This story is a continuation of The Trouble With Chickens and all other stories in The Feltenner Chickens section of the Science! universe. If you haven’t read those, the pertinent points are: the chickens are huge. The size of carriages. Large parts of the university have been given over to them. And the Professor Lokeg-Fridelabout doesn’t mind getting students killed.
“You want to - to convert one of the abandoned buildings into a poorhouse?” Resklin Tarajirra had never seen Professor Lokeg-Fridelabout look quite so surprised. Up until now, he hadn’t know the professor had emotions beyond snide, annoyed, and cruelly pleased - although the annoyed had gotten awfully dark last week when Trenner Oujiduie showed up with a Feltenner chicken chick following her around. “Tarajirra, that seems rather dark for one of your sort – it seems dark even for me,” the professor admitted in a rare moment of self-awareness. “If you wanted to eliminate the poor, there are kinder ways than feeding them to Feltenner chickens and the Wind Alone knows what else lives in there. What did Oujiduie’s paper say? Ferrets?”
Ah, a snide sneer. That was more like it.
“Ferrets, yes, Professor. You see, I don’t want to feed the poor to the chickens. Or the ferrets. My thought is more in the other direction - with the analysis that we’ve been working on, if we could feed the chicken eggs to the poor, we could start a very reasonable work house there, move some of the more tedious research in that direction –”
“That, Tarajirra, is what graduate students are for.”
“Yes, of course, Professor, but the projects that the four - ah. There are projects that could do with some very simple repetitive labor, and while we’re all quite good at that sort of thing, if we farm it out, as it were, we can get more done. Also,” Tarajirra hurried on quickly, “because it was, after all, your idea, Oujiduie has mentioned making a co-author on her paper regarding the food uses of the Feltenner chicken and possible domestication thereof. There are no foxes big enough to be a threat to a Feltenner chicken, after all.” The joke was a risk. It could lead to - yes - a sneer.
"As if predators are the problem which chickens which kill people. This is doomed to failure, Tarajirra. You know it is. And when you have people screaming at you that you are killing the poor, do not expect me to protect you."
Lokeg-Fridelabout signed the paperwork with a large and enthusiastic flourish. Resklin bowed and did not smile. One of the advantages to understanding your professors was knowing who to ask for the second signature.
Professor Sojide had been enthusiastic; Lokeg-Fridelabout was simply hoping Resklin would fail and was presumably hoping that failure would be violent and fatal.
Adding in the co-author note had just been the ribbon the whole thing was tied up with.
Papers signed, Resklin had to get to the hard part. Clearing out a way to the building she planned on using.
It was time to go look for some day labor.
The workers she was using kept looking at her strangely. Resklin didn't know if it was because she was a student, a woman, or the one paying their wages, but they seemed confused to have her - and then Trenner, to a smaller degree - clearing out the deadly brush with them.
She and Trenner were, technically, taking turns, one standing look-out with Resklin's mother's old rifle, the other working. It was needed; Trenner had spooked off a ferret with a sling-shot-thrown rock just a few minutes ago, and they could hear clucking somewhere close.
"What's the point of all this," one of the men finally asked. "Everyone knows this place is haunted."
"Three points," Resklin answered - she never had known when to keep her mouth shut. "The third of which is completing my thesis, the second of which is the fact that a third of the former university grounds are haunted and unusable, and the first of which is the fact that chicken is good meat, even when it's the height of a grown man."
She lost half her staff right there.
Lucky for her, the places where one went to pick up day laborers always had a fresh stock of people who really needed work.
It took five days of determined work - also five shots with the slingshot and three bullets, the last of which led to a very nice cookout - to clear and then fence in a safe route to the building Resklin had in mind. Once there, they cleared out a firepit in the courtyard and held that cookout, aided by some people Trenner appeared to have met in her adventures - four women from the administrative staff who called Trenner's Feltenner chick her "baby" and Trenner herself their darling, and three people dressed in strange and fantastic scraps and remnants of clothing of bygone eras, including one man wearing full academic regalia patched with pieces of upholstery and old wool blanket. His beard was nearly amazing enough for him to have been one of the senior staffers, although he still had no grey in his hair nor in that beard.
"So." Trenner looked at her over a steak of chicken leg. "You're really going to do this."
"That's the hope." Resklin tilted her head at her friend. "This was your idea."
"Feeding the poor was my idea. You're putting them to work, too. And in danger."
"No more danger than we're in," Resklin countered. "And less awful work than a normal work house."
"If Hell were just a little bit cooler, 'twould be a marvelous place, wouldn't it?" Trenner quoted at her. Resklin turned her back.
Robinspiraino Hall had turned out to be in quite good shape; the problem, such as it was, was only in moving over bedding and furniture from the dormitory hall nearby which was otherwise occupied by Trenner's friends, the runaways, or, as she called them, The Lost Students.
It took a week of hard work - it was a good thing it was in the summer holiday - before they were able to call the space livable. In that time, Reslkin had hired the worker with the most questions to be her overseer.
"So, you want people to live here, and eat these giant chickens, and you want them to - perform experiments? Isn't that what you lot up on the hill do?"
"It is," Resklin agreed. She wasn't about to admit that the house itself and the chicken-as-meal were in and of themselves experiments. "But our friend Paenorie Robinspire - no relation - has a project which requires a great deal of tedious work, much of it done all at the same time. We visited a work house as part of a Social Consciousness class-" she ignored the snort from her new overseer; she'd thought the same thing "-so we want to see if the same thing can be done here. The first thing is going to be building or retrofitting a coop so that we can safely collect eggs."
“Just how dangerous are these things, anyway?” Kalew looked out the grated window at areas they had yet to clear or even start exploring.
“Well, they’re not exactly safe, but the thing is, nobody knows how dangerous they really are.”
“So you’re going to have some ordinary folk find out for you, is that it?”
Resklin wondered how many times she was going to hear that. She huffed at Kalew in lieu of an answer. “I’m here too, you know.”
“Mm-hrrm. And when night comes, you’ll be going back to your nice intact building up there, mmm, and we’ll be down here, with the chickens.”
Her heart sank. “Do you think - do you think I won’t be able to get workers?” If everyone thought it was too dangerous, she wouldn’t get Paenorie’s work done, she wouldn’t get to test her own theories or Trenner’s, and she’d probably end up cleaning test tubes for Paenorie herself for an extra year just to make it up to her friend.
“Well, everyone’s going to think it’s dangerous. Haunted, demon chickens, giant weasels, yeah, it’s a mess. But people are hungry, miss. They’re hungry and they’re hurting. You give them work and food and a roof over their heads, they’re going to take it. Even it the roof might bite back.”
“Well, the roof isn’t going to-” She trailed off and snorted. “Right, right. So we can do it.”
“You can do it. Whether you want to, well, that’s between you and the East Wind.”
“Why does everyone keep saying that?” Resklin muttered. To Kalew, she just said “Good. Then we’ll get started on the coop tomorrow.”
She was going to get this paper done - and Trenner was going to get her chickens eaten. And it was going to work.