Emery signed his name along the bottom line and tossed the request for an extra order of bamboo into his outbound pile. Leaning back, he laced his hands behind his head and stretched, earning a creak from his shoulders and the springs of his chair.
A breeze through the lone side window carried the fresh scent of hay and manure, the trumpeting of an elephant from the safari exhibit, and the steady tread of footsteps and banter of visitors migrating from one environment to the next. Closing his eyes, Emery perused the plains and the grazing zebras, antelope, and giraffes sharing the space and the vine covered the walls of the ape palisades further on. Although a respectable distance kept both expanses and the other living quarters throughout the park a respectable distance from the walkways, he sensed the awe in adults and children alike and an appreciation for the variety on planet Earth being stoked.
Thumping steps neared, bringing Emery out of his respite and quieting the tingling at the base of his skull. Tilting forward, he propped his elbows on his desk’s spare patches while Sandra’s knocks pecked his door.
“I’m sorry to bother you but Mr—” Sandra glanced behind her, blonde ponytail swaying.
A warbling tenor supplied a name Emery missed. When Sandra turned back, however, he noted the sickly cast to her tanned face, the brighter whites of her wider than normal eyes.
“Darrell has brought something I think you need to see.”
Emery stood and motioned them to a side table where he cleared the file boxes, grant applications waiting for his edits, and an empty carrying crate. “Put it here.”
Sandra pressed herself against the door, her gaze locked on the shoebox a wiry Darrell held at arm’s length. Duct tape encircled the cardboard and the dents marring the once straight sides. Another thrust from whatever the box contained added a bulge when Darrell set the container onto the spot designated on the counter.
Through the air holes punctured in the top, a familiar acidic smell trickled and Emery braced himself on the table while covering the back of his neck with his other hand. The counter’s metallic surface chilled the sudden heat flushing his fingers but failed to quell the sweat starting along his spine.
“It looks a little like this.”
The tremble in Darrell’s arm caused paper to rustle and drew Emery from his tunneled stare of the box. He cupped the palm-sized camera the shorter man offered and clasped the edges of the page.
Freed, Darrell stuffed his hands into pockets of muddied jeans. “My little girl drew the picture this morning when…the whatever-it-is fell through our garage.” He tipped his chin at the camera. “My wife snapped those while I was corralling the thing into the box.”
Absorbing the crayon sketch, Emery noted the details in the winged form, the periwinkle blue central abdomen, and tapered thorax colored orange. Three red stripes on the back thickened at a pair of pinchers jutting out of an ovular head, the hue matching the oversized eyes peering up at him from the page. Flipping through the camera’s pictures provided similar colors in blurred streaks or globs alongside a scurrying Darrell.
Emery worked through the collection and then back again. “You said you caught the…caught it in your garage?”
“Sure did.” Darrell chuckled, his voice hoarse. “The thing blew a hole through the roof and left a dent in the cement. Missed my pickup, thank God, but the place stinks.”
Silence replied and looking up from the camera, Emery met Darrell’s frown.
“Does it smell like rotten eggs?”
Darrell’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Very rotten. How did you guess?”
Emery dropped his attention to the drawing. “Just lucky.” He set the sketch beside the shoebox. “I think I can take it from here.”
“Do you know what it is?”
Emery stared at the crayon figure, not trusting himself to hide the truth from his eyes. “Not quite but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
“If it’s a new species or something don’t we get to name it?”
The shift from concern to opportunism helped steel Emery’s nerves and he squared himself to Darrell’s inquisitiveness. “Naming protocols are a bit more complex but I’ll keep you informed about what we conclude.” Emery held out his hand. “Mind if I keep the drawing and pictures?”
“Oh no, of course not.” On the counter, the box jumped and after shaking hands, Darrell retreated toward the door. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”
“Sandra will get your contact information and see you out.” Emery caught Sandra’s eye from where she clung to the doorknob. “Get him some day passes too.”
Sandra licked her lips and backpedaled. “Sure.”
Emery waved as she closed the door behind Darrell, and then rubbed the back of his neck. Beneath his ruddy shag, he ran his fingertips along the pair of raised bumps obscured beneath hair. They pulsed against his touch in a sequence of short and long beats. Lowering his hand, he stared at the box when it thumped in the same rhythm.
“Why are you here?”
The box jounced again. Taking it to his desk, Emery set the container in a pool of sunlight and fetched the black-handled scissors from the used paint can next to his inbox. He sliced the tape and flipped the lid open.
The winged Pteryga inside shrank into the remaining sliver of shade, raised her pinchers, and snapped her jagged claws. Against Emery’s inner ear, a high-pitched tone resonated, crept into his brain, and connected with the base of his skull where the two bumps vibrated. In his mind, her communicated thought wave consolidated.
So this is what has become of you?
“I’m fine.” Emery spoke the words as he had his initial question, but when the boxed Pteryga tilted her red-eyed head, he focused on the bumps beneath his hair. Concentrating on his spinal cord, he made out the clutch of the same pinchers watched by another pair of red eyes, and repeated the thought without speaking.
Within the box, the Pteryga arched her striped back, pinchers clacking. You have assimilated.
“Why not? They’re interesting.” Emery’s voice flowed along with the telepathic communication. “This whole planet is interesting. Do you know what kind of creatures they have here?”
The diversity is immaterial. Are they viable?
Any of them.
Emery sat in his chair, cupped his chin, and stared past the box to the door. “No.”
You are being deceptive.
Chagrinned, Emery faced the Pteryga. “They’re too fragile and the planet’s not going to last much longer either. A few centuries and it will self implode if the humans don’t speed up the process.”
Contact by the Colony would be a waste then.
Why did you not report this?
Emery shrugged, a motion he felt certain would be lost on the Pteryga as it might have been by him decades earlier. Another elephant trumpeting joined a cackle of monkeys and the flap of a crane or crow taking flight. Around him, the books on the Earth’s flora and fauna provided him details of creatures he had yet to see firsthand, although the to-be-completed grant applications stirred his hopes for the opportunity sometime in the future.
“I got distracted.”
By this carbon-based catastrophe?
Emery smirked. “Yes.”
Lifting the lid on the box, Emery increased the shade and the Pteryga’s abdomen swelled. She unfolded her wings, the translucent film a paler shade of blue than Darrell’s daughter had managed to capture, and shook as if casting off dew. Emery twiddled his pen while her wings brightened and the edges sharpened beneath a protective crystalline layer.
“You should move on. What the Colony is looking for isn’t here.”
You will remain?
“I will.” Emery stood, pocketed his pen, and threw the window wide.
The Pteryga floated up out of the box, careful of the sunlight beams, and hovered above the clutter on his desk. You will perish with them.
“Perhaps but I’ll enjoy myself along the way.”
She closed her pinchers and waggled her ovular head. As you like.
Darting through the rays, she shot through the window, and after a twinkle on coated wings, the Pteryga disappeared from view.
Standing in the daylight, Emery let the sun toast his face, smells invade his nose, and the sounds from the menagerie of life reverberate in his chest. He even drank in the thud of Sandra’s footsteps and the timid knock on his door.
Sandra poked her head inside, her gaze swooping across the office before landing on the open box on the desk. “Any idea what it is?”
Emery thumbed at the window. “I couldn’t find a comparable picture before it flew away.”
“That’s too bad.” Sandra entered, toting a medical kit and handful of towels tucked into her armpit. Color returned to her face and relief filled her eyes. “Ready to check on the new Bengals?”
The round and furry feline faces filled his mind, and made the bumps at the base of his skull pulse. Emery grinned. “I’ve been looking forward to it all day.”