The back door is tinged purple when I go out to throw my morning coffee grounds onto the compost heap. A faint rainbow tints the yard in concentric circles, progressing from purple through all the other colors before ending in a large red dot in the middle of the — admittedly rather weedy — vegetable patch that Flora had planted with her other mum, back before Kalida moved out.
“Flora, come look,“ I call.
“Did you find an egg, Mama?“ She runs outside with bare feet, still in her pajamas and carrying a stuffed animal that she has aptly named “Pink Bunny.“
Flora is four — far too young to get the implants she‘d need to play Menagerie — but she loves hatching our animals. She can‘t see the rainbow overlay in the yard, so I tell her to look in the vegetable patch. She searches and comes up with a pale brown egg small enough to fit in the palm of her hand.
“What do you think it will be?“ I ask.
Flora stares at the egg, her finger poised over the button that will initiate the hatching sequence. “It‘s probably an elephant.“
“Why do you think that?“ I don‘t have the heart to tell her that the ecosystem in our region isn‘t suitable for elephants. Elephants aren‘t even offered as an optional buy-on anywhere in North America.
“Because I like elephants.“ Flora said. “But I also like bunnies, so maybe it will be that.“
She pushes the button. Nothing happens.
“You have to put it on the ground, remember?“ Allowing players to hold eggs during hatching resulted in too many dropped eggs.
Flora sets the egg down and pushes the button again. This time, the egg pops open. A gray blob of builder nanites oozes out, then disappears as the nanites disperse in search of the required minerals and organic materials. Flora keeps her gaze fixed on the empty eggshell. A pile of material accumulates next to the shell, and then the shell itself disappears, dismantled to become part of whatever creature we‘ve earned for our local ecosystem.
The nanites shape the pile of raw materials into a black snake with lime green stripes running down the sides. Flora cocks her head. “Is it a poison snake?“
“No, it‘s a garter snake, totally harmless.“
“Can we have a bunny next time?“ Flora asks.
“We‘ll see.“ I‘ve been working on the requirements for bunnies for months, trying to repopulate our yard and several nearby parks with the plants and animals required to sustain them. It was supposed to be a present for Flora‘s fourth birthday, but Menagerie is a slow-playing game, and the neighbors inadvertently thwarted my efforts by introducing squirrels, which occupy a similar niche. “Go inside and get dressed, it‘s almost time for school.“
After work I hurry down the street, ignoring all the egg-rainbow overlays. My boss kept me late and stopping for eggs isn‘t worth the two dollars per minute the preschool will charge me if I miss my pick-up time. I chat with a Filipina lawyer on an online dating site while I walk, but the conversation fizzles out before I reach the school. I make it just on time.
Flora and I stop at the park on the way home. We find two eggs, and Flora sets them down on the ground and pushes both buttons simultaneously. They hatch into a bumble bee and a squirrel. I‘m surprised to see the squirrel — the park already appears to be full of them, darting up and down tree trunks in elaborate games of chase.
There‘s a commotion at the far end of the park. An after-school sports program at the elementary school has let out, and a swarm of kids in uniforms have converged on a large sunshine-yellow egg. Kids are yelling and pushing, and as the only adult in the park, I push my way through the melee, carrying Flora on my hip so she doesn‘t get jostled by the older children.
“You‘ve nearly smashed this egg fighting over it,“ I scold. Eggs are sturdy, but stomping on them can break the shell and damage the nanites.
“I was going to push the button, but Lizzy snatched the egg away,“ a white girl said, pouting. Soon they were all talking at once:
“I found the egg, I should push the button.“
“Did not! I did!“
While the other children are yelling, a dark-haired boy sidles up to me and says, “I‘ve never seen an egg that big before, and they‘ve just released a new set of animals for our region.“
Sensing I‘m distracted, the white girl darts in and pushes the button. The egg pops open. The other kids look angry, but before another squabble can break out, I ask, “What do you think it will be?“
I laugh. “I don‘t think our local ecosystem can support a predator that big.“
The dark-haired boy snorts. “The sea-life expansion got pushed back three months because ocean acidity is still too high. Besides, we‘re in the middle of a park that‘s nowhere near the beach.“
“Bunny!“ Flora says, clapping her hands. “Bunny! Bunny! Bunny!“
The nanites begin building. The creature is definitely a bird, and a large one at that.
“It‘s a hawk,“ the dark-haired boy says, “and about time. Something needs to eat some squirrels.“
“Can I see your badges, Mama?“ Flora asks. It‘s Saturday morning, and we‘ve just finished our pancakes.
I route my game data through the house projector, and rows of animal badges appear on the wall. We‘ve hatched nearly all the insects for our region, but only a handful of larger animals. Building an ecosystem is hard, even with the step-by-step instructions. It doesn‘t help that my action items sometimes shift suddenly when other local players introduce new animals. The hawk, though, is helpful. With a predator to keep the squirrels in check, maybe I can earn a rabbit for Flora.
“Let‘s plant clover in the yard.“
Flora squeals and runs to get her gardening gloves. I wish I‘d thought to do this sooner, but it‘s hard to let go of the notion that the yard is Kalida‘s space. It feels wrong to change it, like I‘m trying to erase her from our lives. Maybe this is a way to move on. I still miss her, but mostly I‘m relieved to be done with the constant fighting, and Kalida is happier off in New Hampshire with her new girlfriend.
We walk to the hardware store and return with a bag of clover seed. We find a good spot in the yard and rake away most of the weeds. Flora throws handfuls of seeds onto the freshly turned dirt. I‘m terrible at gardening, but Flora and I come inside laughing and covered in mud, so it‘s worth it even if nothing grows.
“Tomorrow I‘m going to look for four-leaf clovers,“ Flora tells me over lunch.
“It‘ll take longer than a day for the clover to grow,“ I warn her, but I hope it grows quickly. The sooner we get our yard set up for rabbits, the smaller the chance that someone will introduce chipmunks or some new species of mouse.
Someone does introduce mice, and after we recover from that there‘s a glitch where the drones stop delivering eggs for a few days. I start to worry that by the time we earn our rabbit, Flora will be bored with bunnies and onto something new, but she still carries Pink Bunny everywhere she goes.
“Pink Bunny is lonely,“ Flora tells me when I pick her up from preschool. “She misses Mum.“
I kiss the top of Flora‘s head. “We‘ll talk to Mum on the phone tomorrow, and Pink Bunny can say hi, too. Mum misses you both very much.“
Flora nods, but she‘s quiet on the walk home and uninterested in looking for eggs. I make her favorite dinner — mac & cheese and sliced apples — which perks her up a bit. I go out to toss the apple core into the compost heap, and there‘s a rainbow overlay in the yard. An egg is sitting in the middle of the clover patch, and it‘s one I haven‘t seen before — medium sized and pale pink.
“Flora!“ I call, hoping with all my heart that the egg is a rabbit.
Flora spots the egg as soon as she‘s out the door. “It‘s the same color as Pink Bunny!“
She pushes the button, and I hold my breath, waiting. The nanites do their work.
“Mama! Mama! It‘s a rabbit, a real live rabbit! Now pink bunny won‘t be so lonely. Mum will be so excited to hear.“
“She definitely will.“ I give Flora a big hug. “So now that we have our rabbit, what should we work on next?“
I laugh. We‘ll never have elephants here, but if the game runs long enough, someone somewhere might manage to earn one, and maybe I can take Flora on a grand adventure to go see it. We can plan and save for a dream vacation to Africa, much as we‘d worked to earn our rabbit. In the meantime, we‘ll need a more realistic goal. “How about a bluejay?“
“Blue is my favorite color,“ Flora announces. I take her hand and we go inside, already plotting how to get our next animal.