Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Fittest

by Jennifer Leeper





Cyrus Birch stared into the hybrid blue of Solla's eyes. Cyrus's eyes were the same blue as hers, shadowed by dark features, but made crisper in hue by an angular jaw and cheekbones. For Cyrus, the wolf-dog was a necessary reminder of the genetic gap between humans and animals. Besides Solla, the only other reminder was his grandfather's stories of his childhood, when men were still men and beasts were beasts. In those days, the concept of a hybrid species meant a dog like Solla, not a man with the digestive tract of a goat, or the eyesight of a hawk.

Cyrus and Solla had moved around nomadically for the past five years, subsisting through hunting and fishing. The cities and the wild both posed their challenges, so in order to survive in both environments, Cyrus made sure he spent plenty of time sleeping under the stars as well as underneath a sky of glass and steel. Cyrus and Solla traveled lightly and Cyrus had learned from Solla how to creep up stealthily on prey. Cyrus always laughed to himself that he didn't need hybrid DNA because he had already become part wolf-dog in his hunting habits.

For those like Cyrus, who wanted nothing to do with genetic alterations, the only option was to keep moving around, and stay out of the cities, which, although primarily abandoned by hybrid humans for their new habitats of forest, jungle and ocean, were still dangerous places to be if one was a pure human. The cities were dumping sites for both reject hybrids and humans who chose not to conform to government genetic regulations. These two groups fought to their bloody deaths in old boxing rings, for the entertainment of powerful, affluent hybrid humans.

Until very recently, Cyrus and Solla were aimless, only subsisting day-to-day, but a recent shortwave radio report announced a safe zone for pure humans in Mongolia, which might as well have been another planet, except that a ship was supposed to be leaving Seattle for Asia in exactly two weeks. Seattle felt like Mongolia for Cyrus, who had finally approached the northern border of New Mexico. Las Animas County lay before him. 'Las Animas' meant 'The Souls', Cyrus recalled from his childhood of hiking into Colorado with his father, who had minored in philosophy and always emphasized the 'eternal material' within Man, as he referred to it. Cyrus wondered whether that eternal material had been tampered with in the hybrid humans so ubiquitous these days.

"Well, girl, we're crossing over." Cyrus straddled the border, eliciting a whine from Solla, who had always acutely sensed undesirable changes in the eyes of her owner.

Cyrus was worried about covering the miles to Seattle on foot. He wouldn't make it to Seattle in time. He would have to travel through parts of several states. Since many hybrid humans didn't need to drive, the auto industry had become non-existent. Pure humans had not maintained their cars over the years because they attracted too much attention as a mode of transportation. Instead, like Cyrus, they lived in more rural areas or in the wilderness, relying on their own two feet for commuting. They hunted for their daily bread and some even fashioned entire wardrobes out of animal skins. Ironically, they had been reconditioned to live the way the government never thought they could without genetic help. So, there were cars, trucks and other vehicles rusting all over the country.

There was only one option.

There were tales of men out west whose pioneering spirit was said to evoke that of those who once clamored for the gold of California and Alaska. These men built dune buggies that rushed across deserts and prairies in the deepest dark of the night.


* * *

Cyrus had plenty to trade for a ride up north. He had hunting weapons and outdoor supplies and equipment, which would surely broker a deal for a ride, as scarce as these items were these days.

He had heard that the buggy operators met periodically to swap tales of encountering nightmarish creatures who resembled humans, but whose humanity was highly questionable. He would have to pull the ear of Gus Stone, a former car mechanic from Santa Fe, who had moved to Colorado. Gus was a pure human and a former friend of Cyrus's deceased parents. Cyrus's parents sacrificed themselves for their 14-year-old boy, who fled his parents' cabin in the mountains of Santa Fe, while his parents were arrested for their pure DNA and sent to the death matches of Chicago, where they were forced to fight with hybrid humans, who had been grotesquely disfigured through genetic alteration surgeries gone awry. The death matches served to entertain the upper classes of hybrid humans, whose wealth had allowed them to maintain beauty and glamour through additional, extreme genetic alteration.

Gus cared for Cyrus after his parents were taken.

Cyrus found Gus' new garage at last. Cyrus had only visited the new location a couple of times, and it was even more remotely located than Gus's old garage, which he had built in one of the hundreds of ghost towns in the Santa Fe desert. The new garage was under-ground. Literally.

"Cy! How are you, boy? It's been too long this time." As crusty as Gus was in appearance, he was a softie underneath, especially when it came to Cyrus. The old man hugged the much younger man and patted Solla on the head. "She gets more beautiful every day." The old man's eyes reflected the simple joy in Solla's eyes.

"You definitely save on A/C down here," Cyrus grinned.

The old man nodded, smiling. Everything about the man was grey and white. It had been as long as Cyrus could remember. He had a thick, bushy beard, but maintained a close shave on his head.

"You look thin. So does Solla." Gus prompted the canine to put her paws up on his knees. Solla happily obliged and wagged her tail with a puppyish delight.

"We're getting along, but I do need a favor. I'm not sure it's something you can arrange."

"You're going up there, aren't you?" Gus pointed to a dusty radio nearby.

"Yep."

"You need a buggy?"

"They exist, then?"

"They do, but, I only know one operator and he's hard pressed to take on passengers." Cyrus continued spoiling Solla with affection. "He does owe me. Fixed his suspension at no charge. I'll get in touch with him."

"Thanks, Gus. I brought you a few things." The old man smiled. "I don't need things at my age. You keep your bows and arrows, Robin Hood."

Gus brought out a bottle of whiskey and poured a tumbler full for himself and for Cyrus. The men drank and grew warm with memories from Gus' childhood before men and jackrabbits were one in the same. They fell asleep to the sound of Solla's breezy snoring and a crackly version of an old, country song about the way things used to be.

Cyrus awoke to the smell of bacon frying and the sound of eggs hissing in grease. "I remember when you used to do this for me every day." Cyrus snatched a strip of bacon from the pan.

"You were such a scrawny kid, and look at you now." Gus wiped something out of his eyes as he spoke. Cyrus suspected it wasn't hot grease.

"Yeah, well you fed me too well."


* * *

"Well, anyway, I got you a ride. He's a former engineer. Used to design bridges. Now, he just designs machines that lead to nowhere considering the state of the world, but he is headed up to Portland to trade out some parts. You'll leave here tonight."

"Thanks, Gus. You won't come with us?"

Gus pulled lightly at his beard as if pursuing the consideration, but he almost immediately shook his head. "I'm too old for such adventures. It's quiet here. I need quiet now."

Cyrus knew he would never see Gus again once he left.

Gus and Cyrus made the most of their time together, taking Solla for a long walk, and talking about the days before the world went mad.

"I remember hearing about Dr. Rosen's suicide. The government wouldn't leave him alone. He was depressed and alcoholic, but, they kept pressuring him to keep fiddling with our genetics. The world was desperate for a solution—any solution—after the economic collapse. Eventually, he was useless, but by then the government had their trained minions who botched Rosen's original science. They found the man hanged in his own lab." Gus shook his head. "You know it was a dog shelter in Baltimore that inspired the whole thing."

"What?"

"That's where Rosen got the idea. The shelter manager got the idea to recondition the dogs to survive in the wild, and then released them. Simple idea. It caught on everywhere. It definitely cut down on stray cats and dogs. Rosen just translated the idea to genetics."

"Yeah, I remember reading where Rosen only enhanced or altered one or maybe two senses, like the sight or smell." Cyrus thought of how the latest extrapolations from Rosen's innovation hovered in some horrific limbo between human and non-human. They did not belong to Nature, and, for those, like Cyrus' parents, who refused to undergo genetic alterations, they were doomed to their fate of blood sport with those less than appealing chimeras, disfigured by surgeons and geneticists churning out hybrids efficiently to meet government quotas.

It was a production pace too ambitious for a science still in its infancy. The government, having been reduced to a mechanism of propaganda, singularly served its new utilitarian purpose to relieve the human strain on urban and suburban infrastructures, and return mankind to a more primitive existence. Unfortunately, the poor were still poor and the rich were still floated by them. The poor had become the lower-order hybrids and the affluent bought their way into the top tier of the hybrid world, mingling their DNA with the genetic codes of lions and wolverines and chimpanzees, while the poor were relegated to the status of rodentia

in many cases. The economically privileged were able to hire geneticists and plastic surgeons to work in concert to create their glamorous hybrid selves. The wealthier hybrids had established exclusive wilderness communities that were gated off from the rest of the world.

Affluent hybrids only returned to the cities to see pure humans torn apart in sport. Oftentimes, the defending champions in these matches had been so badly disfigured, they yearned to fight and destroy any other living thing out of anger and resentment over their genetic curse.

As usual, nothing had changed but the packaging even though so many were convinced otherwise. Perhaps human nature hadn't been altered that much after all, Cyrus mused.

"I don't miss the police state, but at least I knew I would be shot or beaten by another man. Now, my own imagination may as well kill me considering the stories I've heard about what might be roaming around out there." Gus' face seemed to grow more tired as he spoke.

"So, you've never seen one up close?"

"And, I hope I never do."

Cyrus eyes widened with incredulity. He was envious of the old man. He had somehow man-aged to preserve some facet of his ignorance under the circumstances.


* * *

Night gathered in the sights and sounds of day. Cyrus and Gus could feel time bearing on them. They reached Gus' subterranean home and Gus cooked dinner. The men ate in silence. A small thud from above interrupted the meal.

"That'll be him." Gus swallowed his last bite and climbed up the ladder to his front door. He was in agile shape for a man in his early 70s. He returned without his guest.

"It's time. You have everything?"

"Well, we'll see." Cyrus smiled at his old friend and hugged him. "Thank you. For everything."

The old man cleared his throat with a grumble, his eyes wet and shiny.

"Don't come back here, Cy. Don't ever come back."

"I promise." Cyrus barely got the words out. His throat tried to tighten around them as they slipped out.

Cyrus and Solla hopped into the back compartment of the purple and black buggy waiting for them. Cyrus shook the hand of the driver who sported a long, white braided ponytail hanging down his back and spectacles resting on his birdlike face. He was definitely entirely human. The contraption took off with much more gusto than Cyrus had expected. Before Cyrus knew it, the buggy had reached the seemingly endless vacancy of the southern Colorado desert lands.

"So, you're leaving all this behind, eh?" The operator, a man named Vincent Russo, spoke without turning around, the rushing wind carrying his words.

"What's left to leave?"

Cyrus heard the operator's grim laughter. "Well, I want to go out fighting, or at least driving, in my case."

"I get it, but, I'm tired of seeing what's happening to this world. It may seem like I'm running away, but I'm hoping that I'm running toward a solution. I'm hoping the others I'm running with feel the same way."

Vincent didn't respond for a moment and Cyrus wondered if he had even been heard.

"And, what if they don't feel the same way? What if they are no different than the humans from some bygone era that you seem to idealize so much who got us into this mess in the first place?"

"You're somewhat of a cynic when it comes to people, aren't you?"

"I'd rather tinker with machines. People are more predictable, but that's the problem right there, and, I can't fix them like I can fix a machine. This machine here? I built it. Those machines out there? They never had a chance."

"What have you seen?"

"Everything."

Though he didn't say the word with relish, there was a certain covetousness of its meaning in the operator's tone.

"Me too." Cyrus said with less enthusiasm.

Cyrus had seen a lot roaming the landscapes of New Mexico, where hybrids, pure beasts and pure humans inevitably clashed in trees, caves and streams. He had been lucky enough to avoid any mortal injuries, but he had scars to remind him of this luck.

The buggy put Colorado and much of Utah behind it before twilight. As they neared the Nevada border, the men decided to get some sleep. They found a cave that appeared to be uninhabited and disappeared with the buggy into the darkness. The two men slept in shifts, and ate the lunch and dinner Gus packed for them. Solla followed his meals by curling up next to the men's conversation as if it were a warm fire.

"So, how many of those have you built?" Cyrus asked as the men were finishing up dinner and preparing to depart for a second night of travel.

"Half a dozen, but, this one is my favorite."

"Why is that?"

"Protected me from an attack."

"What attacked you?"

Vincent laughed, his brown, leathery face crinkling like heavy paper.

"You expect me to tell you something that should called a peacockaphantceros tried to tear me up, right?"

"Maybe."

"It was just a mountain lion, about a year ago. I was in Nevada, and decided to take a night hike. Poor thing was actually half blind for whatever reason. I wouldn't be surprised if some half-breed of human blinded it in a sloppy bid for dinner. These hybrids are still too human for their own good or anyone else's. Anyway, I took shelter under this thing and the lion moved on eventually. It was as good as a cage for protection."

"Are you sure the mountain lion wasn't the hybrid and still had the eyesight of some 65-year-old human with glaucoma?"

"Well, at least you've managed to keep your humor."

The men started out again, passing into Nevada and reaching the outskirts of Portland by mid-morning.


* * *

"I usually don't travel during the day, but we were close enough, so I pushed it."

"Well, I guess this is where we part ways."

"Looks like it," Cyrus offered his favorite bow and arrow set to the engineer even though the operator had asked for nothing.

"Looks like I'll need to sign up for an archery course."

"Just watch out for those blind mountain lions."

"Take care of yourself."

"You too."

Vincent sped away, leaving Cyrus and Solla to survey their new surroundings, which was a tall field that had grown over an abandoned gas station.

It was nearly afternoon.

"Hungry, girl?" Solla's ears perked up in response.

Cyrus and Solla decided to take a short nap in the weeds before beginning their long trek, hoping they would be well concealed. Seattle could be reached within a week, Cyrus thought. It was a couple of hundred miles. It would be close, but he and Solla would make it.

Cyrus closed his eyes and Solla's mild snoring and warm belly against his bare feet delivered Cyrus easily to a dream of his parents and the cabin his father had built, where he had spent his early childhood. He could see the sunset climbing the sky behind their mountain. Once the sunset went down it was cold and Cyrus felt himself shivering, or maybe he was shaking…no, he was struggling, but against what? He woke up thrashing in the arms of something that was less than human. Its face had been reconstructed to look like a bear in its general composition, but where there should have been hair, there was smooth flesh, and, the ears were disproportionately large for the ears of a black bear, which is presumably the look this creature was going for, or that was the look this hybrid had been assigned. The body was permanently hunched like a bear, and its strength was certainly beyond that of a human.

Cyrus was a strong man with youth on his side, but he was only human. He called out for Solla, but Solla was nowhere to be seen. Solla had run off before where there was danger, but she always returned to Cyrus when he most needed her. Most likely she had sized up the bear and realized she was no match, so she would be somewhere nearby waiting for any opening to rescue her master. Cyrus was now clamped between two paws that were disproportionately large for the body to which they were attached. Cyrus couldn't budge an inch. He decided to yield for the moment, saving his strength. After all, when he had confronted bears in the woods, he had never tried to fight them, so he wasn't about to fight something that resembled a bear, even if there was still some humanness behind the glassy brown eyes.


* * *

Cyrus knew where he was being taken. This hybrid would get a price for his head and he would wind up fighting some thing that would be even more deformed and pathetic. The strange bear carried Cyrus several miles to the center of Portland, to an old warehouse that had been transformed into an entertainment venue.

The bear creature handed Cyrus over to a roaring crowd of hybrids with iridescent wings surgically attached to the backs of cheetah women and elephant heads on human bodies with four arms. The wealthy were not only making themselves into animals, but into Hindu gods.

A creature with the head of a rhinoceros and the body of a man dumped Cyrus into the ring, which was covered with blood from previous matches. Cyrus cringed at the smell, but, he should have saved his disgust for the creature that stood, or more accurately slithered across from him. He expected to feel pity for the hybrid he was supposed to slaughter. Unfortunately, the sickly, yellowish reptilian creature flicking its tongue at him showed no signs that it was ever human, except for the eyes. Unfortunately, though the eyes were human in shape and structure, their color was as black as an opal and hate seemed to concentrate in this blackness.

Cyrus was relieved, but his relief was replaced by fear when a bell rang and the creature's tongue wrapped easily around his neck. It was one big muscle. The creature pulled his victim to him, and rose up in the air to reveal his actual height of more than seven feet tall. Cyrus had been stripped of all weapons, even his pocketknife. He was helpless and oxygen was leaving his brain at a much faster rate than it could be replaced. He felt himself passing out.

Suddenly, he was released and hit the bloody floor of the ring with a thud. The reptilian tongue lay dismembered next to him, flopping around in a few more lightening strikes of nerve activity before it lay gruesomely still. Cyrus looked up to find Solla with the broken neck of the creature limply hanging from between her teeth. Solla was fast, and no one would have noticed or cared about a pure beast, especially a domesticated one, prowling about the grounds.

The crowd roared indignantly over the death of what was presumably one of their favorite hybrid champions. They screamed for a rematch with a new hybrid. Solla had already dropped the lifeless body of the lizard-like organism, whose human eyes were no less empty in death. This was to be pitied, Cyrus thought, but, there was no time for emotion as the crowd rushed the ring. Cyrus had heard of such erratic mob behaviors among the hybrids, whose human and animal natures together were a volatile combination. Cyrus and Solla were able to sneak out in the chaos, as the hybrids were turning on one another, challenging each other to their own battles in the ring.


* * *

Cyrus and Solla ran until they couldn't see city lights. They found a junkyard, where they spent the night in an old, luxury car. The next morning they started walking toward Seattle. The pair remained close to main roads as much as they could, surviving off rabbit and squirrel meat. They slept little, and barely made it in time to board the ship headed to an uninhabited island just off the coast of Japan, where a small plane was waiting to take Cyrus and about 50 others to Mongolia. The plane landed in Bayanhongor, where a group of pure humans had set up a tent colony.

Cyrus had never seen so many pure humans in one place. There were men, women and children from all over the world, it appeared. He saw no hybrids.

"Girl, we made it." Cyrus nuzzled his nose against the top of Solla's nose, her tail wagging furiously with delight.

Sensing an itch, Cyrus touched the back of his neck and felt strange, coarse hair growing. He noticed the same on the neck of a woman who passed and on the face of a man who wandered by. He felt groggy, dizzy and sick. Maybe it was something he had eaten on the plane, or had he slept during the flight? Before he passed out, Cyrus sensed Solla approaching, but she growled at him, whined and ran away.

This was not another world. It was another experiment and they had all fallen for it. What he would wake up as tomorrow, he couldn't guess. He hoped they would at least let him keep his mother's blue eyes.


THE END


2016 Jennifer Leeper

Bio: Ms. Leeper is an award-winning fiction author who's publications credits include Independent Ink Magazine, Notes Magazine, The Stone Hobo, Poiesis, Every Day Fiction, and The Liguorian. She has had works published or are in the process of publication by J. Burrage Publications, Hen House Press, Alternating Current Press, Barking Rain Press, Whispering Prairie Press, BarkingRain Press, and Spider Road Press. In 2012, Ms. Leeper was awarded the Catoctin Mountain Artist-in-Residency, and in 2013, Ms. Leeper was a Tuscany Prize Novella Award finalist through Tuscany Press for her short novel, Tribe. Ms. Leeper's short story "Tatau," was published in the journal, Poiesis, and was short listed as a finalist for the Luminaire Award in 2015, and nominated by Alternating Current for Queen's Ferry Press' Best of Small Fictions of 2016 Prize.  Ms. Leeper's short story, "The Gospel of Chloride," won a 2015 Tuscany Short Story Award honorable mention through Tuscany Press.  In 2016, The Saturday Evening Post honored Ms. Leeper's short story "Book of the Dead" with an honorable mention in its Great American Fiction Contest.

E-mail: Jennifer Leeper

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.