A short story by Michael Lockridge
The last few visitors to the San Antonio Zoo wandered past the environment containing a rather lumpy quadruped. The sign by the pathway read, “Warthog.” There were other bits of information relating to the occupant of the environment on similar signs. Only a few people read the information. The creature seemed to gather little more than passing interest from the visitors to the zoo. It was close to closing time.
The lumpy quadruped stood at the edge of his environment, looking placidly up at the visitors across the mote that was intended to contain him. Eventually the visitors were all gone. He waited for a time, waited until most of the zoo employees had also left.
When the time was right, he made his way over to a log near the shelter that had been provided for him within his environment. He ignored his feeding trough, for the time being. The diet would have to be adjusted before he could eat. That would come later.
Using his snout and lips, he manipulated some of the woody protrusions on the log. Moments later, a fuzzy screen appeared above the wooden surface. It shifted and issued a hissing sound.
The creature snorted.
He stepped back, and stood still. His beady eyes went blank.
Jaime Torres pulled his tool belt and an additional bag of tools from his van. He could not recall why he had scheduled a routine electrical maintenance check for so late in the day. His electrical service business was going well enough that he did not have to take these off-hour jobs, but somehow he had been talked into the task.
He closed his van, and locked it. The various exotic scents from the zoo across the street reminded him that this was not the best neighborhood, and so he double-checked the lock.
Jaime stepped back, strapped on his belt, and picked up the tool bag. For a moment he felt disoriented, then a wonderful sense of well-being came over him.
He ran quickly across the street. Looking up and down the street, he saw that nobody was around. He tossed the bag of tools over the perimeter fence that surrounded the zoo. The fence was not particularly high at this point. Jaime jumped up, caught the top, and hoisted himself over the fence.
He picked up his bag of tools, and then moved purposefully through the pathways of the zoo. He came to a single zoo employee standing by a small access door. He did not even acknowledge the young woman, who stared blankly ahead. She opened the door for him, and he went in.
The short tunnel he had entered disgorged him into the Warthog pen. He went silently past the lumpy creature, and quickly opened an access panel in the log by which the beast stood. He plied his tools for about twenty minutes, and then closed the panel.
Jaime returned to his van by the same way he had entered the zoo. When he got there, he put his tool bag on the ground. He then stood for a moment, gathering his thoughts. The sense of well-being slowly left him. He shook his head, and then checked to be sure that he had locked the van. Picking up his tools, he went down a small alley and found an access panel behind one of the businesses.
He went to work, again wondering why he had taken this job. For a moment, the sense of well-being returned. He began to whistle, looking forward to finishing the job and heading back home.
The eyes of the lumpy quadruped cleared, and the creature went once again to the log. He manipulated the protrusions on the log. Again the screen formed above the wooden surface. It resolved into an image. A face very much like his own.
“About time you reported in, Spatula.” The creature in the screen said.
“Nice to see you too, Chief.” The lumpy quadruped responded. It was good to hear a familiar voice. It was good to hear his name.
“What took you so long getting the net up?” Asked the Chief. “Based on preliminary reports, the technology should have been available.”
“It wasn’t parts, Chief.” Spatula replied. “It was service. You remember the experiments with Pootags there on the home world?”
“Ugh. Do I. I was a field worker on one project. Hairy little bipeds, with fabulous hands. Two opposing thumbs on each hand. Long fingers. Should have made great tools.”
“Yeah. But limited psychic links, and the shortest attention span ever recorded in a high-order species.” Said Spatula.
“You think they are hopeless, eh? The humans, not the Pootags.” Asked the Chief.
“Too early to tell. I have months to go on this study.” Spatula replied.
“So, what’s the problem with them? They looked so promising.” Asked the Chief.
“Attention span is a bit of an issue.” Spatula said. “Mostly, though, it is sex.”
“Sex? Why is that a problem?” Asked the Chief.
“They think about it all the time.” Spatula said. He could barely contain his disgust. “All the time. I don’t see how they get anything done.”
“So the prelims were right? They don’t have seasons?” Asked the Chief. He was appalled, and just a little bit titillated.
“Chief, you are disgusting.” Said Spatula.
“What?” Asked the Chief, trying to look innocent.
“Anyway, managing them is hard work. After three weeks of this, I am exhausted. And disgustingly, uh, anxious.” Said Spatula.
“Well, OK. Good work, I guess. Get some rest. Keep me posted.” Chief said, signing off.
The screen vanished.
Spatula concentrated, and moments later the young female zoo employee came in and added some necessary nutrients to the items already in the feeding trough. He sent her away so that she could go home.
“Oh, scharzog! How am I going to be able to put up with thoughts like that?” Said Spatula to himself, after releasing the young human’s mind. “How can these creatures do such things? And she is looking forward to it!”
For a moment Spatula did not think he could eat. Yet he had a full day of observation to make the next day. He had chosen the zoo as a prime observation post, because these strange creatures would come to him. He just looked too much like a Warthog to be able to freely observe out in the wide world. Here, he just had to make a few small psychic tweaks to actually look to zoo patrons like a real Warthog.
He started to munch on the food in his trough. It was really pretty good. Not like home, but not bad for a meal in the field.
“I just hate to think what the folks back home will say when they learn what my name means on this little world.” Said Spatula. He sighed, and finished his meal.