“Mr. Helling. Arlo Wright.” He stated unquestioningly, firmly pumping my hand once before disengaging and settling back onto his chair in a single, smooth motion. His wrinkles were deeper than his impressive stature and full head of salt-and-pepper hair might otherwise indicate, rendering his age a vague and mysterious thing. I appreciated his brusqueness which lay in stark contrast to the loquacious sorts usually found in management positions who were busier putting on airs rather than uttering anything of note. Arlo didn’t ask me the usual questions unnecessarily plaguing my reception when I traveled. He didn’t ask because he didn’t care about the answers any more than I wished to speak them. He silently opened his menu and I followed suit, pleased by the efficient manner of the man.
“The steak’s good. Don’t recommend the fish though, too far from the coast.” I nodded in response to his advice, considering my options and reflecting that I hadn’t as yet been called to utter a single syllable. Once the waitress had come and gone, he heaved a world-weary sigh and leaned in slightly, propping his elbows on the table. I mimicked him once more, forming my fingertips into a steeple which I pressed against my lips lightly as though shushing myself.
“About the aberrations you’ve found…” I began, trailing off. He took his cue, simultaneously nodding and rumbling his assent.
“Developing eyes, appendages, mouths.” He paused.
“This morning we found what looked like several of ’em fused together. Big thing. Probably would’ve gotten bigger if we hadn’t o’ separated it from the rest.” He took a drink of water and lapsed into an expectant silence. I digested this information whilst attempting to keep my face neutral. The faint tic at the corner of Arlo’s mouth, however, indicated to me that he’d noticed the feverish gleam in my eyes.
“So it’s still ali—” I began.
“We didn’t destroy it.” He interjected in a corrective tone. This was the first and only sign of his having a personal opinion on the matter. A heady rush of blood pounded into my ears, dizzying my senses as my heart rate soared.
“I would like to see it this evening if at all possible.” I stated swiftly and a bit breathily. He rejoined with a questioning yet quiet gaze. “I want to write some observational notes, take photos and measurements.” He seemed unconvinced. “Monitor it if you will.” I rapped my fingers swiftly against the table’s surface, thrusting my glasses up with a furious forefinger. “I need to see what it’s doing to its structure, Arlo, before I can even begin hypothesizing the defect causing this.” He stared hard at me for several long moments, gaze only breaking when the server returned with our plates, pleasantly setting them before the both of us. Apparently moved to some semblance of human decency, Mr. Wright smiled at the waitress and inclined his head, a softly grunted utterance of appreciation accompanying this uncharacteristic gesture. Arlo did not resume our staring contest, instead picking up his eating utensils and laying into his meal like a starving wolf. He did however possess better table manners and waved his fork vaguely in the direction of my comestibles.
“Enjoy. It’s on the Company tab.” He said this casually – I hesitate to ascribe the word “jovial” to such a man – indicating that he did not wish to continue our discussion until after we ate.
Glancing down at the steaming pile of dead matter before me, I suffered my usual lack of appetite. As I believe I’d mentioned previously, my wife Cheryl was the only person capable of inciting a semblance of normality in me for any substantial length of time and this included self-care. My withered and shrunken stomach had long ago ceased complaining of its neglect, and thus I had little interest in wasting time in this restaurant when there was so fascinating a prospect before me. What Arlo described might have been a kind of cellular fusion, only of multi- rather than single-cellular organisms. Or was this, instead, a variant of symbiotic colonization similar to that of coral polyps? Given the unique genetic makeup of my creation, anything was possible. The prime directive for Fred understandably seemed to be survival. In this case, the conglomerate must survive, whether in single or multiple units. I was curious to study this behavior.
“Not hungry?” Arlo muttered, waking me from my reverie. I focused my attention on him once more, knowing that this man was my key to the kingdom. I offered a terse smile, picking up my utensils and cutting a piece of extra rare steak. The blood dripped and rejoined the small pool near the incision.
“I was analyzing the information you gave me,” I explained, “though it is difficult to assess the scope of things without seeing it in person.” The man-mountain took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. He reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew his cell phone, rapidly tapping out his code and navigating to an unknown destination. I wondered whether he was about to make a call, hopefully to plant security regarding a late night visit to see the creature. Instead he thumbed around, swallowing his mouthful and turning his phone toward me. Instantly my eyes widened, fork and knife forgotten and clattering down to the table as I seized the proffered device. Other diners turned to survey the scene in the nosy fashion of simple folk, but my attention was fixated on the image before me.
The photo on the screen was at first unrecognizable. Slowly I discerned the skin’s surface, so like Fred’s back on my desk at home. The lumpy form was unmistakably that of several Freds, as if they’d been made of dough and hadn’t fully separated. The real question was whether they maintained separate body functions or were broken down and reformed into a larger creature. I swiped across the screen to summon up other views of this wonderfully demoniac monstrosity, yet this only whetted my appetite. I was frustrated, wishing to transfer it at once to the lab for full analysis in its current state. Instead I was in a worn-out backwater having dinner with a monolith who might not guide me to it until the following day. I took off my glasses and set them on the table, leaning in.
“It is imperative that I see it this evening, Arlo.” I stated gravely, the color draining from my hawkish face at the notion of waiting. His even gaze matched mine, and after several breaths he nodded and leaned back.
“All right.” He tossed his napkin onto the table, plucking his phone from my bony hand and putting it back in his pocket. “I’d say perhaps it’s best you didn’t eat so you don’t get sick when you get there, but somethin’ tells me you aren’t much bothered by that kind of thing.” I smiled ghoulishly.
“I’m a scientist.”