Kaemi screamed, her blood-curdling cry rising to the rafters of their latest makeshift encampment.
“Breathe, you can do it,” Sandy encouraged. There were several other women gathered around, some who probably knew Kaemi much better than she did. But Sandy was the one here now. It was her hand that Kaemi had reached for as she fell to the floor.
“You can do it,” Sandy offered again. She snuck a peek at Williams, pacing back and forth by the entrance, nervous and tight. She couldn’t help wishing he was there by her side.
“I’m here,” Sandy said, squeezing Kaemi’s hand. She felt a faint squeeze in return.
Kaemi tipped her head back and let loose a long, loud mewl. Her eyes squinted in pain as sweat soaked through the thin scarf wrapped around her head. “My baby!” she cried suddenly, her eyes bursting open in fear and panic. Clenching Sandy’s hand, she pulled herself up into a sitting position. She looked into Sandy’s eyes. “Something’s wrong.” Sandy could feel the hotness of Kaemi's breath hit the skin of her lip. She couldn’t help wondering if there was a little craze there, if this had something to do with the pain of labor more than anything else.
“Silver and red,” Kaemi went on, voice aquiver. “Silver and red. I saw it, with my own eyes. I heard Aniah’s voice –"
Sandy looked at the others, puzzled. Did any of them know what she was talking about?
“Aniah?” Sandy said. “Kaemi, Aniah’s not here. He’s gone, he’s been gone…”
“Yes,” Kaemi replied, “Gone. But he was channeling me –"
She was interrupted by a long, hard contraction. She squealed, eyes and veins bulging – a terrifying sound. People from all around the hideout turned to look as Kaemi rent the cave with everything inside of her. Kaemi shuddered, as though she was shaking something terrible out of her, and then went limp. She was gone.
Sandy exhaled slowly, unfeeling as the air left her lungs. She watched Kaemi’s face turn an ashen gray. She refused to blink, instead staring at Kaemi’s mouth, waiting for it to burst open in a survivor's gasp for air.
A small wail broke the silence, lobbying back up to the cave rafters where Kaemi’s screams still seemed to linger. Sandy looked down. A slippery baby lay in her arms, warm and wriggling, like a fish in a net. Sandy’s arms seemed too pale for the occasion. The women all circled round and looked down at him. He was beautiful.
Sandy held the baby for several long moments, not fully comprehending what had just happened. It had to have all been a dream.
Small tears begged at the corners of her eyes. Her lips trembled.
Williams was there, then. His arms were around her, and she sat still within them, cold and confused, as warm salty tears dripped down her cheeks and onto the helpless baby in her arms as they both cried and cried.
Dirth woke, and his first sensation was of numbness. His body everywhere was devoid of feeling. He slowly eased back into an awareness of where he was. He was still lying flat. It felt like the same room. The light above him seemed to be off now. His eyes were still covered by the same sort of gauze, but it felt slightly damp now, as though he’d been sweating.
He heard a creak in the room.
“Hello?” He tried to speak but the words rasped drily out. He cleared his throat.
“There someone here?” came another man’s voice.
Dirth jumped. The voice sounded afraid, and just as unsure as he was. For some reason the presence of another man in the room, albeit unknown to him, made Dirth feel better, not worse.
“Yes, I am,” Dirth replied, his throat still parched. "I'm here."
“Oh!” came the voice. “Thought I was all alone in here.”
“Likewise,” Dirth replied.
“How long you been there for?”
“Couldn’t say,” Dirth replied. “I just came to. And you?”
“Same. Just woke up here a few minutes ago. Scared outta my mind. Thought I was all alone.”
“Any idea where we are?” Dirth asked.
“No sir.” The man took a deep breath into what sounded to be a big body. Dirth heard the supporting stretcher squeak. “They got my eyes covered and everything. But I can hazard a guess…”
“What’s your guess?”
“I reckon you and I may have just died and gone to heaven.”
Dirth smiled. The man was a Pure, that much was evident.
“Mostly on account of it being so white, you know,” the man continued. “I never seen such bright lights before.”
Suddenly the memory of a bright red flash pierced Dirth’s consciousness like a shard of glass, cutting through him so vividly it was as though it were happening again. He stifled any cry of pain. “Were you in the room when the red flash went off?”
“Red flash?” the man replied, “No… no, can’t say I was. What red flash?”
“I don't know,” Dirth replied. “I almost forgot that it happened at all.”
“Hey I know the feeling,” the man replied. “Before you woke up, you know what I was doing? Scratching my damned head just trying to remember how I got in here, or what I was doing right before I woke up, you know? And it’s a good thing I did, or it probably woulda slipped my mind entirely.”
“Where were you before?” Dirth asked. He struggled to remember for himself. What came before this room? The farthest back he could remember was waking up here, and now the bright red flash.
“Oh I was at home,” the man replied, “I’d just clocked out at the plant. Was just getting started with my usual routine – was grabbin a beer, hittin the couch, bout to turn on the news, and then BAM – woke up here.”
Dirth’s mind went racing. None of what the man was saying sounded familiar to him. Why couldn’t he remember where he had been before the room? How far back could he remember at all?
Jimmy swung the hatch open above them. According to his readout, this was supposed to be their exit.
“Oh my God,” Barb said with relief as they clambered awkwardly up through the opening. “I thought that would never end.” She stretched her arms above her head and swiveled a few times at the waist. “Who knew it could feel so good to stand!”
“Ha, ya.” Jimmy said tersely. He was still on full alert. He couldn’t be sure this was the right room until he picked up the prox signal from his glider. He looked down at his belt, the stolen access card blinking red. They weren’t there yet.
“We need to keep moving, and let’s try to stay quiet," he whispered.
“Holy shit…” came Barb’s voice from a different direction. A window of darkened plexiglass revealed an enormous showroom behind it. You could fit at least fifty luxury cars inside. The two teenagers walked slowly up to the window, entranced by the white and purple lighting that was both beautiful and scientific. Behind the glass they could make out big, glowing tanks stacked on top of each other. Each tank had thin fluorescent beams that reflected off the backs of… creatures. There were creatures inside the tanks.
“Wow…” Barb whispered. “What are they doing in there?”
Each wall of tanks seemed to hold a different assortment – birds, fish, reptiles, a few mammals. In one tank, iguanas crawled all over each other, brown and dry. In another, multi-colored parrots sat perched on a stick, with bright blue dart frogs hopping and sticking in piles underneath them. In a shadowy corner, one tank held pearly white rabbits. In another, black spotted piglets.
“What are those?” Jimmy asked.
“What are what?”
“What are those? In the tanks?”
“Which ones? Like the pigs? How should I know?”
“No, I mean, all of them. Everything. What are they?”
Barb turned to look at him. “They’re animals…?” Her head cocked to the side as she wondered whether she was or was not saying one of the most obvious things in the world.
“All of them?” Jimmy asked blankly.
Barb’s eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean ‘all of them?’ Yeah, all of them – what’s wrong with you?” She watched him curiously. As much as she wanted to look back at the tanks, she couldn’t peel her eyes away from Jimmy, the strange creature right in front of her. Who was he really anyways? She'd taken this big leap of faith in him, and he was just this kid who didn’t know what animals were? What the fuck? She waited for him to explain. He didn't. “You have seen animals before, right?” she pushed.
Jimmy broke her gaze and turned back towards the glass. “Yeah.” He tried not to sound defensive, or like he was bluffing or anything. “Yeah, of course.” He paused, unsure of how the next bit would sound. “But… just cats and dogs.”
He could feel Barb’s face peering into his. He avoided her eyes. “They’re the only – animals – we encounter casually," he continued. "They’re the only ones we decided to preserve, for companionship.”
“For companionship??” Barb grabbed him by the shoulders. “Jimmy. Right?”
He nodded once, feeling overwhelmingly sixteen now.
“What – are – you – talking – about.”
A slight seed of indignation began to rise up in him. Was this Pure, a girl he'd just saved, really looking down on him? “Things change,” he said factually, an edge in his voice. “You didn't actually think they'd stay the same after the Divide, did you? When we could finally do things the way we wanted to. And you could do it your way, and keep killing yourselves.” Barb’s hands dropped from his shoulders. He regretted the jab. Maybe he should start over, with more of a historical approach. “Sorry," he tried. "With the animals… we didn't have the right ecosystem. It was a mix of them going extinct, or we think migrating to Pureside –" Barb scoffed. "– they were just disappearing so fast we couldn’t keep up. We didn’t know what was wrong, or which species to save first. So instead of trying to keep them all alive, we decided to focus on exact preservation, which means encoding as much about them as we could in order to recreate them later when the science caught up. Like cryogenics.”
Barb’s eyes bulged. The future.
“Only if we needed to,” Jimmy rushed to explain. “Not like, for programmable armies of monkeys or something. We built a genetic archive. Which is like a seed vault. And we managed to save a lot of them, actually, so now, MAN's announced –"
"Man?" Barb interrupted. "Like almighty powerful man? Pretty sexist for such a quote unquote 'progressive' society."
"Oh," Jimmy paused, processing her sarcasm. "It's actually just the name of our government. MAN. They're initials – it stands for Moderator-Abolitionist-New, which are the different parts of our government. We just call it MAN for short."
"I get it," Barb said, unimpressed.
"I guess it does sound sexist when you first hear it, but I believe that was originally the point. It's a self-referential joke. Like apparently before the Divide, people used to say that 'the man' was getting them down, because 'the man' represented this oppressive force within capitalism, and men traditionally held all the authority."
"People still say that," Barb replied.
Jimmy frowned. "I'm actually surprised you haven't learned about MAN. We have to learn everything about you. How the Puritan House works, what all the economies are in each of your subdistricts…"
"Sure, like what kind of animals we still have and what they look like," Barb overlapped. "Can we get back to the point about how you lost them all?"
"The genetic archive. Sure." Jimmy cleared his throat. "What I was saying is that MAN just announced that for over 80% of lost animal species we can now simulate their basic functioning in a recreated environment, or, for some species…even generate them on demand. Only if we need to, though." Jimmy was quiet for a moment. "It is… crazy, that you guys still have them. It's basically common knowledge that we passed the recoverable state pre-Divide. The only explanation is if they migrated. And then, did well.” The thought continued marinating in his brain. However it had happened, the Pures actually had something that Outsiders didn’t.
He looked in at a tank of turtles, not knowing what they were. Their glistening green backs clacked shell on shell, muted by the glass tank surrounding them. One slow, silent show.
“Well don’t sound so surprised,” Barb replied, “We’re not monsters, you know. Unlike you cold-hearted freaks, we actually made an effort to save them.”
“It’s not about effort,” Jimmy replied, aggravated. “It’s about land. And evolution. Everyone knows we gave you the better land. 'Klammath.' And on our side we had to terraform and do all this work to try and make it comparable for them, but they couldn’t evolve fast enough. Or we couldn't build fast enough. There just wasn’t enough space.” His last thought tapered off as he realized that maybe that was the explanation – Outsiders had out-evolved everyone. Pures and animals alike – they'd been shed like a layer of skin. What was there to miss?
And yet it irked him that the Pures could find Outsiders lacking. Box Office had never said anything about animals, or enviable land, or beautiful girls with blackened hair. He swallowed, determined to explain away the differences. “Who knows,” he went on, “Maybe we could’ve saved them. Maybe technically we could’ve, but it wasn’t just about that. Morally, there were issues. The Moderators felt it was cruel to keep cloning them. Or to keep them captive, or to forcefully breed them, or whatever we would’ve had to do.” He paused. “We believe…” The word felt so weird in his mouth. Believe. “that animals have consciences, that they’re valid moral beings. When that deliberation passed, they became… elevated… to something more than food for slaughter.”
He saw Barb glower.
“And maybe you didn’t,” he hurried. “And that’s OK. Maybe you still need them for food. In which case you were probably willing to resort to doing things we weren’t. So maybe that’s why – or how – you guys still have them around.”
Barb didn’t respond.
“But anyways – like I was saying – we didn’t need them for food, so it was just more about companionship. And for companions, obviously, we didn’t need all of them... so, that’s why we just have cats and dogs. For companionship.”
“Got it,” Barb spat, crossing her arms. “You don’t have to keep repeating yourself – I’m not a moron. You ‘elevated’ them to be your glorified best friends. You think animals have consciences so people shouldn’t be cruel to them. You have morals, while we’re all just beef-loving hillbillies that kill cows for kicks and burgers!”
Jimmy grimaced. Had he been rude?
“For the record, I’m vegan," she went on. "I’m sure you don’t know what that means in your perfect little world, but it means I don’t eat animals. Or humans either, in case you’re worried we’re cannibals too. After you guys left, we actually made it illegal to eat any animals except for the basic four: birds, fish, cows and pigs. But even if we can’t eat them, there are still thousands of animals out there that we save just to save. Out of the kindness of our itty bitty hearts. Or brains, as you'd probably say.”
Jimmy had no answer to that. She was definitely getting angry. All he could do was straighten his neck, which he felt getting more flush by the second.
“What I don’t get,” Barb went on, “is how long all these animals must have been extinct for you to not even recognize them! Fifty years? A hundred? I mean, you know all our state capitals, right? All our 'economies'? What about animals? Aren’t there books? TV channels? News?”
“Our news doesn’t talk about you guys much,” Jimmy hurriedly lied. He was insanely self-conscious about how much the Box Office focused on the Pures.
“Okay…” Barb drawled. “Well good for you. We may not be as 'historically minded', but we just love any news on you Outsiders. We eat that crap up. Along with our animals.” She delivered that last line smugly, a final flipped finger in Jimmy's direction. It wasn’t just what they were talking about that bothered her, but his tone; he was looking down on her, like she was lesser than. She shifted her weight to the foot farther from him.
For a few bewildering moments, the two teenagers stared back through the glass, turning their attention away from each other and letting their emotions settle. Jimmy didn't know how to move forward. He felt a burning heat in his neck just from the thought of looking at her.
Barb, too, despite the standoff, became distinctly aware of his presence near her. He might be cold and robotic-seeming, but something still drew her to him. It was almost magnetic. She watched one turtle fall off the back of another. “Those are turtles,” she pointed suddenly, without really meaning to. “They’re a type of reptile.” She tried to think back to the rest of her 3rd grade science. “Which means they lay eggs, and… that they’re cold-blooded.” She felt embarrassed saying the word 'cold-blooded,' like it might offend him. She kept going. “And those, down there in the little rows… those are chameleons. They… change color, based on their surroundings. I’ve never seen one in person." She paused, then smiled. "They’re smaller than I thought they would be. We don’t eat them.”
Jimmy smiled too.
"Those white furry things are rabbits –"
The comm pulsed in Jimmy’s pocket and he snapped back to his senses. He pulled the comm out and held it up to his ear.
“Saguto,” Jimmy answered quietly.
“Dude,” came Adams voice. “You were right. It’s Davis. But it is not what you thought it was – these papers are crazy, you gotta get back here, Saggy.”
“Working on it,” Jimmy answered. “But while I have you on, can you –"
Just then, Jimmy stopped breathing and talking altogether. He fought the urge to drop down to the ground like Barb had just done. Someone had appeared behind the purple glass of the showroom.