Challenge 1, Group 1: science fiction; include an animal quarantine facility and a scone.
Hancock’s eyes crinkled in delight at the sight of the Intergalactic Travel Services Way Station slowly rotating below his window. The way station was anchored in place, a stationary location in the ever-moving expanses of space. He maneuvered his lumbering transport vehicle into the dock and exited through the air lock. Maharg looked up, brushing crumbs from his mouth, as Hancock entered the office.
Hancock nodded at the skinny, four-eyed public servant and wondered to himself where in the universe they’d found an Isovenutian willing to work in the intermediate space station holding area. But it was good luck for him. Isovenutians weren’t detail oriented, but they did like to deal. And they loved pastry.
Hancock tapped the bell on the counter; Maharg jumped. “Calm down, little buddy; it’s just me.” Maharg twisted his skinny neck, making eye contact and hissed a greeting. Hancock smiled, “Whadda ya got for me today, Mah?”
“Don’t call me Mah!” The Isovenutian spit the words out. Hancock moved back from the counter. It must be tough trying to talk with a forked tongue. “Eventually everything comes through here,” Maharg sputtered now keeping his tongue under somewhat better control. “Somebody decides they have to have a Nagem goose from the spirogyratica orbit, but of course it has to stay here for the required thirty days. That’s way too long for most animals. Then we’ve got the entire research wing. I could tell em a thing or two about research animals. They all need more attention than I can give em, and that’s talking about the healthy specimens. Whatdda they think, I got eyes in the back of my head? They shoulda hired me an assistant, preferably a Valdanoblis. But no.”
Hancock listened as the overworked little caretaker ranted. Did anybody really care who they hired in an out of the way quarantine facility in a bureaucracy as big as Intergalactic? They had to provide quarantine services; they didn’t have to keep the animals alive. But Hancock loved animals, all kinds of animals. Well, not loved exactly. He was fascinated by animals, by the colors, the textures, the size and shape. He’d dedicated his life to these animals. “I know you get something of everything, but whadda you have for me today?”
Maharg sputtered and closed his mouth. He swallowed and looked down at his fingers, counting what he had in the freezer. “Okay, I got seventeen species of fowl, nine amenotoads, six mamilariana, and,” he stopped and breathed in making a slurping sound, “and one sarubian tiger. And it’s a beauty. Listen to me, Hancock. When you see this thing your eyes are going to pop right out of that armored skull of yours.”
Hancock tilted his head and looked at the Isovenutian. “What are you talking about Mah? You like these animals?”
Maharg winced at the name-calling and nodded, all four eyes bobbing in unison. “Hey, when you’re here all day like I am you kind of get to know the critters. I mean some of em really have a personality. But that sarubian, he takes the cake.”
Hancock rubbed his chin. Maybe there was more to Maharg than met the eye. “So, tell me, what are you doing here? I mean how’s a nice guy like you end up in a dead end job like this?”
Maharg shrugged, “You know, you gotta do something. My family used to say I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the warehouse. I didn’t really like school but I liked animals. I thought maybe this job would suit me.”
“And does it?”
Maharg looked away and tears slid from his eyes, splashing on the countertop. Embarrassed he leaned down, looking for some imaginary object under the counter. “It’s pretty lonely here. And so many of the animals die. Well, you know. That’s why you come by. I mean, not that I don’t appreciate it. I freeze the carcasses, you pick them up, I make a little money, but I can’t spend my money here. And even if I went someplace else I don’t know anybody. Oh don’t listen to me. I don’t know. Most of the time I tell myself I’m lucky to have such a cushy job. I’ve watched every flik on the net. You should see the impressions I can do.”
Hancock looked at Maharg’s long snout, his short arms and splayed digits and decided not to pursue the impressions offer. He looked out the window at the endless black sky and shuddered. “You know, I have a real big contract with the Interplanetary Natural History Museum. I mean a really big contract. You’ve been a big help to me. But what I really need is an assistant. I need somebody who knows animals. You know what I mean?”
Maharg stamped his foot. Did you listen to me at all? I’m not smart. I can’t be the assistant to a scientist like you. Anyway, Intergalactic owns me. Leave me alone.”
Hancock laughed out loud. “Scientist? I’m not a scientist; I’m a taxidermist. I need somebody who really sees animals, who understands animals. You can’t prepare an animal unless you understand it. I’ve seen taxidermists turn out a crabledockle that looks like a snake. No sense of proportion at all, and you’ve got to pay attention to the details. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Hancock gripped the Isovenutian’s skinny hand. “Come with me. Leave Intergalactic. I’ve got a lab on board. Training starts right after takeoff. I’ll even share my mimos scones with you.”
Maharg grimaced, then grinned from ear to ear. Why not take a chance for once in his life?
Whatever it was that Hancock saw in Maharg that day, it must have been the same thing he saw and understood in his animals, the sense that made every creature he touched beautiful. And it was that same ability to see into the hidden recesses of another creature that over time undeniably created the greatest team of taxidermists in the universe.