Escape Pod 327: Revenants


By Judith Tarr

Janie wanted to pet the pterodactyl.

“Here’s the auk,” I said. “Look how soft his feathers are. Look at the dodo, isn’t he funny? Don’t you want to give the quagga a carrot?”

Janie wouldn’t even dignify that with disgust. It was the pterodactyl or nothing.

Janie is four. At four, all or nothing isn’t a philosophy, it’s universal law. A very intelligent four can argue that this is the Greater Metro Revenants’ Zoo, yes? And this is the room where they keep the ones that can be petted, yes? So why can’t a person pet the pterodactyl?

No use explaining that everything else was inoculated and immunized and sterilized and rendered safe for children to handle. Everything but the pterodactyl. They’d just made it, and it was supposed to be pettable when they were done, but not yet. There’d been plenty of controversy about putting it on display so soon, but public outcry won out over scientific common sense. So the thing was on display, but behind neoglas inlaid with the injunction: No, I’m Not Ready Yet. Look, But Don’t Touch.

Janie reads. I should know. It’s one of the chief points of debate between her father and me. She could read the warning as well as I could. “So why can’t I touch? I want to touch!”

She was fast winding up to a tantrum. I could stop it now and risk an injunction for public child abuse, or wait till it became a nuisance and we were both shuffled off the premises.

Inside its enclosure, the pterodactyl stretched its wings and opened its beak and hissed. Neoglas is new, about as new as revenants; it’s one-way to sound as well as sight. The pterodactyl couldn’t see us or hear us, which was lucky for Janie. I wished we couldn’t see or hear it, either.

It wasn’t particularly ugly, just strange. One whole faction of paleontologists had been thrown out into the cold when the thing came out of its vat warm-blooded and covered with soft silvery-white fur. Without the fur it would have been a leathery lizardlike thing with batwings. With the fur it looked like a white bat with a peculiar, half-avian, half-saurian head, and extremely convincing talons.

Janie’s fixation and the thing’s furriness notwithstanding, it didn’t look very pettable. Its eyes were a disturbing shade of red, with pinpoint pupils. I wondered if it was hungry, or if it wanted to stretch its wings and fly.

Janie had stopped whining. She was going to howl next.

Something bellowed in the bowels of the building. Janie’s mouth snapped shut.

“There,” I said. “Look what you did.”

If that got me cited, let it. It cut off Janie’s howl before it started.

“They’ve got something big down there,” somebody said.

“Probably the aurochs,” said somebody else.

“Mammoths trumpet like elephants.”

“Maybe it’s a T. Rex,” said a kid’s voice.

“They don’t have one of those yet,” said the one who knew it all. “They’d need a bigger enclosure than they can afford to build, with a stronger perimeter field. So they’re bringing back later things, because they’re smaller.”

“But if they’ve got the mammoths—”

“Mammoths don’t have teeth as long as your arm. They don’t eat people.”

Janie’s eyes were as big as they can get. I got her out of there before she decided she wanted to howl after all.

Ice cream distracted her. So did a pony ride in the zoo’s park—the pony was a Merychippus, a handsome little dun that looked perfectly ponylike except for the pair of vestigial toes flanking each of its hooves. By the time we picked up our picnic and headed for the tables by the mammoths’ pit, I was starting to breathe almost normally.

If you haven’t got your kid license yet, you can only imagine you know what it’s like to take the qualifying exam. Studying for it is hell, and the practicum’s a raving bitch. Then when you pass and get the kid, six times out of ten you and your SO are so done for you split, and you get into a whole new brand of bureaucratic balls-up: the custody war.

This was Marco’s year to have Janie. It coincided with his decision to take his statutory change-of-lifestyle, which wouldn’t have been quite so bad if he hadn’t decided to become an Atavist. I appealed, of course. How could any public office, even the Bureau of Family Values, consign a four-year-old child to the life of an Ice Age hunter?

BFV could, and did. Healthy was one of the words it used. Back to basics. Good for growing minds. And, as the caseworker pointed out to me, it wasn’t as if the Atavists really lived as they did in the Ice Age. There weren’t any major predators in the preserve. My nightmares of sabertoothed cats and direwolves and charging mammoths were just that, nightmares. Even the Atavists’ League couldn’t afford the price of a revenant, let alone a whole ecology full of them.

So what was I doing taking Janie to the revenants’ zoo on my monthly visiting day? Maybe I thought it would be a harmless way to spend the day, and she could go back and tell her father that I’d shown her what real atavisms looked like, and he’d get the message while I got points for culturally relevant entertainment of child during custodial visit. I got her back in nine months, but only if I demonstrated that I was still fit to keep her. If I blew it on points, Marco kept her. And she grew up wearing deerskins, with a bone through her nose.

To be strictly fair, she hadn’t come out of the preserve this morning looking like a savage. Her hair was longer, and somebody had cornrowed it—not Marco, he didn’t have the patience for anything that persnickety. She was wearing pants I’d bought for her, and a shirt with a hologram on it, one of the Lascaux cave paintings. She’d been clean when she started, too. Ice Age didn’t mean Dirt Age, Marco was fond of pointing out.

I couldn’t even complain that she was different. She hadn’t forgotten about cars and buses and taxis. The city didn’t make her whimper and cower. Whatever she was living on in the preserve, she wasn’t turning up her nose at ice cream or fruit juice or, goddess forbid, chocolate.

The trouble was, I wanted her to be different. I wanted grounds to get her back permanently. If she’d started grunting and rooting for grubs, I’d have been on the net to BFV so fast, the phosphors would have been spinning.

No such luck. The first visiting day, she’d cried when she left Marco, and cried when she left me. The second, she’d said a cool good-bye to Marco and an equally cool one to me. This time, the third, she’d kissed Marco good-bye and taken my hand and said, “I want to ride a pony.”

“They don’t have those in the Ice Age?” I’d asked Marco.

He wouldn’t give me the pleasure of looking annoyed. “We’re domesticating a few, but not for the kids, yet. Give us time.”

Time was all he had, I thought of saying but didn’t.

Now here we were, doting mother and loving daughter, carrying a picnic basket through the park to the best place of all, right up over the mammoths’ pit. There wasn’t anybody at the table I’d had my eye on, which I decided to take as an omen. We spread out our picnic, everything Janie liked best, peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and chocolate soymilk and green cheese puffs and her favorite edible thing of all, pink marshmallow bunnies. I figured when I packed the basket that I’d lose points on Healthy Nutrition and gain them on Allowable Indulgences.

Janie ate half of her sandwich, drank three swallows of her milk, ate one cheese puff and the tail of a marshmallow bunny, and said, “I want to pet the pterodactyl.”

My blood sugar was in the stratosphere—I’d be eating broccoli for a week to compensate—but it kept me from flipping out a flat negative. I decided to try being reasonable. Sometimes it even works. “Why do you want to pet the pterodactyl?”

“I want to,” said Janie.

“Why?” I asked again.

“I could pet the auk. I could pet the baby mammoth. I want to pet the pterodactyl.”

“The pterodactyl’s not ready to be petted yet,” I said. “It might bite.”

“It won’t bite me,” said Janie. “I want to pet it.”

“Would it help,” I asked, “if I bought you a toy pterodactyl? Then you can pet that.”

“I want the real one,” said Janie. She was getting that look again, like a thunderstorm about to break.

“You can’t have it,” I said. “Does Daddy let you have anything you want when you’re in his cave?”

“We don’t live in a cave,” said Janie. “We live in a longhouse. He lets me pet the pterodactyl.”

“Daddy has a pterodactyl?”

She nodded solemnly.

Lying, I thought. Incipient pathology. Grounds for appeal?

Not yet, unfortunately. “Then you can pet yours when you get home. Eat your sandwich. Do you want more milk?”

“No, thank you,” said Janie politely. When I kept my eye trained on her, she picked the bananas out of her sandwich and ate those, and fed the bread and peanut butter to the pigeons that had been lining up since we headed toward the table.

The mammoths moved around in their pit. They had their own Ice Age habitat, complete with miniature glacier. While Janie fed the pigeons, I watched an enormous female mammoth show a relatively tiny baby how to suck water into its trunk and give itself a bath. The mother looked like an ambulatory fur rug. The baby wasn’t much different from a very hairy newborn elephant.

Janie fed the last bit of her sandwich to the greediest pigeon. “May we pet the pterodactyl now?”

“No,” I said. “Watch the mammoths. They’re real Ice Age animals. Real hunters would hunt them to feed the tribe.”

“Daddy killed a bear,” said Janie. “I like deer better. May I pet the pterodactyl?”

“No,” I said.

Thinking about Marco killing a bear effectively killed my appetite. And I still had to get through the afternoon. Janie was fixated, there wasn’t any doubt about it. I gave up on the rest of the zoo after she threw a fit in the raptors’ habitat, and took her home till it was time to head back to the preserve.

The caseworker was waiting for us. It was the female version this time, in mode six: pleasant but strict. “You’re back early,” it said from the wallscreen.

“Certainly,” I said through clenched teeth. “Quality time, you know. Best spent at home in familiar surroundings, without external distractions.”

Quoting the book never did any good with caseworkers. Human or AI, they all had the same level of cynicism programmed in. I was fairly sure this one was an AI. Its lip curled faintly. It didn’t say anything as I changed Janie’s shirt—substituting one I’d bought for her, with Lunar Habitat III on it—and asked her what she wanted to do.

“Pet the pterodactyl,” she said.

“Her new idée fixe,” I told the wallscreen. Janie was digging in the toy chest. I had her model farm all ready, but she wanted the dinosaur set. No guesses as to what she was looking for.

“This signifies something,” the wallscreen said, frowning.

“No kidding,” I said, just as Janie threw the whole bag of plastic monsters on the floor and started to bawl.

“No pterodactyl. No pterodactyl!”

“Regression,” the wall diagnosed. “Separation trauma. Acid indigestion.”

Under cover of siren shrieks and fatuous declarations, I found the plastic pterodactyl. It was a retro version, the leathery lizard. Janie hit it out of my hand.

“You should attempt to affirm the parental bond,” the wall advised. “Her craving for soft white wings represents a yearning for the missing mother figure.”

“Marco’s got a whole clan marriage,” I said—all right, I snapped, at fair volume, to get above Janie’s roaring. “At last count she had half a dozen mother surrogates and a platoon of aunts and cousins.”

“None of whom is her mother,” said the wall.

That did it. “So give her back to me!” I yelled.< Janie shut up. So did the wall. AIs don’t look nonplussed, but they get a look when they shift programs: a total and inhuman blankness. When it came back to life it was in a new mode: Bureaucratically Stern. “Regulations prohibit—” “Want,” said Janie. “Pterodactyl.” “All right,” I said. “You want, you get.” She didn’t light up all at once. She knew about broken promises. Marco had broken plenty. So had I. “The revenant labeled pterodactyl is off limits to—” the wall intoned. I shut it off. I had about six and a half minutes before it could key the override and come back on. That would be enough. What I needed to do, I do for a living, after all. I logged onto the net, triple-time, and hit the requisite nodes as fast as they came up. The headset needed modification, but Janie’s records were still on file from three months ago. Marco would pitch a fit. Atavists aren’t just back-to-the-cave cultists. They’re back-to-the-natural-brain ideologues, too. “Back to the natural brawn,” I muttered as I made the last couple of adjustments. I’d promised Marco I wouldn’t log Janie on or plug her in while she was in his custody. I hadn’t signed anything. Nothing in the rules said I had to deny her what she wanted because her father had a kink about virtual-reality headsets. Real reality hadn’t been cooperating, had it? “There,” I said to Janie. “Put on the headset and say ‘Pterodactyl.’” One thing about kids. Real’s real, and virtual’s real, too, if they want it bad enough. Janie got to pet her pterodactyl. The wall came back on while she was online. This time I got a human. I think. “Ten points off for shutting down the AI,” he said. “Twenty-one for ingenuity. Five off for the fit your ex-SO is going to throw when he finds out how you solved the problem.” “But he gets ten off for failure to consider the needs of the child,” I said. Then: “Wait a minute. You’re not supposed to have a sense of humor.” “Sorry,” said the caseworker. He didn’t sound very sincere. We watched Janie. She was smiling in the headset, and her hands were making stroking motions. “She’s happy,” the caseworker observed. “And I’m not?” “Did I say that?” asked the caseworker. “Thanks,” 1 said, “but I can play my own head games. Am I supposed to be happy that my ex is a mighty mammoth hunter manqué and my daughter spends her life in a wooden firetrap? If he’d gone off and worked on a farm in Antarctica or something equally ordinary, I’d live with it. So what did he do? He turned into Grunt the Barbarian.” “I don’t find your daughter particularly barbaric,” the caseworker said. “Particularly for a small child.” “So she’s been coached,” I snarled. “Tonight at precisely 1900 hours she goes back to the preserve. She takes off her nice clothes, she puts on furs if she puts on anything, she has a nice dinner of raw bear tongue.” “Have you considered that your hostility may be affecting her responses?” the caseworker asked. I hit the off switch, but he was ready with the override. “You could reflect,” he said, “that the child’s father is concerned for her health when she leaves the preserve on these visits. She breathes city air, she eats city food, and she lays herself open to city violence.” “A wounded bear isn’t violent?” “It’s a matter of degree,” he said. “From the viewpoint of an Atavist, that is. I have to preserve neutrality.” “So why are you taking his side?” I demanded. “Because you can’t conceive of anyone’s being neutral,” said the caseworker. “If you leave in twenty minutes, you’ll just make the shuttle to the preserve.” “What if I don’t?” Caseworkers don’t do rhetorical questions. “Forty points. Cancellation of next month’s visiting privileges.” I hate it when a human being gets rational.

We were at the gate on the dot of 1900 hours. You’d expect something rustic for the entry to the Atavists’ preserve, wouldn’t you, unstripped logs or rough-hewn stone. This was just a gate between two concrete blockhouses, with a wall stretching off to either side. The preserve was a couple of miles past that, through a kind of no-man’s-land. It was huge, and it was complete wilderness, except where the Atavists lived.

That wasn’t too close to the wall. Marco had to swallow his principles once a month and take the underground shuttle that ran the circuit of the preserve. He was always on time, coming and going. Ice Age hunters might live in an eternal now, but Marco was a lawyer before he filed for change of lifestyle. Scheduled down to the millisecond.

I wish I could say he was dirty and hairy and smelly. He did smell like leather, but it was well tanned, and so was he. He swore he shaved with a flint razor; he had a couple of artistic nicks for proof. He looked healthy, fit, and disgustingly happy.

Janie ran to him and hugged him. I stood there feeling empty. She was babbling ninety to the dozen, all about pterodactyls and mammoths and chocolate ice cream.

“Chocolate,” sighed Marco. “I do miss chocolate.”

“You know what you can do about it,” I said.

Even before we split, I couldn’t talk normally around Marco. Everything I said came out sharp or whiny or both. Now wasn’t any different.

“You’re looking pale,” he said. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m all right!”

That’s the other thing. Looking at him always makes me want to cry.

“Caitlin,” he said, ”you could get a month’s admission on Janie’s account. You must have that much time accumulated, at the rate you don’t use vacations.”

He tried that every time. He’d tried to get me to move into the preserve with him in the first place, and never mind that the divorce had been final for a year.

I can’t say I didn’t look at his bronzed muscles (skin cancer city, I reminded myself) and his air of complete satisfaction, and wonder, just for a nanosecond, if…

”No, thanks,” I said. “I hate raw bear.” I swallowed. “Good-bye, Janie. See you next month.”

Janie pulled loose from Marco and ran to hug me. I thought of holding on and running, but I was supposed to be civilized, wasn’t I? I kissed her and said, “Be good.”

“Good-bye,” said Janie. “Thank you for the pterodactyl.”

The shuttle was waiting. Marco glanced at it but didn’t say anything. It was Janie who got hold of his hand and pulled him away. She was talking about pterodactyls again: big beaks, strong talons, soft fur. Nothing about red eyes or hunger, or yearning to fly out of its cage.

“Next month,” I said to the shuttle as it pulled away, “I’m taking you to the Space Museum.”

About the Author

Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr is an American author, best known for her fantasy books. She received her B.A. in Latin and English from Mount Holyoke College in 1976, and has an M.A. in Classics from Cambridge University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Medieval Studies from Yale University. She taught Latin and writing at Wesleyan University from 1988-1992, and taught at the Clarion science-fiction-writing workshops in 1996 and 1999.

She raises and trains Lipizzan horses at Dancing Horse Farm, her home in Vail, Arizona. The romantic fantasies that she writes under the name Caitlin Brennan feature dancing horses modeled on those that she raises.

Find more by Judith Tarr


About the Narrator

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.

Find more by Mur Lafferty