It felt out. Felt with the antennae of its mind. It needed something… No. It needed someone. Where? When?
Ah, yes. The touch pool. Three hours time. There it would find what it needed.
It was the day before Trilobite Park’s opening, and Hay was just beginning to realise how deep she was in. She’d lied on her resume, and created a Certificate of Food Safety by using her only real skill, which was forgery. Now she was in charge of a large commercial kitchen ready for a gala opening, and with only the very foggiest notion of what to do to make food happen.
“Uh, man on the phone wants to know about our vegetable order,” the head chef said.
“Okay, tell him… we’d like some vegetables.”
The head chef considered this. He was only a little older than Hay, and she was pretty sure he was just an apprentice chef. And now he was going to take charge of the main kitchen in the caferteria and the subsidiary kitchen in the function centre? Honestly, how did someone that green get hired?
“Uh… he says what sort of vegetables?” he said.
“Send us a sampler, please,” said the head chef, whose name was Dylan.
“What’s he say?”
“He says ‘ha ha ha ha ha.'”
Hay gestured for Dylan to give her the phone. “Yeah, listen, numbnuts, I need enough vegetables for a thousand people. How much vegetables do people, like, eat? Really? That many? Bullshit! Just send us a couple sacks of potatoes, a thing of corn and some chips… You don’t do chips? Serious?”
“We probably need something green,” Dylan said, uncertainly .
“Undermine my authority again, and you’re fired,” Hay snapped. “But yeah, you’re probably right. Veggie dude, send some lettuce. And oh, some pineapples and cherries, so we can do those fruit hedgehog things my gran does. Hang on, I’m putting Dylan back on.”
Dylan hesitantly completed the order and replaced the phone. “Shit, I probably should have written that down in the order logs or something,” he said.
“What year apprentice are you?” Hay said.
“First,” Dylan said proudly. “I have three months training. Then my old restaurant caught fire when a meteorite…”
“I don’t need your life story, dude. What I need is for us to make some food for all the people tomorrow, and shit.”
“Well, chips come from a different place than veggies,” Dylan said. “And the meat comes from somewhere else again.”
“Why is this so complicated! Do any of your staff know?”
They looked out of the window of Hay’s little office in the corner of the big kitchen. Half a dozen surly teenagers were lounging against counters and playing with their phones.
“Maybe one of them can Google it?” Dylan said. “Or maybe go to WikiHow? I bet they’ve got something on how to manage snacks for eight hundred people and a fancy lunch for two hundred dignitaries. We’ll figure it out, right?”
Hay stared at Dylan for a while. He was a slightly built young man with sandy hair, but what was remarkable about him was the look of utter optimism – like a puppy dog who, against all reason, thinks that this time the vet will be handing out juicy steaks instead of distemper shots.
“You’re really into this… cooking thing, aren’t you?” Hay said, waving her hand vaguely.
“This is a huge opportunity!” Dylan said. “Skipping years of training, formal qualification and years of experience to become a head chef at a major new tourist destination? It’s a dream come true! Oh, by the way,” he added, “the girls out at the counters say we don’t have any coffee. Or milk.:
“Do coffee beans come from the veggie place?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Ugh, this place!” Hay pouted. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
And frankly, she felt that the fact that she was stoned wasn’t helping.
“Close the door behind you,” she said to Dylan. “I need a nap.”
June had photocopied all of her information sheets, devised her lesson plans and contacted all the schools that were sending students to the opening. All was well. Elsewhere, the Park was a fury of activity as cooks, engineers, electricians, IT people, plumbers and decorators tried to make everything ready for the big day. She alone in all the vast building was done, finished, ready.
June decided to make best use of the time – and that meant trilobites! She made her way to the Park’s touch pool, where some of the more robust and less bitey arthropods swam in shallow waters so children could pet them.
When the Park was operational, there would be staff here, but right then it was deserted. June reached a hand into the tank and felt her fingers brush against the carapace of a xandarella spectaculum. Touching a trilobite! She still hadn’t gotten over that.
A stool stood by the wall. She brought it over to the tank, so she could sit comfortably as she watched the little creatures scuttle. Occasionally she reached in to stroke one, and was content.
She lost all track of time as she did so, and she had no idea how late it was when a voice called out, “Have you seen Captain Pete?”
The speaker was a middle-aged man in a sharp suit and a leather briefcase. He couldn’t have been more corporate-looking if his company’s logo had been tattooed on his forehead, just below his receding hairline.
“No, haven’t seen the Captain since yesterday,” she said.
The man looked annoyed, and seemed like he was going to hurry on. But he stopped, and looked deep into the pool.
“Are those them?” he said. “The trilobites I mean?”
“Yes, of course,” June said. “Want to have a closer look?”
The corporate guy looked tempted. “Maybe not,” he said. “I just hope these things are as popular with the crowds as our modelling shows. We’ve put a lot of money in this place. I wonder…”
He stopped and shook his head, perhaps surprised at himself for talking out of turn. “Sorry, miss, shouldn’t bore you with my troubles.”
“No trouble,” June said. A thought struck her: if she could interest this distracted businessman with trilobite science, perhaps she could convince the kids? “But do go on and have a look. They’re really interesting when you see them up close.”
In spite of himself, the business guy looked closer. “My housemate at uni had one of these,” he said. “Fossilised, of course. Used it as a paperweight. I always wondered what a real one might look like…
He rolled up an expensive sleeve and reached a hand into the pool, gingerly patting one of its inhabitants. He smiled in the awkward manner of a man who rarely experiences joy. Suddenly, he withdrew his arm: “Oh! It nipped me!”
“That shouldn’t happen,” June said. “These ones don’t bite.”
“Must have jabbed my finger on something, then,” the man said. He shook his head. “Someone should check that before opening. Don’t want accidents… Look, I don’t really have the time for this. If you see the Captain, could you tell him to call Barry from LPR? He has my number.”
It sat at the bottom of the pool, and watched the humans, dim and distorted through the water. It was not pleased – did not even have a concept of pleasure. But it was content..