Zee didn’t know where her instinct to groom came from and, of course, did not have the introspective ability required to ask that question of herself. She retained no memory of her long-dead sisters, and no parent had ever taught her to do it, but she nonetheless reached out unbidden to any creature to whom she wished to demonstrate affection. Though she had felt no kinship with the Har-oo-ko female Hairless, the time they had spent together had begun to create a bond of some kind and, bereft of any of her kind, Zee began to reach out tentatively, tugging gently at her smooth white body with her fingertips. It felt wrong, not like hair or even skin. Har-oo-ko looked at her as she picked again and again, frowning in consternation as her grip found no purchase.
“Clothes, Zee,” she said, and while Zee listened intently to the noises coming from her mouth, they were still meaningless to her. “Look.” She tugged at the skin on her head and Zee let out a yelp as it slid down her back and disappeared, revealing sleek dark hair instead. “See? I have hair, like you. See?”
Har-oo-ko took her hand and placed it gently on her head. Zee pursed her lips as her fingers dug into her scalp experimentally.
“Ow! Gently, Zee!”
She snatched her hand away with a whimper, but Har-oo-ko led her back again and moved her fingers more slowly so that she got the idea. Soon she was happily tugging at her hair, sifting through it lightly, picking at imaginary ticks, for her short black bob was of course completely clean.
It became a daily ritual, this bonding. Zee was happier than she’d ever been. Although she hadn’t known it, she had been desperately lonely. Both parts of her heritage were evolved to thrive in small troupes of closely related and physically affectionate individuals. She craved this contact, deep in whatever version of a soul she possessed. Har-oo-ko spent a lot of time with her, and while she occasionally tried to teach Zee new things and studied her while she put her fingers onto her funny glowing rectangle, mostly they would just sit together quietly. They shared bowls of fruit at meal times.
One day the male Hairless One found them sitting underneath one of Zee’s trees like that. “You’re spending a lot of time here.” Zee looked closely at his mouth as he spoke. Sometimes she thought she could understand some of what he was saying. Har-oo-ko was always chattering away about things, sometimes hooting in that funny way she did if Zee discovered something new she was able to do. She had learned to read her emotions and respond to them in kind. In a way, they could communicate. But the male was still a mystery to Zee. He only came here sometimes, and his calls often sounded quite different in tone to the scents he gave off. Zee found him extremely perplexing, when she gave him any thought at all which, to be honest, was only when he was in the same room as her. Anything not immediately visible to her was of only nominal importance and the world outside the room was not even a possibility she had considered.
“It’s nice here.” Har-oo-ko’s pale, stubby hands ran through the bark chippings on the floor. “Where else can I find this kind of thing?”
“Yes, well, it costs enough to maintain it.” He walked over to them both and peered down at Zee. She returned his gaze flatly. She was crouched comfortably on the floor, next to Har-oo-ko, who was sitting cross-legged. There was a shallow tub with a bunch of bananas in it between them, which they alternately grazed from. Har-oo-ko did a funny thing where she took off the outside of it and just ate the mushy pulp in the middle. Zee simply bit into them and ate them bitter skin and all. “Bananas? Really? Isn’t that a bit of a cliché?”
“She loves them, and so do I. And you, I expect. Almost everyone does. It’s in our DNA.”
“I’m sure I’d eat fresh fruit every day if I could afford it, Haruko…”
“Don’t take that tone.” She held up a banana to him. Zee’s eyes followed it hungrily. “Did you know that bananas are all clones?”
“They reproduce asexually. Even before they were cultivated thousands of years ago. That’s why they all taste the same, depending on ripeness. Bananas are reliable. We assume they were first farmed by humans at the birth of agriculture, but they predate almost any other crop we grow. I have a personal theory.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
She showed her teeth. Zee knew that meant she was happy and she clambered up to her feet and clapped her hands while pulling back her own lips and baring her canines in imitation. Har-oo-ko rubbed the fur on her belly. “I like to think that early hominids enjoyed wild bananas so much that, over thousands of years, they adopted a mutual survival strategy. The hominids only ate bananas with the smallest seeds, spreading them around, and destroyed plants whose fruit they found unpalatable. In turn, the bananas began to lay basal shoots and reproduce asexually instead, and the hominids – perhaps unconsciously – altered their environment to encourage this. Eventually, the bananas stopped producing seeds entirely and became clones, surviving solely by hominid cultivation.”
“And that’s why we like them so much? Because all those Zees in our ancestry did too?”
“More or less.” Har-oo-ko peeled her banana and took a satisfied bite of it.
Every day was much like the last for Zee and she was content. At night she built her nests and missed her companion fiercely, but in the morning she was back again and life resumed. She grew big and strong, and learned more and more. She used tools easily now, and could understand some of the Hairless Ones’ simpler calls. She performed small tricks for their amusement and, if she managed to stumble across something new she did her best to remember it until Har-oo-ko was around so she could show it to her. She would bray and clap and reward her with more bananas.
The male was excited by something, and she could sense the same from Har-oo-ko too. When he next visited, they chattered quietly off in the corner and, suddenly, she jumped up and wrapped her arms around him. Zee watched this display from a crook in her artificial branches. It looked like a kind of mating dance to her, even though she had no real understanding of what that meant aside from an odd feeling between her legs as she peered at them from beneath her heavy brow. Even from this distance, she could see the sexual aggression in the male’s movements – oddly, that was something she could understand instinctively, as if he were the same as her, though she knew he obviously wasn’t – but Har-oo-ko did not respond in the same way. Zee frowned slightly, wondering at the strangeness of the Hairless Ones’ habits.
Har-oo-ko was very happy after that. She talked at Zee even more than before. “We have funding, my darling. Hoshi-Wójcik are going to go public with the results of this experiment – with you, Zee!”
“Zee! Zee!” she hooted, clapping her hands. And then there was another banana that she devoured almost whole.
One night, Har-oo-koo stayed late in the room with her, even after she’d built her nest. Zee was pleased about that. It was dangerous to be alone at night, she felt in some dim corner of her mind. She’d sleep better with her friend close by. But then the male arrived and he had a box of things in his hand that made an odd clinking noise. He and Har-oo-ko each took one of the things as they sat at the base of the Zee’s tree and put them in their mouths. As she watched them sleepily, she decided it was some kind of water, but the smell of it made her nose wrinkle. They talked in hushed voices, just a low murmur in her ears. It comforted her, even if the male’s presence wasn’t as appreciated as Har-oo-ko’s.
“We can breed as many as we like, Haruko.”
“Clone more Zees, you mean?”
“We only need to clone one more. She’s not sterile like a mule.”
“You want her to have a mate?”
“I don’t know…I think of her as a child…”
“She isn’t though. She’s nearly fully-grown. She’s smart and she’s strong. She has the power to change the world.”
“Think about it, Haruko: she’s the beginning of something wonderful. We can make more than this quasi-Australopithecus if we want. We believe we’re reaching the limits of what we can achieve with artificial intelligence, so what if instead of being served by machines we were served by races of hominids? Homo erectus runners driving power stations, Neanderthal labourers or soldiers. Zees cultivating the forests. We might eliminate the need for humans to work.”
“That sounds a lot like slavery, Matsumura.”
“Are farm animals slaves? Cart horses? Pet dogs and cats? These aren’t humans, no matter how close you feel to Zee. They only have instinct, not sentience. I’m not suggesting we treat them cruelly.”
“It just feels…strange…”
“Well then, let me put it this way: when we go unveil Zee to the world tomorrow, you and I are going to become rich and famous. Maybe an end to human toil is a pipe dream, but we’ll never have to work another day in our lives.”
“Come on, Haruko. Relax a little. Have another drink.”
“It’s fine. We’re celebrating.”
Zee watched how he moved. Up close, the stink of his sexual arousal was very strong, so much so that even she found it distracting. She’d noticed that the Hairless Ones’ sense of smell was strangely stunted though. Har-oo-ko couldn’t even smell her faeces and always seemed surprised and disgusted whenever she accidentally sat on it put her hand in a pile of her droppings. Har-oo-ko was not responding to his display. He put his arm around her shoulders, like he was trying to initiate grooming, but she shifted away. He was being rejected. Zee closed her eyes, satisfied the situation had been resolved.
“Come on, what’s the problem?”
“I’ve only had a couple.”
“Just…let’s call it a night, okay?”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I said no.”
“Look, I’m your boss. Don’t you want to be successful?”
“Please, take your hand off my leg.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t like it. Come here.”
Zee’s eyes popped open. In the shadows underneath her nest, the two Hairless Ones were grappling. The male still smelt of sex, but Har-oo-ko’s scent was laced with panic and aggression. She was calling, and the tone was universal across hominids. Zee pulled herself upright and stood on the branch. She couldn’t interpret what she was seeing and smelling. Har-oo-ko’s rejection was absolutely clear, so why was he still trying to mate with her? What did he hope to achieve? Zee had no lexicon for the behaviour of her species in her brain; she was the only living example of her hybrid kind, but the revulsion at the mismatch she was witnessing was deeply encoded in both halves of herself.
Har-oo-koo was in danger. Har-oo-ko was her friend and, though they were not of the same species, she was the closest thing she had to a troupe. Her troupe was in danger. A member of it was being attacked by a male from a rival troupe. Instinct kicked in. Zee was smart and strong. She dropped from her branch with an ear-splitting screech and landed on the male’s back. He let out a hoot of fear and tried to throw her off, but she was good at holding onto things, and her long, gnarled fingers had a fiercely powerful grip. Har-oo-ko was screaming too, but there was no possibility of negotiation with Zee now. The threat had to be eliminated. She opened her mouth and buried her long, sharp teeth in the back of the interloper’s skull. Everything turned hot and red. Har-oo-ko’s screaming only got louder, but the male was soon limp and silent.