What is the creature sitting on this gentleman's lap? An alien potted plant? A pet? A new and bizarre discovery? And why has he brought it to this particular waiting room? See if you can think up a story based on this illustration.
This piece, by artist Peter Ferguson (found via Super Punch), is titled simply "Waiting Room." It was actually pretty difficult to select just one of Ferguson's illustrations, since so many of them are stuffed with narrative inspiration. If you're ever stumped for a story idea, Ferguson's artwork could prove a great jump start.
As always, we invite you to post your stories in the comments, and I will be adding the stories to the post over the course of the weekend (although last week we apparently ran into a character count issue). Here is my story:
Elba was nearly as green as her scrubs when she walked into Dr. Hamoudi's office. "Carl Lemon is out front," she announced, though she looked like she might burst into tears as she said it.
"Come on, Elba," Dr. Hamoudi said, attempting a smile. "We knew he was coming in today."
Elba held her hand to her mouth, and Dr. Hamoudi could see it was trembling. "It's so much bigger this year," she said with a hiccough.
Dr. Hamoudi craned his neck as if to peer through the half opened door, a futile gesture, since he never could see the waiting room from his office. "Better than the alternative," he said. He made a mental note to give Elba a mental health day the next time Carl Lemon came by. In fact, he didn't need any of the vet techs around when Carl and his creature were in the waiting room. "Can you tell him I'll be out in a minute?" he asked Elba.
She straightened, held her breath for a moment, and then released it with a quick nod. "Able am I," she said, and Dr. Hamoudi smiled at the joke.
Dr. Hamoudi counted to a hundred before following her out. He felt a sudden pressure on his bladder as he walked toward the waiting room, and wondered whether it was just nerves or a genuine urge to pee. He pulled open the half door and paused, trying to keep his face neutral as he spotted Carl and his creature.
Elba was right. After last year's milking, the creature was no larger than a softball. Now, it was as large as an English bulldog, sprouting up from a terra cotta pot resting on Carl's lap. Bits of it were swirling around Carl's head, and Dr. Hamoudi realized that they were suckling. One branch of the creature tendrilled out from the rest, producing an approximation of an eye stalk as it seemed to leer at Mrs. Muscovy's crated Siamese. "Hello, Carl," Dr. Hamoudi said, praying there was no trace of horror in his voice.
"Dr. Hamoudi," Carl said impassively.
Dr. Hamoudi turned to Mrs. Muscovy. "Hazel," he said, "I am so very sorry, but it looks like Carl's," he paused as he grasped for the lie, "slime mold appears to be very ill. Would you mind terribly rescheduling with Elba?" Mrs. Muscovy shuffled to the front desk without a word, clutching the crate to her chest. After she had rescheduled and he had sent Carl into exam room two, Dr. Hamoudi whispered to Elba, "Cancel the rest of today's appointments and then go home. I don't want you here when he gets out."
Elba glanced at the closed exam room door. "I don't want to leave you here alone with him."
"Don't worry about that," Dr. Hamoudi told her. "He's not going to hurt me. You go home, be safe, and don't come into work tomorrow unless I call you."
Her eyes widened, but she murmured her assent. As soon as she picked up the phone and started dialing, he turned away and walked into the exam room. Carl had placed the pot on the exam table, but bits of the creature were still swarming around his temples. Dr. Hamoudi plastered on the smile he reserved for Carl and the owners of particularly vicious toy dogs. "So, just the annual check-up this time? No problems?"
"You said it was sick," Carl said. His cold, blue eyes were a shade of intensity away from boring into Dr. Hamoudi. As if a storm had once lurked behind them but was now dying away.
Dr. Hamoudi opened the cabinet and removed a pair of latex gloves from their box. On second thought, he took out a second pair, layering gloves on top of gloves. He leveled a tongue depressor at the creature, which retracted from the wood. "If this were a dog, I'd call it bloat," Dr. Hamoudi said. "He's been eating too much."
"It's not a he," Carl replied. Then he narrowed his eyes. "I haven't been feeding it. Dr. Ghent told me not to."
Dr. Hamoudi put down the tongue depressor and pulled on a surgical mask. Five years ago, he would have thought this a silly precaution. Then, last year, a fleck of the creature's venom splattered into his nostril, and he'd been so afraid to go home to Naima that he's checked into a motel for the evening. Then he'd threatened to brain the poor kid who'd delivered his mu shu half with a desk lamp. "Might be industrial pollutants," Dr. Hamoudi lied. "These things thrive on things that would kill you or me." That, at least, was the truth.
Holding a sample jar in one hand, Dr. Hamoudi grasped a bit of the creature's body with the other and squeezed. Milky black liquid dribbled from the creature into the sample jar. In the first few years of his acquaintance with Carl Lemon, Dr. Hamoudi had thought of this task as no more odious than expressing the anal glands of a particularly stinky dog. But now, as he stared into the jar, he could see all the dark inspirations that the creature had captured over the last twelve months: the tattooed man Carl had wanted to flay and tan, the late-night computer searchers for chloroform and acid, the wife he watched sleep each night, longing to stick her with pins like a sort of living voodoo doll. Hundreds of deeds snatched from the realm of desire and stored in this case of poison and muck.
"I've been reading a lot about slime molds," Carl said suddenly. "They're very hard to kill. You can break them up with bleach maybe, but really you have to remove its food source."
Dr. Hamoudi nodded as he squirted into the jar an impulse to skin and eat a neighbor's cat. "Fortunately, this one isn't eating your crops."
Carl let out a single snort. The bits of creature around his head pulsed greedily. "I can't bear to send it away." There was no trace of affection in his voice. He might as well have been describing a boil on his leg.
By the time Dr. Hamoudi had finished the milking, the creature had shrunk to a quarter of its original size. He stared at the swirling mess of toxins in the jar before him, and a crazy thought occurred to him: He could end it all now. He had drugs, needles. A little sodium pentobarbital would quiet Carl Lemon's mind forever.
But the creature reached out a single, snaky tendril, so thin that it looked likely to break off from its body. The tip neared the side of Dr. Hamoudi's head and paused, undulating. Another approximation of an eye formed on the creature's body, and Dr. Hamoudi could have sworn he'd seen it blink. When the tendril retreated back into the black mass, all desire to kill Carl Lemon was gone, although Dr. Hamoudi could remember the desire. He realized he would have been furious for the loss, if the creature had left him with the capacity for fury.
After Carl Lemon and his creature left, Dr. Hamoudi locked the front door to the practice. He wanted to call Dr. Ghent, to curse him for making him party to this, for making him agree to milk the evil thoughts from this creature year after year. But he simply dropped the sample jar into the pre-addressed envelop, stuck it in the outgoing mail box, and counted the hours before he could go home to Naima, put his head in her lap, and cry.
Not_too_Xavi studies the creature from the perspective of another visitor to the waiting room, but we can't take his word that it's for real:
Uh, hey Doc it's me. It's Larry.
Sorry I'm, uh, calling so late but I'm kinda running in the red, you know? Like, my engine's running a bit too hard for the car or something. Wow, that sounds bad. Uh, don't worry it's nothing bad.
Well...nothing bad yet.
It's not like last time, I swear. Metatron hasn't spoken to me in 3 months and I've been good on my meds. I even met a girl.
Yeah, yeah, I know right? She's cute and nice and likes me, so I've made sure to stay on the straight and narrow.
Just one problem. I can't remember if I took them today or not, and I'm out until tomorrow morning. I mean I dropped it in the sink, but I could swear I stopped it before it went down the drain. I just can't remember, it's kind of fuzzy.
You see, I'm in the red because of her dog. She asked me to take him to the vet, and he hasn't spoken to me in the voice of Satan yet, so I figured why not. Mr. Muggles has been cool.
Before we got out of the car he licked me right across the face, right up under my nose. You know how I can't really take drool, just sort of not...just a sec
(Softly) 1-2-3, 1-2-3,
Ok, I'm back. How long is this message anyway? Whatever, the dog licked me so I was already ramped up a bit. But then I saw some shit Dr. Ferguson. Like, send me back to RiversEdge shit.
I held Mr. Muggles as we walked in, and it's funny, I can remember the click as the door closed behind me. Sounded, I don't know, heavy.
Everybody looked cool. Everybody smiled. Even the chick with the Great Dane that I couldn't look at because she was short and dumpy and the dog wasn't. You know I can't take stuff that's...what'd you call it? Incongress? Nevermind.
There was this other dude though. Like just there. He looked like he was holding a dachshund at first, no lie. But then that damn door clicked and his eye drooped. No, not his eye. His eyelid. It sagged like it was melting.
And the dachshund? Yeah, not a dachshund. Not even close. You ever see a sewer line with the outlet pipe laid the wrong way against the flow?
Imagine a geyser of shit. Now give it eyes. And let everybody around it come up and nuzzle it or kiss it. When they walk away it smiles with no mouth and they have shit smeared all over their hands and faces.
Can you, uh, call me back as soon as you can? I left without seeing the vet, and Mr. Muggles was just happy to leave, but I can't go home yet. I think it winked at me.
*Please deposit fifty cents to place a call. Otherwise please hang up the phone.
Gonne narrates the creature's tale in rhyme:
"Puer et ineffigiatus necem virgultum mortem"
Those like Timothy Wade-Larson there was thankfully few,
His apetites of note were decidedly blue.
So to right him from his path thoroughly askew,
His mother set him the task of all of nature to view.
Eastern horticulture was to be the order to get through.
From the Paris Japonica to the common bamboo.
The Acer shirasawansum and the Japanese yew.
Master Wade-Larson soon found himself completely renewed.
From the morning gardens all covered in dew,
To the evening verges he doth bid adieu,
Where once he was shamed for his lover's lane voyeuristic review,
Now his time well spent on things that nature grew.
Where once he would rail against Black, Oriental and Sioux,
About secret plots and plans for the spread of Spanish flu,
Young Mr. DeLance a new leaf he had turned to.
Yet something odd had begun that would not be eschewed.
To some it looks like a Chocolate fondue,
Yet other could feel the evil with which it was imbued.
Like there was an ancient terror trying to ooze through,
A thing needing destroying, not attending to.
And now he waited, waiting to present his prize for view.
Listening to the strange voices others were deaf to.
Whispering of claw and talon and maw, devices to slew
Waiting for the moment to turn Rhode Island Horticultural society to stew.
In procrastinationathon's story, the "creature" used to be human:
"Mr Jameson and erm…?" Asked the receptionist, peering up from his clipboard with a confused brow.
"Mr Jameson and Dr Stanton" I corrected, politely, even though the good Doctor himself shuddered in anger in his container. It was frustrating how people would often react to his condition, but I tried to be understanding on his behalf.
It had been eighteen months since the accident now, and the Doctor had made remarkable progress. The moment after it had happened I was certain he must be dead, his tall imposing frame reduced to a motionless black puddle of thick goo on the laboratory floor. It was only my own sentimental tendency that had saved him from further, complete destruction.
"All failed experiments" his instructions read clearly "are to be incinerated with immediate effect". I felt terribly guilty to defy his wishes, particularly as at this point I assumed they were the very last wishes he made, but I just couldn't bring myself to burn his remains so quickly, however insubstantial his remains appeared to be. So instead, I siphoned the pool up into a large beaker and got on with recording the accident, filing that weeks other results, and generally busying myself with every task I could to delay the cremation.
Within two days the contents of the beaker had begun to ripple of their own accord, and within three more they could form themselves into crude shapes. I recorded these observations diligently, still not assuming Dr Stanton could possibly have survived, but glad his remnants were giving me ample justification for holding onto them.
Another week later and I could make out recognisable forms in the liquid; eyes, mouths, claws, and tongues. Body parts, not very human like but definitely alive. I kept recording, and started to experiment myself, at least as best as I could, which I believed the Doctor would have wanted; I smiled at the eyes, spoke to the ears and fed pipettes of water, milk, and later – sentimentality getting the better of me once more – tea with one brown sugar, as had been his preference, to the open mouths and tongues.
On this diet the mass now grew rapidly in size and strength, it became able to pull itself up into a tall column, take solid food and even make crude hums and gargles. Until finally on the 19th of August that year, the Doctors 36th birthday, I fed him a neatly sliced piece of cake and he replied, in a clear and very familiar voice "Thank you Jameson".
That was fourteen months ago, and since then Dr Stant…Otto and I have worked much more together. I have written down his book, which he dictated to me, and accompanied him on all the many lectures and debates about both his work, and his accident. More than all this though we have grown much closer: Although I had always a great affection for him, in his eyes I was little more than an underling, the functional but rather soft and frankly somewhat unscientific lab technician. Now however, we are a team: I understand him, his ways and his new form, and he now appreciates and cherishes the continued life my "softness" has given him.
Actually no, team is not the right word, I still only assist with his work, performing the fairly simple menial tasks he cannot, and he alone remains the scientific genius. No, what we have is a balance, we're very different mentally and obviously physically, but our strengths and weaknesses compensate each other's perfectly, creating a whole…
"Right" the receptionist continued, studying the paper before him "well, the registrar will see you now."
Faz.Alam's story has a similar idea, but the man and the creature are also man and wife:
"'I'm okay" he said, beads of sweat dripping down his forehead. "It's just my wife".
I looked back at the swirling mass of black goo nestling in the flower pot on his lap. It had risen out of the pot like a geyser.
"What ?" I said, my thought process completely derailed.
He laughed, but the laugh had a nervous fragility to it. He gripped the flower pot tightly, as if he was afraid that the swirling oil within it would topple the whole thing over.
"This is my wife" he said,
I looked back at the swirling mass, and back to the man, who was still holding onto the pot as if for dear life. Other people in the waiting room looked worried, and relieved. Relieved that they needn't be a part of this conversation. Relieved that they didn't have to sit next to the crazy man. Relieved that since I was there, no one expected them to help.
"That's your wife ?" I said pointing to the surging mass in the flower pot.
"Yes" he bit out. " She worked in a lab. got hit with a nanite plague."
The surging mass seemed to turn to me and nod, and the went back to erupting like a geyser.
The man's clothes were still soaked with sweat.
"Look, you should go ahead of me in the queue"
The man had a look of panic in his eyes
"What, why ! " he said loudly
"You're clearly in pain"
Again, the nervous laugh.
"I'm not ill" he paused "I'm here for my wife"
I looked at the liquid. It was still writhing like a snake with cramp.
"It's our anniversary" he said "We've been together for 20 years"
His body shuddered at the end of the last statement, and his eyes shut and his face tightened, like he was holding something back.
"10 of those year's she's been like this"
"That must have been really difficult" I said
"It mixes things up" he groaned.
I was absolutely convinced at the point that the black monster thing in the pot was putting this man under some form of duress.
"I've gotten used to IT" he said, raising his voice for no real reason. Like he had accidentally hit an internal capslock and had begun to talk only in upper case.
"So wait why are you here ?"
"She's getting reconstituted" he continued in between laboured breaths. The small part of my brain which had been paying attention to all the worrying little details of this situation had begun to put them together into a very worrying picture. The black oil started to bubble and fizz.
"This is her Last Day as GREY GOO !" he grunted way too loudly. All of the eyes in the waiting room that had been avoiding meeting my gaze were suddenly on the shouty crazy man.
And suddenly, he smiled, and relaxed, slightly out of breath. The oil in the pot settled down considerably. I realised why he was carrying her in a plant pot. Plant pots usually have a hole in the bottom.
"We're celebrating" he said, cracking an oleaginous smirk. He placed a hand on my leg, leaving a sweaty print on my jeans.
"We couldn't have done it without you" he grinned.
I was up so fast my knees got whiplash. The doctors appointment could wait. I hurried out of the waiting room as fast as I could, trying the ignore the sound of a pair of flies being zipped up. I needed to shower. Right now. And possibly forever.
dnwilliams reminds us that when someone asks you to watch their pet, you should follow their instructions to the letter:
Arthur hated waiting rooms. Naturally, he came to this realization whilst seated in one. It isn't usually the kind of thing considered worthy of hatred, a waiting room. After all, it's an in-between place, a nothing. People talk about hating the doctor's and things like that, but waiting rooms? They're like bus stops or a foyers, they're just...there. Functional. A place to be when you're about to not be. Which is precisely why Arthur hated them.
There you are, seated amongst a random assortment of strange people (not just people who are strangers but strangers who are peculiar, as all strangers are when you observe them for long enough) completely beholden to someone else's schedule. You arrive early for your appointment? You wait. You arrive late for your appointment? You wait. You arrive precisely on time for your appointment? You wait. You are there until somebody says you needn't be, and Arthur, an impatient and fiercely independent man, never one for marching to the beat of somebody else's drum, found there is little to do in a waiting room but dwell on the fact that you are marching to the beat of somebody else's drum. And so, he sat in Dr Eckleberg's waiting room, hating every second that went by. Or minute. Or moment. Time tends to move quite differently in waiting rooms.
Finding little distraction in the magazines available to him and little comfort in the knowledge that Dr Eckleberg (a renowned practitioner in all the right circles and some of the left ones) would almost certainly be able to remedy his third-eye strain, he was lost in his own hateful thoughts, though he had noticed the curious potted object held by the person sat opposite him. Noticed it the moment he came in, in fact, it being a particularly noticeable, particularly odd thing. He had been throwing it the occasional glance.
'It isn't mine.'
'I said: it isn't mine. In case you were wondering. Which you may well have been. I mean, I know if I were you, I would have been. So I thought I'd say. You do see it, don't you?'
'Yes. I see it. I was wondering what it is, actually.'
'Well, I don't know that, do I? Because it isn't mine.'
'Of course. Who does it belong to then? If you don't mind me asking.'
'The gentlemen who is in with Dr Eckleberg right now asked if I wouldn't mind watching it for him. And why would I? I'm not going anywhere. He was quite polite. It is frightfully heavy though.'
'Can't you just sit it in front of you?'
'He was quite specific about not leaving it on the floor.'
'You could always rest it on the chair.'
'People have to sit on the chairs. I don't know where this thing has been.'
Arthur ordinarily wouldn't hold conversations with people he didn't know, doing so when he was in the kind of bad mood a waiting room put him in was even less ordinary, but he felt compelled.
'Do you have any idea as to what it might be?'
'Well it certainly looks like a psychic object. A cactus made of hate perhaps?'
'If that were the case, wouldn't he have taken it in with him?'
'I suppose so. Do you have any ideas?'
'On any other day I'd make an educated guess, but I'm here because I'm suffering from a little third-eye strain, I'd better not.'
'Ah, poor you. I'm just here with a little heartache, nothing serious. In fac—'
Thump. Thump. Thumping. Coming from Dr Eckleberg's surgery. Thud. It all sounded fairly aggressive, and Arthur was about to ask the man opposite him if he ought to see what was going on, when the man stood.
'I'd better see what's going on,' he said, placing the potted thing that was possibly a psychic cactus of hate on the floor, turning towards the door having done so. This was a mistake.
'Goodness!' Arthur leapt up, 'I-It-It's taking root!' He looked to the right, but the stranger had already walked through Dr Eckleberg's door to investigate the commotion. Unsure quite what the best course of action would be, Arthur reached out and lifted the potted thing back up off of the ground. It certainly was very heavy. It had also stopped...whatever it was that it was doing, which was a great relief to Arthur. He wasn't quite sure whether he feared for his safety, the property of someone he'd never met, or the state of the waiting room he was forced to remain in for the time being, though he knew he couldn't possible care about all of them, he just wasn't that sort of person. He sat back down, and waited for the stranger to emerge from Eckleberg's surgery, hating every second. Every moment. Every...could it have been a minute already? Surely not. He looked across from him, a new stranger sat opposite. He hadn't even noticed him come in. The stranger looked at the potted thing occasionally, probably, Arthur thought, wondering who such a thing would belong to.
'It isn't mine.'
'I said: it isn't mine.'
Cutethulhu's narrator encounters the pair in a psychiatrist's office, and makes a slight miscalculation:
He was a prepossessing, if somewhat sallow, young man. Sitting there, he looked simply that: prepossessing. He wasn't particularly handsome, although he was certainly attractive in his own way. Not classical or rugged; just prepossessing. I didn't mean to keep staring at him from over my People, but he certainly caught my eye. This wasn't hard to do: there were only the two of us and this was the same stack of magazines I'd raffled through for the past three visits.
When one sits in a psychiatrist's office for hours on end it gets hard to feel the same mystical tingle of encountering new magazines. What kind of information awaits? Who's sleeping with who? Will that recipe for seasonal pumpkin cranberry muffins really turn out as cute or edible as they look? The prospect of looking through quaint articles for hours was never one that I relished, but I always tried to make the best of it.
The tides had turned on this visit, however. Men are one of my weaknesses, and I confess to having a keen curiosity when it comes to interesting-looking ones. He was a bit more interesting than the many others I'd seen come through this office. For one thing, he was holding an amorphous hell-beast on his lap.
I found a few questions brewing about this turn of events as I pretended to read my magazine. Are you single, was, to my own shame, not the very last one. Moving to a new city, integrating into its rhythm and flow, and finding like-minded people had been much tougher than I'd thought. This had been the favorite topic with my shrink over the past few weeks. The company I worked for wanted to be absolutely positive that I was getting settled alright, and the visits were mandatory for the first few months. Some new, hippy health-care mandate. Being there was not my idea of a good time, but it has proven helpful. Moving so far away from home was, in fact, very hard.
Maybe getting to know someone who actually looked so nice wasn't a bad idea. I wanted to move across the room and introduce myself, but the creature on his lap kept hissing maddeningly every time I thought about it. The thing moved around, solid but fluid, in a decorative plastic container on his lap. The container was bright pastel green and white, a stark contrast to the chittering tar-beast that sloshed about its recesses. All three— container, demon spawn, and man— looked contented with the whole arrangement, however, so I didn't read much into their presence.
I must have still been staring because after a moment he looked up and smiled at me. His face was longish and thinnish, so the smile, slight though it was, split his face in a way that I at once found to be agreeable. Gingerly, I smiled back. This little exchange did not go unnoticed, and the blob of metaphysical putrescence grew mouths from several points on its viscous body. Each mouth snapped and gave a guttural growl or snake-like hiss. I averted my eyes as fast as I could and went back to pretending to read about women breast-feeding in public.
After it was sure that I wasn't looking anymore and after a few softly spoken words by the man holding it, the noxious bit of sentient ooze quieted. I chanced a hasty look at my watch and began to hope that Dr. Munroe would come collect me soon. The secretary, silent sentinel of this small domain, was not a reassuring presence, and silent, pleading looks seemed to have no effect. I flipped the pages under my fingers with feigned purpose, though this was a bit difficult as they were sticky with damp and similar overuse.
Still, the man behind the creature interested me. I don't know whether it was the neat, clean sweep of his dark brown hair or those deep-thinking, greenish eyes but he was simply fascinating. Despite the warning I was so clearly given, I found myself wondering what he would order if I asked him out for coffee, or whether he drank tea instead. Where did he buy his suits from? The one he had on was certainly remarkable, and it looked as expensive as it did antiquated.
My curious musings were cut short as a plump and happy-looking woman opened the door leading to the back office. She beamed down on me and called my name in a friendly tone. I put the People down hastily and crossed the waiting room towards her.
"Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Croffting! You're so early today! I'm sorry for the wait, I've been seeing more clients than usual this month," she called to the youngish, thinnish man and his madness-inducing monstrosity, rays of sunshine permeating her tone.
"We don't mind, doctor," the thing from beyond the walls of nightmare croaked in a voice not entirely unpleasant.
My shoulders slumped as I shuffled into the office which Dr. Monroe ushered me. It figured he was married to it. I hate living in a hell dimension.
In Drabbler's story, the man brings his creature to a priest:
Father Carmine asked, "Mr. Findlay, why do you believe your fondue pot is demonically possessed?"
"Well, at first I didn't even think of that," he explained. "I just thought it was malfunctioning, so I called the store. They told me that I'd have to contact the manufacturer in Switzerland. They put me touch with a local repair shop, and they're the ones who first suggested demons. And I guess it made sense, right?"
"The threats to murder humanity do tend to support the notion, yes. But I have to ask one question first. Is this exorcism covered under your warranty?"
In corpore-metal's story, this odd pairing is the result of travel to the fourth dimension:
I remember the day I first made contact with the fourth spatial dimension. Although originally I thought I wasn't the first human to do so.
That honor fell to Fred Barna, a product support technician for one of the big mobile carriers. He was nobody remarkable, thirty-three, brown eyes, sandy hair, married with a little boy, lived in Shoreline—nothing special. How he got to my office without causing a stir was a mystery.
Why he came to my office was an even bigger mystery. I'm a physicist specializing in condensed matter. If you don't know what that really means don't worry about it. The point is I was really the wrong guy for Fred to come to.
It all started when Beatrice Walker, the graduate I was advising, burst into my office, babbling, "—but how can it hear us?! Yes, have to show him! It can see right though things! Professor! Professor!"
Initially I was really pissed off. I was right in the middle of some very difficult computations, the mental equivalent of juggling running chainsaws and live kittens on a diving board over a pool full of hungry sharks. It had taken me days, months even, to get to this point, I was in the perfect groove of concentration, all the pieces were snapping into place and the hurdles in my work were falling like dominoes. You don't interrupt a scientist when they're in this happy state or bloody, embarrassing death will ensue.
"God damn it! Four hours work ruined! I have posted hours for a reason, Bea! If the building isn't on fire, I don't give a rat's ass what it is! You're gonna pay—"
"Professor! It's really important! You have to see this! It's big! Bigger than everything you and I are doing!" That only got me even more furious! But she was was already jerking my out from my desk, "Come on! Come, let me show you! You'll see it's worth it!"
I fell silent, already trying to salvage a good turning point in my work so I could come back to it and spin my brain up again. This had better be good. Fleetingly I thought about passing Bea off to another professor, I was that angry. But then she dragged me into the administrative office and there I saw it and was struck completely dumb.
There was Fred Barna, sitting in a chair, holding a flower pot with a bubbling, oily nightmare, boiling and blooming out of it, like the best in show in some LSD-inspired, Salvadore Dali gardening contest. Everyone else in the office was as silent and staring as me. Bea whispered, staring as we all were, "See? See it? Wasn't I right?"
"Ah! Mr. Vickers!" Fred enthused, turning his head to see me standing, staring at his plant—using that term very loosely, "You probably don't remember me but, I was one of you students about seventeen years ago in your Physics for the Liberal Arts class."
I just sat down right next to him and stared at his creature. It was like a gyser of oil or boiling pitch shooting upwards, held in slow motion and impossibly defying gravity. It was like those one those shapeless animated blobs you sometimes see in computer art or in science fiction movies. Only this wasn't a movie. Blobby pieces were breaking off, or just suddenly appearing in the air, impossibly hanging in the air, before growing finger-like protrusions to rejoin the seething mass of turbulence or shrinking to tiny dots before disappearing.
"See, I really didn't know who to turn to about this," Fred continued, filling the silence,"I don't know any scientists personally and you gave me a good grade even though I know it was so long ago but—"
"What is this?!" I finally shouted, interrupting him, "Where did you get it? Where did you find it?" I fought my ancient monkey curiosity to touch it. Suddenly I had a strange feeling of deja vu, a very strong feeling I must have seen this before but the memory felt very old and it passed quickly in the rush of my other half formed thoughts.
"Well, that's what I came to see you about. See, it appeared in my garage about three days ago after work. I was getting out of my car, and upon seeing it, well—" he seemed a little embarrassed at this point, "I ran away into my house. But it just suddenly appeared next to me even though I locked the door. Later I learned that walls, sealed containers, locked buildings or any physical barrier can't block it's movement or appearances. And when it began to talk, well—"
"Yes, I can speak!" a tinny, yet somehow loud and baritone voice sounded in my ear. It was bit like having a tin can telephone conversation with a singing Jim Nabors, or maybe James Earl Jones doing his best Darth Vader. I couldn't really tell which direction the voice was coming from. It was like wearing headphones, the sound seemed inside my head. The loud nearness of it made me jerk in my seat. "Don't be alarmed John Vickers, physicist, citizen of Seattle, Washington, United States, Earth. I'm an explorer like you."
"An explorer like me?" I repeated daftly, jerking my head around uselessly to see who was speaking before settling on the creature in Fred's pot.
"Yes, what you're looking at, at least insofar as you four-dees can see, are small cross-sections of me protruding into your space. I am a creature that exists in a realm with many more orthogonal dimensions than the 22 your world has," the voice paused, "But you and I have met briefly before. You were very young so, perhaps you don't remember," the voice paused, "I could adjust things a bit so that your memory would be more clear but, I shouldn't. It would change the manifold of your history and personality too much and there rules we must follow. It's such a pain to find duplicate manifolds."
I'm was a physicist, which I sometimes joked as being like someone whom real mathematicians scoffed at. But I certainly had the training to understand the implications of most of what the creature just said. It was a creature living in a much higher dimensional space that was not compactified like all the other dimensions of String Theory. And when I realized that the creature just confirmed for me that String Theory was true, I began to laugh uncontrollably. How could I not? I mean my field was condensed matter, not high energy or theoretical, right? I just learned something fundamental about our universe without a multibillion dollar particle smasher. I laughed and laughed for about half minute until I finally sputtered and coughed to a halt.
"Good, that's the mood to keep here Mr. Vickers. Just a moment, I need to speak with Fred."
Fred canted his head as if hearing a voice but I heard nothing. Bea was still looking intensely at the creature with only a few glances at our secretary, Bill Carson, and myself. She was a physicist too, or would be one. Of course she was fascinated and I could see the growing impatience on her face and body, the torrent of questions welling up in her but, she was still a student and felt she had to follow my lead as the senior investigator.
"Maybe we should all go and sit in your office, Professor Vickers. It knows you both must have a million questions." Fred suggested as he stood up with his hyperspatial flower.
And that was a good question: why did the creature decide to remain in Fred's flower pot? I foresaw a long afternoon and evening of discussion as Bea and I grilled this being. I foresaw a future of great recognition among my colleagues. Bea was still in her first year with me and maybe she'd be willing to change the focus of her dissertation. Perhaps she could grow to be one of our first experts on dealing with these creatures and this new gigantic world. I saw a future with an astronomical number of possibilities.
But the one I didn't see was my own death in three weeks. The creature did. It could the present and past of every object in our universe as a tangle of trails of atoms in four-dimensional space. It knew our futures and pasts better than we would ever know ourselves. But it told me nothing about my future that day.
And that's a story for another time.
MrMcDudeMan points out that when your alien pet starts talking to you, you should probably pay attention:
"Can you help him? I think he's sick. I can give you a million to cure him and keep quiet about it. I'll be over at four."
That's all I got from him. Of course, quite often, I get frantic, hurried calls from clients, terrified that their beloved pets might die, when all they have is a case of the sniffles, but this was quite unusual. Normally it's my policy not to accept such strange offers, as it usually turns out to be some homeless loony without even a cardboard box to live in, trying to get me to bring their half-eaten rat back to life, or some other such nonsense, but the rent was due in less than three days, and if I could get even so much as an old family memento off the poor bastard, that'd be something. It's not like I was very busy at three in the morning.
Three fifty-nine, and I hear two loud thuds the front door. "Just a moment sir, please wait in the reception room as I prepare my tools" I call from my office, as I look for my stunner, in case he turns out to be the violent type. The blasted thing always eludes me when I need it. After a moment, I find the right drawer, and the tool gives me a twinge of relief. I remind myself to thank my brother for the gift sometime soon.
"You may come in now si....oh."
The rent would be paid that month. Every month, for that matter, I thought, as Mr. Woodrow, The Mr. Woodrow, rich enough that he bought the entire county I lived in because he liked how it looked when he drove through it on his way to a meeting once, was in my office, with the strangest creature I have ever known.
A pale, yellowish-pink thing, slightly squishy-looking but mostly solid, and hairless but for a patch on top of it's head. It was covered in several layers of colored thread, finely woven into sheets, apparently made to fit it's form.
"I trust, that your discretion is ensured?" Woodrow seemed amused by my shock. Even proud, perhaps.
"S-sir... what IS that thing?" I knew that there used to be large, solid beasts in ancient history, but I'd never seen anything larger than a book, and only that on
"Dunno. But it arrived in a case of flaming metal. I think it's a Klarke. Well, that, or a Hoomin. Kept making those sounds the most, so I figure that's what it calls itself."
My mind reeled from all of this. This... thing, it's implications, the guest, everything, it was too much. It was four in the morning, and it was too much.
"A metal... what? From where? And why is it carrying you around?"
"Well, there was an odd object from space that landed on the edges of my estate, and I went with my men to investigate. There was an odd metal-based space vessel, and he emerged from it. There were a few more, but they weren't alive."
Oh. Great. Woodrow calls it a he, like it's one of us.
"I tried to establish a mental link to get around the language issue, but he wasn't responsive to it, starting making loud noises. Mostly 'hoomin' 'klarke', and 'piece'. When I tried to force a connection, I got a few glimpses, mostly a string of noises and a sense of returning homeward, and some images of the dead ones and space, but I overwhelmed him and he, um, shut down, so to speak."
Well, at least it was a common problem. "I'm quite surprised you got even that much sir. Must be quite advanced. People often try to establish a connection with their pets, and overwhelm their minds. Usually they do it out of love, of course, but it never works. Animals, even ones like this, apparently, are only just that. Give me two days, I'll try and find out how bad it is. If you're lucky, he might recover, although I'm not quite sure what that means with something this...unique."
Mr. Woodrow was picked up at five, having taken my written vow not to let a word of this find it's way to the outside. Now, I was left with a whole mess of appointments to cancel, and a hoomin klarke to somehow fix. The confusion of the whole situation had subsided, leaving me only with a glow of weariness.
"Hoomin. Klarke. Coomein peice. Peeiiccee."
I wondered drily whether it was supposed to do that.
Lowestofthekeys' story has notes of Total Recall, but with a genuine sadness:
Thomason sat in the dim lit waiting room, his penny loafer clad foot tapping the ground to keep pace with the sputtering generator outside the facilities walls. Monitoring the room, his deep brown eyes dilated to the sensation of a murmur, a push that had drawn him out of his routine for the Royal Mars Colony and into a quick trip to the registry department.
"Simple build, simple maintenance," he heard all too often in reference to the Crown's cost cutting measures in building the colonies facilities to represent the dreary facade of 20th century offices.
Today, however, he took no note of his dull "office attire" and the draconian architecture that sullied the otherwise stylish seams of 23rd century culture. His mind was affixed, obsessed if he were to take the dramatic route, on a strange plant left at his apartment/cubicle doorstep. It had started out as but a sprout, resembling an earth-based plant, but within a day it had grown without nourishment to almost four feet in height.
Being a social outcast, Thomason had never sought nor required time with another person. His job was his life and he found a certain fulfillment in serving his country as a bureaucratic representative for the U.K. Parliament. This plant had piqued his interest, and caught his attention as it grew into something otherworldly. The growth was slightly disturbing, but he found that as he spent more time observing it, he became more enamored with it's colors and shape.
He had put off reporting the flora to the registry office for fear of it being incinerated, but eventually his bureaucrat conscience overwhelmed him and he begrudgingly brought the plant in for examination.
The paper of his check-in slip rubbed between his fingers, his skin grating away the ink that displayed his number. It had only been ten minutes, but a deep-seated anxiety had developed within him, pushing him to leave...the murmur growing louder. He rocked slightly, the brown corduroy rubbing into the seat and creating a soft "zipping" sound . He slowed to the stares of slowly turning heads as other began to notice his unusual activity.
He rebutted each stare with a soft smile, standing with his potted plant in both hands as he turned to the door. A voice suddenly cut through the hum and he turned to see the registry assistant motioning for him to follow her. A quiver of his lips followed the slow furrowing of his brow as he squeaked along the tile towards her, his feet sliding past each other in half-steps as the door closed behind him.
The walk down the tan corridor was a slow one, spanning a lifetime as the pot seemed to grow heavier with each stride. The plant itself almost pulsed, the flowing patterns of dark blooming into slivers of white as the bulbs about opened and flashed a number of orange hues. He could feel the hum again, stronger now.
"Run," it whispered into his mind. "I'll run with you..." he quivered as the voice, like a subtle comforting touch, warmed his emotions to eat away at the cold logic driving him to down the corridor. He nearly turned to begin walking the other way before two large men wearing red long sleeved vests appeared behind him, blocking his way.
The larger of the two reached forward, his pale hand finding a landing on Thomason's neck. A sudden jolt electrified his body as his vision blurred, catching the gleam of a metallic disc hidden within the large man's palm. The tranquilizer has found its way into his bloodstream, a modified dose meant to knock him out in due time, but not put him in a coma. The jolt was apparently a second measure meant to subdue him. Within minutes the synthesized barbiturates coursed through him, the tingle and the murmur leaving his mind's eye as darkness consumed his vision.
Thomason awoke, lifting from off a large metal rectangle as he choked on a spoonful of vomit brought about by the acidic nature of his last meal. He did not feel too fatigued which meant he had not been out long, though his head hurt as every sound and sensation seemed to triple in intensity.
A lithe figure sat across from him, cloaked in a dim light. He could tell it was feminine, though it did not stir to his violent awakening or the ragged coughing that helped to clear his throat. Sniffing the air, he swallowed tasting the pungent bile while he turned to let his legs hang form the edge of the table.
The figure finally stood, a soft feminine voice ripping through the air, "Thomason Adkins...how do you feel?"
"I...I feel like I have the worst hangover ever. Wha..what happened?"
"You were exposed to a Martian flora. That headache is a combination of the tranquilizer and the severed psychic link. The plant had almost asserted complete control over you and if we hadn't intervened you would have eventually starved to death."
"Starved...nonsense, I've been eating regu..." his voice trailed off as he looked down along the contour of his belly, noting a distinct reduction. His arms too lacked a certain girth that told the story of one too many cupcakes.
"That flora not only feeds off the interaction you gave it, but also your body. It was slowly pulling nutrients out of you as well as pulling you into an escapists reality."
"Escapist's reality? You mean, everything for the past few weeks has been an illusion?" he turned, his gut tying into knots as he noticed the gray, stained clothing sitting upon the table. The yellow lettering read "Maintenance" and bore no resemblance to the brown corduroy he had seen hanging off the frames of so many officials.
"You are a maintenance worker. We noticed you in the waiting room when you signed in as a ..." she trailed off retrieving a metal clipboard with a few sheets attached, "...bureaucratic representative for the U.K. Parliament'?"
"That-that was my dream when I volunteered for the Mars colony mission," a sudden rush of sadness overwhelmed Thomason as his frame curled bending forward the fabric of his contented reality tearing asunder. Tears crept out slowly as he whimpered lightly against the acoustic reverberation of the room.
"You're lucky to be alive Mister Adkins. This plant has already caused a number of deaths in the colony. In fact, I'm ordering your employer to give you a few days off to recover,"her voice trailed off a few seconds as she leaned down, and typed a few things into a small holographic terminal displayed from the metal clipboard.
He sat silent, as his head hung low. Tears edged the red curves of his eyes as he choked back a whimper.
"Just don't think about what could have been, Mister Adkins. You have an important job in our system and we need your mind, and your perspective in tip-top shape. Remember, simple build, simple maintenance. That applies to the human condition too, y'know?" the doctor had noted his sadness attempting to wet the stale air with a joke.
He nodded and slowly pulled himself form the edge of the table, grabbing his stained jumpsuit and heading for the door.
AlbatrossAndOwl challenges our notions of "exotic pets":
"Is he yours?"
"Is he yours," Mrs. Glin asked again, gesturing at the stranger's pet.
"Why yes, yes he is," replied the stranger before looking at his ticket and then to the broken display above the service window.
"They're serving number 46 right now," Mrs. Glin informed the stranger. "You'll be waiting awhile."
The stranger sighed, slouching slightly in his chair. The creature gurgled something unintelligible, and the stranger began stroking it, cooing gently. Mrs. Glin glanced at her ticket, the display, and finally the snoozing clerk, before calling across the room,
"I've never seen one of them before."
"No, you wouldn't have," said the stranger, "they've been hunted to extinction up here, but down south, they've got them down south."
"I didn't think there was much of anything down south," said Mrs. Glin, "not after, well, the unpleasantness."
"Oh, plenty of these," the stranger said, giving his pet a squeeze, "In fact, they race them down there, for sport."
"Race them!" exclaimed Mrs. Glin, "they don't look very fast."
"They're quick as a devil when they're young, but that doesn't last long. The old ones, that can't race, they're," and at this the stranger choked back a sob, "they're put down. Prince here is a rescue."
"Barbaric," Mrs. Glin muttered, "simply barbaric."
At this, the clerk, as if given some subliminal signal, jerked awake and surveyed the room before shouting at the stranger,
"Hey mister, what's the big idea, bringing something like that in here!"
"I just need an exotic pet license," the stranger said, flustered.
"We only give those out on Monday," snarled the clerk, "and the next time you want to bring a bipedal mammal into City Hall, don't. Those things are unsanitary."