Short Story

This started out as an exercise at a 2018 Gunnas Sci Fi Writing Masterclass on world building with Marianne de Pierres. Bit left-field for me. Have a read and tell me what do you think

 

Lab Rat

The Corporation’s Lab squats in the drizzle like an ugly toad, its mottled skin pocked with spell craters, courtesy of the Rebellion. Tatters of grey, stained cloth flutter on razor wire; evidence of inmate escape attempts. The rows of sludge mounds lining the yard testimony to their lack of success.

His left knee twitches.

One inmate made it out.

A slight movement catches Dog’s eye. A bored guard spits out a wad of weed, and hawks it into the slimy moat. Magic burrs at Dog’s mind, itching to attack. From this distance he can’t smell the rank sourness of the guard’s breath, but Dog’s olfactory database imagines the acrid odour, the stained digits, the purple-shot eyes.

An exploitable habit we can use, he tells himself. His mind strains to weave the threads, the power just beyond his grasp, locked behind the Lab’s defensive spell-net.

A different voice whispers in his head.

Just a fellow mammal, lost to greed, grovelling for the Corporation’s leftovers, and deliberately hooked on weed to keep him subservient, to keep his magic tame. He shoves that voice down.

Everyone has a choice dammit! Policing their own kind for drugs is the worst kind of betrayal.

A second guard approaches the first, heavier set and still slouching, tail low, no flag of alertness, no ounce of joy.

A slosh of rain drizzles into Dog’s non-damaged ear from an overfull leaf. He shakes his head carefully, an involuntary shiver agitating the soaked undergrowth.

His hind feet squirm in the ill-fitting boots. He’ll have to try and pack them out with paper. Again. Though in this weather, that will likely just squish to mush between his toes in minutes. Times like these he wishes he had webbed feet like the damn Amphibs and could go bare-footed. About the only Amphib thing he does envy.

How could they live in this malodorous swamp? And without their magic? Feels like I’m missing a limb.

He raises his nose, tasting the air; nothing but persistent rain and the smell of Pack behind him. His lip curls. If he can smell Pack, then maybe the guards can too, surely they’re not that far gone in weed dreams. The rescue team will have to disguise its scent better for the sneak in.

Sneak in. Ha! That’s a laugh. Nobody ever sneaks into the Lab. No sane body volunteers for the Corporation’s research. Plenty of creatures try to get out though.

Bloody Corporation tells us the experiments are for the benefit of all. Sacrifice of the one for the good of the many. Freaking Mani, what a fool I was to trust them.

Like most inhabitants of their dying planet, Dog had believed, even welcomed, the Corporation’s promise. The promise that they could reverse the dark spell that had stripped the land’s essence and transformed a group of creatures into guardians of their world’s magical power.

He glances back to the cloth flags – those dark stains are blood. The blood of creatures that the Corporation steals from their packs, their litters, their mobs.

Not to help reverse the spell.

He knows that now.

He shrugs off the memories that crowd to bear witness.

The Corporation is taking the magic for themselves, storing it for their own nefarious purpose.

For a moment he growls, deep in his chest, his hackles rise, and he feels the zing of anger ramp up his alertness.

Bloody Reptiles! Where the hell do these Reps get off controlling this Mani cursed dive? What right do they have to make the rules? To steal our magic?

A touch on his flank makes him spin to attack. His lieutenant drops her head, ears dipping into the mud.

“What?” he hisses. Brusquer than usual; embarrassed by his angry slip.

“Time to recon.” Den looks back over her shoulder. Dog can see two dark shapes move against the discoloured, dying forest.

He squats.

“Bring ‘em in.”

Den signals and the shapes leave the trees, slithering along the tangled undergrowth towards them. Two Reps; Goanna Clan. The only two in the Rebellion’s force. Traitors to their own cold-blooded kind.

Dog hates their staring yellow eyes. Their disrespectful heads thrust forward, frills up, stares snaring his glance.

Freakazoids. Bloody egg layers. He wishes again for an army; a battalion of Cani mages who fight for the real cause – freedom for Mammals. He feels the words like a hot wire writing across his brain. Freedom for Mammals!

His tattered Rebel force is the dregs, they can’t even trade simple spells for drugs or food or weapons. Reduced to grubbing an existence from the dying land; switching their loyalty to the Rebellion for the promise of a better life.

Gah! They’ve been in this swamp too long. Even miles away from the Lab, their magic is sluggish and unreliable. Made worse by his force being mostly discards that the Corporation didn’t want or couldn’t retrain.

Retrain! Ha! ‘Provided with cultural certainty’, so says the Corporation’s twisted version of the future. Certainty that their life is over, they’re owned body and soul by the bloody Corporation.

Not me! And not the Rebellion. I’m not bowing and scraping to those ruthless Reptilian megalomaniacs.

The Corporation has no place for individuals in its new world order. Dog joined the Rebellion to fight for his freedom to choose.

Ha! You had nothing left to lose. Corporation saw to that.

To fight dammit! Not to sneak around in the rain and muck looking for a way back into the Lab. And what the hell for anyway? To retrieve some package that’s supposed to be something worth risking my team for.

Team? Yeah. Dog supposes that’s what they are. He looks closer at the Reps; their unblinking gazes stare back. His traitorous mind recalls another unblinking gaze, a world of pain staring across the cell, one eye a washed out green, the other a blackened scar.

Huh. Between us we had one good set. He swipes at his own empty orbit as if that could erase the memory. His magic squirms again, feeling around the edges of the constraining spell-net.

Nothing. It’s seamless. And so familiar.

“Loz, Liz. Slow rotation, follow the guards routine, look for any weakness, any threat. You’ll be relieved in four hours.” A slight nod from Loz is the only response.

Dog and Den slink away, ducking under scratchy mangroves, sloshing through fetid tidal pools, and swimming when they can’t walk through. The damn place makes his skin crawl, literally. He’s picked up some sort of fungus infection on his rear paws from the constant damp, and every time he hikes out to the Lab, he has to spend time burning out the bloody leeches that find the soft spots of his skin.

Like under my bloody arm. He feels a sharp new nibble. Hands raised high to protect his knife, he doesn’t stop to pluck the sucker out.

He knows better – now.

Days earlier, the whole Pack had watched Ditz tear the leeches off in a frenzy, their heads still buried in her skin. Three hours later, a bloated, pungent Ditz had thrown herself off the edge of the nearest crater wall. She ran, didn’t walk, to get away from the decay. Rotted her insides away. Just enough brain and movement left to keep her bones and muscles pumping for the launch over the cliff. She didn’t make any sound at all when she went.

Maybe she couldn’t.

They didn’t even hear a splash.

Damn Pescis probably waiting for her, probably in league with the damn leeches. Mani cursed bloody swamp!

For the thousandth time Dog wishes he believed in the myths the Oldies told from the times before Mani gave them language and magic; the Domestic Time. Warm homes, clear water, tasty food, time to play. He’d almost believe the first three, but — time to play. He knows in his bones that’s got to be a myth. Everybody works magic as soon as they can walk upright. This world is unforgiving, you can’t turn your back on it.

Anyway, the Oldies get forgetful towards the end. Start spouting trash about Mani magic that stirs the pack up. Best to put them out of their misery.

Out of our misery. Quick slash to the throat, let the lifeblood flow. Everyone takes a sip, passing the spirit along.

Maybe that’s how the insanity started. Maybe we should let the spirit flow back to the earth.

Nah, this land is dead, got no spirit left, no need to waste the lifeblood. Keeps the pack together.

Bloody leeches! Another sucker latches onto his groin, interrupting the back and forth in his head. He has to clutch his knife hard to stop himself reaching to wrench the bastard out straight away. He holds his breath as the leech gets a good grip. He hears Den pause behind him, panting slightly with a similar effort. Her body mass is small. Not much to take into a fight, though with her knives she holds her own. And her brain works just fine; she’s as sneaky as they come, and she can get into tighter places than he can. They need that, Canis don’t have the flexibility of a Feli, and his team doesn’t warrant one of the rare Marsupis.

What I’d give to have one of them in my team. Corporation has almost wiped them out. Their magic is strong. And he’s yet to find a way to turn an Amphib. If the Amphibs sided with the Rebellion, the Mammals might have a chance. Their magic isn’t much but at least they don’t swell the ranks of the Corporation’s Security Force.

Dog negotiates the shallows and ducks under the low hanging branches of scrubby brush that line the edge of the swamp. He can make out a partial trail in the sand.

Damn, we’ve been here too long, Pack is getting sloppy. Anyone could pick that up. What if the Corporation does a broader sweep? They’ll have to move camp again.

He and Den finally arrive. A few squalid sheets of cardboard, plastic and ply strung haphazardly around a central hearth; cold now in the light of day. Too easy to see the smoke.

When did this motley collection of trash acquire the look of a den? Pack movement stops when he and Den hit the outskirts.

Where are the bloody sentries? We weren’t even challenged.

Pack wait for a signal from him; mad, mean or somewhere in between. He feels the weight of leadership bow his shoulders a little – he settles for mean.

It’s for their own good. He raises his head, lip curls, ear pricks, a quiet rumble. Pack slinks back to the fringes of the clearing, tails lowered. He throws himself down beside the hearth stones and growls for fire.

Bloody, flaming leeches! He flings off his saturated groin cloth and winces as he brushes the blood-swollen parasites. Den does the same. Dope and Dig hurry over with hot coals and build up a small fire in the pit. Drain brings a plate of cold offerings and a bowl of clean water, sets them beside Dog and waits, tail stiff but still.

Dog grimaces his thanks once the last leech is burnt off. The unholy smell anchors on the back of his tongue and he laps at the water bowl to flush it down. He stands to his full two-leg height, looming over Drain.

The alpha is back. A quick nod and Drain’s mouth opens in a gap-toothed smile, his stumpy tail wags his delight at the approval.

“Gather.”

They shuffle into a loose circle; most too old, too young, too sick. The sight of diminutive Didi with two lethargic pups dragging at her dry paps makes his chest hurt, and his eye skitters away. Apart from Den, she’s one of the pack’s three bitches, the only one still fertile. Corporation prefers females – uses them for breeding more test subjects – and pregnancy augments their magic. That pale green eye flashes in his mind again, tears blur his vision.

No!

“Bring in the sentries.” A few Pack have the sense to look shamefaced and Dog nods.

“No bloody sentries you mangy curs. Not even a measly trip spell. You deserve to get caught. I can’t rescue you all over again.”

“We thought it would be OK. No one’s found us so far. And no one’s got any magic for trip spells this close to the Lab.” The black and white splotches on Dim’s coat aren’t good camouflage in this grey-green swamp. He stands out like a Pesci in the desert.

“You thought huh. What if Den and I had been Reps? Or worse – Lab rats! Full of weed and looking for some warm bodies to trade. We walked in here easy as. All of you would’ve been in cages before you took your second breath.”

Dim snarls.

“We would’ve fought.”

“Yeah, we would’ve fought.”

“Yeah, no one’s gunna cage me ever again.” Six more males surge upright and puff out their chests as an assertive rumble erupts. Trickles of magic splutter into being. The pheromones ignite Dog’s anger.

“Then you would’ve died,” he barks. They drop to all fours and stare at the ground.

“You useless mongrels, you’ve gotta to use your brains not just your hormones. And if you can’t work out how to do that, then do what I tell you.”

An uneasy silence throbs.

“How’s that different from doing what the Corporation tells us to do?” Dim challenges in an unexpected flash of bravado.

“I’ve given you freedom, freedom to choose a life you control.” A few of them glance around at the soggy shelters they’ve spent the last two nights in.

“At least I was dry most of the time working for the Corporation,” Dim says. A scatter of nods.

Dog snarls.

“They neutered your brains when they neutered your dicks. Have you forgotten your mates being raped, inseminated with the Great Mani knows what? Your pups ripped from their Mumma’s teats and dragged off to have chemicals dripped into their eyes, to see if it made ‘em cry, to see if it made ‘em blind? To see if it ignited their power? Have you forgotten their yelps, their howls, screaming for their Mumma? Screaming for you! Have you forgotten the smell of their little bodies burning in the incinerators when your precious Corporation sucked them dry of any shred of magic?”

Didi hugs her pups closer, rocking them, her eyes wide.

Mani’s madness! This mangy pack! He’s sick of trying to stir up righteous anger in their bellies. Every tail droops, every ear is laid back. Not one meets his eye. Even the swamp quietens.

His shackled power makes him snarl as Den touches his arm. She flinches but still speaks.

“They’re hungry and tired Dog. They miss their magic. They’ll be better when we can get away from the Lab and build ‘em up a bit. When we get this job done we can hunt some meat and find a place to bed down for a while. Mani knows we’ve all been running on fresh air and dry rations for a while.” She pauses and Dog can taste her frustration. “And no magic.” Den, as always, manages to pull the plug on his anger and frustration.

“Yeah, I guess.” He settles back on his haunches, two deep breaths and the spark stutters out.

Don’t look back, go on, just go on. Do something, anything, don’t let this happen again. Her green eye pleaded as he left her.

I left her. To die.

He shakes the memory off.

“OK, here’s the plan. Unless Loz and Liz find another weakness, we’ll go in just before first light. Night guards will be sleepiest then and easier to subdue. They’re mostly weed heads, so no mercy – be quick and go for the kill.” When some Pack look up shocked, Dog barks.

“They’re traitors, being drugged out is no excuse for helping the bloody Corporation commit genocide on Mammals.”

There’s a pause before the first one shuffles closer. The others follow, till they’re shoulder to shoulder; his Pack.

Dog continues to set out the steps, slowly, clearly, simply; repeating them over and over, getting each member to repeat their role till they can say it back to him without missing a beat. It’s the best he can do without magic. Make them angry enough to go through with it, and then make it easy for them to follow the plan. If they don’t pull this off he doesn’t know how he’s going to feed them. Their next payment is reliant on him delivering this package to Rebellion HQ. He scents the air, unconsciously seeking any kind of food aroma – nothing. A traitorous thought whispers in his mind. Maybe they would be better off under the Corporation’s leash. At least they’d be fed.

No! Freedom for Mammals. Canis first.

“Get some sleep. We leave well before sunset. I don’t wanna cross the swamp at night. Damn Amphibs.” Drain snickers, but quietens at an exasperated glance from his alpha.

Dog points to Dot and Ditch. They slink closer. Dot, her mangy tail between her legs, her aged paps visibly quivering and Ditch, who should be still at his Mumma’s teats. Ditch twitches a scarred eyebrow, his only sign of nervousness. “You two leave in three hours and relieve our Reps. Don’t tell ‘em anything about the plan. Better they’re here when we start so we can watch ‘em. No chance to slink off to warn their mates.” They nod and trot off to find a sliver of dry ground to sleep on.

Dog glances sideways at a movement from Den. Her gaze flicks to his briefly, then back to Didi, still squatting in front of them, hugging her pups and crooning a wordless comfort. One of her pups flops from the teat, its head lolling, its body slack. Didi howls her anguish and Den hurries to her, gently removing the dead offspring from its mother’s embrace and hushing her with a sharp word. Didi’s sorrow subsides to a whimper and she tightens her grip on her last pup.

Den walks back past Dog with the emaciated body in her arms. “This package we’re risking everything for had better be worth it.”

Dog has no answer. He turns to follow her; to dig another shallow grave, laying the pup to rest beside its two tiny siblings.

~~~~~~~

When the air begins to run out, the cold is the first thing she feels, bone aching cold. Like everything else in this Mani damned world, the featureless walls around her don’t care. They’re lifeless; as she will be unless she breaks out. She goes back to stroking the smooth surface in methodical grids.

Here! The thin seal steals under one pad of her aching paws. It’s taking too long. Her head throbs, her burning lungs the only heat she feels. She follows the seal, her whole body trembling.

There! With the smallest pressure there’s the softest click – a hiss.

She breathes into the gap, that first gasp a fire in her chest, reaching for the air with greedy claws. Bright light flares in her eye. A zephyr of humid air plays over her face. Calming her panting, slowing her racing heart, her whiskers twitch.

Small joys. Tiny victories. For my kittens.

Eye open, no room for tears, Cat’s torn and bloody paws haul at the crack of the door.

Time to face the music, or at least get ready for the next song. They’re coming.

I hope.

She sniffs, hyper alert to threads of fragrance: organics, metallics, chemicals, and the ever present swamp. No sulphurs, just the fetid heat cranked up for the freaking cold-blooded Reps. She quests for the Lab’s spell-net — the one she put up.

I had to. It was the only choice then. Like this is my only choice now.

Cat follows the weaves until she finds the almost imperceptible knot, tucked away under layers of misdirection. She slips in a trickle of magic, all she’s got left; a key to unlock the door to salvation. The spell-net shudders as the threads respond to their maker.

It’s got to be enough. She rests her head against the cool white wall, her gut a swirling mess, her magic spent.

One deep breath.

Maybe I beat their clock? They might be still wallowing in the warmth. Maybe I’ve got time to get myself out? Cat wrenches the door open and almost trips over the metal sill, her hind legs shaky from her captive hours in the deprivation pod.

“Ssso you’re out.” At the speaker’s sibilant hiss her lips curl back, her remaining teeth on show. A Corporation Rep. It must’ve masked its sulphuric stench with iron.

Cheater.

Its long claws clack on the metal floor, drawing her gaze, flagging how quickly this could go bad. Its tail tip flips in her direction.

Must be seriously pissed off to let me see that. A low yowl hums in her throat, her claws extend, she reaches for her magic – until she remembers.

One doesn’t matter, sacrifice of one for the good of the many. Who needs this freaking life anyway!

Yeah, but it’s our last one.

Make it count. She straightens, thrusts one hip to the side, tilts her chin. She senses the edges of the spell-net fraying, unwinding. Misdirection.

“Going crazy in there, couldn’t find the door. Imagine that. And I’m such a smart Feli. Someone else might think it was hidden on purpose.”

“You only had to ussse your magic, let usss in. We know you posssesss ssso much more,” the Rep responds to her taunt.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about snake eyes. Not letting you crazies in my head. I know what you’d do to me. Freaking mindfuckers.”

The Rep stalks closer, lowers its head to eye level, and spits at her, “You don’t know ssshit.”

Cat’s paws tremble as the Rep’s sulphuric stench swamps her senses. Her mind screams to back down. The Rep slams the iron dampening collar shut around her neck. She hisses. She’s not going anywhere now.

One life left. Live one more day. For the kits. The churn in her belly tightens the scars on her skin. The physical wounds are closed, the emotional wounds a gaping chasm.

Her mental walls convulse.

She’s back on the metal table. And across the room – so is he.

The mewls of her prematurely born kittens pitiful squeals ring in her ears. She’s yowling her anguish. He’s howling a mournful dirge. Both of them straining against their chains. The Reps take her kits away. To do unspeakable things to them – again.

She drags herself back to now.

No, never again! I tried playing their game, it’s time to make my own rules. Cat draws on the last vestiges of her resolve and leans in.

“Yeah, but I guess you do know shit, ‘cos that’s what you slither around in all day. And look where siding with those Corporation mindfuckers has got you. Freaking nowhere. You and your mates are still in this Mani forsaken freezing swamp babysitting me and the rest of the Mammals.”

Carous eyes, black slitted pupils widen with menace. Cat’s last litter, three tiny malformed souls, are still a raw ache in her chest. She pushes further.

“Freaking Rep. Get back to your putrid pits. Go and swallow some other world, leave me and mine alone. There’s nothing on this reeking rock of use to you anyway. I don’t know why you stay when you can’t even live in the cold.”

And there’s the freaking heart of it. Our magic can’t be the only reason. How can we fight back if don’t know what in Mani’s madness they want. Just torturing us and syphoning off our power as though we don’t matter. As though we’re only animals.

The Rep’s jaw hinges open and yellowed fangs descend with a glistening emerald drop at the end of each.

You want the buzzz ssso badly. This dossse may take you passst the point of no return. Doesssn’t matter to usss. You’re ussselesss if we can’t get your magic. Your breeding daysss are over.

It spears the words directly into her mind and Cat grabs at her head, pain a vice on her skull.

We have what we want, we’re leaving this ssswamp to you animalsss.

Cat senses venom spray across her face as the Rep’s head leaves its body and thuds against the wall. The body pauses for a moment, as if unsure what to do, then slides slowly to the floor. Blood glugs from the neck, and the odour of death slams into her nose as a pool of bright green ichor creeps across the pristine white tiles.

Her pulse bounces as an achingly familiar smell registers.

No, no! Not now. Not him.

She runs a claw over the fur on her cheek, captures the sticky moisture and licks it off. Under cover of searching for more venom on the body, she leans over, unclasps the Rep’s key ring, and slips it into the pocket of her frayed overalls.

No dampener key.

The small hit of venom zips through her veins. Colours sharpen, odours multiply. She hears her blood surging through her heart.

“Lousy venom head, why’re we bothering to help a Feli? She’s a Lab Rat, no bloody good for anything but killing.”

The stranger’s voice sounds like nails scratching down a chalkboard to Cat’s enhanced hearing. And then the same voice but plaintive.

“You don’t need her Dog. You’ve got me.”

Cat turns, staring past her deliverer to Dog, heartbreak and disbelief in his doe brown eye. A lifetime of horrors stretches between them, twenty-one tiny beings, warped by the forced interspecies intercourse – and drugs, so many drugs to draw out their magic. Countless surgical procedures, constant psychological torture, thousands of agonising hours in chains, all to feed the Corporation’s goal of cosmic domination.

Cat shuts off Dog’s unasked question to taunt his companion.

“Worthless Cani. Can’t make a decision without sniffing the arse of every mutt in her pack, I’ll bet. Stupid bitch.” The female lunges in her direction, teeth bared, knives raised.

Dog grabs the bitch’s shoulder, and flings a glance in Cat’s direction, warning her to silence.

“No Den, our fight’s only with the Corporation Reps.”

Her second shakes him off and backs away, disbelief in her glare. “Stinking Feli.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment you whoring hound.”

Den’s sneer just makes her look cute to Cat, doused in her venomed bliss, that is if you take away the deadly looking knives she holds in both paws. Especially the one still dripping from its encounter with her captor’s neck.

Dog steps in front of Den.

“Are you our contact?” He asks.

The hint of a smile tugs at Cat’s lips.

“Nine lives”, she purrs.

Dog’s eyebrows rise. That’s the password.

“How?” His question is more than how she knows what she knows, how she got a message out, how the spell-net was breached.

No, he means how am I still alive? Cat shrugs.

“What were you riling up the Rep for?” he asks. “We need to get in and out as quick as we can. There was no mention of starting a bloody fight. We don’t have the power to free everyone.” The words drag from his lips. “And no mention of you.”

“Dog, tell me you’re not working with this bloody Feli? She’s a venom head. You can’t trust her or her magic. Felis’ll always turn on you,” Den scoffs. “Their only loyalty is to themselves, they’ve got no heart. They don’t know Pack.”

“Den, go and check the corridor. Make sure we’re on our own and the others are holding at the exit.”

Den backs off and stalks away, but not before she hurls a toxic glance over her shoulder at Cat. Cat can’t resist a triumphant smirk.

“So? Not dead then.” Dog steps closer.

Cat reaches a paw out and touches his furred chest. One claw extends and she presses until a bead of blood appears. Dog doesn’t flinch.

“Ooh looky, some of the good red stuff.” She sucks her claw and is about to press for more. Dog grabs her paw.

“Enough! The venom’s making you reckless – it always did.” Dog folds her into a bone-crushing hug.

Cat’s senses explode with the contact. His warmth, his smell, the texture of his fur, and the pounding of his heart rip apart the walls she’s built, batter down her neat little compartments.

“What the hell happened to you? I thought you were dead,” Dog whispers.

Memories surge and swell, she’s drowning.

Cat wrenches herself out of his arms with a hiss. As she steps back, she slips in a blood smear from the dead Rep and falls against the wall. “Freaking Cani, paws off. No one touches me unless I say so.”

The hurt in Dog’s eyes almost breaks her resolve.

One life left. Just a few more hours. You can do this. It’s better this way. Let him stick to his own kind. She’ll need him. They all will. Cat straightens and steps sideways over the puddle.

“Really? You agreed to all these experiments did you?” He indicates the multiple scars on her abdomen. “Walked in under your own steam?” His eyes run over the mutilations on her face, the patches of bare skin, the torn ears. “I know that’s not true.”

The tip of her tail twitches over her shoulder, her head comes up, a fiery glare in her single green eye. The other is a black cavity; another fierce testament to her time in the Lab.

“I know you have a heart in there, I know you care.” Dog extends a paw.

Cat’s yowl is savage. Dog drops his arm, his gaze on hers.

She feels the venom hit slowing, draining her defiance with it. Her stance deflates, the spark puffs out. She closes her eye.

“Whatever lies you like to tell yourself mongrel. Come on. Let’s get this over with and get you out of my sight.” Cat lopes down the hallway.

A moment later Dog whistles Den back and they trot after her.

Down two flights of stairs, Cat stops at the stairwell door and tunes in with ears alone.

“This is a bad idea,” Den mutters. “We should’ve brought more Pack inside. Or at least one of our Reps. What if there are more Corp Reps out there? What if this Lab Rat turns on us for her next hit?” Den pointedly ignores Cat.

Dog ignores Den and lays a paw on Cat’s shoulder. “What’re you waiting for?”

“Listening for guards and alarms. Your bitch’s little stunt may have got us noticed earlier than anticipated.” She shrugs him off and with one withering look back she cracks open the door and pauses. She can just hear the notes. Her heart lightens. Her magic stirs.

The Canis’ ears prick as she opens the door wider.

“What’s that?” Den turns to her.

She looks at the Canis, smile growing, her single eye moistening.

“That – is the Package. The last hope of the Mammals.”

They listen for a moment, mesmerised.

“What’s the noise it’s making?” Dog glances at her.

“Singing.”

They slip into the darkened hall, past a handful of doors with small barred windows.

Dog peers into the first few, each is a tiny cell, most with a single occupant. All of them beaten, burnt or butchered in some way.

Den chokes back a sob as she sees one Feli mother hugging a dead kitten, trying to force it’s slack jaw to latch onto her swollen teats.

“Enough.” Dog drags Den from the cell door.

“Time to put an end to all this.” His growl has a sharp edge, his magic sparks to life through the disintegrating spell-net, and Cat suspects he’s beating back the memories of his – their – incarceration.

She waits by the last cell.

The singing is coming from in here.

Cat looks at Dog and Den, her eye bright.

“Makes you feel real good.” Den’s tongue is lolling, her pupils dilating, ears forward. Cat addresses Dog.

“Corporation is shipping out, I’ve overheard them. The Package frightens and excites them at the same time. This is the only thing that makes any sense of their sudden departure. You have to take it to a safe place. It’s the Rebellion’s last hope. Our world’s last hope.” She takes a breath, capturing their gazes. The venom buzz is totally gone and she worries they won’t understand the significance. She can’t spell them, and she’s past manipulating anyone anyway.

But am I right? Will the forgotten magic work on them too?

Cat uses the stolen key and thrusts open the door. She steps back, her face a bloom of hope and adoration.

The two Canis lean past her, hesitant, suspecting betrayal even now.

In the cell is a creature they’ve never seen before. A creature from legend. It’s young, playing on the floor with two wooden blocks, clapping them together rhythmically. From its throat erupts the most beautiful sound, the harmonic threads strumming ancient Pack memories deep in the primitive part of their brains.

The creature looks up as Den whimpers, lost in the moment, her tail a blur. The singing stops, replaced by a smile that makes all three beasts at the door goofy with happiness. It climbs to its feet and totters over on two legs.

Dog steps towards it. Its head barely reaches the top of his leg.

In synchrony Dog, Den and Cat drop to four paws and watch, mesmerised, as the creature reaches out a hairless, five fingered hand and pats Den’s head.

“Good doggie,” the human child says.