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Kaia peeked under the cloth covering the critter cage. Yep, it was still alive, which was either a testament to the veracity of her scientific method, or else a real stroke of luck. The other half died shortly after the final separation phase. Her brother, Kaetos, cried for terracycles over the slimy yellow thing.

She took one last peep as the group of judges in lab jumpers stopped in front of her table. The stocky woman leading the group was one of Kaia’s academy instructors. That boded well for her.

“Good morning, Kaia. Are you ready?”

“Good morning, Doctor Karnvort. Yep, I’m good to go here.” Kaia stood tall with her hand resting on the cage cover.

Dr. Karnvort turned to the group behind her. “Doctors and Engineers, our next project comes from Kaia Brakinas Fayrkan. The thesis of her work is –”

“Brakinas Fayrkan?  As in Malken Brakinas and Karina Fayrkan?” A sciengineerist in the back of the group peered curiously at her from under the goggles perched on his forehead. His eyes were solid black and beedy and his head, neck and hands were covered with soft, gray fur – marks of his rodentia hybrid genes.

“Yes sir, they’re my parents. So, when I chose my project –“

“Is that right? Interesting. I attended Granack Institute with your mother, way back in the day. I see from your wings and dark skin they decided your mother’s genetics were the better of the two. Raptor, yes?  Very striking. Of course, I never met your father. Now what was his hybridization?”

Kaia could do without the third degree on her parent’s background. It wasn’t that his comments were rude. They were actually subdued by Zeferickan standards. But she wanted to get her demonstration done and over with before the quillico died on her.

“Aqueous. Equatorial finless dalfin, to be exact.  And so in this cage, I –”

“Is that right? Interesting. Not a common hybrid combo, is it? Well, I was very sorry to hear about the lab accident. The news spread like goose weed when Teknok’s two top sciengineerists were destroyed by their own experiments. One dead, one…well, what a preventable tragedy. How is your mother doing these days?”

A fair amount of rustling noise was coming from the cage.  Oh please, don’t let the quillico be convulsing.

“She’s well. She’s busy reviewing research from her earlier projects.” By that, she meant her mother obsessed over data readings from the accident when she wasn’t passed out from anti-depressants and exhaustion. Kaia made to pull the cover from the cage. “Now, my project wasn’t too diffic–”

“Is that right?  Interesting. If I recall, your parents were working on dimensional plane theories. Such a tenuous and dangerous science. Tell me, did they make any progress before the explosion?”

Kaia clenched her teeth to keep from sighing.  “They ruled out all the common theories, and I’ve been working on two of their more promising ones in my spare time, in addition to designing the experiment for today, which –”  If this guy says ‘is that right’ and ‘interesting’ one more time, she thought…

“Is that right? Interesting. Well then, given your lineage, I hope you know we expect more from you, young lady, than from your peers. So what is it that you have to show us today?”

Finally. Kaia pulled the cover from the cage to reveal a dead quillico.

“Oh, I…”

“Is that thing dead?” His beady eyes moved rapidly in their sockets, taking stock of the situation in the cage.

The white quilled critter was on its back. Small pink tongue hanging out the side of its open snout. Stubby padded legs stiff and straight in the air.  White furred belly deathly still.

“Uh, yep.” Kaia pursed her lips.

“And what is your project exactly?”

She could still salvage this, but she had to talk fast.

“Well, Doctor, as you may know, the practice of hybrid decoupling is beginning to gain a foothold in some of the eastern-most city-states. The scientific community is looking for ways to rapidly bring back the pure genetic pools of animals now extinct due to the over-hybridization and risky experiments of the 10th Era, animals like this quillico, which was once abundant in the northern hemisphere states. Results are being published after the completion of only a handful of speedy simulations, and their successes would seem to be positive, but –”

“You call this dead critter a positive result?” The goggled sciengineerist pointed accusingly at the cage.

“Yes, I do, because my project is intended to prove that hybrid decoupling, while a fad science, is not only untenable, but dangerous. I followed all of the current theoretical processes, which all failed, and tested one of my own. This is the result,” she said, waving to the cage.  She grabbed her personal process log book from where she’d hidden it under the table and opened it to the notations from five terracycles ago. “And that is the result.” She handed it to Dr. Karnforth, who scrunched her eyebrows and nodded, then passed it to the others behind her.

Kaia took meticulous notes on all her scientific experiments, which for this one included the death of the yellow varnish snail, the other genetic half of the snail-shelled quillo she’d attempted to divide back into its two former species.  She hadn’t intended on sharing her log book with the judges, but given the circumstances…

“Note that I was able to fully separate and isolate their original genetic strings, and bring back each of the animals as they were before hybridization. But the resulting subjects did not survive the process.”

“But your poster here says ‘Successful Hybrid Decoupling Brought to Life’.”

Kaia eyed the poster she spent thirteen kilobits last night designing. She’d patted herself on the back for the clever use of ‘brought to life’, seeing as she was the only person so far who’d been able to keep a critter alive post-separation. Something about premature victories drifted through her head.

“Yes, well, it’s a statement poster.”

“A statement poster?”

“Designed to mimic and mock the adverts from the eastern city-states. The whole point of my experiment, Doctor, is that something shouldn’t be labeled successful – even if it’s expected to be – when it’s based on marginal work. A meticulous science process trumps it every time, no matter the results. This large, glossy poster – which caught your attention easily – may say it works, but that,” she said, pointing to the book, “is where the truth lies.” It was easier to keep a straight face with that line than she expected.

“Genius, Kaia. I’m proud of you.” Dr. Karnvort beamed at her. Goggles looked less convinced.

“But Miss Brakinas-Fayrkan, there’s a scribbled note in your journal here that says, ‘Quillico cannot die.’ Right here.” He held the book over his head and tapped the page with a slender furry finger.

“Is that right? Interesting.” Kaia took the book and pretended to frown at the note. “And my work here proved that it most certainly will.”

He stared, eyes narrowed, at the dead critter.

“Alright, Doctors and Engineers, we have three more projects to inspect, so if you’ll follow me this way.” Karnvort winked at Kaia as the group moved along to the next table, where a nervous ninth-year academy student with an underwhelming study on domesticating wild bafa root sat scratching his nose.

Kaia turned to the cage and poked the quillico through the bars with her stylus.

“Thanks a lot, traitor. Couldn’t wait even one kilobit to keel over, could you?”

Pink curled toes on one foot wiggled.  Then the toes on the other foot moved. All four legs stretched out into the air as its mouth widened in an epic yawn. It started a slow rocking motion to roll back over onto its stomach.

“Freak,” Kaia muttered. She looked over her shoulder at the group of judges. Goggles was peering at her over the heads of his colleagues.

“Freak.” She grabbed the cover and threw it back over the cage.

Now wasn’t this quite the dilemma. Reveal the now inconveniently-alive marsupial and prove her true experiment a success? Or keep her mouth shut and win that year’s Teknok science competition?  She chewed on her lower lip as she considered her options.

Well, at least Kaetos would be happy the quillico is still alive.