by David Thorpe, Wales.
When I was little the VR games featured big animals – elephants, tigers and lions. They spoke English and took me on exciting adventures. They rescued me when I was in trouble. It was a come-down later to find out they’re all extinct.
So I had a shock a month ago when Russ sneaked me into the local vertical farm where he worked as a pollinator. After we’d made out among the tomato plants my mind wandered to this and I asked him what he thought it was like to be wild?
He shrugged. “Guess you either hunted or starved. That’s why people started keeping cows and cats in their houses.”
“Woh. Did they used to eat cats?” He handed me a rice goop from the automat.
“Don’t think so. Cats were pets.”
“Pets?” I asked. “What were they?”
“They banned them when there wasn’t enough food to feed everyone. It was either them or us.”
I finished my snack by eating the carton. Russ downed his last gulp and licked his lips.
“Them or us…”
Two weeks later was my twentieth birthday. My head had been full of nothing else for weeks. Ross didn’t want to know. He wasn’t even there that morning. But I was desperate. The notification is one of the few things that comes printed as well as digital. I scooped the envelope off the mat and stared at it, hands trembling, reading over and over ‘From the Office of Population Management’ on the outside. Mum fidgeted beside me, eyes darting between the envelope and my face.
I wanted a baby. Ross knew that, although I’d never actually told anyone. He could see it in the way I watched women with babies for too long, in the way sometimes my fingertips would absently circle my belly. I hated the idea of living my life and never having a little one to care for.
“Oh, just get on with it!” Mum grabbed it from my hands and ripped the top off the envelope. I snatched it back and pulled the letter out. My eyes zigzagged over the typescript. My heart fell to the ground floor. My chin dropped onto my chest. The paper floated to the rug. Mum’s hand touched my shoulder. I jumped up and ran out.
I let the wind cool my hot face. I tried to focus all of my mind on pushing my legs up and down. My knuckles went white. None of it worked. “Why, why, why?” my head spun in time with the pedals. “It’s not fair!” I screamed at my friend Sharryl.
“It’s not unfair either,” she replied. “Fifty-fifty. Could go either way. Luck of the draw.”
“I don’t care! I want a baby!”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I want a baby so much!”
“It’s OK. It’s just luck.”
“What if it isn’t luck?” I yelled back.
“What do you mean?” she said.
Then she said, “I got my letter last week.”
“You didn’t tell me!” I shrieked. “What did it say?”
I heard humming.
“I’ll let you cuddle mine!” she said.
I cut the call. I wove through the crowds, in and out of the tumult, leaving our neighbourhood. The next one was almost identical to mine. I’d been here before. Same metro, same outlets, same blocks, same park. Same swarms of humans to tangle with. My average speed must have been barely ten kilometres an hour. The following neighbourhood was similar too, apart from some older buildings, and the vines and fruit trees were wilting up the towers. Hundreds and thousands of people. Families, each with one child per two adults.
I punished the pedals, following the path parallel to the rapid transit. The gradient rose, it became harder, but I didn’t fail.
I called Russ. “It’s tough,” he said. “But look on the bright side.”
“What bright side?”
“You know what I heard?”
“Remember they test your DNA and only give certain types the chance to reproduce.”
“You’re saying my DNA is crap now?”
“I am most definitely not saying that. Think about it.They want people who don’t mind being cooped up…”
“You mean.. like wild animals in zoos…? So they pick the people–”
“– who score on attributes of calm, rational, sociable, all other things being equal.”
“Ha! You said it, Carnie.”
Hunger stopped me at a kiosk. The goop was carob-flavoured. Nutritiously, I knew it was perfect – pesticide free. The pests had died out with the pollinators. Who needed them? They belonged to the primitive, untamed past.
I kept cycling. I knew the city went on forever, over every inch of land not covered by the risen seas or impossible in summer. My leg muscles burned, but it took my mind off the pain inside. My future was now a long chain of emptinesses, with only robots to tend me when I got old.
The city functioned day and night and I kept on through both. I don’t know where I got the energy from. Adrenaline. Flight or fight. I know which mine was.
I hadn’t noticed the previous twenty kilometres but it seemed like the people had thinned out and the buildings had changed. I had to get off and lift the bike over a barrier. Then I dropped. Toppled sideways. Picked myself and the bike off the lane and dragged us both behind a wall. I collapsed again and fell dead asleep.
When I woke it was dark again – I mean really dark. I scrunched my legs up to my chin. I backed up to the wall, pulling my bike in front of me for protection. I’d never been in such complete blackness. It was like the world had vanished. My throat and chest tightened. I could hardly draw breath.
I could make out the sounds of the city far away, so it must still be there. The towers above me were black rectangles of nothing and in between their summits I could see white dots in a slightly paler black. I’d seen pictures of those. They must be stars. They didn’t look so far away.
My hands could feel weeds growing through cracks in the ground beneath me. What was this neighbourhood? Why were there no people here?
I reached for my device. Dead. On my bike was a light. I removed it and shone it on the building next to me. It was being deconstructed. Opposite was a building site. The whole neighbourhood was in renewal. But there were no machines beavering away, let alone a person. Nothing moved. Perhaps there was a power cut. That would mean there weren’t any sensors or CCTV working. The Cloud couldn’t see me. Nobody would know I was here.
I began shaking. I clutched myself so tight my fingernails were puncturing the skin of my arms. It took a few moments for this to reach my brain. Calm, I told myself. Breathe deeper. I pushed myself upright. I turned off the lamp to preserve the battery. But I wasn’t going to move from this spot. It felt safer to stay with my back to the wall even though I had no idea what was around me.
I’d never been on my own before. I’d never been so lost, or in the dark, or without power, or without any connection to the Cloud. I was just me. And the stars and weeds and abandoned buildings.
I felt something brush my hand and shrieked. I nearly fell over my bike. Carefully I felt back. It was only another weed. My breathing slowed down again, but not much. The plant was a metre high and smelt dirty and fresh at the same time. It was odd that there existed a plant that you couldn’t eat. What was the point of that? Every plant growing in the city was edible or useful in some way.
I realised I could call. I could call for help. But if I did how would I know that whoever heard me would be friendly?
I felt raindrops. I couldn’t stay outside. I let my hands guide me along the wall. Every pore tingled, alert to any sound, changes in odours on the breeze, the tickle of the rain on my face. I learnt to squint sideways, the better to see. My fingers met the end of the wall. I trod carefully around it, testing every step before placing full weight upon it. From the echoes of my footfalls and the absence of rain I sensed that I had passed into a small indoor space.
Even before I heard a sound, I knew that I was not alone. My muscles tensed. I swallowed my breath, and slid as silently as I could from the doorway so as not to offer a silhouette. Very quiet, fast breathing reached my ears. Scuffles or footfalls. That could not be a person, that was too slight.
“Hello?” I whispered.
I jumped thirty centimetres as something brushed against my leg.
I switched on my light. The beam fell on a tiger. It looked like a tiger, with bands of lighter and darker orange. But it was smaller than I thought tigers must have been. Its eyes shone bright silver in the light of the torch, as if an alien fire burned inside its head.
If that was a question, what was the answer?
The tiger stalked across rubble-strewn tiles. It disappeared behind a counter on the far side. Fanning my light around for any sign of danger, I followed it. The tiger had sat down and was again staring at me.
Next to it was a bundle of rags, perhaps a coat someone had left behind, and on the coat, something was squirming. Something dark and shiny. I didn’t want to know, yet I couldn’t help but kneel to take a closer look.
Their fur was wet and matted and their eyes were tightly shut. Perhaps they had just been born. They were clumsily wriggling about, and trying to climb on top of each other, and falling off.
The mother curled herself on her side around them, and they burrowed up to her, seeking out the proffered nipples, blind like me in this place. How did they know what to do? As they suckled, the mother tiger’s eyes stared into mine. She looked so thin. How could she feed them? She needed food herself. But what could she eat? How had she even come to be here? It was forbidden, impossible. But here she was. With babies.
I felt her eyes boring into mine as her five little ones sucked her life to feed their own.
I knew what her question was. But didn’t tigers eat meat? Where on Earth would I find some? Rodents? They were pests, and were no more, I’d been told.
But the tiger wasn’t supposed to exist either.
My heartbeat had slowed. I rose to my feet.
I spoke to the tiger. “Don’t worry. I’ll find something for you.”