The End of the Habitariums
Reroyo195 prodded the Zytch towards the flower. It wiggled its snout in the flower's direction, but otherwise sat still. The Pinchits and Mootix ignored it.
The Maraquan Aisha, who was normally called Ray, picked the Zytch up and placed it in front of a tree. Instead of harvesting wood, the Zytch started rooting around in the dirt.
Ray sighed and picked the Zytch back up, placing it in its own separate Habitarium. It was a learning Habitarium, like the one Professor Clodbottle had used to train the original species of Habitarium petpetpets. Ray, who was his assistant, was in charge of finding a new petpetpet to introduce to the Habitariums.
Finding a new petpetpet would, hopefully, save the Habitariums from suffering. Neopians just weren't using them as much as they used to. The Professor was in danger of losing his funding.
Ray picked up a chart, noting how many seconds the Zytch had stared at the resources before losing interest, and how one Larnikin Soldier had waved a forearm in a measly threat before deciding that the Zytch wasn't dangerous.
"Uninterested in harvesting activities," Ray wrote. "Lacking in nursing instinct. Doesn't build or protect."
The bell dinged, signaling a customer. Ray jumped; they hadn't had a customer all morning! The bell dinged again, and Ray hurried to the help desk.
"Hello!" she said to the yellow Chia. "How can I help you?"
"Hi, my Habitarium died," the Chia said. "I need a new Nester, Soldier, and Worker."
Ray sighed, recognizing the same Chia who had come last week, and the week before, and the week before, always asking for new petpetpets. He was a neglectful Habitarium owner, and Ray debated whether or not to give him any petpetpets at all.
"Could you hurry up? I need to stop by the Money Tree on my way home."
"I'm sorry, sir, just one moment." Ray went to the three large tanks where petpetpets scurried about their business. She took a smaller, portable box and placed a Pinchit soldier, Pinchit worker, and Larnikin nester in it.
"Remember to put your petpetpets in a house when they're tired or hungry," Ray said. "You can leave food out for them, but it will attract pests."
"Yes, I know," the Chia said, reaching for the box.
"Don't overwork them, or else you'll need to get new petpetpets," Ray warned.
"I won't, don't worry. I just forgot about them, that's all." The Chia took the box from her, and Ray felt that she was sending the three petpetpets to their doom.
"Excuse me, just one moment, please," a voice called out from behind her. The Chia paused, and Ray turned around to see Professor Milton Clodbottle. He shrugged out of his large back pack and placed it on the floor.
"I'm sorry, but I'm going to need those petpetpets back," the Professor said gently, going to the help desk and reaching his paw out for them.
"But I already have them; they're mine now," the Chia argued, clutching the box.
"I know, but the Habitariums will be closing. These petpetpets will be useless to you," the Professor replied. Ray gasped, and the Professor's eyes glinted sadly.
"The Habitariums are closing?" the Chia repeated. After a moment, he handed the box to Professor Clodbottle, who then promptly started to shut the help desk window. "But how will I make neopoints?!" the Chia shouted as the window closed.
"Professor?" Ray asked.
He didn't respond, but instead took the box of three petpetpets back to their tanks and placed them in. They looked slightly confused but none worse for the wear.
"I know you didn't want to give him any new petpetpets," the Professor said. "I didn't want to tell you just yet, but if it saved the lives of these three petpetpets, then it can't be too bad, can it?" He turned around and smiled at his assistant.
"You only said that the Habitariums were in danger of closing! You didn't say that they would actually..." Ray didn't finish. She turned around and picked up the chart of Zytch data, but there was nothing she could do with it. "It seems like I've only just started working here."
"I know. But that's the funny thing about life, isn't it? You can never know exactly how far from the beginnings that the ends are going to happen."
"So this is the end, is it? The end of the Habitariums," Ray murmured. She doodled a little Mootix on the corner of the chart. "What will happen to all the petpetpets?"
"I'll need your help tomorrow. In the beginning, I harvested them from the wilderness. Now they'll be going back."
"Tomorrow," Ray repeated.
"Go home, Ray. Get some rest. I'm sorry this came as such a shock." Professor Clodbottle patted her back gently.
"Okay," she sighed. She walked home, and it felt like she really was in shock. It took her such a long time to get home, and when she finally did, her gills were flapping weakly. She didn't realize she was lightheaded until the house began to spin, and she promptly sat on the ground to keep from fainting.
"Ray? Ray, what's wrong?" Lina asked, hurrying into the hallway. She put a hand on her Aisha's forehead. "Vineti, go get wet wash cloth, will you?"
The Chocolate Aisha hurried to comply, and Lina lifted Ray up, carrying her upstairs to the water bed in Ray's room. Vineti appeared moments later, and Lina wrapped the wet wash cloth around Ray's gills.
"Better?" Lina asked.
"Better," Ray agreed.
"Is everything okay?"
Ray looked into Lina's brown eyes. She didn't think she had the heart to say it. Not yet.
"Yes, everything's fine," Ray said. Lina's eyes narrowed slightly. "I promise I'll tell you later, I just want to sleep."
"Well... okay," Lina said. "Please, let me know if you need anything." She and Vineti hurried out of the room, and Ray sighed.
Lucas, her Maraquan Warf, snuggled up to her. Ray picked up her faithful petpet who had stuck with her ever since the pound.
"I was never meant to be a petpetpetiologist, was I?" Ray asked him. "I don't even have a petpetpet for you."
Lucas barked happily, not understanding what his owner was saying. Ray sighed again and curled around him, falling into a fitful, restless sleep.
When her alarm clock went off the next morning, it took Ray a few moments to place the sad, unsettled feeling in her gut. When she remembered, she debated laying down again, playing it off as a bad dream.
But she couldn't do that to the Professor. Not after everything he's done for her. She needed to be strong this one, last time.
The morning was unusually cold, and Ray tugged the jacket closer together. It was the first real autumn morning, and the air smelled sharp. The sun looked far away in the sky, and yet it still beat down viciously.
The Habitarium building was soon visible, and Ray pushed the door open. Normally, she would be the first one here in the morning, setting everything up for the Professor. But today, Professor Clodbottle was already awake and ready to go.
"I made you some coffee," he said, gesturing to the thermos on the counter.
"I don't drink coffee," Ray argued automatically.
"I know, but I figured you might need it today."
Ray picked up the thermos and took a sip of the bitter, bracing liquid. It chased the chill from the cold morning away, and after she had drunk half, she did feel more alert. Not happier, certainly, but at least better equipped to handle the day.
The Professor had already filled a cart with tanks, Habitariums, and boxes. Petpetpets crawled around inside and placed their tiny antennae on the glass surfaces, staring out at them.
"Come on, we better get moving," Professor Clodbottle said. He picked up the cart and started to pull. "Walk behind and make sure nothing falls, alright?"
It was an unusual procession, and the Neopians who had already started their day stopped and stared at the Yellow Kougra pulling the cart full of petpetpets with the Maraquan Aisha behind. They walked for a long time, until the cold morning turned into a warm noon. Ray's feet ached, but as the Professor was working even harder than she was, she didn't complain.
Finally they stopped at the edge of a field, far away from the main road. There was a small pond and a few trees, but otherwise, the tall grasses waved unobscured.
"This will be a good spot to start," Professor Clodbottle said. "We don't want to unload the whole population in one place. Keep track of the number of petpetpets."
Ray picked up one of her many charts and kept a tally: Area #1: 37 Pinchits, 42 Mootix, 21 Larnikin.
The newly released petpetpets stumbled around: some made a beeline for cover, ready to be free. Others started harvesting wood and stone, ready to build a new home.
They picked the cart up and started walking again to further in the field. They were far away from the pond, but the ground was low and soggy here. They stopped again:
Area #2: 25 Pinchits, 31 Mootix, 44 Larnikin.
And after that, they moved again:
Area #3: 58 Pinchits, 11 Mootix, 31 Larnikin.
The sun got further in the sky, and the chill from the morning started to return. Ray made one last tally as the Professor released the last Mootix.
"I think that's everyone," Professor Clodbottle said. "I'll double check the empty Habitariums while you confirm the numbers, alright?"
The Professor started clambering around the cart, and Ray added numbers in her head. In total, they should have released 1,387 Pinchits, 1,587 Mootix, 1,299 Larnikin and...
And one Zytch.
Ray ran through her list. At none of the areas had they released the Zytch. And Ray would have remembered if they had. She had worked hard to try and make the Zytch adapt to the Habitarium lifestyle. She would have remembered the moment when she gave it up.
"Professor..." Ray started to say, just as the professor climbed back down from the cart.
"Well, that's everything," Professor Clodbottle said. "Let's get back to the lab." He picked up the cart and started walking, faster now that the weight from all the petpetpets had finally been unloaded.
"Professor," Ray said again, hurrying to keep up with him.
"Stay behind the cart, will you? I don't want any of the tanks falling off and breaking."
Ray knew, from experience, that when the Professor had something in his head, trying to talk to him would be useless. She would just explain back at the lab, she decided, as she fell into place behind the cart.
It was nearly nightfall by the time they reached the lab. Ray thought that she might just fall asleep where she stood. Her body ached from exhaustion, and her heart ached from loss.
"Here we are," the Professor said. He unlocked the building and pulled the cart in. Finally, he sat down on a chair, his slumped posture showing he was just as exactly exhausted as Ray was.
Ray sat down beside him. "Professor, we didn't release the Zytch."
He smiled, and for the first time in two days, it looked like a real smile. "I know. Hang on."
He stood up and began fumbling through the cabinets before finally pulling out a small, plastic container with the Zytch sleeping inside. He brought it back to Ray and set it in her lap.
"I know that you still don't have a petpetpet of your own. I thought that perhaps this one could be yours."
Ray picked up the container and stared at the little Zytch. She was curled up, oblivious to the long day that Ray and Professor Clodbottle had just had.
"Really?" Ray asked. "You would give her to me?"
"Of course. It's the least I could do." After a second, the Professor added, "Besides, you're the one who's been working with her."
"Wow. Thank you, Professor," Ray said. She couldn't stop staring at the petpetpet. She had seen many, but this one was hers!
"That's not the only thing I have for you." Professor Milton Clodbottle went to his desk and opened the top drawer, removing a single piece of paper. This he carried carefully with both hands and handed to Ray. It read:
This hereby states that Reroyo195 has successfully completed her training with Professor Milton Clodbottle and is now a certified, registered, and recognized petpetpetiologist.
It was signed by both Professor Clodbottle and the head of the petpetpetiologist association.
It took Ray several moments to process the piece of paper, and even when she did, she read it again, unable to believe it.
"I'm... I'm a petpetpetiologist?" she asked, staring up at Professor Clodbottle.
"You most certainly are." He smiled and pulled her into a hug.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you, Professor!"
"Please, call me Milton. After all, you're no longer my assistant. You're a registered petpetpetiologist!"
Ray stepped back and looked at him. "But, Professor – I mean, Milton – I still have so much to learn."
"So do I," Milton said. "We're never done learning."
"But, what will you do without the Habitariums? And what am I supposed to do?"
"I don't know either of those things," Milton Clodbottle responded, and his smile stretched across his whole face. "But, whatever happens, it will certainly be an adventure."