Benjamin 2073

In the year 2073, humanity is making progress toward restoring the environment and fixing the mistakes of the past. Ellie has spent the last ten years going even further by working to resurrect the thylacine, extinct since 1936. But with no results and increasingly impatient bureaucrats threatening to pull her funding, the thylacine’s future—and Ellie’s—is in danger of reaching the point of no return.

 

 

Gently lifting up the side of the tent . . . I soon make out in the pitchy darkness two phosphorus-like orbs, which slowly approach. . . . I can dimly discern by a light shooting up from a few leaves on the almost expiring fire, the long round body of the native wolf or tiger. I get a tighter grip on the handle of my tomahawk, ready to give a warm reception to my night visitor.

—“Oscar” in the Hobart Mercury, 1882

 

“Ellie! Ellie, it’s Benjamin. She’s in the cave. She’s giving birth!” Thien shook me gently awake.

“What time is it?” The darkness outside pressed against the window.

“Four a.m.”

Half asleep, I slipped into my exoskeleton, which clamped itself around my limbs, the little straps tightening magically, the supports clamping into place. It whirred and clicked me up to the command room. By the time I reached the images on the screen, my mind had kicked into gear.

She lay on her side, her back to the camera. We could see the tiger stripes on her hindquarters, all the way to her long stiff tail, but we couldn’t see her face until she raised her head, which might have belonged to a long-nosed dog or dingo. Her breath was coming in ragged gasps.

The other researchers had lost faith even before the funding cuts came. Carla had slouched out with her bags—her final words were: “We’ve only got one life. I’m not pissing mine into the wind any longer.” Samson hadn’t even bothered to explain himself. He had just stood on the helipad and shrugged when I looked at him questioningly. One by one they’d dropped like leaves from a dying tree, until only Thien and I remained.

Thien had once said that the Vietnamese had always been stubborn, that’s how they’d gained independence all those years ago, and that’s why he’d stuck by me. And me? As a child, I’d watched the black-and-white footage of the first Benjamin, the last thylacine kept in Beaumaris Zoo, something like a bizarre offspring of a tiger and a dog. I’d been fascinated by the stunning moment when she yawned, her jaw opening to almost 180 degrees. That Benjamin was the last thylacine to die in captivity, on 7 September 1936. Something stuck in my soul about the species.

You should have seen the love we put into building our Benjamin: constructed from Tasmanian devil cells and the tiger genome we’d carefully pieced together. Nuclei from those cells were eased into eggs from a devil—a process called nuclear transfer—and the few embryos that survived were implanted in a host. The birth was a tense time, and only one of the tiny pups emerged, crawled her way up to the backward-facing pouch. We laughed when she came out of the pouch for the first time, weeks later; she looked so much like a tiny little curious quoll.

And now here she was, out in the cave we’d built especially for her, giving birth! Her blood pressure was up, as was her heart rate. Normal for an animal in labour. Then there was a sudden jag in her heartbeat.

“Something’s wrong,” said Thien.

“No!” I said. “No, no, no, no!”

We found her motionless. The implants had already told us, and we’d seen the shadow on the screens, but something within me refused to believe it until I saw her, her paws clenched, her lips pulled back in an awful rictus. She hadn’t been giving birth at all. She’d been dying in pain. I kneeled down next to her, put my hand against her cold coat and cried.

Thien put his arm around my shoulders. “It’s okay. We’ll try again.”

“It’s not fucking okay. Ten fucking years and it’s never okay,” I snapped at him, and pulled away. He knew I didn’t like being touched. After that, he was silent for a while, hurt. We stayed there for a long time until he said, “Grimley will want to see us.” It was nice of Thien to say “us”. He was reminding me that we were in it together.

“You mean he’ll want to see me and cut our funding,” I said. “What will I say to him?”

“You’ll do what you always do. You’ll convince him otherwise.”

 

“We’ve got the devils to think about, for starters.” Prime Bureaucrat Grimley walked on the treadmill behind his standing desk. It was pretty standard issue, and he had problems with a disc in his neck. Probably because his head was so big.

“We’re close,” I said.

“The thylacine was in bad shape even before it went extinct,” he said. “It’s been a lost cause since the Australian Museum started at the turn of the century.”

Through the window, Hobart lay serenely. A few electric cars cruised between swathes of greenery. We’d restructured cities so they were filled with hanging gardens Babylon would have been proud of. Vertical foliage covered building walls. Creepers and vines hung from climbing walkways and from between solar panels. Watercourses flowed between the streets, a latticework of irrigation and cleanness. There was a calm to the city now, a serenity people over a certain age still had trouble dealing with. My grandmother, who had brought me up, used to say: “It scares me, all this quiet. Where’s the creation?”

“It’s there,” I said. “It’s just not destructive creation, Ma.”

“It’s just too damned quiet. Reminds me of horror sims, you know, where everything is perfect and tranquil, just before you realise something’s terribly wrong.”

“Oh, you exaggerate.”

“I do.” She smiled—she had missing teeth. You don’t see that much anymore either. “It’s just past my time. I’m all out of place.”

“I’m the one who’s out of place.” I gestured to the exoskeleton, which left little sores on my knees and elbows that never seemed to heal. But without my splendid contraption, I could no longer walk.

“Oh, you’re perfect,” she said, in the way grandmothers do.

Back in the Rehab Department Office, I forced myself back from the memory to look at Grimley. You’d have thought with a name like that, he’d have stayed out of bureaucracy, but maybe the name had imprinted some deep unconscious drive within him. Bureaucrats. Once we called them politicians, but now politics has dissolved into everyone. Without corporations, we aren’t obsessed with growth rates and profit any longer. We all make the policies—“economic democracy,” it was called in the beginning. Now it’s just called “the policies,” usually accompanied by a yawn. We elect those people boring enough to do the admin for our views. They were deliberately and ironically called “bureaucrats,” to remind them of just what they were. It didn’t seem to make much difference. They still fucked up the work of anyone like me trying to actually fulfil a vision.

“Why did they do it to us, do you think, all those people back then?” I said. “Hunting thylacines. One pound for a tiger carcass! Fucking up the weather. Didn’t they think about us?”

“You sound so naïve when you say shit like that,” Grimley said, even though he knew I was thinking aloud. He returned to the subject of Benjamin. “What killed this latest one? Do you even know? Is it the epigenetics, mitochondrial heteroplasmy, or the interspecies conflict? You’re making tiger soup in a rusty pot, aren’t you.”

I looked at him fiercely. “There’s another technique we need to try—we can use stem cells to create actual thylacine sperm and eggs. Then we put them together. Bingo! No nuclear transfer. No problem with hybrid cells and all the rest. We started the process but it’s been on hold.”

“Another technique, another plan, another dream.”

“Come on, Grimley, you’ve cut ninety per cent of our funding. Now it’s just Thien and me. It won’t affect your public approvals. You’ll still get a promotion.”

He scowled, as if I’d poked a sore. He was angling for professional advancement. The Grimleys of the world are always searching for the next step sideways or upwards—out of rehab to something more central like production or social relations or architecture. A bureaucrat’s currency was status.

“What’s next?” he said. “Marsupial lions? Giant wombats? Species snuffed out forty thousand years ago? When do we accept that extinction is extinction?” He waved his arms and his suit tightened around his armpits. Bureaucrats are all fashionistas, and style is so sharp and minimalist nowadays. Edges so hard they can cut you.

“The Russians are working on mammoths.” Somewhere in the background a lonely foghorn sounded.

Grimley pressed his clenched fists to his eyes in frustration. “They’re Russians. They’ve always been wild and utopian and impossible. And you, Ellie: You have some strange nostalgia for the past. It’s reactionary as fuck. We live forward, not backward. You’re needed elsewhere. Be reasonable.”

“Being reasonable got us into this mess in the first place. All those people who let this happen were just being reasonable. ‘Look after yourself. Have children. Use fossil fuels. That’s just how it is. Be fucking reasonable.’”

“You are the most stubborn person I know. You know what your files say about you? Cold, hard, selfish. It’s your condition, isn’t it? That’s what drives you? It’s why I admire you.” He looked at my exoskeleton and then looked away, embarrassed he’d brought it up.

A scowl crossed my face. We were hitting each other’s nerves, just like those doctors with little hammers to my knees and elbows.

He finally said: “You have six months. When you fail, I’m coming out to personally drag you and your shit back. Don’t complain when you get assigned to the rehab of coastal grasses. The mosquitos can be a real pain, but you’re tough. Now get out of here before I change my mind.”

The copter brought me silently up over Mount Wellington and back towards the Centre, to the south and west of Hobart. On the way, I called and Thien’s face popped up on the screen.

“Let’s use the stem cell process to grow sperm and eggs and then inject the embryos into the surrogate,” I said.

 

My grandmother died when I was twenty-one. I was studying in Berlin at the Institute for Genetic Research and had to attend the funeral virtually, stuck in a little black padded room with a helmet on. My parents weren’t there, of course. I hadn’t seen them in years. They’d dumped me at five years old with my grandmother. You can’t take a five-year-old with slowly worsening muscle atrophy on adventures. Polluted water or food ingested by my mother during pregnancy caused what they now call Enviro-Genetic Dystrophy. Damn near everything is laced with heavy metals and plastics and chemicals these days. I think they felt guilty about it all. They were avoiders. So rather than come to Ma’s funeral, they were off on one of their drug-fuelled adventures, gulping down bliss before BASE jumping from cliffs or dropping vision before spending a week diving on the reconstructed Great Barrier Reef, which was really just the size of a tiny section of the original, kept in an artificially cooled area. I was glad they hadn’t come. After the ceremony, the coffin was lowered down to the ground by automatons. I looked away to where she had been born, to the wide expanse of rolling hills. Immense wind farms stood on the slopes. She’d hated them. Said they ruined the views.

She was the only one who ever called me perfect.

 

“Six months is not enough time.” Thien picked at the bland all-purpose pasta I’d cooked up. He could whip up Pakistani goat curries, Japanese gyoza, selections of Brazilian BBQ meats . . . but he refused to take over all the cooking since (as he explained) it would only encourage my lack of life skills. So every second night we ate the kind of food children like: tasteless amorphous compounds composed mainly of carbohydrates and a few indifferently added proteins to keep us going. Poor Thien used to look at the servings with the eyes of a sad puppy. But still he held out. He was doing me a favour, he said. I had to confront real life, even if only through cooking.

“We’ll get as far as we can,” I said. “Then we’ll show Grimley our progress. We’ll convince him to give us more time. He won’t be able to resist. We’ve got logic on our side.”

He laughed bitterly. “We don’t even know what killed the last one.”

“Grimley’s right. It’s the genetic problems caused by the gene editing of the thylacine.”

“Hunting and disease and the bottleneck effect took them out the first time.” The bottleneck effect comes into play when a species population becomes too small. The lack of genetic diversity makes a species vulnerable to environmental changes, diseases or even predators—the worst predator being us, Homo sapiens.

“Damn, you’re a downer today, Thien.”

He looked through the windows to the forest below, then to his K-pop posters where handsome twenty-somethings posed, perfect skin and hair cut in the same sharp angles that had lasted a century. “Maybe Grimley’s right, Ellie. Maybe we should leave this place. Seriously, we could get men in our lives. Get laid for once.”

“You get laid plenty when you go back to town. Look at you: You’re a gay guy’s dream.”

“I was thinking more about you, Ellie.”

I ignored him. “If we use the stem cell process, we’ll avoid most of the genetic problems we’ve faced.”

This was true because we were using actual sperm and eggs from the thylacine, not an egg from the devils. This avoided the “rusty pot” that Grimley had mentioned. The new pot would be as clean as if it were just bought from a shop—if we could get it to work. We’d already started the process a couple years earlier. We developed sperm and eggs through months of painstaking labour, of Thien moaning and wailing about how he could be back in Hobart, of me gritting my teeth silently. At that time we had students doing volunteer work— they instantly regretted it, since we put them on the most tedious tasks. But we eventually set the process aside since nuclear transfer was quicker, easier and more likely to succeed.

“But if it’s the distemper or some other disease that’s killing them, we face the same problem as the Panamanian golden frog,” said Tien. “Those can’t be released because they’ll just be wiped out again by the same fungus that got them the first time.”

“Come on. I’ll learn to cook with spices. I promise.” I shoulder-checked him.

He smiled softly. “Okay, let’s give it a try. If we don’t try, we’ll never know. Listen, I’m heading to town this weekend. I’ll see you on Monday.”

“You’re only allowed to go if you come back as dishevelled as you usually do.”

“I won’t let you down.”

“You never do.”

 

When I was thirteen I had my first crush. He was called Asim and was already a foot taller than the other boys, with the most magnificent onyx skin and dark soft eyes. I think half the girls at school had a crush on him. We made out awkwardly in the dirt of a park. When he didn’t want to be my boyfriend I didn’t understand. It took one of the other girls to explain it to me: “Look at him, Ellie. Now look at you.”

 

“Just like little jelly beans!” said Tien. Two months had passed since I’d seen Grimley. Now we watched as the three little pups—hairless, blind, almost helpless—disappeared in the Tasmanian devil’s pouch.

Returning to the process was as exciting for a scientist as leaping from a plane for a skydiver. We were essentially reminding cells that were no longer able to proliferate that they once could have been anything. They weren’t born with defects; they weren’t born with one single path to follow.

They were born, in a sense, perfect.

And now, after the pregnancy and birth, the little jelly beans were crawling into the surrogate’s pouch. These tiny pups wouldn’t be weaned for at least six months. Ten years of work, ten years of countless failures—the malfunction of embryos, the hundreds of clones that had failed to make it to adulthood. Here, with the stem cell technique, we’d created three healthy little babies. But keeping them in captivity was no good: They needed to be able to survive in the wild. Otherwise the entire operation was an expensive zookeeping delusion. We were trying to renaturalise a world that had passed through its sixth mass extinction.

 

One of the joeys died a week later. The surrogate mother ate it.

But the other two were healthy. They emerged from the pouch more and more, played like kittens, squeaked out their little growls. For hours I watched them pad curiously around the nursery before they were tired and slouched back into the surrogate’s pouch.

Four months on they were learning to hunt in the outside enclosure, with the specially designed cyborg potoroos Thien had created. I loved to watch them stalking the little robot beasts until the potoroos were exhausted. Then the thylacines leaped upon them, seizing their necks like cats and suffocating them. Excitement and horror shot through me as I watched the pups strip the meat, searching for the fake heart and other organs and leaving behind the bloody remains.

Around this time, I needed to visit Hobart. The batteries kept running down on my exoskeleton and the Department of Health Services had ordered new ones from Germany. They’d arrive in twenty days. The doctor reminded me that my condition would worsen over time and to keep up with the exercises I never bothered with. I would die in a decade or so, anyway. I had too much to do. Grimley knew I would be in Hobart, since I was taking the department’s copter, and I told Thien I’d better face the bureaucrat. It was the moment to buy the extra time.

 

My strategy was to get him out of the department building, so I arranged to meet him at a rooftop bar past the Salamanca Market that Thien recommended. It was midmorning when I arrived, and I checked into an aparthotel and planned the conversation. The things I would say, the order I would say them in. The nerves churned inside me.

From the rooftop, you could see the grand sailing ships come in with their cargo, their immense spinnakers folding down from the winds high in the stratosphere above. Only a few tiny engines could be heard on the little putt-putts moving around the docks. They’d be phased out soon.

To my surprise, Grimley was already perched on a stool next to a high circular table and looking back at the city as it climbed up Mount Wellington like detritus in some immense, darkening tsunami. From the glasses perched on both sides of the table, he’d had a meeting with one of the other bureaucrats before me. They’d obviously been skipping from one cocktail to another: Traces of reds and blues were left at the bottom of the drained glasses.

Turning to see me, he grinned. I’d never seen him do that and for a terrifying moment, I felt like we were on a date. Was he going to hit on me?

I steeled myself and sat next to him.

“See the world we’ve built,” he said. “Only the slightest touch of carbon going out. Much more being sunk into reforestation, carbon sinks beneath the ground . . .”

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “The quiet.”

“It’s not enough,” he said. “It’s never enough because the climate process runs on anyway. We think we can rein it in, but it’s a wild horse out of control. And we’re riding it along with the other three horsemen. We’re deluding ourselves in exactly the same way you’re deluding yourself about the thylacine.”

“People wouldn’t have elected you if they knew you had these kind of thoughts.”

“People!” He practically spat the word out. “They congratulate themselves for having changed the world, and yet they’ve sunk back into what? Into the primal soup of sloth. It’s a law, you know—the rise of a bureaucracy like us. People get involved in history, change the world for a brief moment, then they sink back again, leaving us suspended in the air like balloons. Don’t blame us.”

“No one’s blaming you.”

“Christ, I am, Ellie. I am blaming me.”

“See, this self-criticism is rubbish. It holds no weight if you don’t do something differently. That’s why you have to keep funding us. Otherwise, you’re just a chameleon, fading into whatever background you’re in, and telling me what I want to hear.”

Now his position flipped into its opposite and this reflected all the contradictions that lay within him, within the bureaucracy. “I do everything I can—but within bounds. Within reason.”

“And now you’re justifying yourself. You talk about how you want things to be better, but you wouldn’t dare try anything that would mean a real risk to your position.”

“You’re mean, aren’t you?” he said. “Almost cruel.”

“And you’re cynical and self-serving.” There was silence then and I knew I’d gone too far. A desperation crept into my voice. “You should see the new ones. They’re so beautiful and strong. They’re prancing around in their pen. A boy and a girl. You should hear the haunting cry they make. Come out and see them at least, Grimley. It’ll change your mind.”

He saw my sadness and seemed affected by it. He put his hand over mine, as if he were my grandfather. It was gentle, protective. “The funding runs out in two weeks.”

 

“We’re done.” Thien kept scanning his account to see if he was wrong. But he wasn’t. We weren’t getting credits from the department anymore. Grimley had cut us off. Time had run out.

“We’re not done. I’ve got funds,” I said.

“What’s wrong with you, Ellie? Can’t you see? People don’t care if we repopulate the thylacine. They care if their water is fresh, if there are beautiful beaches for them to lie on, and snow to play with. They care about themselves. That hasn’t changed.” As he talked, Thien stormed into his room.

I stood at the doorway, watching him shove his clothes into a bag. “I don’t care if they care. That’s never how progress happens. It’s always outliers, those who don’t follow the crowd, who drive things forward.”

“That never ended well. Galileo was put on trial, remember. And I’m not letting you end up with nothing to show for a decade’s work, doing some shitty job that you hate and without a credit in your cloud. No!” He dragged his bag through the centre. “Damn it, Ellie. You need to get back to your exercises, your treatment. Look at you: You look more and more like a pile of bones. And I’ve seen your sores.”

“Where are you going? It’ll be an hour before the copter arrives.”

“It was ordered hours ago.” He stomped out with his bag.

“Who ordered it?! You didn’t!”

He turned back to me, looked over the couches in our lounge. “Ellie, get your stuff. We’re done here.”

“If you think I’m leaving, you know nothing about me.”

The copter touched down twenty minutes later. He climbed aboard and it swept up into the sky like a wondrous giant Frisbee. After he left, I wandered away from the centre, down the crest of the ridge and to the forest that we’d designed. My exoskeleton creaked and whirred softly as it carried me deeper into the bush. My batteries were running down, so I sat on a moss-covered log and watched the eucalypts sway in the breeze. Moss, that little green carpet of growth—what a wondrous thing! The smell of forest engulfed me: the damp earth, the slightly rotting undergrowth, the freshness of healthy plants. We rebuilt the Tasmanian forests and wetlands and grasslands native to the thylacine, but it was like trying to recompose the DNA of the long extinct Australian megafauna. We could only recover certain aspects, certain plants, certain animals, but the dependencies and relationships were altered. It was like building the structure of a house, knowing you could never fill in the walls or roof or the fittings or electrical and computer systems. And then, because the interrelationships were different, new connections and dependencies sprang up and you ended up with an entirely new ecosystem all its own.

That was one of the reasons Grimley was right. We were always moving forward, not backward. Everyone except me, it seemed. Later that night, I lay in bed drifting in and out of a personal crisis. I was the one who was wrong, I knew. There was no future for the thylacine. There was no future for me either. In the middle of the night, a copter came down on the roof and I practically leaped into my exoskeleton. I raced to the animal enclosures, ready to set them free before Grimley and his goons got hold of them. But I was too late. The door opened and there stood Thien. He looked like he’d been crying.

“Okay, then. If that’s what you want,” he said.

I hummed across and hugged him close. “Thank you, my friend.”

That night the male thylacine died. We found him cold and dead.

A little part died in Thien too as we performed the autopsy. We found no cause. Sometimes nature is a mystery. That night, I dreamed that Grimley had arrived with armed enforcement officers. They entered the enclosure and aimed the weapons at our thylacines.

I couldn’t move my legs. My exoskeleton was lying on the floor across the room. Without it, I couldn’t move. “Please. No!”

Gunshots rang out. Then I was in the enclosure, holding our last tiger as she heaved and fitted, shaking like a broken toy. I was crying, struggling to say something.

“It’s the rational thing to do,” said Grimly. “It’s the compassionate thing to do.”

 

“Let’s call her Benjamin.” I looked into the glass enclosure at our last remaining thylacine. We’d cranked up her glands to ensure her sexual maturity. Then we’d implanted three embryos, using the greatest genetic variety coming from individual specimens that we could find.

“There’s something wrong with you, you know that?” said Thien.

“Come on, we called the last two Benjamin for the same reason. Think of the publicity. Think of the popular response. Grimley will love it. He’ll give us everything we want.”

“Deeply wrong.” Once he would have added a joking insult to the quip, but that was all gone now.

“Benjamin it is, then!” I refused to be dragged into the pall surrounding him.

Mercifully, Grimley hadn’t cut the electricity to the centre. Typical of the bureaucracy: They couldn’t get anything done without some terrible consensus discussion. Still, my credits were descending at a precipitous rate. We had enough to last another month. Benjamin was our final chance. All the time, I expected Grimley and his enforcements to arrive. He tried several times to call us on the vidlink. I avoided him.

“You have to speak to him,” said Thien.

“No.”

I had Thien set our system—which was coupled, of course, to the department’s and from there to the entire cloud—to alert us if a copter had set the centre as its destination. If that were the case, we’d have an hour to prepare.

When I returned upstairs, Thien exited the command room. “Grimley called again. He insists that we close up. He wants you to contact him.”

“You answered?” When he didn’t speak, I said, “I’m not talking to that bastard.”

How could I explain to him the raging inferno of emotions I was barely holding down? You didn’t need to be a psychotherapist to know that sooner or later things would break free.

Now it was Thien’s turn to look conflicted. I could sense his loyalty was wavering again and there was a touch of embarrassment to his expression. He looked on the verge of telling me some secret, but he hesitated.

“Fucking spit it out,” I said.

Finally he simply said, “Ellie, seriously, you have to talk to him!”

“I’m not fucking talking to him. Let’s get ready to release her in the next couple of days.”

Twenty minutes later, the copter came down on the rooftop pad. There had been no alarm.

 

“Come up and meet him, Ellie,” said Thien from the command room.

Instead, I fled down the stairs to the thylacine’s compound, my exoskeleton humming and cranking. Above, I heard them descending from the roof and Thien greeting them. Then my exoskeleton slowed down; the batteries were draining again.

I begged the universe to keep them running one final hour.

“Ellie! Come on up!” cried Thien.

There was only one thing to do. I grabbed the carrier and slid open the glass enclosure. Benjamin yawned with anxiety and retreated to her nest. The surrogate devil charged towards me, spitting and hissing.

Trying not to panic, I placed the carrier’s door against the nest and opened its roof. Benjamin pressed against a corner and emitted one of those low keening sounds. I gently coaxed her back through its door and into the carrier. I slid the door back down and pulled it towards the enclosure entrance. The devil circled around, baring her teeth angrily.

Any moment, the enforcers would be on us. They’d kill Benjamin and stun me. Grimley would look down laughing.

Slamming my hand against the pad on the door to the garage, I dragged the carrier out into the darkness. With each step, my exoskeleton was slowing down. Any moment it would whir to a halt. The cold Tasmanian air drifted in from the darkness. Clouds covered the sky. The forest was only hulking black shapes against a greater blackness.

I dragged the carrier out onto the crest. Each step seemed to take an eternity. I moved like a windup toy, slowly humming to a halt. The exoskeleton stopped altogether about ten feet down the steep slope.

I unshackled myself from it and collapsed to the cold ground. Dragging myself across the hard earth, twigs and rocks scraped my skin. Reaching up, I slid open the carrier’s door but Benjamin wouldn’t come out. She was cowering against the back of the carrier, small and young, pregnant and vulnerable. Was she too young to be taken from her mother? Had she learned to hunt well enough?

“Please come out,” I said gently, trying to soothe her.

I pulled myself closer to the cage door and she let out that terrifying guttural growl. When I gently took hold of her torso, her jaws snapped shut and pain shot through my arm.

Footsteps echoed from the garage. The enforcers were coming. Any moment I’d hear their orders. Guns would rise. They’d shoot Benjamin, since they knew no better.

Desperate, I yanked her from the carriage, far too violently, and rolled onto my back. She continued to growl. The pain sparked up my arm like lightning. Her claws scratched at my ribs.

I pushed her down the slope towards the forest.

Mercifully, she released my arm and padded about ten meters away. The growl stopped.

“Go!” I yelled, but she simply looked back from the pitchy darkness, her eyes like phosphorescent orbs.

Then Grimley was above me. I felt another presence behind us, but I dared not look back. I couldn’t bear to see the gun.

A click. The loading of a bullet.

“She’s really beautiful, isn’t she?” said Grimley.

“Don’t shoot her,” I begged.

“Shoot her?” Grimley sounded puzzled.

Another click. I turned to see Thien with his SLR camera, taking some final photos. When I turned back, Benjamin was gone, disappeared into the forest like a ghost. A minute later a haunting howl went up. Then everything was silent again.

 

The silence had continued as Thien carried me back to the command room. He placed me in a chair and we watched as Benjamin’s vitals lit up the screens. A glimpse of her shot across one of our cameras.

“She’s going to live, you fucker!” I said to the silent Grimley.

That’s when Thien spoke. “Ellie, I don’t think you understand.”

“I understand perfectly well. This prick has wanted to close us down for years. All he cares about is coastal grasses, quantifiable results, popularity levels and promotions.”

“Honestly, for a genius, you wander around as if you’ve got a hood over your head,” said Thien. “Why do you think I came back to work with you these last few months? Grimley sent me. He’s the one who kept the power on for us. He’s the one who let you use your money against my wishes. He’s the one who kept us going, just to give Benjamin a chance.”

Thoughts caught inside me, tripped over themselves. I couldn’t think straight.

Then he said, “Who do you think I’ve been fucking all this time? I met Grimley before you did on the rooftop bar that night. I tried to convince him to shut us down completely.”

Silence once more as I thought of the cocktail glasses drained on the table. Of Grimley’s sadness when he had said we’d have to shut down. Of his kind eyes and his comforting hand at the bar.

Thien continued. “It couldn’t go on any longer. Grimley-bear was the one who was resisting me. He wanted to talk to you himself.”

Something snapped in me. Things weren’t as bad as I’d imagined and I found myself grinning in the midst of the shock. “Grimley-bear?”

Grimley shrugged. There was an insouciant smile on his face.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were helping?” I said.

“It had to be a secret. We didn’t want it to go public among the bureaucrats. It needed to look like an oversight,” said Grimley. “Mistakes can be overlooked. Poor decisions not so much.”

What about your promotion?” I asked.

“Oh well, I guess that’s dead in the water. You know, quantifiable results, high profile publications, public ratings and all that.”

Then the embarrassment hit me. I buried my head in my hands. My mind was still trying to catch up. How wrong I had been about everything.

A hand touched my shoulder lightly. It was Grimley’s. “Shall we see how she’s doing?”

The readouts showed that she was still in the woods. Her vitals were fine. She was okay, for the moment.

“She won’t make it,” I said.

“We have to hold onto hope, though, don’t we?” said Grimley.

“Oh, now you’re sounding like the Russians.”

“Apparently they’re doing well with the mammoth. They’ve got it onto the vodka. Soon it’ll be singing the ‘Song of the Volga Boatmen.’”

“Now that’s the kind of mammoth I want to meet,” I said, and smiled.

We stayed there for some time, watching Benjamin’s vitals. She was slinking through the forest, discovering her new home. “So, I suppose you’re going to take me back now? Coastal grasses are waiting for me.”

“Maybe not coastal grasses. But let’s stay here for a couple of days,” Grimley said. “Let’s see how she goes. She might make it, right?”

“She might live for a little while,” I said. “But that’s all any of us have, in the end. Just a little while before we die.”

“Let’s make the most of it, then,” said Grimley. “She wouldn’t have any chance if it weren’t for you.”

“Well, she is my true love.” I laughed.

When we closed the centre down for the final time, two days later, Benjamin was still out there hunting in the forest. A perfect little thylacine in the wilderness. The copter carried us away from the centre one last time, back to Hobart with its buildings and its quiet streets and its bureaucrats and the habitat that I found so strange. Maybe I could live there too, after all.

 

It was padding softly along a crest in the open, between the dark forests south of Lake Gordon, when my partner noticed a long hanging pouch beneath its belly, beneath its striped rear. That pouch looked full. Seeing us, she yawned and the great jaws were so wide we joked she could have turned inside out. Then she slipped away with a low-hung gait, back into the forest, as if we’d never been there at all.

—“Rajeev” from “Unconfirmed Sighting of a Thylacine” in the Hobart Mercury, May 2073

 

“Benjamin 2073” copyright © 2020 by Rjurik Davidson
Art copyright © by Scott Bakal

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