Some was late to work again. There was construction in Tunnel Four, the huge earthcrawlers chewing a new gap in the wall, filling the stone tube with dust and debris and clogging the way. A necessary evil; the new farms to the east needed a better egress than half-flooded Tunnel Seven, but still a bother. And Some hadn't left early enough to get past it all in time.
JAMES met him just inside the Audit hive, hands on his lean hips, four eyes narrowed and glaring. “Fourth time this week,” he snapped, his lower mouth pursed unpleasantly as he glowered down at Some. “I'm writing you up, poppet.”
Some cringed, his forebody canted down in contrition. “I'm sorry, Sir, it was the tunnel construction. They're still blocking the way with crawlers, and it's too busy. If-”
JAMES cut him off. “Then leave. Earlier.” He clipped the words off sharply, then turned away, skittering up the wall to his office, and leaving Some to climb down to his own cubicle, trying to settle his hackles before anyone else saw him. He'd tried to avoid JAMES altogether; he never did anything good for Some's mood on arriving at work.
STAN was already there, of course. Some's cubicle-mate, the older nale was a punctual, unctuous sort, always early and proper and staid. James loved him. Some hated him. Such was the natural way of things. “You're late,” STAN reminded him. Some shut six of his own eyes, the remaining four giving STAN a baleful, unimpressed look. There was no way the nale hadn't heard JAMES's admonitions just a moment ago. Instead of answering, he looked over at their in-box. STAN had three files in his hands, already, but there were still four there.
“Wasn't this empty last night?” he asked, tugging one of the long data-strings from it and running his fingers over the knots of the preface-string tied to it. A file up for audit, the knots said, with suspicion of fraud. This one alone could be a good hour's work.
“JENKINS next door is out sick this week,” said STAN smugly. “So I volunteered us to take over his quota too. It'll look good on review.” Half of STAN's sentences ended this way. Some hated that, too.
“We have our own accounts,” Some reminded him, peevishly. “And we'll get more today.”
“But reveiws are next month. I might be up for promotion.” That smug smile again. Some wanted to shred it off.
“I'm not. I'm not doing the extra work. Have fun.” He tossed the string at STAN, who caught it with a lower hand, looking affronted.
“That's not very team-player of you.”
“Neither is volunteering your team without asking them.” Some folded himself to the floor by his own desk, pulling down a file from the wall. “I'll finish mine. Then, maybe, I'll help with those.” Don't count on it, he added privately. As soon as he was finished with his daily quota, he intended to go hunting. Alone. He was looking forward to the peaceful solitude of the reserve already.
The best-laid plans, of course. Simon was finishing the last knot of his last file, a recommendation to forestall audit in waiting for an explaination, when JAMES leaned his head down into their cubicle. “Fellows? Since you volunteered for JENKINS' files today, management thought you might like to help us with tomorrow's conference. It's just some set-up stuff, shouldn't take you more than a few hours. Might help make up some missed time,” he added, with a pointed and sidelong glance at Some, who sat there bristling.
“Sir, I've already made-”
“Mister Grue, it wasn't really a question.” His voice was suddenly frigid. “You're paid for the time you're here. If you don't want to be here in the mornings, you can make it up this way.”
“Of course we'll be there,” STAN slid in before Some could reply to James. “I still have to finish these three up, but I know Some's out of files.” He looked from his desk, with three still splayed out across it, to Some's empty one. “Nice when some people can get out early.”
Some rolled two eyes, and pushed himself up to his feet. “Right. Try to take it easy, STAN.” And left without a choice, he followed James up the wall again.
He was nearly four hours late getting back to his home pit that night, and the reserve was closed. There were leftovers, but they were only hands, gristly and bony and unappetizing. He pulled one from the ice-pit, and settled onto the kitchen-ledge to cut flesh away from bone, spreading the small fillets on the hottest part of the thermoshelf there to cook. Together, they'd be a scant meal, and the prospect of going to work tomorrow on only that was as unappetizing as the tidbits, though they did smell good as they began to cook.
This wasn't how his life was supposed to be. Some mulled over spices as he mulled over his life, sprinkling this and that on the tiny portion. Here he was, eight years old and fully an adult, a graduate of Menhir Arts and Senses University, and he was living check to check in a half-collapsed pit on the damp side of the city, doing grunt work that anyone who could count to forty-eight on their fingers could do. Just because he was a licensed Some didn't mean he had to work for the City in welltimes, no matter what JAMES and his kind thought. Somes were an emergency contingency, highly trained and important. Not slaves without the ability to object. And he was hungry.
He ate the flesh before the pink was completely gone from it, sharing it equally between his two mouths to try to make it seem like more. But it still left him hungry, his bellies rumbling. He tried to settle, climbing down to the very bottom of his home pit, the comfortable nest of cushions, surrounded by the looms for books, but even there he couldn't settle. Still hungry.
Still too hungry. He'd only had an arm and thigh the night before, and neither of them had been very well-fleshed. Pulling himself out of the cushions again, he climbs the walls of his pit to pace the rim, occasionally rising to two legs to look down the long, long cavern of Riverside. Not the lowest steppe of the City, but near to it, Riverside caverns was riddled with pits much like Some's, ancient and crumbling, the stone tired and too well-worn by generations of habitation. About halfway down was the filthy and problematic Tunnel Four, still rumbling with the noise of the crawlers, currently being an inconvenience to the commuters of the third shift. Some worked first, had always worked first, and he somewhat envied the thirders; at least for them, the reserve was never closed. The humans who lived there had to sleep sometime, had to be allowed a period of rest, and third shift corresponded most closely to the surface's night.
Tunnel Four led from Riverside and Depth, the next one down, straight up through Stratus and Micah to commercial Digger Cavern, where Some worked and where his school had been. Above that was only Shale Layer, the political hub of the City, and only Tunnel One led there, nine hundred carved steps from Digger. Layer and stairway both were older than the city, leftover from some civilization that had been there before. The defaced remains of frescos offered clues to the builders, but never any conclusive answers; they showed the feet of humans, and the feet of animals, but any details of the figures had been erased by some long-ago disaster. The only thing the people of the City knew was that they had been smaller than Grues, the steps close together and even, the walls of the staircase polished. They had walked on the ground, and only the ground. It was a mystery.
Some headed for Tunnel Three, at the nearer end of the Cavern. It also led up, but not to the other layers of the City. Instead, it crossed the river, the water thundering and foaming as it raged against the confining tunnels, steaming with subterranean heat. Some skittered across the underside of the bridge as a chattel transport rumbled along the top, bearing its human cargo to the wealthier levels of the city, those who could afford to have their food brought to them. For the rest, there was the reserve, the vast labyrinthine cavern where humans were brought and released, fed and watered and kept alive so that any schmuck with two coins to rub together could buy the right to hunt down one of his own. He passed their gates just off Three, locked now for Third Shift, and could hear the humans trapped inside, moaning their strange sounds, frightened of the dark.
Beyond the reserve, Tunnel Three began to narrow. The farms out here were small ones, run by a family or two, generally catering to some special taste or another. One of them belonged to his family; they bred exotic bipeds, raising them on a variety of very specific diets, and did well enough selling to one of the three restaurants in Micah Cavern. Well enough, but not well enough to support an adult poppet already out of school. Some still had two young sisters at home, rare and precious twins, and he did not regret having been turned out of the nest one bit. But he was tempted just now to drop in for a bite. His fenalesibling was sure to be in the home pit, pregnant with her seventh as she was and staying with their aging father. But he continued past, deciding not to disturb them. He could provide for himself.
He kept following the tunnel upwards until he came to a thin crevice in the rock ceiling. There was no one about, but that wasn't a surprise. From above came the rumble of the Surface, a glaring, dangerous vibration in the rocks and the dust. There were signs of regular use as Some pulled himself up into the gap in the rock, but not heavy. Most Grues were perfectly satisfied to leave this particular tunnel to the sole use of the hunters, the inscrutable Ags. Only they went regularly above, risking their eyes and their lives to bring home enough livestock to feed the insatiable city. There was no law against citizens making the journey, but it was considered crude and lower-class to hunt in the wild. The surface was too dangerous for any sane, untrained Grue to make the attempt just to fill his belly.
But this wasn't Some's first time. Sane or not, It had been the best way for an unemployed student to feed himself, and to get his art supplies. So he knew the way as he worked his way up through the fissures, long fingers remembering the graduated feel of the rocks, the way they cooled as he approached the cold, dark windy tunnel at the top. The air there tasted green and strange, the flavor of the surface. And the darkness simply itched with the threat of light.
Straightening, he tasted the air. No humans here, but they never left the place alone too long. They tended to come either alone, huddled and hurrying, strange clothing pulled tight, or in pairs, swaggering, meeting, exchanging whatever simple products humans had for trade. He'd found paper on many of them, small pieces tasting of sweat and dirt, and strange, acrid powders. He settled himself into the warmest corner, just above the crevice home, and folded his four legs under him to wait.
When his quarry finally came hurrying alone, it was the first type. Single, small, huddled, and female from the smell. Juvenile, even, and his mouths watered at the idea of the rare treat. Young humans were expensive, available only from farms like his parents', and he hadn't had one to himself since his third birthday, the day he'd been Named. Only an event like being Named a Some was worth wasting one of the valuable young chattel that could have been sold for a rich sum. And this one, a -wild- one, had happened on him by chance.
Silently, Some shifted back to his feet, long legs folded, tight as a spring as she drew nearer. He could hear her breathing, her heartbeat, taste her fear already on the faint draft, and he could see her running blindly through the dark, one hand stretched in front of her, the other clutching a tangled bundle. He waited, blinking fast in eagerness, until she was almost upon him before he sprang, the powerful hindlegs launching his long body towards her, four arms reaching to trap and ensnare. In a heartbeat he had her, her small body pressed against his, struggling futily against his grip. She was screaming in fear, babbling in the hoarse, simple human language, unintelligible and shrill as she twisted and writhed, and he caught her wild hair in one hand, six fingers weaving through it as he breathed in her scent. Lanky and thin, her bones all long with new growth, she smelled tender, succulent. Not yet childbearing but close, the perfect age if they weren't usually so thin. But her marrow would be beyond compare. He decided, as she scrabbled against him and shrieked, that it would be an injustice to eat her raw and savage, like some budget human from the reserve. He was an artist, after all. [I think I really need a scene with him and his twin sisters.]
Getting her down the tunnels was a difficulty. He didn't want to bruise the flesh more than necessary, didn't want the blood to suffuse and swell the skin. So the easiest thing to do was press the hand that had been in her hair over her mouth. He grimaced when she bit him, and bit her back, letting her feel the pricking press of teeth on her scalp, the crush of his jaw against her skull. She quieted then, her breath coming wet and fast, thin chest heaving in the crook of his arm as he smothered the consciousness from her.
When she was out, he put her on his back, holding her there with three hands, a secure bundle. He was about to duck back into the rocks when he stepped on something soft that rolled. Picking it up in the claws of his foot, Some found himself looking at an effigy of a human being; softly made from rare cloth, with eyes of some polished wood and a stitched mouth beginning to fray. [I need another word for humans, something to dehumanize them and/or delay the SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE moment. Chattel is possible. So is Kine.] Two arms, two legs, and a loopy scrub of hair absurdly perched atop its too-round head.
There was a momentary twinge. Just as he'd made dollies for his two littlest sisters, someone had made this doll for the child in his arms. He knew, academically, that kine were family creatures, devoted to one another for large portions of their long lives. Parents raised their young for nearly the entire lifespan of a Grue. [Do I like Kine? I'm not sure.] That's why breeding them was so difficult. A single breeding adult could be inherited for three generations before growing too old, but at the same time, it took an entire generation to raise one to that point. They were raised in stables, usually twenty of an age to a room, their sheer value ensuring their comfort there. Warm and well-fed and given light and stimulation in carefully calculated regimes, but not love. Love was the sort of thing that drove one to craft a doll like this. In the child's own image, if he was reading the vague shades of her hair right, compared to the yarn of the doll's.
He looked back down the tunnel, in the direction from which the girl had come. Why was she out here alone? Dams protected their young fiercely, fully willing to die to protect them, and the sires sometimes too. You never found them alone in the dark, even when the young outnumbered the parents.
He picked up the doll, and launched them both down the crevice before she could come back to herself. She moaned and whimpered as he negotiated the vertical descent. He found himself shushing her, the way he would his sisters, and stopped himself with an internal chastisement. She was only a kine, only a half-intelligent savage animal, a first-order ingredient and the staple diet of the Grues. The syllables she made as she came back to herself meant nothing, no matter how pleading they sounded. The bleating of an animal.
He'd just re-entered the tunnels lined with farms when he met more Grues; a hunting party of three large nales, all swaddled in thick black cloth, hoods thrown back now to reveal battle-scarred faces. Two of the three had at least one eye that shone milky white – light-blinded, that eternal risk of the surface.
They eyed his prize with a critical gaze, and the smallest nodded approvingly. “Good shift's work,” he said, pinching the girl's arm. She gibbered and huddled smaller on Some's back, into the circle of his arms. “Not a lot of flesh on her, though.”
“Aye, but a feem like that? You could sell her to a breeder, she seems calm enough. [Feem appeals. Feem and meel?] A year, maybe less, and she'd be breeding.”
Some smiled half-heartedly, tightening his arms around the child. The others noticed, with a shared chortle under their breath. “I haven't had a youth to myself in five years,” he said, sheepish. “Stroke of luck like this? I know I'm being foolish, but I'm taking her home for the kitchen.” He glanced down hill, his two forelegs flexing in an eager prance. He didn't like the idea of her tied up in a breeding cell, suddenly. He told himself that the possessive feeling in his chest was hunger. It was easy because he was hungry.
“Where'd you find her?” asked the largest, checking the swords along his sides. He carried four, all of them jagged and polished. “We might go that way.”
“Up in the square tunnel.” He pointed to the crevice with his free hand. “But she was alone. Didn't see a dam or anything, kinda weird. Silent as the grave, and cold as the crypt.”
They nodded, but began to head up that way anyway. “Black passage,” the leader wished him, the traditional hunter's wish. Some smiled a bit, returning their wave, and he headed downwards, speeding into a lope, an easy-paced canter. The girl clung to his shoulders, her fingers cold and clenched in his fur.
[Do I want to have her get interested in the trip? She can't see a damned thing, and she has to be utterly terrified, no matter what his developing feeling for her is. (Completely paternal, btw. She reminds him more and more of his little sisters who still don't have names.)]
It hadn't been a very long walk up to the crevice that led to the surface, but Some found the return trip, laden with his snuffling prospective meal, much longer and more draining. The little feem clung to his fur hard enough to tug, making noises of fear and occasionally groping blindly at the air around them, her feet reaching vainly for the floor. Once, descending a steep serrated slope, she made a lunge that would have carried her off of Some's back and into the abyss below were it not for his snatching grab at her hair and the cloth trappings she wore. He hauled her bodily back onto his houlders squalling like a bat with a broken wing, and kept two arms folded and linked around her in a tight vice-grip therafter.
Third Shift was more than half over by the time he reached Riverside [I might want to change it to Flowside?] again, the brief ruckass of Midshift in full swing. Some stuck to the edges of the cavern, not wanting to fend off the inevitable offers for his live prize, weeping now steadily into his fur and cringing at every raised voice that reached them. He could see the lane that led to his own pit when a polite cough sought his attention.
He recognized, unhappily, James just emerging from a shop, his own two children, an overfed boy and equally stolid (fenale child) clinging to his back.
“If that's why you were in such a hurry to get out early today, I don't blame you,” he drawled, as if he hadn't kept Some for hours. He eyed her up and down. “She still smells like the surface. I didn't take you for a hunter, Some.” He stressed the name just so slightly, as if Some needed a reminder of his caste and station. And then to compound the slight, he added, “Would have though that your like were too valuable for labor like that, dangerous as it is.” His children snickered, and Some's catch cringed at the sound, finally fallen silent.
“My like,” Some said sharply, though he kept his head below the level of James's. “Are expected to be trained in every important role within the City.” That's what Some's were for; the emergency reserves, set aside from early childhood by the [Citoyen,] the Atriarch of them all. They had access to the Words by virtue of their shared names, when the need arose, and as such were a carefully chosen lot, hand-picked by a council of older Somes. Some's parents had applied for the license only a day after his birth, when the usual tests predicted intelligence and strength, but he was three years old before he was approved. His earliest memories the dozens of tests and evaluations he'd been put to, the long and gentle selection process. Only then had he been Named, and he'd entered training. And all of this so he could be mocked by a pebble-counter like James?
The other Grue narrowed some of his eyes at Some. “Your kind are grunts, Some. A human could be trained to do your precious duties, if they could only be Named.”
Some's hackles rose, the black fur standing up across his shoulders, but he couldn't retort. Pebble-counter or not, James was in a position to fire him, and losing this job would send him back to his parents' home and hospitality, a leech on their large family. He had no desire to go back to working in the farm at all; even if at this precise moment it sounded like the more desirable option. In his mind's eye, Some saw himself straightening to his full height, staring into James's eyes, and delivering the perfect cutting line that would shame him in front of his children and make him crouch, fur slicked down in submission, but the urge had to stay only that; that line locked behind his teeth.
“Sir,” he said, the teeth of his upper mouth clicking irritably on the word. “If you'll excuse me, I'm late for an engagement.”
There was no polite way for James to retain him after that, and Some made his escape, though his fur didn't settle again until he was pulling open the mesh covering his own home pit. But he didn't open it wide enough, and after it brushed the feem's ankle, she grabbed for it, hooking an arm into the net and hanging on with all her stringy strength, suddenly loud again now that she had something to cling to, some way to resist.
“Come on,” he growled, holding onto her with his lower arms, the other two grabbing for her hands, prying her grip loose and carefully trying to unhook her arm. But as soon as he got it loose, she worked the other one in securely, and thrust a foot into the net as well. “Oh, come loose, you monster!” he growled, bracing himself so that he could use one foot, then two to hold onto her and freeing up all four hands. It reminded him ridiculously of trying to get his little sisters off the walls for their baths. “I'm not unreasonable, it's not like I'm just going to pop your eyes out and eat them.”
She kept shrieking, though he knew she couldn't possibly understand. Humans spoke a strange monoglot [what's a word for one-tongue?], mostly grunts and groans, and were incapable of understanding the complex Grue language. A little less intelligent than the domesticated moles that dug smaller structures like home pits and cisterns. Some farmers claimed that they'd taught their breeders a sort of pidgin, but then some farmers also believed they'd been kidnapped by aliens and probed in improbably sexual ways. Some had grown up alongside breeding humans, and even the smartest, a meel affectionately known as Twister, who'd been in the family since Some's great grandfather delivered him nearly forty years ago, had never mastered more than a nearly mute communication of hand-pats and soft sighs when he wanted something.
He finally got her free with a great wrench, toppling backwards into the pit, only anchored to the net by his hindmost feet, and dropped her unceremoniously into the cushions at the bottom. The nest was thick enough that the fall, more than twice his own bodily length, did nothing more than startle her into silence while he more slowly climbed down the wall to the kitchen ledge. He left her there while examining his stash of spices and carefully preserved surface plants. A surface human deserved the exotic flavours, expensive as they were. He knew that she would not taste at all of mushrooms and the bitter note of life-long fear, as the poor creatures in the reserve often did, and a great many from more expensive farms as well. Listening to her scrabbling without aim or success for a way out of the nadir of the pit, he tried not to be distracted from his decision between lovely red potatoes or the sharp, young carrots, and of course the onions. Would a pear be too sweet?
[Should the local humans be French? Having them speaking a foreign tongue might make it easier to sympathize with Some and the Grues than them. Or is that encouraging xenophobia in the worst ways?]
But she would not cease being distracting, even when she went quiet. By now, she'd sat down in the thickest part of the cushions, hugging one to her chest, and was wailing a repetetive nasal sound, her breath coming in hiccoughs.
“Mah-mahn! Mah-mahn!” Clearly a distress call, it had all the power of her small (delicious) lungs behind it, and it echoed off the pit's stone walls.
“Quiet, you,” Some said mildly, still carrying the carrots as he climbed down to join her. “I don't like butchering either, but it's a necessary part of cooking.” His tone was kind, even if the juvenile couldn't understand him, even if she was destined for his stomaches. It didn't follow that she had to treat her cruelly. Like any other animal, humans were better managed when they were well-cared for, calmed and unterrified.
Of course, this was always hardest with a wild one. Her cries cut off as she flinched away from his attempt to pet her wild hair, stumbling away to the far wall, and grazing her hands when she ran into it. Some could see her perfectly well, her eyes wide with their weird rimming of white, round and wide, the centers wide and black with only a thin ring of grey showing. And all for naught; human eyes were too weak to penetrate the Dark. “Fine, sit over there,” he said pleasantly, stretching across the nest. He rested on his folded forearms, watching her.
As silence slowly overtook her whimpering, the feem burrowed into the cushions, hugging first one, then another. Any noise Some made was met with a freeze and another blind, terrified stare, but if he sat perfectly still, her white little eyelids began to droop.
The uncomfortable thoughts returned as he kept watching her. A bow, darkly colorless and filthy, hung half-untied in her tangled hair, so much like the one he had straightened in [sister's name] fur on his stop at the farm. They were of a size, even if this creature seemed half formed with only two each of arms and legs and eyes, with two unsightly lumps on her face, one above her single mouth, and one below in lieu of a proper second. Her ears stuck out like someone had tried to pull them off, and her hair shone pale as a sun-killed corpse's. Her little hands, clutching at nothing in her sleep, looked crippled with only five truncated fingers.
But as deeper sleep claimed her, these differences seemed less and less, for she melted into the cushions with the same boneless exhaustion of his own sisters, the same disregard for anything that might look like comfort to an observer. And as he stared, her hand crept to her face, and she sucked her thumb in her lax, tear-stained sleep. “Mah-mahn,” she whispered again, and Some felt utterly shaken.
Someone, Mah-Mahn perhaps, had tied that bow in her hair. Someone had patched her clothes. Someone, he saw, taking in every detail of the child in a way that had less and less to do with his hunger, had tied the laces of her footwear into bows as well.
Humans cared for their young. He'd always known that, it went without saying. It was natural for the continuation of the species. But he remembered the dolly she'd dropped, an effigy of herself. For a human to have made that spoke not only of evolutionary protectiveness, but of aternalism. Maternalism, since the feems, females were the ones to raise their young.
He reached out to stroke the sleeping feem's hair, and marvelled as she smiled in her sleep at the touch, a brief flicker of reassured contentment so unconsciously sweet that it made her animalistic face look charming. She'd found surcease from terror in her dreams, then. Some realized that he was glad of it. He almost wanted to release her, take her back to the tunnel at the surface and let her run back to her family, to the dam who had tied the bow in her hair and the sire who'd patched her clothes. His bellies rumbled a protest. They sounded loud to Some, but the child didn't stir, so deep was she in the heavy sleep of the young.
Some's mind warred with his senses, his body, and his instinct. Humans were food. The words were synonymous. You didn't pity your food, you didn't reach out to carefully untangle the dirty ribbon and tie it right in a human's hair, with all the infinite care it took to not risk waking her. And yet Some did.
He thought of the way her young muscles would broil, savory and tender in their own juices, heartened and brightened by the shallow flavors of the vegetables. Thought of the broth he could make of her bones, the way her unscarred skin would crisp and sizzle under a glaze made of his canned pears and his precious, cherished store of honey.
But she was sucking her thumb in her sleep, her little lips pursed, occassionally drawing back to reveal little blunt teeth, each seperate and white. He touched her hair again.
“How are you so endearing?” Some marvelled in a murmur, feelings so mixed that he was beginning to lose his appetite, hungry though he still most certainly was. “I'd keep you for a pet, if I could.” But it was illegal, inside the wide-spread territory of the City, to keep a human for any reason other than immediate consumption or farming, and it was considered foolish or even perverted to even try. Dumb though they were, humans tended to escape at the slightest opportunity, and having done so, cause a great deal of destructive mischief. Particularly feral young like Some's little beauty.
He watched her sleep until the call came for First Shift [Some works Second], the deep rumble of the Turning Stone marking the change. It was as old as the [Highest Layer] and the Stairs, but the Stone, at least, was assuredly Grue. It took a fully grown man, all his weight and all eight of his hands and feet, to move it in its water-filled groove. That was the job of male Somes, and Some wished, as he had much of his life at every turning of the shift, that he'd had the luck to be born male. But no. He had been the unlucky sot to be born a poppet, middlesexed and smallest of the five sexes. They were, he'd been assured in his training, the strongest in the use of the Names, but in his eight years, there had never been a flooding or a cave in, or an earthquake, or a shining. And only a disaster on that scale would make the Atriarche open the Names and their power. He knew it was ridiculous to wish a calamity on the City just so he could prove his worth to fools like JAMES, but he was tired of being made to feel lazy and unnecessary.
[I need a paragraph somewhere on how weird it is to him that humans can sleep.]
Humans had it so easy, he thought, with only meems and feems. Raised on a farm, he knew perfectly well how humans made more humans. Meems seemed to have all the fun, if Twister was anything to go by, and feems did all the work. It still astounded him that they could carry the meem's seed all the way to term by themselves. More fenale than female, despite the eggs they made. Someday, if she were going to live, this little feem would be capable of that. He measured her with his eyes. She was his own age, maybe a year or two older, which by humans spans meant she was still very much a juvenile. Some could have a child, maybe two of his own if he'd fallen in with the right crowd. There'd been a near thing, once, and he still mourned its failure. It was hard to not blame himself, the embryo had died in his body, waiting to be delivered to the fenale, his girlfriend Lio. The other mother, Sham, had been ill, and it was probably going to die anyway, but it would forever be a blow.
Would the child's dam be looking for her? Some felt a twinge of deepest sympathy, imagining her mourning as he'd mourned when they lose the child. Imagining her searching desperately. But the child had been alone, already running and frightened before Some had shown himself. Did that mean that her parents were already dead? Or they'd turned her out? What to do with her?
He knew what he should do. He should smother her in her sleep, with that very cushion she was huddled around, and clean the body, cut her apart at the joints with his long iron knife, and pack the vegetables and spices under her skin before putting her into the geothermal oven at the end of his kitchen level. It's what he'd planned, the idea that'd made his mouth water the whole way to the surface and most of the way back. She'd be delicious and perfect, and he knew he was a cook worthy of her as a delicacy. But he looked at the carrots still in his hand, and he looked at her, and knew he couldn't do it this time. “It's First Shift now,” he told her sleeping form, his voice serious and soft. “The reserve is open. I could go get myself a runner, eat him there on the ground, and keep you for tomorrow. Should I do that?”
There was no answer, but he would have been surprised to get one. She snuffled in her sleep, a tiny snore. He sighed. “You win. I'm gonna go get a stringy, nasty, fighting runner, and spend half of what I earned yesterday to do so, and he'll claw at my face when I catch him, and you get to sleep all day in my nice nest, and you'll probably mess my lovely cushions and I'll have to spend the next Third Shift in the laundry, and by then, I'll want to cook you out of revenge. You're really not that cute. I'm just doing this because you're not going to be enough of a meal for me today.”
When he came back from the Reserves, he'd been proven right. The tiny feem had managed to stack all his cushions into a rattletrap staircase and had gained the kitchen ledge, but as humans didn't seem to climb, she was still trapped. He'd had no fears of her escaping; his pit was three times his own lanky length, making it at least ten times hers, and had the mesh over-top to boot. She'd thrown all his pans down into the nest, climbing apparently all over his counters. Her footprints were all over his clean butcher-block table, made of rare laminated wood.
“Chit, what are you up to,” he chided her, and was startled to realize how affectionate he sounded. She shrieked when he scooped her off the top of his ice box, flailing briefly before she realized that he wasn't dropping her. She babbled at him anxiously, her fingers finding clenching purchase in his fur again, sounding for all the world like an excited mole-rat. “Yes, yes, I know,” he said to her, the way he'd once talked to his pet bat. “Exciting day. Did you get into my cupboards?” A brief check exonerated her there, though, and so he simply carried her back down to the nest. “You're supposed to stay down here. Down here for you, up there for me. You don't want to be up there yet, I'm sure.” The table on which she'd left her footprints had blood-channels and a catchment basin.
He still had a fair few hours before the start of Second Shift, his shift. “I have work to do, Chit. I need to read up on a few files, because I have an audit today and I need to be ready. Can you entertain yourself down here?” He rolled all of his eyes at himself. She was an animal, not a child. He'd been foolish earlier, hadn't he? The humans in the reserve were as they'd always been; brutish and violent and crude. Animals. They were all animals.
When he set her down, though, she didn't scurry away from him this time. Instead, she kept a fist clenched in his fur. “Bet!” she said, twice, and tried to pull feel her way towards his head. “Bet, ooh eh mah mah-mahn?” Different from her panicked cryings the night before, the feem sounded inquisitive and worried. Querylous.
Some crouched to her eye-level, letting her find his face. Her small, cool fingers petted him carefully, against the grain of the fur and then with it, tracing his features. She exclaimed softly when she found his second mouth, and then used both hands to verify that. He held perfectly still as she felt her blind way up past his flat nose, and shut his eyes before she poked them. She touched them very carefully, making a new noise for each one she found. “Uhn, dyuh, twah, kat, sank, ceese...” Her voice got more surprised as she had to reach further back, above his ears, to find them all. “set, weet, nehf, deese! Deese yeeh!”
Some sat back, his upper body straight. Counting? Was she counting? Humans didn't have numbers. But she was definitely holding up both hands, her ten fingers each standing seperate. “Deese yeuh. Vou zavez deese yeuh, mensheir bet. Porkwah?”
“That's right,” he said, stunned. “Ten. Ten eyes.” And he touched just below hers with gentle fingers, withdrawing his claws. “One, two. Two eyes. How do you see with only two?”
Astoundingly, she giggled, and followed his example. “Uhn, dyuh. Deys yeuh, jay deys yeuh.” And then she patted her mouth, which split into a wide grin. “Uhn boosh.” And then his, upper and lower. “Dyuh boosh. Et vouh navay pas un nay.” Her fingers felt over his nose again, and he closed the slit nostrils lest she poke.