“Come One, Come All – To the Greatest Zoo in the Galaxy!!!”
The flyer was bold and red. It stood out from the mix of spam mail on Arthur Cawley’s carpet. Arthur paused whilst he read it. His son peeped out from behind a door. Arthur pretended not to see him and turned towards the door, looking back towards the mail littering the floor. He watched in the glass window as his son, Michael, got closer and closer, then with a mighty roar, he grabbed his laughing son and picked him up. “Got ya!” He cried. His son kicked and screamed, laughing his head off. Arthur couldn’t help but love him. Being a father hadn’t been planned, and Arthur liked to plan everything.
His wife however had other ideas. One day she had simply informed him that he was going to be a father and that she had stopped taking birth control pills. Arthur was pretty easygoing and took the news well. In the few years he had come to know his son, he had become very fond of him.
Jasmine Cawley came into the corridor. Her mousy features twisted in a tight scowl. “Do you two have to make such a damn racket? She asked, bitterness in her voice. She had always preferred quiet, but with a child in the house, she didn’t get nearly as much as she wanted.
Arthur smiled sheepishly. Their son was trying not to laugh, a fact he was well aware of. “I’m sorry darling. Hey, listen, I was wondering if you wanted a day out. Like old times. We don’t spend much time together anymore.”
“Well it would be nice to do something as a family.” She snapped. “You’re always working.” It was sadly very true…
It wasn’t really fair though. She hadn’t had a job in a long time, and he was doing everything he could to support them. But Arthur didn’t mind. He finally had a family. He liked the cute way his wife’s face scrunched up when she was annoyed, and he annoyed her often, just so he could enjoy her irritation.
Arthur held up the flyer. “Michael, look. Do you want to go here? They have wild animals from all over the universe.”
“Is it fun?”
“Yes, there are lots of wonderful animals and plants there. People have brought them from many different planets.” Arthur beamed.
Michael’s eyes widened. He had never even been off-world. “Will there be insects there?”
“I don’t know if they still have it but they had the most beautiful butterfly sanctuary. They used to use it to house one or two of the endangered species as well, just to conserve space I think. It’s very beautiful. Maybe it’s still there…”
“When can we go dad?”
“We can get a shuttle this weekend, if that’s alright with your mother.”
Michael looked at her so hopefully, how could she say no? Jasmine sighed.
It was in the butterfly sanctuary that the Charrawuk lived, in a large forested enclosure, rich with plants from the moon she had once lived on. The floor was covered in a thick dark red mud, and covered in a faux coral texture in the parts which were dry to emulate the land she was used to.
Wolf made his way into the enclosure. He was incredibly cautious. He knew well the dangers of a wounded animal, but he had smelled the blood coming from the enclosure, and he needed to investigate. It was, after all, his job to make sure the animals were healthy in this part of the Zoo.
Everyone called him Wolf because he had such a keen sense of smell, and because in general he was pretty solitary. The other keepers joked about him in this way a lot and it annoyed him, not because he cared that he was a loner, but because he knew that wolves were pack animals. He didn’t look much like a wolf. He was clean shaven and bookish and had his thick glasses on as his vision was deteriorating.
Everything was calm in the sanctuary. Wolf knew this silence. It was the silence of the hunt, when nature itself knew he was being watched. He wiped the misting off his thick spectacles and sat in the mud on the floor of the enclosure. The smell of blood still in his nostrils, he called out. “Gambit! I know you are watching me darling. Come out!” Not even a sound. “Don’t make me come in there after you! I want to go have my lunch.”
Wolf knew better than to bring food into the enclosure with him. Most animals when frightened will take food from a person if desperate, but it never helped their relationship. He heard the deep panting behind him. Thick hot breath on his neck. He knew the power of the Charrawuk well. One swipe could take his head clean off. “Hello beautiful.” He said it loudly, slowly. Letting her know he knew she was there.
Wolf slowly turned around and faced Gambit, the last Charrawuk in the universe. Her moon had been destroyed by a small meteor three years ago, and she had no knowledge of the death of her species. Gambit had no discernible eyes, but he knew that she could recognise him somehow. Scientists couldn’t be bothered to work out how her species worked, with her being the last one, it seemed pretty pointless. The scientists at the Zoo were much more interested in species that they could make money out of for years to come, and Wolf knew a couple of them were secretly experimenting on some of the aliens. He had reported it, but past that, there was nothing he could do. He had to just let it go.
Wolf could see the blood stains around Gambit’s mouth. Green and thin, it smelled like human blood, almost, but slightly more so like vinegar. Wolf held up his hands and approached her cautiously. She pounced on him knocking him to the floor.
Wolf didn’t panic, he just began to tickle her tummy. She hissed at him and released him rolling over so he could rub her tummy more. The one thing he knew about the Charrawuk apart from her insatiable appetite for the Earth cuttlefish was that she loved having her tummy rubbed, tickled and scratched.
Wolf sat for a while with the Charrawuk, he reached out and took one of her large claws and placed it on his face. Just over his mouth. The claw dropped. He placed it back. He could feel the Charrawuk was confused. Slowly he took his hand and placed it over the Charrawuk’s mouth. She hissed at him. She opened her mouth and let him look inside. The inside was full of thin spine like teeth, and looked more like a cactus than any Earth species.
The Charrawuk was a carnivore, and an extremely dangerous animal. In the wild she would have torn into him. Gambit was used to the human species by now though. She looked so alien to him, but Wolf could tell she was intelligent. He saw the problem. In the roof of Gambit’s mouth was embedded a large shard of glass, smaller shards were there too, but they hadn’t cut so deep. Thin green blood dripped from the wound. Gambit hissed at him again.
Nervously, Wolf reached inside and began pulling out the smaller pieces of glass, bit by bit, he gently removed them, saving the big one for last. The alien knew he was trying to help and sat still, letting the strange looking man take the glass out. Wolf felt a burning anger inside him. There was no way glass could have gotten into the enclosure. It was another case of abuse, or simply incompetence on the part of whoever prepared her food. If he pulled out the big one first, she wouldn’t have known about the smaller shards until she fed again and she would have disappeared into the undergrowth. Finally he pulled out the big one. A blur of silent movement and Gambit had vanished into her miniature jungle. She was incredibly fast. Wolf was glad he wasn’t her prey.
He climbed out of the enclosure to be confronted by Ty Peel, one of the keepers. Ty was furious.
“You know how stupid you are Wolf? That thing could kill you.”
“She doesn’t want to kill me.”
“I don’t care. It is dangerous. That stupid thing bit one of the other keepers. He left before you came. You think you know it? Try going in there when it’s hungry.”
“She’s always hungry Ty. She was in pain.”
“Don’t do it again. I’ll report you if you do. Last thing we need down here is another idiot getting himself killed. Then we’ll never hear the end of it. I’ll have to look at your ugly stupid face on the news for weeks.”
Despite his anger, he was right. It had been a dangerous thing to do. Wolf sighed and zoned out as Ty ranted into the evening. You couldn’t please everyone. He wondered if their boss would be happy that he had helped the Charrawuk. Probably saved a bit of money on vet bills, and no one got hurt. What a day!
Arthur, Jasmine and Michael sat in the shuttle as it lifted off, punching through the atmosphere with a dull hissing sound. Michael had his face pressed against the window. He had never even flown in anything like it before, and it fascinated his young mind. He was an inquisitive child, always interested in learning about new things. Jasmine sat reading her novel, completely oblivious. She couldn’t stand technology and kept lots of old books because she liked the smell. The pages smelled dusty and old, and books weren’t printed anymore. They had been handed down in her family for many generations.
Arthur poked his son. “Hey, are you excited kiddo?”
Michael nodded. “How many aliens will be there?”
“Oh plenty. Last time I went I saw some really weird stuff. They even have some giraffes from Earth!”
“You mean they really exist?”
“They’re heavily endangered now, but yes.”
Michael couldn’t believe it. The giraffe was one of the weirdest things he had ever seen on his computer. He couldn’t believe that they could be real. Growing up on An asteroid colony, he had never seen one.
They landed at the Zoo’s space port and paid the entrance fee. The family day ticket was cheap and a small buzz of excitement ran down Arthur’s spine. He remembered his first time here, but so much had changed! It looked completely different. He wondered if there would still be puppet shows, and how many new aliens there would be. As humanity explored the stars, they kept finding life just about everywhere. It was exciting for him. The gates were big and bold and the family walked through them greeted by mascots dressed as amazing creatures from all over the universe.
Michael could barely contain his excitement and ran ahead of his family. Arthur laughed and joked with him and even Jasmine had lightened up. It felt like the beginning to a good day. The sky was a beautiful gold, lit up by the yellow sun, and they explored the Zoo. It was much too large to explore completely in one day, and at Michael’s insistence, they decided to visit the butterfly sanctuary before going to see if giraffes really existed.
There was a que outside and they waited for a while. One by one the families went inside, first one door would open then the next, to stop the butterflies escaping. A keeper stood there letting people in one by one. “Good Afternoon I haven’t seen you before! Welcome to the sanctuary. Arthur saw his name badge, it was dull and faded. Ty Peel. Keeper. He shook Ty’s hand and walked through the double doors.
The sanctuary was beautiful. They had to get through two doors to get inside, and there were butterflies and moths everywhere, all different colours, shimmering as they flew through the air. The lighting was beautiful and the ceiling was made from crystal glass. Michael had never seen anything like it. He stared up at the thousands of butterflies which danced above him.
The sanctuary was home to three rare types of alien, all from the same small moon that had been destroyed three years earlier. They were kept in separate cages due to their predator-prey relationships. The lowest on the food chain were the Tinks. Small insect-like aliens which were somewhat similar to the Earth pill bugs. They rolled up when people came near them. Small pink antennae wavered out of their protective shells as they squawked in alarm. They would never become used to people who came into their enclosure and picked them up and talked about them. Sometimes the keepers would go in just to roll them around, and they squeaked fearfully at them.
Tinks were slightly intelligent and they were wary of anything that came near them. Whilst away from people, they purred and clicked at each other. No one cared to figure out whether or not they had any form of complex language structure. Their homeworld had died and eventually, their species would too. They scavenged around hungrily for mushrooms in their enclosure. Fungi were the only Earth foodstuff that they could eat. Arthur watched them with interest. Jasmine couldn’t be bothered with them. She detested all kinds of insects and sat back warily watching the butterflies as they flew around her.
Suddenly there was a shout. A tourist had spotted a small child in one of the enclosures. Everyone ran to the edge and looked in. Arthur was aghast. It was Michael. He waved down to his son who waved back and beamed up, unaware of the potential danger he was in. Arthur motioned to his son to be quiet, putting his finger to his lips. Michael nodded and Arthur beckoned him to come to the edge of the enclosure. Everything in the air was silent. Michael began to feel afraid. He felt a hot breath on his neck, but was too afraid to look behind him. His father’s face was a mask of hopelessness, grey in the warm sunlight.
Arthur could see that there was a keeper in the enclosure now, slowly edging his way through the brush, holding some kind of gun, pointing it at the alien standing behind his son. It was Ty. The keeper brushed some sweat from his brow and levelled the gun at the alien’s back. A beam of light emitted from the weapon with a dull crack, tearing a hole in the Charrawuk’s chest. Michael screamed as he felt something wet hit him from behind and ran. Gambit bellowed in surprise and confusion, blood spraying out of her as she collapsed to the floor, life ebbing away.
Arthur was knocked to one side by a small bespeckled man who vaulted over the wall and into the enclosure. The man dropped to his knees when he saw the lifeless alien. He was too late. Looking up the man saw Ty and ran at him shouting, pulling the gun out of his hands and punching the keeper in his face and stomach repeatedly until the man fell on the ground. Arthur couldn’t figure out what was going on and climbed clumsily into the enclosure to look for his son.
The sanctuary felt hollow and dead to Arthur, it felt cold and uninviting. The butterflies, which had only minutes before seemed beautiful and tranquil no longer captivated him. He kept walking back to the enclosure and looking in. The body Of the alien had been covered in green plastic and keepers walked around it talking and taking pictures. Arthur shuddered and turned away. If he hadn’t brought his family there, this creature might still be alive. Eventually, his wife came and dragged him out, fed up with everything. On their way out, a reporter tried to flag them down. Arthur refused to comment.
A few hours later. Michael and his family sat in the shuttle on the way home. Arthur felt horrible. If he had only paid attention, this would never have happened. Jasmine resented him for it and took no responsibility, and Michael was silent and pale. He felt sick. Though they had given him a new shirt to wear, as his clothes had been covered in blood, his back still felt wet. He wished he had never gone to the Zoo. His eyes were dull.
Wolf cornered Ty outside the staff room. Ty hadn’t seemed at all bothered as he had laughed and joked about it around the table with the other keepers. He enjoyed the role of hero. Wolf’s anger rose up inside him. They had always hated the Charrawuk… He wondered how the kid had even got into the enclosure. Wolf pinned Ty against the wall. Ty was much bigger and stronger but Wolf was furious with him.
“You did that on purpose you little bastard!” Wolf snarled.
“You broke my nose.” Whispered Ty.
“You’re lucky I didn’t break your neck!” Wolf felt like hitting him again.
“I’ll have your job for this.” The keeper grinned.
Wolf lost his job, and Ty Peel got a promotion.
The news networks quickly picked up the story. They heard about the death of the Charrawuk and about the fact it was the last of its kind. Ty talked about how remorseful he was about having to try and save the kid from a terrifying and dangerous wounded alien. The horrible choice he had to make. The public hated him for it, especially when Wolf explained what had really happened. They ranted about it to each other and it was talked about all over social media, all over the hypernet, and on planets and colonies all across the galaxy.
A few years later, no one remembered Gambit the Charrawuk except for Wolf. The angry people spent their anger on other things they didn’t really care about, like politics and each other.