The picture made the cover of the Tzarin colony newsletter: a petite, blond-haired girl kneeling in the center of a flock of hibernating escravo, her arms wrapped around her skinny stomach and her face contorted by sobs. It was a powerful image, this preteen runaway surrounded by the sprawled and angular bodies of the plantation’s livestock, and it was made even more powerful by the subsequent photographs of her tearful reunion with her family. Adolescent psychologists were quick to speculate about the long-term effects of 18 months spent living with animals, but after a rocky readjustment period, Elena was deemed healthy enough to re-enter the colony’s schooling system.
“I thought they were dead,” she said in a televised interview. “I didn’t know about the photo…photo…(“synthesis,” her mother finished). All I knew was that it started to get dark, and everyone I lived with fell down.”
“Everything,” her psychologist prodded.
Elena was no longer permitted to play in the fields with the escravo, but during a press conference, the governor presented her with an authentic Earth puppy that breathed and barked and did several other tricks that the mouthless, photosynthetic plantation beasts couldn’t compete with. After two nightfalls, the incident was completely forgotten.
At the height of the third sun-season, the Finnegan’s storage tank ignited.
It was an unfortunate but not uncommon setback. Glass-ceilinged working spaces were necessary to permit the escravo to live indoors, and in the hottest sun-cycle temperatures inside the storage tank often reached over 150 degrees. The financial loss was great but no one was hurt, and a veterinarian was called in to determine how many of the damaged livestock could be saved.
The plantation owners borrowed some beasts from their neighbors to haul the bodies, living and dead, into a nearby field so that they could be sorted. The veterinarian made his way slowly among the rows of blue-green bodies, dividing the responsive from the nonresponsive and the nonresponsive from the dead. He preferred working with the colony’s livestock; unlike Earth animals, the escravo had no mouths and were incapable of producing screams. In fact, science had speculated that the native Tzarin animals had more in common with vegetation than Terran creatures, so it was likely that they could feel nothing at all.
The veterinarian paused beside a young colt which rested in a crumpled heap, its front tendrils drawn up around its torso like arms and its eyelids firmly locked shut. The waxy skin across its back and stomach was badly damaged, blistering and peeling away to reveal the milky whiteness of dead photosynthetic cells. The animal’s eyes opened slowly when the veterinarian sprinkled water across its body to test the rate of absorption, but it made no other movement. Dire case. He labeled it unlikely and moved on.
Two thin, bony vines wrapped around his leg and he stopped.
The creature was motionless aside from the tendrils, which retained their vicelike grasp. The veterinarian unpeeled them but the animal grabbed again, and he reached into his medical back to get his scalpel. The vine quickly withdrew and dropped to the ground. The veterinarian watched the green shape scrape at the soil, and he had almost turned away before he read:
The creature was treated at the university medical facility, which used high-powered solar lamps to feed sunlight into the undamaged cells. It continued to trace words onto the walls and floor: help, stop, hurt, bad. A press statement was released saying that an escravo had developed language ability, then, at the command of the council, another was released saying that it had been a prank. The council scientists took the escravo to a research facility once it had healed enough for transportation, and there, it was put through dozens of tests.
“It has a vocabulary of over 500 words,” the technician said, “but we’re certain that it must be parroting. The escravo brain doesn’t have the capacity for communication. No evidence of language, through text or gesture, has ever been observed in the wild.”
Elena, the escravo stroked into the wall.
“Parroting,” the technician repeated. “No further study is required.”
“What do you suggest be done with it?” the colony administrator asked.
“Well, our society was founded on efficiency. We can’t have people wasting time training their livestock to be circus animals.”
“So it should remain in captivity.”
“We have an underground holding chamber used to contain those awaiting trial,” the researcher suggested. “It’s not inhumane at all. Rather peaceful and secluded.”
“And dark,” the administrator pointed out.