Chapter 1:

What Are You Up To Rio?

Ranch Royale!

"We're going to have to put her down.”

I’m told as I throw a fit in the only chair in the room.

“No!” I shout.

My shout echoed throughout the shadowy, filthy chamber.

Two or three secondary vets try to hold my tiny body and flailing limbs down against the seat, succeeding. I’m completely helpless at this moment.

“Euthanization is in her best interest and in yours. It’s our only option. You’re too young to understand, but, it’s… merciful. It’ll be painless, far more painless than a slow death watching as your daughter has to pull her weight and yours in the fields.”

A soft female voice tells me, in a failed attempt to calm me down. I only wail out louder than before. Tears run down my cheeks for the entire procedure while I lose track of time punching at the orderlies. When I see the vets removing her tube, and her body still, I finally give in.

The same soft female voice tries to assure me. “I’m so sorry. My mother had to be put down when I was about your age too. This is just… the way things are.”

This is the way things still are. Ten years after my mother’s death. I can still see the tall, dark shadowy figures behind the white curtains huddling around her body. First, they sedated her. Then they shaved the area where they’d be inserting and taping down the tube of what they called ‘peace’, but what I saw as ‘poison.’ This is the same nightmare I’ve had every night since then. Each time the face of the vet changes to some stranger I’ve seen in the med barn, yet never talked to. But the one thing that doesn’t change, is the ending; losing her.

I stir awake immediately after she slips into a permanent sleep. I sit up in my dingy, white mattress too small for its metal bed frame. I see my coop mates already awake to each side of me.

“Chinatsu, get up! Did you hear? They’re serving yuzukosho with our soup at the mill today! Since the med coop has met our cure quota yet again, we get a treat. You guys can thank me! We all know I do most of the heavy lifting for our wing anyway.”

“That great Ricci,” I reply unenthusiastically “And what does the harvest coop get?”

“Why do you care about what happens to the harvesters?”

I pause, and all the memories of my mother with a smile on her face, even near the end, exerting all her energy in their fields come to the forefront of my mind. Was she ignorant and really believed that the ranchers would allow us to live out our lives happily together as mother and daughter? Or was she aware of her fate, yet stood strong and put on a brave face for me? Ricci didn’t know me then. Neither of them knew what my fate was originally supposed to be. I’m not even supposed to be here.

“Rio is in there. Don’t you care about her?” I ask as I tie my boot strings.

“Of course I do. But you know Rio already. She’s tough; she doesn’t need all those rare old-world condiments to survive. She hardly ever even eats these days anyway.”

I stop looping my laces for a second “What do you mean?”

“I’ve been seeing her sneaking off during feeding time for weeks now.”

“Even more worrisome being that she’s the one outdoors from sunrise to sundown while we’re in here with the fans running and having dumb conversations about old-world condiments; just waiting for her or another one of the harvesters to suffer sunstroke so we can reach our quota.”

“Jeez, someone woke up in a mood. Having nightmares again?”

I scowl at him because he’s right. I grab my hairbrush and run it through my dry, coarse hair angrily causing the strands to snap and make popping sounds in an effort to keep my hands occupied so I don’t hit him. I turn my back to him. Of course, he wouldn’t care. His parents are the family doctors for General Romano. He may not be mammalian, but he isn’t dispensable like the rest of us either.

“Okay, okay, it’s way too early for this.” Tomo tries to reason with both of us.

Tomo and I couldn’t be more different. We’ve never shared the same views on anything; especially how General Romano runs this ranch. I feel owned. Tomo feels protected. But Tomo is the one, the only one who ever has made me feel protected after my mother was killed.

“We’ve been coop mates with Chinatsu for five years now, you haven’t gotten used to her bad dreams yet?” He asks Ricci.

Who hasn’t gotten used to hearing me scream in my sleep? Our coop is a roof with four wired mesh screens surrounding us with no locks on the doors. Meaning the rain and the gnats always find their way in. And that the mammalians can see everything we do, all the time. I change my clothes under my one bedsheet every evening. If only other people had the decency to do the same.

I guess I should be grateful we at least have a roof to stop the sun from beating down directly on us. The harvesters don’t. I take a sip of water careful not to waste a drop.

“You always have to defend her, huh Tomo? I was your friend first, remember?!”

“I’m not defending her. I’m only saying her duties are far more stressful than ours. The lives of everyone on the ranch depend on her unit. And she doesn’t have her parents around to comfort or guide her, so it’s our duty to try and be understanding-“

“Hey, pharmaceutical sales is damn hard work! If it wasn’t for the medicine my unit made, she wouldn’t have anything to administer to her patients! And I can’t help who my parents are! Or the fact that they’re alive anyway.”

“How could you be so insensitive? Besides, being a vet is more than just medicine. It’s more than just giving someone a bunch of pills and sending them away Ricci.”

“You think just because you work in rehabilitation that makes you more righteous than me? I’m selling people product, you’re just selling people your time and false hope.”

“Time is the most valuable thing anybody has.”

He’s right.

While Tomo takes over the task of arguing with Ricci, I grab the drawstring sack I bring with me every work shift and walk towards the feeding mill to get in line and hopefully spot Rio. I don’t have time to waste on these two.

I squeeze my way through the throng of other hungry veterinarians, breeding technicians, nutritionists, and everyone else whose job description is to keep the ranchers alive and healthy, all craving hot soup during the hottest time of year; myself included. I finally reach the railing of the metal fence. The sweaty bodies push me into the barrier making the bars press deep into my ribcage. I almost can't breathe when the spotted hog rancher appears atop the mill. We all squint our eyes into the sun and watch him as he takes his sweet time. He slowly begins to pour the boiling liquid and dull colored vegetables into the steel trough, then the bells ring, and the gate holding us back slides open mechanically as another, smaller, hairier hog pulls down a lever. 

We stampede into the enclosed area to grab our cast iron ladles left for us in a metal pail and rush to find an open space to sit and slurp at the trough. Those who aren't fast enough at grabbing a ladle will have to eat the soup with either their hands or by sticking their face in the trough. However, the last human to try that was drowned in the steaming stew by two unknown killers. Whether they were human or mammalian, no one knows. If you have any dignity or regard for your life, the best decision is to skip your meal altogether.

Speaking of skipping meals. This seems to be what Rio is doing when I spot her brown bob and bronze skin across the field walking in the opposite direction of the other harvesters hastily scarfing down their yuzukosho-less soup. This must've been what Ricci meant. I try to keep my gaze on where exactly she's heading during feeding time. If this has become a regular thing, why haven't the ranchers questioned her whereabouts yet? Maybe it's only a matter of time until they do.

Rio and I’s mothers were best friends in the fields. We both lost our mothers around the same time when the ranchers deemed them worthless due to old age. Meaning she and I, therefore, became best friends. We had something to bond over that nobody else our age, in our unit had. However, that all changed when I was given the opportunity to be a veterinarian’s apprentice. We only exchange words in group gatherings with Tomo and Ricci present. It’s been forever since she and I even had a real conversation. I can’t help feeling like I abandoned her. I wonder if she feels like I abandoned her. She always was the stronger one of us two. She’s probably doing perfectly fine without me, but still… I know… I know I need to make things right between us. There has to be some way I can get her out of those fields. She doesn’t deserve it to be there. But then again, do any of us do?

My eyes follow her even as I slurp. Feeling the warm liquid go down my throat is the most soothing thing I've felt in I don't know how long. I hate to admit it, but Ricci was right about the yuzukosho. I can’t believe the ranchers have this all to themselves whenever they crave it. Yet, this might be the last time I ever have this taste on my tongue in my lifetime. I'm almost worriless when-

"This has to be the best, most incredible, delicious soup the ranchers have ever given us! Don't you think Chinatsu?!" Ricci shouts in excitement, eyes closed and a smile full of teeth as he slaps my shoulder making me cough out some of the broth in my mouth back into the trough. All of the clinking and slurping instantly stops as the rest of the herd stares at me and Ricci in disgust. The only human looking at him with more disgust is me.

"Oops, haha, my bad." He chuckles, when all of a sudden, he takes off running!

And the rest of the humans abandon their meal to chase him across the field.

Don't contaminate the trough. Stories are told about how centuries ago a slight cough caused half the human population to be wiped out. Even though I'm the one who coughed, it's still his fault. It's probably their excuse for payback for everything else Ricci has done to make our lives harder in the past.

As I pivot back towards the trough again to finish my meal, I realize I've lost track of Rio. She's nowhere in sight. This is the kind of madness the ranchers deal with every day; trying to keep us, humans, in order. Not healthy, but healthy enough to stay alive and do their bidding. This is how she's been able to sneak away without getting caught.

"What are you up to Rio?"

After a moment of pondering, I notice how light my shoulders feel. I grab at my back and don't feel the strings of my sack. Somebody must've lifted it off of me during all the commotion. All my notes and tools are gone. I can't blame them. People are ashamed to be ill around here and more often than not try to treat themselves if possible. Most of the time, they end up dead not even from what illness they initially suffered from, but from self-surgeries and rumored miracle solution overdoses.

"Damn it. Panacea's going to kill me."

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