First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2021
They only gave me the job because I’d been in the school play. I was the narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which my school put on for the same reason they’d done The Sound of Music the year before and Cheaper By The Dozen the year before that—high schools are full of kids who want to be in the musical, and those plays are about families with a LOT of children. Jacob has twelve kids, which is entirely too many, and the eleventh kid is Joseph, of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat, and I still to this day find myself singing “way, way back many centuries ago…” at inopportune moments.
To be perfectly honest, I was pretty sick of children by the time I got the job, but I thought it would be better than babysitting as far as sustained exposure to kids goes. At least most of the children who go on the tours don’t sing, and even if they do, I only have to be around them for 30 minutes, maybe 45 at the outside.
I lied when they gave me the job and said I was going to be a marine biology major at college this fall, so they’d put me on the Arctic Adventure tours. I love the animals up here, and the only other place I’d get to work with them is the aquarium, which was not hiring. The zoo doesn’t have any whales, which are my favorite, but they have a polar bear family, penguins, and an arctic fox…allegedly. I have been working here for five weeks and she has never come out of her little cave when I’ve been looking.
“Hesper and Phosphor are the parents,” I tell the group in front of the polar bear tank. “Does anyone know who Hesper and Phosphor are named for?”
I wait a beat, hoping no one will raise their hand. I really prefer to just give my spiel without answering stupid kid questions, but there’s always one guest who ruins it for everyone. Today it’s a dad.
“Those were the names for the morning star and the evening star,” he begins, reversing the two, and I am about to give my canned “That’s right!” when he continues. “But they’re both the same star, a planet actually.”
This throws my whole routine off. I recover, of course.
“That’s right,” I tell him, smiling so my cheeks ache, “and I bet you can guess Junior’s name based on what you just told us.” But I’ve overestimated him.
“Jupiter?” he guesses, and he doesn’t even have the right planet. Hesper and Phosphor are names for Venus, who is both the morning and the evening star.
“Close,” I lie. “Pythagoras, after the scientist who first theorized that Hesper and Phosphor are one and the same.”
When his tour group is done, I take my break even though it’s early. Teddy covers for me. He started a week or two before me and has been showing me the ropes for way longer than I need. It’s either annoying or endearing, and he is probably nursing a crush on me, but since I don’t like boys, I figure it can’t hurt to let him help more than I need him to. Teddy was a camp counselor before he worked here, which is probably a better qualification than “can talk at people for hours at a time,” but then again that is really the entire job.
I ask Marinka at the grill for a hot cocoa. She gives it to me with a smile and won’t take money for it even though we’re not supposed to get freebies. I sit and drink it on the bench at the top of the viewing area for the polar bear tank. People usually crowd the glass, and it’s quiet up here. I watch Phosphor swimming in a lazy circle as I drink my cocoa. Marinka put lots of whipped cream on it, and it’s creamy and sweet.
“Mommy, look,” I hear a voice say entirely too close to my bench. “That polar bear is stuck.”
That gets my attention, and I unwillingly look up at Phosphor, but he isn’t stuck at all; he is still swimming his lazy circuit, clockwise around the shallower end of their pool.
The mom answers, “He’s fine,” or something like that. My observation about moms is that most of them are so tired of questions that they barely hear them and will say almost anything to make them go away. The questions, not the kids, but I have a feeling they wouldn’t mind if the kids went away for at least a little while so they could finish a thought for once.
The kid protests as their mom drags them away, out of the viewing area and my hearing range. I am relieved to be back in relative quiet. There is a constant buzz of talking here at the zoo, but it only breaches my awareness when someone is noisy in just the right (wrong?) way too close to me.
When I get back from my break, there is a group waiting. I go into my usual speech while I lead them through the Arctic Adventure, which is an awfully fancy name for what is actually just a corner of the zoo with some fake snow—it may be my favorite, but it’s got its limitations. When we get to the polar bears, I divert a little from my usual script, based on the know-it-all dad.
“Who is familiar with Pythagorean theory?” I ask, risking another know-it-all by phrasing it in the form of a question. A few people raise their hands, but no one tries to explain the theory to me, so I go on. “Pythagoras theorized,” I continue, “that the short sides of a right triangle were equal in length to the long side, or hypotenuse.” I pause for dramatic effect, but the only effect seems to be some kids zoning out because this sounds an awful lot like math. “Pythagoras also discovered that Hesper and Phosphor, the evening star and the morning star, were the same star seen at different times of day. We now know that they were not a star at all, but the planet Venus.” I continue, explaining that the polar bears’ names reflect both the various names of Venus and the concept of Pythagoras’s theorem, in that the hypotenuse (baby) is equal to the sum of her parents.
It’s a stretch, but this job gets awfully boring if you don’t improvise.
After I give the rest of the talk, a kid raises their hand. I sigh and then plaster a smile on my face and say, “yes?”
“That polar bear is stuck,” the kid says. I don’t know if it’s the kid from earlier—I never looked at them. I don’t think it is, though. It’s unusual for a family to do a self-guided trip through the zoo and then come back for the guided tour.
I turn and look at Phosphor. He’s still swimming in his lazy circle. He dives toward the glass, touches off the rocks with his front paw, then gives himself a great big push off the same spot on the rock with his hind leg, surfacing near the shore before diving again. Around and around he goes.
“Phosphor just likes swimming in a circle,” I tell the kid. We move on. The penguins are being fed and they are very funny. The way they jump around to catch the fish is like a comedic dance. I forget about the kid’s comment about Phosphor. Both kids.
The next morning I am at my locker, pinning on my ID badge, when Teddy says, “Phosphor kept swimming that same circuit all afternoon yesterday.”
“So?” I ask, wondering how he knows about it.
“Just making conversation,” he says.
“It’s what they do,” I say, irritated and not sure why I am irritated. “Polar bears like to play. The enclosure isn’t big enough for real play, so they do this.”
“They’re apex predators,” Teddy says, as though that means they don’t play. He tries again: “They weigh one ton.”
“Absolute units can play,” I tell him. He laughs, but I do not mean it as a joke.
No one on the morning tours suggests that Phosphor is stuck. He is still swimming the same loop. At lunchtime I wander through the gift shop. “Tiny Dancer” is playing, and I hear a guest singing along softly, “hold me closer, Tony Danza.”
I am late returning to work and get stuck with a camp group. The kids are rowdy and the counselors disinterested; the parent volunteers look ready to bolt. I try to make it interesting, but the kids all huddle and whisper amongst themselves while I talk. I think they are not paying attention at all, but when I ask if anyone has questions, easily a dozen hands shoot up. I choose a girl near the back, because boys in front are the most likely to be acknowledged and I like to even the playing field whenever I can.
“Is it true that polar bears are extinct?” She asks.
“Of course not,” I tell her. “We have three polar bears right here.”
“Are they real?” another kid asks, without raising their hand. I am supposed to ignore questions that are asked out of turn, but I can’t help looking through the group, trying to find the speaker. I fail; all the kids look the same.
“Of course they’re real,” I say to no one in particular.
“I only see two,” another kid says, and I turn and look into the enclosure for the first time today. Not that I don’t look, but like, I really look this time.
Phosphor is swimming his circuit. Hesper is pacing near the back, on the rocks. Pythagoras is nowhere to be seen.
“Their cub is probably asleep,” I tell the kids.
“Where?” they want to know. Kids are never satisfied with a straight answer.
“The enclosure has lots of nooks and crannies for the bears’ privacy,” I answer. They don’t seem happy with that either, but the counselors move them along.
When the tour is over, I go to the bathroom and sit in the stall, not using the toilet except as a seat. I stay there for a long time. I just can’t bring myself to go back, but I am afraid someone will come looking for me, so I go back to the office and I lie and say I threw up. Teddy is solicitous. No one else wants to come near me in case I am contagious.
I call out for three days. Then I feel okay again. I can’t figure out what was bothering me, so I shake it off.
The very first group I have wants to know where the arctic fox is. I realize, swiftly and surely, that there is no fox in that enclosure. I don’t know how I get through the lie that she’s sleeping.
I get a hot cocoa and hang out with Marinka for my break.
“Do you want to go to the planetarium tonight?” she asks. I am not sure if it’s like a group thing or a date, and I wait too long to ask, so I just say yes. I will find out when I get there.
Phosphor is still swimming his circuit. I avoid talking about it whenever I can, and at the end of my shift I ask my boss to transfer me to another section of the zoo. She is noncommittal about it.
After the zoo closes, I meet Marinka by the gate and we walk through the park to the planetarium. She buys tickets for the hologram show. I think it’s a date.
We sit down in an open-topped two-person pod. The lights dim and the universe explodes into being in hologram form all around us. It looks so real that I have to close my eyes. Marinka reaches over and squeezes my hand.
A kiss goodnight turns into a frantic merging of our bodies in her tiny bed; I bite her shoulder to keep from waking her roommate. After, I cry, but not because of the sex. I don’t know why.
The next morning when I take my break, Marinka pulls me into the stockroom behind the gift shop and shows me her bruised shoulder. I whisper gentle kisses into the toothmarks as she slips her fingers into my underwear. I bite down again and she screams as I come.
I ride the high of being with her through three tours. On the fourth tour something inside me collapses. Phosphor is still swimming his circuit. The arctic fox area is still empty. The zookeeper for this area is out today, and the penguins are doing a strange dance. I lean against the railing and watch, trying to identify its familiarity, until I realize: they are catching nonexistent fish.
“They’re holograms,” I mutter. “What the hell!”
Someone walking by stops and looks at me for a long, uncomfortable minute. I turn and meet their eyes and they walk off in a hurry. Just a guest. I need to be careful in case any staff sees me. Senior staff, I mean.
I decide to look for Teddy.
“They’re holograms,” I tell him. He looks at me the way the guest did, but his eyes are soft. Concerned.
“Are you doing okay?” he finally asks. I should have known he wouldn’t understand.
“Never mind,” I say, walking away. Maybe he’s in on it.
I want to see Marinka, but I am gripped with fear. What if she is in on it, too? Maybe they’re all in on it, and I am the lone outsider.
I let myself into the access building when no one is looking. I’m not supposed to, but I don’t care. I slip inside when someone comes out and go to the back entrance of the arctic fox enclosure.
The door isn’t even locked.
There is an antechamber full of electronic equipment. That stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what I expected to find, but it wasn’t this. I am surprised—shocked—to find that I was right. How are they getting away with this?
I look around the room. The console is in sections, labeled for all the animals in the Arctic Adventure. The power in the Vulpus lagopus section is off. Of course it is, or else there would be an arctic fox. Someone has left a toolbox in the corner. I riffle through it and choose a screwdriver, slipping it into my back pocket. I walk back out, wedging a rock in the door to the building so it doesn't lock, and go find my next tour group. It's just two families—a dad and son and a mom, dad, and toddler. It drives me up the wall when the adults outnumber their children. How many parents does it take to watch one toddler? At least this family doesn't have the grandparents with them, too.
Perfect nuclear family. I look over at Phosphor, swimming his glitchy route, and Hesper, pacing by the rocks. No sign of Pythagoras, of course. Her hologram must be out.
“Here we see a family just like yours,” I tell the group, focusing on mom and dad. “Only this family's controls are glitching. Dad is stuck in a rut, going in the same circle over and over again. Mom is dissatisfied. The baby is dead.”
They look at each other, uncomfortable. Good. The truth should be uncomfortable.
“They're named after Venus, but maybe we spent too much time worrying about space and now there are no more polar bears and zoos have to lie.”
“What is this, Greenpeace?” one of the dads asks. “I recycle!”
Why is it always the dads? They all think they're so clever.
The little boy who's with his dad raises his hand. I stare at him until his dad leans down and whispers something to him. Finally, he speaks: “Can we see the arctic fox?”
“Right this way,” I tell him, leading the families back to the access building.
“Where are we going?” the mom asks.
“We're going to see the fox,” I assure her. “This is part of the VIP tour.”
People will do anything if you tell them it's VIP. They follow me into the building. I take them straight to the control room. I hold the door open and they all walk in. I follow, closing the door behind me.
“Where's the fox?” the boy asks. The toddler is asleep in his stroller. I don't know why people even bring toddlers to the zoo.
“There is no fox,” I tell him. He starts to cry. “There never was a fox,” I continue.
“Now see here,” one of the dads says. “What kind of tour is this?”
“There is no fox,” I repeat. “It's a hologram. They're all holograms.”
The other dad takes out his phone. Good. He will take photographs and then it won't only be me. Everyone will know.
“I'm calling 911,” he tells me.
“What can they do about it?” I ask sadly. “They probably already know.”
His hand drops to his side, phone forgotten. “Are you okay?” he asks.
“No! I am not okay! The animals are all gone! They're holograms and no one will do anything about it!” I take the screwdriver out of my pocket and look at it.
The mom speaks up. “Can we leave?” she asks. “Or are we hostages?”
I don't understand. I just shrug.
They rush out the door.
I turn to the console and find the section marked Ursus maritimus. I choose my screwdriver's mark carefully.
© Annika Barranti Klein