By Richard Helmling
When she first saw the creature, it was naturally the eyes that captivated her. He told her that it had been the same with him when he’d first found it.
“Should you have removed it?” she asked, letting the wide black circles track her as she moved her head back and forth across its field of vision. “If it’s so rare, unique even, shouldn’t it be considered endangered?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Something just compelled me to collect it as a sample. The eyes, I suppose.”
“Yes,” she agreed, stepping back from the plexiglass enclosure. It followed her shape for a second longer as she stood still, staring at it. Then the creature’s gaze drifted back toward Robert, hovering just behind her.
It was small, rodent-like. Its whole face was dominated by the eyes.
“They don’t seem to be afraid,” Susanna commented.
“Its eyes. It watched me, but I didn’t have the sense that it was afraid. It didn’t seem like an animal monitoring a threat.”
“It’s tempting to anthropomorphize it,” he said. “But it’s clearly just an ingrained behavior. It’s simply orienting toward novelty.”
“But you’re not new to it,” she countered. “And it’s watching you now.”
“Definitely.” She leaned back in to observe it more closely, but the animal’s attention did not shift back to her. With each pulse of its slow, steady breath, the moss-colored fur shimmered under the fluorescent light. “Why is it green?” she asked.
“That’s the mystery,” he answered. “I’ve never seen a mammal with coloring like this. Some sloths appear to have camouflaged fur, but that’s due to a symbiotic algae. This fur actually appears to be green.”
“You’re sure it’s a mammal?”
“Of course. Look at it. It must be some kind of tarsier.
“What’s that–a mutant lemur?”
“It’s a primate native to the region.”
“Robert, you might have damned a whole species by bringing it here,” she said with some alarm.
“I tried for two weeks to find another specimen. I swear during all that time this one just stayed at camp, as if it was studying us.”
She had met Robert at a reception in his honor. In her work preparing graduate students for their dissertations and combing through old newspapers for insights into centuries-old public policies, she would not ordinarily have met one of the biology professors from the other side of campus. Robert, though, had recently been awarded with a slew of prestigious prizes—the names of which she was only vaguely familiar with—for his study of the genes associated with a particular protein. It was all quite beyond her, but it had turned him into enough of an asset to the university to merit wider exposure. Corporate dollars were pouring into his work and he had earned a reception large enough that even members of the liberal arts faculty wound up on the guest list.
A little playful flirting had led to a dinner. A few dinners had settled into a routine and eventually led to an awkward conversation in which he sought earnestly to define the “parameters” of their relationship.
“Are you asking me to go steady?” she’d asked with a laugh.
To her surprise, he’d said, “I guess so.” There was a catch, though. His windfall of support and resources had allowed him to organize an expedition to hunt for specimens in Southeast Asia. There was some evidence that indigenous plants in Borneo might synthesize a cousin to his famous protein and he wanted to investigate. He and five grad students would be leaving in two weeks. It had to be now; the seasons were sensitive and the plants might be impossible to locate out of bloom. He’d had the first series of shots to prepare for the jungle that morning. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m expecting you to wait around for me or something,” he had told her.
At first, she hadn’t much felt like waiting either. As his absence entered its second week, though, she found herself missing him more than she’d expected, and when an old acquaintance, newly divorced, asked her out to dinner during a chance meeting at a coffee shop, she found herself saying she couldn’t. “I’m seeing someone,” she’d answered.
The two months alone allowed her to focus on a few projects, dedicate some time to an article that had sat at the edge of her desk with the annoying “revise and resubmit” letter gawking at her. She made reading his e-mails from the jungle a nightly ritual—except for the days when weather prevented him from getting a signal to send anything.
She hadn’t thought much of the message that first announced he’d discovered something “odd” but “fascinating.” His cryptic references to it in subsequent messages didn’t intrigue her so much as endear him to her with his boyish enthusiasm for what she imagined must be a bizarre kind of fungus or unheard-of subspecies of toucan.
When he’d returned, she’d met him at the airport and shared a warm kiss that she instantly told herself had validated her “waiting.”
She insisted he take a night to settle in and that they would have dinner the next night. Not long into that meal, though, he had brought up the subject of his unusual find. “Even though it’s not my area, I’m fascinated by it. I’ve got the latitude to kind of take a detour and spend some time studying it.”
“You haven’t told me what it is,” she reminded him while sipping her wine.
So he’d shown her.
That night, after turning the lights out on those peculiar eyes in the lab, they’d gone back to her place and made love. They spent most of the next two weeks together like that. Dinners out with her friends or his. A trip to the theater with his sister who was visiting from Montreal. All ending up with them sleeping beside each other in one of their apartments.
It was actually her own work that disrupted the easy rhythm of it. Department politics exploded in a surprise resignation from the chair, and in the shuffle, she found herself taking on an additional class for the coming semester. Robert had—quite politely, she’d thought—volunteered to ease off their routine while she prepped a syllabus.
Once the term began, it seemed harder to find time together. One night, she’d called him and announced that it was “criminal” they hadn’t seen each other in eight days.
“I know,” he’d answered with a forced chuckle, which was really the best he ever managed for her jokes. “I know. I’ve got a lot to see to tomorrow, but why don’t you swing by the lab and we can go to lunch at this place I know of just a few blocks over.”
Of course, when she’d arrived, she’d asked casually about his green monkey thing. He’d led her into the lab and pointed.
“This isn’t the same animal,” she said, peering through the glass into the larger cage.
“It is,” he assured her.
“It’s enormous.” Though the wide, dark eyes remained unchanged, the face around them had transformed. The tiny, inchoate mouth had widened, drooping down with the chin while the brow had grown, revealing a taller skull than it had earlier possessed. The body, too, was reshaped. The gecko-like, barely prehensile paws had thickened. The digits were now slender, grasping fingers with visible nails. The fur seemed to be receding as it grew, revealing verdant, grass-colored skin.
“Susanna, this may be the most important find…can I say ‘ever?’”
“Is that a hyperbole?”
“Remember you asked about its coloring?”
“Yes. It’s even more striking now. Before it looked like it could’ve just been dyed green. Like you’d found a little tribe of punk lemurs. Now you can see that the skin is actually green. It’s the thing’s natural pigment.”
“I don’t know if ‘natural’ is the word, though. It’s some kind of chimera,” he told her.
“You know it?”
“I know the mythological creature, sure. But I don’t see a goat head here.”
“Chimerism is a blending of different organisms’ DNA. Frankly, in this case, it’s a hollow term. This goes beyond anything ever recorded.”
“Are you going to tell me this thing is part plant?” With a grin, he led her to a microscope just across from the enclosure and invited her to look into the eyepiece. “You know I don’t understand what I’m looking at, right?”
“Here,” he said, drawing her toward some glossy print-outs. “I’ve got some enlargements. This is a sample cell from her.”
“It’s definitely a female,” he said, while indicating part of the image with his index finger. “You see this structure here?”
“According to all my tests, it’s a chloroplast.”
“You’re really trying to make me recall high school biology, aren’t you? Is this some kind of test to see if I’m qualified to be in a relationship with you?”
“Chloroplasts are the cell parts that manufacture chlorophyl, the compound that allows for photosynthesis.”
“Chloroplasts only occur in plants, right? They can make their own food.”
He nodded slowly, still wearing the grin.
“So you really are telling me this thing is a plant.”
“The cell membrane is completely typical of an animal cell and the lysosome count indicates it’s animal, but it is clearly photosynthetic.”
She looked back to its cage and the black space of the window behind it. “Good thing it’s got a window, then.”
“It eats, too, but it’s somehow also capable of photosynthesis.”
“Robert, I’m no biologist, but I do remember high school bio a little bit. That’s not possible.”
“There are some aquatic species that appear to have borrowed genes from algae and other plants, but those are sea slugs. This is a mammal.”
“You said there were no others around.”
“We never saw another one, and this one never left us once we’d seen it.”
“You means once you saw it.” She looked again at the image. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a dark, crescent-moon shape inside the cell.
“That is an excellent question,” he said while staring over her shoulder. She looked back at him, but he said nothing.
“Are you not going to tell me?”
“Oh,” he replied with a smile. “I’m sorry. I mean it. It’s an excellent question because I have no idea. It’s unlike any cellular organelle I’ve ever seen. I’ve extracted some proteins from it, but I can’t determine its function.”
“So let me get this straight, Mr. Future-Nobel Laureate,” she began, turning back toward the animal. She was startled to find its eyes still fixed on them, even across the room. “It’s an animal that can go through photosynthesis, a trick so far only accomplished by really talented sea slugs, and it also has a mystery organelle that is found no where else in nature. Is that about it?”
“Apart from the obvious, yes.”
“What’s the obvious?” she asked.
“You already mentioned it. It doesn’t look like a tarsier anymore.”
That lunch was not followed by another meeting for five more days.
As their time in each other’s lives grew more and more sparse, he would protest over the phone that he was “so, so sorry,” but that he was having to conduct so many of the tests himself on this new find. His graduate students were all plant specialists. As she listened to him complain about their shortcomings for this research, she began to feel that the real problem was that he didn’t especially trust any of them going near the creature.
This absence did not unfold as sweetly as before. The new class wore on her patience, even as her graduate students progressed admirably on their own work with minimal input from her. She felt idle. Wasted.
One day she said to herself that the relationship had gone sour. She said the word aloud to test it, and it felt apt. Their diminishing time together wasn’t the only gripe she found herself reflecting on as she pronounced the word a second time. There had long been a gesture she’d thought of again and again when considering the future of their relationship. He had a habit of looking away from her when she laughed too loudly at her own talk. She had noticed him do it, with exactly the same slow rotation toward the right, both during dinner conversation and in bed.
She ran an experiment. It felt petty as she was doing it, but still somehow necessary. She didn’t call or text him and waited to see how long until he would notice.
Six days later, he left a message on her voicemail while she was in class, apologizing for being out of touch.
She sent him the “we have to talk” text.
He urged her to come to the lab right away.
She typed first as a reply, “I don’t think that’s where I want to do this,” but deleted it and changed it to, “I was thinking of somewhere else.”
He called her. “I know I’ve been unavailable, but you’ll understand if you come here. I swear.”
“I am sorry,” he said again as she followed him into the lab. She had imagined him being immersed in his work, and so had conjured up certain expectations. She half-hoped to find him bespectacled, confused by the light, and sporting a five-day old stubbly beard as he hobbled around his workstations, Igor-esque in his mad-scientist depravity.
Instead he seemed virile, moving briskly and certainly ahead of her through a maze of cardboard boxes and other discarded packaging.
“I’m not saying you owe me an apology,” she answered. “I just thought we might talk. We have something, Robert, and I don’t mean to sound needy, but there are certain things I think I can reasonably expect. You’re not delivering on those.”
“No, no,” he answered, pausing and turning back to her. “I completely understand how you feel. I do care about you and our relationship, but I’ve just become so engrossed in what’s happening here.”
“What is happening here?” she asked, eying the sloughed-off cardboard chrysalises in the outer hall suggesting a completely new laboratory beyond.
“See for yourself,” he said, gesturing toward the door into the main lab.
She pushed open the door and was greeted immediately by a pair of eyes that seemed at once alien and familiar. The creature was perched, in an almost feline repose, atop a stainless steel laboratory table.
“Holy shit,” she gasped. It turned its head toward her, but only for a moment, flicking dark irises over the length and breadth of her before fixing again on Robert. Its skin was still green, but little else was unchanged. It held the table before its folded legs with thin fingers, thumbs bent forward. The torso was lean and muscular, with small, high-set breasts beneath a delicate, bird-like collarbone. As she shook her head, Susana’s gaze landed on the feet, tucked behind the curvature of the thighs and buttocks coiled as if ready to spring. The feet were unmistakable. A gentle arch from ball to heel. Small, round toes.
“My God, Robert,” she gasped. “It’s human.”
“It’s out of the cage,” she added.
“Oh yes,” he answered. “She doesn’t stay in it anymore.”
“When did you let it out?”
“One morning I arrived and she was out, waiting for me much like this.”
“Is she dangerous?”
“She’s never shown any sign of aggression, no.”
“I don’t mean like that.”
He shook his head, unable to understand her.
“How can she be real, Robert?”
“I don’t know,” he gestured toward the new equipment all along the opposite wall. “I’ve been running DNA tests for weeks, trying to map her genome, but it changes so quickly.”
“Her genome changes?”
“That strange organelle I told you about. That crescent moon in her cells. I still can’t make out its function, but it exchanges a lot of genetic material with the nucleus.”
“Which means what, exactly?”
“It must have something to do with her mimicry ability.”
“She’s a genetic mimic. She’s able to imitate the DNA of other organisms she comes into contact with. When she first arrived, she must have mimicked a plant species and only later worked her way up to an animal.”
“What do you mean, ‘when she first arrived?’”
“I can only assume she’s extraterrestrial. She defies everything we understand about chimerism. She’s a whole other class of being.”
Susanna looked over the creature—the girl—perched on the table. She stepped closer, and the girl turned her head momentarily to watch her approach. Susanna looked at the the slender lips beneath those dark eyes. She saw them twitch.
“Robert,” Susanna said slowly, suddenly guessing. “Has she spoken to you?”
He did not answer for some time. “A few words here and there,” he finally admitted. “Again, it’s just mimicry.”
“For now,” Susanna said quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s come this far. You know she means to complete the transformation. She has to. Soon you’ll come in and she’ll be wearing one of the lab coats.”
“I have to tell someone about this, but I don’t know how. You can’t just publish this in a journal. This is our first contact with an alien life—possibly with an alien intelligence.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’ve told you. There’s nothing like this. Anywhere.”
“Has it occurred to you she might be something from myth. A wood nymph or a fairy.”
“Folklore is full of stories of changelings, Robert.”
“This is a scientific pursuit, not a metaphysical one,” he scoffed.
“But maybe you’ve discovered the missing link. Maybe you’re seeing something with scientific eyes that human beings have only ever witnessed from a more primitive perspective before. Maybe that organelle, that tiny cell part you discovered, maybe it’s a seed of wonder. Maybe it’s magic.”
“Ordinarily,” he said. “I’d dismiss that kind of suggestion pretty quickly. But I can’t eliminate anything at this point.” He sat down on a stool behind her. “I still think her being an alien is more reasonable, though.”
“But I don’t think her motives are so alien.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s becoming human.”
“Mimicking human DNA,” she said pointedly.
“Where’d she get the DNA, Robert?”
“You’re the only one she’s touched, aren’t you?” He didn’t respond. “If we compared both your DNA—hers and yours—would they match?”
“Yes,” he answered. She was surprised he did not stall with the admission, did not offer at least a reluctant sigh first.
“But she’s female,” Susanna said cautiously.
“Male chromosomes only differ in one way,” he explained. She felt the effort in his voice to maintain a wall of objectivity, speaking to her as if he were addressing a class of underclassmen.
“So she could have just duplicated your X chromosome to stay female, right?” she asked.
He had not been looking at Susanna, nor at the girl. Now he made a further effort to pretend at being distracted and picked up an attachment to one of the microscopes and began turning it in his hands like a puzzle box.
“You make it sound like she’s making a choice,” he said.
“I think she is.”
About the Author: Richard Helmling is a teacher and writer living and working in El Paso, Texas. HIs work has been featured in Corner Club Press, Black Heart Magazine, Arsenic Lobster, the Rio Grande Review, The Drabble, and Fiction Brigade. Visit him at www.helmling.com.
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