Porn & Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom

Porn & Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom

illustration by sam bosma

In a possible far future animals have taken over and democratized the world where humans once ruled. Tim, a lonely slime mold, is worried about his human pet Mimi and her recent animal urges. He only wants her to be happy, but he doesn’t know how to keep her from sneaking out and cavorting with the human pet next door or any number of feral humans in the neighborhood. But through his relationship with her, he learns what it truly means to make a commitment to someone else.

This novelette was acquired for Tor.com by consulting editor Ann VanderMeer.

 

Long ago, the earth belonged to the humans. The animals lived desperately in the forests, foraging or hunting their way from meal to meal; or they were farmed as dumb livestock, to labor or to be slaughtered; or else they were kept as pets, vessels for loving kicks or cruel caresses. The humans spent most of their time making tools for everything, and they did it very well. In the end, so successful were they in devising their tools and machines that any problem that might arise could be solved without more being required than the flipping of an on switch. Over the millennia, even the machines were hardly called upon to do any problem-solving work at all, as they found themselves faced with fewer and fewer problems of any significance. Humanity ceased to evolve.

The animals and other complex organisms, on the other hand, found life greatly problematic, more so every day. With nonsentient meat grown in vast industrial laboratories, only small numbers of the most delicate and sophisticated cattle were raised for the tables of the very, very rich. The planet became one thriving multicultural city, a city that spanned even the oceans, its skyscrapers cresting the arching, spiny sky bridges; and lions were driven to hunt for field mice in botanical gardens and long-forgotten alleyways. Robots of devastating charm and heartbreaking loyalty took over the domestic pet industry, with merely a few highly pedigreed dogs, cats, and exotics kept on as R&D prototypes. Only those insects who were especially beautiful or macabre were allowed to live. A few germs were cultivated for cosmetic or surgical procedures or for labfarm production, and the rest eradicated.

Pressures on the few remaining members of the various animal species became intense. They evolved exponentially. After a few eons, the humans remained stuck where they’d been at the end of the twenty-third century, and animals had become fearsome and gorgeous in both mind and body. Of course, highly evolved as they were, the animals made almost all the right decisions. They took over human society and culture, retaining the best parts, and they made use of the extant technologies, institutions, and structures. They resurrected the lost species, and treated each other justly and with respect. They treated their little humans with tender loving kindness.

 

Tim was a slime mold, and he worked at Wal-Mart. He loved his job as a stock boy. Each day he spent beatific hours gliding over the vast, smooth floors, taking deep breaths of the ozone-treated air and tasting its clear, thin brightness. With gratitude, he’d turn his receptors up to bathe in the chilly, sharp, white light, and he’d bask in the voices of the shoppers. They bounced over and off the constant thrumming vibration of cart wheels before spinning and nose-diving back from the farthest and most fearless reaches of the invisibly high ceilings. They returned innocent and infantile: sweet, bell-like, wordless echoes, like the meaningless shouts heard in a dream, an abstract coppery ringing.

Tim felt graceful, swinging his wet, squelching bulk around the ends of the aisles in practiced arcs of momentum. He knew where everything was. Sometimes he filled in at the checkout, and he looked forward to those occasions, too, having learned to be brisk, practicing an ascetic economy of motion and time.

In the holiday season, the ice songs of sea lions played from the speakers in endless loops. Tim would hum along, emitting low and meandering notes, running one of his bulges lightly over the boxes of breakfast cereal, poking a gentle dimple into the cheek of each plump bag of rice stacked around a holographic display. The small variations of coldness and warmness, softness and rigidity, smoothness and dampness, quietude and amplitude, glare and matte, soothed and lulled Tim wonderfully, and he knew he was not alone in his gratitude. Most shoppers stayed for hours, at least, all of them putting their faith in Wal-Mart’s pledge never to evict anyone who kept moving through the aisles. Some animals took up permanent residence, having learned to sleepwalk, trudging slowly, very slowly, and trustingly forward, emitting long, bubbly snorts of deep velvet pleasure.

Other animals sometimes put things in the carts of the sleepers, marvelous selections from the shelves, boxes of lavender sugar or little pots of rose-petal jams, a sachet of sweet-salted kelp body scrub or a faceted glass nightlight filled with a sparkling jelly of infertile frog eggs. To care for the sleepers. Tim kept watch for the rare moments when a sleeping shopper would make a selection of his or her own. With infinite lassitude, the sleeper would reach for a bottle of wheat juice or some prismatic sunglasses, secure the item, and retract, one nerve-flick at a time, the groping limb or appendage over the cart, until able to let the product tumble slowly in, as if through water. Then Tim would take the product and hide it inside the blob of himself. For good luck. And to smuggle it home and give it as a present to Mimi.

 

He had gotten Mimi from a shelter two years previously. He loved her tawny coloration, honeyed and blond in the summer months, and amber dark in winter, and the tiny little nails on her fingers and toes that she painted different colors to surprise him. He kept her hair and skin soft with regular brushing and scrubbing, and although he could not quite stop himself from giving her the little treats that made her plump, he was pleased that she was still small enough to curl up on him like a cat on a cushion, although she was already nineteen years old.

He had bought her everything the Human Habitat catalog had to offer. Mimi had a pink cradle that she could set to rock at different speeds with three easy-to-learn buttons, as well as a circular music-box bed that spun in a slow circle while playing pop lullabies and casting yellow silhouettes of smiling human faces on the wall from the plastic ring of cutouts around its illuminated base. She had a big bathtub shaped like a conch shell that Tim could fill with different human-safe soaps so the taps spilled out warm bubbling water in just the right concentrations of perfumes and cleansers. He had bought her a karaoke machine and tried to train her to sing and dance for him but was touched to find that what really amused her was for Tim to use the machine while she laughed and clapped along. Mimi had a giant trunk full of every kind of costume: dirndls and hot pants and hijabs and prom dresses. Her video library numbered by now in the thousands of files. Tim felt justifiably proud of his ownership skills. He realized it was hard to know for sure if humans were still capable of complex emotions like love, but he knew that Mimi would rather be in the room where he was than anywhere else in the house, and that was enough for him. Sometimes he didn’t think that even animal friendship was all that much more complicated than the simple preference for company over solitude, when it came right down to it.

Naturally, Tim knew that the bond between animals and humans probably had more in common with animal affection than with human love. His species had, after all, been instrumental in orchestrating the planetwide switch from two-party reproduction to universal cloning, long before Tim had been born. All animals had agreed that abandoning the mating mechanism would allow them to ensure continued, strategic evolution in controlled environments, avoiding the careless genomic stagnation that had undone homo sapiens, while also improving all-around quality of life by disabling the hormonal triggers that messily linked sexual desire and animal-on-animal violence. Every animal was chaste now, except humans. As the humans had been deemed intellectually incapable of participating in the vote for mating versus cloning, it had been felt that to subject them to genetic reprogramming without informed consent would be unethical. Moreover, some argued, did animals really want to include humans in the pro-evolutionary clonic programs? Given their track record, let them stay in their evolutionary backwater, was the consensus.

And so humans continued to breed in the old manner. Some animals did, after a caring discussion with their humans, either get them fixed or medicate them for pregnancy control; but Tim could not yet bring himself to do that to Mimi. Not that some of the behaviors she had begun to exhibit did not trouble him. They had warned him at the shelter that traditionally asexual species like his own tended to be particularly challenged when humans entered the late adolescent phase of their life cycles, but in his heart he had been imagining the delight of a little human infant cuddling on Mimi’s lap just as she was wont to cuddle on Tim’s. He had quite been unprepared for the shock he felt the first time that, hearing some rustlings and gigglings in the yard one afternoon, he looked out the window to find the neighbor’s Yoyo on top of Mimi in the grass, rutting ruthlessly between her legs. A wave of horror and nausea churned through him. His body went quite fluid, so that if he had not clutched a chair for support, his bulges would have poured limply out over the blue and white tiles of the kitchen floor.

At first, in a rage, he had forbidden Mimi to see Yoyo again, but then, discovering them together again the next week in the tree house, with her on top this time, shoving and rocking, he went to speak to Yoyo’s owners. A cross-species family of spiders and scorpions, they were pleasant and sympathetic, but not prepared to intervene. They believed in letting humans act out their natural instincts, they told Tim rather preachily, and anyway Yoyo had been vasectomized, so what was the problem?

 

Tim told this story to Edwina, a fennec fox and a fellow shelf stocker at Wal-Mart whom he had always considered a friend.

“I don’t know what you expect, Tim,” she said bluntly, arranging the folds of a unispecies rain poncho over a chimera mannequin. “We may talk about humans as if they’re animals like the rest of us, but if we’re honest we have to admit that they’re a completely different organism. We bring them into our homes and treat them as if they’re domesticated, but they’re an uncivilized species and always will be.”

Tim looked at Edwina in surprise. “I didn’t know you felt that way,” he said. “Lots of animals can’t stand them, I know, but didn’t you used to have a little baby human?”

“Yes,” said Edwina, “and when he was old enough I released him into the wild, where he belonged. I don’t hate them, Tim, I respect them. They’re a part of the natural world. They listen to their instincts, while we dictate to ours. When it was time for them to stop evolving, they obeyed the decision of their own bodies. Sure, when they mate, they’re slaves to themselves. But with us, with our megademocracy and our unanimous votes, each animal is a slave to every other animal. We might own humans, but they’re their own masters, you know?”

“Not really,” said Tim. “Mimi is so cute when she gets down on her knees to beg for food, but she’s not much of a master. And I bring her everything she wants and I don’t ask her for anything. I know she gives me affection, but if she stopped liking me, there wouldn’t be anything I could do about it. So I don’t think she’s much of a slave either.”

Thoughtfully, Edwina poured a small puddle of bright green water around the galoshes-clad feet of the mannequin. “I’m just saying,” she observed, “that the humans are actually alive. Animals are so perfect that we barely even exist these days. I mean, look at the sleepers. Up and down the aisles, reaching out for products they don’t even see, much less want, just to keep from getting woken up. And everybody treats them like saints. I’d like to see them all mating like maniacs in the produce cooler, I really would.”

Tim winced. His favorite sleeper was passing at that moment, a bacterial hive-mind he’d privately christened Sunny for the cloud of eerie yellow shimmering phosphorescence that pulsated around her ever-shifting form in its delicate glass tube as she rolled hesitantly, unsteadily through the store on her wheeled wire rack. Even though all the species were entirely equal, the animals knew the bacteria were something special, something spiritual and otherworldly and slightly terrifying but also wonderfully wise. Tim decidedly did not want to see Sunny flat on her back in a bed of produce, giggling and spilling her multiple selves from the top of her tube, but he thought he might like to take her home and care for her somewhat in the way he cared for Mimi, swaddling her fragile glass in deep pillows and silken sheets, tending her pH levels like an acolyte, breathing in the dangerous, musky, humid vapors that whispered out around the imperfect seal of her cork.

He told Edwina he had to go change the filters on the aquatic carts for Wal-Mart’s marine customers, and followed Sunny through cleaning supplies and past pollens and nectars into the lurid pink and red canyon of the labmeat aisle. She faltered by a long spiraling roll of beef shawarma, drawn perhaps by the heat, and Tim thought for a terrifying moment that she would come to a halt and be woken and ejected for nonmovement. He had seen sleepers woken before; they came flailing up into consciousness bewildered and amnesiac and always freezing cold. But then Sunny dipped forward to nudge a tin of salt pork into her cart and trembled onward. Tim drew up alongside her and slipped the salt pork between his bulges, wishing he could fit her inside his viscous body and smuggle her out through the sighing suction tubes of the front entrance.

“I saw that,” said Edwina, right behind him. Tim twitched: a little spasm of guilty surprise. “Don’t worry,” said Edwina. “I couldn’t care less. In fact, I support your little desecration of the sleepers cult. That labmeat is disgusting, though. When will I ever get you to go vegetarian with me, Timmy?”

“It’s exactly the same as real meat,” said Tim, worriedly watching Sunny rattle away into the hazardous sharp zone of tools and home improvement.

“Labmeat hasn’t died, Tim,” protested Edwina. “Death is our life force! If the meat we eat has never perished, we cannot be said to be truly living on it. At least plants have actually kicked the bucket. Some of them are even still alive while we’re chewing on them.”

Edwina had loved striking radically reactionary poses for as long as Tim had known her, and it had always been funny and made for good conversation, but it seemed to Tim that it was getting harder and harder to tell whether or not she was still kidding around.

“Do you really want us to go back to killing each other for food?” he asked her.

“Us?” mocked Edwina. “I don’t recall the great heyday of the predator slime molds, Tim.”

“Our hunting was silent and microscopic,” he said, smiling, “but we ate heartily.”

Edwina cackled with delight and rubbed her nose with affection against Tim’s nearest touch receptor, tickling him till he sneezed, messily.

 

When Tim got home from work, the neighbors were having a cookout, all the kids swinging back and forth from the trees on long sticky swings while the female adult sipped beer in a newly spun hammock chair and her male presided over the grill, stabbing the steaks occasionally with a venomous marinade. Tim thought they looked happy and he knew he felt a little jealous. Family units had been almost entirely abandoned when clonic reproduction went mainstream, but now they were on the upswing again, with animals of various species forming domestic alliances and adopting offspring from municipal nurseries like the one where Tim himself had grown up.

There had been nothing wrong with his childhood, but he retained so few distinct memories of the nursery that he had to believe that little that was either good or bad had happened to him then. Now he couldn’t help staring at the spiders and scorpions—and, he noticed, one little wasp who looked to be a new addition—as they yelled happily at one another across the backyard. Was this the kind of partnership he wanted to have with Sunny? He felt envious both of the intimacy of his neighbors’ affection and of the variety of their little family, although why a small collective of diverse species should seem more cozy and comforting than an enormous nursery of thousands of slime-mold clones, he didn’t know. Surely the latter option offered a greater number of confidants and a more reassuring sense of identity.

Perhaps it was just that the spider and scorpion had picked each other, specifically, and had chosen their children, too. No one had ever chosen Tim for anything, except the HR manager who had selected him for the stock-boy job, which perhaps, he reflected, was one reason he loved working at Wal-Mart so much. But, he reminded himself, he had chosen Mimi, and she would be hungry and bored by now; so, on the verge of wandering into the barbecue to say hello and casually accept a beer or two, he made his way on to his own house, where Mimi was waiting with her face pressed up against the glass, making comic faces.

For dinner, Tim did pasta bolognese with a spinach salad, red wine for him and fizzy lemonade for Mimi. He’d queued up a documentary series on great art forgeries of parasitic mimicry to watch after they ate, but Mimi grew bored and complaining as soon as the first test-yourself quiz popped up onscreen, so Tim let her put on her favorite musical, about a human girl who marries her canine owner and becomes so wealthy that she possesses humans of her own. It was a made-just-for-humans movie, which explained the love affair between human and dog. Tim was always slightly disconcerted that the schlocky, sugar-coated forty-minute videos produced for human consumption tended to favor the same romantic human-on-animal plotlines as the ultraextreme, nearly illegal bestiality porn that some animals apparently were into, but the humans loved the films, and the relationships were, after all, entirely innocent.

While she watched cross-legged on the floor in front of the couch, Tim stroked her hair and drank another glass of wine, listening to his new favorite album, of coyote calls in the desert recorded by space satellites and mixed with the rhythmic long beats of owl wings in flight. Then Mimi wanted a snack, so Tim had her read all the front-page headlines, feeding her an orange wedge each time she sounded out the words correctly. He sent her into the bathroom to wash the juice off her face, and heard her go from there into her bedroom and begin playing with her workout machine. She liked Shark Yoga the best, and panted out the screechy, keening names of the positions together with the instructor as she leaned and curved, shot forward, arced back on her gel-filled mat.

By nine o’clock Mimi was yawning, and Tim suspected she’d snuck some of his wine for herself, so he supervised her teeth brushing and they both got into their pajamas. Because Tim had to spend the night immersed in a moisturizing electrolyte solution, she couldn’t sleep next to him, to his perpetual disappointment, but he had erected a little platform with a mattress on it across the foot of his bed, and she nestled there while he tucked her in and kissed her cheek. He turned out the lights, climbed into his sleep-bath, and felt around on the nightstand for his mystery novel, which he switched on to lo-lite. But he was tired, too, and he realized that soon Mimi would murmur him to sleep, as she did most nights.

“Timtimtim,” she crooned blearily.

“Mmmph.”

“Can I have a car?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Can I have a spaceship?”

“No, you can’t.”

“Can I have a bicycle?”

“You don’t ride your tricycle.”

“Can I have an ice cream?”

“Maybe tomorrow.”

“My favorite flavor is red.”

“I thought you liked butterscotch.”

“No, my flavor for the car I want.”

“If you can find a car that tastes like butterscotch, we’ll think about buying it.”

Mimi snickered. “I want a swimming pool.”

“The yard isn’t big enough.”

“It would be if our house could float inside the pool.”

“Then we’d always be wet. And you hate the rain.”

“We don’t have to fill it with water.”

“What else do you want to fill it with?”

“Gold dust,” said Mimi. “Cake. Flowers, neon. Music, feathers, eyeballs, fire, shipwrecks. Locust shells.”

Tim thought he caught a hint of dissatisfaction in her tone, but then he heard her breath begin to stumble into a light snoring. He let himself drift away, too, before he could begin to worry.

When he woke in the night, Mimi was gone, as she always was. On his way back from the bathroom, he poked his head into her room to make sure she’d covered up with blankets in her pink cradle. But the cradle was empty, and so was the big round bed.

Somehow he knew, even before he went to her window. There she was, on the lawn with Yoyo, their pj’s in a dark heap, a stain on the grass, their bodies sealed together lengthwise, their faces in each other’s crotches, lapping and suckling. Yoyo had his hands clasped around her head as if he might twist it off. Dimly, through the merciful, deafening rush of blood to Tim’s brain, Mimi’s voice leaked in. She was emitting animal noises, bleating, whimpering, and mewling, like a ventriloquist. He returned to the bathroom, where he turned on the cold-water spigot in the tub and held his head under the frigid torrent until his skull was fractured with jolts of clear, clean pain.

He took a handful of aspirin and turned on his compy. On a site called Bonding Domestically Sexlessly and Meaningfully, he created a profile. On the partner checklist, he clicked female, any species. Any income, any diet. Literate, within ten miles. Pets and adopted offspring okay. The site sent him a Blind Date Super Match for an African Gray parrot named Hannah. She had dull, flat feathers and a chip in her beak, but Tim thought, squinting, nice sad eyes. He put in his credit code and clicked accept. For an additional fifteen credits, the site made a reservation for him and Hannah at a chic cocktails-and-canapés place called Canopy.

 

Canopy had a rainforest theme, which Tim guessed was why Hannah had put it on her venue list, but when he saw her waiting at the bar, hunched over her coco colada, the glossy leaves, orchids, and serpentine vines that covered the walls and ceiling made her look even dowdier than she had in her picture. Nevertheless, when he walked up and nudged her shoulder, she brightened and smiled, and nipped at her garnish with a rapid nervousness he found appealing.

“Hi!” she said. “Sorry, I’m early.”

“No problem,” said Tim. “I’m right on time. Pretty boring, huh?”

They laughed spastically at each other.

The bartender, a sleek albino boa with pale pink tribal tattoos all over her body, gave them a disdainful smile, and asked if they were ready to be seated. Lurching forward to pull out Hannah’s chair for her, Tim found himself in competition with their server, and they wound up pushing her in together awkwardly, their combined effort a little too forceful, so that her plumage squashed up against the edge of the table.

“Oof,” said Hannah. “Wow. What service!”

“I’m incredibly strong,” said Tim, approaching his own chair and scooting it in with trepidation.

“Ha!” said Hannah. “You’re very funny.”

“I have it all,” said Tim.

Feverishly, they regarded their menus.

“Do you want to hear the specials?” said the server, evidently still standing there.

“Sure!” said Hannah.

“Absolutely,” said Tim.

The server recited the specials like a priest giving last rites to the dying, craning his simian head back and pinching his nostrils as if afraid to catch whatever Tim and Hannah had. They nodded appreciatively to one dish or another. “Astute choices,” intoned the server indifferently, and glided off.

When he left, Hannah leaned over and confessed, “I can’t remember a single thing we just ordered!”

“Me either,” said Tim, although he could.

They said what they did. Hannah taught astronomy at a secondary-level nursery school for goats and sheep. “They couldn’t care less, of course,” she said, “or else they hate it with a passion, but then again, they’re all really good at it. Teenagers!”

“Hey, that’s really interesting,” said Tim. “Astronomy, huh? You must never be bored with that stuff in your head. That’s great. I’m a stock boy at Wal-Mart.”

“Sure, yeah,” said Hannah. “It says in your profile that the benefits are great and you have a close bond with your coworkers?”

“That’s true,” Tim confirmed. He supposed she now realized that he hadn’t bothered to read her profile before making the date. Maybe she thought that was because he was so into her photo.

“Yeah,” he said. “I love my job. And I have a nice home, and a human. It’s funny how your life just comes together without even trying. Well, you’re trying, but you’re not planning. You work hard in the moment, but you don’t know what lies ahead, and then one day you realize that what lies ahead is exactly what’s happening now. You’ve become this animal who is what he is. It’s so easy. Such a relief. We’re really lucky, I think. You can just trust evolution, these days. No more dead ends.”

“That’s a really great attitude,” said Hannah, slightly despondent.

The food arrived, six tiny trays of cunning this and clever that. Tim felt exhausted just looking at them. His appetite had vanished. Hannah leaned forward and immediately began pecking at the bananas cayenne with anguished intensity. Tim placed the end of one of his bulges in a plate of bloodfruit-infused ayahuasca foam and let the fierce little bubbles soak in through his tissue as he waited for the buzz to hit.

Eventually, Hannah said, “Yup, I really admire how positive you are, Tim. I’d like to learn to feel that way. Sometimes it just seems to me that modern life is too solitary for me. I guess I’m a throwback! I know that the bonds I have with friends, colleagues, and students are really more reliable and straightforward than the copulatory alliances that animals forged back in the day, but . . . I don’t know.” She crushed a candied macadamia in one pensive claw. “I guess I should tell you that this is my first date in a long time since my previous relationship ended.”

Tim looked up, startled. “You had a chaste partnership before?”

“Uh huh,” said Hannah. “It was a really good experience for . . . well, for me, anyway, and, you know, it really felt right being protected and also protective. Because people can say all they want that, of course, no one has any natural predators anymore, but the world—the world’s a natural predator, isn’t it? A big natural predator! I mean, time is, and gravity is, and radiation, and ourselves. It’s . . . for me, it was good to have someone to count on, and to know that I could trust him because I knew that he trusted me, too, that if he were in trouble I’d be the person he’d turn to. But—sorry!” she added suddenly, laughing. Some macadamia sprayed out from her beak over her breast and she preened for a moment, futilely. “Is this probably all a bit much for a first date, or a— Is this a bit much for you?”

“No, no,” said Tim. Hannah depressed him unutterably, but he did want to know more. He had met so few animals who had domestic alliances at all, and he’d never known anyone whose alliance had failed. It had not even occurred to him that that might happen. “Did you two have adoptees?”

Hannah shook her head. “I wanted to, but we never got that far. We had a human, but he took her when he went.”

“What happened?” asked Tim. He was vaguely aware that his questioning was more ruthless than sympathetic, but he couldn’t help it, or, he acknowledged, he didn’t much care.

She sighed, and the ruff of down around her neck fleeced out as her head sunk slightly into her chest. “I don’t really know,” she said, gesturing weakly. “I don’t think he liked the idea of my depending on him, and I honestly don’t think that if anything bad had ever happened to him that it would have even crossed his mind to come to me for help. He was a pig, and very cerebral and self-reliant and self-contained. And, well . . . you know, I think he was just bored, living with me. Living alone, you know, every day after work could be different for him. One day he could be a film buff, and the next day he could go for a long run around the lake, or he could cook up one of the experimental chilis he used to make when we were first dating, or he could hunker down with a book and a whisky, or he could be this rambunctious guy out hitting all the bars: anything. With me, if he didn’t come home as usual, I’d worry, and if he wanted to cook he might find I was already busy in the kitchen, or I might not like the movies he queued up, and we only had the one compy, so we couldn’t watch different things—but, I guess, more than anything, it was just that I was always there. And that was boring. So he left. And he took our little human girl, which I didn’t understand, if he didn’t want to be tied down . . . And so. It was hard for me. I pulled out all my feathers and I wasn’t eating, and then I had a hysterical pregnancy and became egg-bound. It’s been a rough couple of years. But. I just wanted to be honest about that. And I don’t want to freak you out! Because I wouldn’t be dating again if I didn’t believe that I was ready for it. But I also think, I guess, that I owe it to you to let you know what I’m looking for. I don’t just want someone to take me bee-dancing or whatever. I want someone to make a life with.”

Tim realized he still had his bulge in the sticky ayahuasca tray. He took it out. His whole top-right nodule was numb. “I didn’t mean to eat all the ayahuasca,” he apologized. Then he added, “I already have a life. I’m sorry.”

He could hear the scratch of Hannah’s nails as she curled her claws around the edge of her seat. For a moment, he knew exactly the little rush of misery that was dizzying her. “You have a nothing life, Tim,” she said. “I’m not trying to be revengeful or anything, I just want to say. You’re looking for someone to just walk in and fill the empty space you’re troubled by? That’s not how it works, you know. You have to start all over again from scratch with your soul-animal, and build together from the bottom up.”

“With respect,” said Tim, “you don’t actually know me.”

Hannah shrugged and got up. “What’s awful is how bad I feel about this,” she told him. “I could see the minute you walked in here that you weren’t right, you weren’t ready, that if things did go any further with you they’d end terribly. And I still tried to make you like me! I was ready to deceive myself, and set myself up for all kinds of heartbreak all over again. Because even that would be better than being alone. I don’t believe for a minute that you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Tim stared down at this lap and began melting two of his nodules into each other. “I’m sorry you didn’t have a good time, Hannah,” he said. “But let’s face it, nobody ever knows what anybody’s talking about.”

“See?” she said, putting her bag over her shoulder. “You’re lonely, too.”

Tim tried to pay, but the maître d’ told him the lady had taken care of it already. On the bus, the coco colada and psychotropic foam hit him at last, and he leaned his head against the window, so woozy that his cheek began to drip down the glass, leaving an ugly grayish smear. When they reached his stop, everyone on the other side of the bus began to laugh and point, and when he got off, he found Mimi copulating on the hood of the neighbors’ car, not with Yoyo this time (instead, Tim observed him behind the windscreen, masturbating in the navigator’s seat), but with a naked, scabby, tangle-haired, filth-encrusted human who must have been living in the nearby park. The wild male had Mimi facedown, his penis fully inserted, and a finger jerking in her anus; and she, gasping and writhing, appeared to be pissing herself. That must have accounted for the passengers’ hilarity, thought Tim. Without a word, he grabbed her by the hair and yanked her out from under the stray, dragging her into the house, her ankles and calves scraping painfully along the concrete driveway as she struggled for footing.

Mimi screeched and scratched at him. “Tim, what’s wrong?” she yowled. “Stop it, let me go!”

Tim locked her in her room without a word, went to the bathroom, threw up his tropical canapés, took three sleeping pills, deleted his dating profile, and oozed into bed.

 

In the morning Tim said nothing to Mimi, but he could not help being stern and cold in his manner, and she ate her pancakes sulkily, not bothering, as she usually did, to wheedle him for a cup of coffee. Tim’s head still hurt, and he was dizzy and faintly sick from the sleeping pills. In the train on the way to work, though, compunction struck him. Poor Mimi, who couldn’t be blamed for anything. He, Tim, was a thoughtless tyrant. Not only did he hold her natural human urges, the very things that endeared her to him, against her; but he was failing to provide her with a stimulating environment. Probably she wouldn’t be constantly coupling in the yard with Yoyo and every other vagrant in heat if she had the things that would keep her amused, a toy car and a swimming pool and new, unheard-of flavors of ice cream. Tim resolved to make it up to her. He would use some of his personal days. They would take a trip together. For a moment, he felt like himself again, steady and safe.

But at Tim’s beloved Wal-Mart, things were wrong. As soon as the tubes sucked him through the entrance, he heard Edwina yelling, strident and harsh, and the gluey, flat tones of their octopus supervisor, Nestor, dripping with malice.

All animals were equal, sure, but much as bacterial hives like Sunny were precious and different and almost sacred to Tim, octopi made him and Edwina and countless others shrink away in xenophobic horror. Tim was ashamed of this feeling and behaved with extra bootlickingness to Nestor on account of his bad conscience. Edwina’s hatred of Nestor was pure and uncomplicated and had her constantly on the verge of summary termination. Sometimes she claimed that octopi were overlords from another planet, sometimes she argued that they were experiments in genetic engineering from human times, and sometimes she hissed to Tim with fierce delight that the humans themselves were biopuppets of the octopi, the unconscious tools of a vast squid conspiracy that no animal had even begun to comprehend.

Today she was right up in Nestor’s face, snarling at him about corporate brainwashing and informed consumerism.

“What’s going on?” Tim whispered to Marcus, a big muscly Norway rat who, according to the all-female team of greeters, had pheromones whose potency could not be diminished even by a century of clonic reproduction.

Marcus was clearly thrilled to be asked. “Your girl Edwina is losing her shit,” he informed Tim. His whispers quivered with subversive excitement. “Nestor sent one of the sleepers through the checkout. Five-x-three credits in purchases! And then straight through the suctions into the parking lot, still snoozing like a baby. Oh, man. Probably gonna get plowed by a bus out there. And better that than waking up human brained in the middle of the city, no idea what her name is, with thirteen bags full of flashlights and nasal spray and not a dime in her pocket.”

Tim’s stomach lurched. “Who was it?” he said urgently. “Who was the sleeper?”

Marcus shrugged. “Some hot little fruit bat,” he said. “Sweet sticky proboscis; been here two, three weeks.”

Relieved but not yet released from his tension, Tim kept up his anxious questioning. “I don’t get it,” he told Marcus. “What about company policy? Did the sleeper stop moving?”

“Nah,” said Marcus, sticking out his front teeth contemptuously. “But today’s forty percent off pollutants, and she got caught up in register four’s long line of juiced-up multisex amphibia.” He shuddered. “Buncha freaks. Nestor said there was nothing in the policy about letting the sleepers pay for their purchases and vamoose. So he helped her through—helped, mind you—and now she’s a lost soul in the world of the waking for sure.”

Tim went in search of Sunny, somehow still anxious for her well-being. He found her in toys, jostling a squeaky ball into her cart. As ravishing as ever, her phosphorescence seemed to Tim nonetheless a shade duller and murkier than it had been before. At lunch he crept into the utilities closet and dimmed Wal-Mart’s beautiful fluorescents, then climbed to the employee lunchroom on the mezzanine. Peeking out over the railing, he saw Sunny’s glow, strong again in the gloom, and felt better.

Yet as the day wore on, everything seemed darker, not just the lights. The noises of the shoppers boomed yawningly down from the void of the ceiling, struck the floor with a crunch, and came creeping back, crippled and wordless, from the cracks in the displays, the vacant spaces in the shelves, like the distorted voices of nightmare. Tim stocked product as quickly as he could to muffle the shadowy echoes, and hummed his way through the discordant hours.

At the end of the day, clocking out, amidst the hubbub of twisted tongues, Tim heard Edwina and Nestor, at it again.

“This is your idea of a joke,” stated Nestor in his dead tones. “Or what. This is not your idea of keeping your job. Turning down the lights. Making everything look like shit. Or you have a problem with our photosynthetic friends. Tell me, because I’m at a loss.”

“Oh, right,” said Edwina, trembling with rage. “Of course it’s me. Because I’m the capitalist mastermind here. Because I’m the invisible hand of the markets!”

“Maybe you fancy yourself an energy activist, yes,” proposed Nestor. “Maybe you think you’re being paid to carry out some kind of extremist waveform-rights agenda here at Wal-Mart Corporations Universal.”

“Screw you and your pathetic conspiracy theories,” spat Edwina, seething. “Screw you and your petty overlord bullshit.”

“You know that one of our customers experienced a seizure due to the lack of ambient light this afternoon,” said Nestor. “One of our most valued customers, a longtime sleeper, really almost a mascot for many patrons of the store. A bacterial conglomerate who depends on a certain level of illumination to survive. A lovely lady, whose glow we fed entirely free of charge. Now collapsed, seizure, hospital, prognosis grave. You know we’re looking at a lawsuit here. That’s your agenda? You think you’ll throw this company to the litigation machine? You think one machine will eat another machine? That’s your symbolic victory, at the expense of an animal life?”

Nestor was, for the first time since Tim had known him, losing his cool. But then again, Tim realized slowly and as if from a great distance, he himself was losing it also. Oh, Sunny, he thought. What have I done?

Edwina, throwing back her head to retort, spine bristling, saw Tim crouched and colorless by the time clock. She looked at him for maybe a half second longer than Tim thought he could bear. Then she returned her attention to Nestor.

“Yeah, shit,” said Edwina. “I’m really sorry to hear that. You know, I was just trying to save the company some money. I felt pretty bad about our argument this morning, and I wanted to do something a little above and beyond to reinstate my loyalty as an employee. I’m sorry, Nestor.” She glanced up at Tim again, for just an instant this time. “Plus also, maybe I did think it would help the sleepers, to have things a little darker, a little calmer in here. I had no idea anyone was going to get hurt. I guess I just wanted to make a gesture toward them, a reconciliation, after the unfortunate event of earlier. I totally misjudged the situation. I regret turning down the lights. Whatever the company has to do, I understand. I have to clock out now, I have no overtime approved.”

Nestor stepped aside curtly, without replying, and Edwina began her march toward the time clock.

Tim turned his back. He went into the HR office and took all his personal days: two weeks. He grabbed his coat and bag from his locker and was out through the suction tubes before Edwina had a chance to find him.

 

Tim booked spots for himself and Mimi on a package tour to Tanzania. First, though, he took her to the vet to be tested for pregnancy. The results were negative, but the vet did suggest a contraceptive.

“It’s very easy,” he said. “Just a small insertion under the skin, quite painless, and she can romp around as much as her randy little heart desires.”

But Tim refused. If pregnancy remained a possibility, he figured he’d have good reason to keep Mimi housebound at all times, out of reach of any unfixed vagrant humans. Maybe, he thought, with vague benevolence, a weekly playdate with the vasectomized Yoyo could be arranged, under his strict supervision.

“Up to you,” said the vet. “But I should also let you know—and this is really just speculative at the moment, no official confirmation, but better safe than sorry—that there are reports of an extremist contingent of viruses living off grid, hostile to the continued presence of humans among us, to what they call the sleeping threat of humankind as well as to the cost to animal society of caring for humans that have been abandoned or are injured or elderly. These viral factions are said to have renounced their mandate for noninfection, and to have begun invading humans through sexual contact. Herpes simplex is rumored to be among the terrorists, as well as hepatitis and even HIV.”

“Herpes?” said Tim. “I thought they were one of the extinct species we were unable to resurrect.”

“It seems a few remaining colonies may have formed underground cells, in time attracting others to them. As I say, there’s no rock-solid confirmation right now. But we do have vaccines, synthetic for herpes and composed of volunteer viruses for the other strains, and if Mimi is promiscuous, then I must recommend—”

But Tim wasn’t interested. After the disaster with Sunny, it was hard for him to even pay attention to this kind of complex issue. Or to care. “My insurance won’t cover it,” he said. “I’ll keep her inside.”

And Mimi nodded vigorously. Tim could see that the whole idea of hosting a vaccinating hive inside her little body totally freaked her out.

 

In Tanzania, Mimi rejoiced and Tim relaxed. They went to see the trailer parks of nomadic human tribes still living in RVs in the safari park, practicing their native customs. Bristling with piercings and mohawks, they welcomed the animal tourists into their ceremonial fire dances, during which they shot aerosol flames ten feet into the air and then huffed the aerosol fumes from contraband plastic bags that they’d squirreled away for generations. Mimi screamed with laughter and hooted derisively at their savagery, but Tim saw her approach one of the tribesmen and lick his arm before rubbing it against hers, trying to blacken her skin like his own. Gently, Tim led her away, giving the puzzled tribesman one of the gumdrops provided by the tour guide to hand out as treats.

They went to the bathhouse and received deep-tissue rubdowns from the elephant masseurs, followed by exhilarating spraydowns and then a pounding under the gigantic cataract of mineral-infused warm mud. Human ownership was much rarer here than in Tim’s own country, and he had worried that he might not be able to take Mimi along to all the attractions, but several of the other travelers on his tour had their humans with them as well; and anyway, the Tanzanian animals doted on her, cooing and clucking and praising her long hair and the tender soles of her feet.

They went to the huge open-air market where they could bet at rooster boxing rings or try to win prizes at booths run by buzzard buskers. There was a giant termite maze in which they were lost for quite a long time, and an ancient, withered manta ray in a cloudy tank told their futures. Tim was going to travel in space, she promised, and Mimi would see something that nobody alive, human or animal, had ever seen before. The market specialized in cryptomeat, something Tim had never tried: kabobs of minotaur, twice-fried unicorn, a sweet, thick chupacabra stew. One of the stalls sold synthetic human meat, which upset Tim very much. But Mimi begged to try it, so at length he gave in. Once she had tasted it, she didn’t like it, so he ate it for her, and found it delicious: light and flaky and seasoned with lemon and honey and dill.

And their hotel was wonderful. The lobby had a 4D arcade where Mimi could amuse herself for hours while Tim browsed the fossil displays showing animals in all their evolutionary stages, or rested in an easy chair shopping for souvenirs on a complimentary compy preloaded with his personalized consumer data. In the mornings a humancare provider came to collect Mimi and take her for a run on the beach and a dolphin-supervised swim in the miniocean with the other guests’ humans. Alone for an hour, Tim had café au lait and tangy, spongy flatbread on the balcony.

At those times, he could grow a little depressed. He was not disloyal enough to try to avoid thoughts of Sunny, but he was surprised by how little her image haunted him. Tim had to admit that he didn’t really miss her. Anyway, he understood that whether she had died or not, he might never know, and either way, he’d certainly never see her again. But the grief of her absence could be quite overwhelming. It wasn’t her he was obsessed by, somehow, so much as the devastation he was feeling now that she’d gone.

But then Mimi would come back and cover him with kisses and Tim would feel that his empty space had been plugged, however imperfectly.

 

They got back home from the airport late at night and fatigued: Mimi whiny, Tim grouchy, encumbered by the weight of four additional bags of souvenirs and oppressed by the stale smell of the closed-up house. He zapped some tater tots and corn dogs for their dinner and put Mimi to bed without a tooth brushing, not forgetting to close the new human-proof lock he’d installed on her window. This is the new routine, he reminded himself. This is our safe haven. Kissing her forehead, her lips, and her two cheeks softly, he closed the door.

Done in, and distracted by the new routine, he forgot the most important part of the old routine: the bolting of the front door. He had trouble falling asleep, maybe because of the jet lag, or perhaps because he was subconsciously waiting and listening. In the early hours of the morning, it came: the squeak of the hinges, the groaning of the floorboards, the whisper in the dark, the excited murmuring. Tim was not shocked or upset. He felt grim; he felt decisive. Silently, he took from his suitcase the thing he had bought in Tanzania, the thing that was not approved as humane here in his own country. He crept down the hall and eased open Mimi’s door without clicking on the light. The wild male had her in his embrace, standing there holding her, kissing her eyelids, her hair, and her mouth.

“Out!” roared Tim. He extended a flagellating bulge with whiplike power, and it struck the male on the side of the face. The intruder wheeled around, whimpered, then menaced.

Mimi hissed at the male and gave him a push. He hesitated, then shoved past Tim and ran down the hall and out of the house. Mimi cowered.

“It’s all right,” said Tim. “Don’t be afraid. Come here for a minute. Give me your hands.”

Around her wrists and her throat he clicked the three metallic bands. The neckpiece that would shock her if she tried to leave the house through any door or window. The bracelets that would do the same if they detected the pheromones of any other human.

She tugged at them uncomfortably. “I hate these,” she said. “Tim, what is this? They’re ugly. They feel bad.”

“They’re just for training, sweetheart,” said Tim. “You won’t need them forever. And in the meantime, you’ll get used to them quickly. If you don’t do anything wrong—and you know what I mean—they won’t hurt you.”

Mimi stared at him. She started crying.

“No tears. They react to that, too,” said Tim, and said good night, leaving her bedroom door open.

He locked the front door and went back to bed. He felt a little guilty about the lie he’d told at the end, but also incredibly sleepy in a way that, he realized, he hadn’t experienced for months. Which was a shame, since he had just two hours to rest before getting up for work. He filled them with bad dreams, but he slept all the same.

 

Edwina was glad to see him back. She cornered him in frozen foods and gave him a heartfelt nuzzle.

“Hey!” she said. “Slacker! Vacation time, I heard. Nice work if you can get it! And now, back from celestial heights to the depths of the seventh circle. Tim, Tim, how quickly we fall.”

“Hey,” said Tim, uneasily.

“Where’ve you been?” pressed Edwina enthusiastically. “What’d you do?”

“I went to Tanzania,” Tim allowed. “Touristy stuff. You know. I had to use my days.”

“Cool! Very cool! Did you have fun? Did you bring me a souvenir?”

“Oh,” said Tim. “Yeah, it was good. Yeah, I mean, I did, but I forgot it at home. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

“Right,” said Edwina, amused. “I’m excited for that.”

She gave Tim some close scrutiny. He stared at his price checker and tested the button, beeping out a one-note song.

“So, Tim,” she said, still cheerful but quieter. “I just wanted to let you know that that bacterial mind, the one you liked, she’s doing okay. She’s out of the hospital, she’s awake, she’s getting her life back together.”

“Um,” said Tim. “Great, that’s nice to hear. I didn’t really like her, but—”

“Tim,” said Edwina, “come on. We’re friends. It’s okay. Nestor told me about her recovery when he had to explain that the higher-ups decided not to fire me. Kind of a letdown, actually. For me and him both. But I hope you realize that that whole thing—it’s totally fine. I know I kind of took some flack for you there, but I just did it to piss Nestor off. No way that you need to feel that you’re under any kind of obligation. Or that I’m in any way upset. Everything worked out! And even if it didn’t, it still would’ve. You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” said Tim. “I appreciate it.”

“You don’t need to appreciate it! But I appreciate that you do!”

“Good to be back,” said Tim. He played his little song again. “I should probably get cracking.” He smiled wanly. “Back in the swing of things.”

“Attaboy!” said Edwina. She dealt a playful punch to his midsection. “See you on break?”

“You bet,” said Tim.

Tim roamed the aisles furtively, avoiding Nestor and his coworkers, poking irritable dimples into bags and wiping smudges across the frosty glass doors of the coolers. He followed a few sleepers, but nothing they took from the shelves appealed to him. One of them, a petite, knock-kneed horse with delicate, quivering ears, seemed a little special, so he placed a pretty red enameled brush in her cart, and waited to see how it felt. He followed the horse for a couple more minutes, then took the brush out and hid it in his bulges. He watched her wobble away. Tim removed the brush and put it on top of a vitapaste display. The sound system dinged three times. It was time for his employee group to go on break. He went to find Edwina.

 

Mimi was not adjusting to celibacy in the way that Tim had hoped. She was not growing calm and mature. Instead, she had taken to pleasuring herself with a frenzy that deeply disturbed him. Perhaps if her autoerotics had occurred in the bathroom, or in bed under cover of night, he could have accepted that as a positive compromise to intercourse, but she fingered herself at every opportunity: lazily, almost unconsciously, while watching her movies; bored and impatient while waiting to be fed; dreamily in the bath, scooched down under the spigot, her eyes closed. She rubbed herself on cushions, rocked against the countertops, ground herself against the carpet. One night, listening to Tim read from a history of ursine inventions, she even enfolded one of his nodules between her legs and began squeezing it slowly with her thighs while she sucked on a strand of her hair. He slapped his hand against her neckpiece, activating the shocker, and her body wrenched. But, to his horror, she didn’t let go. In fact, she clenched tighter, and then, smiling up at him with malevolent pleasure, began tapping her finger against the button of the band around her wrist, setting off a series of little light electrocutions that grew quicker until the intervals between them were almost imperceptible, like a stuttering purr. Her hair rose in a static cloud. She grinned.

Tim hurled her off him, onto the floor, and ran to his room. He slammed the door and threw himself on his bed, plunging his face deep in the cool electrolyte fluid.

 

Edwina asked Tim to have a drink after work.

“What?” said Tim. “Oh, thanks. I don’t think I can, though. I have to get home. Mimi’s going to be hungry and bored.”

Edwina protested. “Seriously, Tim? She’s a human. I think she can take care of herself for a couple of hours.”

Tim had to admit that that seemed to be the case.

They went to Menagerie, a loud, dark dive with bars on the windows and peanut shells all over the floor. For a while, they talked shit about Nestor. That took two beers each. Tim told Edwina what he’d learned from the vet, the rumors about the antihuman viral colonies. Predictably, Edwina was intrigued.

“That’s terrible!” she said. “But it’s also amazing. A real resistance movement, glory be. Now if they could turn against the systems that are oppressing them, and not the lowest victims of those systems, we might really have something.”

“Do you really think the humans are the victims here?” asked Tim. “I’m serious. They do nothing, and have everything. What if they’re really still in charge? What if everything worked out exactly the way they wanted it to? What if we’re just following some massively complex and subtle protocol that they set in motion millennia ago? Maybe they’re not even aware anymore that they’re the gods in this universe. Or worse, maybe they’re completely cognizant of it.”

Edwina bared her teeth in feral delight. “Oh, my,” she said. “Timtimtim. My labors have not been in vain. Another drink?”

He bought the next round. He told Edwina about his date with Hannah.

“Jeez,” said Edwina. “Well, yeah, that’s a heavy load to lay on a guy. Maybe not ideal dinner conversation. Although, you got to hand it to her, she wasn’t playing games. Still, she had no game. Ultimately, just not sexy.”

“Sexy?” said Tim. “Who cares about sexy? My species is so far away from giving a shit about sexy they didn’t even have to bother to neuter our DNA when we all went clonic. We were fine, just as we were.”

“But, my dear, you’re not fine just as you are. Are you? If you’re going on blind dates? If you’re—forgive me, Timmy—stalking the sleepers? Be real with me here.”

Tim sunk his bulge deeper in his glass of smoked ale. He unbent. He felt a rush of companionability, and wondered why he’d never unburdened himself to Edwina before.

“I do care about partnership,” he said. “I care about trust and, well, about mutual reliance, just like Hannah said. But I don’t want that with someone like her, someone who needs that, who can’t rely on herself alone. I want someone who can take care of herself if she has to, but who wants to rely on me instead. I want to be chosen.”

Edwina rubbed his back sympathetically. “I absolutely hear you, Tim. I want that, too.”

Tim smiled at Edwina. As much as he loved the crackling clarity of Wal-Mart’s fluorescents, he had to admit that the dim solar lights of Menagerie softened her muzzle and her pointy tufts in a way that somehow physicalized the kindness and warmth that had always been part of her personality. Her eyes glowed yellow, like Sunny’s phosphorescence, but deeper, wholly mammalian. Her fur smelled of moss and autumn leaves, although as far as Tim remembered, she’d lived in the same subterranean housing complex since coming out of the nursery. He felt an almost anguishing tenderness. He remembered that although he’d always found her a little intimidating, a little quicker than he was, a little sharper, she’d always treated him as an equal. Maybe, thought Tim, he could be that equal. He imagined coming home from work with Edwina. He imagined them making extravagant chilis together. He squeezed her paw.

Edwina squeezed back and smiled. “In fact,” she said, “I’m going to share something with you, Tim. Something I haven’t told anyone.”

Tim squeezed harder.

“This has to be an absolute secret,” she warned him. “If anyone finds out, it could definitely get me fired and, I don’t know, possibly prosecuted.”

A momentary hiccup blipped across Tim’s personal time-space continuum. But before he had time to react and adjust, Edwina leaned over and lowered her voice, her eyes dancing. “I’m in a relationship now, Tim. Not a chaste relationship. Not a procreative alliance, obviously! I’m not crazy. A relationship with another female. She’s a kinkajou. Her name’s Delia, and we are absolutely in love. And, if I may, in lust. It’s so amazing. It’s the new individual radicalism. Awakening the sexual urges that animate creativity and forge interanimal bonds with actual energy, with actual stakes, without endangering the evolutionary control our ancestors fought so hard for.”

It seemed to Tim that he and Edwina had the same look of disbelief on their faces at that moment, except that hers was giddy and thrilled, and his sick and defeated.

“I’m telling you,” said Edwina, “sex is the best thing in the world. Except for Delia! She’s the best thing in the world, really. But she wouldn’t be who she is, she wouldn’t be Delia to me, without intercourse. Without that intimacy, Tim. Without that risk. Not the political risk, of course. The personal risk. The vulnerability.”

“I have to go,” Tim said. He lurched up from his stool.

“Hey,” said Edwina. Her expression was concerned and then, he saw, suddenly fearful. “Tim? What’s wrong? Hold up. Listen, please—”

But Tim was gone.

 

He got a taxi home. On the way, he made the cab driver stop at a corner store, and he bought three tubs of ice cream: butterscotch, wasabi, and red velvet cake. He got a bag of puffpods and a for-humans comic about a girl who marries a moth and travels to the moon with him. He and Mimi would pig out and read the comic and fall asleep together on the couch, he thought. Back in the cab, he devoured the puffs and concentrated hard on how nice it would be to have Mimi in his lap. When they pulled up outside the house and Tim thanked the driver, his voice shook. Both of them pretended not to notice.

Mimi was in her bathrobe in the kitchen. Yoyo was there, too, with a pair of pliers, prying off the shockbands. The one that had been around her neck already lay mangled on the table, and Yoyo had the left wristband half off, too. They stared at Tim in alarm.

He put the ice cream down, next to the ruined neckband. “Please go,” he said to Yoyo.

Yoyo put down the pliers and took a step back. Mimi yanked urgently at the wristband, and the twisted metal edge bit into her skin, but it stayed put. Tim handed Yoyo the tub of butterscotch. “Run along now,” he said.

Yoyo ran. Tim followed him down the hall and closed the front door. When he came back, Mimi had scurried into the living room and was huddled in a corner of the couch, wrapping the afghan around her.

Tim retrieved the comic from the kitchen and sat down beside her. He had forgotten to bring the ice cream, but things were still almost as he had wanted them to be. He opened the comic and began to read to Mimi.

She said, “Tim.”

Tim kept reading. He held up the comic to show her the picture.

“Tim,” she said, “what’s wrong? Everything’s wrong. What’s wrong?”

Tim stopped reading and went into his bedroom. He got the keycode from his dresser drawer, returned to Mimi, and unlocked the shockbands. He set them gently on the arm of the couch.

“No more sex, okay?” he said. “Just no more.”

Mimi rubbed her wrists. She stared at him, perplexed. “Why not?” she said.

“It’s not allowed,” said Tim. “It’s just not. Just stop it.”

She frowned. “But it’s so nice,” she complained. “Tim? It’s so nice. It feels the best.”

Something enormous and heavy and wet welled up in Tim, a huge choking bubble, a balloon full of dead, empty air.

“I brush your hair and give you baths,” he said, suddenly very loud. “I tickle your feet and rub lotion on your skin. I pet you, Mimi.”

Mimi scooted over and nestled into him. She kissed a nodule. “I know you do, Tim,” she said falteringly, “but only on the outside.”

Tim’s bubble burst. It had not been full of dead air, after all. It had been full of blood, rotten blood, and he tasted its iron in his throat, felt it stinging and needling hot behind his receptors, gagged as it hammered his organs, gushing down through him, flooding the whole blob of him. He was drowning in blood. His bulges swelled with an unendurable ache.

He pushed Mimi onto the floor, and her head hit the carpet with a crack that made her face go white, so he must have pushed her hard. He fell down on top of her. He was afraid he might burst. He could not let the blood go spraying all over the house, he thought, or he would die. He needed to save it. He needed a safe place. He pushed into Mimi.

Tim” was what she was saying. “Tim Tim Tim.”

He really could not pin down her tone of voice.

And nothing he was doing was helping. In fact, things were getting worse for Tim; they were getting much worse. He was in danger, terrible danger. Suddenly he was afraid for Mimi. What would happen to her when his body inside became too enormous for his body outside? She would take the full force of the explosion, he realized, and he tried to crawl up her, to drag himself over Mimi and spare her. But he was pinned; he was caught.

Then it was too late.

It was an explosion, but it wasn’t fission as Tim had expected; not a splitting asunder. It was fusion, so much deadlier, white and blazing, and he almost forgot the enormous pain and relief of what he was experiencing in the wonderment of actually seeing the atoms of Mimi and the room and his own nodules swim up into vision, getting larger and larger, and closer and closer together, until many of the pulsing points occupied the same space at the same time, in repudiation of everything natural and possible, and physics revolted, and the world ceased to be. Or Tim did.

He cowered and shook and thought, Edwina was right about the death in the life force; I am being eaten alive.

Later, he heaved himself upright and went to the bathroom. He brought back a wet washcloth to clean Mimi up, but she wasn’t on the floor where he had left her.

He waited for a long time, but she never came back.

 

Eventually Tim returned to work. His old job was waiting for him; Edwina had told Nestor he’d been sick. “I hope you’re not contagious, Tim,” Nestor said.

“No,” said Tim.

He didn’t say thanks to Edwina. He didn’t say much of anything to anyone. He priced the products. He stocked the displays. Sometimes he filled in at checkout. It was easy. It was automatic. He could do it with his eyes closed.

One day he closed them. Behind his receptor shields were the burned-out white ghosts of the atoms he had seen. He watched them blooming and shrinking in the darkness, pulsing like the afterglow of the fluorescents. He shut down his auditory sensors, too, though he could still hear something, from a long way away, that might have been voices, or it might have been the pale whispers of blood in his body.

With one half of his brain, he slept; and with the other half, he inched forward, letting his bulges drift up and drift down, moving objects from the returns cart back onto the shelves. It did not feel like he was moving; it felt like parts of him were bobbing in the motions of the sea.

Some of the customers would follow Tim. When he put an item from his cart onto a shelf, they would wait respectfully for him to squelch down the aisle, and then they’d surge forward, shoving and jostling, till one of them managed to seize the prize he’d left behind. Nestor liked it. It was good for sales. Since Tim no longer cashed any paychecks, Nestor gave him a raise.

Once Edwina came in for a graveyard shift and saw Tim making his underwater progress through the humancare section, alone. She touched him and said his name, but the gluey burble of his breath did not change. He sagged over his cart, fumbled up a little plush puppet, a smiling doll for a human to wear on its hand, and dropped it softly into a bin with its fellows. Edwina took it and put it in her pocket. Later, she took it out again and tucked it into a pile of comforters.

Tim walked, and he slept, and the presences that he faintly sensed around him served him as dreams.

 

When Mimi ran away, she fled to the overgrown outskirts of the park, and the wild humans living there took her in. As she became sick and her stomach began to protrude, her companions recognized the signs and tried to explain things to her, showing her their own feral offspring. But her pregnancy progressed so quickly that it was clear that in her case something was different. Some of the humans thought she was magic, and they brought her offerings of half-eaten chocolate bars or the choicest crusts of bread they could scavenge.

In three months, the baby was born, and it was nothing anyone had ever seen before. An attempt was made on its life, but Mimi fought off the attackers with a rabidity that surprised her. After that, the infant was safe.

And really it was almost human, especially as it got older. Mimi’s DNA, though stagnant, still had the strength of millennia of reproduction, while the slime-mold genome had only recently evolved out of asexuality, and was relatively weak in passing on traits.

Nevertheless, the child was a new form of life. It was evolution. It grew up and mated with others. It was mad with passion! Its partners, both men and women, gave birth to rapid generations.

The humans awoke. They were very well rested.

 

“Porn & Revolution in the Peaceable Kingdom” copyright © 2013 by Micaela Morrisette

Art copyright © 2013 by Sam Bosma

15 comments
Rafael
1. Ryamano
Well, this was new. I never imagined I'd read mold-on-human action.
Madigan
2. Madigan
This was such a fascinating read, and the ending was fantastic in a chilling, almost sad sort of way. I'm so glad I found this piece!
Matthew B
3. MatthewB
That was uncomfortable to read - often a sign of good sci-fi. I can't say i liked it, but it was interesting and thought-provoking.
Madigan
4. Habakkuk21
What WONDERFUL creativity! Keep everything the same, and make it totally different at the same time: NOBODY can do THAT, but Micaela DID! Loved the sleepers in Walmart; loved the conspiracy-nut fox; loved the portrayal of the hassles of pet ownership; ABSOLUTELY loved the conversation on the date with the parrot! And Tim is REAL! How do you make a slime mold become a sympathetic character, and still keep him a slime mold? Well, I suppose it helps if you are a fantastic writer...
Note: I don't like porn in any form whatsoever, and almost didn't read the story because of the title, but the intro gave me the idea that this wasn't REALLY a porn novel, and the innocence throughout kept it clean.
A masterful job!
T C
5. Freelancer
Well, that was an unoriginal, self-loathing, predictable-from-the-first-paragraph waste of energy to read.
Madigan
6. Talia
@Habbakuk, yes, I was catious to pick this one up for the same reason, but was pleasently surprised.

Wow. (Yes, I know, that's not original, but it's true.) Wow. Poor Tim. Poor Mimi. Only Edwina seems to get off pretty well.

Would like to see another story set in the same world. Has a "Planet of the Apes" (The BOOK, not so much the movies, except maybe the original) feel to it. With, instead of the three "great ape" species turning the tables by becoming sentient, all life forms, down to mold and viruses do so!

But, I have to say, I don't quite have a good image for a "slime mold", and the fact that he is at one point mentioned to have a skull threw me off, I was picturing a blobby furry sort of thing. And in the last scene were they are together, at first I thought he was having a stroke, but I guess that is just an idea of how a sentient mold would get ready to reproduce, lol.

Loved the fact that the humans were given similiarly doofy names to those that we give our pets - usual but not impossible. (How many "Yoyo" s do you know? And Mimi is not a common name)

Really liked it.
Madigan
9. RubyTombstone
Just. So. Wonderful.

I live for stories that give me a fresh way of seeing familiar things. Every paragraph, almost every sentence, of this story is a new perspective on the world.

This makes me very happy.
Madigan
11. Dianthus
I found the premise intriguing, but the execution...ugh! So, if I understand it...Tim's kinda like Mimi's "dad" (certainly the closest thing she's ever known to one), but he's jealous of her having sex with her own kind, punishes her with electroshock (even if she does kinda like it), and then he rapes her. Gross! I'm so sorry I read this. It's awful; just awful.
Ethan Glasser-Camp
12. glasserc
I have to say I'm not sure how to feel about this either. I'm sympathetic to @Dianthus that the ending is a bit unsettling, but I also agree with @Habakkuk21 that a lot of the ideas up to the end are really fun and interesting and the writing evocative. The characters and drama were all very relatable. But then, that ending..

Ethan
Madigan
14. 14gward
Reading this, I legitimately cannot believe it exists.
Madigan
15. Tamina
Wow. I found this deeply, deeply unsettling, but also riveting. Tim is awful in so many ways but the world building - and the exploration of sexuality - was interesting. Plus the human in me likes the trumpiant ending - the human race managed to smuggle some prime genetic material into the breeding population! Yay!
Madigan
16. abug
This was quite the read! Really interesting to see the roles of our world reversed, and some really interesting world-building going on. I thought for sure that the animals finding love would lead to their downfall (and I guess love/lust for their humans was) so that ending was quite surprising.
Madigan
17. JackieBee
I really enjoyed reading this. Humans/animals role reversal was very interesting to imagine. A very surreal and interesting story!
Madigan
18. Vicy Cross
Interesting! I didn't find it unsettling, and I thought Tim was a very believable character. A slime mold. How real he was! Says a little something about men, women, sexuality and our relationships with each other and the relationships we make with our "pets." I enjoyed this very much. Glad I read this. :)
Madigan
19. puny
that was so good that was so good that was so good
im having trouble trying to articulate how wonderful this was. the premise + worldbuilding was delicious but really it was the little things, the writing style, the atoms behind his eyelids, that was perfect.

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