Mister Neal Campton, Exhibit No. 1869
“Why don’t you take a seat, Mister Campton?”
Neal didn’t enjoy the chairs in this place. The Temploons had odd arched backs that left little lumbar support for human bodies. Not that he had much say in the matter, of course; creatures on exhibit don’t get to control their environments.
Leaning forward uncomfortably, Neal examined the empanelled Temploon judges, seated at a long table a fair distance away. The first time he saw a Temploon, he had nearly vomited. Vaguely humanoid, but with mandibles like a cockroach and five arms, including one growing straight out from their foreheads, they could be off-putting to the untrained eye. The three panelists’ azure skin glowed in the reddened evening light shining through the administration building’s ornate skylight.
One of them murmured into a hovering microphone, which sent the words echoing around an unnecessarily large room. “Mister Neal Campton, Exhibit Number 1869, preparing for review.” Their genders were a mystery to Neal; he contented himself by calling all of them “it.” It spoke impeccable English through the universal translator implanted in Neal’s left frontal lobe.
“Excuse me, but why am I here?” The keepers had just brought around his favorite meal, a passable imitation of Earth’s filet mignon, and his stomach had complained the whole way to this meeting.
“Yes, Mister Campton. Thank you for your time,” began a Temploon, its mandibles mimicking English phonics. “We are glad you have called our conservation preserve home for these past eight dabeks.”
When the Temploons had taken him from his campsite in the Catskills, he had firmly held onto his Timex watch with a battery rated to last twenty years. From the watch’s calendar, he had calculated that a dabek was approximately two months. After almost a year and half away from Earth, he wondered if anyone even missed him anymore. That thought had made living in this “preserve” somewhat more tolerable.
“But, unfortunately, our preserve has stumbled into…financial difficulties as of late. We find ourselves in the unenviable position to…rightsize our collection.”
From the pressure swelling in his skull, he felt that rightsize was a mistranslation. The sentiment, however, was quite clear. He had already noticed the quality of his faux filet mignon slipping lately. The awkward shifting of the panelists in their awful chairs only confirmed it.
“Yes, I suppose that is terribly unfortunate,” Neal began, hiding the rising panic to the best of his ability. The last rightsizing had eliminated a quarter of the other inhabitants of this preserve. All thinking and feeling beings, all capable of laughter and fear. Neal had struck up a rather friendly relationship with a gold creature from a planet whose name he couldn’t begin to pronounce. When Goldie was rightsized into slag, Neal had actually cried, the first time since he was abducted.
“Indeed. So, to handle this decision-making process, this panel has been convened to assess the sentience of each member of our collection and determine an order of preference.”
“Preference for what?”
“Oh, preference for retention. We need to justify every expense, Mister Campton.”
Neal hadn’t been the greatest of businessmen, to which his failing tire shop could have attested. But even he could smell a bum rap like this from a mile away. He hadn’t been “collected” under the best of circumstances: eight beers deep and kicking campfire embers at his buddies in Augusta National Park. Not the best example of human sentience, admittedly.
But, he was gaining confidence that he was proving his species’ value over time. They ran tests on him, basic ones that reminded him of the back of an eighth grade classroom. As a kid back on Earth, he had breezed through every standardized test the system could throw at him, never breaking a sweat. He had yet to see the results of the aliens’ tests, but when every answer is “B”, he could tell he was in good shape.
“So, Mister Campton, your test scores are…well, they leave something to be desired.” Now that he really thought about it, his eighth grade teacher had said something similar. “We had honestly hoped for a better outcome from you, but alas.”
Not being the answer Neal hoped for, he brushed back his long unkempt mane and did his best to look presentable. Perhaps charming his benefactors would prove a more fruitful approach. It had strung along his tire shop’s creditors, at least until they wanted back-payments in cash.
“Esteemed panel members,” Neal schmoozed with a grin, “test scores are but a fraction of human intellect. We sport a bounty of emotions that can bring forth the best of ourselves. Music, art, culture, all reflections of a deepness that even we are at the beginning of understanding.” He read that in some pulpy fiction book once; it sounded decent enough. “We are so much more than a couple test results.”
“Certainly, certainly, Mister Campton.” The lead alien wasted no time in dismissing Neal’s comment with a five-handed wave. “But, you see, when explaining our great work here, our funders expect more…tangible outcomes. Expressions of intelligence we can point to and use to make a solid case. Surely you can understand that.”
That last bit felt pedantic, something in the tone of its voice and the way the head-hand clenched. Neal had experienced this feeling quite often while with the Temploons. During any interaction with the human, they maintained a cautious stance toward him, like how Neal would avoid his young nieces and nephews and their constant blathering about puppies and bubbles and chocolate at the dreaded family reunions.
The business side reappeared as Neal crossed his legs to hide the intensifying tremor in his muscles. “Well then, perhaps there are other ways to reduce your costs? For instance, you could ship me back to Earth?”
The smallest of the Temploons spoke up. “Oh, that’s a fine thought, Mister Campton, a good thought indeed.” It shuffled a tablet between three hands while the other two gestured in a manner reminiscent of how Neal would pet his niece’s Golden Retriever. “But, you traveled a long way to get here, which was an expensive proposition. When our support base was strong and steady, it was easy to manage your journey. But now, well, that’s clearly not possible.”
Neal’s silver tongue tarnished as he felt a defeat looming. Despite the room being cavernous, the walls were clenching around him, squeezing him deeper into this godawful chair. He cleared his drying throat and asked, “How else could I show you everything humanity has to offer for your preserve? Perhaps I could…erm, write something for you?” Along with the pulpy fiction book, he had memorized several terrible erotic novels. With a few adaptations, perhaps the Temploons would be too stimulated to rightsize him.
“Oh, we observed humanity for some time before you, Mister Campton,” said the lead arbiter. “To be earnest, I’m afraid your species was…rather unexciting. We brought you here in the hope of changing our minds, that you might show us a little more spark.” It tapped something out on its tablet, and Neal heard a heavy set of doors whoosh open behind him. “Alas, it seems vanity got the better of us.”
“W-wait!” Neal shouted out. “Surely there’s more — a musical number, perhaps? Yes, a song and dance! I can show you, um….” Neal Campton had never attended a theatrical production in his life, and so quickly abandoned his course as footfalls emanated from the doorway. “O-or, science! Yes, I can show you…” he trailed off as the juvenile thought of creating a papier-mache volcano flitted through his head.
“It’s been a true pleasure to host you, MIster Campton, but we have a long list to review. Thank you so much.”
The footfalls neared his chair while words abandoned Neal. His mouth was agape as the panelists busied themselves with their tablets. Thoughts of Goldie ran through his overloading mind. Neal had actually enjoyed his time with Goldie, and a part of him was eager to join him soon. An odd chirp emitted from his Timex, breaking him from his fraying thoughts. He turned his wrist just in time to observe the display give out.
And as azure hands wrapped around his forearms and lifted him from the chair, Neal pondered how much slag Exhibit Number 1869 would leave behind. Hopefully, it would be enough to create a terrible inconvenience.