Diana cupped a mug of juice in her hands and watched bemusedly as her young cousins wandered through the back yard, searching for colourfully wrapped chocolates. The warm, orange, late-morning sun was trickling through the filter dome far overhead, casting dappled patterns on the brown rubber surface of the yard and throwing shadows under the plastic tower fort in the corner.
Uncle Peter stepped through the door that connected the kitchen to the outdoors and settled himself down beside Diana, carefully balancing a cup of coffee in one hand and a large jam-filled pastry in the other. He was only ten years older than Diana, the youngest of her mother's siblings, and the most relatable. Setting his pastry down on his knee, Uncle Peter grinned at Diana, wrinkling his well-rounded cheeks. "You're not hunting for Aster chocolates with the rest of the kids?"
"Ha ha, very funny," said Diana. "I outgrew this stuff a decade ago. Besides, it's only fair to give the little ones a chance to actually find them on their own. I've spotted half a dozen just sitting here!"
"You'd think Uncle Ivan would do a better job of picking hiding spots in his own yard, eh? He knows I can't resist sneaking a couple here and there," said Uncle Peter, winking.
Diana feigned shock. "I can't believe you'd steal candy from babies!"
"Hey, free chocolate is free chocolate! You've got to take advantage of your opportunities."
Diana smiled. "I don't need free chocolate. I have a good job now. I can afford to buy my own chocolate."
"That's right, you landed that PR position at the Ministry, didn't you?" said Uncle Peter. "How are you finding it?"
"It's really exciting," said Diana. "I've already been to all kinds of schools and special events, just spreading awareness, you know? I mean, most people understand the basic concept that animals are unsafe, but there's still plenty of ignorance out there over the right steps to take if you see one. A lot of what we're trying to do is get our message into people's homes. If parents teach animal safety to their children, the problem starts to regulate itself, and suddenly we don't have to focus so much of our budget on enforcement."
Under the tower fort, two of the cousins were shouting as they wrestled over a red Aster chocolate that each claimed they had seen first. Tears were threatening to flow.
"Cindy!" called Uncle Peter to his wife.
"I'm on it," said Aunt Cindy, bustling out into the yard to lay down some discipline.
Uncle Peter took a bite of his pastry and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. "So," he prompted, resuming the conversation, "you're enjoying it at the Ministry?"
Diana nodded. "It's great. Exactly what I've always wanted to do."
"I remember you as a little kid with all those old colouring books you had. You used to use up our black and red markers pretty quickly!"
Diana laughed. "Some kids like drawing buildingscapes," she said, gesturing over the fence to the countless towering skyscrapers that crowded the horizon. "I liked monsters. They've always tickled my imagination."
Uncle Peter looked thoughtful for a minute as he sipped at his coffee. "What are your thoughts on all the controversy that the new enforcement standards have been causing lately?"
"It's a tough situation. I mean, I can see why people aren't happy about it, but I don't think they necessarily appreciate the dangers associated with animal infestations. They figure Animal Control is overreacting to minor cases, but little animals turn into big animals, and then they breed, and they spread, and all the diseases and health risks just grow from there."
"I think most people understand that there's a real threat," said Uncle Peter, "but from what I've been reading, most of the uproar has to do with the harshness of the punishments, and the power Animal Control has to hold anyone indefinitely on suspicion alone."
"That's more of a media blow-up than anything," explained Diana. "That language in the legislation only comes into effect in emergency scenarios." She drained her juice.
"You'd know better than I would, of course," said Uncle Peter. "It would be nice to see a clear definition of what constitutes an 'emergency,' though. I think that would put a lot of people's minds at ease."
"That's actually written into the—" began Diana, but she was interrupted by one of the cousins screaming.
"Cindy!" called Uncle Peter.
"Your turn!" said Aunt Cindy.
Uncle Peter sighed and began to stand.
"It's okay," said Diana. "I'll do it. You can finish your coffee." She got up and jogged over to where Michael, Uncle Peter's pudgy three-year-old son, was sitting and wailing, fat little fists balled up and quivering. Diana picked Michael up, sat him in her lap, and rocked him back and forth. "Come on, little guy. You're okay."
Then she saw the animal.
It was about six inches long, a thin, pink, segmented thing. Its body was stretched out on the rubber ground, writhing gently, half of it grotesquely flattened.
Oh no, thought Diana. Oh no! What do I do? Calm down. We can deal with this. We've got to report it.
She looked back over her shoulder towards the porch. "Uncle Peter, I need a hand!"
"Can you get all the kids on the porch and have them take their shoes off?"
Frowning, Uncle Peter called the kids over and came to join Diana. "What is it?"
Diana lifted Michael and put him in his father's arms. "It looks like one of them stepped on this animal, so we'll have to disinfect all their shoes, just in case. Michael might've touched it, too. I think that's what scared him."
"Where did it come from?"
"I don't know. You can do everything right, and sometimes they still find a way to slip through the cracks. It should be okay, though. This is just a little one." Diana took her phone out and snapped a picture. "I'm going to call it in."
"Do we have to report it right away?" protested Uncle Peter. "It's Aster Day. Lunch is almost ready, and the kids are really looking forward to their chocolate... The whole day is going to be ruined as soon as Animal Control shows up."
Diana started dialling. "I know. I feel bad for the kids, too. But this is important. Besides, can you imagine how it would look if a Ministry employee didn't follow the regulations?"
Uncle Peter sighed and carried Michael over to the porch. While he had all of the other cousins remove their shoes and go inside, Diana gave the necessary details to Animal Control.
"They'll be here in a few minutes," Diana informed Uncle Peter and Aunt Cindy, who were waiting on the porch with their son. "They said it looks like a worm, and worms aren't known to carry many diseases, but it'll be best to keep Michael out here until they arrive. Make sure he doesn't put his hands near his mouth."
They nodded grimly, almost distantly, and tried to quiet Michael's sobbing.
It was late afternoon by the time the Animal Control team had finished cleaning up the worm, sweeping the yard for any other infestations, interviewing every person in the house, and thoroughly disinfecting little Michael. Aunt Karen and Uncle Ivan tried to convince everyone to stay for cake, but the ordeal had taken the excitement out of the day, and the kids were getting grumpy, especially those who had missed their naps. Uncle Peter and Aunt Cindy were the first to leave, with Michael still whimpering and sniffling, his skin red from the vigorous scrubbing he had received.
Diana ducked out shortly after, to get away from the accusatory glares more than anything. She could understand her family's ill mood, to a certain extent. Nobody would have asked for an animal to show up in the middle of a family holiday. But it almost felt like they were blaming her for what had happened, and that wasn't fair. She'd found it, and she'd been forced to call in. Just because she worked for the Ministry didn't mean she got any special privileges, or that she could somehow shelter them from the consequences of having an animal showing up in their back yard.
They'll get over it, she reassured herself as she got into her car to head home. They're just disappointed. They'll sleep it off.
The incident with the animal had produced a much different mood in Diana. Big family get-togethers had never been her favourite thing, anyways, so she didn't mind having the rest of the day to herself. And she wouldn't have admitted it if anyone asked, but seeing the animal had actually been kind of an exciting experience. It was the first time she had ever seen a live animal, and it had been very different from what the museum tours had led her to expect. This hadn't been a hairy, toothy, plague-bearing mammal, like a rat, or a tiny, blood-sucking, pestilent insect, like a mosquito bug.
The worm had looked so benign. It certainly didn't seem like a dangerous killer that bore the threat of plague. As she'd been telling lots of kids, though, sometimes the appearance of an animal could be deceptive.
Still, as she made the turn into the parking lot of her apartment building Diana wished she could have taken a minute or two to just look at the worm and watch how it moved, how it acted. From a safe distance, of course. It would have been fascinating.
Diana took the elevator to the fourteenth floor and let herself into her corner apartment. She left her phone on the kitchen table, flopped down on the couch in the living room, and closed her eyes. The memory of how the worm had stretched and writhed projected itself on the backs of her eyelids. She'd watched it try to squirm down into the crack in the rubbery ground.
Then an Animal Control worker in a mask and gloves had pinched it with a thin pair of tongs and dropped it into an opaque plastic container marked DISPOSAL. For the first time, Diana had wondered what was done with animals after they were captured.
She was drawn out of her reverie by a soft clung sound that came from the direction of the fire place. She looked up. Must have been the wind, she thought. Hers was one of the few apartments with an external chimney, and sometimes the wind blew down the chimney and pushed around the everburn logs.
There was a muffled "Cheep!"
The wind had never made a sound like that before.
Diana pulled open the fireplace's small metal door and almost fell over backwards as a little creature bounced out onto the carpet and shook itself.
"Cheep!" it said again.
It had black, beady eyes, a pointed orange mouth, and two spindly, orange legs. It was covered in some strange kind of hair or fur that Diana had never seen before, black along its sides and back and white down its front.
As Diana stared in shock, the creature lifted up its sides and spread them out. It looked like it had wide, thin arms with no hands. Diana had never seen anything like it.
"Cheep!" said the animal. It bounced a couple of times, then jumped and flapped its arms, and suddenly it was whirling all around the living room, flying.
Diana yelped and dove onto the couch, covering her head with a pillow. For what seemed like an eternity she pressed herself into the cushions as she listened to it flap around her apartment. Her heart pounded in her ears.
Finally the noise stopped.
What had happened to it? Maybe it was gone. Maybe it had flown back up and out through the chimney. Or maybe it was sitting on the arm of the couch, getting ready to bite her and inflict her with some deadly illness.
Get up, Diana urged herself. Get to your phone. Call it in. She slowed her breathing. Here we go. She opened her eyes. No sudden movements. She lifted the pillow. Just stand up, and...
There it was. The thing was perched on the curtain rod above the window by the kitchen sink. Diana stared at it, afraid to move in case she set it off again. It was hopping slowly side to side, turning its head to look around the room.
What was it? It wasn't a rat. Rats had long tails. It wasn't a dog. Dogs were much bigger, and they couldn't fly, could they? It wasn't a worm, or a mosquito, or a goat, or a bear. It didn't match anything in any of her presentations. How many kinds of animals were there? Diana wished she could remember more of what she had learned in high school.
She steeled her resolve. All she had to do was get to her phone, back slowly out into the hallway, and close the door, trapping it inside. Then just wait for Animal Control to show up and grab it with some kind of net and put it in one of those plastic containers for DISPOSAL.
And then what?
Would they burn it up somehow, to get rid of all the pathogens? Or gas it, and dissect it in a lab for medical research so they could create new vaccines?
"Cheep!" said the animal, and bobbed its head, and hopped from side to side, and looked down into Diana's eyes. It almost seemed like it was scared. Could animals have feelings?
Diana slid gently off the couch and slowly, cautiously stood up. She grabbed the pillow and held it out in front of her like a shield. Keeping her eyes on the animal, she inched around towards the kitchen, freezing in place every time the creature looked her way.
Almost there, she told herself. Just reach out and grab the phone... Now dial the number...
But she didn't. She just stood, phone in hand, pillow at the ready, and stared up at the animal.
"Cheep!" it said.
Still she stood and watched. What am I doing? She put the phone down. What am I doing? She met the animal's gaze. WHAT AM I DOING?
It was kind of cute, really.
This is insane. I'm insane. I can't let them kill it. What are my options? This is insane.
Option One: Open the window right now and let the animal fly out, or use a broom to shoo it out if it doesn't want to go. At least that way its blood wouldn't be on her hands (assuming this kind of animal even had blood). Maybe it would even find its way back through the filter dome and out of the city again. At least she would have given it a chance. Of course, if anyone saw it flying out of her window, she would be in big trouble for not calling it in. She could lose her job. She could go to jail.
So, Option Two: Wait until dark, and then let it out. That way it was less likely that she'd be seen releasing it, and less likely she'd get in trouble. In the meantime she could just stand here and watch it, study it. The way it moved was spellbinding. It might be risky waiting for nightfall, though. That was more time for someone in the hallway to hear it, and more time for it to decide to attack her and infect her with all of its diseases. Could she get sick just from having it in her apartment, or would it have to bite her to transfer the pathogens? It didn't look like much of a biter, and she certainly didn't feel strange yet. How long did it take for symptoms of illness to show up? Diana had never been very good at biology.
Options one and two each held their risks, and either way the animal would almost certainly end up in a DISPOSAL container eventually. That idea made Diana's throat tighten up. Was there an option three?
Almost unbidden, another idea sprang into her mind. Option Three: Pack it into a box, hide the box in the trunk of her car, drive it outside of the city, and release it there.
Nope. Not an option. She'd be caught at the city border, thrown in prison, and branded an ecoterrorist. That carried a possible life sentence these days. And she worked for the Ministry; imagine the scandal! Then again, ecoterrorists were always caught smuggling animals into the city, weren't they? Were the inspections as thorough for vehicles leaving the city?
"Cheep," said the little animal.
Diana backed up out of the kitchen. The creature hopped a couple of inches in the air and fluttered its... Its wings, she supposed. When they were stretched out they looked kind of like a jet's wings. A jet's wings didn't move around, though. How very curious. The animal landed back on the curtain rod and watched Diana.
This is foolish. This is stupid. I'm going to get caught.
She pulled open the door of her hall closet and found a large shoebox. This would hold it, but if it moved around a lot someone was bound to hear, especially because of the handle-holes cut into the sides. She'd have to muffle the sounds somehow and hope there was no one in the halls or the elevator.
Diana brought the shoebox into the kitchen. Next problem: how in the world was she going to get the animal into the box? Maybe she could lure it in with food. It was probably pretty hungry. Food didn't get left just lying around in the city; it went straight from the stores to the cars to the refrigerators. There was no way an animal could find food without being spotted.
Or maybe it had been spotted. Maybe Animal Control had been tracking it all the way over here, waiting for it to land so they could catch it. They could be coming up here right now...
But it was too late to be thinking that way. If they had seen it fly down her chimney, Diana was already in trouble for not reporting it immediately. And if they knew it was nearby, but didn't know exactly where it was, then it would be seen coming out her window for sure, making her current plan the only real option.
Back on task, Diana reminded herself. She could talk herself in circles all day, but it wasn't going to solve anything. Stop thinking. Do.
What did animals eat?
Most animals were carnivores, weren't they? She got out a bit of tofu. No one ate meat in the city. Apparently people used to, but civilization had matured beyond such more primitive habits. There were better, safer ways to get protein.
The animal didn't even sniff at the tofu. Either it wasn't a carnivore, or it was able to identify the tofu as only a simulation of meat. It seemed uninterested in her vegetables, too. What else was in her cupboards? There was an old, crumbly bun that she should have eaten days ago. It was worth a try.
Diana broke off a few pieces of the bun and placed them in the shoebox, catching the crumbs in her hand so they wouldn't fall on the floor. She nearly screamed when the creature dove down off the curtain rod, landed on her hand, and started biting eagerly at the crumbs with its pointy orange mouth.
Don't scream. Don't scream. You'll scare it. It'll bite you.
Fighting off hyperventilation, Diana watched apprehensively as the animal cleaned off all the crumbs on her palm and looked up at her, as if asking for more. Its jabbing bites and poky little toes felt weird and more than a little surreal, but it wasn't painful, and it didn't seem aggressive. At any rate, it wasn't breaking the skin, so it was probably safe, right?
Diana gently reached with her free hand, took a chunk of bun, and crumbled it into her upturned palm. "Cheep!" said the animal, and resumed eating.
"You're welcome," said Diana, then caught herself. Did I just talk to an animal? I'm insane! She crumbled the rest of the bun into the shoebox and carefully lowered the animal in with it. It continued its meal, cheeping happily.
In a single smooth movement, Diana brought the lid down on top of the box. The creature hopped and flapped and cheeped for twenty or thirty seconds, but Diana held on tight, biting her lip, hoping no one outside of her apartment could hear what was happening. Finally the animal settled down.
Diana peeked in through one of the handle holes. Thankfully they were too small for the creature to escape through. It looked out at her forlornly. "I'm trying to save you, Cheep," she told it. "Just keep eating and be quiet."
I can't believe I'm talking to an animal. I can't believe I just gave it a name.
Cheep calmed down and went back to its bread crumbs.
Is it listening to me? It couldn't actually understand me, could it? Diana closed her eyes and took a big, deep breath. I'm going to spend the rest of my life in prison.
Before she could lose her nerve, Diana grabbed a roll of tape out of a drawer and wrapped several strips over the lid to hold it down. She put on her shoes and grabbed a laundry basket and some old clothes out of her bedroom.
Diana laid down a few shirts in the bottom of the basket, put the shoebox in next, and then dumped more clothes on top. Hopefully that would muffle any sounds Cheep made, while still allowing it to breathe. Now Diana would just look like she was carrying a load of clothes down to her car. At the border she could even say she was taking it to a thrift store in the Suburbs. They needed lots of charitable donations down there. It just might work.
Diana took a deep breath, gathered up her phone and keys, and carried the basket to the door of her apartment. She listened for a minute to see if anyone was in the hallway. All seemed quiet.
She stepped out into the hall and locked the door behind her, trying to look natural for the security cameras that she knew were hidden in the common areas. Forcing a gentle, demure smile onto her face, she padded over to the elevator, straining her ears for any approaching residents or any sounds from Cheep.
The elevator seemed to take an hour to arrive. Thankfully, it was empty. Diana pressed the button for the parking garage. Down the elevator sank, floor by floor by floor.
The elevator eased to a stop on the third floor, and Diana's heart kicked into double time. A heavy-set elderly man stepped in.
Diana smiled at him nervously. "Parking garage?" she said. Her voice barely made it through her tightly clenched throat.
The man nodded.
"Me too," said Diana. "Just going down to my car. Bringing these clothes to a thrift store."
The man smiled politely and tried to ignore her.
No one else boarded the elevator, and a few floors later they were at the garage. Diana let the man get out first and walked as slowly as she could to get some distance between them. Her heart was beating like a drum. When she finally reached her car it began to settle down. She popped the trunk and slid the laundry basket inside, then settled into the driver's seat and started up the engine.
She'd made it. She was in the car.
And that had been the easy part.
The freeway was crammed with cars.
Diana had only been to the city border once before, on a field trip during a high school science class when they'd been learning about how the filter dome worked, how it blocked out the sun's most harmful rays and cleaned the air to eliminate outside disease and pollution. She remembered that drive only taking an hour, but her school had been closer to the border than her apartment was, and they hadn't gone during rush hour.
When Diana finally reached the border it was 6:30, and she'd been driving for over two hours. Her leg was sore from repeatedly working back and forth between the accelerator and the brake. Cheep had to be getting restless by now, or maybe it was sleeping. That would certainly make things easier.
Over the past couple of hours Diana had begun to realize how hungry she was. The incident with the worm had made her forget all about lunch, so she hadn't eaten since mid-morning. She had considered swinging through a drive thru, but decided against it. A drive thru would just be one more place where something could go wrong. Stopping to recharge her car's battery had been nerve-wracking enough.
The line-up at the border crossing was still half an hour long, and Diana spent the entire time imagining what would happen if the inspector looked into the trunk and heard the box go "Cheep!" They'd drag her out of the car, handcuff her on the ground, and shut down all the inspection lines while sirens blared, lights flashed, and cameras recording the whole thing. Then the on-site Animal Control team would show up and capture Cheep and slam it into one of their DISPOSAL containers while it screamed in fear, "Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!"
Behind Diana, someone honked. The light in front of her was green, inviting her forward. It was her turn.
As she rolled down her window she was sure the white-uniformed, clean-shaven man with the digital clipboard could hear her heart pounding. She handed him her ID and tried not to let him see her fingers shake.
He looked at her ID for several seconds with his hard, grey eyes. Diana thought she was going to have a heart attack. Wouldn't that give her family a story to tell. Nobody died of heart attacks anymore.
"Where are you headed?" asked the inspector.
"Just into the Suburbs," said Diana. "I have some old clothes to drop off for one of the charities."
The inspector was looking back and forth between Diana's face and her ID. His forehead was wrinkled in what might have been suspicion. It's okay, Diana told herself. They always look suspicious. That's their job.
"You didn't want to just drop your donation off at one of the pick-up sites?" said the inspector.
"I... Uh..." Why didn't I think of that? Diana scrambled: "I like to see where my things are going in-person. It makes the giving that much more rewarding."
"Which charity?" said the inspector.
Shoot. "I go to a different one every time, to spread things around. I don't usually decide until I get there. Depends who needs it most."
"Uh huh." The wrinkles in the inspector's forehead deepened. He looked at Diana's ID again. "Could you pop your trunk for me?"
Diana complied. As the inspector walked around to the back of her car, she tasted bile rising to the back of her mouth. She watched in terror as the inspector lifted the trunk of the car open and leaned over to look inside. Diana waited for the telltale "Cheep!" She could already feel the handcuffs on her wrists.
The inspector straightened up and looked through the rear windshield towards her. He took three quick steps back to her window. Here it comes...
The inspector leaned down and smiled. "I just remembered why I recognize you. You work for the Ministry, right?"
Diana nodded weakly.
"You came in to my son's school a couple weeks ago and made a presentation about animal safety. I was there. I go in one day a week as a parent volunteer to help the teacher out. Your presentation was really good!"
"Um... thank you," Diana managed.
"My son has been obsessed with animals for over a year now. Always drawing pictures of them on his schoolwork and wanting to play dress-up games. We were starting to get worried that it was unhealthy, but now he says he wants to be an Animal Control Officer when he grows up." The inspector was beaming. "Isn't that great?"
Diana did her best to smile. "That's wonderful."
"Here's your ID back. Tell your coworkers thank you from me, okay? And I hope the Suburbians appreciate your gifts."
"Oh, wait," said the inspector. "I forgot to close your trunk." He scooted around to the back of the car and slammed the trunk shut. Then he hopped back into his booth and gave her a thumbs up as the holding gate was raised.
Diana shot her car forward and through the wall of the filter dome. She almost couldn't believe it. She was through!
The Suburbs were much dirtier than Diana had expected. She'd never been out here herself; she'd only heard horror stories, and she didn't believe half of them. Still, she didn't think she'd find so much garbage lining the streets, and so many cracks in the pavement.
The roads were fairly busy, full of people commuting home from their jobs inside the city. Diana didn't know why anyone would live out here if they had the choice. Supposedly the housing costs were a lot lower. Diana could see why. The buildings were grimy and old, and the structures were tiny: none of them looked to be any more than eight stories tall. What a waste of vertical space!
If the rumours were true, the Suburbs were a haven for all kinds of criminals. Theft, violence, and even animal breeding supposedly took place in the Suburb's darker corners. The thought made Diana lock her car doors.
Enforcement was a lot more lax out here beyond the filter dome. According to the training Diana had received during her Ministry initiation, it was too expensive to fully police the Suburbs. Some day the government hoped to expand the filter dome to cover the Suburbs as well as the main city, and then it would be time to really clean things up out here, fully eliminating the criminal elements and scouring the stubborn pockets of plague and illness, but for now the Suburbs were only partially protected, covered by a thinner, cheaper, less effective alternative to the main dome. The money to do something about it just wasn't there yet, because enforcement costs inside the main city were still too high. That's why the Ministry was hiring people like Diana: prevention was cheaper than enforcement, and the long-term financial gains of increasing preventative messaging would eventually pay for the expansion of the dome. Theoretically, anyways.
Diana wondered what the people she was passing on the streets would think if they knew what she was doing. She was supposed to be helping them, but instead she was undermining her own role at the Ministry, violating the principles she was teaching and invalidating her own preventative work.
Too late now. Besides, Cheep was only one small animal, and it wasn't listed among the biggest threats, like a rat or a mosquito. Once she had released it to the wild, outside the Suburbs, it wouldn't be able to hurt anyone, and no one would be able to hurt it. Diana wondered which was more important to her at this point.
She kept driving.
Another hour brought her to the border of the Suburbs. Passing out of the Suburbs through the sub-dome turned out to be much easier than leaving the main city. The inspector took only a casual glance at her ID before waving her on and going back to watching television in his booth. No wonder the Ministry had so many problems with people smuggling animals into the Suburbs. No wonder so many Suburbians kept dying from preventable diseases. Look at how poorly they protected themselves!
As Diana passed beyond the Suburbs into the wilds, she set her car's air conditioning intake to recycle the air inside the car rather than drawing its supply from outside. She wanted to breathe as little of the unfiltered atmosphere out here as possible. Centuries of poor environmental management had left the natural landscape fouled and polluted, according to the history texts. That was why the Ministry had built filter domes around its cities, and had so zealously protected its citizens from the elements for the past several decades. If the animal-borne illnesses didn't get you, the airborne chemicals would.
The highway ran in a straight line directly away from the city for as far as Diana could see. It was raised slightly above the level of the land around it. The terrain was something Diana had only seen in pictures. Prairies, they called them, naturally occurring flatlands covered in wild yellow grasses that waved in the wind. They were similar to the wheat, barley, and other crops grown in the city's agricultural district, but even though some were edible, the wild grasses were far less efficient and nutritious than what Ministry engineers were able to produce inside the filter dome.
Diana drove for about ten minutes, until she felt comfortably distant from the Suburbs. She pulled over and scanned the skies, wondering if she might be able to see more animals like Cheep. There must be others like it, a family of some sort. Would Cheep be able to find them back on its own?
She popped the trunk, unlocked her doors, and held her breath. Moving quickly, she flung open her door, jogged around to the trunk, lifted it open, and pulled the laundry basket towards her. The movement startled Cheep, and the animal began to hop, cheep, and flutter its wings.
"Shh!" whispered Diana. "I'm getting you out!" She had to breathe again, and prepared herself for the stench. She inhaled. Her eyes opened wide.
The air that entered her lungs was like nothing she had ever tasted. It reminded her of fresh bread from the oven. She breathed again, deeply. It was an incredible, heady sensation. She felt clean, bright, alive. Was this really what air outside the filter dome was like?
For the first time, Diana took a moment to quiet her thoughts and really look at her surroundings. The openness produced a brief sensation of agoraphobia, but it was exhilarating at the same time. She'd never seen a horizon like this. She'd never seen these shades of yellow.
She looked to the west and saw the setting sun. Its golden light was spilling across the undersides of the clouds as its lower edge kissed the surface of the prairies. All her life she'd watched the sun set over the tops of skyscrapers, but this... This was something else entirely. This was something altogether more beautiful.
Diana was so enthralled by what she was seeing, what she was breathing, that she didn't hear the other car approaching until it was almost on top of her.
The whir of the vehicle's poorly tuned electric engine snapped her back to reality, and she practically threw the box back into the laundry basket and slammed the trunk shut. All of her fears flooded back as she heard the other car come to a stop on the opposite shoulder. What should she do? Should she run?
"Hi there!" called a voice.
Diana turned to look. The other driver had rolled down the window of his beat-up old truck and was smiling in her direction. He appeared to be in his forties or fifties. His beard was flecked with touches of grey and his eyes sparkled.
"Hi," said Diana.
"Everything all right?"
"Y-yes," said Diana. "I'm fine."
"I can give you a ride into the Suburbs if you're havin' car troubles," said the man. "I'm headin' in there on a supply run."
"Thanks, but my car's fine."
"Okay. Just thought I'd check. Don't see many folks stopped out here in the middle of the highway for no reason. You got enough juice to get to town from here?"
Diana looked back towards the city. "Yeah, I charged up not too long ago."
"Oh, I didn't mean the city," said the man. "I thought you might be headin' towards Prairie Town, since you were pointed that direction an' all."
Diana said, "I've never heard of Prairie Town."
"Well you're one o' the city folk," said the man, sounding almost apologetic. "Most o' you don't seem to know about Prairie Town. It's just another hour along. Can't miss it if you stay on the highway."
"People actually live out here?"
"Sure! It's a little rougher than city life, and you've got to work with your hands instead of just sittin' in cars and chairs all the time, but exercise is good for you, and you can't beat the fresh air!" The man sniffed appreciatively.
"I thought the air out here was polluted and toxic," said Diana. "This isn't at all what I expected."
"Yeah, well, I hear they tell you a lot o' nonsense when you live inside the city." The man frowned. "Even in the Suburbs folks are fed plenty o' strange stories. Say, is it true that there aren't any animals at all inside the bubble?"
"There aren't supposed to be," said Diana, "but every now and then one gets in. This morning one of my cousins stepped on a worm. Animal Control had to come clean it up and disinfect everything."
The man howled with laughter. "Disinfect?" he guffawed. "Because of a worm?"
Diana was taken aback. "Animals carry disease! You must know that."
"Sure they do," said the man, still chuckling. "And so do humans. Cleanin' up after a worm? Boy, what an idea."
Not prepared to let this stranger walk over her sensibilities quite so easily, Diana pushed back. "Don't people out here get sick a lot, with so much exposure to animals?"
"Yeah, we get sick," said the man, "and then we get better. Or sometimes we don't. City people ain't immortal either, are they?" He smiled.
"So, tell me, if I'm not being too nosy," said the man. "If you aren't on your way to Prairie Town, what are you doing all this way from home? Just come to find out if the air's really as deadly as you've been taught?"
"Actually, I'm..." Diana paused. Should she tell him about Cheep? What would he say? What if he was secretly an Animal Control agent, patrolling for smugglers? She looked at him. If he was an agent, why was he being so friendly? "I found an animal," said Diana, "inside the city."
"Oh?" said the man. Now he looked really interested. "What kind of animal? Another worm?"
"No, it's bigger than that. I don't know what it is, exactly. It can fly."
"What're you plannin' to do with it?"
Diana shrugged. "Let it go," she said.
The man smiled. "Not scared it was gonna give you some kind of plague?"
"I was at first," admitted Diana, "but..."
"Why don't I take a look at it," offered the man. He opened his door, got out, and crossed over to Diana's side of the road. He was the skinniest man Diana had ever seen. He had no padding at all. She could see the muscles in his arms right through his skin! It must be really hard to get enough food when you live outside the city, she thought.
Diana opened the trunk somewhat reluctantly and pulled out the shoebox. The man looked in through one of the holes. "It's just a cute little bird," he pronounced. "Looks pretty freaked out, too!"
"Is it dangerous?" asked Diana.
"No, not at all," said the man.
"I didn't think so. I mean, it frightened me at first, but then it flew up onto a curtain rod, and, I don't know..." Diana trailed off.
"They really do a job on your head inside that city, don't they?" The man looked at her sympathetically. "Hey, tell you what. A lot o' people in Prairie Town keep little guys like this as pets. They don't mind livin' in cages as long as they get fed right. Actually, they tend to live longer and happier that way than they do in the wild. I'll take it off your hands, if you want, and make sure it gets taken good care of."
Diana hesitated. She looked at the man's unrounded cheeks and flat stomach. "You aren't going to... eat it, are you?"
The man almost fell over laughing.