Colin Denham finished his first coffee of the day as he sauntered into his office, chucked the empty cup at the bin beside his desk, watched it bounce off the rim onto the floor, and made a mental note to get a better bin. It was eight o'clock on a Monday morning, at the start of what was sure to be another long and exciting week – his fifth as head of department, a promotion which he had accepted with expressions of humble surprise in the wake of his predecessor's tragic accidental death by poison. So far and for the most part, it was going swimmingly. The workday wouldn't start for another hour and yet here he was, all alone, ready to press ahead with some personal projects: those pet schemes he preferred to keep out of sight of his underlings (or 'colleagues,' as he still deigned to call them to their faces).
He was prevented from getting straight down to work, however, by a soft and irregular sound, the source of which which he was unable to locate. At first he put it down to one of his experiments acting up; perhaps the thought-scanner hadn't been switched off properly, in which case who knew what it might have gotten up to unsupervised. But no, all was in its place. Eventually he tracked the noise down to a supply cupboard, which he flung open, though not before arming himself with a hack-o-matic, just in case.
This precaution turned out to be overkill. The noise, which in retrospect Colin recognised as sniffling, stopped as soon as he opened the door and came face-to-face with the culprit. Two big, shiny, red-rimmed eyes looked up at him, and they were the prettiest shade of green, and they were round with terror.
Colin hastily put away the hack-o-matic, and held out his hands towards the child in a gesture of comfort and reassurance. The boy wiped the tears and snot from his face, revealing a delicate and even beautiful set of features on the very brink of being transformed by puberty; for the time being, he was baby-faced and absolutely adorable. After some hesitation, the boy allowed himself to be hugged and comforted. His little body trembled as he mumbled something about having an appointment today at the medical department. Colin stroked his hair and told him it was nothing to be frightened of, that the doctors had his best interests at heart.
There were a lot of questions Colin wanted to ask: What's the appointment for? Why did you come here to hide, of all places? Do you like hiding? Do your parents know where you are? Do you like having your hair stroked like this? Do you know how pretty you are?
Instead he contented himself with: What's your name? and: Will you come back tomorrow to tell me how your appointment went?
On Tuesday morning, Colin was in his office by half past seven. He sat alone for twenty-five minutes, working and feeling a little ridiculous, before a timid footstep in the corridor alerted him to the boy's arrival. He greeted his visitor enthusiastically and invited him to sit on the desk itself, so that they would be a little closer together and able to speak a little softer in the early morning hush.
"So, how did your appointment go, buddy?"
"Not so good. They still don't know what's wrong with me."
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that."
The boy shrugged and squirmed; he clearly wanted to stay, but to talk about absolutely anything else. "What's this?" he asked at length, tapping his fingers on the notes spread out on the desk. His accent was precious, bordering on hilarious, even to another True Blue.
"Designs for a new bin," Colin told him, pointing out the sketches he'd been making. "Inanimate objects don't do it for me anymore. I need one with a little more... personality."
The boy brightened. "Like a pet!"
"Like a... I'm sorry?"
He kicked his legs at the opportunity to explain further. "A pet! You know, how Earthlings had animals that were sort of like their friends. Sometimes because they were useful, but sometimes just because they were nice to be around."
"Oh, awesome!" Colin cocked his head to one side, noting how the boy responded well to his exaggerated curiosity. "But why didn't they just have normal human friends, like we do now?"
"Well... maybe they couldn't get any other kids to want to be friends with them."
"Hmm. Do you ever wish you had a pet?"
"Oh, all the time."
Ah. That made a lot of sense. "Well, you never know – if I can make my new bin, then maybe one day you can make your pet, too." Hope lit up in those big sad eyes. "Hey, bro, by the way. How do you come to know so much about Earth?"
The boy clearly wasn't used to talking freely with adults, or perhaps with anyone, but he seemed to enjoy it, and started chattering about his long solo stints in the culture department. He was an extremely bright kid, that much was clear. More to the point, he was already accustomed to spend a lot of time alone, unsupervised, without his parents asking too many questions about where he went or what he got up to.
A few Saturdays later, they went out for ice cream. Nobody batted an eyelid – why would they? Colin offered to buy his young companion whatever flavours his heart desired, which meant three scoops of strawberry, because the flavours shouldn't mix, apparently. The kid had a few weird hang-ups like that, but they were more endearing than anything. So those fascists down in medical said there was something wrong with him, apparently; what did they know? He suited Colin just fine.
The look of excitement on his face as he sat down in front of this uniform mountain of ice cream, while beautiful to behold in its own right, indicated a child who was not used to being granted treats. Still, the good breeding was paying off; he ate with impeccable restraint, swallowing each modest spoonful before raising another to his pretty mouth. Colin would have happily watched this whole scene unfold in silence, but he would not have not brought the kid here without a plan for advancing his agenda.
"Hey," he began, folding his hands between them on the table. "I just wanted to say, I'm really glad we met, and I've really enjoyed getting to know you these past few weeks. And honestly, you're my best friend."
The boy turned pinker than his ice cream. He paused, and his eyes fluttered closed for a moment, so that he could squeak out his reply without risk of eye contact. "You're very kind to say so. I never – I've never had a best friend before, but – I feel the same way..."
"I've got a surprise for you," Colin continued, "something I've been working on in between my other projects. You gave me the idea when you came to visit me in my office that day, so really, all the credit goes to you. Or it will, when it's finished."
Those gorgeous eyes flew open again. "Ah! What is it, what is it?"
"I'll tell you when you've finished your ice cream."
All manners were temporarily forgotten, as the bowl immediately began to empty in a much quicker and messier style than before. This was more like it, Colin thought, trying not to stare too hard at the little red tongue as it emerged innocently to lick up the ice cream smeared around lips and chin.
When the bowl was empty, Colin reached into his pocket with a conspiratorial smile and held out the slime ball for inspection. "Do you like it?"
"I love it! What is it?"
"It's a pet!" (Here, a tiny gasp.) "Well, the beginnings of one. It's a bit small and not really alive yet, but I think that eventually, we could use this material to build an actual, living animal. One that could even double as a comfy chair."
Two delicate hands reached out to take the slime ball and cradle it tenderly. There were no actual tears this time, but the boy was clearly overwhelmed. "Thank you. Thank you – so much." His voice cracked and the words now rushed out in one breathless string of increasing pitch: "This is the nicest present anyone has ever given me, thank you so much, how can I ever repay you!"
"Haha, I'm sure I'll think of something. But in the meantime, you don't have to be so gentle with it; it's really tough! Stretch it out, play with it however you like." The boy started following this suggestion, and looked delighted with the results. While he was having fun trying to poke holes in the slime with his fingers, Colin leaned in over the table and added in a confidential tone, "And it's waterproof, so you should try playing with it in the shower, okay? Trust me. It feels amazing."
Colin was slouched behind his desk, glaring at an increasingly incomprehensible page of equations, distractedly lowering page after page of fruitless notes into the hungry mouth of the bin at his feet. The little beggar had turned out to be a far more rewarding project than he could have anticipated, and these days he often wondered how he ever lived without its quiet, obedient companionship; maybe there was something to this whole pet idea, after all. He'd neglected that particular endeavour over the past week, as he toyed with an idea for a feat of mechanical engineering and quantum physics on a much grander scale – something that would take many years to accomplish, if it could be accomplished at all, but which would change the very fabric of reality when complete. So far, though, the maths just wasn't coming together.
He jumped when he noticed the boy standing politely across from him. "Shareholders, dude! Don't you know how to knock?"
"I'm really sorry! I knocked five times, but you didn't hear me – nobody ever hears me."
"I'm not surprised, when you're always creeping around like that!" Colin let out a breathless laugh, then relaxed. "But it's great to see you. Hey, do you want another puzzle?" He flipped round the paper in front of him and held out a pencil. "See what you can make of these. I made them really tricky this time – bet you a packet of peanuts that you can't solve them all in fifteen minutes."
But the boy looked impatient as he laid his own notebook down on top of the paper. "I don't want a puzzle today, but thank you. I really wanted to talk to you about some – some ideas I have, which I've been working on by myself. I want to share them with you in the hopes you'll help me... put them into action." He seemed awkward, as usual, but assured nonetheless of his own ideas.
Colin raised an eyebrow. "All right, mate," he said, poking him in the chest with the pencil, "you solve this puzzle in fifteen minutes, then I'll take a look at your little scrapbook, how about that?"
The boy dropped his book with an impatient sigh, allowed the pencil to be pushed into his hand, and started scribbling solutions. Colin watched with growing excitement as the equations which had been troubling him all day steadily fell into place before his eyes, until the paper was all filled out, and his precious, unwitting evil genius shoved it back across the desk towards him.
Beaming, Colin pored over the equations himself, shaking his head in admiration as he marked each one with a tick. "Wonderful, just wonderful. I can't believe you did them all so fast. Of course, it seems obvious once you see it..!"
"So we can look at my ideas now."
"In a moment, in a moment – I have to copy these down, and then I have some very important calculations to make..."
The notebook hit the desk again, with a louder smack this time. When Colin snapped his face up, he found the boy looking right at him – not angry, but hurt and frustrated. "Please, Colin, will you let me show you what I've been working on? It's important to me. And you promised."
With a wordless nod of apology, Colin gestured for him to round the desk and present his notes where they could both see. As pages unfolded and diagrams were explained, it revealed itself to be a detailed proposal on how to use the slime – not just for implementing it as a living animal and comfy chair, but for upgrading it with new mood-altering abilities. Even preoccupied as he was by the revolutionary physics he'd been forced to set aside for the moment, Colin was impressed.
In amongst the meticulously labelled diagrams, he spotted a small but unmistakeable doodle of two figures, one tall and one small, both wearing lab coats. They were being embraced – or perhaps engulfed – by the slime creature, which was larger than both of them together. The two figures and even the slime creature were depicted with little hearts surrounding them. The boy quickly tried to turn the page, but Colin stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm and a fond smile. "Is this what you really want?" he asked softly.
David screwed up his eyes and nodded.
Colin stroked his hair, as he had that first day in the cupboard. "We're going to make this come true together," he promised. "We're going to follow your plans completely and make the first pet on Mars, and it's going to be amazing."
Before the boy could begin his usual tirade of thanks and apologies and self-deprecation, Colin cut across him, without ever changing his tone of voice or the affectionate placement of his hands. "And then," he murmured, "there's a much, much bigger project that I'm going to need your help with. And the world is never going to be the same again."