Since overhearing the conversation Dieter’d had with Eckert on the phone, I had gradually come up with excuses to put a stop to our time together. We’d gone from two meals a week together, to one, to none, and I’d put an end to our working out together as well, claiming that I could do it on my own.

I couldn’t. I didn’t. I’d gone back to my old eating habits, as well. It was all less work, and I just didn’t feel up to it anymore.

Why put in the effort? If Dieter was pestering Eckert as much as he’d claimed on the phone, I was eventually going to be reassigned to something else soon anyway. Besides, it’s hard to care about yourself when it feels like nobody cares about you. I’m just a burden, as always.

Eventually, I was only going upstairs to show Dieter I was still turning up to work. All of my time was being spent in that little storage room, digitizing tape after tape. I wasn’t sure what he made of my new behavior, but he didn’t question it.

While waiting for tapes to transfer to the digital format, I’d found myself watching the newer, already digital footage of 42 and 47 together. They seemed inseparable–I’d catch them holding hands whenever Dieter or Dale would approach, but there wasn’t any hissing or aggressive behavior, like what I’d witnessed in person. There was footage of them working alone and together to solve puzzles. They seemed to communicate visually, which was interesting.

I thought back to when I’d heard 42 shout the word “no” and how specific it was to the situation.

Clearly 42 has the capacity to communicate in some sort of language, otherwise teamwork like what I’d been witnessing on the the older footage would be impossible. Could his use of that word really be nothing more than parroting? Did he pick that specific noise to make based on some context he’d heard it used in before?

… Isn’t that what verbal communication is, though? Making specific noises based on context?

But what if he only said “no” because it’s an easy sound to make, and it had nothing to do with what was happening?

I furrow my brow, thinking.

Could it be that he could talk, he just didn’t in front of people who’ve hurt him? I definitely found myself incapable of speech in front of my dad in the past. Could he just have selective mutism?

Should I even be humanizing him in that way?

Thinking about this was beginning to make me feel ill. I thought back to the conversation I’d had with Cheryl, about the donor program. Apparently, genetic donations made via that program frequently ended up in experimental use, although she wasn’t entirely sure of the specifics. Or she just couldn’t tell me.

It’d already been implied to me that 42 was some kind of hybrid. But there’s no way human DNA could’ve been used in his creation, could it? Surely that would be illegal?

… Although, thinking about how things like synthetic insulin is made, maybe not.

But creating insulin via gene insertion versus creating a nonhuman organism with the speech capabilities of a human had to be considered two different things, right? The legalities of genetic engineering was beyond me. How far was too far?

I slump backwards onto the futon, conflicted. I’d be bringing these thoughts to Dieter, if I still felt comfortable talking to him.

There’s a knock at the door, and Dieter comes in.

“Just checking in on you,” he says. “It’s past quitting time.”

“It is?” I check the clock on my phone.

It was.

I look down at my work. “I’m still waiting for this tape to finish up.”

“I see,” he responds. “Well, don’t stay too long if you can help it. Work will still be here in the morning.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Ejay.”

“‘Night.”

He closes the door, and, presumably, begins making his way to the shuttle.

I sit there for a moment, before realizing: I was alone. For the first time in a while, it was just me.

I could visit 42, and Dieter wouldn’t be there to stop me.

I get to my feet and make my way up into the observation deck. I stop just short of the door that leads back down into 42’s enclosure.

Do I really want to do this?

After thinking for a few moments, I shrug, open the door, and begin my descent.

I don’t grab a lab coat.

I don’t grab a cattle prod.

I knew this was careless, but I guess I didn’t see a reason to care. I’d remembered he stopped hissing at me when I’d dropped the cattle prod that time. Maybe going in without one would lead to a more docile reaction from him.

Alternatively, if he ended up killing me, it would mean I’d never have to go home, if instead of a reassignment Eckert was trying to decide if I should be fired.

42 is awake this time, but he doesn’t look at me. I hear sniffling.

Is he crying?

“…42?” I say gently.

His ears perk. He turns to look at me. I see tears streaming down his face, which he wipes away using the back of his hand. He’s looking me over, probably searching for a cattle prod. But he’s not growling or hissing.

We both freeze, staring at each other.

“Do… you understand me?” I ask, not knowing what to expect.

He says nothing. He just looks away again, ignoring me, and leans the side of his head into the wall.

Well, alright then.

I move a bit closer, and sit down near him.

I ask my question again. “Do you understand me?”

He jumps to his feet, pressing his back into the wall. I guess he didn’t realize how close I was until I’d spoken. He stares at me. I can hear a growl forming in his throat.

I hold up my hands. “I won’t hurt you.” I’m trying my hardest to keep my movements and tone as gentle as possible. “I just want to talk.”

He continues to glare at me, still growling softly.

“Talk,” he says.

I couldn’t tell if that was a demand, or if he was just repeating what I’d said.

“Yeah. Talk,” I said.

“Talk,” he repeated, squinting. He hesitates for a moment, before pointing at me. “42.”

I shake my head, and place a hand on my chest. “Ejay.” I point at him. “42.”

He points up toward the windows of the observation deck. “Dieter.”

I can feel my heart quicken its pace. That was definitely mindful speech. “Oh my god,” I say under my breath. “No Dieter,” I say to him. “Just Ejay.”

He stares at me a moment longer.

And then his eyes light up.

I feel myself being lifted off the ground, though he’s not touching me, and then thrown through the air, my back hitting hard against the wall. Terrified, and in pain, I curl up into a ball. I can hear 42 scampering toward me. I peer through my fingers up at him, his hands and eyes flaming with orange light.

“47,” he says.

He lifts me off the ground again. I can feel the pressure growing as he slowly begins crushing me against the wall.

“S-Stop–”

“47,” he says again, louder.

I gasp for air. “I-I don’t know what you–”

“47!” he shouts.

“I’m… sorry… I don’t know…”

He keeps his hold on me a moment longer, before letting me drop to the floor. I crumple.

“Dieter,” he says, anger in his voice.

“I-I don’t know what you want.”

He stares at me, and then sits down on the floor. He presses his hands against his closed eyes, clearly frustrated, then looks at me again. “Why?”

“Why what?”

He opens and closes his mouth a few times, faltering. He then gives up, stands, and returns to his preferred corner of the room.

I take this as an opportunity to leave.

At home, I lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Fortunately, the encounter only gave me minor bruising and a few small scrapes that would be easy enough to hide. I was going to be sore for a little while. 42 clearly wasn’t as blood thirsty as I was lead to think. But he was definitely angry, and absolutely smarter.

He understood that I didn’t understand. I think that’s why he let me go. But what was he trying to tell me? In the moment, I was too afraid he was going to kill me to think much.

47 had died due to a heart defect–did he not realize his friend was gone? Was he upset that they took him away, and never brought him back? That would certainly upset me, if my closest friend was just… gone, and I had no idea why. Surely, neither Dieter nor Dale would’ve explained to him what happened. They thought he was just a parrot.

Maybe I could help him grasp that his friend wasn’t coming back.