Prologue: The Things They Say
They aren't truly sentient and sapient.
It's the first thing everyone is told upon admission to the Home. The Home is the place where all the hybrids were created, both those for research and those for recreational sale. It's the place where all the original research was done, where the organ factories were finally perfected for mass production, where vaccines for seemingly incurable viruses and treatments for impossible cancers were created. It's a legend among the medical community, somewhere that novel and unique ideas are given a fair chance, the place where miracles happen.
Combeferre had initially been interested in the cancer aspects of their work, but he hadn't been able to snag that internship, and though it's disappointing to be stuck working on the recreational side of things at least he still managed to get something. It's even an easier job to explain to his friends and families.
After all, the general public mainly knows the Home as the place that created the Novelties.
They share some human traits, but they aren't human. They have less human DNA in them than any of the great apes.
They're beautiful creatures, all of them, and Combeferre finds himself staring into each cage with undisguised awe during the preliminary tour. It seems at first as though everything imaginable has been created—a centaur, a merman, a faun, a werewolf, a gryphon, creatures he vaguely recognizes from myth but can't put words to. Each is in its own individual cage, carefully atmosphere controlled, all provided with behavioral enrichment suited to their particular species' mixture.
If he had to choose one, though, as the most beautiful, the most striking of the Novelties that he sees, it would have to be the creature dubbed a Sphinx. Golden fur coats human-proportioned limbs, though with the elongated ankle joints of a cat, and the face is almost human save for the fur and the nose and something in the shape of the jaw that suggests more feline heritage. A tail twitches behind the creature as it studies something before it on the ground, batting it back and forth with its hands, so like a cat, but there is no cat in the world that also sports wings on its back that easily stretch eight feet tip to tip.
"You like him?" Their tour guide places a hand on Combeferre's shoulder, smiling through the window at the creature. "The Sphinxes are one of our most sought-after pets, I must say. Low-maintenance, highly adaptable to any environment, highly trainable. This one's two years old now, perfect age to really start getting them ready for an owner. He might not be a bad one for you to start on."
The creature in the cage turns toward the window, the one-way glass that should show as simply a mirror to it, and Combeferre finds himself staring into some of the most intense, piercing blue eyes he's ever seen.
He thinks he mumbles out an assent to the suggestion that he train the creature, but he can never remember later, everything else drowning in blue.
They have to be trained. They have to be protected. Even the smartest of them has less intelligence than a pig or a three-year-old child.
Some of them can mimic words. They're warned about that early, that some of the Novelties can even mimic full sentences, that it's a good thing to try to teach them simple or cute phrases, as it tends to assist bonding with the owners.
Combeferre is ready for this. He's ready for the patience and the calm and the exuberant reassurances and the gentle corrections that are recommended parts of training. He's eager to put his years of undergraduate and medical school training in pediatrics and psychology and behavioral medicine to use, to prove his worth. This is one of his last internships prior to getting his doctorate. He doesn't necessarily need to do well, but he wants to do well, and the Home is known for rewarding successful interns with lucrative job offers.
The internship goes well, even, for the first month. Five out of his six trainee subjects are exactly what he expected, highly intelligent and adaptable animals but still animals, three of them able to mimic words, two of them able to make sounds but nothing more.
Subject 1789, though, the sphinx with the blue eyes…
The sphinx is always a bundle of tightly wound energy, prowling around the training rooms, studying everything, touching everything, rubbing against everything, and Combeferre makes sure to have a sedative on hand whenever he's with the beast. There are very few instances of trainers being injured by Novelties, but Combeferre doesn't want to be the next statistic.
Combeferre writes off the first few times 1789 talks with him as aberrations. There are only so many things that they practice, anyway, and the great creature is bound to say the right phrase at the right time to mimic conversations at some point.
Some things can't be ignored or written off, though.
"Me hungry." The sphinx makes the declaration to Combeferre, tapping the ground in front of him expectantly as his tail swishes across the floor. He wears no clothing. None of the pets in the Home wear clothing, since it's unknown what their owners will elect to do so far as dress, and teaching the Novelties modesty when the owner doesn't want it will only make things more difficult. "Me hungry, Combeferre."
"Very good." Combeferre places a treat in front of the sphinx, reaching out to run his hand through the silky mane. The sphinx's coat is softer than most natural cat's fur, the better to please the rich men and women who purchase the Novelties as pets. "Again. Ask for food."
He should just be able to say the key word, just food, but he's got a bad tendency to speak in complete sentences to all of his charges, to chatter to them while they work. It's not bad for the Novelties—on the contrary, it probably helps them adjust faster when they're bought, having an idea of the susurrus of noise that always surrounds humanity.
"Me hungry." The sphinx pauses, head tilting slightly to the right. "Why me, Combeferre? Why not I, like Combeferre?"
Combeferre stares at the sphinx, his fingers still tangled in the long blond mane. "I… what?"
"Combeferre use I. Combeferre teach 1789 say me. Why?"
Those blue eyes stare straight at him, into him, through him, and Combeferre knows that something is very, very wrong with what he's been told.
They have to be owned. They have to protected. They cannot take care of themselves.
He tells his superiors about subject 1789, about his taciturnity and intelligence and how something must have gone wrong in the genetic production because there is something human in 1789's eyes.
He's told that there can't have been a mistake, that there have been over 1700 sphinxes made and not a complaint so far. He's taken off 1789's case for two weeks, and when he finally finagles his way back in as the sphinx's trainer it takes him a month to get 1789 talking properly again.
Combeferre doesn't tell anyone about the burn marks he finds on 1789's neck, or about the way 1789 jumps whenever there's a spark or snap of electricity near him.
He's certain, horribly, terribly certain to the depths of his soul, that those who could do something already know about what happened.
They are animals. They should be treated humanely, as all animals should be, but never forget that they are animals, and so they must be placed with qualified, certified owners.
Combeferre stays on after his internship is up, accepting the Home's offer of a job. It's a nice job offer, one that will allow him to be both trainer and medical officer for the Novelties, with a chance of promotion to other medical fields within the company if he shows aptitude and initiative.
He gets no other job offers, and he knows from the sudden distance and coldness in what had been cordial relationships with several of his professors that none will be forthcoming.
The people who hire him tell him it's because he's good with the Novelties, that the ones placed after he's trained them have all done well.
He believes that his charges have done well, though he doesn't believe the Home about anything else anymore.
He doesn't believe his entrapment with the company is accidental.
He doesn't believe anything they say about the Novelties.
And after a few months with the company, seeing the injuries physical and mental on some of the returned Novelties, he doesn't believe what they say about the screening process for owners, either.
All it takes is money to get a Novelty, and heaven help the creatures if their owner has more money than sense or human decency.
He tells 1789 that he's going to buy him. He teaches him to hide his intelligence, at least a little bit, enough to keep him from getting into trouble. He records everything he can, sneaking out records, videos, pictures, trying to gather enough information to prove what he knows and what the company knows and what no one will admit: some of the Novelties are human.
No matter whether he succeeds in bringing down the Home or not he does intend to buy 1789, too, as soon as he figures out how to get the money. Even if he can't fix the system, and he will not give up on that easily, he might be able to save this one individual.
He spends ten minutes alone in the restroom dry heaving when he comes into work and finds 1789 gone, purchased and shipped in the night without even giving him a chance to say goodbye.
It's five minutes longer than he spent being sick the day he accepted the Home's job offer, and the taste of helplessness and defeat is just as bitter now as it was then.