A short story by Natalie Blake.

When I was born, synthetic amnio soaked my Papa’s wellies. He tore at the bio-bag with his bare hands, haste overriding protocol, until clear fluid burst and drained down the grate. He suctioned my airways then wiped his glasses, unable to witness his creation through smeared lenses.

At first, Papa cried and cursed in joy, before swiftly remembering himself. He was new to fatherhood, but I was new to life, and I wouldn’t stay that way if he delayed delivering me to my Mama. 

When I was older, Papa had told me why he was so proud in that moment; why his failures were instantly forgotten. I was alive. I was the desperate, gagging, limb-flailing evidence that proved Papa’s chosen genetic percentages were, for the first time, in balance. 

He also told of the earlier specimens, disposed of in yellow hazardous waste bins and set for incineration. Only because of their sacrifice, had he succeeded in perfecting me.  

“The things we will learn from you,” Papa had whispered, as he laid me belly-up on the floor of the three-by-three steel box. It was bare save for a scattering of dry straw, the den not warm or snug or suitable for young. Nonetheless, a muted growling grew from the dark, a sound I twitched my ears toward. 

Papa rushed the door shut and pressed his nose to the grill, unwilling to risk his flesh again. Mama’s teeth had split his skin more than once for no good reason at all, he’d said. Mama’s version of it was different. I think she was being protective, and who could blame her? It was her space, her food; I was her young. 

To his delight, Mama only gave me a swift sniff, matched my scent, then carried me into the dark as her own. I was kin from that first moment; and though she may not have known the conception, or felt my strong kicks inside her, I was hers. 

“Come, you must feed little one,” she had murmured, and dragged her rough tongue down my back to clean me up. Her wet nose nudged me in close to her belly, and though I could smell the pinked up teat, swollen with nourishment, it had seemed so far. 

Back then, I didn’t know what I was, or why nothing made sense.

“That’s it.” Mama’s muzzle shoved again, until my toothless jaws clamped on their target, and rewarded me with sweet milk. It squirted to the back of my throat, and Mama chuckled when my tail unconsciously wagged. 

But the intrusions started early. 

A lamplight flicked on, its bright beam cast over us because Humans can’t see in the dark. Mama had growled when Papa lifted me from the nest of her limbs; I too, mewled in protest. Held by the scruff he’d lay me naked upon the scales, take measurements, and pluck out strands of my fur with tweezers. 

Next, came the bribery.

It took the form of fresh meat for Mama, and salted jerky for me. That’s when I first learnt his name. 

“Papa,” he would say, patting his chest repetitively. My ears pricked to the rustle of a fresh packet of jerky. “That’s it, you want some?” I’d reach for it, fingers outstretched, but he’d snatch it away again and repeat, “Papa.”

I opened my mouth, and tried to copy. 

“Again,” he would instruct and fling jerky until I sounded out a P in the Human tongue. “You want to live? Show me you’re more than an animal.” 

Mama would grow tired of his games, and nuzzle her worries in the back of my head. “Celeste, the more you play with him, the more he will want from you.” 

“But he’s brought food—“

Papa adjusted the camera. He filmed our every interaction; for the archive, he explained once.

The surveillance made Mama’s lips lift. She would bare her teeth and lunge at the grill until he switched it off, telling me, “You cannot trust the Human’s kind, Celeste.” 

I could never decide on how to walk – two limbs or four – so Mama would let me try both, and tried not to judge. I knotted my fingers deep into her fur to find my balance; I wanted to stand tall like Papa. 

“But I look like them —” 

“No.” She would growl. “One day, you will have to choose. Their world, or ours.”

By the time I was grown enough to dwell on my decision – it was made for me. Sweet meats became dog biscuits. Lab workers left, and more bodies – our neighbours – were carried past the grate on stretchers as the lab lost funding. 

Mama tucked me protectively behind her each time. She didn’t want me to witness the kind of place that existed outside the steel sanctuary we called home. 

The last time Papa came, he brought two syringes on a tray. His lamplight cast its usual beam; though now the power was out, he used it most of the time.

“It wasn’t my decision,” he said, sliding off a thin plastic sheath from a fine bore needle, and plunged it deep into Mama’s scruff. 

I like to tell myself it was the decent thing, doing it himself. That he shed a tear as he did it. But I think I made that part up.

When he turned to me, he hesitated. A second plastic cap clattered to the floor, and with Mama’s body still warm beside me, her silver-grey fur as soft as it had ever been, I lunged at him, and tasted real meat.

Nowadays, I watch old film reel beamed up on the wall, tear open packets of ultra-high protein snacks grown in the same lab I was, and imagine Mama’s rhythmical licking. I pretend that she is grooming the length of me – fawn-gold fur and bare pale skin – chuckling at our home video, and realising my choice is not a binary one. That I don’t belong in either world.

Only here. 

Read more about the author Natalie Blake HERE.

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