, and were not violent, and so made excellent pets. Most importantly of all, their pineal glands produced a substance that could be used to treat the disease. A shunt could be surgically implanted and the average third generation could produce a pint or so of the fluid over the course of their lifetimes, which only lasted about five years. The liquid was so valuable that a gallon of it could buy a house.
The third generations were sterile, lacking any kind of reproductive organs. There was some work being done to clone them, but after twenty years of research there was yet no success. It was because of this that the fertile second generations were the most valuable at auction, followed by healthy first generations. The third generation eggs would fetch a good price if viable, but the she giving birth to them in the sawdust could produce thousands and make fortunes before she died.
The auctioneer took out his magnifying glass and looked carefully at the eggs, turning them over in his free hand. The buyers quieted down to a murmur of whispers. Then the auctioneer raised his arm and the buyers started screaming again, waving their hands and their money. The eggs were viable, and the value of the second generation she just skyrocketed.
Roberta climbed down from the stands, the noise and the heat finally getting to her and making her head pound. She left the auction shed and removed her handkerchief, breathing in sweet fresh air. The sun was bright and hot and she shaded her brow. She ambled off towards the nearest cotton candy stall and vowed to do better at the next auction, scheduled in three weeks.