Episode 4

Daniel didn’t know what to do next morning. So he made toast.

The toast was ashen flakes; Daniel was used to grabbing breakfast from the auto-chef built into his microwave. The toast was a way to pass time, a defense against having to figure out what to do. The apartment was—unusual now.

There was still an ache in his chest, but it was more queasy and less sharp. No one had ever told him how to feel about something like this. He could still feel his desire to curl up behind the nightstand and wither away. Indeed, he’d spent the hours of three to nine doing just that. But he was also curious; a part of him wanted to stick around a while just to see what would have happened in his life. And it seemed he could push that curiosity to the foreground. His knot of hopelessness was still there. He always felt it. But for a while maybe Daniel could pretend that he had other feelings too.

Dread Velvet monopolized the laptop and the television. When she woke up around ten in the morning she’d scooted them into a corner with a beanbag chair, and since then had been blinking and muttering at both. Daniel wouldn’t mind except there wasn’t much for him to do. And there were only so many breakfast foods he could eat. Even discovering that he owned a toaster had been something of a miracle; there was one built into the fridge, as it turned out. But already, and it wasn’t past eleven now, he had mastered the fine art of toast. His crust was cracker-golden every time.

This left him living in a state of silent panic. While the girl sat in the other room, Daniel held himself up against the kitchen counter, breathing slowly. He felt a dirty ocean lapping at his heels. He knew what it would feel like soon. The toast was in vain.

Velvet had been sort of nice yesterday. At times. Maybe she would help. He tried to peek at her screens. She wasn’t having any of that, but it did get her to look at him. He’d bought her a few sets of clothes on Amazon last night, and since they were delivered she hadn’t paid him very much mind.

She was wearing the cargo pants and a cotton shirt. Velvet hadn’t asked for anything animated, only plain clothes that didn’t change color. Now she just looked like a south-side girl with no curves to speak of. Nothing like the way she’d appeared last night. But that was probably the point. Of course, if she wanted to blend in, Daniel thought she could have stood to take a few pairs of color-changing jeans, but he wasn’t going to mention it. She probably knew better than he did.

He settled into vague orbit and tried to start a conversation.

“You slept for a long time.”

She resisted yawning. “I was recharging. I have…sleep batteries.”

Daniel hmmed. “I don’t know the human body works that way.”

With a tiny grunt, Velvet slid her fingers over the TV screen. She was typing on the laptop with the other hand. Daniel had to admit she was making full use of both the computers in the house.

“So…” Daniel swallowed. “Are you a spy?”

Velvet dipped her hands into a plate of jelly-covered microwave biscuits. After licking her fingers half-clean, she went back to using the touch screen. Eventually, she shook her head no. But a spy would do that.

“Are you the kind of spy with a lot of gadgets?”

“I’m the kind who doesn’t answer stupid questions,” she said through a mouthful of hot dough.

“You got disavowed, didn’t you? I always wondered what happens when you get disavowed.”

No answer. It would be rude to keep on talking right away, so Daniel waited for a minute of typing.

“So can I help with your spy stuff?” he asked hopefully.

Velvet plopped both her hands in her lap. She flicked up the kind of licorice-black glare that Daniel expected a normal person would use on someone who’d waltzed into their apartment without any notice.

“Okay. You know what? Why don’t you go outside after all?”

Daniel backed up. “What would I do out there?”

Velvet waved an arm, not looking up. “Get a dog so you have someone else to talk to.”

Daniel shuffled his feet. After a couple minutes he had to clear his throat.

“Can I…have my keycard then?”

“I’ll let you in when you get back.”

 

Daniel hadn’t gone out shopping in a while. He kept bumping into things.

It must have been his fault, even though the pet store seemed very confusing to his eyes. The lights were covered in leaf-shaped stencils so that everything was lit as if through a dappled canopy. Combined with strategically placed mirrors, floor-to-ceiling jungle wallpaper, and colored pawprints all over the floor, it made the store look much bigger on the inside—and forced Daniel to hold his arms out to navigate.

“Welcome to Designer Pals! How can I help you?”

“Ah!” Daniel skipped back. The girl had materialized right in front of him, apple-red hair, pawprint-stained apron and all. A small projector hung from the ceiling track above her head.

She smiled apologetically for startling him. “Is this your first time visiting us?”

Daniel brushed imaginary sawdust off his arms. “Heh. How can you tell?”

She giggled perfectly. “I hope I didn’t scare you off. I’m the Designer Pets self-service system, so if there’s anything I can do to help, please, let me know.”

“Uh…” Daniel took a quick peer around the nearby isles. He didn’t recognize much. “Do you have—I think I’m looking for some kind of dog?”

She raised one arm, and images of dogs slid over her palm. “Of course. In this outlet, we have blue Schnauzers, pink Greyhounds, leopard-spotted Dalmatians, and a wide variety of non-allergenic retrievers. But we can place orders for something else. Did you have a specific breed in mind?”

Daniel shrugged. “I don’t actually know that much about animals. I just sort of—walked in.”

“Why, that’s wonderful!” she said with a genuine smile. “I think you’ll be very happy that you decided to become a pet owner.”

“I will?” Daniel sniffed uncertainly. To him, the store smelled like variations on a dismal hygiene.

She nodded earnestly. “People who own pets are 47% more likely to report being happy, healthy, and socially active.”

“Huh.” He relaxed a bit.

“Is alright if I access your information?”

Daniel hesitated only a moment when his pocket buzzed. It was, after all, unusually polite that she was asking for permission in the first place. The going rate for all of his data was slightly less than one cent, according to Firefind.com. He decided to reward her good manners and hit ‘Yes’ in the dialog box that appeared on his phone.

Red pawprints lit up under his feet. The self-service system’s projector slid along the ceiling, making it appear that she was walking through the isle. Daniel followed the luminous shopkeeper down the glowing pawprint trail.

She waited for him to catch up. “According to your information, you might be interested in our newest furry friends. Would you like to play with a Wiggletooth?”

A flashing arrow on the wall directed Daniel’s attention to the proper cage. It was some sort of cross between an alligator and a goat. After tapping fruitlessly at his phone in the hope of learning what information had led to this suggestion, Daniel leaned in for a closer look. He hooked his fingers on the cage until a slobbery snap forced him to spring back, and he went pratfalling into a row of litter boxes.

He grimaced at the shopkeeper. “Maybe…something a little less aggressive.”

“Not a problem! Wait one moment.”

Of course, he didn’t have to wait a moment. It was merely a courtesy. They followed a trail of blue pawprints this time.

There was a cartoony sign on the wall which explained the steps of the gene-splicing process. Daniel slowed up to examine it, even though it read at a middle-school level. The sign stressed that the process was totally safe, comparing it to the artificial selection process which early humans had used to make dogs out of the wild wolf. Just like artificial selection, splicing started with an existing organism and tried to introduce desired traits through trial and error. If you wanted bioluminescence, you might add some glowworm genes. For intelligence, you might take a selection from the well-studied human genome.

Daniel wasn’t sure how that related to safety. But reading the sign made him feel vaguely encouraged. It made things sound so simple and natural.

The self-service system waited by an open-topped cage. Elephants the size of small briefcases herded together inside, some of them pulsing with purple light.

Daniel leaned over the cage until the blood rushed to his head. But none of the elephants looked at him, even though his nose was practically in theirs. Eventually it occurred to him that he wasn’t sure if elephants could look up.

He made a face as he stood. “I guess I was picturing something a little more outgoing.”

She flickered a white smile. “No problem! Wait one moment.”

Next were venom-less black widow spiders. He couldn’t let them out of their cage, but a video showed what they looked like swarming up an owner’s arm.

“Less creepy,” said Daniel.

The tiny giraffes sprinted for miniature acacias the moment he bent down. “Less flighty?”

The ‘Feather Boa’ was so excited to meet new people that it cut off the blood flow to Daniel’s arm. “I hate to be picky, but…”

They made several circuits on the purple pawprint trail. In fact, Daniel started to entertain a dark suspicion that the self-service was leading him in circles. Surely it couldn’t take this long to get from one part of the store to another. And not all of it was comforting to stand in. In one ravine of an isle, unsettlingly large birds peered down from the branches of plaster trees. Another isle was filled with tanks of blueberry-colored water, where a fish that seemed to have most of its teeth on the outside was dismantling a sea urchin.

At one point they happened to pass along the back wall. There was a doorway here, shielded by a covering of sparse, fuzzy streamers. Just as Daniel walked by, he happened to glimpse a row of colored bralettes hanging on the other side. Shuffling his feet revealed more between the streamers: bells, fanciful leashes, and roughly humanoid outfits formed from lace and narrow straps.

Despite the warmth gathering in Daniel’s face, he couldn’t help pushing back a couple streamers for a better look. In the first cage, he saw what looked like a girl in a Playboy bunny costume. She caught sight of him, smiled warmly, and waved. Daniel staggered back after noticing that it wasn’t a white shirt she wore but cottony fur, and that they weren’t gloves but real padded paws on the ends of her forearms.

He dropped the streamers in a hurry when he heard the whir of a moving projector. The self-service system had zoomed back to him. “Feel free to browse our selection of adult pets. All tastes and budgets are catered to, and they can’t wait to meet you! However, please do not hold the partition open. Our location serves children also.”

Daniel had once read an internet article about adult pets. An activism club at the university was passing out petitions at the time. Most of the chemistry and biology had gone over his head, but he could dredge up the gist of it. According to law, an organism wasn’t human just because it had a chunk of human DNA. Even chimpanzees, after all, shared some ninety-eight percent of their DNA sequence with homos sapiens, and the courts refused to recognize any precedent which might lead to citizenship for monkeys. Any organism, endangered and dangerous species excepted, could be bought and sold so long as it wasn’t reproductively compatible with humans—a measure long accepted by taxonomy as a dividing line between species.

But since all the pets in this section of the store were bred sterile, that condition wasn’t very hard to satisfy.

The not-girl in the pink plastic cage stuck her paw through the bars, mewing at Daniel as if trying to catch his eye.

“Please close the partition,” the shopkeeper said gently.

“No!” Daniel unfroze long enough to leap back. “Er—no thank you. No, no, no thank you.”

He spun around, urging the purple pawprints to ferry him away. This had been a bad idea. Daniel couldn’t imagine what had made him think he could take care of a pet. He should have known better. The giraffes knew better. Even the animals didn’t want anything to do with him.

He tried to tap the self-service system on the shoulder, though of course his hand went right through. “Look—Miss? You’ve been wonderful, but I think—”

“You should meet one more?”

They were already at the next cage. It was another open-top enclosure, and at its center a lump of cream-colored fur that came up to Daniel’s knee. He sighed. But since he was already here, and would need the self-service to guide him to the exit, he knelt down.

According to the placard, it was part of Designer Pals’ Starter line. Very popular with first-time owners. There didn’t seem to be that much to it, but it wasn’t trying to bite him or run away.

It was close, fur swelling in a gentle rise and fall. Daniel didn’t want to just reach out and grab it. So he curled his tongue and whistled softly. The ball yawned. Then it unfolded into a creature with triangular sails for ears, saucer-blue eyes, and off-white hairs as long as Daniel’s fingers. The glossy tufts rolled and flashed when it so much as blinked. The animal underneath all that must have been so tiny.

It looked happy to see him, as crazy as that sounded. The ears twitched once. It shook, trying to remove some of the sawdust which had stuck to its belly. Then it hopped across the cage and began to nuzzle Daniel’s hand.

Daniel stopped breathing for a moment. But it was a bolt of oxytocin that had stunned him like static from a doorknob. He found himself grinning, listening intently to the gentle warble.

“Yeah,” Daniel whispered. As carefully as he possibly could, he lifted his fingers through the outermost aura of fuzz.

“I’ll take him.”

 

It turned out that “I’ll take him” was a legally binding statement, obligating Daniel to pay full retail price for the animal he was petting. This wouldn’t have been an issue if he hadn’t discovered that his checking account was running a little on the low side.

That was his fault, too. He didn’t have his scholarship anymore, and even then spending money had been tight. He should have seen immediately that he had no source of income, at least until the gridlock in Washington starting issuing stimulus checks again.

Daniel decided to own his decision, and the pet. After all, it wasn’t like he’d starve. The rent cost much of nothing; he was living in public housing. And he could always eat out of the auto-chef. All things considered, Daniel could afford to buy a pet. It just might be the only thing he bought for a while.

The pet behaved surprisingly well on the walk home. Better than Daniel, actually, given that he stuck to tunnel bridges in order to keep out of the rain. But this breed was usually happy around crowds. Daniel knew this because of his owner’s manual, a slim, laminated volume containing everything he had to know about his “newest family member”.

He strongly suspected that the care bundle he’d been offered at the pet shop wasn’t the cheapest price he could have paid—probably not by a long shot. But he would have had to rent a car to shop around for all these things he needed. He didn’t want to leave an animal alone with Velvet while he raced around for bargains. Besides, the package deal guaranteed that he had the right stuff. It was impossible to screw up. So Daniel came home with a stapled cardboard box full of new things, and a living white collar wrapped around his metal one.

Velvet had accumulated a little pile of print-out maps around the computer. She sniffed the air when Daniel came in. “Ugh. What is that?”

He put one arm around its back. “It’s called a White Kerfuzzle. You told me to get a pet.”

“And you just—went out and bought one?”

Daniel bit his lip.

The Kerfuzzle took a flying leap to the floor and started investigating Velvet’s foot. Velvet bent over to see what was sniffing her toes. “I said to get a dog. Is there an animal under all that or did you just pay for a hair clog?”

Daniel swooped the Kerfuzzle into his arms. “What did he do to you? Are you one of those people who has a thing against designer pets?”

“No,” she said, typing rapidly. “It’s just…not natural.”

Daniel pulled his arms away. “Don’t you listen to her,” he cooed. “You’re as natural as anyone. Science says so.”

The food and water dishes would have to go in the kitchen, since the living room and bedroom were carpeted. Daniel arranged them near his table, imagining that they could eat breakfast together in the morning. The bag of feed was too big to fit in his cupboards. He had to store it under the sink, and he nearly ripped it twice just trying to get it there. Thank goodness he only had to buy these once a month.

He decided to move the table over so that he could plug in the heated scratching post without creating a tripping hazard. Kerfuzzles didn’t have claws or sharp teeth, according to the brochure, but they liked to wrap around warm objects.

The bed was trickier to place. For a while Daniel wavered over various spots in the living room, never quite satisfied. Eventually he was struck with the brilliant insight that he had a room dedicated to sleeping, and nestled it in a corner of his bedroom.

The guide said Kerfuzzles didn’t shed, so he wasn’t worried about the furniture, but he did pick his textbook collection off the floor so it would be safe. After checking that there were no stairs to fall down, and no vent shafts to crawl into, he had completed every step to making his home a pet-friendly environment.

Daniel lowered the last page of the brochure. So what did he do now?

His Kerfuzzle was scampering and sniffing tentatively at every surface. After scoping out the kitchen, it flopped onto its side and rolled across the floor.

Daniel flipped the manual back open. After flattening out some of the creases to make it legible, he read that his pet’s rolling behavior meant it was happy. So that was good. There was no mention of how a Kerfuzzle acted when sad. But maybe that would be obvious.

When he looked up, it was nowhere to be seen. Daniel scanned the room with a worried frown. He was just about to get on his knees and search when he felt a pillow brush his legs. Daniel looked down. The Kerfuzzle was rubbing his ankles like a cat.

He grinned and knelt to scratch behind its ears. Just like his guide had promised, the pet swished its wide, airy tail. Another sign of satisfaction. This wasn’t so hard after all.

“You like that, huh?” Daniel plunged his fingers deep through the poofy hair. “That’s great.” An airy chuckle. “That is just really fantastic.”

The animal gave a garbled response and turned to the crucial task of charting the vast wasteland that was Daniel’s living room. As it scampered off, he noticed white streaks where his fingers had been, and realized that the animal was suddenly slate grey. He chased the pet down, scooped it up and rubbed its coat between his fingers. They came away slick.

Daniel frowned all the way back to the kitchen, where he noticed that the edges of his floor were much cleaner than he ever remembered keeping them. He was missing most of his characteristic dust bunnies.

But—all of them?

Daniel snickered, running his nose into the Kerfuzzle’s forehead. “You’re all dusty,” he cooed. “Yeah! You!”

That gave him an idea. He rooted around his bedroom for a marker and carefully wrote ‘Dusty’ on the bright blue plastic bowl.

He poured some water and food into the dishes using a plastic pitcher, and then sat down beside them to make sure Dusty was enjoying it. “So, Dusty,” he said—and here he paused, repeating it again, just to hear the sound of a name he’d invented.

“So, Dusty. You like the place? It isn’t much, I know, but it’s home. So I hope you like it. Guess you’re going to be here for a while.”

Velvet snorted.

Dusty didn’t unbury his head from the food pellets. Daniel listened to the crunching sounds and gave him a little rub on the head. “Guess you were pretty hungry, huh? It was a long walk home. Eat up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Wherever it is.”

They stayed that way for a while, and when Dusty was done eating he jumped in circles. Daniel threw his arms behind his head. “So, I got this adoption certificate. It says your birthday is in June. That’s a good birthday month. It’s always sunny here in Sacramento during June. A little humid sometimes, but you can get lucky. My birthday’s in June, too—how about that?”

Daniel felt something strike his knee. He almost startled, until the sight of Dusty clinging delicately to his pant leg held him stiff. The white Kerfuzzle took one more scrabble and then a graceful bound onto his shoulder, from there to his head, where it perched imperiously.

Daniel blinked. Then he started to chuckle helplessly. He wiggled his fingers at Dusty and made to grab him, chasing him around the carpet. That was how he spent the afternoon and most of that night.

 

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