Barghest Chapter 3

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Hour 1630, Day 87, Year 2109

Forty-seventh anniversary of announcement of the first successful Genetically Modified Human (GMH). Revelation that human DNA had been augmented with that of a cuttlefish spurred public outcry, protests, riots, and unprecedented funding.

Bee lifted his head slowly above the vegetation where he had been hiding. He could smell the animal ahead of him, and his mouth watered, but he swallowed it down and waited. The white coats called the game Group-Dynamics-Planning-Exercise-One, but Bee and the others called it what it was: surround-wait-pack-pounce. There were lots of things that had two names. There was the name the white coats spoke, and the name Bee and his pack spoke.  He was Bee, or sometimes 22-B when they were talking about him instead of to him, but his real name was long-crouch. His favorite game was sniff-listen-follow-find, but the white coats called it Sensory-Perception-Assessment-and-Expansion-Exercise-Three. The white coats had funny, long names for most things – even themselves. Some of them were Doctor-word-word, others were Mister-word, and there were at least ten more that Bee heard every day.  Sometimes the white coats spoke too short. Today the first meal was called Protein-Supplement-MRE-Six, but the pack knew it was hot-meat-ran-fast-ate-green-good-death and oily-smooth-salty-swimmers. The white coats were smart, and they knew where the food was and how to open the doors, but they weren’t very good at naming things.

Second meal had been smaller than normal, so Bee and the others had known there would be a food game. Gee had complained and pouted, but Bee and the others were excited. Food games were fun, and the food was tastier and more…more… Bee struggled with a description. Game food was bright and big in his mouth and sometimes crunched or squirted when he bit down. It was wet and hot sometimes, and it made his nose feel full and tingling with scent. It was just more.

It had been nearly time for third meal, and his stomach felt empty, when the white coats came. Soft-rough-mother was with them, and that made the whole pack even more excited. The white coats called her Doctor-Gillian or Wendy or sometimes Boss, but when she watched a game, at least one of the pack was always picked to do something special afterward.  It was hard to always tell how to get picked. Sometimes she wanted the fastest, sometimes the most patient, sometimes she picked the one that made all the rest of the pack listen.

Bee thought he had it figured out, though. The white-coat that was sweet-flower-bitter-herbs always sat by the window after second meal to watch them. She used a stick and wrote on her light pad and if Bee came to the window, she would watch him. He knew she was writing about him, because sometimes she drew pictures too. He recognized himself from the mirrors in the enclosure. She made his fur dark and his mane streaky. And she wrote his name next to those drawings: 22-B. That was him. He had watched sweet-flower-bitter-herbs long enough that he knew some other words too. Like Positive. Pat. Training. Good. Obedient. Alpha.

That was what soft-rough-mother wanted, he was sure. The white-coats said that word ‘alpha’ a lot, and although none of the rest of the pack seemed to recognize it, Bee knew what it really meant. First-kill-hot-blood-protector-front-walk-listen. Sometimes Ae was that. Once or twice it had been Jay, but usually they worked together, mostly, and if there was a problem with their plan, each of them tried to win on their own. But soft-rough-mother wanted one of them to be in charge. She wanted one of the pack to make the others listen, even if something went wrong with a plan. Soft-rough-mother was going to give special treats and attention to the one who could make the others listen. The way the white-coats listed to soft-rough-mother.

Bee wanted special treats. He wanted attention from soft-rough-mother. He wanted her to put her hand on his head and use her good-boy-good-girl voice and tell him he did well. He wanted to be allowed to sit on the ground next to sweet-flowers-bitter-herbs and watch her draw him, to lean against her warm leg. Bee wanted to be the alpha.

He tried to explain it to the others after second meal, but only Ae had understood at all. The words were hard – hard to make sounds that meant what he was thinking. When third meal was late, he had finally given up trying to convince them.

Follow, he had growled. Listen. My plan. My kill. Pack bite hot meat hot meat hot meat. Obey. Hot meat hot meat hot meat.

Then soft-rough-mother had come in and the game began. “Group Dynamics Planning Exercise Number One, attempt 34, series 22 primary group.” She held up her clicker and pinched it three times, click-a-click-a-click-a, and that meant listen. “Covert. Team. Hunt. Ready.” She held her hand flat in the air, and brought it down as she said, “Go.”

Bee and the rest of the pack were good at that part. Before her hand could reach her side they had scattered into the plants that were thick around the walls of the enclosure. Bee was as quiet as he could be, climbing up a rock and laying on his belly in the deep shadow of a tree. He watched the clearing below and the game box that was lowered to the center. He could smell his pack, waiting, watching. He could smell the white-coats – more than usual, and not just soft-rough-mother in the enclosure with them, but also the trace of sweet-flowers-bitter-herbs that filtered through the vent under the glass and others too. One in the enclosure and many in the corridor and behind the glass.

Bee flicked his ears, and his hairs told him that the air was changing direction. The scent of the game animal blew toward him, and then the game box opened. He tensed, alert, and his surprise was only overcome by the spike of ready-smell that Jay and Ee were giving off. Bee screwed up his throat and moaned as low as he could. They had all been practicing making the sound. The white coats couldn’t hear it, but they could feel it or see it move in Bee’s chest if they were close enough.

The ready-smell died off, and Bee knew they were waiting for another signal. That was good. They listened. Listening meant alpha. He turned his full attention back to the game food. It wasn’t hairy, but had ridges on its back that looked hard to chew. It moved, slowly, and that surprised Bee. Game food had never moved before. It also excited him. He wanted to chase. To pounce. Bee dug his claws into the rock to help himself stay put and moaned again. If he wanted to chase, the others would too. They couldn’t, not yet. He had to wait first to see what the game was.

The game animal crawled off of the metal box that held the prize. It moved cautiously, curled up and taking tiny steps that made its ridges stick out. Bee waited, the hot smell of blood and the sound of it pumping through the game food making his mouth water even more. It seemed like forever, longer than forever, longer than the pack had ever waited for game animals. Then the animal relaxed. It picked up a broken leaf from the ground and rolled over onto its back to hold the green thing while it ate. The game animal had a soft, soft belly.

Bee dug in his blunt toe claws and leaped, without making a sound. He landed a little further from where he had wanted to be, but he still got one hand buried into the game animal’s belly. It made a shrieking sound and thrashed, but the rest of the pack was there. Jay stepped on its tail, even though it had little spike that made his foot bleed. Aa dug her claws under its chin, and Dee rammed his face under one flailing leg to bite at the joint. Bee roared. It sounded loud to him, and all the pack but Aa and Jay backed away and circled the game animal. Bee looked to Aa, just to make certain she knew he was first-kill-hot-blood-protector-front-walk-listen and then he snapped his mouth around the underarm where he could hear and smell the blood pumping hard. It sprayed on his face, and the game animal stopped moving.

There was a click, and the prize box opened. The pack smelled excited, ready. A few even let out whimpers and whines. But they waited. They were listening. Bee stepped away from the game animal and walked carefully to the box. Spit was starting to leak out of the side of his mouth, but he ignored the feeling in his stomach that said he should take all the food. He reached in one hand and pulled out the largest piece of food. He took one bite, one big bite of hot-meat-ran-fast-ate-green-good-death and then he used his claws to cut it into two halves. He gave one to Aa, and one to Jay.

Aa waited, although her lips were shiny with spit too. Jay bit into his, then stopped when Bee growled. Jay sat down and waited too. Bee was still hungry. His stomach felt even emptier, but he was sure that he knew what soft-rough-mother wanted. He couldn’t help but sneak a glance at her. Her face was flat, but she smelled happy. Bee felt a rush of happiness too. He would be alpha. He would be good-boy-good-girl head-pat-pat. Bee stepped away from the prize box and called to the others.

My plan. My kill. Good pack. Eat. Eat. Eat.

And they did. The pack yipped excitedly and bunched around the prize box. Since Bee hadn’t taken a full share, there was a little more for everyone. Bee knew that was important. He promised the pack if they listened, they would get more. That made trust. The white coats liked trust. The pack liked trust too.  Bee made sure everyone ate equally, although he had to snap at Ach to keep him from sneaking a second piece. Then he walked over to soft-rough-mother. He sat down at her feet and waited. When she didn’t immediately praise him, he began to worry that her happy smell wasn’t for him. Then she slipped her clicker into her pocket. She bent a little at the waist, she was tall for a white coat, and smoothed her palm down his head to rest her fingers against the back of his ear.

“Good boy, 22-B. Good job.”

Bee closed his eyes and leaned into her warmth.

ooo

“It isn’t conclusive, not at this age.”

Dr. Wendy Gillian acknowledged her fellow researcher with a nod, but continued to watch through the one-way mirror. After the resounding success of the Group Dynamics exercise, she had let 22-B choose his own reward. That too, was a test of sorts. She knew he had to be hungry, but when presented with a choice between a double-portion of protein, fatty acid, and simple sugars or a single portion of protein and physical contact with her assistant, he had chosen Lupe.

It made sense. All of the primary group had an extra twist to their genetic structure, a marker that made them want to please. But B had always shown an extra willingness, desire even, to seek praise. Gillian was surprised, however, that he had been the one to finally leap into a dominate role. There were others that occasional showed capacity for it; J in particular was more aggressive than the rest of the pack. Aggression, as exhibited by many species on Earth and Keres 6b-3, was not always an indicator of leadership skills.

Dr. Bantan was going on about personality fix milestones and cognition development. Gillian ignored most of it. She had heard it all before, even published some of it herself. It was an old argument. She interrupted him instead, “Have you noticed he watches her stylus?” Gillian toggled the camera zoom in on B’s eyes. He was following Lupe’s progress with her drawing and accompanying notes carefully. The male was sitting on the ground at her feet, leaning into the side of her thigh to peer over her arm. His food had been finished long ago, but Gillian was content to let the special treat last at least until Lupe was finished with her current assignment.

“Hm.” Bantan moved to stand next to her, and then pulled up the feed on his tablet. He replayed it several times, drawing a few lines over the image to highlight B’s gaze. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said quietly.

“What?” Gillian pulled her eyes away from the subject and research on the other side of the mirror and glanced down.

“I think he is reading.” Bantan shook his head. Gillian was just as disbelieving. The 22 series had been genetically dialed back, as the specialist termed it. They were less human and more animal than many previous series. The return to something closer to the original subject species was an attempt to better understand where the sequencing and accompanying training had gone wrong. From a strictly genetic standpoint, they were animals with some human DNA. Not the other way around. Reading, and other high-level intelligence tasks, had been hypothesized to be years down the road in their development – if not completely impossible.

“Send Lupe a text,” she decided suddenly. Bantan typed while Gillian dictated. They could both see the moment the message went through. B stiffened and his eyes snapped to the tablet in Lupe’s lap. She tapped on the screen to pull it up, and the watched B’s eyes scan over the text.

Count to five, then read aloud:  22-B is a good boy.

Lupe frowned, but they could see B nearly vibrating with excitement before Lupe spoke. All of the subjects had been conditioned to the phrase ‘good boy/girl’ and the praise of a head pat. Gillian’s heart picked up pace, but she tried to keep her excitement in check. She dictated another message, and B leaned so far over the tablet when the chime sounded that Lupe couldn’t see the screen.

Pat 22-B.

The subject turned and faced Lupe so fast he almost knocked the stylus out of her hand. It took her a moment to realize that he was waiting, head lowered and hovering under her free hand.

“Son of a bitch,” Bantan whispered.
Gillian stared at him with wide eyes. This was it, she was sure. Nearly two decades of her life, full use of her left arm, and half of her face had been given to the project. The tall, furry six year-old on the other side of the glass was the breakthrough she had been hoping for – had though was years and another two or three attempts at sequencing away. Her theories could be proven. Here. Now. Nurture conquers nature. Gillian had to breath deeply to keep the sheer exhilaration, the joy, from exploding. “Design the test – I want to start tomorrow. For all of them, this group and secondary. Keep the team small – Eyes Only. We need to get this figured out before Congress decides to send the twenty-twos to war.”

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