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They all watched her with wary eyes.
Gen's stomach clenched. She had never liked dogs.
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by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

The kitchen was warm. The bread smell was strong here. A small monkey with a white head perched on top of one of the vinyl chairs. Another hung from a swing near the ceiling. A group of mice huddled in an open aquarium, creating a rug of gray fur. She couldn't tell where one mouse began and another ended. Three cats sat on top of the refrigerator, and a dog lay on a cedar bed beside the stove.

They all watched her with wary eyes. She stared back at them. She had never seen chimera before. She hadn't known what to expect, really. All she knew was what Dr. Prichard had told her: Chimera had been around for twenty years. They were created for use in medical research by placing human embryonic stem cells in animal fetuses. The cells were then tweaked so that the animals would be useful subjects for medical testing. Dr. Prichard had said there were ethical considerations and debates over these procedures, but that they shouldn't concern her.

The Chimera Mission, which Anna ran, did its best to remain publicly neutral on the creation and use of chimera. That way, the Mission gained the cooperation of the medical research groups that created the animals.

The Mission prevented most chimera from being destroyed after the research was done. It was Anna who had pioneered the use of chimera in dealing with the traumatized, the mentally ill, and the unenhanced elderly. Anna's program was the first in the country, although several others had sprung up in the last decade. And all the studies had shown that chimera, when carefully matched to humans, were better at healing their owners than normal pets.

Initially, when Dr. Prichard had suggested that Gen care for something, she had turned her down. When she told Gen it was part of her therapy and therefore required, Gen asked to have a regular pet, not an altered one.

You're altered, Dr. Prichard had said. You need to understand how changes affect another creature.

Gen didn't want to know how changes affected anyone else. She already knew how they affected her.

"I've never had a pet," Gen said, shivering slightly under the impact of all those eyes. "I wouldn't know what to do."

"But you raised a child," Anna said softly.

Gen clenched her fists and then released them, just as Dr. Prichard had taught her. "Yes," she managed to say calmly. "I did."

But the child had died, mangled beyond recognition when the guidance system of a nine-year-old car failed and sent it careening through the streets at one hundred twenty miles an hour. Gen, the athlete, the dancer, the one with speed, had leapt out of the way. Dar hadn't.

If the car hadn't hit him, it wouldn't have spun and slammed into her. Even so, she remained conscious and had crawled to Dar. She had been cradling him when the paramedics finally pulled her away.

A long-haired cat walked under the swinging doors, hitting one with its bushy tail. It was brown, with a white collar and white paws. It looked at Gen with wide green eyes. Then it jumped onto the nearest chair, sitting with its front paws before it as if it were posing for an Egyptian statute.

"That vase better be in its usual position, Cedric," Anna said. "If I hear it crash in the next fifteen minutes, I'm going to blame you."

The cat ignored her, continuing to stare at Gen. This was the creature she had seen in the dining room. Still, Anna's comment made little sense. Gen gave her a perplexed look.

"Cedric sets traps for the other animals, so that they get blamed if something goes wrong. It pleases and entertains him." Anna frowned at him. "It annoys me."

Cedric tilted his face upward, holding Gen's gaze. He had a majestic bearing, a large ruff that made her think of a lion, and his features were classically feline. Yet there was something in his eyes she had never seen in a cat before, something measuring, something analytical.

"Dr. Prichard wanted you to have Sadie," Anna said, putting a hand carelessly on Cedric's head as she passed him. She crouched by the dog near the stove, and scratched her ears.

A dog. Gen's stomach clenched. She had never liked dogs. They were too boisterous and noisy, too needy and demanding. Although this one, enhanced as it was, might be different.

The dog, a tan Collie mix that was medium size, opened her brown eyes. They gazed up at Gen with such profound sadness that Gen's breath caught in her throat.

"Sadie had a single pup the year before she left the lab. She was raising it slowly, carefully, treating it as an infant long after any other dog would. The pup was taken from her at six months, sold to another lab that wanted to run experiments on second-generation chimera to see how much human DNA was in their systems. Sadie hasn't been the same since. Moaning, howling, throwing herself at doors. Then, when the director couldn't stand it any more, he called me. If I hadn't taken her, he would have put her down."

Anna said all of this in a dispassionate tone, as if outrage had long since left her emotional repertoire. The public might not know how the Chimera Mission felt about the treatment of chimera, but Gen thought it easy to know how Anna felt. She clearly hated it.

Gen crouched and extended her hand. Most dogs would have sniffed her fingers, and then licked them, but Sadie didn't. She gave Gen a long sorrowful look. The dog had lost a child and was miserable. Gen had lost a child and was miserable. What a pair they would make.

"I—" Gen stopped herself. She wasn't sure how much the dog understood. "I don't think this is a good idea."

"Sadie is a good dog," Anna said. "She was used in pregnancy tests mostly, so the only enhanced part of her was her reproductive system. They removed that before giving her to me. She's going to be pretty normal."

For what? A human? Or did dogs mourn like that too? Gen had read about dogs that stayed by dead masters, guarding the bodies.

"I don't mean to be rude," Gen said. "But I can't."

She stood and her knees cracked. How long had it been since she had any exercise? Too long. Maybe a dog would be good, to run at her side, to cross streets in front of malfunctioning cars—

She shook her head and started away. Cedric stood on his chair, his paws dangling over the back. He was still staring at her.

Dr. Prichard had spent the last week stressing the importance of this animal adoption. It'll bring you back to the world, she'd said. You need something to care about besides the past.

Gen had heard the wisdom in those words, and that had pushed her this far. She glanced at Sadie, who hadn't moved. The dog was obviously depressed.

"Did Dr. Prichard see Sadie before choosing her?" Gen asked.

"No." Anna patted the dog's head once more, then stood. "She asked for histories of the patients and thought that Sadie might suit you best."

"Actually," Gen said, surprising herself, "I prefer Cedric."

The cat's head whipped toward Anna so fast that he nearly lost his balance.

"I don't think that's wise," Anna said.

"Dr. Prichard said I needed a companion and she sent me to you. She didn't judge the companions herself, but just made an educated guess. I don't think you can intellectualize attraction." She glanced at Cedric. He tilted that magnificent head toward her. It seemed as if he were surprised.

"Cedric is …" Anna started, then let her voice trail off. "Come with me."

She headed toward the back door. Cedric ran ahead of them, winding himself in Anna's feet so that she tripped. She caught the doorjamb and bit back a curse. Cedric licked his side as if he had been the one who had been injured.

"Stay here," she said to him. Then she waited at the door for Gen. As they went out, Anna turned to make certain Cedric didn't follow.

The door led into a breezeway that had plants growing on either side. The breezeway was too warm, and it was a moment before Gen realized it was also a greenhouse. The plants looked healthy, bright green and loaded with flowers. Anna went to the far end, where a closed door warned against unauthorized entry. Anna opened the door, and the stench of sickness mixed with a medicinal sharpness greeted them.

Gen held her breath as she stepped inside. The light here was dim. Tiny beds, a few cages, and some normal-sized upholstered furniture was scattered throughout the room. A steel operating table with a large lamp stood in the center, and several locked cabinets held vials of medicines. Animals lay on all the beds and a few huddled in their cages.

A man in a white coat was carefully brushing an afghan dog with large gray-looking bald spots on its back and sides. The dog cringed when it saw Anna and Gen.

"Take a look around," Anna said.

Gen did. The cats wouldn't meet her gaze. A parrot tried to bite her as she passed. Several rats growled at her, and one repeatedly launched itself against the padded walls of its little cell. Many of the animals had surgical scars all over their shaved bodies. One, a schnauzer, watched her with reddened, drugged eyes.

"These are the new animals. Some are unadoptable. Some we'll try to rehabilitate. But they've all been traumatized."

Gen extended her fingers to a rabbit that sat on a cushion at the back of a wide shelf. The rabbit made a small squealing noise and hid its face.

"I'm beginning to understand that," she said.

"I don't know if you do," Anna said. "Sometimes the sun comes out, and its warmth hits one of these animals, and the animal freaks. Another time, you might be singing, and all of the animals will try to hide. You never know what's going to set them off, and it isn't the same from day to day."

Gen was breathing through her mouth. She hated this smell, this hospital smell. It had been part of her life for five weeks. Five weeks, and every morning she woke with the knowledge that what had worked for her had failed for Dar.

Medical science, everyone said, had found a way to cure most diseases. Human beings could live longer than ever before, and be healthy while doing so. But medical science couldn't prevent all death. And it certainly couldn't prevent misery.

"You didn't bring me here to tell me about the things the animals have been through," Gen said. "You brought me here because of Cedric."

"I keep him in the house because he's too healthy to be out here. Physically healthy. Mentally—that's another story." Anna adjusted a blanket around a sleeping puppy. "You saw him trip me. That was deliberate. You had expressed an interest, and I was taking you away. He got angry and he wanted to hurt me."

"He's a cat," Gen said.

"No, he's not," Anna said. "He's a chimera, and you can't forget that. The researchers changed all of these animals, sometimes in ways none of us understand. I believed that Cedric is psycho—quite literally. I think he likes to hurt others for the pleasure of it, and I think he knows what he's doing."

"Then why do you keep him with the other animals?"

"He's only there in the daytime, and only when I'm with him. I'm a bit worried that he's alone with them right now. At night, I have a special cage for him."

Gen's palms were wet. "You believe he's psycho. But you don't know."

"They messed with his mind," Anna said. "They used him to test drugs that were supposed to help with Parkinson's. That means that they enhanced his mind first to simulate a human brain, and then they tested drugs on him. No human would survive that."

"They altered his brain so that he can think?" Gen asked.

"We don't know," Anna said. "That's where this becomes tricky. We don't know a lot of the effects."

"What if I want him anyway? What if I say he's the only one I'll take?"

"I'd have to call Dr. Prichard."

Gen crossed her arms. "Do that."

Anna looked at her with surprise. "All right," she said. "But I hope to God she says no."

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© 2000 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and SCIFI.COM.