See that sun up there? It’s just painted on. The real sun is a raisin with all the juice sucked out of it. I know ‘cause I saw it. But before that, I lay in my own garden beneath another fake sky.
I knew the shape of every rock and leaf, the buzz of every insect, the whistle of every bird. I smelled every flower, climbed every tree… but I stayed out of the woods. Mother said I should never go in there and I was a good girl. Plus also I didn’t have the key to the gate.
I let out a sigh. “There’s nothing to do.”
Puggle opened his eyes and peered up at me, his hedgehog spines tickling my belly. “We could play hide and seek.”
I had on my bright yellow dress, my second favorite after the frilly lavender one. Mother said I shouldn’t climb trees in a dress if I ever wanted to wear it again, so now I wore this one and yellow’s not a hidey color. I shook my head. “You cheat at that game ‘cause you’re not yellow.”
Puggle flicked his long tongue at me.
Bzzzz-whaa-whaa-wa-wa. A cicada buzzed angry not ten feet from me. A meadowlark stabbed at it with her needlely bill. I kicked a slipper at that bird. “Shoo! Leave that bug alone.”
“She’s just trying to feed her babies,” Puggle said.
That’s all the world needs, more babies. The meadowlark hopped a step away, one beady eye on me, the other on the wiggly bug. “Go away bird, I’m the top of the food chain.”
Puggle made his eyes squinty at me. “What do you know about food chains?”
“Mr. Professor told me about them.”
Puggle shook his head and looked sad at me. “He needs an upgrade then. They’re called food webs and they don’t have tops.”
I stuck my tongue at that hedgehog. ‘Cause he’s not so smart, that’s why. Everything has a top. Mama Meadowlark flew away with the no longer wiggly cicada silent in her beak.
From inside the cottage a wail burst out. Emily, my baby sister, ‘cept I never even asked for a baby sister. Well, maybe once but that was before I knew better and I shouldn’t have to be punished for that.
Puggle rolled off my belly. His ears flicked toward the woods and his eyes got squinty then he turned toward the cottage. “We should go see if Lady Ella needs any help.”
I scrunched my nose at what it would smell like in there. I bet I was never that stinky unless you count that time I found a dead frog and forgot it in my pocket for two days. “Puggle, what was I like when I was a baby?”
Puggle stopped his waddle and looked curious at me. “Well, you weren’t much bigger than I am–”
“Did you love me?”
He nuzzled my face and whispered, “I’m here to love you.”
I smiled where Puggle couldn’t see it. “Let’s not go inside then.” I stood and started walking.
Puggle scampered to keep up. “Wait! Where are you going then?”
“Mother’s busy, so I’m going to see the woods.” ‘Cept I didn’t say it out loud ‘cause Puggle gets nervous around broken rules.
The stone path narrowed into mossy stairs near the back of the garden. The flowers and shrub-shapes grew taller as we went until they ended at a hedge three times my height circling the entire garden. Beyond that, oaks and maples waved and whispered. Esther… Esther… Esther…
Puggle wheezed up the last stair. “You’re not allowed back there.” He rolled into a ball, just his eyes and pointy nose stick out of his spikes.
“Oh, and you are Mr. Pricklypants?” I learned that from watching stories on my room’s wall. You put “pants” on a name to make it mean funny.
Puggle rolled himself so tight I couldn’t even see his nose. “We should go. You can’t get through the gate without the key anyway.”
The gate was twisty black bars and as tall as the hedge. I pressed my face against the cool metal then blinked and squinted but couldn’t see anything but fuzzy bleary dark.
The gate lurched. There was a screech.
I think the gate screeched too and maybe Puggle. My bottom dragged the stones as I crab-walked backwards. Puggle crouched before me, spines flared and teeth bared. From the blackness something slithered out, a green triangle head with mean eyes followed by a long scaly body, dragonfly wings, stubby legs and a snakey tail. It flicked its forked tongue at Puggle then rose onto its hind legs and waved one claw. “Hello, Esther. Name’s Foster.”
“You’re not supposed to be this side of the gate.” Puggle was shaking at that lizard like an emptying balloon and making those noises too. I worried about that hedgehog ‘cause he might be a lergic. Mr. Professor said lergics react to particular things… like maybe green winged lizards.
I stepped between Puggle and that lizard and clenched my fists. “You leave Puggle alone. You’ll be sorry if he goes into Anna Galactic Shock mode.”
Foster cocked his head and blinked his eyes in a weird lizardy way then he flicked his tongue at Puggle. “Things are getting worse out there. It’s time to show Esther–”
Puggle launched himself at Foster’s face. I’d never seen Anna Galactic Shock mode before. ‘pparently it involves a lot claws and screaming. Poor Foster had spines stuck all over him. I did warn him though.
That wail sliced through the commotion. Baby Emily, and she was getting closer. I covered my ears and even Puggle paused, mid-shock mode.
Foster took the ‘tunity to slip behind the gate. Just his forked tongue poked from the darkness. “Get the key and meet me here tomorrow. You need to see something,” he hissed, then the gate clunked closed and he was gone.
“Esther! I told you to stay where I could see you.” Mother had been running. She’d hiked her dress above her knees with one hand and in the other held Emily who was raising a ruckus. As usual. Emily crying that is, not Mother running. She almost never runs.
That’s not what drew my ‘ttention though. It was Mother’s eyes open so wide and wild as her hair. My tummy knotted itself. “Mother, are you a lergic too?”
Luckily, Mother never went into Anna Galactic Shock mode. She did say I was grounded which is almost as bad. Grounded means I have to stay in my room ‘cept for lunch and dinner and if I have to use the bathroom, but definitely not to peek at the baby while she’s sleeping.
That wasn’t even the worst part though. It was Puggle. He went all grayish and stayed rolled up. I petted him for a long time, but his eyes just looked sad at me and he didn’t say anything.
He’d been like this before but never so bad and the next morning he’d be all pink and lively again. Mother said Puggles sometimes get tired is all, ‘specially if they have to keep up with an Esther. This time though, I think it was the shock mode, ‘cause half his spines were missing.
“I’m sorry Puggle. I shouldn’t have gone to the gate. I’ll listen to you next time, I promise.”
He took a big breath and closed his eyes. I think that hedgehog was disappointed in me.
The next morning Puggle was even grayer. That’s when my eyes got wettish and my throat swelled inside. Hard to believe. a big girl like me crying, but I saw even Mother cry once. It was right after Daddy left the last time.
And guess what? Whizzo G Wow, that’s what, ‘cause Mother says it’s important to name your emotions plus also Daddy walked into my room right exactly then and I hadn’t even seen that guy since before I lost my first tooth and learned how to cartwheel.
I wanted to smile real big to show Daddy my new tooth but I just squeezed my face against his chest instead. He wrapped his arms around me and I breathed in as much Daddy smell as I could through all the snot pouring out my nose.
“Puggle’ll be alright, Pumpkin, I promise.”
I cleared my eyes. “H-how do you know?”
His face looked sad at me even though the corner of his mouth held a smile. “He’s my heart, and he’s in yours.”
I squinted at that guy, ‘cause that made no sense. He ruffled my hair. That’s what adults do to change the subject. “So, your mother tells me you were playing near the gate.”
I looked down and said soft, “I like to listen to the trees.”
“Did you see anything else?”
The corner of my eye watched him. “N-no.”
“That’s good. That means only Puggle saw the dragon.”
I was too late covering my big mouth. “Is that what Foster is, a dragon?”
Daddy’s secret smile was bigger this time, but his eyes looked even more sad at me. “Dragons can be dangerous. The outside world is dangerous. That’s why your mother doesn’t want you near that gate. Do you understand?”
“Yeah, well she doesn’t need to worry ‘cause that gate is locked and I don’t even have the key.”
“No, you don’t. Only I do.” Daddy held up something. It was gold and shaped like an apple on one end and a toothy on the other. I reached for it but Daddy snatched it back.
“It’s my job to protect you. And Puggle.” Daddy stood and scooped him up. “Come on little guy, we’ll see what we can do…” He put the key down on my desk and stroked Puggle’s back. He frowned ‘cause of all those missing spines I think. He looked hard at me. “Don’t go near that gate, OK?”
I nodded. “Don’t forget your key.” But I only said it in my head then I sat on my bed and thought about Puggle ‘cause Puggle was always with me and now he wasn’t which made me jittery inside. That key sat there too, but I bet it wasn’t jittery ‘cause keys only open things. Until then, they just sit there waiting.
Keys are good at patience I think.
But not me, so I came in here even though I’m grounded. Sometimes I need to watch babies sleeping ‘specially if I’m jittery.
I’m going now. I’m going to see Foster ‘cause I don’t think Daddy can fix Puggle… and it’s my fault he’s hurt.
Do you want to know a secret? I’m scared. Maybe… maybe I won’t make it back.
Goodbye, Emily. I ‘ppreciate you listening even if I call you Princess Poopypants sometimes.
I wore my least favorite dress ‘cause I’d probably be climbing trees, maybe even wrestling dragons. Plus also this dress had big plaid pockets on the front which Mother says is practical. I see what she means. I put that key in one and a sammich in the other.
I think I spelt sammich wrong ‘cause when I typed it into the fooderator it came up question marks but Mother and Daddy were arguing in the next room and I was ‘sposed to be grounded so I just pushed more buttons ‘til the question marks went away. What came out didn’t look much like a sammich plus also it didn’t smell like I ‘spected either, but the machine beeped so loud I just grabbed it and sneaked out the door.
That big faker sun was straight overhead. Course I didn’t know it was a faker then, I just knew it was hot and made the air all shimmery and thick and only the cicadas buzzed in the bushes but not even the birds.
I wore boots ‘cause I didn’t want Foster to be able to bite my toes in sandals but now sweat dripped down there and made a squelchy sound when I walked. That’s not even the worst part though. That was my sammich. I was beginning to ‘spect it was tuna fish. I hate tuna fish, ‘specially when it gets warm and drippy in your plaid dress pocket which smells that way even after it’s washed.
So instead, I reached into my other pocket and pulled out the key. It was big and heavy and made me feel better. Stronger. I held that apple above my head so it caught a sunbeam shining through the shady shrubs around the stairs where I was by then. “Don’t worry Puggle. I’ll get your spines back from that dragon. Then Daddy can fix you for sure.”
The trees waved and whispered at me from above the hedge in a breeze only they could feel. Esther, Esther, save him, save him…
You better believe it, trees. I squelched up the last few steps. The gate loomed over me all twisty and black. I did a swallow ‘cause my throat was scratchy dry and I didn’t even bring my water bottle with the unicorns and rainbows on it. I gulped a big breath and clunked the key into the lock. Click. It turned. Screech. The gates opened.
I paused before I went through ‘cause here’s the puzzley part, I didn’t see trees on the other side. I didn’t even see darkness, only a bright white hallway that made my eyes all watery. “F-foster?”
Foster’s voice tickled my ear. “Hello, Esther. Come on back.” I jumped and whirled and still didn’t see him.
“Don’t worry, I don’t bite.” This time the voice was far off. I took a step past the gate. The walls were cool and sparkly where touched. I looked back and my tummy tumbled ‘cause the gate was gone and everywhere looked the same white.
Somewhere Foster was singing all echoey and not very good but least I could follow the sound. A trail of flowers drifted behind me on the wall from my fingertips but then the wall ended and I almost fell into a large room that was even brighter–
Frank N Freaky! I blinked my eyes to get them to work right again but still no luck. For starters there was Foster, but more ‘bout him later. And then there was Puggle. Well not just one Puggle, a whole line of Puggles but different sizes from tiny to the biggest one which was still smaller than the real Puggle and each in a machine full of greenish water.
On the other side of the room was another line of machines filled with Daddies ‘cept with no clothes on and the biggest Daddy was still a boy I think.
Behind Foster down the middle of the room was the last line of machines filled with more Fosters. The smaller Fosters were curled up like they were in an egg which was kinda cute but not really. Maybe if my tummy was behaving right. Foster had just climbed out of his machine ‘pparently ‘cause the green goo still dripped off him like snot into a puddle ‘round his feet. He waved with a big toothy lizard grin, then sniffed the air. “What is that smell?”
All I smelled was the green snot which was like plum pudding twelve days after Xmas… plus also my sammich. I brought it out. “Tuna fish, you want some?”
I had to snatch my fingers back ‘cause he snapped it up in two bites. “Sorry, I’m always hungry just out of the tank.”
I just squinted at him ‘cause my eyes were still seeing too many Puggles and Daddies and Fosters and my tummy was all hurly and I had to pee really bad and I wished I was still grounded at home.
Then I sat down ‘cause my legs were tired, not ‘cause my eyes were watery or my nose was sniffly or anything.
Foster liked to ‘splain things. He’d been ‘splaining for a while, but also he was messing with the tank of the biggest Puggle which got my ‘ttention.
I wiped my eyes and stepped out of the puddle. Least I didn’t have to pee anymore. “You leave Puggle alone… what are you doing anyway?”
Foster blinked down at me from on top his step ladder. “Puggle and I are on the same team even if we don’t always see eye to eye. We need him back and like I was saying, we have to make Puggle’s body grow bigger before he can get into it. The problem is, we don’t have much time so I’m speeding up the process.” He poured a bag of powder into the tank then grabbed a large spoon. “The agitators will take too long, so I’m mixing this in manually.
“Now, the problem with speeding up the process is the body won’t last as long, maybe just a couple days instead of the usual week.”
I peered into the glass. Little bubbles were pouring out of Puggle like fizzy drink. “Was I born in a tank too?”
Foster dipped a claw in the tank and tasted it. “That should do it.” Then he blinked at me. “Of course not. You grew in your Mother the way they used to do it. Your father insisted. You see, you’re human.”
I ‘membered Mother before Emily came and her belly so big. I wondered if all the bubbles inside tickled but Mother just waddled around and groaned a lot, so I guess not. “Why doesn’t Daddy grow inside Mother too then? He’s human.” I squinted at the biggest Daddy. He didn’t have a belly button.
“Actually, he’s transhuman.” Foster put the lid back on Puggle’s tank and climbed down. “Should just be a couple of minutes now. You need to get into your suit.”
“Trance human? Is that why he’s sleeping?” I tapped the glass. The young Daddy inside didn’t move.
Foster slither-slid around the machines toward the back of the room, ‘splaining in a loud voice. “Trans means beyond. Humanity long ago moved beyond single bodies and single consciences. Society has since integrated and virtualized into quadrillions of human equivalent minds. You are a throwback I’m afraid. But your father thinks something was lost when we shed our bodies…”
Foster was too far away for his words to make sense, I think, plus also something was happening in Puggle’s tank– he started to move. And his eyes opened. I climbed the ladder and yanked the lid off. It was too heavy so it clattered on the floor. Maybe broke a little too.
I was busy getting Puggle out though. The green goo tingled my arms but all I felt was the Puggle snuggle I thought I’d never have again even if it was plum pudding gross.
Puggle coughed. “You’re squeezing me too tight.”
“Sorry. Plus also I’m sorry you have to grow new bodies ‘cause I wore you out so many times.”
“You make my heart stronger and that’s worth a million bodies.” He gave me a prickle kiss and jumped down. “Esther, you need to do what Foster says, OK?”
“I thought you didn’t like Foster.”
“Foster… has a different perspective on things, but right now we agree. We’re all going on a trip.”
Foster was back holding two shiny suits over his stubby arms. He held one out to me. “Get out of those clothes and put this on.”
I hadn’t got to climb any trees, but my dress was ruined anyway from the tuna fish and pee and green gooey pudding. I kicked it aside. The good news was Mother would prob’ly never see it. It felt good to get out of those squelchy boots too. I curled my toes up just in case though but Foster was helping Puggle into his suit so my toes were safe.
I slipped into my suit. It hugged my skin soft on the inside but hard on the outside and covered everything, feet and fingers and face even. I zipped it tight and the zipper disappeared.
“Good.” Foster ‘spected me from every side. “Looks like you’re ready.”
“Where’s your suit?”
“I’m a dragon. My suit’s built in.”
Foster waved for us to follow and began winding his way through the machines. I looked to Puggle and he nodded.
The room got darker toward the back of the room. The air smelt funny inside the suit but also I could see little green glowy numbers that didn’t move even when I turned my head but some of them changed every time I breathed.
Foster pushed a button on the wall and doors slid open. Behind them was a small room. “This elevator takes us to the surface.” He waved us forward.
“What’s the surface?” Inside the elevator were five buttons. The bottom was lit with the letter “G”.
Foster hit the top one labeled “S” and a door slid closed behind us then the floor jerked and I had to grab a rail on the wall. “We’re deep inside the moon Europa,” he ‘splained, “but a meme storm hit Ganymede and knocked out half the q-tangle feeds so now the YRU is trying to relocate a trillion refugees. They want a full inventory of Europa’s resources…” He paused and glanced at Puggle then me and shrugged. “Nevermind. The important thing is, we can’t let them find you.”
“This whole thing would’ve been smoother if you let me handle it,” Puggle grouched. “Now you’ve got Esther scared halfway out of her mind–”
“What’s the surface?” I asked again. As much as Foster liked to ‘splain things, he wasn’t very good at it.
“See for yourself,” Foster said. Bing. The door slid open.
“Whizzo G. Wow.” I had to whisper it under my breath ‘cause my breath was already taken by what my eyeballs couldn’t even take in.
“Jupiter,” Puggle said as we slid out onto a white slippery world. “The big orange ball. The little purple one to the side is Ganymede.” He pointed his snout over my shoulder and past the squat little elevator building. “And that’s the sun.”
Like I told you earlier, the sun was a disappointment. “Why’s it so small?” It wasn’t even yellow, just a dirty white glare in a sky that wasn’t blue but instead nighttime. A nighttime sun. I just shook my head.
“In our habitat below, the sun is simulated to look the size it appears on Earth. We’re a lot further away out here.”
But then there was Jupiter.
Jupiter was bigger even than the sun in the habby cat. I don’t know why Puggle calls the garden a cat. We used to have a cat named Mr. Peepers and he was a tabby cat. Jupiter kinda looked like that ‘cept no whiskers but all orange and white and swirly and even a big glary eye but this one was red and Mr. Peepers had gold eyes but Daddy told Mother he couldn’t stay with us anymore ‘cause of who looked through those eyes.
I shivered a little. Jupiter was looking at me just like that.
“Come on.” Foster looked impatience at us over his shoulder as he slither-slid onto the ice. “The YRU will find us fast out here.” A gray ball the size of the cottage rested on spider legs a dozen yards away. A set of stairs dropped from a round yellow lit door. Foster paused before climbing them. “This spaceship will take us to the new habitat.”
My feet stuck to the ice, maybe ‘cause the bottom of the suit was sticky but also my heart squoze real tight and my knees locked. “What about Mother and Emily? Aren’t they coming?”
Puggle glared at Foster then looked sad at me. “The new habitat is a lot smaller. It can only sustain one human life–”
My knees unlocked and I moved so quick I jammed my finger on the “G” button before Puggle could even keep the ‘stonishment from falling out his mouth.
“Wait, the YRU–” The elevator door cut Puggle off. I gripped the wall bar and the floor dropped.
Breathing… breathing… breathing… Mother… she’ll be mad I sneaked out of my room… Thinking, breathing… breathing… breathing… Has she seen the surface? Did Jupiter glare at her and that’s why we live deep underground?… Thinking, breathing, breathing… breathing… breathing exercises are hard, I bet Emily can’t even do them. Maybe I can teach her, like Daddy taught me… thinking, breathing… breathing… breathing… breathing… Why are you? Who are the Why Are You? Maybe Mr. Peepers was the Why Are You? Thinking…
The elevator door opened, but the room was dark now ‘cept the machines glowed green a bit. The little Fosters seemed to be watching me even with their eyes closed. My footsteps made sticky poppy sounds that echoed. Skree-pop, pop, pop… Skree-pop, pop, pop…
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
My heart pounded faster than my feet, but I slowed down ‘cause the hall was even darker. It didn’t even make flowers when I dragged my fingertips on it. Skree-pop, skree-pop, skree-pop, skree-pop …
Screech! I left the gate opened ‘cause I forgot to grab the apple key and no way I was going back in there now, well least not without Mother… and Emily I guess.
The garden was night with no faker sun or even faker stars but I wasn’t even tired. Well maybe a little but it wasn’t bedtime yet ‘cause I never had dinner… or even lunch. My tummy growled and I wished I had that sammich back even if it was tuna fish.
I had a bigger problem first. It was dark. And quiet ‘cept for Ol’ Man Bullfrog in the pond. Why… why… why’re you? Why… why… why’re you? And the green numbers on my suit mask. There were green glowy pictures too. One looked like a sun. I blinked at that thing.
Sam Bam Whammoman! The front of my suit lit up, that’s why and I could see day again. I looked hard at those other pictures ‘cause they were like Pink Peony magic spells or something. I blinked at the apple and banana in a glass. A tube popped into my mouth and…
Echoey sounds came out of the gate. The Why Are You! Or maybe Foster and Puggle. I ran ‘cause Mother… and Emily of course. The windows of the cottage were lit up so I blinked at the moon picture and my suit light dimmed and I snuck in the kitchen door.
Only the fooderator glowed in the kitchen, but I didn’t even need that thing ‘cause I had Pink Peony powers now. I sucked some more juice just to make sure.
Most of the light was coming from the living room. Mother and Daddy weren’t arguing anymore but Emily gurgled and Mother murmured so I peeked ‘round the corner.
Mother was wearing a weird hat and laying on the couch. Daddy looked sad down at her. Emily lay on the floor batting at a mobile.
“Are you ready?” Daddy asked.
“Ready for what?” I covered my mouth ‘cause I prob’ly shouldn’t be there but too late.
Mother sat up and the hat wobbled a bit but she spread her arms and I ran into them. She stroked my hair ‘cept I had the suit on and prob’ly looked like an alien but nobody cared right then.
Daddy turned his sad on me. “I had hoped you’d be halfway to the new habitat by now.”
“Puggle says there’s only space for one and so where’s Mother and Emily going to fit? Plus also I don’t even understand why it’s called a habby cat anyway ‘cause Mr. Peepers was kinda creepy and I don’t want to be there if he’s gonna be there.”
Mother gave Daddy a look. I think she thought Mr. Peepers was creepy too but sometimes adults just look things instead of saying them even though when we look things at them they tell us to use our words.
Daddy looked serious at me. “It’s a habi-tat, so I promise Mr. Peepers won’t be there.” He looked regret at Mother. “Mr. Peeper’s was the biggest mistake I ever made. I’m sorry… I’m sorry I can’t fix this, Ella. Can you forgive me?”
Mother blinked and swallowed then kissed him. A scary kiss… maybe when you’re older you’ll understand ‘bout kisses mixed with tears and nobody breathes ‘cause if they do then that’s it but ‘ventually she said, “You’re the reason why we’re here. Thank you.”
Daddy looked dazed then cleared his throat. “We don’t have much time. We need to finish this or you’ll be stuck with the refugees. And I’ve got to get Esther back to the ship.”
“Finish what?” I asked again. Sometimes adults get sidetracked.
Mother squoze me and looked her sad at me. “I’m going to be virtualized. That way I can fit in the new habitat with you.”
“Virtu-alized. I won’t have a body but I can still talk to you.”
“What about Emily?” That baby was not even paying ‘ttention. Just playing with her mobile.
“She’ll be virtualized too.”
“She won’t have a body? How will she grow up to be a big girl like me?”
“She will have a body, just a virtual one.” Mother breathed big then blew it out. “We’re unique with our bodies. Other people don’t have them. We’ll still be here, OK? We’ll be fine.”
Somehow I wasn’t believing her. Maybe ‘cause she just whispered that last bit. Maybe ‘cause nobody said they would virtualize me and why not if it was going to be fine? Daddy gently pried us apart and leaned Mother back on the couch. I couldn’t see what he did next. My eyes were all blurry. I couldn’t even see the Pink Peony spells. Maybe one of them could’ve fixed this, but instead my eyes just got waterier and waterier.
“Focus on your breathing,” Daddy was saying. “You won’t feel anything as you transfer. Just breath slow… good… nice and slow… there. Open your eyes.”
I blinked away the water, but Mother’s eyes were still closed and… I don’t think she was breathing either. Not even slow.
And somebody was shrieking which made Emily start crying.
“Esther! Esther baby, calm down. I’m here. I’m right here, baby.” Mother’s face was on the wall, like Mr. Professor, and she wasn’t wearing the funny hat like Mother on the couch. Daddy took that hat off and covered her with a blanket.
Somehow I felt a little better.
“Good. Now you need to help Daddy with Emily. That way she can be with me, OK?”
I nodded. Emily was crying. Hard. “But I want to be with you too.”
“I’ll be with you, but I can’t take care of Emily unless she’s virtualized like me. Right now I need you to be a big girl. A big sister. You need to take care of her until then, OK?”
I swallowed and nodded again then I tried to grab that baby but she screamed louder and punched at my nose with her baby fists. ‘sperience told me it should hurt like hello pee-no peppers ‘cept I didn’t even feel it ‘cause I was wearing the suit plus also I looked like an alien.
I tried pulling on the mask but it wouldn’t budge then I saw a flashing green picture of a mask and a minus. I blinked at it and the suit split down the front. I flopped that mask back and smiled at that baby. “It’s me. Esther.”
Pow! ‘sperience was right, it felt just like a mouthful of hello pee-no peppers. I said a bad word. “Booty!”
Emily giggled ‘cause bad words are funny to babies I think. I snatched her up and held her out. “Here Daddy, she’s ready to be virtualized now.”
Daddy wasn’t paying ‘ttention. Neither was Mother ‘cause she wasn’t even on the wall anymore. Instead there was Mr. Peepers. Well not really Mr. Peepers but his eyes all over the wall. A godzillion of them.
OK, I’m not even sure they were Mr. Peepers’ eyes, but they were creepy like his. And they were talking in a buzzy voice like the cicada but not scared, instead mean. “Zohan D, we find you in possession of over ten undeclared terragrams, grossly underutilized, which are subject to seizure under emergency code 45.872 subsection K. In addition, you will be immediately compartmentalized and held for further questioning. Should you wish to file an objection, you have ten minutes before the utilization protocol begins.”
“Who’re they, Daddy?” I whispered it. Emily started to whimper so I held her tight.
Daddy knelt down and put his hands on my shoulders. “They’re the Yogic Resource Unit. The YRU. Now, I need you to listen carefully, OK?”
I nodded and he kissed my forehead. “That’s my big girl. You need to get to the surface and get in the space ship. Puggle and Foster will help you.”
“What about Emily?”
His eyes looked sad at me and he held out his arms. “I’ll take care of her.”
I shook my head, eyes blurry again and squoze Emily to me. “No, you can’t. They ‘mentalized you.” I whispered the last ‘cause Daddy’s eyes were glazed and his hands fell off my shoulders and his head slumped forward.
But then, all of the sudden, the Why Are You eyes were wiped from the walls and instead Daddy’s face, his eyes wide and scary. “Go Esther. I can’t hold them long.” The eyes were creeping back in the corners, but the big Daddy head somehow made them pop each time. “Take that, you motherless mechs!”
I held Emily tight and ran toward the kitchen. She began to grunt, her eyes closed tight and her face all scrunchy.
Swampy C Cesspool! I turned ‘round and down the hall. No way I was carrying a stinky baby all the way to Jupiter. Plus also we’d need diapers. I put Emily on her changing table then I put the mask back over my head.
Whew E Perfumy, that smelt better.
Changing diapers is tricky. Mother’s face ‘ppeared on the wall but she wasn’t much help. “Don’t let them take Emily, Esther. I was wrong. She needs her body. It’s not the same, being virtual. It’s not the same at all. It’s so abstract. All meta and no meat.”
“OK, Mother, just tell me how to get the nurserator to make more wipes.”
“Oh, that won’t work. The YRU shut everything down. Wipe her on the bedsheets. They’ll all be recycled soon anyway. Everything is recycled here. Even thoughts. Everything you can possibly think has already been thought by someone and recorded and then just replayed. What’s the point? What’s the point of any of it?”
Wipe her on the bedsheets? The last time I did that I got yelled at. Virtualized Mother was more practical I think ‘cept that most of what she said didn’t make sense.
There, Emily was clean and squirmy and naked. I picked her up but then I thought about the long way to the elevator and she got heavy and my back ached and now I knew why the bubbles didn’t tickle Mother on the inside.
A green picture of a zombie or something flashed inside the mask. I wasn’t sure how that would help but I blinked at it anyway.
Crike E Yikes! My arms and legs went rigid… then started walking on their own. I stumbled into the wall.
“You control it by looking where you want to go,” virtualized Mother said. “I’ve got the suit’s user guide in my mind. There’s encyclopedias, whole libraries of information…”
“Thanks, Mother.” Emily was crying ‘cause my arms were stiff and jerky, but I had an idea. I blinked off the zombie and took off the suit.
It was a struggle getting it on Emily but once I did it shrunk to her size. I pulled the mask to the top of her head. She squinted at me hard. “Booty!”
Then that baby laughed.
Sigh O Sister. I put the mask over her head ‘cause that baby wasn’t even funny. Plus also I had another problem. How was I going to blink at that green picture when it was inside where only Emily could see it? “Mother, you still got that guide in your mind?”
“Huh? Yeah, sure baby.” Mother’s eyes were funny, like she was looking somewhere far away. And her whole face was going blurry on the wall. “What did you need again?”
“Can I use the Pink Peony spells? From the outside?”
“Pink Peony? I’m not seeing that in the index… here’s a chapter called ‘Slaving a Second Suit’.”
“I don’t have a second suit.” I stamped my foot ‘cause virtualized Mother wasn’t too smart. “This is a ‘mergency!”
“Of course, dear. Why didn’t you say so? Here’s a chapter called ‘Emergency Override’. The access panel is on the bottom of the right boot. Slide it back and there is a big red button…”
I was already pushing that thing.
“Don’t push it.”
“Don’t push the red button. That’s the turbo boost. It locks you out of the manual override.”
“Why’d you tell me about it then?”
“So you wouldn’t push it.” Mother was just a color blotch now and her voice was getting buzzy.
Emily giggled, ‘cept it was turbo boosted and I had to cover my ears.
“What do I do now? Mother?”
“… lzt… brzz… sorry baby… love you…” Blip. She was gone. The wall was blank. Then the Why Are You eyes looked at me from everywhere.
Boosted Emily said it for me. “BOOTY!”
‘Cept I didn’t find her giggling afterward ‘ppropriate.
Ok, giggling wasn’t so bad, least compared with crying. When normal babies cry they are loud. Boosted babies? Ouch.
Plus also my back. Emily was getting heavier with every step. I made it through the kitchen fast ‘cause all those eyes watching me from the walls.
Outside was worse. Now the eyes glowed in the dark. Plus they talked too, with bullfrog and cicada and meadowlark voices. Why are you? Why are you? Why are you? At least it was dark, maybe they couldn’t see me.
Sam Bam Whammoman! The suit light came on. Boosted. I was holding the sun. Now they could see me for sure. Plus also after I blinked the stars out of my eyes I noticed I was only in my underwear.
I ran but not far ‘cause I tripped and Emily went flying. Her crying stopped. The suit light went off and my heart stopped.
I crawled on hands and knees toward where the light had been. The suit was hard… and cold. “Emily? You OK? It’s me, Esther.”
The suit softened in my arms. “Esta? Booty.” She didn’t giggle this time, just sighed. Plus also she wasn’t boosted, just snuggly. Maybe even better than a Puggle snuggle.
But I wished that hedgehog was there anyway ‘cause he had good ideas sometimes. “What are we going to do, Emily?” The Why Are You were still out there asking their question plus getting closer ‘cause the eyes were getting bigger. We had to get to Foster’s spaceship before they virtualized us into fuzzy heads on the wall who couldn’t even read user guides right.
My legs and back felt all rubbery when I tried to stand. I plopped back down. No way I could carry Emily any more. “I wish you knew how to talk. I could tell you how to use the Pink Peony spells.”
“Esta, blink, blink.” The suit light flashed on, then off.
My ‘stonishment fell out my mouth. Maybe babies aren’t so dumb. “Yes. Blink! Blink on the zombie.”
I put Emily down and stood with my arms out. “Errrgh…”
Emily turned her light and her face toward me. “Esta bom-bee?”
“Brains… brains… must eat brains…” I stumbled around for a bit to show her then stopped— ‘cause all around the Why Are You echoed “Brains… brains… brains…”
“Bom-bee!” The suit jerked toward me. “Bwaynes… Bwaynes… booty bwaynes…”
“Just look at me, Emily.” I walked backward to make sure she followed. Emily was giggling again. Still not ‘ppropriate but I smiled at that baby anyway.
‘cause now we were getting somewhere.
Even smiles weren’t ‘ppropriate when we found Puggle. He didn’t look good, even worse than when Daddy took him away and left the apple key to the big creaky gate that I left open. It was hard getting Emily through it though ‘cause she was crying again and not looking at me and the suit just stopped and the light went out.
That’s when the Why Are You almost got her, their eyes so big all around her glowing in the dark and swirling while the bottom of her feet curled up at me on those baby legs. “Esta…”
“Don’t touch my sister. Not now, not ever.” I pulled back the foot panel and pushed the big red button that Mother said not to push and guess what?
I lifted her to her feet and pointed her head at the gate then I had to run to catch up plus also the Why Are You were touching me with tingly tendrils which made me run faster and forget my legs were rubbery.
Emily bounced off the wall at the end of hall like a ball of sunlight. I scooped her up and her little legs hammered the breath from my belly.
We slid to a stop in the lab and a big door thudded closed behind us. That’s when I saw Puggle. His skin was gray and his suit hanging in shreds where most of his spines were gone. He must’ve used his Anna Galactic Shock mode again. “You made it… just in time. I couldn’t hold them off… any longer.”
I squinted at that hedgehog. “Hold who off?”
“The YRU. I’ve been compartmentalized… they got to Foster… sequestered the rest of us… I’m all that’s left.”
I shook my head ‘cause he wasn’t making sense. Maybe he needed a new body. The line of Puggle machines were still there, glowing green in the darkened room. I just needed the powder Foster had used to make them grow faster.
“Esther. Listen to me. I’m your Father.”
Poor Puggle. “Don’t worry. I’ll grow you a new body with a new brain then you won’t be so muddle-minded ‘cause Daddy is over there.” I pointed to the row of Daddy bodies.
Puggle shook his head. “We’re all your Father. Me, Foster and Daddy. We’re transhuman. We can have more than one body, more than one consciousness, but all within the same mind.”
“So you took Puggle’s body?”
Puggle closed his eyes. “Puggle has always been me. I wanted… to spend as much time with you as I could. The other transhumans don’t understand what they’ve lost. They say you’re too expensive, a waste of resources. I tried to convince them. Let them watch you, get to know you… through Mr. Peepers. I’m sorry Esther. My pride made me believe I could change the world… now I’m nothing and I’ve put you in such danger…”
I was only half listening ‘cause that powder stuff wasn’t anywhere. I did find a funny hat like Mother wore when she was virtualized but then there was a big crash ‘cause Emily was still boosted and running plus also not looking where she was going but instead going where she was looking which means one of the Foster tanks got tipped over. Babies love looking at dragons I think.
Puggle opened one eye and looked at that baby who was slipping and sliding on the green goo now. “You’re going to need that suit, Esther. It’s the only one left.”
“What’s Emily going to wear? Does she have a built-in suit like Foster?”
Puggle shook his head. “I’ll take care of Emily.”
I squinted at that hedgehog ‘cause he couldn’t even keep his eyes open. Sometimes adults think we’re not too smart. I crossed my arms. “Emily needs to get to the habitat so she can grow up to be a big girl like me. She needs the suit for that.”
“Esther… this body is all I have left. It will die soon and when it does… I need to know you’ll be all right.”
“Then help me.”
“Help you? How?”
I pointed to the Foster body. “Put me in that. Its suit is built in.”
Puggle shook his head again. “Esther…”
I put the funny hat on my head and took a big breath. “I know, you have to virtualize me first.”
Breathing… breathing… breathing… will it hurt? Thinking… breathing… breathing… breathing… will I end up like Mother, just a face on the wall? Thinking… breathing… breathing… my tummy’s all tingly. Do dragons have tummies? Of course they do, Foster ate my sammich. I wish I had a sammich. I don’t even have the Pink Peony juice and I’m hungry and my wings are itchy…
I opened my eyes which was weird ‘cause I had an extra set of eyelids plus also Puggle was looking at me close up.
“I’m sorry it came to this Esther, but… you taught me how to be human so I know you’ll stay human… no matter what body you’re in. I love you…” His eyes closed.
Somehow I knew they’d never open again. “Puggle… Daddy?”
“Go. Time’s short. Watch out for Foster. Dragons can be dangerous…” Puggle let out a sigh and was still.
“Esta? Bom-bee?” Emily was poking at a girl laying on the floor with a funny hat and only underwear.
I closed my eyes ‘cause my head felt wobbly from all the sad inside it. “Come on Emily. Time to go.”
Emily looked ‘spicious at me and folded her arms. “Booty.”
“Booty,” I agreed ‘cause the walls had eyes on them now. The Why Are You. I slither-slid to Emily and tried to pick her up but my front leg-arms were too short and I was too small and Emily was squealing. Plus also that baby was slippery with green goo.
So was the floor. I gripped my claws to stop sliding, then had an idea. I pushed Emily. She slid like butter on a hot plate. We picked up speed.
Behind us glass shattered. The eyes were on the machines now. But bad news for the Why Are You, more goo made my job more easier.
I ran ahead of Emily and pushed the elevator button. The doors slid apart and she slid in and I punched the “S”.
Eyes whirled everywhere behind us, eating everything they touched, the walls, the machines, even the goo going up into more eyes that swirled into one honking eye staring straight at us—
Emily pointed right at it. “Booty!” I hugged that baby.
The elevator doors closed.
Louis D Whewee! Now we just had to get to that ship and fly to the habitat ‘cept I had no idea where that was or how to fly a spaceship… just look at all the controls. There are some for thrust and some for attitude…
I bet Mother wished I had attitude controls.
I do, but unlike spaceships, you don’t come with a user guide.
“Mother? Where are you?”
Puggle downloaded a bit of me into this Foster body before you were virtualized. Esther, sorry about before… on the wall… I wasn’t myself all swirled in with the YRU. And I’m sorry you had to be virtualized but you’ll always be my brave, smart girl…
Somehow we figured out a way to hug in there. It may have been virtual but…
It was the best hug ever.
Can I see my baby? Is she OK?
I was still hugging Emily on the outside too but she was getting squirmy again looking up at me with saucer eyes. “Don’t be scared Emily. It’s me, Esther. And guess what? Great news! Mother’s in here too.”
I let Mother take over ‘cause I wanted to look at that spaceship user guide some more ‘cept as soon as I started learning ‘bout life support—
Bing! The elevator doors opened. Freddie U Ready? ‘cause that big eye was looking right at us ‘cept it was all red and on Jupiter but somehow that didn’t make me feel any safer. Mother put Emily down and together we held her hand and walked onto the surface.
That’s when I saw Foster. He didn’t look too good with Puggle spines hanging off him, one eye squeezed shut and wings all tattered but he was still bigger than me. I guess my dragon body hadn’t grown full size before Emily knocked over its tank of goo. Plus also he was between us and the ship.
Foster’s other eye was glaring at us and he rose up on his hind legs so that Jupiter’s eye glared over his shoulder too. “We need you to tell us the coordinates to the habitat. Puggle was most uncooperative about that.”
Coordinates? A picture appeared behind my eyes. Eight boxes stacked into one big box with balls inside. Little balls and one big one that looked like Jupiter that rolled in circles. A string stretched from one little ball to a teeny tiny one. A map… to the habitat. And Foster was trying to take it. Why? “Puggle said you are Daddy too so why are you acting like the Why Are you?”
“We’re all part of something much bigger. You’re part of us now too. You’re beyond human. Transhuman. We have no need for inefficient biological bodies. We left them behind centuries ago.
“But your father felt he could horde obscene resources for his own personal…” Foster chewed the next word then spat, “garden. Meanwhile, trillions of citizens from Ganymede suffer in low resolution…”
Foster blabbled on but I was noticing something else. Not really there but I could see it anyway, glowing lines from Foster’s head that swirled away in every direction, but most seemed to come from Jupiter’s eye.
Augmented reality. You’re seeing the YRU’s data flows. They’re controlling Foster. Mother seemed sad. Just a matter of time before they get us too.
“No they won’t.” I raised a clenched claw and stood up straight. “Why are you?” I pointed right at Foster and took a step forward. “I know why I am.” I took another step. Emily looked up at me and the suit stepped her forward also. “I am ‘cause Daddy and Mother loved me. I am ‘cause Puggle died to save me. I am ‘cause I’d die to save Emily.” I was right up to Foster now and I poked him in on his scaly chest. “Why are you?” I poked every word. “Why are there a godzillion of you? Thinking the same thoughts over and over. Why?”
Foster blinked his one eye in that weird lizard way then he nodded. He closed his eye and clenched his claws. The glowy lines to his head winked out, one by one. “Go.” His voice was tight. “I can only hold them off a few seconds.”
I tugged Emily’s hand and we ran to the ship. We paused at the top of the ramp. Foster opened his one eye. “Thank you, Esther. I remember why I am now.” Then eyes swirled out of the elevator and covered him up. Nothing was left when they swirled on toward us. I pushed a button and the ramp slid into the ship.
Even with the extra lids, lizard eyes can get watery and blurry plus also snot bubbles out of their snout.
‘Cause Foster was the last bit of Daddy, that’s why.
The ship’s door closed. I fired the thrusters.
It’s a small habitat, not like the one we had but that’s OK. You see that sun up there? Daddy loved us so much he painted it on the sky so you could grow up. But guess what? Even better news ‘cause Mother lives there now. She keeps us warm and safe.
Good morning, children.
And I’m here to keep you safe too ‘cause the world does need more babies. The Why Are You don’t understand, but don’t worry ‘bout them. They’re not so smart. They think food chains have tops, but they don’t ‘cause there’s more to life than eating. That’s what Daddy was trying to teach me I think.
And don’t worry ‘bout me either ‘cause I found my own tank here and can grow any body I want kinda like the fooderator ‘cept I don’t even have to spell correctly ‘cause I control it with my mind.
So see? Being transhuman isn’t so bad even if it comes with its own headaches. It’s a dangerous world out there full of meme storms and q-tangle outages and other transhuman words I need to know now. But we’ll be OK, long as I ‘member the human part, long as I ‘member why I am.