Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Sunday Sci Fi--the Next Big Thing

have a minor in geology and always had a soft spot for trilobites. I wrote this story for a contest a few years ago. 

The Next Big Thing

Priscilla Newnam had seen some peculiar things in her 87 years, but she had never seen anything like the bug that crawled across her spotless kitchen floor one sunny July morning as she was eating her oatmeal.
  For one thing it was huge, at least a foot long, maybe more.  And it was strange in a disturbing way.  It looked like what you’d get if you mated a roachy bug to a lobster.  She decided it probably was some kind of mutated crustacean that had somehow crawled up from the harbor and found its way into her house.  And now she was going to have to deal with it before she’d had a chance to finish her coffee.
riscilla Newnam had seen some peculiar things in her 87 years, but she had never seen anything like the bug that crawled across her spotless kitchen floor one sunny July morning as she was eating her oatmeal.

There wasn’t much that Priscilla Newnam was afraid of but the sight of the creature scuttling across her kitchen linoleum was…unsettling.  Priscilla’s husband Tom had been a lobster man, and once or twice he’d brought home some strange things he’d found in his pots.  There’d been a yellow lobster once, a freakish thing that he’d sold to the owner of a clam bar in Massachusetts who wanted to keep it in a tank to attract customers. 

A reporter and photographer from the Cape Courier had come up to the house to interview Tom.  The photographer, a young fellow named Julien Thibidoux, had take Tom’s picture holding the yellow lobster up by one claw.  Then Julien had taken a picture of Tom and Priscilla just because he wanted to and sent it to them later.  That had been nice of him.  She still had the picture on her bedside table.

As she watched the thing move from one end of the kitchen to the other, Priscilla decided that she was going to play the “age card” and turn the problem over to someone else.  She hardly ever did that because she didn’t want people to start thinking of her as an old biddy, someone who’d outlived her usefulness. But just this once, she decided she would call animal control and let them deal with it. 

When she described what it looked like, the dispatcher sounded skeptical but said she would send someone out right away.   Because Priscilla had a young voice, the girl on the phone didn’t dilly-dally around asking her foolish questions like, “Are you sure that there’s really a bug on your floor?  Priscilla hated people who assumed that because you were no longer young, you were somehow stupid.  She’d been a math teacher until she was 65 and she could still do long division in her head.

The animal control officer they sent was a young man, just out of college from the look of him and he took one look at the thing on her floor and said “Fuck me.”  And he didn’t apologize for the profanity in that falsely smarmy way so many people did when they were talking to old people.  As if she never heard a bit of salty language.

“You ever see anything like that?” she asked him. 

“Yeah,” he said, “I have.”  He excused himself and went back to his truck and when he came back, he had a little collapsible trap with some kind of stinking bait in it.  

“Where are you taking it?” she asked him. 

He didn’t look up as he answered, his attention focused on coaxing the thing into the trap.  “Gonna ship it to the university.  Marine biology professor up there is paying $100 for specimens.  He says they’re showing up all over.”  It belatedly occurred to the exterminator that Priscilla might claim ownership of the bug so he added, “I’ll split it with you.”

She waved away the offer.  She knew young people always needed money.  “No, just ask him to email me when he knows what it is,” she said. 

“Email?” he repeated, as if he’d never heard the word before. 

“What’s your phone number?” she asked, whipping out her BlackBerry.  “I’ll just text you my addie.”  He pulled his cell phone out and wordlessly held it out to her so she could see the number scrolling on its screen.  She tapped out her message with her thumbs and hit Send with a flourish.  The exterminator’s mouth was hanging slightly open.  She loved getting that reaction.  Young people were always amazed when they saw old people using technology without having to use a Dummies guide.


As it turned out, by the time the exterminator’s specimen reached the marine biology professor at the University of Maine, an Icelandic climatologist named Gudný Pétursdóttir had beaten him to the punch and identified the bug as a trilobite, a marine creature that was supposed to have died out around 250 million years ago. 

Conspiracy nuts launched websites to air their rants about Jurassic Park-style experiments gone awry and to float their theories about where the supposedly extinct creatures might have come from.  Trilobite-me.com and cambrianconspiracy.org both claimed a million hits a day, although a check of alexa.com couldn’t verify that kind of traffic. 

Everybody had an explanation for the sudden revival of a long-extinct species.  Ocean tectonics combined with global warming was a popular choice.  The seeding of the oceans by aliens who had collected trilobite DNA on their first visit to the planet was a close second. 

While the scientists were still arguing about the “what” and the “why,” an enterprising fish monger in Louisiana sold a bushel of trilobites to a New Orleans restaurant noted for its seafood.  Served with a dipping sauce of herbs, drawn butter and wine, the trilobites turned out to be succulent and satisfying. 

One prominent food critic wrote that trilobites reminded him of Balmain “bugs,” the sweet-fleshed crustaceans found in Sydney Harbor.  Their delicate flavor and texture turned out to be extremely versatile.  They could be made into fritters and timbales and cakes.  They could be baked or fried or poached.  Since trilobites came in so many sizes and varieties, they could be tossed together in bouillabaisse and jambalaya and pasta dishes.

The fooderati embraced trilobites with an enthusiasm unseen since the day the kiwi was introduced to the world.  The fish showed up as the “secret ingredient” on Iron Chef America.  You could buy them in bulk at Costco.  Bon Appetit featured a trilobite recipe on its cover in July and then again the following February.  Jane and Michael Stern raved about eating trilobites stuffed with Scotch bonnet peppers at a small, family-owned bar and grill outside of Roswell, New Mexico. 

Trilobites were cheaper than crabs, or lobsters, or prawns and eating them didn’t raise your cholesterol unless you ate them with a side of fries.  Nutritionists praised the high-quality protein available in the average-size trilobite pointing out that a single serving offered high amounts of vitamin B12 as well as trace minerals like potassium, magnesium, copper, phosphorous, and zinc.

Trilobite-shaped tchotches and kitchenware sprang up in catalogues and whimsical websites.  Interior designers who had flogged the Santa Fe look and embraced bold, black and white cow prints went gaga for what was dubbed “Trilo chic.”  Designer Michael Graves created a “trilochair” that was snapped up by furniture boutiques around the world at the bargain price of $575.  You could find inexpensive trilobite items on every page of the Lillian Vernon Christmas catalogue, and expensive ones in various museum gift shops.

A struggling single mother in Roanoke, Virginia came up with a smiling trilobite design she marketed through Café Press and hit the jackpot, eventually selling the design to a Chinese frozen food company for more than a million dollars.  A gay college student financed his last two years at MIT by crafting trilobite jewelry and selling it on Etsy.com.

Trilobites.  Like American Express, they were everywhere you wanted to be. Until the day Lorenzo Barbato, a scientist working for Save the Tigers, announced that he’d genetically engineered a kitten-size tiger that would never grow any larger. He’d used the size-suppression gene from female lions, so technically his chimera creature should have been called “tigons,” but the tiger genes proved true and the resulting cubs were perfect replicas of their forbears, just shrunk to the size of 12-week old kittens.

His mission had been to preserve tiger DNA in a way that would involve the public in the fight against the extinction of the big cats and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  The tiny felines (dubbed “Titties” by the tabloid press) were sold exclusively by breeders licensed by Save the Tigers, with the organization receiving 25 percent of the sale price. 

The tigers bred like cats, which is to say that instead of a normal 100-day gestation period producing two to four cubs every two to two and a half years, a litter of “titties” needed only nine weeks, with an average of four to five cubs per litter.  Breeders of exotic cats, prized for their tiger-like stripes or leopard-like spots, went out of business overnight.  Who’d pay $700 for a lookalike when for $1500; you could get the real thing in miniature?  Priscilla Newman, who’d never been much of a one for pets, but had a soft spot for tigers, purchased a cub over the Internet from a breeder in Chicago.  She named it Tom. 

Tiny tigers were soon the most popular pet in the world, eclipsing cats, dogs, hamsters, mice, iguanas, ferrets and birds by a wide margin.  As the scientist had hoped, the tiger population in the wild increased too, mostly because an underground trade in the tiny tigers fed the makers of tiger-bone wine and other illicit industries that rely on tiger parts.

Trilobites were interesting and all, but they couldn’t compare to titties in cuteness.  And they couldn’t purr. And they weren’t cuddly.  They’d already been extinct for millions of years and nobody had much missed them, so when they faded from public view, they weren’t mourned.  In time, the only place you’d find trilobite on an ingredient list was on the label of a cat food can.  Ironically, most tittie breeders mixed trilobite-laced wet food in with the raw meat they served their cubs so they’d get extra B12.

Tigers were the new trilobites. 


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