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Part 2 of 2

Continued from part 1

Deucie and Betty walked home alone. Betty worried every step. The last time Baby Boo disappeared Betty had barely saved him from being killed. She wished she could have sneaked into Mr. Van Avery's car, too.

But that hadn't been Baby Boo's plan, and he'd made her promise to stick with what he decided. She wasn't even supposed to talk about what he was doing until morning. In the morning Betty could take the pack to where Baby Boo had secretly left his antenna and say he was all the way to Pittsburgh by then.

When he came back to Philadelphia with her antenna Matty would be able to talk.

The sidewalks were empty by the time they got home. Walter and Amy were still away somewhere working. Deucie invited her to dinner, but Betty declined.

Instead she scratched on Gray Hawk's door and waited for the alpha to let her in. They shared scrambled eggs and cornbread. Afterwards Gray Hawk poked up flames from the cooking embers and asked Betty what was wrong. It bothered her not to be able to answer.

Eventually the alpha went to bed. Betty lay awake by the dying fire. She heard Deucie come in and mate with Gray Hawk. She wondered if Matty's door would be as easy for her to get in at night as during the day.

A while after the sounds from the other room had ceased Betty again heard soft steps climb the stairs from the street. This time they were followed by loud knocking. Gray Hawk's wooden bed frame creaked and her slippers scuffed across the floor. "Coming!" she yelled. Deucie walked behind her, barefoot and stretching, smelling sweeter than before.

Gray Hawk let Dantay in. "Hope yall wasn't sleepin yet," he said. "I foun what Deucie tole everybody be lookin for." He held his arms out straight. Over them hung a blanket. "A antenna? For hoahses. An I got the box come with it in my pocket."

Now Baby Boo's plan seemed stupider than ever. Betty made up her mind. She pawed Gray Hawk's leg for attention. "Listen, I need to break a promise I shoulda never made."

 


 

Gray Hawk woke the other humans. The whole pack—except for its one missing member—walked together to the school. Matty draped the blanket over her head like a scarf. She threaded the voice box on her halter rope and settled that around her neck. Deucie reached up for the controls but Matty pushed her hands away gently and adjusted them herself.

"Well thank you," said the elephant. "This is most certainly an improvement on the situation. Only—" She raised the box's volume. "There. Hah! That vicious speciesist thought to silence me permanently—but where is the rest of your herd? The cat?"

"He gone." Betty lowered her muzzle and ears. "To Pittsburgh."

"What?" Matty stomped the polished floor. "Oh, no! Do not let him! No! Not Pittsburgh—how has this happened?"

Feeling worse than ever, Betty explained again why Baby Boo had hidden in Mr. Van Avery's car.

Matty's head swayed from side to side. "No, no. This is terrible. He has gone with Mr. Van Avery? That is a very, very bad man. He will kill him! Then he will lie and say that he has not!"

"We was thinkin—" Betty couldn't bring herself to ask the elephant for help. Even though the reason they needed it was her responsibility. "We—"

"We'll find him. We'll get him back. Safe." The alpha sounded sure. "Amy and Walter, you deal best with the Collective, so stay here and meet with them in the morning. See if they have a spare car."

She turned to Dantay. "I know you know someone who can get the rest of us on the road tonight. Someone who has satphones we can use, for whatever favors. We'll pay." To Deucie. "How long of a lead do they have?"

"Sun was down, but I could see clouds to the east. Six o'clock. So say two, two-and-a-half hours."

Human time was tough to understand, but Matty nodded. "Probably he will soon be charging his battery somewhere nearby to Harrisburg—most likely at Middletown. It is where my truck driving here stopped."

"Would he take 76 or 322? They meet up there. They both go to Pittsburgh, too."

"Good question, Walter," said Gray Hawk. "Matty?"

"The flat way is the quicker."

Deucie and Dantay calculated with Matty's assistance that the trip would take almost all night, about eight hours. Then there'd be however long it took to find Mr. Van Avery's car and Baby Boo before they could come back.

"Matty, you can help with that part, yes?" Gray Hawk's question was what Betty had been ashamed to ask. "How much volume does that box get? Will you be able to crank it high enough we can hear it when you hold a phone to your ears?"

"You—you expect me to guide you while I wait here, out of danger." Matty's manufactured voice sounded quiet, but she rumbled angrily underneath it. "To let the herd take care of a predator I attracted."

"Well, you're not going to fit in any car," said Deucie.

"No. I can run, though. Sixteen miles in an hour." Slower than most cars, as Amy pointed out. But Gray Hawk decided Matty could take the back road while the pack's alpha, beta, and omega drove 76, which she figured was much more likely to be Mr. Van Avery's route.

Betty knew Gray Hawk was right about that. The car would be the fastest way to travel, and 76 the surest chance to be in on the rescue of her friend. So she was surprised to realize she'd rather accompany the elephant.

No one else seemed to think that was odd. Deucie put a heavy phone in one of Betty's rucksacks and filled the other side with sunflower seeds for balance and a snack. Matty's trunk slipped tenderly beneath Betty's belly and hoisted her from the ground. Warm in its coils, Betty let herself be carried out of the cold city and into the cold countryside.

Matty's pace was swift yet smooth and steady, with never more than one foot in the air. Her grip was secure yet relaxed.

"What so bad about Mr. Van Avery?" Betty asked. "Why you hatin him?"

"It is a long, hard story."

"We be together a while. What make it hard?"

"Because our experiment was working! Pittsburgh was . . . beautiful. Everyone—all the zoo animals, we helped each other out, we looked after each other and shared . . . everything!"

"Everyone a you was modded?"

"No. Only some few of us had the capacity for human speech. But we deemed that was unnecessary."

"But it ain't only talkin. . . ." Betty trailed off. Her confused memories of integrating the mental changes caused by modfeed kept her from saying more about them. Wasn't there a real, deep difference? She wondered uneasily about hunting and killing rabbits. Was every animal a potential packmate?

Beyond the close cloud of Matty's scent the night's air shifted and swam: the old, charred wood and must of destroyed houses on the city's edge gradually gave way to fresh-turned mud and clover, coops, barns, stables, and the more subtle cooking scents wandering out of isolated wealthy homes.

"So why you had a problem?"

"English speakers provided us with a common pidgin, a trade tongue like Swahili; through them we came to realize many of us, modded and unmodded, wanted the same things: safety. Freedom."

"You mean you was gonna run away?"

"No. Some of us preferred to stay, others to return to our previous places—It was a matter of choice. Which we did not have, and which it was my strategy to negotiate." The elephant stopped in her tracks. She swung her head side to side, rocking Betty in a slow arc.

"I can get down an walk some if you wants," Betty offered. "If I'm heavy."

"Of course not. It is only that I—that when I think back to what I did and what I should have done—" A few steps further and she stood still again. "It was a group decision. But my idea."

"What idea?"

"The strike."

Matty's trunk was no longer relaxed; it had become uncomfortably tight. Betty persuaded the elephant to put her down on the cool, damp road. She trotted forward and the elephant quickly caught up.

Betty hated to show her ignorance. For a while they walked without saying anything. At last she asked what a strike was and learned how Matty had refused to talk for the crowds paying to hear her. And other modded animals had done the same—a giraffe, a giant turtle, an orangutan, a hippo, two pandas, a mother zebra and her son—Matty named them one by one. Her smell became harsher, sadder, saltier.

"So you all tole Mr. Van Avery you wasn't talkin till he agree—"

"No, it was not personally him. A company, a business."

Betty knew what that was. "Why you blame him then? If the company say it refuse to deal, that ain't his fault, is it?"

"He was their representative—not to us, you understand? But to other humans he was the one who explained what happened at the zoo. Which—the evil—about the evil he lied!"

More salt. Hot water dropped from the elephant's face. She was crying the way humans did. Soon Betty learned why. It had been like the attack on Baby Boo, only much worse. Much worse.

The attackers came at night. "That is the most frightening time for them, so they supposed it would be the worst for us also." The zoo company's guards had all gone missing from their posts—"How? Why? Where? We do not know." In their cages and other enclosures the animals could do little to protect themselves. They were hunted, shot, hung, butchered.

"The orangutan was able to remove his antenna. But before he could escape, the mob saw it lying on the cage's ground. To solve the mystery of who it belonged to they murdered each and every ape."

Betty listened as they walked together toward the sinking moon. She heard about the innocent alligators, killed and skinned, and about the turtle burned alive in his shell. And more.

A short silence, then Matty summed her hatred up: "According to Mr. Van Avery this was all tragic, a misfortune for which the zoo was in no way to blame. But I saw him there myself, shooting, cutting, killing. I know he lies, though as an animal I am incapable of witnessing against him. But I know what he is. A murderer."

Another, longer spell of silence. "I suppose you will ask how I survived?"

"Yeah, if you wants to tell me."

"An old circus trick. I taught it to all the elephants. We lay down and pretended already to have died."

"Well that was smart," said Betty. "Real smart! Good thinkin—an it worked!"

"For some it worked. For me and two more. But not for my mate. Who was killed accidentally. By a bullet aimed at someone else."

Betty didn't know what would comfort Matty. She stopped to think. She needed to do something, try anything. The elephant kept walking. After a moment she caught up.

Words didn't help feelings. "Kin you pick me up again?" Betty asked. Now the trunk encircling her felt loose, distracted. She lapped slowly at the traces of tears near its wide top. When Baby Boo had slept wounded in Betty's basket he'd made a sound without using his box, without opening his mouth: a calming hum like the breath of the sun. She did her best to mimic it. Soon she felt Matty's response, lower, heavier, a soft rumble, the movement of the earth.

The dark time passed. Betty napped and dreamt of chasing scared rabbits who turned in their tracks and charged back at her. Whimpering, she woke. The calls of birds roused by the dawn fell silent as the phone in Betty's rucksack rang.

Matty lowered her to the ground again, took it out, held it for her so she could hear and talk. Gray Hawk's voice told Betty that they'd seen no sign of Mr. Van Avery in the battery station at Middletown, or anywhere on 76 between there and Pittsburgh. They were waiting where 322 approached the city's edge. Betty was glad she and Matty had a chance of being on the right road. Matty didn't seem tired. Betty repeated how the alpha had asked them to keep going and she only nodded.

They passed a dead-smelling town. They crossed a half-frozen creek, and at the turnoff soon afterwards Betty's steps slowed, hesitated—that way? That scent? It drew her, luring her from the road, reminding her of. . . . "A box of soft things." Of blankets touched with the sweat of Mr. Van Avery. . . . Baby Boo had directed her to tip it over on its side, and of course! That was the scent of the cat himself, faint, but recognizable now—

"Matty! Hey—think I found em!" In a moment the elephant was at her side. "They gone along this street here—ain't far. We can follow em—"

"All right." The elephant shuffled her feet in the road's frosty gravel. "But we need to be careful. He is bad. And he may not be alone."

A low wall with words on it marked the turnoff. Betty couldn't read. Thin trees grew on either side. She knew they'd do little to conceal an animal of Matty's size from any humans looking their way. The sun wasn't up yet, but the sky was getting brighter by the moment.

They came to a fence smelling of plastic and steel. On the far side, concrete rotted and still water stank. Woven through the rankness, though, Betty detected the aroma of her friend, Baby Boo. She sniffed along the fence as his scent got stronger and stronger. She turned the fence's corner. A few steps further and it started to fade.

"Your cat is in that building, yes." Matty had turned her voice down to a whisper. But of course she'd be seen by the first human to look: taller than the fence's top, fatter than the straggling trees.

Betty knew what she had to do. "You lift me over an drop me on the other side. Then head back for the creek an hole up till night. I'll meetcha there. Call the rest a the pack so they come an get us."

"Inside are only Mr. Van Avery and Baby Boo? Like me you detect no one else? Then, no, I will not drop you and 'hole up.' Enough of letting evil have its way."

"But—"

Matty bowed her head and charged. Metal wailed, tearing; boards cracked, snapping, crashing to the earth. The elephant trampled the sagging fence and Betty followed in her wake. The building ahead reeked of their quarry. A door opened and sound stabbed out from it along with overwhelming waves of fear: "—routine drudgery! Like the thousands of African humans enslaved before her, noble Matty works to exhaustion every day. Chains replace the antenna presented to her by the admiring staff of the Pittsburgh Zoo—"

Betty dodged past Matty. Boot heels thumped away from the empty entrance as she ran through. A whole room set-up; Betty had heard of these, though not even the Dunnetts owned one. She didn't let its ghostly images distract her. They had no smell. They weren't really there. In the wide room beyond them a car's door chunked open and shut. The far wall creaked and rose, and the odor of stagnant water spilled in underneath it.

Bang! The building's thin front wall buckled. Bang! Another blow. A deeper dent. Betty felt the roof sway. "Wait!" Was her box loud enough? Could Matty hear her? The whine of a starting engine. It would drown her out. "He's driving away on the other side!" Where was Baby Boo? In the car—she smelled him. Was he trapped in the box of soft things? "Go around!"

Betty reached the car and scratched uselessly at its sides. Slowly it began rolling toward the open air.

Horrible screeches erupted through the car's windows. Baby Boo! Hideous yowling mixed with human screams—"My eyes! My eyes!" Betty smelled blood. The car went zigging, zagging, rocking on its wheels.

The floor throbbed, pounded. From the outdoors Matty moved in, smooth and heavy as a waterfall. She blocked Mr. Van Avery's escape route. Raising and lowering her right foreleg she smashed the car's hood and everything under it. The engine's whine ceased. The human's cries—wordless now—collapsed into sobs.

There was another, softer mechanical whine as Baby Boo lowered the car's rear window. He crouched for a moment in its frame then leapt down to pad soundlessly—not toward Betty, but back to the set-up room. With a flick of his tail stump he motioned her to follow. "Go," Matty urged her. "I will take care of this one alone."

"—so-called Collective's agenda with regard to blacks? It's not hard to infer from their treatment of this magnificent symbol of—" The disembodied commentary cut off. Baby Boo turned from the set-up's controls and began batting at the pea socketed in its player. Betty knew from the Dunnetts' set-up that the pea's vine had to be pulled off of the drive inside before you removed it. She couldn't get the cat to give up. She nosed the player away from the rest of the set-up, back toward Matty. With a growl and a swat, Baby Boo went with her.

Mr. Van Avery had vanished. "Where you put him?" Betty asked.

"He is locked in the luggage compartment."

"He gonna die?"

"I really should not care!" Matty stamped her front feet: left, right, left. "After—But he will be fine. I can push this vehicle to the main road and leave it in everyone's way. In not very long, he'll be found."

They called Gray Hawk. They called Walter. They nestled the pea among the sunflower seeds, Matty's agile trunk having extricated it. Baby Boo and Betty walked ahead of her as she guided the car back the way they'd come, that marvelous trunk on its steering wheel. Then they descended into the creek's ravine to hide together from anyone Mr. Van Avery might have meant to meet.

Gray Hawk, Deucie, and Jerry had brought Baby Boo's antenna and voice box with them. The cat scoffed at the idea that he might have needed to be rescued once again. "I knew I'd be the one to uncover Mr. Van Avery's dastardly plot."

"I thought you was tryna fine Matty a antenna."

"Of course you did."

In the car they'd borrowed from the Collective, Walter and Amy had room enough for Betty as well as for Baby Boo, but she decided to keep the elephant company again on their way home. Baby Boo said he'd do the same thing. Then he changed his mind.

"Why?" asked Betty, pretty sure she'd never find out the answer.

"I'll tell you next time I see you," her friend promised. "At the gymnasium."

The sky was dark when the two of them set off for home, and still not truly light when they got there. The barest, chilliest, lessening of the night had only just begun as they crested their last hill. They paused at the top. Matty's nose sought and found Betty's ears.

A low wind carried the scents of sleepy winter farms: half-frozen hay, warm pigs, horses, sheep, goats, geese, chickens, ducks—rabbits—and, slightly more distant, the smoke of the city, the little fires the humans lit to make themselves feel safe. Safety and togetherness. Fires and packmates.

Out here, though, even in the darkness, even in the cold, there was no loneliness. Nothing like it.

There was Matty.

 


 

For Gina Mari Rickman, who taught me so much about strength and community.

This story has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.




Nisi Shawl wrote the Nebula Award finalist Everfair and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award winner Filter House. In 2005 she co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, the standard text on inclusivity in the imaginative genres. Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society, and for the last twenty years she has served on the board of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She lives in southern Seattle and takes frequent walks with her cat. www.nisishawl.com  
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