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Part 1, Chapter 6
“Don’t worry about it,” said Pickle. “Just stick your hand in there and pull out whatever you find.”
“No, no,” said Meghan, rifling through her purse. “I had a twenty in here yesterday. I think it was yesterday.”
“You got me out of the meeting. I owe you.”
“Fine,” she said. She couldn’t find the damned twenty, anyway.
Pickle stifled a ticklish giggle as she fished in the vest’s pockets. The pocket was just on his ribs, with “SERVICE ANIMAL – DO NOT PET” written across it.
“Why can’t you just-”
“No thumbs,” said Pickle, anticipating the question. “I mean, I sort of have thumbs, but they’re not …”
“Opposable?” offered Meghan.
“Yeah,” said Pickle, feeling a bit embarrassed. “Anyway, it’s hard for me to-”
“Oh my God!” said Meghan, in an excited whisper as she pulled out several hundred-dollar bills. “How much money is in here!?”
“I don’t know. It’s usually enough, though. Order whatever you want.”
Meghan was a bit embarrassed carrying the tray of pastries, cookies, and coffees to the table Pickle had chosen. She’d kept her order “reasonable”, by her standards: just a cappuccino and a croissant. Pickle, however, had ordered apple turnovers, Rice Krispie squares, several slices of carrot cake, and four large, black coffees that were thick with sugar.
To his credit, she thought, Pickle seemed to be taking great pains to lift the pastries into his mouth. “Doesn’t Kelsi feed you?” asked Meghan.
“I’m not a pet,” said Pickle, in a quiet voice.
“Oh! No, no – I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just, I mean, this is a lot of food.”
Pickle sighed, then said “pandas in the wild eat between 35 and 40 pounds of plant matter each day” in an emotionless monotone that implied this was an oft-repeated fact.
“That’s great!” said Meghan, laughing. “You sound like one of those speaker things at the zoo. Do you know any more panda trivia?”
Pickle considered the question, “yeah, I guess I do.”
“Does any of it apply to you?” she asked.
No. No, the panda trivia didn’t apply to him (not much of it, anyway). It had never really occurred to Pickle in those terms, but it was a simple enough thing to see, once it was out in the open like that. “No,” said Pickle. “No. I guess I’m not like other pandas.”
“OK, give me some examples.”
“Pandas in the wild sleep like, 18 hours a day,” said Pickle. “I only sleep 8 or 9.”
“That’s the coffee and the sugar,” said Meghan, pointing at the tray.
“No,” said Pickle, thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think so.” He looked up at Meghan and was surprised to see that she was paying close attention to him. More than that, it seemed like she was waiting for him to say something else.
“I don’t know what else is different,” he said, putting his head down.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll help you along. Do other pandas talk? I mean, you can talk like a-” what was the word she wanted? “Like us,” she said, pointing at herself. That wasn’t it. “Like people.” That wasn’t it, either.
Pickled sighed, and simply said “No. They don’t talk like people.”
She’d hurt his feelings, and knew it. “No! No, Pickle. I didn’t meant that you’re not a person! It’s just that-”
“It’s fine,” he said, cutting her off. “I’d rather not talk about how I’m not like a panda right now.”
Talk about something else, Meghan! Change the subject, change the subject, change the- “So,” she asked, “what’s with the money?”
That definitely wasn’t it.
More sighing as Pickle shifted in the chair. “That’s my- Mr. Clark. He’s always worried that Kelsi and I are going to get into some kind of trouble or get stranded on the side of the road or something, so he makes sure there’s always cash in one of my pockets.”
“That’s kind of sweet,” said Meghan. “He worries about you.”
“He worries about his daughter,” said Pickle, in a correcting tone.
“He worries about you,” she said in a knowing tone. “I know a little bit about your story. He adopted you at some charity auction-”
“I was supposed to be a pet.”
“Maybe,” she said, “but he didn’t think of you as a pet for long. As soon as he could see you figuring things out and learning and asking questions he put a stop to the internet videos, didn’t he? He made sure you got a chance to go to school and make something of yourself. That took a lot of work and a lot of time. I’m sure the lawyers weren’t cheap-”
“He can afford it.”
“Yes,” she considered what he said. “Yes, he can. He could have put you back in a zoo, also,” she said, leaning in. “He could have spent that money on a university grant to cut you open and dissect your brain! MWAAAHAHAHAA!”
Pickle stared at her in terror and confusion- but, mostly, confusion.
For the second time in two days, the panda was staring at her like she was a lunatic. “It’s a joke,” she said, nervously. “I mean, you’re a hyper intelligent panda, right? You’d be worth studying.”
Pickle had to admit, she had a point. “I guess.”
“You’re too hard on your dad.”
Dad? Mr. Clark wasn’t his dad. Pickle might have thought of him as a father now and again, but he wasn’t sure that- “Wait,” he said aloud, “how do you suddenly know so much about me?”
Meghan stopped halfway through a sip of her cappuccino and remembered the questions she’d asked herself on the way out of her office …
Q1. How long had she been sitting in front of that screen? (She’d been sitting in front of the screen for more than 4 hours in a glorious, Wikipedia-fueled free-fall of hurried procrastination, devouring articles, academic papers, and YouTube videos – from cute to clinical – about Pickle.)
Q2. Where had the morning gone? (See Q1.)
Q3. How many hours had she spent trying to start the introduction to the most important paper she’d ever written? (She’d spent about 12 minutes actually working on her dissertation, and deleted the fruits of that labor almost immediately.)
… she could feel herself blushing, and began to speak before she’d finished swallowing. “Oh,” she said, coughing uncomfortably, “I just- I mean- I guess I looked you … up?” She tried to smile as she said it.
“That’s weird,” said Pickle, furrowing what might pass for his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” she admitted. “Yeah, it is weird. I’m sorry, I was procrastinating on my thesis and I was thinking about you- but like, not in a creepy way- and, I don’t know.” Still blushing. “I’m sorry for that, too.”
“It’s OK, I guess.”
“Here, let’s make it even,” she said. “You ask me questions, then we’ll know about each other.” That sounded good. If Pickle knew more about her, then they’d be even and it wouldn’t be weird that she’d spent 4 hours reading about him and watching videos of him as- As a puppy? As a baby? Not weird at all.
“I don’t know what to ask,” he said.
“I sleep about 8 or 9 hours every night,” she said. “Most grad students only sleep 4 or 5 hours a night.”
Pickle lit up, and asked “How many pounds of plant matter do you think most grad students eat in a day?”
They shared their first real laugh together at that. It was just a giggle, but it was sincere, and it was the first indication either of them had that they might be spending a fun hour together, rather than an awkward one.
“What’s your dissertation about?” asked Pickle.
“That’s what I’m having trouble with,” she said. “I need to write about cyborg insects without using the words ‘cyborg insects’.”
Pickle just blinked at her, more confused than he’d been when she’d suggested dissecting his brain. “I thought you were some kind of mathematician-”
“Oh! I am! I’m working towards a graduate degree in life sciences, but I’ve spent the last few years trying to solve a math problem. Only it’s an engineering problem, but it’s got a lot to do with biology and ecology, too.”
“It’s complicated, I guess.” she said.
“What’s a cyborg insect?” asked Pickle.
“That’s actually pretty simple,” said Meghan, seemingly encouraged. “In 2009, the United States government announced that they’d successfully been able to control insects using tiny microchips that were wired into the bugs’ nervous systems.”
Pickle looked at Meghan, dubiously. “That didn’t happen.”
“It did,” she said, matter-of-factly. “2009 is when they went public with the technology, too, so they’d perfected it maybe two, maybe three years before.”
“Wow,” he said. “Why would anyone want to do something like that?”
“For spying. For gathering military intelligence and infiltrating terrorist cells and all kinds of nonsense. That’s got nothing to do with me, though. It’s 2009 and 2006. Those were the key years, and when the government went public with the cyborg insects in 2009 they were practically admitting that the program was a failure.”
“Why do you think it was a failure?”
“If it had worked, the government would have kept it a secret,” she said. “It’s not that it didn’t work. They were controlling the insects, completely. It’s just that it became obvious that people couldn’t really make insects act like insects. The radio-controlled insects flew like planes, going straight towards targets, making eye-contact with people, getting swatted far too easily. They were all wrong.” She was quiet a few seconds while Pickle considered this. “People don’t think like insects,” she said. “The people who saw them fly didn’t think ‘insect’, they thought ‘tiny remote-controlled plane’.”
“Weird,” said Pickle, who was unsure of what to say. “What happened in 2006?”
“The bees started to die.”
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