Chapter 2:


Ranch Royale!

I hurry into the med barn to start my shift while trying to be as discreet as possible. Who am I kidding? It’d be impossible to avoid my own mentor for an entire shift. Panacea is one of the most astute people I’ve ever known. Nothing gets past her, especially not when it has to do with me.Bookmark here

“What’s the wrong Chinatsu? You look concerned.”Bookmark here

Panacea! I hesitantly turn around to see her standing behind me.Bookmark here

“I’m not concerned. Why would I be? Hahaha.” I laugh nervously.Bookmark here

“Something’s off. You’ve been my apprentice for five years now. You think I wouldn’t notice?”Bookmark here

“Notice what?”Bookmark here

She repositions her glasses and glares straight into my eyes. Her face only inches away.Bookmark here

“You’ve split ends. You haven’t cut your hair in months. Time to trim”Bookmark here

Phew. I take a sigh of relief. I start preparing for the patients to come by wiping down the beds, chairs, equipment, etc. I need to get my notes and tools back before they fall into the wrong hands; if they haven’t already. Who could it have been? No one in the coop has shown any symptoms or pain in the past few weeks. It could have been stolen for a harvester, or worse; a brownred.Bookmark here

The brownreds are General Romano’s human army he sends when another ranch’s ruler becomes a threat. He will have them combat each other, their own species, to see who the better fighters are so he could strategize. I think he does it for his own amusement. They’re always in need of severe medical care from broken bones to bruised ribcages. They usually have the shortest life expectancies, and not due to being killed by opposing forces, or by the harsh conditions outside the ranch, but by euthanization since the majority of their value is based on their physical capabilities on the battlefield, which is quicker to go with age before knowledge-based skills. Their ability to face death is what keeps them alive.Bookmark here

They’ve also been known to cut deals with other soldiers from enemy ranches by selling them pharmaceuticals exclusive to Romano’s ranch. They’re the reason each vet has to carry their toolkit on themselves at all times. We used to all store our kits here in the med barn, but last year it was raided by rogue brownreds selling to General Pol’s ranch when they were short on supplies.Bookmark here

“Wait a second! There’s something else wrong…” Panacea interjected.Bookmark here

I’m done for.Bookmark here

“What is it?” I ask with the most innocent voice.Bookmark here

“Your toolkit and notes. Where are they?Bookmark here

“I must have forgotten them. They’re probably underneath my bed back at the coop.”Bookmark here

“Well go back and get it; quickly.”Bookmark here

“I have all my notes memorized. And I’m sure I can just borrow a toolkit from one of the other vets. It would be such a waste of time for me to walk all the back over there haha.”Bookmark here

“You’re wasting time now by being lazy and having this conversation with me. This is just like you Chinatsu! After all these years I thought you would have learned to hold yourself accountable. You’re going to make me look bad. This isn’t the first time I’ve had to cover for you, but maybe it should be the last. Maybe another vet should’ve been your mentor cause I clearly haven’t made an impact.”Bookmark here

I’m taken aback by her sudden outburst. How long has she felt like this?Bookmark here

“Of course you have Panacea. More than you know.”Bookmark here

She looked at me forgivingly for just a second.Bookmark here

With my mother gone, Panacea was the closest thing I have to a parent.Bookmark here

“You know the ranchers don’t like to fund us any more than they have to. And out of all the days! All brownred, harvester, and even mammalian appointments have been postponed for the day. A fever has come over General Romano’s son. He declared our entire unit be on standby to care for him until he’s well again.”Bookmark here

“Why would a Meishan shoat need over a hundred humans in the vicinity just for a fever?”Bookmark here

“You know how the General is. I think if any parent had his power and influence, they would do the same thing for their child.”Bookmark here

“I wouldn’t know.”Bookmark here

“Try not to dwell on it, dear. It doesn’t serve anyone.”Bookmark here

She was right.Bookmark here

“Then how long do we have to prepare until-“Bookmark here

Slam!Bookmark here

The doors of the unit bust open and two breeding technicians come rushing in holding the shoat as if he was made of glass. They set him down on one of the fresh beds I’d just wiped down. The boy hardly looks affected. He’ll definitely make it through, I can tell by just one glimpse at him. Why are the two humans overreacting? They should know just as well as I do that that shoat is going to be fine, yet they’re shivering in fear. You would have thought they were the ones with the fever. That’s when I see a large, shadowy figure approach the doorway the techs just entered from.Bookmark here

“General Romano!” Panacea bows.Bookmark here

I’ve never seen him up close before. He doesn’t like to associate with his humans very often. I’ve heard stories that the other Generals from the enemy ranches are much kinder and compassionate to their humans. Their humans are allowed to live in the same buildings as the mammalians. They share meals with them. I can never imagine the double-chinned, potbellied, bowler hat-wearing menace in front of me ever doing such things. We’re beneath him and always will be.Bookmark here

“What’s with the dramatic entrance?” I ask with a smirk.Bookmark here

Panacea stares at me wide-eyed in fear.Bookmark here

I shrink back realizing how awful I am at biting my tongue.Bookmark here

Romano slowly walks into the room tapping his gold, engraved cane onto the freshly polished wooden floors with each step without saying a word.Bookmark here

“I apologize, General, this is the first time my apprentice has been in the presence of a mammalian of your ranking.”Bookmark here

He steps to me as Panacea watches in terror. He eyes me up and down, his moist snout nearly touching my cheek. I can feel his hot breath as he breathes heavily, sounding as if he’s struggling to carry his own weight. He grunts and turns his back to me.Bookmark here

“Do we share the same anatomy?”Bookmark here

“Excuse me?” I can’t hide how caught off guard I am by his question.Bookmark here

“In the old-world, you humans would call each other ‘long pig’ when you’d devour one another; like some joke. It’s recorded in outdated travelogues of islands that no longer exist. They said your… meat and skin were most alike ours compared to any other mammalian. But tell me, does that make you a mammalian?”Bookmark here

“… No …?”Bookmark here

“You don’t sound sure.”Bookmark here

“No sir.”Bookmark here

“Do you know what tail docking was?”Bookmark here

I shake my head no, afraid to speak any more than I already have.Bookmark here

“When your Neanderthal ancestors confined mine in overcapacity concrete slats, the psychological effects of those conditions led us swine to bite each other’s tails off; cannibalism. Despite your loose tongue, you seem like an intelligent human. What would be your solution in this situation?”Bookmark here

I looked to Panacea for an answer. However, she kept her eyes to the floor as she remained in her bowing position.Bookmark here

“Um, not confine them?”Bookmark here

“They tried every solution, except that; housing them in dirt lots with more space, tails were trimmed with side-cutting pliers on the first day of life when the piglets were perceived to experience minimal pain. They took note that the pigs with their tails intact suffered from gnarly wounds afflicted from their own species. Still, the cannibalism continued. For centuries, this occurrence was still poorly understood and unpredictable to humans. Yet, we were still left in their care because we had no choice in the matter. By a twist of fate, a change of destiny, now we do.”Bookmark here

He turned to face me once more.Bookmark here

“You have no choice in this matter. Unlearn your arrogant human ways. How can you expect to understand completely the workings of a body you’ve never even lived in? Maybe in the next life, you’ll experience what it’s like to be one of us, only you may not remember to regret this life.”Bookmark here

He turns and begins walking towards the exit. He’s almost gone Chinatsu, I think to myself, just be quiet and do your job!Bookmark here

“If we humans are so unqualified to care for the mammalians, why don’t your own species study medicine and practice on yourselves?”Bookmark here

He pauses mid-step, turning his head to the side to speak one last time.Bookmark here

“If my son dies, you die. I trust it won’t have to come to that.”Bookmark here

He then steps out the door as slowly as he came in, hooking the doorknob with his cane to shut it; leaving me, Panacea, the two breeding technicians paralyzed in disbelief. A few seconds of silence pass.Bookmark here

“What the hell were you thinking?!” Panacea screams in my face.Bookmark here

“I was thinking why this is even our responsibility!”Bookmark here

“I know how much the word ‘responsibility' terrifies you Chinatsu!”Bookmark here

“That’s not what I mean!” I take a deep breath and continue, “Aren’t Ricci’s parents the designated vets for the Romano family? Shouldn’t they be the ones taking care of this mammalian?”Bookmark here

“It isn’t our place to question.”Bookmark here

I scoff and take a closer look into the shoat’s deep-set little eyes. His eyes almost seem… human. I put my hand to his head and neck. No fever.Bookmark here

“He doesn’t even have a fever. Are we just supposed to wait a few days and pretend we healed him of something he isn’t even suffering from? Are you sure it isn’t the General who has the fever? Or is he just delusional? I’m going down to the triage to treat patients who actually need it.”Bookmark here

As I head towards the exit, I feel Panacea’s hand grip my wrist firmly.Bookmark here

“No, you’re not. You’re staying right here where I can keep my eyes on you!”Bookmark here

I begrudgingly sit on the stool by the baby’s bedside and stare, waiting to see some sign that would prove me wrong. I may still be an apprentice, but I’m not crazy.Bookmark here

Panacea and the techs talk amongst each other and start running countless tests on the shoat. Growing bored I stare out the window watching all the workers actually doing useful work, it seems like hours pass when all of a sudden…Bookmark here

Rio!Bookmark here

I see her approach the cellar doors behind a brownreds building. Before entering, she checks her surroundings left and right to see if anyone is watching her. I am. You’re losing your touch Rio. She then leaps and disappears into the basement’s darkness.Bookmark here

I hop up out of my chair and make a break for the exit in an effort to catch up with her before I lose track of her… again. That’s when Panacea jumps in my path directly in front of me with the most disapproving expression you can imagine.Bookmark here

“What exactly do you think you’re doing? You’ve been sitting around all day. Why don’t you make yourself useful and-“Bookmark here

“You told me earlier to go back to my coop and find my toolkit, remember?”Bookmark here

She contemplates, and then realizes I’m right.Bookmark here

“Fine. Head straight there, find your kit, then come straight back. Can you manage to listen to me for once?”Bookmark here

Before she finishes her sentence, I am halfway out of the exit.Bookmark here

“I’ll do my best I promise!” I shout as I dart out onto the field.Bookmark here

I can’t believe I managed to escape!Bookmark here

I begin to slow my pace as to not draw any more attention to myself as I approach the cellar doors. I look to both sides of me to see if anyone is watching. There’s no one from what I can see, but as I stated earlier – the mammalians are always watching. I fearfully open the doors as fast as humanly possible. I hop down and pull the doors behind me.Bookmark here

As I swipe the dirt and mud that splattered onto me from the leap off of my uniform, I look up. I see Rio along with numerous others staring at me. No one says a word.Bookmark here

“Are you guys having a party?” I ask jokingly when I feel a thump over my head and see stars, then nothing.Bookmark here

After who knows how long, I become conscious and realize I’m tied to a chair with a cloth stuffed in my mouth. I try to cough it out but fail. My vision still fuzzy, I make out Rio’s face as she comes closer into view with her arms crossed. She snatches the cloth out of my mouth leaving a strange, earthy taste on my tongue.Bookmark here

“What’s going on?” I askBookmark here

“Why are you here Chinatsu?”Bookmark here

“Ricci told me you’ve been skipping meals. As a health professional-Bookmark here

“You’re still an apprentice.”Bookmark here

“As a friend then, I’m concerned.”Bookmark here

“You should’ve minded your own business. You have for the past five years anyway…”Bookmark here

She does hate me.Bookmark here

“You still haven’t explained to me what’s going on Rio.”Bookmark here

“Because I don’t owe you an explanation!”Bookmark here

She notices the tension between her acquaintances. Some appear to want to defend her; the others look like they want no part of this.Bookmark here

“Give us a minute.” She tells them.Bookmark here

The group disperses into another section of the basement. Before vanishing, a brownred with a fresh scar over his eye looks untrusting of the whole situation and tells her in his deep, raspy voice as he walks away.Bookmark here

“Deal with this before it gets out of hand Ri.”Bookmark here

He doesn’t take his eyes off me until he’s fully left the room.Bookmark here

“Why did you follow me?” She asks me.Bookmark here

“Well, we haven’t spoken… like, really spoken in a very long time. You look malnourished, I was getting worried and wanted to see if there was something I could do to help.”Bookmark here

“It’s too late for that.”Bookmark here

“Who are these people Rio?”Bookmark here

“You wanna help? Forget you ever saw me or them here. Don’t mention this to Tomo, Ricci, anybody. Me letting you go is already going to make them trust me less, so please, don’t make me regret it.”Bookmark here

I look around at the conditions of the room. Rotting wood from the floors to the ceiling, rusty tools with dried blood crusted on the edges, containers of expired food half-eaten on in the corner, and then I see it.Bookmark here

“My toolkit! What’s it doing here?”Bookmark here

She looks down and kicks it lightly behind a table no longer in my sight.Bookmark here

“Koshi needed his eye treated. He lost his third fight in a row with another brownred, and for some reason, your unit wasn’t treating anyone today, even for emergencies. He might’ve lost that eye if I hadn’t done something.”Bookmark here

Koshi must’ve been the brownred with the eye scar. No wonder he seemed protective of her, she seems to be protective of him as well. All because of the General’s not sick son, he had to suffer.Bookmark here

“It was you, you took it, but how? How did you manage to sneak into the med coop's feeding mill undetected and take my kit without me noticing?”Bookmark here

“I didn’t take it per se. It was someone in your unit; I won’t say who, but they’re helping us. They took it.”Bookmark here

“Why mine, specifically? To get back at me for something?”Bookmark here

“I’m told you have these wild nightmares that are really hard to wake you from. It was just convenient.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, it was… Can I go now?”Bookmark here

She sighed and walked behind me, unknotting the ropes binding me to the chair.Bookmark here

I sit up and try to gain my balance back. I walk over to the table and pick up my kit off from the floor.Bookmark here

“Do you still need this?”Bookmark here

“We’re gonna need a lot more than that. But go ahead, I’m sure you need it way more than the people here.”Bookmark here

I hate the tone in her voice, but I can’t return to the med barn without it if I want to survive Panacea’s wrath and keep my position as her apprentice.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry.” Is all I can say as I walk towards the cellar doors to leave.Bookmark here

“Before you go,” She says, “you really need to trim those split ends.”Bookmark here

Seriously?! I can’t believe she won’t give me an explanation as to what’s going on. When we were humanlets, we never kept any secrets from each other. What changed?Bookmark here

Oh right, Panacea making the decision to train a harvester as a veterinarian is unheard of. My life could’ve been completely different if she hadn’t. It could have been much worse, but maybe, Rio and I would have stayed friends. I’m still so grateful to Panacea and owe her so much. I need to get back to her A.S.A.P.Bookmark here

I listen out to make sure no one is waiting on the other side of the doors, and slowly push them upwards. Streaks of sun come in, and I peek around one last time before climbing out of the darkness. I shut the doors behind me and begin walking back towards the med barn.Bookmark here

I start to feel like everyone’s eyes are on me, like they know I know something strange is going on. But I don’t know what’s going on, at least not yet.Bookmark here

When I finally reach my unit in the med barn, I noticed the door is left slightly open. I push it in slowly, and then see the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life.Bookmark here

I see the two breeding techs, whose names I never even had the chance to ask, lying on the floor with chunks of their meat appearing to be bitten off. Some limbs, completely removed from their body. Then I see the General’s son on the floor not too far from their bodies with blood dripping from his snout as he oinks.Bookmark here

My jaw drops, when I hear footsteps approach from behind me.Bookmark here

It’s Panacea. Thank goodness she’s alive!Bookmark here

I fling myself into her arms and hug her tightly, sobbing. She sees my facial expression and asks, “What’s wrong now?”Bookmark here

Then she turns to see the same awful scene I saw. She gasps, dropping her clipboard, and dropping to her knees.Bookmark here

About the shoat being normal, I couldn’t have been more wrong.Bookmark here

Taylor Victoria
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