"It's a field mouse."
"A field mouse!" Hope exclaimed. "A mouse." She peered fondly at the little thing. "A little Despereaux."
The sun was low on the horizon. It made her hair glow.
The mouse, having finished its grass-seed meal, scurried off into the vast ocean of green. Hope rose, and looked at Cain.
"See? I told you I found something else alive."
"You did," said Cain. "A mouse like me."
Hope chuckled. "Oh, no. It was all flesh and bone. Nothing like you. No thoughts or troubles or plastic." She pressed a finger against his forehead, rippled and creased.
"You'll get a headache like that." She drew back her hand and turned toward the Dome. "Come. It's almost time for breakfast." And she began to walk.
Cain took a moment to breathe in the Field. Then he followed Hope.
Idle years passed since Hope found the mouse. Cain wrote his novel, and she sat silent on standby. He spoke to her sometimes, and asked for words. She was his thesaurus.
Then, Hope's Core failed.
"How much power do you have left?"
Cain prodded in her abdomen. An opalescent fluid flooded Hope's system. He drained it with a metal straw.
"Can you travel?"
Hope bobbed her head in rapid succession. "I can travel." She shut her abdominal panel and sat up on the table. "I can travel." She shuffled off the edge and on to her feet. "An adventure.
" She buttoned her blouse. "We need supplies."
Cain watched her disappear down the hall. He then glanced out the window and watched the Field bow with the wind, as if the grass was worshiping something off to the left.
He checked out another window -- more Field. Nothing apparent to praise but more grass. Then he heard Hope, and turned to her. There was a large bag on her back.
"An adventure kit," she chirped. "With food and bedding for you."
"It's a quest."
"Of course," she nodded. "A quest. A quest kit."
"A quest for a Core."
"A Core quest."
"Let's go, then."
"Off to where?"
"The next Dome."
"The next Dome." Hope closed her eyes. "Five hundred miles east." She opened them. "A month in the Field."
Cain shrugged. "You must be happy."
"Are you sore?"
Cain shook his head.
It had only been two weeks, and they were walking ahead of schedule. Mechanically, methodically, efficiently. One foot after the other. Automatons. Hope did not smile, nor did Cain.
There were no mice in the Field, though they did find the mangled bones of a man long since passed. Hope was greatly disturbed. Cain was none too familiar with such things.
It was his intuition that instructed him to burn them.
They stopped at night. Cain laid on his compressed bed, and Hope made dinner. It was canned fruit and beans.
"We will arrive a week early," said Hope.
Cain shifted on the mat. "How's your energy?"
"A day's less than I anticipated," she admitted. "I may need to drain again soon."
"Let's do it now."
"After you eat."
He ate, and Hope laid flat on the grass. The grass bowed beneath her weight, and it seemed to her as though she could hear the faint squeaking of a mouse nearby.
The stars were bright against the navy universe behind them -- around them? About them?
Cain set aside his meal and opened the quest kit. He withdrew the metal straw and crawled to Hope, who frowned.
"How does space support the stars?" she asked. "Gravity, of course. Stars are dense as water, and water floats in empty space." She shook her head. "And there are so many.
But there's more empty space." She peered at Cain, who was preparing to puncture her side once again. "It's terribly strange."
Cain forced the heated straw through layers of plastic. Pearly fluid dribbled onto the grass, which in turn died.
"It's a perfectly reasonable explanation in theory," Cain said. "But it's something we can't see."
"Gravity?" Hope's eyes grew tired. "We can see it." She blinked slowly. "I'm not bothered." She smiled. "The stars don't fall."
He looked up. Indeed, the stars did not fall that night.
The second Dome was identical to the first except for the smell.
It was clear there was no one left to clean the vomit when the first wave of the Illness hit, or whomever remained would have rid the city of its stench as Cain did so long ago.
In that he was fortunate -- those years spent scraping and scrubbing stains was worth the scars and scabs.
Stepping into the second Dome was not the first time he loathed his plastic core.
Hope rounded the corner ahead of Cain. The lab was a maze -- a labyrinth. Yet she could sense an unused Core somewhere deep in the lab, wherein the stench grew stronger the further in they went.
"There may be a broken one, too," Hope said. "So mind your skin."
Cain would have preferred his skin remain intact, so he heeded her warning.
At last, Hope stopped before a door left barely ajar. It seemed to have melted some around the edges.
Cain did as he was told. He walked down the corridor until Hope was a specter, appearance enhanced by the dull glow of her eyes.
When she opened the door, a sorry ooze of white piled around Hope's synthetic ankles. Cain watched her vanish into the room, the white clinging to the soles of her feet like gum on the street.
Then, he heard a grunt from within, and the heavy thunk of Hope removing her Core. Then, an agonizing groan.
Cain walked close to the door, wary not to disturb the sludge. He watched Hope lift a tiny vial -- the new Core -- and bring it close to her abdomen.
The vial she held was dense, yet she placed it in herself with conviction. The Core may well have defied the laws of matter. The stars may well have inched closer to earth.
Yet nothing changed but that her Core was renewed, and Hope stepped back into the muck.
"Shall we go home?"
A week into their return, Hope and Cain stopped before a charred patch of grass. It was where they burned the bones they happened across.
"Did he die of the Illness?" asked Hope.
A field mouse skittered across the dead earth.
"I should think not," Cain replied. "They decomposed long ago."
Cain held his tongue. The grass bowed to an unseen thing in the west with the wind.
"I suppose it doesn't matter." Hope sighed. "It's just too bad. We might have had a friend." She shook her head with resolve. "But he was all flesh and bone." Finally, she smiled up to Cain.
"We've got plastic about us."
Cain did not respond.