ANDATA EXPRESS/
HOLOHAUS4/
NEW ANIMALS /
EYE TEAR
HOLES



CW: forcible recruitment, mind reading, brainwashing, dismemberment, war, colonialism, massacre of civilians, sexual assault (non-explicit), animal cruelty


Behind your face,
That’s where the world is,
That’s where everyone lives,
Where you shave your head, send the texts, channel the dead
Fight or flight,
I can’t tell, can’t tell, can’t tell
Wrong from right


-Zach Hill, “Dark Art”


September struck: crisp pure north wind that curdled to humid heat by the week’s end.


New animals approached at a steady clip. Announcements infested the news and Essin recognized unannounced new species as they walked to work.


Amelia had not resurfaced. Essin dwelt for a span on fantasies where they awoke and she was there, she was fucking Lacie or fucking them or in the basement with a jar, something pulsing inside, whispering, “A new artichoke. It’s the same, you still eat the heart.”


Her absence lingered. She’d left no signs or marks in the underbrush to say which trail lead to tomorrow. News winnowed teeming events to banalities. Triumphs and regularities flanked crisis as new animal reports joined the weather forecast. Codenames from medieval bestiaries dried up and Animal Control strip-mined mythologies for new names. Manticore’s sting clogged the digestive tract with bezoars. Gorgon’s hideous song turned trees into dust. Anansi’s aggressive weaving extinguished Sudbury: the creature could weave brick, and metal, and meat with equal ease, any substance turning to threads in its seven thousand hands.


Lacie had given up prying after underground literature. Essin guessed she was preoccupied and crushed by the outer world’s murderous progress. Perhaps, they thought, something about illicit academia was inherently linked to Amelia.


But Essin, for all their doubts, hadn’t surrendered.


They knew their faith had been rewarded when one morning their eyes caught piled bread tags near a ditch pipe. They stooped to see the plastic pastel chips and glanced up to see pamphlets on the pipe’s bottom, held to its roof with a fat magnet, a lozenge used to remove metal from cow-guts like the one Amelia had used to wipe her computers. Gingerly they tugged one pamphlet out and made sure the others were steadily in place. It was bright green and its front was blackened by a photocopy-blurred image. A few legible letters showed green, DOG’S MINISTRY CALLS TO YOU!


They opened it, glanced quickly at the contents.


DOG’S SON DIED FOR YOU!


And this is why the grootslang has transcended symbiosis and arrived at pure syzygy.


Information Control has rigorously censored all images of the grootslang. I’m gonna come clean with you, if you asked me to describe what these mothers looked like, I’d tell you I have no idea. Usually you can trace a new animal back to its original by its dominant features: what skin it has or its ears or its habitat or habits. No new animal is entirely new (though they’re entirely animal). Well, what our informants have gathered seems to indicate that the grootslang is an animal too dense in particulars to be tidily identified. Too much is going on.


Sound like a hybrid? I’ve thought we’re due for new hybrids of one kind or another. Some freak symbiosis. Maybe I’ll get to cross that one off the list.


Anyway, what we do know is they’re fucking huge, very strong, and— most vital, for our purposes—they come from under—


Sky a unanimous white, shaded blue where the climbing sun hadn’t reached its overlook. Essin folded the pamphlet and slipped it in their pocket, half-ran to work, each footfall in their shitty work shoes a jolt in their hips, too excited to register the shuddering ground. Perhaps it was a momentary weakness in their legs. They worked on their feet, after all.


Their manager, Honey, sat on the curb, gun in her lap like always, smoking and gazing tired-eyed at a controller coven in the parking lot. It wasn’t anomalous for controllers to linger after dawn but they’d brought a dozen trucks they’d parked crisscross without any regard for the yellow lines. Their sides were dusty, like a hard-to-reach window pane in a train terminal, and emblazoned with the JCO’s maple leaf logo and Engineering Control.


“What’s going on?” said Essin.


“Cannon,” Honey said. “You feel that earthquake earlier?” She hefted the shotgun over to Essin.


“Wait, a cannon?”


“Yeah, look,” she pointed her chin and while with a cumbersome manoeuvre butted out her cigarette on her bootsole.


A fat phallic barrel sloped west over the houses, gesturing lewdly over the neighbourhood. Controllers wheeled munitions on dollies and cranked massive wrenches on the bolts binding the cannon to the tripod holding it to the asphalt, which was cracking under its weight. Essin thought even the engineers wear silver skulls clamped to their heads. They tried, without much strength, to fend off the feeling of nostalgia from the trucks: they parodied carnivals where Essin’s mom had dumped them in the summer, that occupied strip mall parking lots with spinning rides and barbecues and cold sweets. A few regular controllers stood guard between withering parking lot trees, silver skulls the same colour as the sky, less friendly than the carnies who’d kept an eye on them until the sun started setting and Essin meandered back home.


By nine AM the parking lot was crammed. People were parking their cars on the gritty grey margins. Essin was assigned front cash and three people complained about the cannon. One old man with a gold cross nestled in the wire growing from his ruddy chest told them they should tell their manager about it, and that it was the kind of thinking that could land them a promotion one day.


Honey popped in over the headset, “Tell him if he came here to jerk off he should do it in the bathroom.”


“I’ll pass that along,” Essin said, both to Honey and the customer.


But the cannon was fine, a silent inconvenience, until it fired at noon: a blast tossing leaves and dust and parking lot litter. Its shot shrilled over rooftops. Windows shook. Cracked. Birds took flight as a collective flinch rippled at the speed of sound across the neighbourhood. Moments later (Essin measuring the miles it travelled, like thunder, by Mississippis) a second boom answered. Faraway a plume mushroomed over the rooftops. A smokey pillar tilted with the wind from the cannon’s mouth. AC artillerists cranked wheels to adjust the trajectory. Customers watched out the window at the ordnance witches at their work, gritting their teeth until a second shot muted all other sound.


Essin had risen late from a night spent dreaming they were lost in a shifting labyrinth, a museum made of lichen, and hadn’t had time to pack lunch. Nerves battered by the cannon shots and craving grease and salt they popped into Five Guys for lunch. They’d been holding it in for the last half hour, so after ordering from the tired teens in their visors they went to the bathroom, hardly thinking, afloat in busyness.


It was a cramped corner bathroom with a urinal and a narrow toilet stall. A man slipped in behind them and sidled up to the urinal, where he freed a grey spit pearl as he jangled his belt. Blonde highlights fringed a backwards baseball cap, contrasting the deep tan on his oddly hairless body— hairless save for the red goatee, brushed and styled, that decorated his chin. He looked in that bland space like he was alien to places without sunlight. His arms bulged from inside a clean white A-shirt. A fat gold chain (Cuban links) gleamed around his neck. With his free hand, he rubbed the red goatee as he tried to pee. Tried. He winced and grunted as piss plopped out of him. He sniffed and sighed wetly, as though he was both hung-over and wrestling with a cold.


Essin slipped into a stall and finished pissing quickly. Went for the sink. Barely wet their hands and ran them under the blast-dryer before turning to the door.


He grumbled, “You put any soap on that?”


They didn’t answer.


“At least pump some hand sanitizer on that shit before you go touching surfaces.”


They pumped some alcohol gel into their palms, rubbed them quickly together.


“Be sure you get under your nails. For God’s sake, you work at Starbucks. Fuck knows what kind of fucking anthrax is throwing an orgy under your nails. You should trim those, by the way.”


Surely he had to be done pissing by now but no, his urine still trickled into the urinal in fits and plops.


“I have a condition,” he said.


Essin glanced around. They hadn’t spoken what they thought and he hadn’t turned around to see their expression.


“Are we done?” they said, “Can I go now?”


“I dunno, can you?” he snorted, exhaled, more piss dropped unsteadily onto the urinal puck, “I’m not going to stop you, but, I mean, do you know what I know?”


The one eye they caught as he looked over his shoulder to meet their gaze drooped and was pink almost to the iris.


“I’m stoned. So what? Who works sober?”


“I’m sorry?”


“Do you know what I know? Like, you know how things are these days, they aren’t exactly safe,” he zipped up his pants, smacked the urinal handle with his forearm. “So it’s important to determine what strangers know if they’re acting suspicious. You’ve never met me. I pee weird. I’m talking to you like I can read your mind. Maybe I can. Do you know? You don’t know shit about me and you’re about to walk away. Pathetic.”


Both blue bloodshot eyes faced them now. He tightened his belt. They stepped back as he leaned to the sink. He washed his hands with soap, watching himself in the mirror. Essin’s hand drifted to their pocket, their wallet.


“I don’t want your money.”


“I—”


He gestured to his chain.


“Use your fucking head. Does it look like I need money?”


That line— something quavered in their frame. Illegal in the marrow.


Essin used their fucking head.


“Oh,” they said.


He was a knowledge auditor.


“A lot of people know to do visual sweeps— if you watch people’s eyes you can tell when someone’s sweeping. Basic sweeps are common knowledge. People do it automatically these days. And I probably would have ignored you if that’s all you’d done. But, you see, you did a blind-spot check, too, which means you know how to spot new corn snakes or new damselflies. And Information Control hasn’t released anything on either of those yet. It’s a Saturn-class Knowledge Hazard. If people knew there were things that could hide in plain sight they’d be pretty upset. And in the underground, nobody has published anything on those, either. The research isn’t finished. This means you haven’t just been reading, someone’s been teaching you. That’s unlawful learning and accessory to unlicensed education.”


He was thorough with the suds. He cleaned his wrists where they wrinkled, massaging the creases with a thumb.


“You ever seen the science on how far piss particles travel? I’d wash my shirt if I could. Now, you have a choice to make,” he said, “At the moment I have a vague idea of what exactly it is that you know, so typical protocol is a severe audit. My people can be here in about three minutes. We’ll take you to a little back room where we keep the scanners and figure out what you’re keeping in your head.”


He glanced from them to his wrist again, “Oh, you know about the scanner limitations. That’s cool, that’s cool, I’ll tell my boys to do an old-fashioned interrogation, then.”


Suds guggled in the drain. He tore brown paper towel from the dispenser and used it to twist the faucet handle. He scrutinized his unblemished face in the mirror. Smoothed the goatee.


“But there’s an alternate protocol we offer to people in your position, with all that prohibited learning, one that the Joint Control Office wants us to opt for though it’s less ideal than interrogation. You see, Animal Control’s had a spate of personnel shortages.”


Essin fought with the knot in their throat and rising vomit.


“There’s a door in behind the grocery store, down a little stairwell. It’s marked ‘authorized personnel only’ in loud red letters. Someone has tacked a lump of white gum to the crotch of the Y in ‘only.’ Guess what? You’re authorized personnel. Go through that door after your shift. You’ll have to walk for a while. You’ll see doors. Each door has two LEDs above the knob— one red, one green. Green is unlocked, red is electrified. Only one door will ever be unlocked. Keep going through unlocked doors until you reach your destination.


“You’ll be putting that illegal knowledge to use for the public good. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. You’ll have four weeks orientation and you’ll pick things up pretty quick so long as you use that fucking head. You’ll be wanting to ask your manager— Honey, right?— for morning or day shifts. Your shift’s at night. If she gives you trouble, we’ll know. Tell what’s her name— Lacie? Tell her that you’re picking up extra shifts to make money. Use your fucking head, and you’ll do fine.”


Essin nodded. The cannon in the parking fired, din cracking through the walls. He dried his hands while the building’s trembling settled.


“Your burger’s ready,” he said. “It didn’t register with the cashier when you said to hold the pickles because she’s been dealing with insomnia. Family fled south from the war and she’s been having flashbacks since the cannon went off. Oh yeah, there’s been a war going on up north for well on twenty years now. One second.” He slipped two fingers into their pocket and plucked out the folded green pamphlet. “You won’t need this. Dog’s Ministry? That Darling asshole has a weird sense of humour.” He chuckled. Then stopped, like his laugh ended with a botched edit, squinted at the paper while his jaws worked in his cheeks. Shook his head. “Gonna have to go in for a goddamn audit myself after this. Motherfucker.” Waved Essin away. “I said your burger’s ready.”


Hands slick and jittering.


Dusk clutched uneasy at the neighbourhood’s exhaustion. The lane behind the grocery store was barren, its dumpsters festered, high hedges hid the transitway. The door was as the auditor said, though he’d omitted the vein-knotted cock-and-balls someone had drawn in white-out by the doorknob. Essin expected the handle to resist. It gave. An ill-lit hallway dwindled an improbable distance ahead of them, lined with a baffling number of identical khaki-painted doors. They stepped inside, hinges squealing shut behind them. Each door handle had a diode over it, most were red, but one was green. This one opened onto another long hallway, dark with the occasional bulb lighting a concrete islet between cold shadows.


Sometimes there was a stairwell, sometimes Essin realized they were heading down a ramp. Soon enough Essin felt as though they were descending into a mine. A tremendous stony mass accumulated above them with each step into that gloom. A private execution chamber, or a torture room, or something worse that they had not even imagined, waited for them. A green light their sole direction, knowing that even if they could bear the doors’ electrocution they’d have no luck finding their way back and they should’ve been counting and memorizing the whole long while.


Essin was almost shocked when a door opened into a booth, hardly bigger than a Walmart changing stall.


Equipment was mounted on the wall, a chipped military chest sat on the floor. A shallow locker for clothes and personal items stood in the corner, with no loop to attach a lock. Opaque and glassy as a rat’s eye, a black-orb camera stared at them from above.


And the mask.


Mounted, centered, like a plutocrat’s prized painting. It gleamed. Sockets boggling with electric sensors, face reflection inverted in the concave nasal triangle, meticulously crafted bicuspids, incisors, and molars. One incisor was eroded by grinding, another was crooked.


They ran their tongue along their teeth and it was then as their tongue struck the rough chip on their own incisor that epiphany hit them like a car wrapping a moose’s leg.


As they ran their left thumb over the steel teeth, they ran their right thumb over the wet teeth in their mouth, and confirmed it: they touched their own skull, cloned in metal.


Outside, a door opened and someone shuffled in the hall. Without thinking (Essin was so relieved that another person interrupted the maze’s coursing silence) they tried the door behind them. It was locked.


They probed the room. Noted the dent in the empty locker back. Hairline fracture in the concrete wall. At last cracked the chest.


Steel boots. Vulcanized rubber kilt and pants. Kevlar undershirt. Articulated armour plates on chest, arms, legs. Insulated gloves. Utility belt. Mechanical temperature regulation backpack. Jump suit shirt.


The suit’s insides smelled like the specific petrichor that comes in April when it rains and there is still snow on the ground, teeming as though the raindrops woke things infesting the soil that winter hadn’t quite extinguished. (Something in that smell comforted them. As though they stood on a fresh season’s precipice.) Inside the suit’s lining was meaty purple, veined with vasculature that squirmed and pulsed like live arteries.


The uniform came with no guide to putting it on, but Essin remembered both Amelia and the auditor telling them to use their fucking head and muddled through. Hands sheathed in gloves, followed by the pants, articulated armor, the kilt. Shoved their head into a kevlar ski mask and the tightly-fitted hood which had three clips for the mask to clamp on— one on the skull’s forward slope and one on each temple.


They removed the mask from its hook on the wall. Its interior was thick with apparatus. Behind the mask, dangling from a string on the same hook, was a small brown pleather case, like the one their father had used to hold the magnifier for looking at details on stones. They were surprised to open it and realize that it wasn’t pleather, but real leather. Inside was an awl with a rounded ironwood handle. Essin stared at it for a moment, the awl’s gleaming point, until they pieced together what it was for: this tool would cut a tally into their second face. Counting was not an informal practice, but a component of their kit— and, therefore, expected. Needles teemed on Essin’s skin but whether it was what they’d understood or some calibration of their armor’s mesentery they couldn’t say.


They wrestled into the suit and pressed their face into the mask. Coolness wriggled from metal. Felt pads waited to accept pressure from their chin, cheeks, and brow. Each clamp’s clack jolted their skull, and they felt a rattle where their teeth met their jaws. The eye holes glowed— small screens, projecting from the outer goggles, implanted a faint tinnitic drill somewhere in the forebrain. It ran through diagnostics, bright white, swirling magenta, midnight blue, noxious green, then to true colours.


The deadbolt clacked behind them. The diode was green. Essin opened the door, spotted another green light at the hall’s end.


It opened onto a briefing room, pale linoleum tiles, gray walls, the same flat void they’d experienced in dozens of community rooms, populated with chipped and battered folding chairs.


About fifty people crowded that underground room, in full controller uniform. AC left the lights off as the cohort shuffled in. After half the new controllers had tripped over their chairs, pawing their way through the room, a voice announced, “Lights will not be activated until all controllers have learned to use their infrareds.” Some controllers fiddled with the dials on their masks and others helped those next to them.


And the lights came on in a flare. Essin scrabbled against the white to set the image being fed to their eyes to true color.


A screen filled the whole front wall. It occurred to Essin that they were watching an image of an image. It flickered briefly. Two logos, Animal Control and the Joint Control Office, over a green meadow, against a blue sky where clouds roamed like serene old sheep. The scene faded to a man whose skin, tight over his uneven peach-pit head, made Essin think of a mildewed sock puppet on an over-large hand. He was lit as though with a single lamp in a basement. His eyes sat in sallow pits— huge and wet, they began by threatening the audience with a sagely wink. He stood in front of the meadow-image. Birdsong played over the speakers.


“It’s true,” he declared, tarantular hands gesturing like an emphatic Italian chef. “It’s true! It really is true, that there are more questions than answers. Am I right? Thanks.”


Essin wasn’t entirely clear on what they were being thanked for.


“What kinds of questions really intrigue you? Have you ever given this question some thought? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. My intention was neither to ask nor to intrigue with a second question, well, to avoid asking you a third question, I’ll just let you read it.”


The speed and incoherence swaddled Essin in gentle confusion. It was cheap. The lighting on his skin said he didn’t belong against his background. But they hardly had time to register that, because at that point, in utter absurdity, in that underground basement encased in exoskeletal kevlar and circuitry and armour, the video footage faded into bright white Helvetica letters on a pale green background:

What is life?


And after a moment the thin man returned.


“May I reiterate the question?”


As panic squeezed their stomach lining Essin wondered what the fuck was going on.


“Thanks. What is life to you? Yes. What is life to you? Controllers, I’m going to give you some time to think about this question. What is life to you? Yes. What is life to you?”


The promise of time shattered as again the screen turned to text, a multiple-choice question:


a. Life is a cabaret.


b. Life is a series of irrelevances, disappointments and pains strung together with a heartbeat.


c. Life is an experience.


d. Life is a symphony.


Having been immersed in Starbucks’ messianic corporate cultishness, Essin already knew the answer. It was ideological substrate for any first-world enterprise that ground people’s lives into money, a substrate that held mummies and remains curved in rigor mortis that time would one day turn to fossils and some future oil baron would turn into air— but their familiarity with its absurd rhetoric rendered them immune to it. It was basic bullshit, everyone learned that, but you had to believe it at some point, if only for an instant, to make living possible. It wasn’t for Essin, moments like this, but for the searchers yearning for a better life, the epiphany that they could choose who they would be and the course their life might take. He’d return, the sock puppet man, and with another wise grin announce that this was a trick question, there was no right answer, their fate was their own and their happiness hinged on how they dared to look at their life.


Essin was wrong and the correct answer was D.


When the man came back, it was with an off-key rendition of “Start Spreading the News” that transitioned halfway through to a bit of “Cabaret” concluding on the high note of, “I’m so glad I joined Animal Control!” He warned the group off “C.” even though it sounded right because they’d be tempted to, “succumb to subscribing to B.” “A” was irrelevant, apparently.


“D” was the correct answer because: “Whether it’s in a major or a minor key, we still have sweeping music bombarding our ears!”


And though Essin thought they ought to be seething in sarcasm, though they’d been with Lacie long enough that some weevil in their flesh understood the intent that sat behind what they were being told, they were so tired, and frightened, and not sure when it was going to end, sitting in a crowd completely alone and faceless, heart jackhammering— so thankful that they still breathed and they weren’t weeping and shitting themself and holding their own broken teeth in their palm in an Information Control van, that they embraced the sock-man’s conclusion.


Parts within that had long fallen still were oiled, segments of self filmed in dust were brushed off, cleaned and restored. They believed they’d been given a serious question and that they were being given an opportunity to re-evaluate their life and maybe Lacie’s cynicism and the cynicism they’d adopted was just a crass exoskeleton in which something softer and more important and maybe capable of something had been pressing to get out, to spread its wings like a goddamn butterfly and soar around helping flowers fuck so thriving green homogenous meadows might usurp the Earth’s many wastelands.


“With apologies to Mr. Shakespeare, if music be the food of life, control on!


But all the previous statements, the questions posed to their etiolated spirit, were build-up to that first orientation’s ultimate question.


“What is a Controller?”


He waited, sallow face in full grinning rictus and flush with fatherly knowledge their own father had never seemed to hold, as though he was by some unseen means watching his students through the screen, and tracking his audience’s expressions through their masks.


“Someone who brings about life in the neighbourhood!”


A slide phased in over him and for a moment he was a ghost against the words, CONTROL IS LIFE!


“This is because control is life!”


And it seemed so stunning in that moment, that they’d never realized that there a distinction between faith and belief, that worship was a shape that could act without an object, and without knowing it Essin had become a part of that faith, that worship, armored in a concrete cave cut in the suburban soil— their whole life this had been the absent piece from their jangling sense of what existence ought to be.


“Your guns are waiting for you,” he’d returned. “Let me be the first to walk you through how to use them.”


Wetness slid through their lips, salt graced their tongue, and it wasn’t with horror but because they were resting with a leviathan, which, though they’d long dreaded it, had set a kind hand on their shoulder and made a gentle offer: perhaps you can be happy.


***


Pictures rattled in their frames in the landlord’s house and the rattling carried downstairs. Essin hardly felt the cannon thud through the profound and anxious rest that swallowed them each night after they stumbled home from orientation.


Lacie told Essin that she was going to have to start working early morning shifts in receiving at Indigo. The Christmas busy season started early at the bookstore, and rollouts were scheduled near-nightly and inventory wouldn’t track itself. (Sunny Sunday had slaughtered the once thriving web of online fulfillment that had animated commerce at the millennium’s turn, drones stilling and servers broiled and GPS satellites fried. Retail, ratty and resilient, was glutted with necessities it now filled.)


Essin hid relief with a kiss and Lacie mistook it for a gesture of despair.


“It’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s just for a little while.” Grayness pressed its thumbs into Lacie’s eyes and she sizzled with preoccupation. If she sensed Essin’s terror it didn’t translate to a comforting gesture and Essin wasn’t sure anyway if that’s what they craved. As though to be touched too well meant they’d be found out.


Refugees trickled in, trickle thickened to a stream. They came from little tourist towns, places for antique marts and farmer’s markets and weddings evacuated as they were being leveled. Thin agricultural centers smudged out, the bare four-street places where you could order magic mushrooms on your pizza. Once-steady soil had risen to claim their homes. Animal Controllers escorted them, silver masks gleaming in the sun as they rode on jittering jeeps and motorbikes.


(Essin pictured the dirt revolting. Tremors didn’t reach into Animal Control’s maze, the cannon fire fell well beneath perception that far underground— or was drowned by clatter in the firing range as Essin obliterated paper targets with a blunderbuss.)


Animal Control barricaded countryside roads. People limped in on foot, their possessions in backpacks or dragged behind them in suitcases, gazing dead-eyed at the neighbourhood’s plastic housing blocks. The Sportsplex closed. Indoor fields became hives of tents and sleeping bags. Community centers fell under information quarantine, barricaded behind tall concrete and barbed wire. Sometimes children’s voices leapt over the walls and children in the outer neighbourhood would toss balls or frisbees in for them to play with. Any building half-used became a compound. A blurring patrolled their perimeters— they were Animal Controllers, they had the insignia for AC and notched masks but as Essin passed on their way home from orientation, Information Control vans stood nearby, and notices from IC were pasted to the building walls. Essin thrilled as their thoughts flickered on whether the two departments were brought together by cooperation or antagonism.


Perhaps the people there were tainted with something from the new animals. Secrecy blistered over them. Animal Control shot down a civilian glider that went out to investigate the countryside, and the incident was quick elided by the news. Omissions foamed, holes turning moments to marrow.


Now when in lulls Essin leaned out the drive-through window they spotted caravans. Animal Control AVPGs rolling out to vanish in the haze. Beyond the neighbourhood, they broke from the road and crushed the crops, threw dust high in autumn’s dry air. Jet planes screeched overhead and helicopters thundered low over the box stores. Hearts jackhammered. Nerves tugged taut. Time bled and waking and sleeping each became hard to distinguish from the other.


Cars could hardly steer in the drive-through. Essin scalded their hands and spilled drinks and made them wrong and then made them again. Autumn morning light reddened by artillery pollution.


The Chief, recorded, addressed Essin and their cohort at their last orientation session before they’d, in his words, “Hit the pavement.”


“Well, folks, it seems our cities are in a state that some people of a more cowardly colouring consider perilous. However, as this country’s commander, let me tell you, that the Chief sees no peril. He sees only challenges. Now, you might have heard rumours about these creatures. I can’t say much but these things are rough and tough, let me tell you, just ridiculous, but they are in the final analysis just animals. I’m optimistic that we’ll prevail. We don’t know what they were, so we just call them grootslangs. You folks are going to provide a necessary service in supporting our Controllers fighting the grootslangs— and don’t worry, we won’t be tossing just any volunteers out to fight them. (That means you.) No, Animal Control is being given military resources to address our friends in the countryside. The best of this country’s best are on the front lines, right now, the very horizons of our new, our golden epoch. And you people have been give the noblest job: protecting the home front! Good luck out there, and remember, the chief’s got your back!”


Summer at last succumbed to coolness. Essin dressed in fleece, and Lacie closed the basement window against the chilly night. They collapsed together without saying a word. Lacie’s fingers ran gentle on their belly for a while, then fell still.


The next day was their first patrol. Their suit had been sprayed with an insignia: a dung beetle rolling a skull— since the volunteer corps was called the Dung Beetles. Their number was also sprayed to the chest and the temperature pack on their back: 383—their name when they wore that suit.


***


A calico tabby watched them from the bushes. 383 kneeled and flickered their fingers because they knew turning on their mask’s external speaker would just make horror sounds that would spook her away. They set their lenses to true colour and she was watching them back with an eye that was green and an eye that was gray. Dusk plucked at the neighbourhood’s fatigue. The other controllers in their unit were sweeping a playground, kicking the sand and swatting at the bushes. 383 reached out their hand to the cat, her colours, and she watched them, scraggled, scabbed, ribby. A stray. She opened here pink mouth and yowled. A tooth was missing.


“It’s ok,” Essin muttered, knowing she wouldn’t hear but believing perhaps that just saying it would transfer something the cat could understand into their body, “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.”


She had a spot on her nose, blinked slow at Essin. Ran her whiskers against their fingertips and even through the suit they felt her purring. One eye was closed and the other was open and watched them.


And her body began to shiver. 383 assumed at first it was just a cat gesture, something suddenly spurring her to bristle, a sound or smell that didn’t register on their mask’s many sensors. But the quaking mounted, bulges moved beneath her skin, like her bones crawled into new positions. If she was in pain she made no noises. No. Her purring mounted as 383 withdrew their hand. She stood, she stretched, she rubbed her shaking whiskers against the lowest prongs of the brush. Plates moved in her head, its shape was changing, flattening sideways, gray eye shut and green eye widening, fixed on them. Something cracked the air, nearby, not gunshot or cannon. They felt a brief heat, like a candle-flame, over their heart. Something hot and wet trickled in their suit and they realized it was their temperature because it was blood.


They understood then, its neck growing longer, eye migrating, mouth bending to a pointed v, that they were witnessing a replacement. On their first fucking patrol.


History would mark this among the most abrupt and comprehensive replacements. Not just house cats recast but the whole cat family, worldwide, in a single strike. 383’s heart would’ve been erased by the new cat’s eye if the transformation had been complete, for the new cat’s eyes could make holes wherever they looked. The calico’s green eye boiled, black pupil wide, glowing in the lowering light, as 383 ran, hailing the crew, the book worms who listened and recorded, the silent brains folded together at the Cephalon, wherever it was down in the mycelium, “New cats!” they shouted into the mic, “New cats! I just saw one, the cats are new!”


“This is Cephalon. Reviewing Dung Beetle 383 facial observation footage. Pending. Confirmed. Dung Beetle Unit Four One Two please circle up, terminate, bring sample to designated mycelium drop-off point.”


The controllers, grim reapers, gathered around the half-new cat: still mid-morph, limbs longer now and thin as wires, body bunched together, face now formed like a gun with a single eye as its muzzle— enemy guns aimed at it where it stood.


Essin was not the target for the second shot: it was the controller next to them. They fell face-forward, dead, a perfect hole scooped from the center of their face to make a clean concavity. While Essin watched another controller howled over the comms, “My arm! My fucking arm!”


And Essin wasn’t sure who spoke and it took them a moment to catch that their colleague’s arm was dangling, held in place by a flap of armpit skin— like an ice cream spoon had removed their shoulder. “What the fuck!”


And the half-new cat bolted, scrambling up a pine tree (blast, pale wood, resin) the whole squad shooting now to kill it (howl on the comms) and it leapt to the next tree (she leapt to the next tree) onto a fence, took one last shot, and vanished into a backyard.


Essin heaved breaths.


“Dung Beetle Unit Four One Three report.”


They waited for a colleague to pick up.


“DB Four One Three, please report.”


They waited. Nobody answered. They looked around. It had been a unit of seven and four were dead and the other two were clutching at stumps where limbs had been and 383 knew from the blood puddles where they writhed those two would probably be dead soon.


They stumbled. Finding words seemed like pressing through a thorny bramble.


“Casualties,” they croaked. “Six.”


Returning home from that first field shift. They’d waited until an AC ambulance arrived and their unit’s leftovers vanished into its back. HQ crackled directions over a radio to link them with another unit attempting to capture a new cat, without success. They ground their teeth, shuddered. Turned a corner and saw a decapitated torso. A shootout with a litter of new kittens was underway. Far away three cars exploded as a stray new cat shot hit them. The suit’s strong smell: dirt bombarded by rain. Their earlier nostalgia numbed them.


Lacie was asleep and they pressed themself to her, wrapped around her as well as they could, but her body wouldn’t respond save through the thin air between her lips that tickled their fingers.


As they wrestled with sleep Essin would perhaps reason that this was their opportunity for purpose, the crawling doubts that chewed their life since they’d left high school at last loosed their slimy gums. Perhaps something hovered over, a sense that there would be consequences if the rules, stated by the fortplex’s construction, were violated. Its mycelium being a maze implied forbidden hearts and paths that must be adhered to, hazards outside sight, potential oubliettes. Essin didn’t know whether or not there were punishments or if people who didn’t arrive to work simply disappeared to be replaced.


But pressing into the lavender shirt that smelled so much like Lacie’s skin Essin was keen and sure that they’d return to the labyrinth. They rose, put a pot on for camomile tea. Perhaps another night they would need sleep. Decided to shower while it cooled. They were a protector now, whether they had chosen it or not. Opportunities for a purposeful life sprayed at their feet. They needed only stoop to catch them.


A cannon cracked against the sky and ambulances wept all night bearing the dead and wounded and those with stumps and missing limbs to the hospitals. In the shower Essin touched the wet pink wound over their heart, the place where their skin had just barely been shaved away mid-metamorphosis by the new cat. With a loofah they scrubbed the clotted blood from the down running from their chest to their belly, with fingernails worked the scabs from their pubic hair.


They were glad for Lacie’s distance that night. They pictured her fingers brushing the wound and asking after its origin and being unable to improvise a plausible lie. It was the kind of thing she was good at, coming up with a fib on the spot.


Essin imagined asking Lacie What’s the best way I can lie to you? Then chuckled.


“What’s funny?” she muttered.


“Go back to sleep.”


Addendum:


She came from a different valley, a place where, prior to the glaciers’ expansive crawl over the earth, other lions had thrived. But then people showed up and extinguished lions and all megafauna save, somehow, the elephants. Deer replaced their terror of lions with a terror of the forked denuded hunters that pursued them with arrows through the brush.


Millennia passed. The forest churned and grew, its limbs fanned out and its wooden bodies made new topsoils and probed deep through the earth to underground waters. Far away cities blossomed and farther still picks tore open the earth and heaved fragmented fossilized tree-bodies from carboniferous swamps and turned those mummies into atmosphere. Then they looked to the oil for the same ends and its precipitates became the sky. Fantastic heat came soon after, pressing over continents, and the seas’ high waters bobbed with pale-bellied fishes whose rot sustained bristlemouths surviving far below. Woodlands blazed and in the high arctic a freakish war raged. In that era, the battalion came to the lions’ valley. They were police officers and former soldiers and international mercenaries. A bauxite mine was slated to demolish the woods and infest the rivers with runoff. Indigenous guerrillas were obstructing development with bombs and sabotage. The ragtag regiment had its core in a brigade of elite soldiers who’d fought in high mountainsides: feral, bearded, and tattooed. They brought with them their mascot, a lioness.


Though she had never met another lion since her birth, once in the valley it became clear she was pregnant. The veterinarian they had flown in could only conclude that it was divine conception. In town a few crazier locals claimed they’d seen the valley sun take the shape of a shivering yellow ghost lion and sneak into her cage. And while few of the soldiers were superstitious, the regiment accepted this conclusion, even the pasty mercenaries continuing their tundra wars seemed unsurprised, but in this balmy country little was reported about the biological anomalies they’d confronted above the tree line.


The lioness whelped a single pup. From the day of her birth her coat was golden. Her eyes were like clear amber. Right from the get-go, those at her birth knew that as long as this lion was a part of the battalion, they would win every fight and it was just a matter of time before the guerrillas were quashed.


She was, after all, born with a mane.


She grew through creeping years, seasons of tense, rain-soaked solitudes pierced by vicious episodes where gore painted wet forest leaves and feral infantry emptied magazines into dead insurgents, dry ages when the woodland creaked from the heat and the battalion went on sprees after guerrilla encampments, raping whoever they could and lashing corpses to trees as warnings. Soldiers cheered and saluted the lion, passing alongside her mother. She grew to be enormous, a cat like no one had ever seen. At its lowest point, her back rose higher than the tallest man’s shoulders, and her mane spread like sun-bolts through disintegrating clouds.


On the day her mother was slain (insurgents had surrounded the camp and bombarded it with rocket propelled grenades) the maned lioness charged into the attackers’ ranks without hesitation and slaughtered twenty guerrillas, leaving three alive with broken legs as prisoners she dragged to the colonel’s tent, where they were tortured for weeks until they died.


That colonel was Colonel Ashbrecht. He was a pale soldier from the north and he was on loan from his government, whose sponsors had purchased a stake in the bauxite mine. It was deemed Joint Control Office business and while he was here to train the garrison in counter-insurgency, he often joined the trainees in the jungle. And while he was suspicious of animals from having seen them transform, he understood the lion and understood why she was important and had the mother lion burned on a pyre with the other casualties.


As the meat-smoke and wood burned around him and the brooding sky threatened another deluge he bellowed to the soldiers, “We’re going to fuck them to death!” And they cheered.


The daughter took her place as the company mascot.


Ashbrecht didn’t have an opportunity to finish fucking the guerrillas to death (though many met this fate in the following months) before he was recalled again to Canada. The JCO was confronted with their own indigenous resistance rising up in Athabasca. Their management efforts were unpopular and they needed hatchet men.


A new colonel came. He was a dirty bastard. He ate little, liked young women, hated animals. He seemed disgusted at the sight of the maned lioness and called her a hermaphrodite. She answered his hatred by shaking her mane. And he answered her defiance by isolating her in a cage, feeding her nothing but chicken bones flecked with gristle no matter how much the regiment protested and warned him that it would bring bad luck.


So one evening, while the general was trying to mount a girl he’d picked up from a guerrilla encampment in the woods, the lioness burst into his tent and mauled him. She didn’t kill him, though anyone who knew him before would be hard-pressed to recognize him through the scars. He was paralyzed from the neck down for the rest of his life, his face a stitched mess grafted from skin on his ass that grew scraggled hairs. It was rumored that he sustained a substantial injury to his groin. The girl escaped back to the woods, blood-baptised but alive.


An extensive search was undertaken to find who had unlocked her cage, but no guilty party was found. Suspicions mounted that she’d managed to pick the lock with her claws.


A truck arrived from the bauxite mine. The lioness was sedated, and carried away to a veterinarian for execution.


That very day it was as though the jungle in fury uprooted itself and fell on them. Guerrillas flanked the regimental base from the woods. When it was clear they were being overwhelmed the acting colonel declared a retreat but all roads were blocked by toppled trees and so they could only flee to the woods where the regiment scattered to be slaughtered to the man.


The lion escaped. The truck that was meant to carry her to her death was discovered overturned in a ditch, her captors evaporated.


For many years she vanished, assumed swallowed by the trees, until a lion matching her description appeared at a circus, even larger, amid a host of lesser lions, who bowed in her presence. Even the lion tamer, a man famed for his pride, showed polite diffidence in her presence. At that circus, she caught the eye of a lumber tycoon and part-time criminal who was traveling abroad. He collected exotic animals. He made the ringmaster very rich and brought the lion to his home in Canada, where she was treated as a fellow prince and business partner for years on an estate not far from the suburb where Essin lived.


When the old man died in his bed, the lion lost all attachment to the place, and leaped over the walls of the mansion, vanishing into the countryside while panicking servants called Animal Control— who stated they were occupied with new animals, and that this was more a matter for the police, who said it was a matter for Animal Control.


While 383 some miles away crouched and looked at a starved calico cat in the bushes, the lion crouched in the forest. It was dusk and the woods were rich with life. She even heard centipedes rustle in the leaf litter. The moon fell on her shoulders. She closed one eye. Her body grew long, her limbs wiry and bunched, her face elongating to something like a cannon.


Through her replacement, her pelt stayed gold as the sun, her mane flowed back from the gunnish thing that was her face.


Beneath her feet the ground rumbled, heartbeats thudding and hammering, tectonic breathing. She sensed it. The transformation that took her came with coded instructions in her brain on how to use her body. It was almost as though this potential shape had lurked inside her throughout her existence and it only took this moment to discover what she knew already. The deadly organ that made a spear of absences also let her see through the earth, the roaming things deep in the clay’s clutches, probing upwards, pulled by sympathetic thunder from suburban cannons.


Her great eye roved.


She roared.


Around her the leaves and trunks and boughs erupted with holes as though subjected to a barrage of bullets.