Zee (Part 2)

2032 – 2034

Her earliest memories were of her sisters. Confusing sensations of warmth, strong scents, the coarse texture of dark fur. She had no words for what she experienced – just snatches of ideas and half-understood instincts. She remembered grooming the others, picking feebly at their fur, and waiting for them to reciprocate, but receiving only token gestures in return. They were weak, her sisters. When the nipple of the feeding tube was presented they suckled only fitfully before lapsing back into lethargy. As she grew older and stronger, she instinctively pulled away from them. Their smells, once familiar and comforting, began to nauseate her. She no longer felt kinship with them at all. They were sickly, broken things, to be avoided. Eventually, they were removed from her presence and she soon forgot them entirely.

Later, her small world began to coalesce around her. The bars of the cot in the corner of the white room that demarked the limits of her visual universe. Its smell was disconcerting. She snuffled around her environment, trying to pick up anything familiar, anything she was able to interpret. Her gaze roamed restlessly, seeking for the face of a thing she had no name for, a thing that was supposed to comfort and protect her, a thing she’d never known. Her nimble fingers explored too, picking at the mechanisms on the cot. At three months old, she had figured out the hinge and was found sprawled on the smooth floor of the lab, mewling softly to herself.

That was her first encounter with one of the Hairless Ones. When she felt arms beneath her, she reached out with an intuition she didn’t understand, seeking comfort in the arms of a creature she half-recognised. But when she looked up into the face of the one holding her, she recoiled. It was pale, flat, featureless and devoid of hair. She knew, somewhere in her overlarge brain that they were not of the same kind. Nonetheless, apart from her lost sisters, this was the only contact with another creature she had yet known in her short life.

She had no perception of time. Each day was much like any other and she watched the outside world from within her cot, now securely locked against her probing touch, dimly aware that she was lacking something fundamental to her being. One day, with considerable effort, she pulled herself up to her feet with the aid of the bars. Her gait was splayed and unsteady, but she remained on her hind legs. She stretched out with her long ungainly arms, reaching for something. She didn’t know what.

“It looks like a chimpanzee to me, Haruko,” the male Hairless One said. She couldn’t understand his words; indeed, could never acquire complex language at all. But she recognised that the noises coming from his mouth were a kind of communication, like a call. So she watched his thin, expressionless lips open and close, a puzzled frown on her face.

“You should take a zoology course, Matsumura. Look at how she stands. Look at the shape of her face.”

“She’s small.”

“The whole litter were weak. We expected that. Her siblings didn’t even survive a month. But she’s not even fully grown yet. In a year or two, she’ll be almost five feet tall based on my projections. Bigger than any chimpanzee.”

“This is your experiment, Haruko. And if you want funding, you’re going to have to produce something more interesting than an upright ape. The Diet are already talking about shutting us down over this. A law to extend the ban on human cloning to hybrids is working its way through the House of Representatives right now, or don’t you watch the news?”

“If that law passes…”

“It’ll endanger half the projects in this building.” He jabbed a finger in the female’s chest and she bared her long canines at the display. He stank of aggression, and of something else. “So turn this freakshow into something we can sell. Understand?”

“She’s not a freakshow.” The male had already turned his back though in a clear display of contempt. She hooted from her cot. A warning, but he just stared at her with an expression that meant nothing to her.

“Haruko.” That was the sound the female Hairless One made when she put her hand against her chest. “Har-oo-ko.” She sounded it out over and over, continually pointing at herself as she stared earnestly over the edge of the cot at her. “Har-oo-ko.”

She drew her lips back and let her tongue loll out. “Haaa…” she said.

“That’s me. I’m Haruko. Can you understand me?”

She stared at the Hairless One. Her calls meant nothing to her. But she imitated her movements, putting one of her own clumsy hands against her fury chest. “Haaa…oh…”

The Hairless One clapped her hands and her odd little mouth drew up in a kind of smile. She responded in kind and clapped her hands too. “I’m Haruko. Me.” She patted her chest again. “Har-oo-ko. Me.”

“Ee…” She copied the motion again, slapping her chest. “Haa…ee…” She blew out her lips, then spread them wide. “Sh…eee…Haa…sheee…”

“It sounds like she’s trying to say ‘chimpanzee’” the male said. He was standing further back.

“Shee! Shee!”

“See? ‘Chimpanzee’. She knows it too.”

“Shee!” The noise was fun to make. She danced around her cot, waving her arms over her head. “Shee! Shee!” There was something pleasing about the sibilance as her spit burbled through her lips. She said it over and over and the female made an odd braying noise.

“She’s saying ‘zee’ anyway. She seems to like it.” It stuck, and when they made the same noise, she learned to respond. It was her name. Zee.

Zee grew fast. Eventually the cot became constrictive and, like her sisters, it was taken away, to be forgotten soon. She lived in a little closed off area in the lab, and was given things to look at and play with. Brightly coloured objects she found mystifying and not a little discomfiting. Some made noises, which would cause her to suffer a spasm of panic. She would fling them as far away as she could and hoot uncontrollably, walking around in a circle and waving her arms, searching for that elusive concept for which she had no name. She’d scrabble desperately at the smooth white walls.

“She wants to climb,” the female who said har-oo-ko said to the male.

“She’s never seen a tree in her life.”

“Zee is a transitional form. She may not be a true Australopithecus, but she is stuck between two worlds in the same way. She is a more modern analogue of the ancient lungfish.”

“Lungfish?”

“The ancestors of the first land vertebrates. Fish that crawled from the shallow lagoons of the Devonian Earth. For aeons, they remained of both worlds and neither. So it was with the hominids of four million years ago. The planet was cooling rapidly, locking liquid water into the icecaps for the first time in hundreds of millennia. The land was drying out. The great forests of primordial Africa receded and gave way to savannah. Australopithecus was a response to that changing environment; upright, to spot predators in the grasslands, but still very much belonging to the trees. Most likely they lived on the fringes of the vanishing forest, hunting and foraging in the open, but returning to arboreal nests at night. Zee, like them, is adapted to climb, not to run. When she’s scared, she tries to retreat upwards.”

“Interesting…”

Zee was moved to another room, much like the laboratory but now solely for her and a habitat was constructed, a sort of assemblage of textured clay pipes in a fractal pattern reaching up to the ceiling. After a little exploration, Zee divined the purpose of the strange objects and hooted in pleasure as she scrambled up one of the thicker stems and into a crook that seemed built just for her. It felt good to be up off the ground. She slapped the pipes with the flat of her hands and opened her mouth wide, calling out her name over and over. The Hairless female clapped and brayed, and Zee did the same.

She slept much better up there, and they scattered the floor with things that smelt right to her, bark and twigs, and hung leaves from the ceiling. Each night she’d assemble a rough nest from the material in her habitat and curl up in it. And each morning, on waking, she’d tear it apart. The next night she repeated it all again, moving to a different spot. She didn’t know why she did this, but she did it anyway.

When she got bigger, the Hairless female spent more time with her. She’d try to get her to imitate her calls, with moderate success, and then showed her how to use certain tools. Zee took to this well. Unlike the brightly coloured objects that had scared her when she was younger, these things were dull, simple things made out of wood or stone. She cradled them in one of her wide, black hands and peered at them with interest. She felt as if she could puzzle them out if she stared hard enough at them, but eventually she’d get frustrated and throw them away, then retreat sullenly to her nest. In the morning, they were forgotten, and they’d start again. Still, some of the simpler tools had their uses. One day, her food was in a white thing. She could the pieces of fruit in it, but when she tried to grab at it, her hand met resistance. She worked at it for hours, throwing the box around the room, then simply took it up to her nest in hopes that it would somehow yield its secrets to her overnight. Eventually, after becoming very hungry the next day, she returned to the ground and found some of the Hairless female’s tools lying around. Holding the box of food in one hand, she crouched down and ran her fingers across the objects. There was something itching at the back of her head. She called out, wailing for someone to help her, saying her name over and over, then resorting to “Ha-oo-oh! Ha-oo-oh!” No one came. It took many more hours of considered thought until she finally began experimenting with the tools and, eventually, through long trial and error, found that the long thin one fit into a cavity in the box that caused it to snap open. She devoured the fruit greedily, then threw the empty box away and showed off her canines.

“You should have let me just show her how to do it,” the Hairless female said the following day as she presented Zee with another box. This time she opened it right away with the precious tool. She’d taken it to that night’s nest with her, in case she lost it. “She’s shown a strong capacity for imitation. In the wild, her mother or older siblings would have taught her how to use tools by now.”

“‘In the wild?’” said the male. “Remember, Haruko, this is an engineered animal. She has no natural environment.” He tried to take the tool from Zee, but she clutched it close to herself absently as she picked at the sweet fruit in the box and pawed it into her mouth.

“She seems pretty attached to the key now anyway…”

The male showed his teeth, but Zee had learned this wasn’t intended to be an aggressive display. He never smelled aggressive, this male. “Exactly. We had to see how quickly she could learn, how intelligent she really was. Even a monkey can be taught to repeat an action, to use simple tools. But actually improvising the use of one without instruction takes a much more impressive intellect. And look how she took it to bed with her – she can plan for the future, Haruko, or at least for tomorrow.”

“Well what did you expect?” The female, in contrast to the other Hairless One, did sound aggressive. Zee looked from one to the other with interest. “And since when did this become our experiment, Matsumura?”

“Since it became promising. She’s intelligent, Haruko. She can use tools, instinctively, and she can almost understand us.”

“That’s a bit of a leap. But I believe she would be capable of complex communication with others of her kind. If her sisters had survived…she’s a social animal, like us, like chimpanzees, and like prehistoric Australopithecus. I don’t believe she can reach her full potential alone.”

“There’s no law standing in our way – that Representative who visited a year or two back helped us with that – but we need to show the value of this work if you want to breed more Zees, Haruko.”

“Value?” Zee’s ears pricked up at the female’s tone and she stopped with a piece of fruit poised in her lips. She drew her mouth back and hissed softly.

“Zee’s smart. She can be taught to perform tasks. She could be useful, as could others of her kind.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“Just keep doing what you’re doing, Haruko. Keep training her. Let’s see what Zee can become.”

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