Testimony of a Thousand
Apollo was pounded for being a superfluous substance. His owner loved him very much, but LOVE was no bold enumeration on his birth certification. LOVE was not placed below AGE above FISHING SKILL; it only dependently existed, LOVE, a quantity slathered on the discriminating peripheral.
Before they left home, Anna dressed up in a floral sundress and speckled stockings, her hair spun like cotton candy into a light, sloppy bun. After Apollo was pounded, she would receive a Pink Krawk with no letters or spaces in its name. So Anna looked her best for the occasion. Her face was blank—it was almost too little of a face, what Apollo saw. You could’ve wiped away her eyes and mouth and she’d still be expressing more or less the same.
Anna took him to the Doctor, the Yellow Techo in the white coat. He gave her some documents, which she signed, while he looked her up and down with a slanted eye, as if she were some test he’d yet to pass. There was some darker thing in the Doctor’s shadow that made Apollo wonder if the Pound would digest him as he was, if he’d be consumed here like entertainment proper.
Anna hugged him. “Take care,” she said with pain. “I’ll miss you so, so much.”
The Doctor led Apollo away. He was placed in a cell at the very back, with an open front, and barred windows in the other three sides. The laminated forms pasted to the wall outside the cell were switched out for his own, listing COLOUR SPECIES GENDER LEVEL STRENGTH DEFENSE MOVEMENT. Then the ceiling lights shut off one by one as the Doctor moved away, like eyes that had seen too much. Apollo ran his hands over the verdigris on the bars, watching other pets read books across the corridor. A few crude lanterns and lava lamps illuminated the velvety pages. He was in a scoop of earth, a panel of the grid, a space where the smoke of dreams rolled high and below.
A Gelert pulled her scarlet snout over the ledge of the left window. “Hey, kid. This your first time here?”
“Tough,” said a voice in the cell behind his. “How old are you?”
Apollo couldn’t answer. “What’s your name, kid?” the Gelert asked.
“PrinceApollo_5758,” he replied.
Laughter echoed behind him, and Apollo became aware that the cell walls, left and right, meant nothing; his voice was too loud here, and suddenly empowered. “Shame about the numbers,” said a third voice. The other cells echoed it. Terrible, those four digits of yours. And the underscore!
The Gelert’s lightless eyes flickered over him. Nobody had ever looked at him like that before, like they were reading a nutrition label slapped onto the meat of the rest of himself. “Forget the name. Is there anything else you might have going for you? You’re basic yellow, so that’s no good. How about your levels? Moxie, read his stats!”
In the cell in front of him across the corridor, an Eyrie’s beak emerged between the bars. “Average,” Moxie said as he read Apollo’s papers on the wall. “Level two, strength seven…he’s got nothing.”
“Well, still, you keep your head up,” the Gelert told Apollo. “’Prince Apollo’, huh? Maybe one of the younger owners will think you’re royalty. Just have faith in it.”
“And it wasn’t your fault, kiddo,” said a new voice behind the right wall. “Whatever it was that made your owner drop you here—it wasn’t your fault. These new owners just have no soul.”
Everyone was comforting him. They’d already accepted him as their own, extending LOVE—that was what this sentiment was. Apollo could imagine a silent signature tacked onto every word they spoke: in solidarity. The comfort they offered was inspired by abandonment. Every cell was etched with pain. Apollo crushed his hands against the bars; it hurt appropriately. He tried to articulate, in his mind, what he wanted.
The words came to Apollo that night when a Kougra strolled down the corridor—very uncommon, a guest in the back of the Pound. He was wearing a throat-white coat of doglefox fur, fitted pants, and lace-up shoes. And he was a Tyrannian, with those long fangs, but not the native kind from Tyrannia; this was a Tyrannian who’d grown up in Central, which had given him a modern edge. The Kougra walked by the sleeping cells, his silhouette glowing only with the crepuscular light of lava lamps, and each step he took went tak on the concrete floor, tak tak tak tak—
Until the Kougra stopped in front of Apollo’s cell, and turned his head just so. He leaned against the bars, one paw caressing the lock. “Well,” he said, “ain’t you one of the creepiest kids I’ve seen, standing there in the dark like that.”
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Apollo said. “It’s not visitation hours.”
“Oh, well. Time slips by.” The Kougra was looking at Apollo in a fond and significant way; as if Apollo was his neighbor’s boy, or his little cousin. “You haven’t been here long, have you? You’ve still got a spark in your eyes.”
Apollo knew from looking in the mirror that his eyes were dark and cold, like black coffee the way Anna didn’t like it. What did it mean to have a soul? “I like that spark,” continued the Kougra, “so, c’mere, kid. Get close.” When Apollo did, the Kougra leaned down to meet him. “What got you here?”
“My owner wanted a Krawk. I was expendable.”
“Expendable.” The Kougra’s voice flashed with angry heat. Apollo was touched.
“My name wasn’t good enough. It’s got four numbers and an underscore. You can read it on the wall.”
The Kougra flicked his head a bit. “I don’t care about the wall. The Pound’s etched in my skin, kiddo, I’ve got maps on the backs of my paws. So I’ve heard it all. There are thousands of other pets like you in this place who got pounded to ‘make room’. Then there’s the pets who got hit by one of those color-changing RE’s, turned ‘em basic like that.” He snapped his claws. “Also, there’re a few who were pounded ‘cause they didn’t like the right books, and a few who got pounded for no reason—their owners just had a tantrum, is all. Not very responsible of ‘em.”
Apollo felt a shadow unfurl in the pit of his stomach. His heartbeat was picking up. “Seems like owners don’t need much of a reason at all, do they?” asked the Kougra. “Seems like they can get away with a lot. You suppose they ought to have the right to do that?”
Apollo considered this. “Anna could. She created me.”
“Yeah, she built you in the workshop like the rest of us. What are your likes, huh? ‘Pestering others’? ‘Reading and learning’? And what do you do when you meet a stranger? Let me guess, ‘approach with caution’. See, my contention here is that you’re not a creation, kid—you’re recreation. And your Anna ain’t your ma anymore. Think a ma would abandon a kid because she don’t like his name?”
The Kougra grinned, the zigzag harsh between his fangs, and that was when Apollo knew: that this Kougra had articulated all the articles and particles that Apollo had been fumbling for. “We’re like pixels on a screen to them. We’re a game, is all. Yeah. You think yourself a toy, kid?”
“Really? What are you, then?”
“A pet,” repeated the Kougra. “That’s a person. Agreed?”
“And are people objects, do you think? Should they be owned? Are they possessions?”
“Don’t listen to him, son,” said a voice behind the Kougra. Moxie’s beak reappeared between the bars, with a snarl of fur thrown from the Eyrie’s tail. “He’s from MADELINE. Believe me, he’s nothing but trouble.”
“Pets like Moxie,” said the Kougra, “believe in being owned. He’s content to wait here for an owner to deem them worthy. If one does, then that’s alright—maybe he can snatch a good life that way, and forget how easily it can be taken from him.”
“Pets like you,” growled Moxie, “can’t be reasoned with.”
“Now, Moxie’s going to sit there in his dark cage until the cells cycle him back to the front of the Pound. Then he and a hundred other pets will join Miss Rose for the exhibition, where owners can peruse the aisles and take the pretty ones up to the check-out counter. And the pets that don’t get bought? Well. Nobody cares about them, I suppose, except for us.”
“You’re dangerous, keyrunner,” Moxie said.
The Kougra turned his head in the direction of the Eyrie’s cell. “When a pawkeet grows up in a flock with clipped wings,” he said, “it grows up believing that pawkeets can’t fly. Ain’t that right, Mister Moxie? Ain’t my offer still standing for you?”
The beak withdrew.
“You’re a keyrunner?” Apollo asked. He stepped forward.
The Kougra smiled. “And what’s your name, kid?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Apollo. The name’s Jackie. Now, we keyrunners usually charge fees for the fix, but for you…” Jackie took the first two digits of his left paw and touched them together twice: snip snip, like a scissor. “For you, this one’s on me. So listen closely.”
First, you needed gold.
High-quality emancipation didn’t come cheap. But it was worth the price, if you payed. Either you smuggled your own coins into the Pound somehow, or—more commonly—you pickpocketed the owners who walked by your cell. It was trickier business if you were caught, but if you weren’t, you’d taken your first step towards liberation.
After your cell was cycled to the very back of the Pound, you kept watch. The keyrunners strolled the Pound during visitation hours, eight to eight, and between midnight and three a.m. It was vital that you caught one when they came. When a pet passed by, you scissored your fingers twice to express your need. If they were truly a visitor instead of a keyrunner, they wouldn’t notice. But if they stopped at your cell and struck up a conversation, you’d just caught your break.
The first talk could go on for a while. After all, the keyrunners made a point to care about their people. They might ask you about your past, or your goals for the future. Eventually they asked, “Are you out tomorrow?”
There was only one correct answer. “MADELINE will take me,” you replied.
The keyrunner took your gold and weighed it. If it wasn’t enough, they gave it back; if it was too much, they refused the change. They took the gold, note of your name, and left—though of course they would return. Thievery would build bad credit, and bad credit was bad for the cause; MADELINE was never meant to be a business. It charged fees only out of necessity, to sustain itself. And sometimes, if you’d had a particularly rough time, or if you were young enough, the keyrunner refused your coins. See? Unlike owners, they were compassionate.
The next day, the keyrunner returned. To escape from the Pound, a pet needed two things: the key to the cell, obviously, and new clothes. The Pound didn’t allow any clothes besides the hand-out uniforms. A pretty skirt, a tailored jacket, any luxurious item that would distinguish you as owned—that was what you needed. A full change.
Apollo was freed this way. He put on the regal outfit Jackie had given him, and tucked his Pound clothes into the bag that Jackie had provided, and unlocked his cell with the key Jackie had brought, and stripped his laminated forms off the wall, by Jackie’s instructions. Ignoring the eyes all around him, he walked out of the dark corridors into the warm light of the front.
Miss Rose was absent from the receptionist desks, but the Doctor was there. He looked up, and Apollo felt a shiver cross him. But Jackie had told him one crucial thing: the Good Doctor was on their side. The Doctor’s gaze lingered on Apollo as he left, as if Apollo was some law he’d yet to defy.
Apollo stepped into the sphere of liberation as his soles lifted off the ledge of the Pound’s red door. Jackie had been waiting for him. They managed to make it up the hill before Apollo staggered beneath the weight of his crimes: he was free. “That wasn’t so hard, wasn’t it?” Jackie asked.
Jackie led him to his home, a small tenement compressed by its neighbors. There were warfs barking and children shouting, broken furniture in the pool, a mother screeching from a distance. “Miss Pete!” Jackie shouted, dragging Apollo up the stairs. “I got you a present!”
A Skeith in a lovely dress emerged on the balcony and began roaring at them both. Intimidated, Apollo agreed to ‘make himself at home’ in her kitchen, and by her martial orders began to ‘make his paws at home’ in her newest batch of cookies. There were more kids around, some his own age, and other keyrunners, too.
This was his home now. Miss Pete and the keyrunners gave him a room. The closet had thousands of clothes.
MADELINE took care of everything, including the forging of your adoption, emancipation, and birth certification papers. The keyrunners were only one face. There were hundreds of other workers in the Pound who shared the cause. If you desired, MADELINE would guide you through independence, loan you gold, sponsor your education, and offer patronage. MADELINE wrote nothing but success stories. Well-off pets in clean suits visited Miss Pete on a weekly basis, always leaving a pouch of gold behind them. It was a bit like leaving presents for your parents, Apollo supposed, if debts were the ties that bind. MADELINE had powerful children to protect it.
I am indebted, Apollo thought later as he whorled his wings in the milk of the Rainbow Pool, black water in his ears. When he climbed out, his hands were smooth, dusty and dark. “Shadow looks good on you,” commented one of the keyrunners as they surrounded him.
There were penumbras in the kerning between M-A-D-E-L-I-N-E that hid small clauses, such as the one that dictated gifts. I am bound here, Apollo thought, but one word he crushed to ash in his mind. I am free here, he thought. That was better.
The keyrunners were brilliant. MADELINE had the keys to every cell in the Pound. A keyrunner could distinguish them all. They had inhaled the Pound air to memorize it. They knew every veteran pound pet by name and all the others by face. They believed in being free.
When Apollo was younger, Anna had asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.
The Neopet is blessed with the fairest inherent right, King Altador once wrote in his Centennial Address, that is: a possession of the future, and all the opportunities that Time will provide. Thus the Neopet is beholden to no governing body who will deprive it of its power vested upon birth; who will strip it of its drive for the propelling experience; who will chase it into the ground, chain it, and oppress it.
Some of my citizens are born for the revolt. They cannot live in passivity. I have tried to smother the fires inside of them, but I could no sooner contain the spirits in the sand. May the faeries have mercy upon us, for the fires do not die, wrote Queen Massar of Anmon, Sakhmet, 42 B.N.
I am the unsung, wrote Rutu the Botanist.
Apollo was sitting in English class, a blank sheet on his desk. His pen swirled over the grain. On the chalkboard was a prompt: Describe, in five paragraphs or more, a vision that you would strive to see more of.
This essay would be graded by the T.A., a White Lenny named Lamia—an upperclassman two years his senior. She was pretty and kind, popular among freshmen. Yesterday she’d delivered a short, beautiful speech praising foster zappers and the beauty of an immortal relationship between owner and family. Her profundity had lifted tears in the room and left the teacher breathless.
I am fighting a war that does not end, Apollo wrote.
Neoschool had exposed to him the nature of casual casualties. Pets gained new siblings faster than grades flipped. Pets were withdrawn from school sporadically, their desks abandoned for the rest of the year. Pets living in abandoned homes had only the school lunches to sustain them. Miss Pete made Apollo an acorn jam sandwich for today, but there was a hunger in him for words, and only the right sort.
The oldest Pound pets, who’ve lived the longest without ever being adopted, have been trapped in their cells for six years. I’ve talked to them all. One was a Skeith who’d been created for the avatar. He’d lived only a week in the outside world, he wrote.
You have no power in this system. An owner decides whether you can go to school. An owner decides whether you starve or survive. An owner decides where you live, what books you read, and what siblings you can have. We’re a game to them, he wrote.
I do not believe that owners have emotions, he confessed.
The ability to pound is the ability to destroy. There’s no justification for the existence of the Pound. If we destroy the Pound, then we’re one step closer to progress, a revolution, one foot forward on the path to independence, one moment nearer to the future I’d live to see. It would be a nice view. There would be nothing ugly in it, like the bars of a cell, or disgusting, like an owner’s eyes, or cruel, like an owner’s judgement, he wrote, and turned his paper in.
These days, when Apollo looked in the mirror, he still didn’t see the soul in his eyes that Jackie had seen. But he figured his purpose wasn’t to have a soul at all. A soul would give you a good life, with all its necessary components: joy, heartbreak, hopes, dreams, LOVE, peace at old age. But Apollo had no particular want for any of those. He already knew the name of every veteran in the Pound and the faces of all the rest, the turns at every corridor, the cuts to every key. His clothes fit him like a king.
Apollo didn’t live solely to run keys, but he still strove for MADELINE’s vision. It required a singularly concentrated drive.
When Lamia graded the essays the next day and arrived at his, she looked at him like he was the inherent evil of the world. She used to look at him with respect. Apollo had a reputation at school for being charismatic, his smiles conservative—he leaned back, flipped open a textbook, and waited.
His essay was returned to him with a forty-five out of fifty. Although satire was not requested in prompt, this was an excellent Horatian piece, Lamia had written.
It took a moment for Apollo to realize that he’d crushed the paper in his hands, and that his nails had formed divots in his palm through his handwriting, punching through the phrase, I do not believe that owners have emotions. He breathed through his anger and smoothed it out again.
This was a war that did not end. He must appreciate its longevity.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if it weren’t for the look in the owners’ eyes. They were said to have an empathetic capacity, but the look in their eyes was inhumane. Presented in your cage, you were subjected to it: the polite flicker of the sclera before they glanced at your papers on the wall. They didn’t seem to recognize that they were looking at a person “blessed with the fairest inherent right”. What right?
If Apollo could have one wish for himself, it would be to see Anna again. He wanted to take her to the Pound and lock her in a cell, next to a wall which would list not LOVE but her COLOUR SPECIES GENDER LEVEL STRENGTH DEFENSE MOVEMENT. He wanted to rip through the bright red door. He wanted to take the most expensive paintbrush of the most desirable color and smear its magic across the walls, along the roof, until the owners flocked and saw what he wrote between history’s eyes, the last exhibition, the Neopian shame: WHERE IS YOUR HUMANITY
Years later, he’d recall this as one of his fondest memories: when Jackie first had him memorizing the keys.
“We’ll make a runner of you yet,” Jackie said as Apollo matched each key, out of thousands, to the cell it belonged to on a map. With a cherry pop in one paw, the Kougra helped drill into his mind the layout of the Pound.
“A person is built from the inside out,” the keyrunner told him. He knocked Apollo’s stomach. “Right here. That’s where it starts. Forget the default personalities they programmed us with, alright? People are born when they find a good cause, a purpose for doing what they do. You raise a principle in yourself and you stick to it, you see it through. That’s your invincibility. If you got a good faith in something, there’s not a thing in life that can beat it down, and not a person in the world who can take it from you.”
Apollo understood, and relished in his understanding. They were not the unsung, but the crescendo. He could hear the timpani. “We keyrunners have what we call a good faith,” Jackie said, patting Apollo’s back. “You know what we call owners?”
“Tyrants,” he replied easily.
“And the Pound?”
“And their pets?”
“So what do we do?”
“And what do we believe in?”
“Freedom,” Jackie repeated, the word falling from him like a crumble of ash, a flammable sacrificed to the fire—the hunger—in his eyes. Jackie’s real name was 11jkendlskdkf. Sometimes Apollo looked dark-eyed in the mirror at himself and saw Jackie’s story instead.
“MADELINE hasn’t broken the system yet.” Jackie’s arm wrapped around Apollo’s shoulders. “One day it will, but for now this is the best we can do. Smuggle our people outta the Pound, one cell at a time. We aren’t yet in the history books. But for every pet you save, that’s one more soul out there who’ll remember your name.”
It was almost admirable how frightening the Doctor was, even after all these years. He still fed that dark thing in his shadow; it still made Apollo’s heart pound as he passed. Yet he did do it, he did pass through that glittering gaze, his rite of passage. The Good Doctor was on MADELINE’s side.
By routine, Apollo walked into the space in the Pound where the air roared and no light could shine. All the pets were asleep. Just one, a skinny Wocky girl, was watching him. The keyrunners made a point to care for children. “You haven’t been here long, have you?” he asked, leaning against her cell bars.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. “It’s past visiting hours.”
There was something special about her eyes. You could’ve wiped away her nose and her lips, because all she needed were her eyes to speak—and they spoke, in a defined sentence, I want to find the right words.
When he was younger, MADELINE had told him, you have power. You own the world.
Apollo took the first two digits of his left hand and touched them together twice: snip snip, like a scissor.