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The Species of Least Concern
    by Erica L. Satifka

The Species of Least Concern
Artwork by Andres Mossa

We find the first ones in the lobby, talons extended as if trying to get underneath the door. A good two dozen of them, mostly sparrows. Tiny, dun-colored things.

Of course it's my job to clean it up. I lay the dead sparrows to their rest in the dumpster around back of the building. Their beaks and eyes glitter like cut glass in huge fleshy shoals.

By the end of the week, it's like birds never existed. Pockets of absence soar about in the silent sky.

"As the current wave of devastating cryptogenic species loss enters its second week," says the newscaster, "scientists are scrambling for a cause, and a cure. Research at the --"

I turn the TV off and the sanitizer on. Its soothing thrum envelops me like a warm, heavy blanket. Without thinking, I squat on the tile floor and let the vibrations shake loose the aberrant electrical activity from my brain. Though I have a government-issued neural defibrillator, I don't dare bring the phallus-shaped thing to work. The frequency of the sanitizer is roughly the same as that of the device, and at least then nobody thinks I'm a nympho as well as a freak. My backbone tingles against the sanitizer, and I'm reminded that anything with a spine -- including me -- could be the next to die.

DCSL: waves of species loss affecting one taxon at a time. Scientists think it's a natural phenomenon, but they still haven't found a cause, so what do scientists know, really? Sometimes there are more than six months between extinction events and we think we're in the clear, but they always come back.

I hear thick-soled shoes thundering like a herd of animals that probably don't exist anymore and look up to find Steve, the project lead. I stand in a panic, pretending I'd just been on the floor to find a paperclip.

"Kimmy, what are you doing?" He sighs and turns away to the coffee machine. "No, forget it, I don't want to know."

"Um, ah . . . your mail is here." I grab one of the stacks on the cart and shove it at him.

"Fine." He takes it without looking, then shuffles off to wherever project managers go when they're not barking orders or rushing to meetings.

At Nature's Helpers, we're developing replacement animals -- NuAnimals -- to fill in the gaps left by the extinction events. We used to be an organic pharmaceutical company, but desperate times lead to different strategies, as Steve likes to say.

I grab the handles of the mail-cart and walk the halls, my own shoes squeaking.

First I stop at the lab, which is always a good start to the day. I hit the buzzer and am greeted at the Plexiglas door by an isolation-suited Dr. Chen, her face only slightly visible through the tinted viewscreen.

"Thank you, Kimmy."

"Can I see them?" Yesterday she let me look at the wriggly little red critters in their wire cage. The "universal ground-level small mammals," designed to fill the gaps left by the departure of Rodentia a year ago.

She shakes her head, massive in the suit. "I'm sorry, Kimmy, I don't have time right now. Maybe later."

I continue down the hall, passing out mail as I go. The scientific wing leads to the corporate wing, all fluorescent lighting and cheap paneled walls and people who smile so much it can't possibly be sincere.

"Kimmy, you left the dishes in the sink again," says the office manager with a loud sigh. "Oh, why do I even ask you to do these things, I should just do it myself."

"I had to catch the bus. I couldn't --"

"Whatever." She takes her mail from the cart before I can give it to her.

I edge past quietly. I have to remind myself that it's not her fault. Cats and dogs were the victims of the second extinction event, and she had a pair of poodles that she loved very much. More than her kids, if how much you love something can be judged by the size of the photographs on your desk.

The rain pounds on the pavement outside as we sit in rows in the company cafeteria. The TV is turned to a shopping channel, a rare station that isn't reporting on DCSL.

Like a group of high schoolers, we arrange ourselves in cliques. The corporate branch sits at one table, laughing and joking. The researchers are more subdued. They hunch over their trays, plastic forks in one hand, scientific journals in the other.

And then there's me, the one nobody wants to sit next to, because of my parents' role in the gene wars.

Under different circumstances, I could have sat at the scientists' table. I had four semesters of biology under my belt before the college asked me to leave. It was pointless to waste the education. Children of gene-war survivors don't have careers. We're supposed to consider ourselves lucky to be employed at all.

Dr. Chen comes into the room. There's still a space open at the scientists' table, but she sits across from me anyway.

"Dr. Chen?"

Her nose crinkles as she fumbles open a plastic container housing a processed concoction of soy, wheat germ, and protein analogues. The third wave of DCSL -- poultry and cattle -- has turned us working-folks into unwilling vegans.

She doesn't say anything.

"Dr. Chen, why are you here?"

She looks up. "You just say whatever's on your mind, don't you, Kimmy." She pitches the lid into the trash compactor at the end of the table. "Meet me in the lab at the end of the day. There's something I want to show you."

"But I have to take the bus down to the city," I say. "I'll miss it."

"You'll want to see this." She casts a last disparaging glance at the marketing team at the next table. "Trust me."

The suspense makes it hard to get through the rest of the day, but somehow, I do.

When five o'clock hits, I don't even bother filing the last of the papers. I shove them into an untidy stack in my desk drawer and speed-walk to Dr. Chen's lab.

Nobody is in the hall except a janitor, who furrows his brow at me and my excitement. I knock on the lab door.

"Look in the closet," squawks the intercom. Inside the cubby by the door rests a crinkly silver jumpsuit and a helmet that looks like a fishbowl. I zip myself inside.

"Dr. Chen? You wanted to see me?"

She's sitting at her desk, no helmet on. No gloves, either. A small glass of amber liquid rests at her elbow, and as my eyes alight on it, she quickly shoves it behind a mess of papers. There are papers everywhere, blanketing the desk and floors like a layer of fallen sparrows. My heart sinks.

"You want me to clean this up?" I start collecting papers, though it's hard to get a grip on them with the sausage-fingers of the suit. I glimpse terms barely remembered from my stint at Kansas State: ribosome, telomerase, GABA receptor.

"Put those down, Kimmy. I didn't bring you here to organize my crap for me."

I let the papers drift down. "Then why?"

Dr. Chen moves to the cages at the far side of the room and withdraws an animal. It looks like a cross between a squirrel and a lemur, except that it's bright pink, with a heart on its forehead. "Cuddle-bunny. Good for seeding trees. Can possibly also be used as a pet." She shakes her head. "Look at this thing."

I think it's kind of cute, but I don't say so. "Is there something wrong with it?"

"Other than the fact that it exists? Not really."

I finger the small pocket on the animal's side, where the advertising goes. "When's the release date?"

"Release date. Like they're new cell phones or something. It's supposed to be next month, to commemorate the third year of our fight against DCSL, blah blah blah." She makes a talky motion with her hand. "Call this a beta test. Take it home with you. It's yours."

I take the cuddle-bunny in my hands. I can't feel the texture of the fur through the gloves, but I imagine it feels like one of the yippy dogs I used to see in the park. "We're not allowed to have pets in the complexes."

"Then just take it out of here. Eat it if you're feeling adventurous. Just get it away from me."

"But Dr. Chen, this is your job."

"Yes, my job. Destroyer of worlds."

"What?"

"Never mind, girl, never mind."

I carry the cuddle-bunny home beneath the folds of my quilted jacket. The bus driver and other passengers don't notice the squirming or the bulge. Nobody really looks at anyone else on a bus, and especially nobody looks at me.

When the genetic bombs fell, the Midwestern farmers who were the target of the agricorps' wrath didn't feel their effects. But their children did. Chronic epileptiform absence seizures are one of the lightest sentences you can get as a child of gene-war survivors, and for that I am grateful. Neural defibrillation helps, but it's not perfect, and comes with side effects of its own.

When I get home, I make sure to lock the apartment door before putting the cuddle-bunny on my dresser. I can't afford to get kicked out of this place.

None of the NuAnimals look like the originals. They're all bright colors: electric green like the casing on a soy-patty meal, bright red like little furry fire hydrants. Dr. Chen once complained bitterly about this when I was in earshot. "They look like toys," she'd said, shaking her head.

We never had pets in the house when I was growing up. Like most survivors of the gene wars, my parents lived in the complexes, where pets weren't allowed. No animals, no outside visitors, because of the fear of contamination. Even after the bans were lifted, there were no pets and no visitors. Who'd want to bring an innocent life into the complexes? It's not even fit for a mouse, my mother said, though we had plenty of those.

"Shake hands," I say. The cuddle-bunny reaches out one tiny paw and puts it into my palm. The paw has a miniature heart on it too. I don't know why Dr. Chen has a problem with animals.

"Roll over." But either the cuddle-bunny doesn't know that trick or it's exercising some kind of free-will. It gazes toward the window, where a bare branch taps against the glass.

"Do you want to go out?" I ask the cuddle-bunny. The round head tilts, and I swear to God, those button eyes are twinkling. "Only if you come back, though," I say.

I open the window and the bright pink NuAnimal scampers over the windowsill and along the tree branch, to dangle like a trapeze artist before dropping to the ground. I crane my head out the window to track it, which is an easy task thanks to the neon coat. It rockets away like a bullet made out of frozen Pepto-Bismol.

We're all pretty excited at work, because it's Friday and most people have plans. I don't, and I don't think Dr. Chen does either, but we're both happier that way. Maybe. I hope that the cuddle-bunny comes back tonight. It wasn't there when I woke up.

I sort the mail, then stop in the kitchen for a cup of coffee. When I arrive I find the entrance blocked by Steve and one of his army of flunkies. I turn to leave, but I've already been spotted.

"Kimmy, meet Laurie Frazier. She just joined the team."

I smile at the new person, but I can feel the sides of my mouth twitching, and I know she sees it too. "Welcome to the company."

Laurie looks back at Steve. "Seriously?"

"Aw, come on, Laur, be nice."

"It's bad enough we have to support those hayseed farmers for whatever remains for their natural lives, but we have to keep their kids around, too?" She looks at me, frowns, and turns away.

As their footsteps recede, I lean over the metal sink. I fear the worst, that it's a fit coming on, which would just prove everything Laurie Frazier already thinks she knows about me.

But it's not. It passes.

I need to see Dr. Chen.

She's behind the triple-paned glass and the thick metal door, of course, and she has the beekeeper suit on. I start to slide her mail through the slot, but the doctor gestures to the compartment near the door.

Again? I put the suit on. When I go in, I see she's dissecting a NuAnimal with a long, tube-like body, its Technicolor organs splayed out on the metal tray like a string of Christmas lights.

"They're color-coded. That way it's easier to make repairs," she says.

"But where's the blood?"

"Do you think people like Steven Longwood would really want to see animals with blood and guts if they don't have to? Come on now, Kimmy. You may play dumb, but you know better than that."

I take the scissors from the set of tools at Dr. Chen's elbow and probe deeper into the NuAnimal's body. The bright red intestines would signify extreme inflammation in one of the old animals, and the sky-blue heart and circulatory system would point to a status of not exactly being alive. But these aren't the animals you're used to, as the company's glossies say. They're better. "What was wrong with it?"

"Starved to death," she replies, sighing. "I need to work on the alimentary system. Weasels aren't meant to live on soya kibble."

"Pretty cute for a weasel."

"That's what the genetics are based on." Dr. Chen runs her hand through her short, spiky hair. "Kimmy, what do you know about the gene wars?"

I blink. "More than you do."

"I doubt that. But that's not the point. I know from reading the personnel files that you majored in biology."

"Yes," I say, "but I didn't finish."

"Of course you didn't. Society likes to hide its mistakes. I want you to help me in the lab, kind of an assistant. I've been paying attention; you don't do anything important around here."

I grit my teeth, hoping that my disgust with Dr. Chen's sudden burst of bigotry doesn't show on my twitching face. She's right, though. My work is only slightly more important than whatever Steve does all day.

I think about working in the lab again, using those limited stores of biology knowledge. About what it would be like to have a smart person's job for once. "I'll do it."

"There'll be long hours. You won't get a raise."

"That's okay," I say, looking again at the splayed and pinned remains of the colorful NuAnimal. "I want to work with animals again. It's been a while."

The cuddle-bunny isn't in my apartment when I get back. It's probably dead. I'm going to have to tell Dr. Chen. Maybe I'll wait until she asks. I don't want to disappoint her.

The glow of the neon sign from the convenience store across the street casts a shadow over the mess on my coffee table. I should clean it up, I think, but it's not like anyone ever comes over. It seems like I spend most of my time at Nature's Helpers or on the bus or asleep, and I'll be spending even more time out when I start helping Dr. Chen in the lab.

I grab a box from the corner and begin throwing things into it. My hand halts when I reach the neural defibrillator. Not for the first time, I wish the manufacturer would have tried harder to make it look less like a vibrator.

I press the button on the side of the heavy, plastic government-issued device and prepare to administer pre-emptive neurotherapy. Suddenly, I hear the tapping of feet. I squint. "Is that you?"

On four heart-stamped paws, the cuddle-bunny advances toward me. Each pawprint leaves a small stain on the linoleum.

"Come here, little guy. Or girl." Dr. Chen said that NuAnimals don't have sexes. That's one of the things that seemed to upset her the most.

The cuddle-bunny hops over to me and drops something into my hand. It's spongy like a soy-patty, and when I look closer, I can see that it's an ear.

All that weekend I keep the cuddle-bunny in an overturned hamper, and when I leave for work on Monday, I take it back in with me.

"Looks like a squirrel's ear." Dr. Chen takes the magnifying glass away from her eye. "Cornering the market."

"The market?"

"Kimmy, what if I told you that I don't think DCSL is natural? That it's like the gene wars, just a lot of corporations fighting against each other?"

I swallow hard. "I think I'd call you a liar. We've seen the bodies, they're all over the place . . ."

I'm so pissed my throat closes up.

"Maybe the extinctions weren't as severe as we all thought. Do you know just how many small mammals and birds there were in the world?"

"A lot?"

Dr. Chen places the ear into a vial and turns to the cuddle-bunny I brought to work this morning. Its pink pelt is still bloody. "There should have been more. I keep coming back to that. This is so . . . controlled."

I think back to what my parents said about the gene wars, in those rare times I was able to get them to talk. It all started with rival agricorps trying to out-compete one another. Clouds of nanomachines capable of rewriting plant DNA were set off in fields all throughout the Midwest. The riots came later, sparked by people living too close to the fields who found their ability to farm their own crops limited by the new trademarked genes. "But why wild animals? It makes no sense."

"Oh, it makes perfect sense." The doctor flicks the syringe and before I can stop her, she's slid it into the cuddle-bunny's belly. The NuAnimal expires with the tiniest of death rattles. "Hand me that scalpel, will you?"

I place it in her hand. "You didn't have to kill it."

"You can't kill something that isn't alive." She splits the cuddle-bunny in half, revealing the circus-colored organs.

But it was alive. It moved, it thought. Maybe.

I wonder if Dr. Chen doesn't think they're alive because they can't reproduce. I wonder if she knows I can't reproduce either.

One by one, Dr. Chen levers the bright organs out of the body cavity, placing them on a silver tray at the side. "There's a lot of spots in the food chain. If Nature's Helpers can fill those gaps with their mass-produced cloned 'animals' that, just coincidentally, can't breed on their own and you also have to pay for them, we can hold the world hostage with a major bargaining chip. Pay us for the right to keep the world's ecosystem running. That's planned ecology on a major scale, Kimmy."

"But the corporations live in the world, too. We can't exactly refuse to let the animals loose."

Dr. Chen pushes away the tray. "A corporation is just an idea. It can live anywhere. In a computer, in a notebook. In a single person living in a suborbital station. The rest of the world can get bent as far as a corporation is concerned." She looks at me. "You of all people should know this."

My parents moved away from Kansas before I was born, knowing that the time of human farming was at an end. They took their payment from the agricorps and cut their losses. I don't feel any pull from that land, from the place I should have called home.

I shake my head. "No. It doesn't make any sense."

"I hope you're right, Kimmy. I really do."

Dr. Chen bolts right after the dissection, leaving me to clean up. She isn't at lunch either. I sit alone at my usual table.

Across the room, Steve the project lead laughs at something with the new woman, Frazier. Small bits of soy fly from his mouth as he whips his arms around. I look down at my own tray of pap, wondering what's so hilarious.

Destroyer of worlds, she'd said, as if proud or at least resigned.

I can't take it anymore. I need to find Dr. Chen. I slide the untouched meal into the recycler and slip out to the parking lot. Let them deduct my pay. Let them fire me.

I find her in the patch of brush near the front gates of Nature's Helpers. She's crouching, quiet, as if awaiting the results of an experiment. I wish my feet weren't so loud on the asphalt.

"Dr. Chen?"

She looks up. Behind her glasses, her eyes are as big as planets waiting to be discovered. She's holding something pale and green in her hands. "Look, Kimmy."

I peer into her hands. It's a NuAnimal, designed to look like a -- what were they called? A salamander. Only this one has blue feet and the crimson burst of an unfamiliar logo on its side and eyes that look like they belong to a cartoon character. It has long fangs that could probably nip off a pinky.

I say, "I've never seen this kind before."

"It's not ours. This is the VivaCor logo."

"Awfully long fangs for a salamander."

She drops the salamander, and it lands in the puddle with a splash before making a break through the front gate. "That's because it's a weapon. Our methods are a little more subtle, but don't worry, we're -- what does Steve say? -- 'amping them up for the global market.'"

"If you really believe this, then you should tell someone." I still think Dr. Chen is nuts, though her ideas are starting to piece themselves together.

"Who would we tell, Kimmy? They control everything. They control me, they control you." She grabs me by the shoulders and shakes me until I feel my teeth rattle and I begin to see sparks. "Damn, you're naïve."

I want to reply but it's like my mouth is full of wool and I close my eyes to collect my thoughts, which sometimes works. But when I open them she's gone and I have a headache and I'm not surprised.

Two days pass and Dr. Chen doesn't come back. I sit alone in the lab, passing the bright NuAnimals between my hands. Sometimes they bite me, leaving small welts that puff up in the sun.

Steve finds me nestled in the corner, near the refrigeration unit. I'd felt a seizure coming on and had to get close to it. But I can't explain it very well, and especially not to him. With a frown, he herds me into his office and shuts the door.

"What were you doing, Kimmy? Is that some kind of sex thing?" He says it with a smirk.

I shake my head. "No."

"Margie took a lot of information with her when she went on her . . . unannounced sabbatical. I was hoping you'd know where to find her. We need to get that stuff back, Kimmy." He says my first name a lot when he speaks to me, like he thinks he'll forget it if he doesn't say it over and over.

"I don't know where she is."

"But you'd tell us if you did, right?"

I look him in the eye. "No."

He blows air out through his nose and leans back in his chair. "I can't fire you, but that doesn't mean I have to like you. Get your things and put them back in the mailroom." He's clearly enjoying this. "Freak."

Silently, I walk back to the lab and collect my few belongings: my jacket, a book, my sunglasses. A new scientist from the head office in Topeka is there already. I shake her hand and say hello. With my other hand, I stuff a pocketful of slides into my jacket.

I'm packing my life away, stripping it down to what's really important, in case I can't come back. Under a tangle of clothing in my battered cardboard suitcase are the slides, fourteen cross-sections of NuAnimal tissue that might just prove that Nature's Helpers, and other corporations like it, are responsible for DCSL. In a smaller valise, I've packed the neural defibrillator. I pray it's not confiscated by airport security.

I stay up all night, fearful of what's ahead. I've never even been out of Kansas, and I'm worried about what the future will bring. There are so many things that might happen, and I almost feel like I should call the whole thing off right now.

But there are the animals to think about. The real ones that could still be saved.

When I get down to the bus stop in the morning, she's waiting for me, swaddled in a black caftan, and I know I'm not going to make it to the airport after all.

"Dr. Chen?" I ask, even though I know it's her.

"Oh, call me Margie. You do know my first name, right?"

I realize that I hadn't, not until Steve said it when we were in his office. "I got some evidence. I'm going to the press."

She throws her head back and laughs. She reminds me uncomfortably of Steve. "Oh, Kimmy, you really are a riot. So you're going to go on Good Morning America, tell them you know who's causing all the extinctions? With all those mixed-up genes in your head? Oh, Kimmy, no."

I grip the suitcase tighter. "It was a thought."

"Girl, they're all in on it. Once all the animals are dead or in hiding, who do you think is going to be there waiting in the wings to save us? Nature's Helpers, and OrganiLife, and all the rest. With our copyrighted vat-grown animals, who are just perfect for the job, because it's a vacancy we helped create. And one I've helped to fill."

I turn away from her, afraid that she'll steal my bag with all the evidence in it.

"We can stop it. The animals can't reproduce."

"We can always make more," she says, laughing again like it's the biggest joke in the world. "The company's resources are larger than you could ever imagine."

The bus pulls up, but I don't walk forward to get on and neither does Margie. We stand for a while in the warm summer wind. Finally, I speak. "Why did you ask me?"

"Huh?"

"Ask me to be your assistant. When you knew what you were doing, and knew you weren't going to tell me anything about it. Until it was too late."

"Because I wanted to study you, Kimmy. I wanted to see for myself if you were capable of more than handing out mail and fetching coffees. You passed, more or less. Plus, I needed the company. I was hoping you might keep me from snapping. Instead, you reminded me I'm just as horrible as the company."

"Thanks," I reply. "Well, since you say the plan is meaningless, I guess I'll just go to work. The least you could do is give me a ride."

"Back to Nature's Helpers? You're going to sell out like that?"

"At least I still have a job."

She grunts. "Come on, take the day off. Remember, I read your personnel file, I know you have the days." She gestures toward the diner at the corner. "I'll buy you a soy-patty."

I look at the bus stop, then back at Margie. "Okay."

But I keep one hand on the suitcase, and I don't let go, not even much later when we say our goodbyes. Somewhere out there is a person who isn't as scared of the world as I am, and they're going to need this.

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