I jumped, barely suppressing a shriek. I hadn’t even known he was there. “Sorry, I - “
I obliged. Satisfied, he inched gingerly away from me, turning his attention back to the gloom.
There was nothing to see beyond the confines of our crate. I knew that. Nothing that could hear me shivering with anticipation or fear. Nothing that wasn’t in a cage, anyway. Not a single creature would approach us, whether from curiosity or malice, for the next several hours. Still, I wanted to do right by the mission, and the mission required that we remain both silent and watchful.
Minutes dragged by. I listened hard, trying to determine if we were traveling by air or by sea. We certainly were not in a truck. Air would make the most sense, wouldn’t it? Didn’t they want us there quickly for - for the end?
The thing about shivering is that the harder you try not to do it, the more likely you are to just exacerbate the problem. I could do all the breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation I wanted, and you would still be able to hear that vegetable rustling sound. I trained my gaze deeper into the darkness, willing Sam not to notice.
In a nearby cage, something else began jostling itself around, making a quiet squeaking sound. I could only barely see it from this angle, something gray and fast-moving. “Chinchilla,” I murmured, a quick reassurance for Sam.
Sam, of course, did not need reassurance. He never needed anything from me, really; certainly not in the context of a mission. Sam was born for this work. In a sense, we both were - purpose-bred, raised, and trained - but you could see the difference almost immediately. We may have come from the same bush, trained at the same dojo, passed the same tests, but I would never be Sam. He was born for this; I was just born into it.
Did the chinchilla know its fate? I’ve often wondered. Did it know, like we did, where it was going? Would it be skinned there, like we would be? I doubt it was going to be someone’s pet. Do they chop them up and pack them in syrup when they’re done, or just make them into coats and throw the rest away? It seemed wasteful, somehow - our skins are discarded and our insides kept; this creature’s skin would be kept and its insides thrown away. If we could exchange, somehow, then at least half of us would live and at least the rest wouldn’t be wasted.
I wanted to tell it that everything would be OK; Sam and I were here to save us all. The chinchillas would live, and the pineapples and the bananas and everybody else back home would live. Sam and I would probably die, but that’s what happened when you got picked. We accepted that early. And it wouldn’t be without purpose. I wanted to explain this to the chinchilla, but there wasn’t time.
The world lurched to one side. Sam and I rolled backward, bumping into each other, and had to struggle, cursing, back into position. Then the room shifted again, and we rolled back to the other side. I became immediately and frustratingly dizzy, unable to distinguish the motion of the room around me from the spinning in my own head. The chinchillas - there were many of them, I realized - squealed and thrashed in their cage. I shouted for Sam. He told me to be quiet.
We were supposed to have perfect balance; I guess that’s easier to achieve when you’re still attached to a vine.
With one final crash, we came to a halt. “Positions!” Sam whispered, but I couldn’t tell where I was anymore. I managed to find an edge, but there was no way to know which edge I was on.
“Sam - “
With a deafening creak, the cargo door fell open. I hadn’t expected us to be placed right next to the door, and the light dazzled my eyes. I heard men coming in, their boots beating war drums on the steel floor below us. A group of them gathered around our crate, attaching equipment.
I hesitated just half a second when Sam yelled the signal, and so I saw him leap. It was awe-inspiring. He arced through the air improbably, scraping at the face of an attacker with his spiny skin. Then something went wrong. The man batted at Sam with his hand, heedless of Sam’s attempts to rip through the leather of his glove. Without hands of his own, without any way to stop it, Sam fell to the ground, where he split open into a broken, yellow mash.
At first, I thought I would avenge him, or maybe even finish the mission on my own. Instead, I leapt out of the crate, ricocheted myself off of a few men’s arms and shoulders, and rolled out onto what turned out to be a shipyard. They didn’t turn to look at me. They didn’t chase me. I rolled as fast as I could anyway. At last I reached the ocean, where, sparing only the faintest thought for those I left behind, I threw myself into the water.
If you could separate the world into pineapple-filled chinchillas and chinchilla-filled pineapples, would you choose to be the half that got eaten in order to do it? Sam would, I know. Before that day I would have agreed with him. Now I know better. Now I would waste myself in some salt ocean just to keep someone else from eating me. Just to know, as I float into a salty nothingness, that I am alive.