Second Birthday

by Elisabeth Adams
Originally published in Analag, March 2015.

The invitation was ornate, nano-ink on actual dead tree pulp. Must've cost a fortune to print. A faint number in the corner said "73". So at least six dozen more of these relics had been made. Nobody would throw them out, I thought. They were too pretty. But how many of them would be redeemed?

Probably they weren't even made on a 3-D printer, I mused. I bet they actually found someone who still grew, I don't know, pine trees, expressly for fussy rich people who insist on using real paper for their invitations. I traced my finger over the gentle embossing, the delicate gold leaf.

"Second Birthday Party", it said in gold. I rolled my eyes. First, it was ridiculous to think of them as having been born. I suppose if it had said "Second Anniversary of Decantation from a Test Tube into an Incubator" it would have taken up most of the space.

The paper’s probably not pine, I realized. I peered at the immaculately bleached dead tree fibers. Wonder how far back this genome goes? It would be just like Erika, to make the invitations older and rarer than the ostensible honorees.

"Second Birthday Party", I read again. It continued in smaller black text in a tastefully angular font: "Sabitha and Smiley are all grown up! Come celebrate their triumph over time with a big party and cake. Monday, March 25, 2075, Longyearbyen, Svalbard. DRESS WARMLY."

I almost chucked it aside -- digging up my old winter coat seemed like such a pain, it was ages since I’d needed it. And suborbital flight always made my stomach hurt.

My eyes strayed back to a single word: "cake". Oh, well, that changed things. Sven's cakes were nearly as famous as what Erika cooked up. I could almost taste the last one I'd had, at the christening. Lemon-rosemary-mint-lavender-green tea.

Mouth watering, I went down to the basement to rummage up a hat and some mittens.

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the parked orbiter was the cold, like smacking into the frozen side of a mountain. When was the last time it ever got this cold back in Boston? I frowned. Sometime in grad school, maybe.

The second thing I noticed were two pairs of eyes, just about level with mine. Sabitha and Smiley had grown in the last year and a half, that's for sure. Erika was standing about twenty feet away, fussing with something small and furry in a cage, not really paying much attention to the birthday boy and girl. One of them sauntered over toward me, lazily. Sabitha. I recognized the spots around her eyes.

She must've recognized me, too, because the next thing I knew her face was nuzzling into mine. Good thing I was standing on packed snow and not ice, or she'd have knocked me over. "Hi, Sabitha," I said, skritching her behind the ears.

"Oh, you made it!" said Erika. She eyed my battered orbiter disdainfully. "I wasn't sure you would, what with the high price of Pu-238 these days..."

"Lisa, how wonderful to see you," said Sven, emerging from the house. He smelled of flour and sugar when we embraced. "I made a special cake, just for you. A pre-cake, before the main one tomorrow. Come inside, tell me what you think."

Flanked by Smiley on one side and Sabitha on the other, I walked into their house.

"I was sorry to hear about the mammoths," I said to Erika. I closed my eyes and took a bite. Bergamot. Persimmon. Cassia, not cinnamon.

"Well, I'd be sorrier for the elephant, if you asked me," said Sven. "Elephants. Do you like it?"

"Mmm," I said, mouth full of cake. I flashed him a smile and chewed. "I'm surprised they let you try with as many elephants as they did."

"I had three more cows lined up for the next attempt, but then there was that disaster at the Kenya preserve, and suddenly all the modern elephant breeding programs were buying up my specimens," said Erika. She almost choked on the word modern. She had never cared much about the recently extinct.

"I heard they saved several gene lines," I said.

"Sure, whatever," said Erika. "But I was this close to solving the tusk expression timing problem..."

"Saffron," I said to Sven. "You put just a touch of saffron in this." Sven beamed.

"So how is your little blog coming?" asked Erika. She probably didn't mean it to sound condescending.

"My food review column is going well," I said. "Though I keep getting requests from unsavory editors who know that we're friends. They, ah, want me to do a special series on..." I trailed off. I didn't know how to put it.

"Mammoth burgers?" said Erika. "Dodo egg omelets, with a side of smilodon bacon?" She had one arm on Smiley's neck as she said this, gently stroking his tusks.

"Well... yes."

"I get these requests too, you know. Especially after the last failure. The fourth batch of mammoths miscarried near full term, you know, and baby mammoths are so big."

"Lots of meat on them," joked Sven. He was dicing vegetables for dinner. Some kind of soup.

"You didn't..." I said.

Sven and Erika shared a look. "No," said Sven. "Of course not. There were all those tests to be run to figure out what went wrong. Mammoth stew, what an idea," he chuckled.

I laughed a little too. Well, I could at least tell my editor I had asked. I watched as he took a giant egg and broke it in the pot.

"Great Auk, on the other hand..." he said with a wink. I remembered seeing large colonies on the flight in.


The party the next day was a little anticlimactic. About a dozen people showed up, out of 128 real-tree invitations. Erika didn't seem like she had expected more. Sven still baked as if a few dozen orbiters could descend at any minute, which was just fine by me. Most of us didn't know each other, and we just stood around making awkward small talk and eating cake.

It turned out the small stand of trees near the door were in fact the ones used to make the invitations. _Acer smileyi_, a kind of maple not seen in the wild since the Miocene. Erika had picked it because she liked the name. Of course.

Finally Erika broke out her latest successful reproduction, to much oohing and aahing: a pair of ground sloths.

"I love my new incubators," she said. "I'm never messing with live surrogates again. After all, look how well Smiley and Sabitha turned out," she said, pointing at the guests of honor. They were currently confined to their cage while the ground sloths were exhibited to the human guests, and sat nonchalantly uninterested in the proceedings. Except that their eyes were tracking the ground sloths' every motion.

"Thanks to my latest grant, I can now pop out a pair of sloths every week," she said.

"That's fantastic!" said a young man who I didn't know. He was affiliated with some news site. "I know some people at the Dakota Wildlife Preserve who would love to start a colony. Have you sent them any specimens?"

"Well... no, not yet," said Erika. "Too many transcription flaws in the first few batches, not enough diversity. Not at all suitable for the founders of a new population. Although these latest ones aren't bad..."

I watched as the sloths slowly wandered over toward the caged smilodons. Not very good survival instincts.

And indeed, it was all over in a flash. Sabitha had been toying with the lock on their cage and with no warning it snapped open. The ground sloths registered the looming giant tusks moments before their jugulars were pierced. Blood that had last been spilled thousands of years ago once more wetted the teeth of two very happy saber-toothed cats, who messily fell to their birthday meal.

"I was hoping they'd at least wait until after cake," said Erika, miffed. "I was pretty sure the lock would keep them busy longer."

The stunned guests began to applaud. I could see the young man subvocalizing his report. Something about nature red in tooth and claw, unless I had badly misjudged his literary aspirations.

Then we all had more cake.

I was prepping the orbiter the next day when Sven stopped by. He had a small white box wrapped up for me. "Leftovers," he said. I beamed. We both watched as Erika ran in the field with her smilodons. She had released a few miniature reindeer, with bright red noses. Christmas leftovers. Smilely and Sabitha bounded gleefully after them.

"It meant a lot to her, that you came," said Sven.

"Friends are friends," I said.

"She wanted me to ask..." He looked embarrassed.

"No," I said. "I have no plans of returning to the lab. I like eating cake for a living." For one thing, the cake never tried to eat me.

"You don't have to convince me," said Sven. He turned to leave, then stopped, remembering something.

"Oh, hey, has she told you about the next launch, in June?"

"In Christchurch?"

"No, not the moa and eagle program, that's not for another six months or more. No, this is her pet project, the one you talked about all the time in grad school. She thinks she's got the feather expression all figured out. Her last grant came fully funded, and they finally agreed to a legal contract for the lease. Operation Easter Island is a go. She wanted to know if you would come to the dedication ceremony..."

Oh, I thought, my eyes filled with visions of velociraptors. "I don't know..."

"I'm going to be working on my pies," said Sven.

Well. Pies. That was different.

"I wouldn't miss it."

© Elisabeth Adams. Hand-coded since 1998. Universal Rights Reserved.