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The squirming creature unbalanced the carrier, and made it twist against her already strained muscles.
She didn't know what kind of creature she had here.
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by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Gen didn't know what she had expected. Gratitude, perhaps. Not the screaming, hissing, spitting creature in the carrier wedged at an angle into the backseat. Cedric wrapped his paws around the wire door and slammed it back and forth as if he could open it through sheer force. Once, she turned around and watched as he lay on his back, placing one paw over the lever, and another under it. If he used the right amount of pressure the door would open. But he couldn't seem to get it; one paw kept slipping off.

She let the car drive itself home, and turned most of her attention to Cedric. But he batted at her and tried to bite her every time she reached for him. Finally, she decided that protecting her fingers was the better part of valor, and she merely talked to him the rest of the way home.

Anna had given her cat food, and a cedar bed for Cedric to sleep in. She also gave advice: give Cedric a special room all by himself, probably a bathroom, since he already knew how to use a toilet, and let him stay there until he got used to the house. She had given the instructions in a curt, almost dismissive manner, as if Gen had angered her by going against her advice.

Dr. Prichard had apparently told Anna that Gen needed a challenge. Even if things with Cedric didn't work out, it would take Gen's mind off her own problems.

Things would work out, no matter what they said. She wasn't going to let herself fail. Not again. Dr. Prichard had wanted her to make a commitment and she had, even if no one approved of it.

She could almost hear Dr. Prichard describe this in a session. You don't want to succeed, do you, Gen? You want to prove to me that you are no longer capable of intimacy, that you cannot take care of someone other than yourself. So instead of taking a sad and docile dog, you take a cat that wants to kill everything in sight.

Perhaps there was some validity to that. Perhaps. She certainly hadn't felt a powerful attraction to Cedric, despite what she had told Anna. She had, however, noticed him. He was the only one of the animals who even raised a bit of sympathy within her, and she wasn't sure why. Perhaps because Anna so obviously disliked him. Perhaps because his eyes were the most expressive things Gen had ever seen. Perhaps because she knew, the moment she saw him, that he was an impossible creature who would prove her unworthy and end these futile therapy sessions once and for all.

The car pulled into the garage, and as the lights went off, she heard a small chirrup that indicated the house's security system was ready to receive her.

She lifted the cat carrier, feeling it shift beneath her hand. Her muscles were weak: she hadn't done any exercise besides the physical therapy since the accident. The squirming creature unbalanced the carrier, and made it twist against her already strained muscles.

The door opened, and she walked into her kitchen. It used to be her favorite room with its wide cooking area, oak cabinets, and matching oak table. She had fired her housekeeper months ago, unable to take the woman's chatter. The kitchen was filthy and the sour smell of two-day-old milk rotting in her breakfast bowls made her wince. She put the carrier on the fake wood floor, and went back to the car to get the food and the cedar bed.

She didn't want to put Cedric in the bathroom. That seemed inhumane. He had come to a new home, and they were going to get a new start. There were places she didn't want him, and she could get House to help with that. Before she let him out of the carrier, she would reprogram the computer to prevent him from entering Dar's bedroom. It remained as it was the day of the accident, with Dar's dirty clothes still on the floor, and the book they'd been reading on the end table beside the bed. She went to his room every day and peered inside, seeing it as a mute reproach for her own selfishness.

If she closed her eyes, she could see herself again—leaping away, not grabbing her child, not even thinking of him. Thinking only of herself.

Dr. Prichard tried to tell her that her memories were flawed, that she was ascribing motive where there could be none. But Dr. Prichard hadn't been there.

By the time Gen got back inside the house, she heard the cage door rattling. Cedric was still on his back, struggling with the lock.

"I'll get you out in a minute," she said. "There's a few things I have to do first."

She set the food by one of the kitchen cupboards, and carried the cedar bed into the master bedroom. She closed Dar's door, and used the hall keypad to program in the new instructions. Then she went back into the kitchen.

Cedric was on his stomach, his eyes glowing from the darkness of the cage. Gen remembered what she had learned, realized that all of them—the anonymous lab doctors, Anna, and herself—were in uncharted territory. She didn't know what kind of creature she had here. Just because it looked like a cat didn't mean it thought like one.

She sat in front of the cage and opened the door. Cedric skidded out, running faster than she had ever seen a creature move. He was across the kitchen floor and into the hallway before she had the door completely open.

He left a trail of bloody paw prints in his wake. The blood was fresh and red.

She looked at the wire on the door. "My god," she whispered. He had picked at the lock until he had damaged his paws. Anna said she had caged him every night, and that Gen should do the same. Did he spend his nights on his back, attempting to use his paws like hands, trying to open a catch that had been designed to work only with fingers and thumbs?

She shuddered at the thought, then grabbed a roll of paper towels, and cleaned up the mess. The trail led her through the hall, to the closed door, and then to her bedroom.

Cedric was standing in front of the cedar bed, his tail down as he stared at the soft padded cushion. Gen had no idea how long he had been there. He didn't turn as she entered.

"It's yours," she said, crouching on an unbloodied bit of carpet. "You can sleep in here with me if you want."

He whipped his head toward her, that same sudden movement he had shown at Anna's house when Gen had said she was interested in him. His eyes seemed wider than they had before. If a cat could show surprise, he had.

"You injured your paws," she said. "I'd like to clean them."

As if in answer, he sat down and began licking his front paws himself. She watched the choreographed movement. His pads were bloody and the top part of the paws was missing some fur. The white was streaked brown with drying blood.

"Well," she said, "make yourself comfortable. I'll put out some food and water for you."

She felt a bit odd talking to a cat, but she reminded herself that he wasn't ordinary. He seemed to understand her. He paused as she spoke that last, and then continued licking as if her words meant nothing to him.

His licking was noisy and ostentatious. She stood slowly, gathering the dirty paper towels and sticking the roll under her arm, and went back to the kitchen. She found a dish, poured some cat food in it, and put out a bowl of water. Then she stacked her dirty dishes and put them in the washer.

Her entire body was shaking. She stopped after a few moments and gripped the edge of the sink. The work wasn't physically demanding, but it was so familiar, so domestic, that it hurt.

People used to go through this all the time. The loss of a loved one, sudden stark tragedy invading lives. When she had been a little girl, her grandfather had died of old age. She still remembered his soft, wrinkled skin, the age marks mottling his hands, his silver hair which had been so very thin that his scalp had been visible through it.

Except for the handful of Naturals—those who refused to change their looks despite the demands of fashion—no one allowed themselves to deteriorate any more. If a body part decayed, from the heart to the skin, it was repaired or replaced, most of the time without surgery. Exercise programs had become mandated by the government which, thanks to insurance lobbies, had been unwilling to pay for problems caused by inactivity. Serious illness still happened—although most could be controlled—and people still had an occasional cold, or a flu, or an injury caused by too much exercise. Those things were expected. Death was not.

She made herself take a deep breath, then splashed water onto her face. Dr. Prichard's voice went through her head. Death is still expected, Gen. We're just not as used to it. No one knew the upper limits of the rejuvenated human body. Barring some irreparable setback (which often happened to the elderly who had been around long before the medical innovations became common), people were still jogging at a hundred and ten. A large section of the population was moving into the second decade of its second century with no immediate end in sight.

Water was dripping off her face into the sink. The unexpected nature of Dar's death, Dr. Prichard had said, combined with the trauma to her own body was creating a new world for her, a world in which people didn't live forever, and the strength she had taken for granted could be taken away from her in a heartbeat. Dr. Prichard had once said that what Gen was struggling with was the essence of being human.

She hated it. She hated it all. She shouldn't be listening to the doctors anymore. Maybe she should move, start all over again, in a place without memories.

A crunch behind her made her turn. Cedric was eating out of his bowl, his head bent, but his body alert. He had been a mistake, too. As much of a mistake as that pitiful dog would have been. She didn't want anyone else in her house. She didn't want her privacy disturbed by anyone. She didn't want to think about anyone else's welfare, especially when she had no control over it at all.

He drank as if he hadn't had water in weeks, then sat and stared at her. Those green eyes took in her wet face, her still shaking hands, and then perused the clean kitchen. He seemed to be waiting for something, but she didn't know what and she didn't know how to find out.

She walked past him and headed toward the closed door, thinking maybe she would sit in Dar's room. But when she reached the hallway, she realized she didn't want to go there. Instead she walked past it to the entertainment room.

Everything was covered in a fine coating of dust. She usually had House download her e-mail in the guest room, and she watched vid-net news from her bed when she felt like it. Lately she had been watching news on the Moon colonies as if it were designed for her. But she hadn't been in this part of the house, with its large holoviewer, its flat movie screen, and its games, since she'd come home from the hospital.

She sank into her leather chair, and immediately music came on: a Chopin sonata, the piano warm and beautiful and oh, so comforting. She had forgotten her music. How had she done that? She closed her eyes and leaned back, letting it flow through her, as it used to do.

Then she felt something soft brush against her arm. She opened her eyes. Cedric was sitting on the arm rest, his tail touching her, as if he were afraid he would get in trouble. When he saw her looking at him, he inclined his head slightly. She patted her lap, but he didn't crawl in it.

She closed her eyes again. The music ebbed and flowed, like the tide, like passion, and, after a while, she felt Cedric's tail wrap gently around her wrist.

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© 2000 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and SCIFI.COM.