While Penelope fetched her research, Rowena checked to make sure Edgar and the birds were soundly asleep before briskly walking over to the cabinet where the empty, sterile sample vials were kept. She had a small window of opportunity while Eric and Horatio slept to collect blood and tissue samples.
She quickly prepared a tray with all the necessary instruments and then quietly walked it over to the table. They had discovered quickly that there was no good way to remove sleep aids from blood samples, so they had developed a subliminal sound “playlist” for animals that induced REM sleep, thus allowing them to collect clean samples not influenced by stress-released hormones, nor contaminated with drugs.
Once Rowena collected the samples she needed, she took her tray of samples to the DNA sequencer. Rowena needed to make sure the wren population they had brought to Alpha Centauri IV were on track in their evolutionary adaptations to the newly terraformed planet. The gravity on this planet was in constant flux of +/-0.2 N. While that level of fluctuation didn’t seem to affect most land animals, birds and fresh and salt-water creatures were having some trouble adapting.
These wrens seemed to be the exception, and could possibly be key in helping other birds survive on Alpha Centauri IV. If she could discover the secret to the wrens’ ability to adapt to the gravity fluctuations, she may be able to save the other birds who weren’t adapting as well as they should be.
Penelope pushed open the door of the lab and took long, purposeful strides through the main corridor. She had a determined expression on her face, discouraging her favorite orangutan lab assistant from approaching her. Penelope saw Sandra’s furry arm reach out and then retreat. She would just have to wait.
Coming to the end of the hall, Penelope stopped, coming to face a seemingly blank wall. Taking a small step back, she crouched down, bending at the knees and waist. Squeezing her eyes shut, she bowed her head into her folded arms. Penelope inhaled deeply, counted to five, and exhaled sharply. As the last of the air was expelled from her lungs, she began to shrink.
Opening her eyes, Penelope found herself in a puddle of clothes. Looking at her hands, she saw the little pink claws of a field mouse. The transformation was successful. Penelope scurried to the wall and placed her paw on a tiny knob and turned. A small door imbedded in the baseboard swung open and she stepped inside.
Taking a number of turns down and a dimly lit corridor, Penelope once again stopped to face a dead end. Opening the door before her, she stepped into a tidy, mouse-sized office. Pausing on a tiny oriental rug, tassles all perfectly aligned, Penelope scanned the room. Now, where had she filed that research? Squinting her beady eyes, she scurried towards a tiny metal filing cabinet.
Rowena’s eyes widened. “However did you manage to solve for the flatulence issue?!” she exclaimed, “But Penelope, tortoises in tuxedos? So cliche. Though the tailoring is excellent. Whose work is this?”
Penelope preened ever so slightly. “I actually made the prototype, but I taught the spider monkey-falcon hybrids to sew once I knew the tuxedos would fit.”
“Remarkable,” Rowena stated, “now you were saying that you solved for flatulence. How?”
“We were missing a vital protein strain – No. 394. Once I realized it, it was quite easy to fix the problem. It had quite the stabilizing effect and as a lovely bonus, cured the flatulence issue quite by accident.”
As they finished up their snacks, Henri slow made his way around the room collecting empty dishes and placing them on the tray on Henry’s back. Once all the dishes had been cleared, Henri carefully stepped back into his shell. Henry tapped a small knob on Henri’s shell. The shell slowly came back together until Henri’s shell was once again seamlessly in place. Henry and Henri slowly turned around and made their way back to the kitchen.
“Would you like to see my data?” Penelope asked hesitantly, “It’d be no trouble –”
“What kind of question is that?” Rowena interrupted irritably, “Of course I want to see it. Now close your mouth and go get it.”
As Penelope walked away from the table quietly grumbling under her breath, Edgar jumped up on the table and walked to the sunny spot to settle down for a nap. Horatio and Eric landed on Edgar’s side once he had settled down and began preening each other and then Edgar before falling asleep.
Rowena flashed back to her human form and rubbed her temples. Too many flashes in a short period of time gave her head a dull ache. She turned to Penelope who was still observing the whole situation from her seat at the table, chin resting in her hand. Rowena caught her gaze and Penelope raised an eyebrow. This exchange was their signal that the specimens in the lab needed a snack in addition to their regular meal routine. It was a necessarily wordless exchange because any hint of a mention that the animal might be hungry would sometimes result in indignation and hurt feelings, which could lead to accidental ingestion down the food chain.
Once she saw Rowena’s almost imperceptible nod, Penelope gathered up all her energy. “Henry and Henri are most probably interested in a visit!” She sang as brightly as she could muster. She stood up and strode quickly into the lab.
After a few moments Penelope returned followed by two Aldabra giant tortoises in single file. On their backs they carried trays of food for each hungry species in the room. For the birds a worm and insect medley of two types of beetle, earthworms and wingless flies. For Edgar, salmon sashimi on a bed of leafy greens. For Penelope and Rowena, lightly grilled tuna steaks served on beds of rice and a side of sautéed spinach with a hint of garlic and sesame oil. Rowena greeted Henry and Henri and stepped aside. Henry, who stood behind Henri, grasped Henri’s tail firmly in his mouth and gave a little tug. Henri’s shell expanded away from his body into a cube with holes. With care to not disturb the food, Henri stepped backwards out of his shell and began distributing dishes around the room to everyone.
As they sat at the table eating, Rowena took a breath to say something, but Penelope cut her off, “Yes they’re still slow, but Chelsea is the key. And you must admit — the flatulence issue has finally been solved!
While Penelope and Rowena reviewed the data Rowena had collected, Edgar stretched languidly in his chair. Horatio and Eric were still flitting around the room in a frenzy. Their panicked flight path brought them closer and closer to Edgar’s chair. Before either bird realized how close they were to the big-face cat, Edgar deftly jumped mid-air between both birds and gently snatched both birds in his paws.
“Hmph. Chelsea learned all her moves from me, you know,” Edgar told the birds.
Eric and Horatio were so stunned, they froze. Horatio found his voice first. “What’s a Chelsea, Big Face?
Indignant, Edgar growled, “My face is perfectly proportioned to my head and body!”
“S-s-sorry Big Fa- M-Mr. Big Fa…ce? We don’t know your name. You were just…a face…we saw in the glass…and your face was…(big)…” Eric trailed off as he realized his explanation was making the not big face angrier.
Edgar sighed heavily. Must he do everything? Teach everyone? “My name is Edgar Percival Crane. I am the most majestic animal to ever grace this planet. When I one day pass from this earthly plane, the heavens will cry at the loss of my presence to grace their view. I am…A CAT.”
Horatio and Eric Exchanged confused expressions. “But everyone knows cats aren’t real!” Horatio blurted out.
“Yeah!” Eric chimed in, “cats are just make believe stories mamas make up to make fledglings behave! What are you really?”
Dr. Glyndor stared down into her tray of medicines. They were useless now. The small window of time she had to administer them to Chelsea had expired in the chaos of Dr. Crane’s re-entry into the facility. She muttered something incomprehensible under her breath.
“What was that?” Dr. Crane asked snidely.
“I said, ‘my name is Penelope.’ I’m going by Penelope. Fiona’s my middle name. Last year I decided to go by my –”
“Stop, stop! Is this really what you want to say right now?!” Dr. Crane whirled around to face Dr. Glyndor, eyes flashing. “You could’ve corrupted all of my data!”
“I’m sorry, Rowena. It wasn’t intentional…” Dr. Glyndor trailed off, unsure of what to say.
Dr. Crane pulled back her lab coat and pulled down the elastic waistband of her pants about an inch to reveal a quarter inch clear nylon zipper on her right hip. She carefully unzipped the compartment and gently extracted a micro memory card. “Well, let’s see if you ruined everything,” she sighed. She handed the card to Dr. Glyndor.
From his chair, Edgar sighed along with her. He might be all feline, but he wasn’t unmodified. His only enhancement was an ability to communicate across species. It was time to comfort the other two birds. Another undignified task.
Across the room, Dr. Glyndor was wrangling Chelsea onto a table across from a projector screen. She gently pressed Chelsea’s front left paw, causing Chelsea to sit upright. She inserted Dr. Crane’s memory card into a slot in Chelsea’s chest and briefly folded her left ear. Chelsea’s eyes emitted an eerie light.