by Mary E. Lowd
Kipper followed Tamantha down a path between two of the towering buildings. Red and gray-furred squirrels passed by, their movements sudden and jerky. The way they moved — stopping and starting — made Kipper feel twitchy. Yet, their tails flowed smooth as rivers.
Behind the row of buildings that faced the street, there was a pedestrian square, surrounded by cafe awnings and outdoor seating. Squirrels in wicker chairs chattered and dined on crunchy-looking pastries. Ladders and open-air skywalks laced through the space above them.
In the center of the square stood a gray rock statue. It took Kipper a moment to recognize the central figure — it was taller than a Great Dane and had a knobbly face, no muzzle, and head-fur piled high in complicated braids. A human woman, Kipper realized, wrought from stone. The woman was wearing simple clothes, and her arms were outstretched. Stone animals clustered around her.
A hulking bear stood behind the human. A mouse perched on her left shoulder, and a rat on her right. A bunny, fox, and badger stood like stair steps to the woman’s right — knee high, Kipper-sized, and waist-high. Each of them stared adoringly up at the human.
A stone otter with a wide grin stood to the woman’s left, and in front of them all, a life-sized squirrel stood proudly with its tail wide and bushy behind it.
Kipper walked up to the statue and read the bronze plaque at the squirrel statue’s feet: “To strive for betterment in all ways, for everyone, for all time — uplift is but another step in the string of small and great steps of our kind — all our kinds,” Breanna Schweitzer, Bio-Ethics Blog, 2031.
“Who is Breanna Schweitzer?” Kipper asked. “Is it this human?”
Tamantha came up beside her, nose twitching. “You don’t know her?” The squirrel cab driver’s sparkling eyes showed shock. “Haven’t you studied any history?”
Kipper’s ears flattened as she thought back to the history classes she’d taken during her kittenhood in the cattery. They’d studied humans, but she didn’t remember much. At least, nothing specific. She’d always pictured humans as a force of history, faceless and many, much like a force of nature. They’d fought wars, invented things, travelled to the moon, uplifted cats, dogs, otters, and squirrels. And, according to so many believing dogs, they would be back someday.
Humans were a massive they.
This was a singular she. An individual person.
“I never learned about a Breanna Schweitzer,” Kipper admitted. “Was she important?”
The red squirrel stared slack-jawed at Kipper for a moment before pulling herself together and fixing her expression. “I’m sorry; I can’t imagine never having heard of Breanna Schweitzer. She…” Tamantha paused, as if looking for the right words. Or perhaps because the right words were so fundamental to her worldview it felt ridiculous to have to say them. “She invented uplift.”
Kipper looked back at the statue and stared into the stone woman’s unblinking eyes.
As a cattery kitten, Kipper had never known her parents, but she felt like she’d just been handed an old, ragged photograph and told, “Here, this is your mother.” What could she learn about herself by searching this stone woman’s face? There must be something.
But the eyes were blank, gray, static. The face was human — even if it was the face of a woman who’d manipulated genes passed down through the generations to Kipper, there could be no physical trace of their connection in the granite cut of this woman’s cheekbones or the slope of her nose.
Kipper looked at the animals around the woman more carefully. She understood the presence of the grinning otter and proud squirrel. But why the mouse, rat, bunny, fox, badger, and bear? And, more importantly, Kipper wondered why wasn’t there a cat? Or a dog?
“She has an unusual collection of animals with her,” Kipper commented drily, trying not to feel offended by the lack of a cat. “I notice they’re all standing upright.”
“These are the species Breanna Schweitzer uplifted.” Tamantha spoke so matter-of-factly that Kipper felt a fool for bringing the subject up. “I mean, I know that badgers, foxes, and rabbits died off after the first generation… And there was only ever one uplifted bear. But Teddy Bearclaw was an uplifted bear, even if he was the only one.”
Kipper’s ears skewed, and her understanding of history morphed and telescoped confusingly. She’d never heard of uplifted badgers, foxes, or rabbits. Or a bear named Teddy Bearclaw — that name sounded more like a joke, cloyingly sweet, than an historical figure. Was this squirrel playing a practical joke on her? Telling her tall tales? “What are you talking about?!” Kipper spat.
Tamantha’s red brush of a tail twitched wildly behind her, curling and uncurling. She took a step backward, away from the angry-looking cat. Kipper looked around the square and realized Tamantha wasn’t the only squirrel watching her. Pointed red and gray muzzles faced her, glittery eyes watching with horror, from several of the cafes. A few squirrels even stared downward from the skywalks above.
Kipper had never been the largest animal in a crowd before. She wasn’t much bigger than the squirrels — maybe a head taller — but from hanging out around terriers, spaniels, and all sorts of medium-sized dogs, Kipper knew that it didn’t take much bigger to be a lot. “I’m sorry,” Kipper said. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice.”
“That’s okay,” Tamantha chirruped, stepping closer to Kipper again. “I guess they don’t teach much about the pre-plague times in a religious country like the Uplifted States.”
Kipper started to object that the Uplifted States wasn’t a religious country, but then her mind tripped over the word ‘pre-plague.’ Suddenly, her head hurt something fierce. Everything this squirrel said led her deeper down a rabbit-hole that she hadn’t even known existed until she fell backwards into it. With great trepidation, Kipper asked simply, “Pre-plague?”
“Oh dear…” Tamantha stepped away again. “Look, honey, you need to get yourself a history text that wasn’t written by First Race Believers. But right now, let’s just get you some fresh almond buns and maple mead from Pine Nut Patisserie to take on your submarine. Then we can see about picking up a data-chip with some actual information on it.”
The Pine Nut Patisserie was crowded. Shoulder-high squirrels skittered around Kipper, their ears twitching and tails waving like streamers in many different winds. They pointed at cakes and pastries in cubbyholes that covered the walls, and squirrels wearing aprons scurried about collecting the desired delectables, passing them to patrons, and counting out change. It was dizzying. Everyone twitching, everyone moving. Somehow they didn’t bump into each other, but their constant motion made Kipper nervous and jumpy.
She was grateful when Tamantha finally handed her a paper bag of almond buns and sunflower crisps along with a box of various nut teas and a bottle of maple mead. Her paws filled with squirrel delicacies, Kipper wanted nothing more than to get back to her submarine full of otters, but Tamantha insisted on stopping at a data-exchange and buying her a data-chip with several history texts burned onto it.
Kipper promised she would read it. But she wasn’t sure that she wanted to.
Continue on to Chapter 7…