By Jez Patterson
“I wasn’t expecting you so soon.”
“When we got your email, we were so intrigued we wanted to see it right away.”
“Of course,” Marion said. The two men were young, clean-shaven, and although not dressed in suits, were so smart as to look like they could either be on the way to church or a gallery opening.
Except it was Saturday, not yet midday. They were prompt though — she’d only sent the email yesterday afternoon.
“I’m Michael. This is Anthony.”
They were also good-looking enough to be gay, which because of the years she had on them didn’t disappoint her as much as it once might have.
“You’d better come in. Miserable day…”
“Isn’t it,” Anthony said, eyeing the grey wash of sky and performing a jittering little shiver. Proof enough for her.
They were both careful enough to wipe their shoes, partly unbuttoning their jackets but keeping their briefcases beside them on the settee like loyal but indulged dogs.
“Tea? I was just making a cup.”
“That would be lovely.”
“Yes, lovely,” agreed Anthony. When they were resettled, tea poured and complimented, Michael sucked up a it’s-a-pity-but-we-should-get-to-business breath.
“Well, Marion. If we could see the artifact in question?”
“Oh. Of course. I wouldn’t want you thinking I was one of those cranks. One of those mad women who have got imaginations bigger than the moon.” She left them to fetch it, a secret little thrill that she was about to share her find vying with the expectation of $5,000.
‘An encounter with aliens or alien technology? The UFOlogy Institute pays up to $500 for your stories, $5,000 for physical proof and artifacts. Telephone or email to speak to one of our operatives. We take you seriously because we take our business seriously.’
She’d seen a link to their page when she’d gone online to try and find out exactly what the thing was.
“I always go up onto the hills this time of year to pick blackberries. They’re wonderful in pies, or just mixed with apple and eaten with a dollop of sour cream. I know it’s terrible and probably forbidden…” She paused and they made the necessary noises of forgiveness and understanding. “But I wanted just a small clipping for my garden and when I saw what it was like inside… Well, you can see for yourself.”
She handed the length of stem to Michael and he took it reverently, being careful where he placed his fingers. The blackberries still attached were huge and ripe, the leaves still pert and green. They should have wilted quickly after being cut from the main bush. Evidence enough there was something unique about the sample.
But when one looked at the stem’s cross-section…
“I saw something similar mentioned on your website. That’s what convinced me to get in contact with you.”
“Yes,” said Michael, after he’d passed it to Anthony to examine. “We found posting examples made people far more willing to come forward with their finds.”
“Have there been others like it?”
“Unfortunately, I can’t officially confirm anything — we guard the confidence of our clients very strictly. But, well, between you and me, we’re very excited by your discovery.”
“What’s it for?” she asked then, startling the men. “I mean, I can see there’s some kind of electronics inside because of the wires poking out. But the fruit is real because I’d already tried some. Delicious, in fact. It’s why I took that particular cutting in the first place. I figured it must have something to do with the thorns.”
“Really? Why do you say that?” Michael’s voice was oddly flat, but Marion thought it was probably just professional pride that she might have out-guessed their own conclusions as to what it was.
But she’d had time to think, do a bit of examining herself.
“The thorns have a wee little hole in their ends. I looked. I even broke one off and saw where a tiny wire threaded into the stem.”
Anthony nodded, pointing at the gap for Michael to confirm a thorn was missing. “I figure it must be to either inject something into an animal that scratches itself on it, or to take some of their blood. I think people would notice dead animals lying about, even though we’ve had our share of Myxomatosis with the poor rabbits up there. So it’s probably the latter.
“When I went to give blood, they took a tiny sample by pricking my ear. Not even what you’d call a drop. This plant could be used to collect samples. Maybe to work out their DNA. Better than dragging people off to their spaceships and doing those strange experiments on them with probes and suchlike. No one would ever know, and the fruit would attract them no shortage of specimens.”
“That’s a very astute supposition,” Michael said, his smile high on his cheeks as if pegged on a washing line strung far too tight. “And why would they do that?”
“Research purposes, databases, maybe even to — I don’t know — make their own versions of the animals they found?”
Marion let out a tribbling laugh and Michael and Anthony both paused before coughing out their own echoing versions.
“Well, if you could find the thorn that you removed. And, of course, we’d need to know the precise location. I think we can safely say your find is of interest to us.”
“Really? Oh, I am glad…”
“I can write you the cheque for $5,000 now. Once you tell us the location, I think we can double that.”
“I’ll get the map from the kitchen and mark it for you.”
“That would be…”
The doorbell sounded. Michael and Anthony exchanged glances.
“You haven’t contacted anyone else about this? You do know we require exclusivity in these matters.”
“Well, I wasn’t sure if you’d respond, so I did write to another place offering something similar. The ALIentomology Bureau? If it’s them, I’ll tell them the matter is already being handled.”
“It’ll be them,” Michael said. “If you’ll allow me? Anthony will assist you with the other matter.”
He went to the door whilst Marion, flustered more by her faux pas than someone else answering her front door for her, went to the kitchen to show Anthony where she’d made her remarkable find.
“Michael,” said the woman standing on the doorstep. He looked behind her, saw she was either alone or her companion was somewhere waiting in the car or — more likely — van. The Bureau always preferred vans.
“You’re wasting your time. It’s one of ours.”
“You wouldn’t be lying to me, Michael? We both know what the Accord says. We are also both old enough in this game to know people lie.”
“Not this time. It’s just a cell sampler.”
“Ahh, one of your biotec butt-scratchers.” She smirked. “When will you scientist-types learn to catalog where you place your equipment?”
“The same moment you military-types learn to fly craft without crashing them.”
“Touché.” Her face abruptly turned grey, like the sky. “How much does she know?”
“She’s not a security risk,” Michael said, avoiding answering the question directly. She stared at him. Hard.
“We’ll decide that.” She flipped her chin, indicating over his shoulder and Michael frowned in confusion.
“Anthony?” he asked, now realising what was being inferred. She winked. He turned back as he heard something that sounded like a tea cup shattering on linoleum.
Jez Patterson is a British teacher and writer, currently based in Madrid. Recent stories by him have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion SF and (forthcoming) Stupefying Stories. Links to his thoughts and things with his name at the end can be found at http://jezpatterson.wordpress.com/author/jezpatterson/.