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Thing.

That one's name is Plankton, and this one is Shrimp. The captain's name is Caesar. The Captain's name is a real name, the only real name among us.

The name I had before was the name the doctors gave me: Darkness. That's because I was born in the year when the nights became longer, the year the electricity disappeared. It was the year the air turned brown and heavy, and the sun dipped closer to us. When we forgot about almost everything, except how to survive.

Caesar calls me Angel. "What's an angel," I ask. 'A beautiful creature with wings," he says. I can't imagine it.

"Birds?" I ask. Like birds?

"Yes," Caesar says.

Our house is made out of earth and water. Caesar taught us how.

There is never any change in the weather.

I sometimes forget what green looks like.

The four of us are in charge of Outlier Rehabilitation Center V. We feed the animals and clean their pens.

Our animals are mostly pigs that were used for experiments. They have all kinds of weird traits. One has a mouth in the middle of its forehead. Another has six legs. Another stares skyward, unable to bend its neck. Still another has the body of a snake, and three noses. Each of the Not-Rights is unique, completely different from the others.

My mouth-in-the-forehead pig was named Ed. I remembered that name from somewhere. When he cried, white foam spilled out of his mouth; the red of his pupils was like fire. I never got tired of looking at him. He lasted longer than the others. I even let myself hope that it would happen differently, for him. But one day his bristles started to fall out--big black clumps of them, all over the pen. After that, it was only a matter of days.

But why should a pig cry, Shrimp said. What gives them the right?

We go about our work with cowls pulled forward, shielding our faces. The sun is so bright that it burns. Caesar's cowl is always pulled forward. He has a problem with runny eyes, a side effect of the atmosphere, dry as dust. Every so often, he stops and wipes his cheeks.

Caesar tells stories late at night if we can't sleep. He is old. Old enough to remember a time when there were factories and pigs were processed night and day, when the smell of pig blood lingered over everything. He remembers a time when people ate every part of the pigs: ears, eyes, even entrails. Pork fat was used in cakes, and in bread. I try to imagine a cake.

The factories still cry out. When we hear the keening sound, we know it is the herds of ghost pigs, running into walls and crying because they can never find their way out. They are inside people's heads, like the memories of old ways. And when people's heads get too full of the memories, the first ones to tumble out are the pigs, running every which way and squealing.

The pigs are bred for research now. When a mutant appears, no one in the City can stand to look. Everyone in the City, Caesar tells us, walks upright. Everyone is symmetrical: two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, two hands, two lungs.

No one knows why, when a Not-Right pig is born, the Founding Fathers don't kill it immediately. Caesar says that would be the best solution. Instead, the Founding Fathers send the Not-Rights to us. Caesar says we should be proud that we have been chosen.

There's another reason our station is hundreds of miles from the City. It's not only the mutant pigs that repel, it's us, the Pig Minders.

I was born with no legs. I can walk because the doctors took pity and made legs for me which are the color of gunmetal. They flash in the sun. But walking is not the right word to describe how I move. I crawl.

Plankton doesn't have any lips, all he has are gums and teeth. You don't realize how much the lack of lips ruins a face until you've seen Plankton.

Shrimp has only one eye. The hollow where the other eye should have been is covered with shiny green scales. Shrimp likes to say that his mother ate a lot of fish when she was carrying him in her belly. She wouldn't listen when people told her that an appetite for fish would result in a baby who looks like a fish.

I never knew my parents. I lived in a laboratory on the 3rd floor of Loadstar IV, along with Plankton and Shrimp. In the beginning, there were more than twenty of us. We began each day by reciting the Five Precepts. Now, I only remember the second:

Once you have flown past the summit of your fears, nothing will seem impossible.

There were many things we didn't know at the laboratory. We didn't know cold, we didn't know weather, we didn't know what was beyond the long hallway, each end barred by heavy steel doors.

Caesar came one day and collected the three of us. The rest--and there were still about ten others--who knows what happened to them? Who knows why he chose me and Plankton and Shrimp? I remember that the three of us wept in Caesar's truck. We were afraid of him. We thought we were going to one of the warehouses we'd been told about, the ones that line the perimeter of the city. Instead, he brought us here.

We become attached to our mutant pigs, we can't help it. Shrimp records the dates of their deaths, scratching with a sharp grey stone on the gate to the pens. The pigs don't live very long. None of them has ever lasted longer than a year.

We had one that died just days after it arrived at the station. It had two heads and its heart was outside its body, pulsing just above its navel. It had probably been dead for several hours when we found it. I suspected Plankton because that morning when he came in for breakfast, there was blood on his boots.

When we found the two-headed pig, Shrimp curled up and howled.

In time, Caesar says, everything will vanish. We'll become molecules, spinning in the infinity of space.

Caesar has been to school. I can tell, from the words he uses. I want to ask him, What is a molecule? What is infinity? What is space?

One day, they send us a new mutant. It comes in the back of a truck, locked in a steel cage. I am covered in mud and pig crap when the truck arrives. I see a cloud of dust down the road. I wipe my hands, let go of the shovel, and run.

Caesar is there first. He runs up to the cage, ahead of us. When Plankton moves forward, Caesar gestures for him to stay back. There is warning in his eyes. Plankton obeys but his cheeks become mottled, a dark red that spread slowly towards his throat.

The thing's skin is a strange color: yellow, with faint grey stripes. Its eyes are deep black and far apart, almost on the sides of its head. Every few moments, a sheath of transparent skin lowers over them and flips up again. It makes low noises in its throat, which is how I know it is afraid. We have heard there were two or three of these born every year, but we have never seen one until now. Strange creatures, neither fully human nor fully animal.

The thing tries to crawl away from us and I realize it moves just like me.

I turn to Caesar and ask, "Where did it come from?"

Plankton says, "Where do you think? From the laboratory."

Shrimp shrugs and says, "Who knows?"

Shrimp's favorite expression is "Who knows."

The three of us wait, stamping our feet from the cold.

Caesar lifts the creature out of its cage. We see a pulse beating rapidly in the middle of its forehead. Then we hear a strange bleating sound. We all stand in shock. If we were not seeing it with our own eyes, we would think it was a pig making the sound.

The creature flails its arms. Caesar's cowl has fallen back and we see that his skin is gray, the gray of stone. His cheeks have fresh, angry-looking scratches. "It was supposed to be sedated," he pants.

The creature twists in his arms with surprising strength. Our pigs gather restlessly by the fences. A feeling of foreboding settles over me.

"Kill it, Caesar, kill it!" Plankton shouts.

"No!" Caesar says through gritted teeth. He strikes the side of the creature's head. Not a very hard blow, but the creature's head immediately bobbles. It becomes slack in Caesar's arms and I wonder if its neck is broken.

"You killed it, Caesar!" I say

"I didn't kill it," Caesar says.

After that, no one feels like talking.

We make a nest for the thing, just outside the kitchen door.

A week later the creature is still alive. I have been thinking a lot about it, watching it every day, seeing how it changes.

For instance, it no longer reacts when I poke it with the tip of my knife. Little dots of blood appear on the surface of its skin. Perhaps it has no nerve endings? I make a list of my observations.

1. It has no name. We call it Thing.

2. Is Thing human? The questions must be asked. If human, it should have the privileges of a human.

3. It can endure any amount of pressure applied to its head or throat. Its only response is a slight widening of the eyes.

4. It has hair all over its back, but none anywhere else. The hair is downy and soft, like the fuzz of a baby chick. This is Shrimp's comparison. I've never seen a baby chick.

5. This creature was sent to us for a reason. What that is, we don't know. Caesar says it is possible we will never know.

6. It has two arms and two legs but cannot walk upright. It slithers along the ground.

7. It is like me.

I show the list to Caesar. He looks at it for a long time. Finally, he hands it back to me. "Very good," he says.

"How long before it dies?" I ask Caesar. He shrugs. The look on his face scares me.

"It will die, though," I say.

"Just keep watching it," he says. "You're still feeding it?"

I say, "Of course!"

I don't like to see creatures starve. I'm not like Plankton. He torments the pigs. They walk around with wounds. One day, so long ago I think I might have dreamed it, I saw Plankton standing at the far edge of the pigpen. He was screaming and jumping up and down. As I got closer, I saw that he was stomping one of the pigs.

By the time I reached him, the pig was nothing. It had disappeared into a mess of flesh and blood. A lot of it had gotten on Plankton's boots. The smell in the air was deep and rich, like no other smell in the world.

I warn Plankton to keep away from Thing. "Why?" Plankton whines. His pale eyes have no light in them at all.

A river runs past the pigpens. This river had no name, so we named it No Name River. "It is ours now," Caesar says, "because we named it."

"How can you own a river?" I ask Caesar.

I look closely at him and realize something is wrong. Is it his eyes? Is it the tremor in his voice? I sense things. I always have.

Thing senses it, too. It hates when Caesar approaches. That is the only time I see Thing shake.

"Caesar," I say. "You're not leaving?"

"Not unless they make me," he says. He is smiling.

This is when I wonder if Thing has been sent to replace Caesar. This makes me angry. Why are things never clear? By ourselves out here, we are always guessing.

I decide that Thing can't be Caesar's replacement. Thing is just a thing. It has no intelligence at all. It can't even speak. No, Thing can't be Caesar's replacement.

Maybe Thing is meant to replace one of us. Maybe word has gotten back to the City about Plankton. How three of the mutant pigs have died because of his cruelty.

Plankton wakes me one morning. Look, he says.

I don't have to look. I know because there is a feeling I have that the world is gone. That where Caesar has been is just space wrapped in hair, skin, and bones.

With each passing day, That-Which-Was-Caesar stiffens and bloats. We wait for the next delivery, but it does not come.

Caesar liked to say that we are all merely instruments. I think that's true. We don't know how to kiss, though I once touched Caesar's lips, when he was sleeping.

We wait, now. We wait for That-Which-Was-Caesar to disappear. Flesh, bone, skin, hair--these will melt away. We try to remember when the next delivery is. All we know is that we are hungry.

Thing scratches at the door. It is hungry, too.

Shrimp comes over to me. He is no longer trembling.

Plankton takes the shovel from behind the stove.
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Author:Villanueva, Marianne
Publication:New Orleans Review
Article Type:Short story
Date:Jun 1, 2012
Words:2249
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