Will Miller loved his family- he just loved his Vocation more.
As Lead Animal Handler in the Grasslands section of Deck Ten, Will spent endless hours tracking the breeding patterns of emus. Days passed as he monitored territory disputes between anteaters and photographed ant colonies. As the finches chirp-chirped in the trees, his wife and son waited for him to come home.
He told them not to wait, but still they did. Will felt bad about that, of course, but his place was here, standing among the tall grasses while zebras and antelopes grazed in the distance. He’d been told his boy Theo had taken to watching people pass by in the hallways, staring at them in ways that made them uncomfortable, with eyes as wide as an owl. A few of them had even asked Will to talk to the boy about his behavior, and he assured them he would, even though he had no intention of doing so.
The truth was it made him proud to know his son was following in his father’s footsteps, watching the animals.
A pair of white-tailed deer drank from the small stream that ran through the Grasslands. Like everything else on the Ark the stream was a lie, recycled water pumped in by hidden pipes and kept free of bacteria by carefully monitored levels of biochems. A dozen, interwoven systems were in place just to make sure the deer had a stream to drink from, and the only way to keep the deer happy was to make sure they never knew about any of it.
Just like the people.
As Will recorded a clip of the deer for later examination, a pair of men walked up behind him. Their movement spooked the animals and the deer ran off, bounding toward the tree line. Will stopped the screen from recording. “If Haz sent you, tell him to screw off,” he said without looking. “Right after you screw off.”
The voice was deeper, more serious than expected. He turned to see two Peace Officers in full uniform, Nicolai and Kash, staring back at him with pissed-off looks carved into their brows. “Oh,” he muttered, not knowing what else to say.
“Is there a dispute requisition you need to file,” Officer Nicolai asked, shifting in the grass. Will cleared his throat and attempted to regain some composure.
“It’s Abdul Haz, he keeps bothering me about this book he’s writing. Anyway, what can I help you with?”
Officer Nicolai seemed to relax. Officer Kash was a different matter. “What’s your name,” he asked brusquely.
“Miller. Will Miller.”
“Have you had any escapes, Will Miller?”
“Nothing I’m aware of. Why, was an animal spotted on one of the other decks?
“Not directly,” Nicolai replied, and Will grunted.
“Let me guess, someone found droppings and freaked out. I’ll save you some trouble: it’s a mouse.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that. And a lot bigger.”
Will raised an eyebrow. “What’s this about?”
Nicolai glanced at his partner, who nodded back. “There’s been a disappearance,” he said.
“What? Who?” Will did his best to act shocked. The news of what had been discovered on Storage Deck had spread through the ship like fire in dry leaves. What actually surprised him was the Peace Officers thinking an animal might be responsible. Still, he had to keep the shock and outrage going for appearance’s sake.
“My God. I just saw him the other day. We were talking about a field trip for the students,” he said with wide-eyed concern. “You don’t think I-”
Nicolai waved off the thought. “You’re not in trouble, we’re just trying to figure this thing out.”
“Well, good. But you think an animal did it?”
“From the markings it looks like an attack.”
He paused for dramatic effect. “I thought you said he disappeared.”
“Not all of him,” Kash replied, almost smugly.
“Holy shit,” Will gasped. When did he become such a good actor? “So this is a murder investigation.”
Nicolai and Kash glanced at each other. “It’s an inquiry.”
“There’s never been a murder on the Ark.”
“And there still hasn’t as far as we’re aware. Like we said, it looks to be an animal. Even if Baptiste is dead- which he isn’t- animals don’t commit murder last I checked.”
Will’s eyes searched the trees for answers. “But how do you know? What if we’re living with a killer?”
“We’re wasting our time.” Officer Kash, clearly growing impatient, pulled up a photo on his screen and showed it to him. In it a badly damaged human arm sat in a pool of its own blood. “Do you know what animal could have done this?”
The sight made Will gag, no acting necessary. As he spit up into the dirt, he heard Officer Nicolai chastise his partner. “He’s the animal expert, he should know what they’re capable of,” Kash shot back.
“You can be a little nicer about it.”
“It’s an inquiry, not a nice chat over tea.”
Will wiped his mouth and straightened himself up. He heard an owl hoot nearby and thought of his son. “It’s fine, you just caught me off guard.” He asked the officer to see his screen so he could get a closer look. In his hands, he studied the image closely. “Those are claw marks,” he said, genuinely surprised. “Large ones.”
Officer Nicolai nodded. “That was our theory as well. Do you have any animals that could do something like that?”
“What, here? No. No chance. Whatever did that is extremely dangerous. We wouldn’t be stupid enough to breed an animal like that.”
Officer Kash snatched his screen back. “This is an ark, isn’t it? I thought we had two of everything.”
Will wanted to tell the officer how much of an idiot he was, but decided against it. “Do you see any elephants walking around the ship,” he asked. “How about humpback whales?”
“Whales don’t walk,” Kash replied proudly. Will took a breath and steeled himself to deal with the uniformed moron.
“Ninety-nine percent of the life on board is in a glass vial,” he explained. “The environments are more for education and study than anything else. Like a museum where you occasionally get to eat the exhibits.” He turned to Officer Nicolai, the smarter of the two by a thin margin. “Which means unless someone is cloning apex predators for the fun of it, there’s no way anything capable of that is on this ship,” he said, pointing to the screen.
The taller Officer seemed to understand. “We need to check the Genlabs.”
“They’re closed right now,” Will said.
“Tomorrow then. Thank you for your time, Mister Miller.”
“Of course. Good luck catching whatever that is. I just hope that guy is okay.”
“So do we,” the Officer replied. They thanked him again and left him to his work. Will watched them go, listening to the grasshoppers play their wing songs in the fake sun. Then he took out his screen to make a call.
The others needed to know about this.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.
Waking life had become a fever dream seen through opioid eyes, depressive respiration coupled with lethargic prayer. All those words, clearing the pathways of phlegm and blood. Fear tolerance reduction accomplished via vein scraping followed by anti-coagulant baths and physical trauma to inspire myocardial bifurcation. All those words. Hand-eye coordination via electrolocation. Local brain death embolus and revival via excitation. Blood type incantations and an end to outdated musculature. All those words. Psychotropic insufflation and toxic stimulation.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.
Fight or flight response had surpassed surgical pain threshold. Infarction laughter successfully controlled by alternating current. Specialized distortion fields. Burst duration coders grafted to thermoreceptors. Sympathetic ossification and somatotopic remapping. Chemically-inspired genetic drift. Strongly urged polydactylism leading to manic meiosis. Violent recombination. Sacrificial rites of the cenancestors.
All those words were a thunder that shook Baptiste apart. The mind was lost but the brain lived on.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Pain in. Pain out.
Kash may have been done for the day, having lost all patience for what he considered a useless line of inquiry, but Nicolai wasn’t quite finished. There was one more opinion he wanted, one final bit of input from the live animal angle before he started looking into the Genlabs. But more importantly than that, he wanted to see an old friend.
He found her in the chicken coop, the sound of clucking and shuffling chickens echoing off the high ceiling. She was bent over an incubator, helping a hatchling break free of its egg. Cornelia had been through some rough years with all of her personal problems. She still looked good, but there was no denying the sadness that had crept into her eyes.
“Can I eat it yet,” Nicolai said of the chirping bird, and Cornelia nearly jumped. She smiled from ear to ear as she walked over, removing her gloves. “Sorry to drop in unannounced,” he added.
“Are you kidding? You’re the good kind of visitor.” There was something more there, something she didn’t say, but he didn’t push it. She gave him a hug, the kind he really needed.
“How’s Imani? I didn’t see her in the fields. There was just some young, hunky type flexing his muscles.”
“You just missed her, actually. But she’s the same. Still the undisputed queen of the farm. The guy is Aaron.”
“Aaron the farmboy. Sounds dreamy,” he teased.
“Keep it down, he’ll hear you,” she said, and the two shared a laugh. “So anyway, how’s the Vocation going?”
“Way too interesting.”
She nodded. “I heard about the teacher. Is he…?”
“We’re giving him the benefit of the doubt. Between you and me, it doesn’t look great.” He’d always told her more than he was supposed to. More than he told anyone else.
She shook her head. “That’s awful.”
“That’s actually one of the reasons I came here,” he said, and her ears perked up. “I know how good you are with all this nature stuff.”
“It’s about the only thing I’m good at.”
“I don’t know, I seem to remember you beating me at chess a few times.”
“Well, yeah, because you’re terrible at it.”
Nicolai chuckled. “Thanks.”
“Of course. So what did you need from me?”
“We think an animal attacked Baptiste.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
“That’s the working theory, anyway, but it’s not adding up. Do you know if there have been any escapes recently, maybe something from a lab?”
“What kind of labs do you think we run here,” she asked with a frown.
“I know it’s a stretch. I just want to know if there’s been anything out of the ordinary, anything you’ve seen or heard that felt off.”
“Not really.” She threw her gloves over a monitor. “Well, the goats have been acting strange.”
“They’ve been agitated, more nervous than normal.”
“That’s something. Do you think they could be freaked out by something on board?”
She shrugged. “I guess there’s a chance they could sense a predator.”
“You don’t seem convinced.”
“Well, it happened down on seventeen, right?” He nodded. “Goats are smart, but the idea of them picking up the scent of an animal halfway across the ship…” She hesitated. “Are you completely sure an animal did this?” There it was again. The thing she wasn’t saying. He was going to have to get it out of her.
“I’m your friend, Cornelia, you can tell me what’s on your mind.”
She took a stilted breath. After a bit more hesitation her shoulders dropped. “It’s Zane,” she said, her voice tight in her chest.
“He came to see you?”
She nodded, suddenly looking like she would burst into tears. Nicolai was no fan of Zane’s. The man had caused Cornelia nothing but grief with his slow descent into his twisted religion, not even supporting her through the death of their child. Nicolai still felt guilty about being the one who’d introduced them at a party all those years ago. “Did he threaten you,” he asked.
“No. Not exactly. He was talking crazy, even for Zane. Spouting nonsense about heretics and opening people’s minds.”
“Sounds like he finally went off the deep end.”
“I overheard him talking to a few of his followers. It sounded like they were planning something, but I couldn’t hear what it was. I’ve been meaning to report it, but I’m always worried he’ll…” Her voice cut out as her eyes remembered things they shouldn’t have.
“I’ll have someone keep an eye on him,” he reassured her, and she tried to smile.
“Thank you, Nic. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you before.”
“Please, you have nothing to apologize for.” He hugged her once more, this time the kind she needed. “If it makes you feel any better, you can kick my ass at chess. For old-time’s sake.”
She laughed in his arms. It was good to hear her laugh.