by Lynn Fulton
Today, late in the afternoon when the sun was low, I took Peder to the City wall. Up on the observation deck, we were the only visitors. He let go of my hand and went straight to the railing; I followed and crouched next to him. Together we looked out across the moat to the Forest, his future home.
He wrapped his paws around the bars of the railing while the wind blew back his fur. We didn’t speak, even though the bored Enforcer on guard paid us no attention. The man’s eyes flicked over us—just one ordinary citizen and her PET—and then he went back to staring at nothing. Meanwhile Peder and I watched the gray waters of the moat rushing below us, and beyond it the Forest treetops tossing in the wind.
“You’ll be all right,” I whispered, stroking my fingers through his fur. I hoped he wasn’t too afraid, looking out at that wild place.
I’ve already told him what’s coming. How he’ll change and grow, how he’ll lose his fur. Not right away, but soon. And once it starts, he can’t stay here. He can’t stay with me, in the only home he’s ever known.
He has to go to the Forest.
Because here in the City, all that awaits him is death.
The whole batch is excited to see Teacher Costa’s PET.
Sure, we’re excited enough about Rollout coming up, about leaving the Education Center and being citizens and not hatchlings anymore. But Rollout is still weeks away, and right now any change from routine is a relief.
We’re outside on the patio, all two dozen of us in our blue jumpsuits, gathered around a picnic table, waiting for Teacher Costa. It’s the mid-day break, and I’m standing just behind Dahlia, watching the autumn sun glint off her long black hair. She’s right next to the table because she wants to get a good view of the PET when Teacher Costa gets here. Teacher Saski waits with us, standing on the table’s bench, hands in the pockets of her striped trousers. She tugs at her vest and folds her arms impatiently, watching the door.
My friend Viktor comes up beside me. “I can’t believe he finally brought it,” he says in a grumbling voice. He might act bored, but I bet he’s just as curious to see the PET as anyone else.
Dahlia turns to flash a smile at us. “I know, I can’t wait!” She’s not like Viktor—she doesn’t care if she sounds excited.
It’s become kind of a joke, Teacher Costa and his PET. He tells us about it, and we say we don’t believe him. Then Teacher Saski starts making faces and saying PETs give her the creeps, with their tangly fur and beady eyes and toothless little mouths, and Teacher Costa pretends to get upset, and everybody laughs.
But I’ve always really hoped he’d let us see it. We’ve seen pictures of the ancient animals, and also rats that live in the City, but no one has ever shown us a PET.
“They use the same growth medium, you know,” Viktor says now. “For PETs and us hatchlings.”
He’s showing off again. Dahlia gives him a skeptical look. “Tell us more, oh Wise One.” Viktor’s always been a know-it-all, but it’s gotten worse since they made the announcement. That he was chosen as a future Longevicist—the only one not just in our batch, but in the last three batches.
“It’s true,” he says, tilting his head towards the high wall that separates the Ed Center grounds from the Bio lab next door. Unlike the rest of us, he’s been inside—he said it was just an orientation, but he was there for three days. “Right over there. The tubes for the new batch are full of the same stuff they use for PETs.”
I hate to admit it, but this is interesting.
“Really?” Dahlia seems to think so, too.
“Mm-hmm.” Viktor knows he’s got us now, so he refuses to say any more. He can be infuriating that way. But when I glance at him, I see something different in his face. A guilty look, like maybe he wasn’t supposed to tell us. “That’s all I know about it, though,” he adds, with unusual humility.
At last the building door opens. Teacher Costa steps out, his arms wrapped around what looks like a bundle of pink fur. I catch a glimpse of big round eyes—and suddenly the pink bundle squirms and drops to the ground.
“Hey!” Teacher Costa shouts.
Everyone starts yelling as the PET darts across the patio. It runs on two legs like a tiny person, past the crowd and towards the lawn. Teacher Costa takes off after it but he’s slow, dodging around a couple of us in the way. Meanwhile Teacher Saski makes a flying leap off the end of the table and runs to intercept the PET on its swerving course toward the bushes against the wall. She dives in front of it, and the next thing we know, she’s standing up with the PET—hanging limply now, like it’s just plain given up—grasped in both hands.
“Wow,” Dahlia murmurs. “Hooray for Teacher Saski.” A few claps and cheers ring out.
Teacher Costa shakes his head with a wry smile as Teacher Saski comes back and sets the PET down on the table. “You’re supposed to keep it on a leash, aren’t you?” she says in a cold voice.
“Yeah…” Teacher Costa shrugs. “That was kind of a surprise. Lately he doesn’t get around like he used to.” He pulls a strap from his pocket and clips it to the collar that’s half hidden under the PET’s long pink fur.
The creature’s only about three feet tall. It stands there staring out at us from round brown eyes that seem bigger than they should be. Its short stubby nose and thin black lips make it look something like those ancient animals called cats, only without the triangle ears. As we watch, it shakes its head and tugs at its collar with velvety paws that look just like tiny hands.
Gasps and exclamations. “It’s so cute!” Dahlia cries, and I can’t help saying “Oh!”Viktor just scowls and scratches his chin thoughtfully.
“Well, sprouts, this is a PET,” Teacher Costa says. “Officially a Psyche Enhancement Therapy unit, but most people keep them just for fun.” Then he speaks to the PET in a softer voice, not like the one he uses with us hatchlings: “Didn’t think you could still run like that, little buddy.” He scratches its head while the creature pushes against his fingers, like it wants to be scratched.
Viktor raises his hand. “Why doesn’t he get around like he used to? What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s old.” Teacher Costa points to the white fur around the PET’s mouth and eyes. “See that? He’ll die in a few weeks, maybe a month.”
Dahlia’s lips make a little worried pucker, and I look sideways at Viktor. We’ve never heard those words—he’ll die—dropped so casually. “How long do they live?” Viktor asks.
“Viktor!” Dahlia hisses, slapping his arm softly with the back of her hand. But I’m not surprised he’s bold enough to ask what we’re all wondering. Teacher Costa exchanges a glance with Teacher Saski. She gives a tiny nod, and he says:
“Ten years, more or less. I’ve had three already. This is Jojo the Fourth. When he dies, I’ll get Jojo the Fifth.” He grins. “I always give them the same name.”
“When can we get one?” someone asks. “As soon as we roll out?”
Teacher Saski answers this time. “No; not til your second spin. First you’ve got to learn how to take care of yourselves.”
“Like that’s going to take us twenty years,” Viktor mutters, and I whisper back:
“It’ll take you fifty!”
Meanwhile Jojo wanders along the edge of the table, the breeze stirring his fur, while Teacher Costa tells us more surprising things about PETs. For example, Jojo isn’t a talker, but some PETs can learn words and mimic speech. “But it’s not like you can have a conversation with them,” Teacher Costa adds.
“Are they always this big?” Leor asks, probably thinking of what we learned about animals: how they start out small and then grow bigger, not like us humans who are hatched full-size. That’s why most animals died out: they couldn’t make more of themselves in labs the way we do.
“No, when they’re new they’re about half this size,” Teacher Costa says. “They grow fast, though. They only eat special PET food—regular food is poison to them. But it’s easy to remember not to feed them off your plate, because they don’t have teeth.” And right then, Jojo yawns, showing a little pink tongue and toothless gums. Everybody laughs.
Dahlia raises her hand. “Can we touch him?”
“Sure, as long as you’re quiet. Don’t scare him.”
So we’re mostly quiet while we make a line snaking along the patio. Jojo moves closer to Teacher Costa, clutching the gray sleeve of his jacket as we go by. Viktor stretches his palm out, lowering it to Jojo’s head as though he’s going to squash it flat, but at the last minute curls his fingers and gently moves them through the pink fur. Viktor grins at the PET, then at me: an unusually broad smile, for him.
Now it’s my turn. When I step forward, Jojo actually looks at me. As I move my hand towards him, he lets go of Teacher Costa’s sleeve and reaches out. His tiny fingers curl around the base of my thumb, and I give a little gasp of surprise. Behind me, Dahlia says “Oh, it likes you, Caspar!” But I’m looking into the PET’s eyes—I feel like he wants to tell me something. Teacher Costa said they don’t talk, but…
A strange feeling of excitement and longing, gladness and sadness is swirling in my chest. A question rises in my mind, and before I can think about whether I should ask, it just pops out.
“Why so short?”
Teacher Costa gives me a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”
“Why do they live such a short time?” Jojo lets go of my thumb, and I scratch the side of his head, discovering little ears there under the soft fur. “Couldn’t they have been made to live longer?”
Suddenly it seems very quiet. Everyone’s looking at me. A single dry leaf blows across the table.
Then Teacher Costa speaks. “Maybe, but it works better this way. You couldn’t have them without a keeper for a whole year when you’re in Rejuv.”
I understand, but still. “Couldn’t we find a way around that? They’re made to be companions, right? It just seems awfully sad to…” I keep scratching the PET while I try to figure out what I mean. “To take care of a PET—get used to it—and then after ten years it just…” I force myself to say the word. “Dies.”
I’m holding up the line. Viktor turns back. “Yeah, Caspar’s right,” he says. “Why so short?”
Now Teacher Costa looks mad. He glances at Teacher Saski, whose dark eyebrows are making that dangerous V shape. Over her shoulder, I see the Director has come out. She’s listening, leaning against the wall with arms folded, a stern look on her face.
Teacher Saski turns. When she sees the Director, she claps her hands—pow, pow—making everybody jump.
“Okay, that’s it,” she says. “Break’s over, get back to work.”
I guess my question will never get answered.
Chapter 3 —Six Months Earlier
Reina mopped her bare scalp with the long gray-green fur that grew in a ring around her wrist. Peering out from her hiding place among the leaves, she leaned against the base of the rock jutting over the stream, and scowled at the human.
You Ageless have the City, she thought. Why don’t you stay there?
He stood waist-deep in the eddying pool. Muscles bunched under the brown skin of his back as he plunged his arms down, then up and out, sending splashes into the air. He cupped his hands and poured water over his face. Then he closed his eyes, leaned back, and stretched out to float.
Reina drew back into the underbrush. Her light tan skin was streaked with dirt and shiny with sweat. All through the hot day she’d been searching for one of her own kind, but instead she’d found this unwelcome human. His City things were scattered along the rocks on the opposite bank: a pack, a shiny axe, and a pair of large work boots. She scanned the branches above, the bushes behind, but there was no sign of Hobie.
Had the human spotted the Little? Or worse—found him, done something to him?
Her throat closed. She had to find Hobie, but she couldn’t just ignore this intruder. He was obviously not a gasher, so why was he in the Forest? She reached for the knife tied against her leg. Her hand closed around it, but when she’d drawn it out halfway, she stopped.
No. This knife was for Rafe’s killer, the gasher. It would wait for the blood of the right human.
She pushed it back into its sheath. She dropped to her stomach, against the sun-warmed face of the slanted rock, and stretched out her arm for her spear. She began to inch upwards, sliding the spear along with her, towards the top of the rock.
She peered over its edge. The human was directly below her now, floating quietly with arms spread. As the water turned him away from her, she saw something strange about his head. Not wet human hair glinting in the sun, but smooth skin. She touched her own scalp, puzzled. Humans always had hair on their heads.
She got to her knees and leaned further beyond the edge of the rock. He had no sense of danger, no idea she was there. That was just like a human. There could be a million reasons why he had no hair. Maybe he’d shaved it. Who knew why the Ageless did what they did?
She knew one thing about them, though. Wherever they were, City or Forest, humans thought they belonged. That they were in charge. That they had nothing to fear.
Well, she would show this one something new.
The skin of her back tightened, raising the strip of fur that ran along her spine. She waited as the water moved the human toward the rock. She rose to a crouch, gathering her legs under her. Finally her shadow fell across his eyes, and they opened.
Shock filled his face. He flailed, trying to stand. Before he could plant his feet on the stony bottom, she burst forward and hooked him around the neck with the shaft of her spear.
His hands shot from the water. He gripped the spear, but she was ready for him. She held tight and leaned back, pulling him close against the rock. His feet slipped and his fighting grew weaker. She leaned over the ledge, bringing her lips near his ear. “Be still, human, and I will not kill you.” He stopped struggling. “You are my prisoner.”
“I may be your prisoner.” The voice plunged through her like a rock in deep water. “But I am no human.” He let go of the spear and raised his hands. “I am a Free One, like you. Can’t you see?”
“I see your back, no fur.” She pulled the spear hard against his throat. “I see your City weapon, man’s boots.” No Free One could wear those boots—they would have been too big even for Rafe. “You are Ageless.”
The human made a sound like a laugh. Then his arm flew back and locked around her head. She was trapped in the bend of his elbow, her cheek pressed against his shoulder.
Her heart burst with surprise. But something else went through her body at his touch, a kind of liquid fire, something she did not understand.
“Look.” He held his palm in front of her eyes.
She saw the scar, dropped the spear.
He was like her, a Free One.