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Articulate Mammals

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"You are not looking for a pet."

The voice actually startles Adrian, and he peers sharply into the darkness at the far end of the store's front room. The speaker -- a slight, pale man in traditional Chinese dress, a curtain of dark hair obscuring one eye -- gleams knowingly at him from the shadows. Adrian has never seen the man before, but there's something achingly familiar about him, something straining just beyond the reach of memory. All appearances suggest that he can't be much older than twenty, but the patient, amused twitch of his lips and the rich, knowing voice say otherwise.

At the sound of it, Bubastis pads back to Adrian's side, but there's nothing of the protective prowl in her movements, nothing to suggest that she thinks this stranger might pose a threat. She may be little more than a kitten, but she shows fierce loyalty, and her size and long canines are already impressive enough to deter potential adversaries. Even in affectionate mood, she manages to intimidate most people.

But not the pale man. An expression of delight blossoms on his face as he catches sight of her. "Oh!" he exclaims. "No. You are certainly not looking for a pet."

He crosses the room swiftly, the thick quiet swallowing his footsteps, the silk of his robe whispering like a night breeze, and drops to one knee in front of Bubastis, crooning something in a language that Adrian doesn't recognize, but that makes him think of vast expanses of time and the rustling of undergrowth in lonely places and prayers to gods older than humankind. Bubastis makes a soft noise in response and -- he could swear to it -- inclines her head towards Adrian with a pointed look.

"Of course. I have forgotten my manners. Please, forgive me." The stranger smiles and stands, smoothing down the front of his robe. He bows his head, and Adrian can't be sure whether the gesture is directed at him or at Bubastis. Then he extends a manicured hand. "I am Count D. Welcome to my pet shop."

"Adrian Veidt. It's good to meet you."

Count D (a pseudonym clearly chosen for its obviousness; his real name is probably the Chinese equivalent of 'John Smith') nods politely, and his handshake is firm. For a second, Adrian can't quite tell what about it sends that small shiver of unease up his spine. Then he realizes that the self-professed Count's hand is just a little too cold -- as though he's just returned from a walk in wintry weather, though it's June and swelteringly hot outside -- and unnaturally smooth. Grasping it is like touching the lush, glossy leaf of one of the more exotic succulents in his vivarium.

"Of course I know who you are," Count D is saying. "It's quite an honor. Perhaps you would care to join me for tea?" He withdraws his hand, motioning back into the recesses of the store.

An honor. That's the sort of thing people say to Adrian all the time, of course, and on some level they usually mean it. The polished sincerity of the Count's smile never falters, never gives any reason to suspect otherwise. It's only the way his gaze drifts off to the side, back to Bubastis, when he finishes speaking that makes the courtesy feel like an afterthought.

Adrian opens his mouth to say that it's a very kind offer but he can't possibly stay, it's late in the day and he's a very busy man, and he's sure that Count D will understand. But Bubastis is padding ahead into the shadows without hesitation, and so Adrian reminds himself that unease is a thing one overcomes, and that realistically it can do him no harm to indulge an eccentric animal enthusiast for half an hour, and follows.

There are no animals in the back room, though. 'Pet shop' was clearly something of a misnomer. More likely, this is some kind of private dealership, arranging the procurement of exotic pets for wealthy customers. Adrian would be willing to bet that not all of them are legal.

The inner sanctum (Adrian can't quite help thinking of it as such, though realistically it can be no more than a back room) is warm and dimly lit by red-shaded lamps, its air thick with sweet-scented smoke. Everything is dark, lacquered wood and richly embroidered fabric, exactly as he's been expecting. Obvious. Taken separately, its elements add up to no more than a cheap movie depiction of an opium den. They shouldn't be convincing. Adrian shouldn't be peering distrustfully around the room; he oughtn't to find himself sitting bolt upright on the brocade couch, hands folded tightly in his lap, smile thinning by the moment.

He can't see Bubastis, and for a moment he worries that she will knock over some priceless vase or piece of antique furniture in over-enthusiastic curiosity. Not that paying for it would be a problem, but the public tends to be wary of genetic engineering at the best of times; the project certainly doesn't need any extra negative publicity.

The Count, however, doesn't appear fazed in the slightest. He breathes in deeply, his eyelids fluttering halfway closed as he sips his steaming chai, and if he notices that Adrian sets his own cup down untouched, he doesn't show it.

Adrian feels as though he's being watched anyway.

That's because he is. He feels the presence at his elbow before he sees it, but he still starts when he turns his head and realizes that there is a child sitting on the arm of his chair.

She's probably no more than ten years old, and she's wearing a cotton dress in pale lilac, white gloves and white socks. She is sitting very still, and looking at him intently. There is something wrong with her eyes. At first, he thinks it's their color, and that -- a feline pale yellow -- is certainly unusual enough. But no, that isn't it; their pupils are so far dilated in the darkness that they look like irises, and he can't see their whites at all. Adrian wonders if she's been drugged.

"Ah. There you are," the Count says, pleasantly, and the girl's gaze shifts with a small, sharp movement of her head. No, it can't be drugs. She seems perfectly alert.

"I'm sorry for wandering off." She smiles. "I just had to look. I've never been here before."

"Mmm. But you have met my father, I think."

"Oh, yes." The girl laughs and shakes her silvery hair. "I suppose, really, you're my brother."

Adrian blinks. She obviously isn't speaking biologically -- she isn't even Asian -- and clearly there's something basic here that he isn't quite grasping, an unfamiliar and frustrating feeling. But he starts to remember who Count D reminds him of.

One of the junior researchers on the Bubastis project, in its early stages, a young post-doc from Hong Kong who seemed almost as taken with the kitten as Adrian was himself, murmuring to her in Cantonese after hours when everybody else had left the lab. He'd left suddenly, claiming a family emergency and leaving no forwarding address. But, more to the point, he and Count D could easily have been brothers. The researcher must have been a year or two older, wore his hair in a decidedly non-regulation cascade down the back of his lab coat and startlingly violet contact lenses in his eyes (that color would have been natural on no-one), but otherwise, the resemblance is uncanny.

Adrian can't recall the man's name, which is unusual in itself. In fact, he'd forgotten the man's very existence until now, as though a human-shaped hole had been cut in his memory.

Count D is replacing his teacup on the saucer, shuddering delicately. There is a soft clink. "Better not to think of it like that, little one," he is saying to the girl.

She frowns. "I liked him. He taught me lots of things. We can't save the humans. They did terrible things. That's one of the things he taught me."

The Count folds his hands, his expression meditative. "No. No, I suppose we can't. It's hardly our responsibility."

"We have to look after the Earth." The girl pauses, her frown giving way to something calmer and sadder. It's the kind of expression that just looks wrong on such a young face, and Adrian is reminded briefly and unpleasantly of some of his own childhood photographs. "But Count. I'm sorry to be so rude, but I didn't actually come here to talk to you."

The Count's smile is unreadable. "No-one ever does."

A weight settles against Adrian's shoulder, and when he looks down he sees that the girl is resting her head there. That makes him more deeply uncomfortable than anything else he's seen in this place, and it takes all of his self-control not to flinch.

"I just want you to know it's nothing personal," she says, looking solemnly up into his eyes. "You've always been very kind. I hope you can forgive me." Then she sits up, hops down off the arm of his chair, and pads off without looking back, out through the heavy velvet curtains and into the front room. Adrian stares after her.

She'd said 'the humans.' As though she wasn't one of them.

Maybe she is on drugs.

It occurs to Adrian that he ought to follow the girl, find out where she's come from, who her family are, take her to a police station. She didn't seem frightened, but -- drugs or no drugs -- something tells him that this isn't the kind of place anybody so young should be hanging around.

As Adrian stands up, there is a rattle of china; the Count, gathering teacups and saucers and placing them on a silver tray. He raises an eyebrow, lips quirking in what might be amusement, but he doesn't speak.

No; this is definitely no place for a child.

But in the front room there is no little girl, just Bubastis, sitting patiently on the other side of the curtain, tail curled neatly around in front of her.

"How did you get out here?" Adrian murmurs, and she stretches and stands, closing her eyes and rubbing her head against his knee in greeting. He is glancing around as he speaks, behind the furniture and into the corners of the room, but the girl doesn't reappear.

He calls in the address, anonymously, to the police on the way home. On investigation, they find only a disused store, its front door boarded up, its interior dusty and filled with junk.

When the news makes its way back to Adrian, as news inevitably does, his fingers tighten minutely around the telephone receiver, but his expression does not alter. Somehow, he is not entirely surprised.

* * *

"This won't take a moment." Adrian's voice is level, reassuring, as it always is, and after a second's hesitation Bubastis follows him into the control room, letting out an incomprehensible little sound that isn't quite a purr.

He can feel her watching him. His finger hovers over the button. The sound drops a fraction, becomes a low rumble.

"What's the matter, girl?" he asks, turning.

And she looks at him with sad, sad golden eyes, and springs.