There weren’t nothing wrong with the woman, ‘cept being ugly. The scan told him that and he didn’t guess being ugly were any good enough reason to leave her outside. ‘Sides, maybe she weren’t ugly. It were hard to tell. He only seen two Doggie’s to compare, and one were male.
Ab punched in the code to call the NHR's and then the code to open the door. The little clanks started, telling him the gears was movin’, then the three big clanks what told him the bolts was being released. He really liked them little clanks. It were his favorite part of the day. Usually it were just practice. This were real.
The green light with the broken cover blinked on and the seal popped, sending in a blast of hot, dusty air. It were hotter than usual out there. It were hard to tell through the little viewport. Outside always looked the same. Sand, sun, and more sand.
The servos whined and stuck and Ab swore. Once a week weren’t enough to oil ‘em anymore. He threw his shoulder against the door but it still stuck. All that sand must be piled up again. Sometimes the wind did that. Ab grabbed his pry-bar from the corner and stuck it in the crack. He leaned his back on it and wedged his boots against the inside wall and pushed. The door gave. Not totally, but enough for the ugly desert Doggie woman to squeeze in.
Ab put his bar back in the corner and fished in his pocket for his card. “On behalf of the Council of Ten,” he read from the once-shiny plastic—“ It were in his memory by his second cycle, but protocol said he had to read it anyway,— “I welcome you to Rests Haven. Please— “ The woman squeezed the rest of the way through and rudely cut him off by falling into a heap on the floor. Ab waited for her to get up. He didn’t tap his fingers on the card, cuz that were rude, but she didn’t move.
Ab cleared his throat. This weren’t in the protocols. Ab weren’t a SRA. There weren’t no protocols for an AB to medic anybody. He were just supposed to open the door, read the card, then push her on to the NHA’s. Seven years, and only twice he’d had live Doggies to practice on and he’d done it perfect both times. This were going to muck up his record.
A big bump on the ugly woman’s back wiggled and screeched. Ab banged his elbow against the wall jumpin’ back. He swore again and rubbed it and edged around the old woman, careful to stay clear of the squirming bulge. He got to his console and punched up her scans again. <HUMAN> Just like before. Ab bit his lip and looked sideways at the fighting folds on the woman. The woman were turning an ugly bluish. Maybe the scans was failing. She didn’t look like no Droid. Could be something new? Ab didn’t like new things, especially new things on Desert Doggies.
Ab’s first knock had been a Desert Doggie. It had been a young female. She’d might have been beautiful except for the one extra eye that stared dead to the side and the crazy look in the other two. The seals popped and Ab let her in. She’d huddled in a corner as Ab read his card. He’d put his card back in his pocket. Nothing left to do but wait for the NHR’s to come get her. She’d looked so little and scared and sad. Ab put his hand out to touch her. Maybe help her not be so scared somehow. She come up clawing and screeching, spit and dust flyin’ out everywhere. Ab didn’t know how somethin’ that little could be so strong, but she scratched him up bad before he got her arms behind her. She kept on kickin’ and jerkin’ and Ab had felt her arms crack in his hands. There weren’t nothin’ he could do but hold on. The NHR’s had stunned her with somethin’ as soon as they got in the door. Ab just held on, her elbows bending backwards in his hands as she slumped at his feet. The NHR’s took her away.
Ab rubbed the scar on his cheek the SRA hadn’t been able to fix perfect. Ab weren't no coward, but he weren't stupid neither. He weren’t goin’ to touch a Desert Doggie without bein’ sure what it was he were touchin’. Not again, anyways. He grabbed his pry bar. It found a loose fold and he lifted up, then jumped on top of his stool. The thing that fell out were sort of human; at least it had all the right parts and nothin’ extra, but it were tiny and wrinkly and a terrible shade of pink with a head too big for it's body. It had hardly any hair at all and were screaming it’s lungs out through a toothless mouth, kicking it’s arms and feet, squirmin’ on the floor.
The tiny ugly thing didn’t act like it could see him, so Ab relaxed. It didn’t seem to be able to stand up neither. Must be brain damaged, too. Blind and deformed and brain damaged. Ab shook his head at the saddness. Ab thought about putting it out of it’s misery right then. He raised his pry-bar up, just over the things head. It would pop. Probably make a mess.
The ugly little thing waved a wrinkled fist and it hit Ab's bar and grabbed on tight. Ab tried to pull it away, easy so the poor damaged thing didn't hurt itself. No sense in causin’ it pain, poor thing, but it wouldn’t let go. Ab frowned. He didn’t want the NHR’s takin’ his pry bar when they came for the thing. He reached out a hand and gently tried to get the little thing's fingers off. As quick as anything, the little hand let go of the pry bar and made a fist around his finger instead. The little broken human had a real grip. Desert Doggies must be all stronger than they looked.
The damaged human stopped crying and opened it’s eyes. It looked at him like it could sort of see him, but couldn’t quite focus. Ab knew that feeling. Sweets and blankets wasn’t all the ALT’s brought to First Day celebrations. The tiny broken human were drunk.
Ab clicked his tongue. Who would give a little thing like this beer? Maybe to keep it from feelin’ too much pain. Why even keep it alive, though?
A beep and a swoosh brought three NHR’s crammin’ into Ab's lock. Protocols said Ab should stand and salute, but he didn't know how to do it without hurting the little thing's hand. He tried to squat and salute but he didn’t guess it worked from their faces.
“NHR 2C16,” the leading NHR said, holding out his insignia card in a stiff hand, then flipped it back in his coverall pocket like he practiced it every day. Ab were impressed. Ab would have figured he were a First NHR just by his card flip, even if he didn’t see the little gold button on his shoulder.
NHR 2C16 looked down at Ab and the heap of ugly woman on the floor and the tiny damaged human hanging onto Ab’s finger. His frown probably had protocols of its own. “Report, AB 6D1. What is that?”
Ab blew out a breath. What were the protocols for squat-reporting? “I were hopin' you’d tell me,” he said, trying to sound efficient even though his legs was crampin’. “The scan says human.”
The NHR frowned, pointing his own hand-held at the bundle. His scan beeped. He frowned some more.
Ab frowned too. It seemed the right thing to do, even though it made him feel better knowin’ that his scans was right.
“Old one dead?”
“Guess so,” Ab said. NHR’s was supposed to be smarter than AB’s.
The NHR waved the other two to pick up the old woman’s body. They hesitated, looking at the little broken human attached to Ab’s finger.
“You touched it,” said NHR 2C16. He had more frowns than...Ab couldn't think of anything with more frowns.
“It touched me,” said Ab.
“You’ll have to take it up to the SRA’s,” said NHR 2C16. “Whatever is wrong with it could be contageous.”
“I ain’t done with my shift,” said Ab.
One of the other NHR’s snickered. “AB’s givin’ you lip, Nero.”
NHR 2C16’s mouth got thin. “Didn’t think you AB’s had the brains for back-talk. You want expired, or you gonna take orders like a good little gearhead?”
Ab’s shoulders slumped. He ain’t never missed a shift in seven years. Even part of a shift. Ab pushed that thought off. There weren’t no point in being a grumbler. That were protocol #1. Discontent got you expired early. Ab intended on livin’ a long life. Maybe more than any AB ever. Maybe even fifteen years.
“Protocols is in there,” Ab said, pointing to the locker beside the console. “Top shelf.”
The other NHR’s laughed again.
“You givin’ me orders, AB?” NHR 2C16 thumped his shock stick into his palm.
Ab carefully scooped the ugly human up, holding it out in front of him. Its skinny legs jerked and kicked and its big head lolled to the side and it started squallin’ again. It had a cloth pinned to it’s private parts that was wet and smelled like pee. “It wet itself,” said Ab.
NHR 2C16’s face screwed up and he pressed himself against the door. “Get it out of here,” he said. “And don’t take the lifts. We don’t need no contamination.”
SRA levels was 18 flights of stairs up. Ab weren’t happy, but he weren’t going to press the NHR.
“AB 6D1” the NHR said as he passed. “Get your levels checked while you’re up there. You’re deviating.”
Ab’s stomach dropped. He nodded, trying to make his jaw stop chewin’. He held the noisy creature ahead of him and marched past the NHR. He was proud of himself, he didn’t even smile when the thing dribbled on their boots. There weren’t nothing wrong with his levels.
The whirring of the oxygen pumps drowned out the little thing’s squalls as they ducked down the service tubes. Ab were glad. He didn’t need no attention from the other AB’s. Not only would that be against the NHR’s orders, it would be something he had to explain, and Ab didn’t do that no more. Different meant deviation and too much deviation got you expired. Just look at Ab-surd. Ab met him at his first First Day. Ab told him about the sun over a cup of somethin’ that made him talk too much. Ab-surd had showed him somethin’ he wrote on the back of a printout. He called it a “know.” Ab had never seen anythin’ written that weren’t printed out before. It was words strung together that made Ab sad when he read it. The words wasn’t sad, but put together they made Ab sad anyway. It were about bein’ alone and Ab already knew about bein’ alone.
Another AB were walkin’ past to refill his cup and stopped. He grabbed the know and threw it in a corner, then he called the NHR’s over. They pulled Ab-surd away. The next time Ab saw him, he didn’t know how to write “know’s” no more.
Ab-surd were the only AB that Ab ever knew that cared about the sun. He weren’t sure it were even possible for other AB’s to care. He weren’t going to find out. Ab suddenly hoped the NHR’s wasn’t going to read the manual in his locker. They’d find more than protocols. They probably wouldn’t care about a dirty wrinkled printout with words on the back, but you never knew. He sped up.
When Ab opened the door to the main shaft, the broken human’s cries echoed up, bouncing off the metal stairs and the flaking paint on the concrete walls. Ab took a deep breath and looked way up. The stairs wound up into nothing. The lights was rigged to come on when somebody moved. Ab had never seen higher than eight. Now he had to go eighteen. Maybe it were hotter up there, so close to the sun.
Ab grabbed the railing. May as well start. He breathed in the stale air. Pumps wasn’t working as well as they should be. Ab would make sure he reported it. Another smell that weren’t stale air hit him. He remembered the little broken human had a problem. The tiny, noisy, ugly human were bad enough company without the wet and smell. Ab went back in to the service tube till he found a waste station.
The soaking cloth were bound to the little thing with some kind of pins. He unfastened them and took it off. The thing were a male.
Once the cloth were off, the tiny broken man stopped yelling and looked at Ab. It had the bluest eyes Ab had ever seen. Even bluer than an HGR’s. It seemed to focus fine now. Maybe the liquor were wearing off. It smiled and waved a tiny fist at his face, but not like it were lookin’ for a fight or nothin’. Just kind of playful, like it couldn’t aim good. Ab started to smile back but he caught himself. He looked around. Nobody to see him smiling at the little broken human here. Sides, there weren’t no protocols against smiling at broken Doggies. He smiled at it for real.
Ab put the soaked cloth in the waste station and pulled down the glass cover plate. He pressed the light button and the cloth burst into yellowish-green fire.
Ab stepped back and looked at the little thing again. Its feet was starting to turn blue. Ab guessed it were cold. He unbuttoned his brown cover shirt and shrugged it off. His inside shirt were enough, even in the cold stairwell. He were used to cold. All AB’s was. They didn’t waste heat on AB levels. AB’s was too big to get cold easy anyway.
Ab wrapped the thing up. It yawned. It really weren’t all that ugly once you got over the shock. Ab started to wonder what the SRA’s was going to do with it but he shook himself out of it. It weren’t none of his business. SRA’s had protocols too.
Ab tucked the little thing into the crook of his arm and started climbing.
The little thing started fussin’ again. Ab looked around to make sure the shaft were really empty. “Knows” wasn’t the only thing Ab kept hidden. He pulled a thin silver rectangle from his pocket and pressed his thumb on the face. Sweet-sounds filled the shaft, echoing over and around each other. Ab stopped for a minute to listen. He’d never listened to his boomer in the main shaft before. It made the sweet-sounds gigantic. He’d have to remember that.
“Melinda was mine, till the time that I found her…”
The broken human stopped fussing and closed it's eyes. By the third flight of stairs, Ab were pretty sure it were asleep.
Ab smiled. He didn't play his Boomer in the Habs. It were a true deviation. He’d taken it off the very first Doggie he’d found outside the door when the sand outside had blown hard all day. It had died less than 5 feet from the door. Ab had only seen it because he’d wanted to check the seals and had opened the door. There he was, layin’ face down in the sand, his arm stretched out to the door. It were kind of sad. Ab had picked him up and brought him inside. AB’s wasn’t supposed to be curious, either, but Ab couldn’t help it. This Doggie weren’t no Desert Doggie, trying to get away from whatever Desert Doggies ran away from when they came to the door, but Ab didn’t ask questions.
This Doggie were dressed wrong for the heat and sand. Wrong shoes, wrong black pants, wrong button-up white shirt and black jacket. Wrong short blonde hair with no hat nor nothin’ to keep the sun off his head. Wrong fair skin that were red and blistered so it almost hid the gash on his head and the dried blood cracklin’ down his face. Ab searched his pockets and he had nothin’ in them except the boomer. No food, no water, no nothin’ except this thin, shiny, silver rectangle that fit in the palm of Ab’s hand. Ab didn’t know what it were called, nor nothing about it, but that didn’t matter cuz when he picked it up it turned on. Booms and swingy noises and a man talkin’ in long sweet ways that went with the noises. It were beautiful.
Ab knew right away he had to hide it. It took a minute to figure out how to turn it off. Your thumb had to slide down the smoother side of the rectangle in just the right way. Up was on, down was off. Ab slipped it in his pocket just as the NHR’s got there to take the Doggie away.
Ab didn’t take the Boomer out of his lock. He didn’t dare take it to the Habs. Not even in his locker at the barracks. Somebody might see him put it in his pocket when he got dressed, and Ab didn’t want no questions about it. Mostly likely they’d try to take it apart. Ab weren’t sure that were even possible. It didn’t have no screws or seams. If they couldn’t take it apart to see how it worked, they’d throw it away and ask why Ab wanted such a worthless thing.
Ab didn’t think the boomer were worthless. A thing weren’t worth more by knowin’ how it worked. Some things was just good. Beautiful even. Even if you don’t know what they was for, or how to use ‘em.
“Don't know that I will, but until I can find me, … A girl who will stay, who won't play games behind me…”
The boomer only had one voice. Lots of different sweet-sounds, but always the same voice. Ab were pretty sure it were a man voice, but he couldn’t be all the way sure. Ab didn’t mind. It were a nice voice and they was all good sweet-sounds.
Ab paused at the next landing. Were that chipped yellow paint on the wall a 6 or part of an 8? Either way there was lots of stairs left.
Ab’s shirt was slipped a bit from the broken human. Ab pulled it back up around its chin. His shirt were a lot less brown than when he first got it. A lot tighter, too. He guessed that weren’t strange. You might come out full formed, but Ab knew muscle took work. He didn’t have as much as most. Mindin’ the door weren’t exactly work but Ab wouldn’t trade it, even if the other AB’s said he were skinnier than a ALT. It weren’t true. Ab were at least a head taller and big enough squash an ALT with both hands if he’d a mind to. Ab gritted his teeth against the pain in his head that thinkin’ cost. He weren’t supposed to have violent thoughts. Maybe his levels was off.
Maybe his levels had been off from the beginning. The SRA would have told him, right? Her eyes was the first thing he remembered seein’ when he woke up. Scared brown eyes with gold bits in ‘em and short curls all around her face. She bit her lip and shined a light in his eyes. She made him sit up and hammered on his knees, makin’ his legs jerk forward. She said she were sorry it were so cold and helped him put on his underclothes. She hurried him over to a chair in front of a computer. The chair were hard and cold and too small. She hooked some wires up to his head. She kept lookin’ over her shoulder at a door while she tapped buttons on a keyboard. The screen flashed pictures and Ab watched the pictures and read the words and pushed the buttons it said to. He didn’t remember now which ones or what the words were or how he knew how to read them or what to do. As soon as the machine were done, a bunch of numbers rolled down the screen and a red light flashed. The SRA pushed Ab out of the way and leaned over the computer. She reached around the back and pulled on something and the red light stopped flashing and the numbers disappeared. The SRA had smiled at him. Not a real smile, but a kind of fluttery smile like she wanted to but couldn’t get her mouth to do it. “Loose wire,” she said. “But never mind that. You’re fine. You’re just fine.”
She pulled the wires off him. “Sorry,” she said when they stuck. Ab didn’t mind. She smelled nice.
An ALT came in the room. Ab wasn’t sure how he knew it were an ALT, but he knew.
“Why is this one already out?” the ALT asked. He didn’t look happy. “I was in the middle of dinner when the alarm sounded. He shouldn’t be out for another month.”
“Do you want me to put him back in?” the SRA said. She folded her arms over her small chest and leaned against the table but didn’t quite look relaxed. “We rushed this lot anyway. I thought you were in need of more AB’s. I think desperate was the word?”
The ALT crossed the room and bent over Ab so he were looking in his face. Ab didn’t smile. He remembered thinking that this were not a time to smile.
The ALT straightened up. “Cognitive function?” he said, lookin’ at Ab but still talkin’ to the SRA.
“Normal,” said the SRA. “Fully developed.”
“Latent functional memories?”
“He’s fine!” The SRA straightened up and jerked the bottom of her shirt down, straightening out the folds. “Everything about him is fully functional.”
The ALT and the SRA faced each other for a minute. It were funny because the ALT were so much taller than the SRA and she had to stretch her neck way up. The ALT frowned, then backed up.
“Send me his readout,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to place anybody so soon.”
Ab barely caught the SRA’s glance at the blank screen. She leaned back against the table again and her face got soft. She smiled, but it didn’t quite get up to her eyes. “I’ll tell you where you can place him,” she said in an easy voice. “You can put him on computer maintenance. You know this one keeps blanking out on me.” She patted the monitor. “Just now, I hit <ENTER> to send the report to you, and the whole thing just shut down! I don’t even know if his report is even still in there.”
“Loose wire,” said Ab. They both looked at him.
The SRA smiled and swept a hand at him. “You see? He’s already assessing the problem. Perfectly functional. Now, if you want reports on the rest of them when they hatch, I’d suggest you get someone on my computer.”
The ALT pushed his lips into a hard line. “Well it won’t be this one,” he said. “I’ve already got enough AB’s on computer maintenance.”
The SRA cocked her head to the side and bit her lip again. “You know,” she said. “Now that you mention it, his report did say something about a high tolerance for isolation. Didn’t you say something about needing an AB at the door? Something about an accident?”
The ALT looked hard at Ab. “Do you think he has the aptitude for it? That job has a high incidence of deviation.”
Ab didn’t know what that word meant yet, but he didn’t like the way it sounded, hissing off the ALT’s thin lips. He made his first real decision right then. He weren’t never going to have a deviation. Or if he did, he weren’t going to let anybody see it.
The SRA put a hand on the ALT’s arm. “Alton, we’ve been having this conversation for 5 years. Have I ever been wrong?”
The ALT’s thin mouth turned up a little bit. “Would you admit it if you were?”
“Probably not,” said the SRA and both of them laughed. That seemed to end the conversation and the ALT took Ab by the arm. “Come on, Ab,” he said. “I’ll take you to your new home.”
Ab stopped. “Is my name Ab?” he asked.
“Until the other AB’s give you another one,” said the ALT. “I’ll never understand AB humor.”
I'll be what I am,… Solitary man… Solitary man.
Eighteen. Ab’s foot hit the landing and he paused against the wall to catch his breath. AB’s was strong, but not as strong as twenty-four flights of stairs. No reason to rush. Ab leaned his head back and looked up. He could make out the ceiling now, just as far above his head as he’d come. Rest’s Haven were real big.
Ab shut off his boomer and adjusted the broken human. It’s head had got cricked all wonky. Ab worried that he’d broke its neck by accident, but it were still breathing. Ab didn’t see how it could sleep that way.
Ab pushed a hand through his hair and stood up straight. His heart and breath were already slowed. He walked to the other side of the landing where the door to the SLA level were. He took a breath and blowed it out, then put his hand against the entry plate.
“Please state your business AB 6D1,” the machine voice cracked.
It were a stupid question. Why did anybody go the med level?
“Medical business,” Ab said.
The door swished open. Ab wondered what the computer would do if he said he just wanted to go on a walk upstairs to look at all the pretty SRA’s. Not that he ever would. Females made Ab nervous, plus you got pain in the head for thinking like that.
The door opened to a long hall with doors on both sides. Everything here were clean and white and open with soft furniture and shiny surfaces that didn’t serve no purpose except to look nice and feel good. Ab were the only person in the hallway. Ab waited a minute for somebody to come out, but nobody did. Standin’ still and lookin’ stupid didn’t get you nothin’, so Ab started walkin’. While he were walkin’ he noticed the pretty things wasn’t perfect. There was still cracks in the paint and threads comin’ loose on the nice chairs, but you had to look closer to see ‘em. A door opened behind him and Ab turned around. It were the SRA’s LH. She looked startled, but then smiled. The smile didn’t quite get up to her saddish eyes. All LH’s had saddish eyes.
“You must be AB 6D1,” she said in a high soft voice. “I’ve been expecting you. Please follow me.” She turned around and walked away and Ab followed, keeping as far to the middle of the hall as he could so he wouldn’t touch nothin’. He weren’t dirty, exactly, but he felt sort of dirty anyway around all the soft whites and blues.
LH’s was pretty. The heels on her shoes was real high and pointy and made her walk funny. It weren’t a funny-funny, but a kind of nice-funny where her hips swayed back and forth. Ab’s head started to hurt, so he changed his thinkin’ a little. Sometimes it were worth the pain to keep thinkin’ about pretty things, but he had too much to do for that now.
Not all pretty things brought the pain. Ab weren’t real sure why some things was more painful than others. Changin’ his thinkin’ a little made it so he could still think about pretty things, but the pain got littler. What else were pretty? SRA’s was pretty too, but a different kind of pretty. SRA’s was small with brown hair and brown eyes. LH’s was taller. Not as tall as AB’s, but tall and they popped out in more places than a SRA. Pain got bigger. Change it a little. Details. All LH’s had yellow hair and saddish blue eyes. This one’s yellow hair were long and had soft waves in it. That were different than the AB’s LH. The AB LH’s hair were long and yellow too, but it weren’t smooth and shiny. They wore the same uniform, but this one’s soft lookin’ grey pants and whispy pinkish shirt weren’t frayed or wrinkled. It weren’t a very practical uniform, especially for AB levels. Nothin’ down there stayed clean for very long. The AB LH didn’t smile, neither. Her whole face were always saddish. Ab weren’t really sure what the AB LH did, other than come out of her office once a cycle for First Day, and she didn’t even smile then. Not even when she were standin’ up with all the Ten, which were an honor.
If her job were to lead visitors around, Ab guessed he understood why she weren’t happy. Nobody visited AB levels unless they had to.
The LH stopped at a door marked “Genetics: SRA 1R97.” She knocked, then stood aside. Ab waited. The LH smiled her sad smile and said, “Go on in.” Then she turned around and walked away. Ab were surprised, but he didn’t want to make anybody wait, so he ran his hand through his hair again and knocked. Nobody answered, so he knocked again. Still no answer. Ab didn’t know what the protocols was for door answerin’ up here, but somebody weren’t doin’ their job. He knocked one more time, good and loud so whoever were mindin’ the door on the other side would be sure to hear him. Still no answer.
Ab frowned. He’d have to do it himself. He took hold of the handle and turned. The door opened, but the room were dim. It took a minute for Ab’s eyes to get used to it. The room were familiar and strange at the same time. Ab were pretty sure it were the same kind of room he were brought into by the SRA when he were first hatched. The computer in the corner and the tables and shelves were the same, but it were hard to tell if they was exactly the same because every surface in the room, including the little couch against the wall, were covered with books and papers. Books spilled out of shelves onto the floor and tables and was piled in little towers against the walls and desk. Papers spilled out of files and little papers was stuck around the computer screen.
The only light came from the wall opposite the door that were completely glass windows. They looked into another room that were so white it hurt. A SRA in a white coat with short brown hair covered by a light blue net were lookin’ into somethin’ that had long eye pieces that went down to a little platform with a round glass dish on it. She looked for a while, then looked down at a paper and wrote something down. She frowned and bit her lip, grabbed the paper and jumped up. She ran to the door between the two rooms and the door banged in. “Damn!” she said. She flipped a switch and the room were bathed in light. She tore off her white coat and threw it on top of the pile on the couch on her way to the computer console. “Damn, damn, damn!” She bent over the keyboard and typed furiously. “Damn, damn, hell, damn!” She banged her fist against the keyboard and the screen went black. She slumped down in her chair, biting her lip. “Damn,” she said again, quieter, kicking a pile of books and kicking her shoes off, too.
“Um,” Ab said.
The SRA swung around in her chair. “Oh!” Her eyes got wide and her cheeks got pink. “Oh my goodness, I’m so sorry. How embarrassing.” She jumped up and pulled her hair net off, throwing it on another pile, then ran her fingers through her short brown curls. She had on med blues, but unlike most SRA’s wore a narrow skirt that skimmed her calves. It looked like it were patched together from parts of somethin’ else. Her shoes had a tiny heel on them. That must be uncomfortable to work in. She smoothed her skirt over her hips and strode forward with her hand extended. “I’m Sira,” she said. “What’s your name?”
Ab felt weird but he took her hand in his. Hers was soft and small. His was huge and rough. He let go. “I’m Ab,” he said.
She looked around her and bit her lip, then nervously started re-arranging books and straightening papers. “Benign deviation,” she said, holding up the stack of papers. “Perfectly normal for a lot end.” She bit her lip again and put the stack on another stack. “Ab what?”
“Just Ab,” said Ab.
The SRA raised one eyebrow, then went back to stacking books. “That’s interesting. I’ve never met a just plain Ab before. I’ve met a lot of Ab-Dul’s and Ab-Ide’s. I even met an Ab-Sinth once.” She giggled. Ab frowned. She pursed her lips and the smile wavered. She sat down at her computer. “What is your designation?”
“AB 6D1,” said Ab.
She typed on her computer and looked close at the screen, then turned back to Ab with a strange look on her face. She jumped up and came close, lookin’ hard into his eyes like she were tryin’ to see behind them. “Hello, again, Ab,” she said in a quiet voice. She took a seat on one side of the empty couch. “Won’t you please sit down?”
Ab cleared his throat and looked down at his bundle.
“Oh my!” Sira crossed the space between them faster than Ab could see. “I forgot.” She peeled back the shirt the little broken human were wrapped in, then looked back up at Ab with shock on her face.
“It ain’t that bad once you get used to it,” Ab said to reassure her. “I think it’s broken though. Or drunk.”
“Do you know what this is?” she said. She didn’t wait for Ab to answer. “It’s a baby!”
That sounded like something he was supposed to know. He searched his memory, but couldn’t quite remember, even though the word felt familiar. It even made his head hurt a little bit, which were strange. The baby weren’t exactly pretty.
Sira held her arms out insistently. Ab hesitated, then wondered why. His head were pulsin’.
“I won’t hurt it.”
“Him,” said Ab.
“Of course,” she said. “May I?”
There weren’t any reason for Ab to refuse, so he carefully transferred the bundle. “Be careful,” he said. “His head’s wobbly.”
“I’ll be very careful,” Sira said, beaming at the little thing and sitting down on the couch. She lay the little human beside her “Aren’t you a handsome man!”
Screws dug into Ab’s brain until he realized she weren’t talkin’ to him. He ran his hands through his hair, rubbin’ his scalp. He’d had more head pain today than he’d ever had in his life and now it were throbbin’ for no reason.
“A baby is an offspring of the breeders,” Sira said while she gently probed its head. “It’s how they reproduce.”
Ab stared at the little creature. “You’re kidding!” He didn’t mean to be rude, but his head were hurtin’ and he were confused. This tiny, weak, ugly thing were how the Doggies looked out for their future? That were poor planning. Must mean some kind of mental problems. They must not get it right every time, neither, or why the three-eyed Doggie woman?
“Does they all start out like this?” Ab asked. “How can they survive?This one would’a been dead in a day if that Doggie woman didn’t knock on my door.” Ab felt a strange big protectiveness in his chest. He didn’t want this tiny, weak, ugly baby to die, and the realization were startling.
“They are cared for by their progenitors until they are grown,” Sira said, probing the baby’s stomach gently with her fingers. “Sometimes even longer until their mental capacities have reached their full potential.” She wheeled the baby’s legs around and around.
“How long do it take to get full growed?” Ab asked, lookin’ at the tiny thing.
“Anywhere from 12 to 18 years,” she answered.
Ab laughed. He couldn’t help it. “They spend their whole life just growin’?How do they ever get anything done?”
“Actually, Doggies live much longer than we Dittos. Up to a hundred years, some of them. Some even longer, but those ones have help.”
“That’s crazy,” Ab said. He couldn’t imagine anything livin’ that long.
“It’s true,” said Sira. “Could you hold him still for a moment? I need to get my scanner.”
“He don’t move much,” Ab said, but obediently sat at the baby’s head and put one hand on its stomach and the baby immediately grabbed onto a finger. It seemed to like that and kicked some.
Sira rummaged through a big drawer in her desk and pulled out a hand-held then knelt on the floor beside them, running the scanner from the top of the baby’s head to it’s toes, stopping now and then to type in some notes on the scanner’s solo pad. “Where is the Doggie woman who brought him?” she asked.
“Died,” Ab said.
“What?” Sira said, lookin’ startled. “Where?”
“In the airlock, ILC, level 1,” reported Ab, relieved. Reportin’ made the pain go away some. Protocols was easy.
“Where is she now?” Sira said, jumping to her feet.
“Probably in the incinerator,” said Ab.
“Damn,” said Sira, then bit her lip. “Sorry.” She moved to the door and motioned for him to follow. “Bring the baby,” she said.
Ab wanted to cuss, too. Protocols was flyin’ out all over the place. He looked at his wrist chrono. The door were locked for the day and now he were goin’ to miss dinner.
Sira hurried him out the door and down the corridor opposite the way Ab come in.
“Where’re we goin’?” Ab asked, hurryin’ behind her.
“The lift,” said Sira.
“It’s the other way,” said Ab.
“This one’s closer,” said Sira, stopping at a set of lift doors. “There’s more than one lift, you know.”
“Not from AB,” said Ab. He pointed at the numbers above the door. They started at five.
“Oh,” said Sira. The doors slid open and she went inside.
“I ain’t supposed to take the lifts,” said Ab, hesitating outside.
“Nonsense,” said Sira. “You’re with me.” She grabbed his arm.
Pain exploded in Ab’s head and his muscles seized up. Ab fell against the doorway, the baby slipping from his clawed hands. Sira were fast, though and caught it. Ab slumped to the floor. He couldn’t stop the twitchin’.
“What’s wrong?” Sira said, reaching out.
“D..dd..don’t touch me,” said Ab stuttered gritted teeth. “S..ss..stay back!”
Sira’s hand went back and her face went red. “Oh,” she said. “The conditioning. I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that you were… that you…” she cleared her throat. “I forgot.” She straightened up and moved away. “Whenever you’re ready,” she said, and Ab didn’t know why she sounded embarassed.
Ab couldn’t tell how long it took for the shakin’ to stop. Seemed like forever. It were at least another minute after that for his hands to unclench, then another minute before he thought he could stand without throwin’ up, but he stood up anyway. He were sore and confused. He never had that kind of pain before and he didn’t know what it had to do with her touchin’ him. He held onto the wall, and made his way into the lift. He didn’t like that he were afraid to even look at her and he hated being afraid, so he forced himself to look up.
Sira were gnawin’ at her lip and she moved as far back in the lift as she could. That didn’t make no sense to Ab. She weren’t the one who were rollin’ around on the floor like an idiot.
“Hit 21,” she said.
Ab nodded and pressed the button and the doors slid shut. Ab could feel the lift goin’ up. Level 21. The top of Rest’s Haven. TRH level.
Sira tapped her foot. “I swear this lift is getting slower and slower,” she said. “It comes out in the garden, though, so I always take it.” Ab didn’t know what a garden were, so he didn’t say nothin’.
The 21 light finally lit up with a ping and Ab waited for the doors to slide open. The doors didn’t open, but Sira looked up, so Ab looked up too. The ceiling slid apart and bright light poured in on them and then the lift pushed them out into beauty itself.
Ab muscles froze again, but not from pain this time. He couldn’t move for takin’ in all the new he were seein’. Green everywhere; and not the drab brown-green of the ILC uniforms. Green so bright Ab could almost taste it, in so many different kinds he couldn’t count. Tall brown shoots reached up to the sky with shoots comin’ off of ‘em holdin’ onto more bits of green that fluttered in the movin’ air. Green covered the floor, and bunched in clumps and in fans that were spotted with other bright colors. Ab didn’t have enough words to describe all the shapes. Ab looked up and in between all the shoots and green and he could see the sky. It were everywhere, but it weren’t hot like outside.
Sira smiled and Ab’s head twinged. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.
Ab nodded. “What is it all?”
“I wish we had time,” she said.
There were too much to see and Ab tried to follow Sira and look at everything at the same time. Sira walked fast, but she talked as they walked, pointin’ at things as they went. “Those are trees,” she said. “That’s grass, flowers, bushes. They’re all plants. They’re more efficient than oxygen scrubbers, and break down less.” They passed a group of ILC’s working on puttin’ rocks along a wanderin’ dip in the dirt.
“This is new.” Sira called to one of the ILC’s. “What do you call it?”
“A creek,” the ILC said, pushin’ a rock into place. “Iris found a picture of one in the ancient texts.” She stood up and frowned. “I’m not sure we got it right, exactly.” She shrugged and smiled. “Won’t know until we turn the water on, will we?” She looked at Ab and then at the baby and her smile froze. “What’s that?” she asked. It sounded like she were tryin’ to be polite, but didn’t really come out right. Ab didn’t really blame her. The baby were a shock.
Sira looked at the ILC’s name-tag and her voice got official. “No time.” The ILC shrugged and went back to work.
They hurried between the trees for a few minutes more before they opened up. “Here we are,” said Sira. Ab almost run into her and his mouth went open. A shaft with steel ribs and dark glass arches rose from the floor at the center of a concrete circle with paths shooting out in all directions between the ribs like spokes on a wheel. The steel ribs reached above the trees and arced out to support the dome roof. Sira pressed her palm to a plate and the space between the ribs where their path met the column swished open. Sira stepped inside.
The room was wide on the outside and narrowed towards the center of the column. There were doors to the left and right, and a desk at the narrow part of the room. There were soft chairs against the wall and it looked a lot like the SRA level waiting room, except this room were warm browns and reds and yellows. A couple of ILC’s sat chatting on one side of the room and an NHR sat alone on another. He stood up when they entered.
“What’s he doing here?” he blurted. Ab recognized him now. NHR 2C16. He must be here to make a report to the Thadeus.
“He’s with me,” said Sira.
“Did you kill it?” NHR 2C16 looked suspiciously at the bundle in Sira’s arms.
“SRA’s don’t kill,” said Sira. “That’s your job. All that testosterone we pump into you makes great butchers, but not the brightest thinkers.”
NHR 2C16 started to turn red and he looked around. NHR’s had protocol’s too, and SRA’s outranked. Ab tried not to smile.
“Who you gonna call when the Thadeus gives the expire order for that mutant and your deviant pet, there?” sneered NHR 2C16. “Wouldn’t want you to get your hands dirty.”
“Why don’t you take it now?” said Sira, holding the baby out. “Why wait?”
NHR 2C16 stumbled backwards and fell into his seat.
“Guess we’d better up the bravery and tone down the bravado in the next batch,” said Sira. “Now, if you’ll excuse me..”
NHR 2C16 glared at Ab, muttering as they passed. “I’d better not see you again, AB.”
“Can I help you Dr. Sira?” said the LH at the desk, looking worried.
“I need to see the Thadeus, Leah,” said Sira.
“I’m not sure he’s available,” said the LH.
Sira uncovered the baby. “He’s available,” she said.
The LH went white. She pushed a button on her desk and the doors behind her desk swished open to reveal a lift.
“Thanks.” Sira went around the LH’s desk and Ab followed. In the lift, Sira pushed the top button next to a nameplate that read: Thadeus R. Huffington in faded gold lettering. The doors swished closed and the lift shook and then rose.
Sira took a breath and ran her fingers through her curls again and smoothed down her skirt. “Idiots,” she said. “I don’t know why we keep perpetuating that genetic mistake.”
The lift stopped, and the doors opened. The room was dark.
“Come in,” said a thin voice.
“Don’t stare at his eye,” Sira said under her breath.
Ab followed her out of the lift and Sira moved to the side and flipped a switch. Light flooded the room.
“Hellfire, Sira, turn off that light!” The thin voice came from a man lying on a couch, cupping veined hands over his eyes. He was the oldest Ditto Ab had ever seen.
“As your doctor, I’m telling you that new eye won’t be functional if you don’t expose it to light regularly,” Sira said, pulling back long heavy curtains that covered the windows.
“You didn’t say it was going to hurt this much,” said the man, shading his eyes beneath white hair.
“I didn’t say it wouldn’t either,” said Sira. “Just that it must be done. Do you want to be able to see out of that eye?”
“Tell me what you want,” the man said. “And then go away.”
“We’ve got a problem.”
“You’ve always got problems,” the man grumbled, rubbing his forehead. “Can you at least turn off the light?”
Sira walked to the wall and flipped off the switch. “But the curtains stay open,” she said.
When the room was dimmed, the man got up and made his way to a side table where a glass bottle held an amber liquid. He poured two helpings into a couple of glasses and held one out to Sira, who shook her head. “What’s this AB doing with you,” said the man, “and where are your shoes?”
Sira looked down at her bare feet. “I’m not…”
“You kicked them off in your office,” Ab said helpfully. “When you kicked the books.”
“Ab, this is TRH 1. The Third Thadeus of Rests Haven.”
“Call me Trae,” said the man, holding Sira’s drink out to Ab. Ab stared. One eye was brown, the other was bloodshot and so light blue it was almost white. The man winked the brown one. “She tells me its interesting,” the Thadeus said, putting the drink in Ab’s hands. “I think it’s creepy.”
Ab took the drink and sniffed it. It smelled like alcohol and sunshine. He took a sip and coughed. It were smoother than
“So, what’s the emergency?” said Trae. He propped his feet up on his desk with his face away from the windows.
“Ab found a baby,” said Sira, pointing to Ab.
The Thadeus’s feet hit the floor with a thud. “Is that so,” he said. He stood up and came around the desk.
“Yes,” said Sira, “And he found it on a dead Doggie.”
“A breeder, hey?” said Trayh, cautiously lifting the edge of the baby’s covering. “Haven’t seen one of them in years. Where is it?”
“Those over-zealous NHR’s have incinerated it!”
Trayh nodded. “Well, why’d you bring the baby to me? NHR’s coulda taken care of it too.”
Ab’s stomach knotted. “It ain’t hurt nobody,” he said.
“It’s a breeder,” Trayh said finally. “We can’t let it stay here. It’s best to get it over with.”
Sira reminds Trayh about the deterorating strands and volunteers to take the baby to it’s people. Trayh says she can’t go alone, she’d never make it, plus she’s needed too much. Sira convinces him that she has to go, but there’s still the problem of who will go with her.
“I’ll go,” said Ab before he knew what he was saying.
“What?” said Trayh.
“I’ll go.” Ab looked down at the little sleeping thing. “I’ll take it to find it’s people.”
Trayh frowned. “That’s noble of you,” he said, “and brave, for an AB.”
“I’ll go with him,” said Sira, surprising them both.
“Out of the question,” Trayh said, going back to his desk chair. “I’m not losing my best geneticist on some crazy adventure.”
“You may not have a choice,” Sira said. She took the baby from Ab’s arms and took him to the window, holding him up so the light rested on his face.
“How’s that?” said Trayh, wincing at the light as he followed her.
“We’ve got another problem,” said Sira.
“Another one?” said Trayh.
The baby fussed and Sira held it up to cradle it on her shoulder. “We lost a whole strand of SLT’s today.”
Trayh sat down. “Damn.”
“That’s what I said,” said Sira.
Ab didn’t like the way that sounded. “What’s that mean?” he said.
“It means the DNA is deteriorating,” said Sira, rocking slowly back and forth. “It means we only have one line left of SLT’s and they won’t be ready for another 5 years.” She looked sideways at Ab. “The AB strands are in worse shape. I don’t know if we can do even one more line from them.”
“Can’t you fix it?” asked Trayh. He was rubbing his eyes again, but Ab didn’t think it were from the light.
“No,” said Sira. “It’s an exponential problem. The more copies we make from any strand, the faster it deteriorates. The AB’s are probably gone, next will be the the ILC’s, and so on. In another decade the only strands left will be the LH and TRH. The truth is, we can’t keep reproducing from this DNA. We’ve got to get some new donors.”
Ab’s head hurt. He wasn’t sure what most of this whole conversation meant, but he got the end. No more clones. No more Dittos. No more sacred Ten. It was the end of the world.
“We all knew this was coming, Trayh,” Sira said. “The Ten never intended this to be permanent.”
Trayh cleared his throat. “I know,” he said. “I just hoped we had more time. Folks aren’t going to like this.”
“They’ll like it better than dying out,” said Sira.
“How long,” said Trayh.
“Not long enough,” said Sira.
“Then go,” said Trayh.
Sira nodded and gave the baby back to Ab. The baby made a sound that rumbled on Ab’s hand and squished through his fingers.
Sira covered her mouth with her hand but couldn’t help the laugh that escaped. She pulled Ab through the door. “We’re going to have to figure out something more effective to contain that than your shirt. And something to feed him.”
“This is going to be a lot of work,” said Ab.
“I’m afraid so,” said Sira. She turned to him and looked up with brown eyes almost pleading. “You can back out,” she said. “You don’t have to come.”
Ab thought about it for about half a second. He looked down at the baby with it’s crap smearing through his shirt clear up around it’s ears. He looked at Sira’s scared eyes trying to be brave. He could go back to his bunk in his room with three other AB’s, eat his dinner— the same dinner he ate every night, wake up in the morning and do his shift, then do it all over again. No surprises, except for the occasional Doggie, no excitement, nothing out of place or against protocol. Nothing that really needed him. Nothing wonderful. “I’m going,” he said.
Her lip quivered a tiny bit and her eyes got sparkly. “That’s great, really great.” She cleared her throat and touched his hand. “We’d better get going then. We’ve got a lot to do before we leave in the morning. Least of all, we need to burn that shirt.” She smiled a quivery little smile up at him and Ab felt big and strong, not big and awkward, for the first time in his life.