Reva stood outside the interview room, waiting for the maximum security doors to slide open. Inside, a strobe light flickered and loud pounding bass boomed. The sole occupant, a woman, sat cross-legged at a metal desk, eyes closed. Her wrist and ankles were shackled to an eye-bolt in the floor.
The doors opened and she said, “Welcome. Karaoke every Tuesday and Thursday nights.”
Her white overalls looked two sizes too big, and the bones on her wrists stuck out. Dark circles marked her face. Her short, natural hair was graying even though she couldn’t be a day past thirty-five. This was the infamous Tonnie the Cat?
The music stopped and Reva sat down in one of the small square seats opposite her. A guard remained behind, like an unwanted shadow.
Reva looked for evidence of cutting. It was common among the fanatics to slash their flesh in order to emulate the Tonnyaru’s physiological process. Tonnie’s arms looked clean. There were, however, purple bandages covering the crooks of each arm.
“You see this, huh?” Her voice was strong but rough. “It’s the drugs to keep me from throwing up. So they can force-feed me.”
“Have you discussed this with your representation?”
“You’re from Westminster, aren’t you? I can place that accent anywhere. I lived there once.”
Reva felt a little pang of shame. She’d tried scrubbing her regional pronunciation to get along, but it wasn’t easy erasing individuality. Neither could she hide her dark skin, any more than the Tonnyaru could hide their stripes.
“We both got out. We’ve got a lot in common,” Tonnie said.
Tonnie had no birth or registration record. She’d even managed to remove her Subcut identity. Her face appeared only in animated vids, and then as a snarling, green-eyes-glowing, psychedelic-Striping Tonnyaru, the big cat indigenous to this world.
“Word is you’re one of the Saggio heirs.”
“If I was the privileged bitch they say I am, would I be in here? I grew up in Exito Plateau, living among Tonnyaru. That’s how I learned their language.”
“Scientists don’t believe they have any real communication.”
“What do you call Striping then?”
“A physical process. Like the flapping of the greater birds of paradise. Or a peacock spreading its feathers.”
No matter what believers and advocates said Striping proved, every lawsuit to have Tonnyaru declared “non-human persons” failed. Tonnyaru were not sentient and had no discernable consciousness.
“They’re animals like any other, horses, pigs, cows,” Reva said.
“I’d give you a few lessons, but I’m tied up the next couple of days.” She tapped a long finger to her graying temple. “Besides, you already speak Tonnyaru.”
“A person reasons. A person fights for her survival and tries to defend herself.”
“What if you can’t defend yourself? What if you aren’t as strong? Maybe you lack resources or position, or just plain luck.”
Reva leaned in. “What was behind your last attack?”
“Lighting a fire under Dobson’s asses, what else?”
Dobson LLC marketed the popular Tonn Elixir, which erased wrinkles, and T-Cell 100, a healing and anti-aging super-supplement. At Dobson’s massive Tonnyaru farms, not a toenail, eyelash, or tail was wasted. “One factory failure won’t dent the company’s inter-colonial operations.”
“What about grown men and women wearing diapers because they aren’t allowed breaks to shit or piss. Fingers, limbs lost in ‘accidents.’ Twelve fatalities in half a year! Ever thought about that, when you’re sitting in your comfortable little cube, writing your stories, drinking your coffee?”
“The associations continue to negotiate.”
“The unions ain’t done shit.”
“Over forty lives are gone, Tonnie. Doesn’t human life mean anything to you?”
“Course it does.” She shifted in her seat. “It’d mean much more if humans understood their place.”
“And now what are those remaining going to do? How will they earn a living?”
“Am I supposed to work out the whole damn economy now, is that what you want from me?” She let out a long, ragged breath. “You’re the last person I’m gonna speak to. I’ve requested they don’t mutilate me after I’m killed. They’d love to cut me open and see what makes me tick. Don’t let them, all right?”
Reva doubted a journalist, especially her, would have much say. She didn’t want the responsibility or burden, either.
“Anyway, go to Beinan.”
“Why? What’s there?”
“I’ll tell you what,” Tonnie said, and before the guards could react, she lunged across the table and dragged her tongue across Reva’s palm. Reva yelped, falling back as guards seized Tonnie in a chokehold.
Reva didn’t look at Tonnie as they removed her from the room. She rubbed her hand where Tonnie touched her, ashamed for trusting her. No book deal was worth this. But despite Tonnie’s outward mania she was shrewd and clever. What wasn’t Reva getting?
A few hours later Reva arrived in Beinan’s train station, a two-track open-air platform. A few disembarking passengers wore genuine Tonnyaru pelts, which moved with the wearer’s body like a shimmering curtain. Those who couldn’t afford such luxury kept the sweatshops in Laivo busy, even if the knockoffs never quite achieved the legitimate effect.
Reva rented a scooter from the automatic machines and rode into outer Beinan. It looked every bit the traditional, industrial base: abandoned yards, low gray buildings with clouded-over windows. It wasn’t unlike Westminster, one of many rust-belt towns that helped establish the planet as the highest producer in the colonies, only to decline when heavy industry moved off-world. Reva’s father had lost his job, and then his well-being.
Within a few minutes Reva arrived at a Tonnyaru rehabilitation farm and joined a tour inside. An adult Tonnyaru napped in the square pen’s far corner, not nearly big enough for the large cat.
“This is Calico. At 98 she’s the colony’s oldest and last animal in captivity,” said the eager young tour guide, who wore a uniform of brown pants and a shirt with the word “Keeper” embroidered on it. “And today is her birthday!”
The keeper rolled out a round cake with turkey bacon for frosting made from ambetts, a deer-like prey favored by the Tonnyaru. “Come on everyone, let’s sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Calico.” A woman’s visor-cam clicked and flashed repeatedly.
Instead of tasting the cake, Calico padded towards the group. The tourists sprinted behind a fence and the woman stomped on the cake, leaving a bootprint through the center. Reva started to laugh, until she saw the animal feet away from her.
But Calico simply nuzzled the back of Reva’s hand, the same place Tonnie touched. Calico then started Striping, once, then again, a swift movement of pinks, purples and golds across its back.
Slowly, Reva brought her other palm to the animal’s head, running her fingers through its soft, fine fur. Warmth flowed through her. She remembered holding her baby after she was born, Matilde’s scent filling her soul.
And then she heard in her mind a woman’s name.
“Don’t move.” The keeper waved an electric taser and Calico growled, collapsing to the ground. Reva heard the name again before blacking out.
It took a few days to negotiate with the prison to see Tonnie again, this time, via protective glass.
“What changed your mind?”
“You’re the first interviewees to ever lick me.”
Tonnie smiled. “What did she say?”
“We didn’t exactly sit down to tea.”
“Even now you’re still mocking me, and them.”
“I’m sorry,” Reva said. “What happened to me?”
“What happens to us all. Me, I was seven, playing with my younger sister and Lovey and Dovey. The cubs bobbed their heads whenever we put the audio on. Then their dancing stopped and the Striping got more intense.”
“The Tonnyaru often do that in excited states, or when they’re ready to mate.”
“I felt their voices go through my body.”
“Tonnie—do you mean, you heard their thoughts?”
“My scalp stood up. Go find Momma. Hurry. We went inside and she was on the floor of the kitchen, having a heart attack. We called the doctor. The cubs saved her.” Reva didn’t react and Tonnie frowned. “I know. Dogs can be trained to do that. Tonnyaru do it on their own.”
“I can see you believe it, Tonnie.”
Maybe she’d lost whatever sanity she had. Maybe she feared her imminent death.
“Old species like them teach us about silence, the space between words. This is freedom, clarity. Everything you’ve heard, learned or seen—it’s been imposed upon you. It’s not a big blank either, that’s not what I’m saying. Get me?”
“I haven’t done anything to deserve your gratitude.”
“One more favor. Go back.”
“I’m not sure what I can do to change things.”
“Anything can change. We change.” The guards appeared and Tonnie didn’t resist. “So much time, so how come it’s always running out?”
“Ella, I—“ Reva stopped.
Upon hearing her true name, Ella’s face broke into a huge grin. She opened her mouth, silently baring her teeth, like a cat.
“See?” Ella said. “You listened.”
BIO: Diana Estigarribia is a New York-based writer of science fiction. In 2015 she studied with Tananarive Due as part of VONA Voices Speculative Fiction workshop. In 2009 her play, “Help Wanted,” was a shortlisted finalist for the BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition. She has a B.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from Tisch School of the Arts and is currently working on a space opera trilogy. She blogs about people of color in fandom at Writer Revolution http://writerrevolution.tumblr.com/ and tweets as Dhyana_Writes https://twitter.com/Dhyana_Writes.