Episode 5

The Northeast Sacramento outlet of Designer Pals was a high-ranking establishment. Daniel had been one of thousands of patrons who left with a pet in tow. But like all establishments, it wasn’t free from its own little quibbles. In mid-summer, in particular, cries of despair could be heard through the drop ceiling. That was when the surrogate mother for Deluxe Fun Bunnies gave birth to new litters.

According to company policy this was a good thing. It meant more inventory, after all. So every year, the newborns were dutifully bundled off to incubation facilities. But more than one joke was made about dropping the naked fuzzy things off a high rise. Taking care of “adult pets” was the kind of job one did in spite of an itchy conscience. Handfuls of employees around the nation privately considered themselves to be upholders of old-fashioned family values. The staff of the Northeast Sacramento outlet happened to be included in that number.

Which was to say all one of them. Running a retail outlet consisted in the twenty-first century consisted mainly of pushing software updates. The branch manager was necessary only because someone had to sign orders and statements of account. Signatures made for tenuous job security, but so far every outlet required one human employee for legal reasons.

The manager paid a kid to take the animals in the back out for exercise now and then. But that wasn’t official. And it was only because he refused to go back there himself. The increasing numbers of desolate young men who wandered past his cameras were bad enough. But he held Fun Bunnies in particular responsible for his loss of a daughter-in-law. She’d only been able to compete with a fantasy for so long. And given the manager’s job…well…it was impossible to convince her that he was on her side. He would have liked to do more than pray over her angry emails.

But he didn’t give up. Instead he did small things. When he saw someone heading towards the back of the store, he could sometimes get out of his office and intercept them. Offer to show them around, guide them towards affectionate pets who would do them good. People loved getting that kind of attention from an actual human, and they were invariably too embarrassed to ask for the adult section in his presence. Summoning up his years of car-lot hustle, he could get them out the door with a re-colored dog. And that was one person a little better off.

But it only worked when the self-service system was stuck in an update. It had very particular protocols for managing clients in every situation, and they didn’t really want anyone interfering with that. Interacting with the customer was frowned upon, if not technically disallowed.

He might have been more forthright with upper management if they actually sent someone to speak with him once in a while. As it stood, the fact that he had to pay someone under the table to do his own job was just one more sting.

His younger daughters did a great job with everything else. Not that he’d send them to the back for love or money. They had the times of their lives playing with Kerfuzzles and Fox-akeets. It was why he’d gotten into this job in the first place. With the love and attention his decent animals got, this had to be one of the happiest pet shops in the city.

Mittens, the Fun Bunny who lived at the front of the adult section, had a slightly different take on things.

For starters, it was too dark. Dark all the time. She didn’t like it. All Mittens could do with the lights out was sleep, and she didn’t even need much sleep. It was only bright when people were around. But people almost never came back here. That’s why Mittens waved. She could sort of see through the curtain, and whenever she spotted a person walking by, she tried to lure them into her part of the shop. It mostly didn’t work. But sometimes the lights would come on if they even stepped close to the curtain.

Secondly, she didn’t get out of her cage enough. Mittens wanted to be like the animals in the front part of the shop. People took them out all the time. Sometimes they even walked them around the whole store. It looked like so much fun. The world was so big out there, past the fuzzy curtain. Someday Mittens would go there and bounce around in all the corners.

But no time soon. Even when let out of her cage, she had to stay in her little pink hallway behind the curtain.

Thirdly, her neighbors. The pet in the cage to her right was exactly like her, except with a fur color that reminded Mittens of pee. Mittens called her Baby because of the stupid faces she made when a person came by—squishing up her lips and squishing her face against the glass part of the cage. She passed most of her time making sure that no one paid more attention to Mittens than to her.

Not everything was bad. There was a person who sometimes came to play. When the windows were dark, he’d let each animal out of their cages one by one, and each one got to go up and down the hall. These were Mittens’ favorite times. There was so much room in the hallway that she could bounce three times before turning around. And there were toys—so many different toys to sniff and bat, she could barely keep track of them all. One of the best was a red rubber ball, which the person would sometimes throw so that Mittens could fetch it. She wasn’t quite sure why she was supposed to chase the ball, or why he kept throwing it away if he wanted it back, but he must have had a good reason. And she wanted to be helpful to him, because he was nice.

The nicest part about getting out of the cage was petting. Mittens thumped her leg when she was scratched between the ears. She wanted it to happen every day. Touching someone warm and soft was so much nicer than plastic bars.

Petting could be surprising too. Sometimes he petted down her back, and down her chest, down all sorts of places Mittens would never have thought to pet. She made happy sounds for him whenever this happened. It made her feel incredibly pleased with herself to feel his smooth skin on her smooth skin, just like she was meant for it.

Still, as nice as the person was, Mittens still wished other people would come play with her. Animals on the far side of the curtain got to play with a never-ending stream of different people. Sometimes a single pet was touched by so many hands in one day that Mittens lost count. It wasn’t fair.

They even got to be petted by people kits, and that was the most unbearable injustice. Mittens adored people kits; she loved how fast they ran, she loved the noise they made, she loved the way they bounced. People kits hugged an animal with their whole body; every other kind of person held something back when they gave an animal a hug. Mittens quivered with anticipation when she imagined what it would be like for someone to hug her all the way from the top of their ears down to their feet. Her favorite dream was one where she got to play with a whole pack of people kits.

But they never came to the back of the store for some reason. They got into everything else, so Mittens was always hopeful. Maybe they just didn’t see her past the curtain. She tried to make loud noises when they came by, but her paws weren’t good for hitting things. She could manage a half-decent mew if she really puffed up her chest, but then an old person would come around her cage and scold her. Mittens hated scolding. So she only tried to attract people kits when she thought no one was watching.

It took a long time coming. But Designer Pals received their just comeuppance.

The regulations governing genetically modified organisms were one of the only federal rules to be revised every year. Most years, there weren’t many changes. Just a few sparks ground out of horn-locking in the legislature. But when the 2056 revisions came out, they held a shocking revision. Somewhere in its vast unreadable incantations, or so everyone was told, it banned all organisms which had been designed with a human genome as the base template.

Naturally, the lobbies denounced these provisions. The airwaves were filled with every kind of attack. It was a Republican gambit to crush the adult pet business; it would take a swath of other industries down with it; it was the work of old men who had always hated genetic engineering. But bluster from all corners failed to get the changes revoked, mainly because, for just these reason, the party was quietly praised in many homes. And in the midday silence of certain pet shops.

But it created a problem for the managers of small outlets on the Sacramento skywalk. Panic set in at Designer Pals franchises everywhere. Half the pets in their back rooms would be illegal to possess in just one month. And their glorious parent company, with its usual brilliance and understanding, had no answers. The outlets were on their own. It was more than a little infuriating, really. The so-called ‘managers’ always complained that they never got to make any real decisions. Now they had their wish. Best guess was that someone higher up had a mean streak.

After a week, the manager of the Northeast outlet still hadn’t found a solution. And the time period for hustling the animals off onto unsuspecting buyers was pretty much past. So he called an emergency meeting. Every manager in the region got together for a teleconference in the dead of night.

Each tiny break room was crowded with glowing faces. The younger employees were jittery; the break room holo-projectors were small and grainy, but that probably just added to the atmosphere for them. They did look like a grim Jedi council, steepling their hands to plot a revolution.

Putting animals down would be the obvious solution. When ivory was banned in the 20th century, heretofore-legal shipments had been rounded up in warehouses and smashed with mallets. Tempting. But it wouldn’t work out so well here. Public relations were already delicate for Designer Pals. The number of pets at shelters was something of a sore point. In fact, the only instructions to filter down from high command were that the adult pets shouldn’t be put down. And most managers did want to keep their jobs.

It was suggested they get the animals overseas. But since Designer Pets wasn’t a multinational corporation, it was never clear who would foot the bill for that sort of thing.

For a little while, the Northeast manager championed the idea of doing nothing at all, giving federal regulators a hard stare when and if they came around. The idea was that if the matter went to court, they could explain their lack of options. And then, wanting the problem to go away without controversy, the government would sweep it under the rug.

But some members of this sage gathering had a knowledge of legal precedent. Uncle Sam might turn about and slap them in the face. There was no guarantee that it would come to a day in court, not until the staff had already rotted several months behind bars. So that plan was frittered off to the wayside.

The night was wearing thin to its last dregs of coffee when the youngest manager, a boy valued only for his willingness to muck about with software errors, shot up. His eyes were sparkling. He had the most brilliant idea. These were animals they were talking about; why not let them go? They could roam wild and free in the pristine forests of California. Then they wouldn’t belong to anyone, so no one could complain.

The benefits of this plan were immediately obvious to a core handful of staff members. The boy was undoubtedly convinced of the kindness of his plan. Or, in a word, plausible deniability. Even the cautious agreed that such an excuse would postpone any investigation until all the staff members implicated were dead. The particulars were quickly sealed so that everyone could go home.

Next weekend, a vermillion moving van departed from the midsection of an office tower. It was an economy model, no drag fins, the kind of air car that wouldn’t attract attention.

It made the rounds of Sacramento’s Designer Pals outlets, and met with furtive hands until it had been stacked with perhaps three dozen cardboard boxes. Then it wound a leisurely path across the asphalt grid, slowly losing altitude until touching down at the far edge of town.

A spot had already been chosen; the car darted through, barely giving its tires a kiss of gravel before taking off again. The boxes were rolled off the back near a tiny tract of undeveloped land. There was an unmarked trash heap here, so the packages were nearly invisible in plain sight.

Mittens’ head kept spinning after her box rolled to a stop. By the time she got up, the big red thing had already flown away. She might never see it again. When things decided to happen, she reflected, they could happen really fast.

Her first trip outside the pink hallway! She’d been so excited that she barely registered how scared the other pets smelled, let alone the shiny flying room they were loaded into. There was too much to do. She had so much to look at. She had to make friends with the people who picked her up or led her by the hand.

It was cramped and hot inside the room, but even that was a new experience. Mittens’ box was on the top of the stack, so if she reached with her neck she caught glimpses out a see-through square in the wall. More flying rooms, mostly—little colorful ones, and big grey ones with metal claws. Whole sheets of flying rooms waiting in line. Puzzle-shaped buildings hung from a great blue ceiling, and people riding little beams of light down from their belly buttons.

If the trip ended right there, it would have been perfect. But at one point, the room stopped too fast and her box fell between two others. Now Mittens was wedged between other pets and crumpled cardboard. They yowled at her for the rest of the trip, while the swaying and shaking of the room made her feel sick. Then she started to get suspicious. Where were all the people? Would they leave pets in a hot room for so long? And shouldn’t it be snack time already?

By the time her world finally quit spinning, her head felt like spoiled food. Now Mittens was nervous. At least she recognized the scents of some other pets from the store. So she wasn’t alone. But then again, she’d never actually been out of her cage at the same time as any of them. She liked to think they were friends. But it was hard to tell when they’d always been separated by at least one layer of bars.

Time to find out. Mittens pulled herself up and faced the world—

With a tiny, tiny yip.

The world was huge. Mind-gaping bigness beyond anything she’d ever dared imagine. So much that it didn’t even fit in her eyes.

And just when it couldn’t have gotten worse, a droplet landed on her nose.

She pulled back from the slimy thing in alarm. It was cold, and it smelled like water, but it wasn’t in a dish. It wasn’t alone, either. Now she could see that the world was so grey because there were water droplets falling everywhere. That was new.

Mittens didn’t feel ready to face this on her own. But she didn’t have much choice. This brown thing here, it wasn’t a proper cage at all. Anyone could see that. One side was just a big hole.

This wasn’t nearly as fun as she’d thought it would be. Mittens was hungry, dizzy, and she wanted to go back to her cage.

But no matter how loud she mewed, no one came to turn the water off. The other pets—Mittens could smell one in every box—called for the same help, making whatever noises they could make.

She realized after the first few mews no one was coming. None of this made sense, exactly, but she reasoned that if people had wanted to help, they wouldn’t put her here in the first place.

It took most pets a bit longer to figure that out. But eventually they started tipping their boxes so that the openings didn’t face the falling water.

Mittens’ had already fallen over. She turned around a couple times and curled up, looking out at the vast world which had no fuzzy curtain to keep it separate. And she kept both eyes wide open, hoping desperately that it didn’t get in here with her.


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