Tabby came traipsing into Thomas’ office, fifteen minutes after she was supposed to be at work (which wasn’t completely unexpected), holding aloft a glass jar containing some unknown substance. “Look at this!” she exclaimed, and set it on the desk in front of him.
“What is it?” Thomas asked, leaning forward and looking doubtfully at the jar.
“It’s a tissue sample from a carcass washed up on the beach near Pearl Haven!” Tabby explained. “The president of the Western Ponyland Cryptozoological Society sent it to me!”
“Um…” Thomas wasn’t entirely sure where she was going with this.
“He thinks that this is the big cryptozoology break we’ve been waiting for,” she continued. “I have to find out if it’s from an unidentified species.”
“Why did he send it to… you?” Thomas asked, trying not to sound too incredulous. As intriguing as he found her, he wouldn’t single her out for this sort of task. Surely there were other individuals more qualified, with access to better equipment. He didn’t know what kinds of tests she thought she would be able to run.
“Well,” said Tabby, taking a deep breath and launching into the explanation, “Whippersnapper used to have his girlfriend in the crime lab look at stuff like this, but she broke up with him, and he had to cobble some instruments of his own together, and then his mom had a garage sale and sold all his lab stuff, and it was this whole thing; but anyway, now I’m his closest link to science.”
“That is a sad state of affairs,” Thomas mused. It sounded like the Western Ponyland Cryptozoological Society was not quite as prestigious an organization as his own professional affiliations.
She gave him a baleful glance. “So I’m going to sequence the DNA for him,” she went on. “That will really boost my standing in the society, and maybe I’ll even get invited to join the editorial board.” She rubbed her hooves together in glee.
“Where are you going to get a gene sequencer?” Thomas asked the next obvious question. “It’s not something I keep around.”
“I was just going to see what Butch had in stock,” Tabby said matter-of-factly.
“Butch? The guy with the duck? Whatever for?” Thomas frowned, thinking back to the shifty fellow from the open house, who may or may not have spiked the lemonade.
“He sells old refurbished Atlantean tech,” Tabby explained. “Those Atlanteans were all about the genetics and stuff, you know.”
“I think the capabilities of the Atlanteans have been greatly exaggerated,” Thomas cautioned. Still, perhaps it was a suitable level of technology to satisfy the WPCS. “Is Butch qualified to calibrate scientific equipment?”
“Well, I went to school with his sister,” Tabby said, “so I think it’s fine.”
Thomas was sure that she was being aggravating on purpose. “I think I should come with you and verify the merchandise,” he volunteered. “We can go over lunch break.” It wasn’t exactly a date, but it was something.
“If you want,” Tabby said. “I’m just going to stick this in the break room fridge for now. Don’t touch it.”
“Great. Then maybe you can get to your job,” Thomas reminded her.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hoof.
Later, Tabby and Thomas arrived at Butch’s storefront, a dilapidated building on the edge of town. The proprietor was outside on a ladder, making adjustments to the signage. “Hey, what do you think of the new sign?” Butch called down to them, beginning his descent. The block letters read Butch’s Oddities Shoppe. There was a distinct color difference in the “pe” on the end.
“Looks good,” said Tabby, after giving it an appraising look.
“Liv said that ‘shop-pey’ would resonate more with the mares,” Butch continued, nodding his head as he surveyed his work. “And it looks like she was right. She’s clever like that.”
“Who’s Liv?” Tabby asked, trailing after Butch as he walked through the door. Thomas followed her, doubting the efficacy of this plan more and more as he saw the shelves piled high with indistinguishable refuse.
“She’s my girl, of course,” Butch said, looking incredulous that everyone didn’t know. “Down in Azucar. We’re gonna get hitched as soon as we can save up enough to move her here.” There was a wistful look on his face. “In the meantime, I send her all the money I can to help out her family.”
“Are you sure Liv isn’t a catfish?” Tabby asked.
“She’s a pony, same as you and me,” Butch said indignantly. “Oldest of ten kids, Dad long gone, Mom sick. Liv’s the primary breadwinner; needs all the help she can get.”
“Well, with a story like that, I guess she’s real,” Tabby said. Thomas refrained from commenting. This was her show.
“Anyway–” Butch looked at them pointedly– “what can I do for you folks today?”
“I am here,” Tabby declared grandly, “for a gene sequencer. What do you have?”
Butch whistled. “That’s high-caliber kind of salvage,” he said, shaking his head. “BUT–you might just be in luck. Hang on a second.” He disappeared behind a shabby curtain that separated the storefront from the back room, and returned a moment later carrying a tarnished metal box covered in an impressive array of dials and gears.
“Ooh,” said Tabby, eyes lighting up.
“Just got this bad boy fixed up,” Butch said proudly, setting it on the counter in front of him. “Real refurbished vintage Atlantean tech; sleek, ergonomic design; oricalcum reinforcement; just insert your sample and push this button–” he demonstrated, putting a strand of hair in a cavity on the front.
Beep boop beep! the machine chirped as colorful lights flashed. A rotating cylinder with stylized line drawings of different animals whirred by, and settled on the image of a pony.
“I’m pretty sure that’s just a foal’s toy inside a rusty metal box,” Thomas said, looking at the machine skeptically. Not that anyone seemed to care about his opinion.
“Just don’t push this one,” Butch continued, gesturing at a conspicuous red button on top. “Couldn’t figure out what it does.”
“Well, it looks pretty legit,” admitted Tabby, clearly impressed. “How much?”
“Well…” Butch looked at her speculatively. “Five hundred makes it yours.”
She looked skeptical. “The individual parts wouldn’t cost more than a hundred.”
“Hey! A guy’s gotta make a living somehow,” Butch defended himself. “How good are you at assembling Atlantean parts? And don’t forget, I’m saving up to support a family.”
“Oh, whatever. Fine. Ring me up.” Tabby handed over a credit card from her purse.
Butch ran the card through his reader, and there was an angry beep. “Well, I hate to break it to you,” he said, “but your card’s been declined.”
“What! That’s impossible. Try it again,” Tabby instructed. But the result was the same. “Oh… it’s probably maxed out from that last cargo container of My Little People from Roseland,” she sighed. “It cost a small fortune to deliver.”
“What are you going to do with a cargo container of My Little People?” Thomas asked. “Wait–no, I don’t really want to know,” he amended. An explanation would only lead to many more questions.
“You got another card?” asked Butch, shuffling impatiently.
Tabby bit her lip and eyed Thomas, clearly struggling with the idea of asking for help. Finally she came to a decision. “Do you have a card I could put it on? Please? I’ll pay you back.”
“That’s a month’s salary,” Thomas said incredulously. “I’m in the way of knowing.”
“You can deduct it from my wages. I don’t care,” Tabby insisted.
“Hmm, I don’t know…” Thomas hedged. As curious as he was about the outcome of this, it was a fair amount of money to spend on a whim.
“I mean, you could even write it off as a business expense, and then it basically doesn’t cost anything,” Tabby suggested.
“That’s not really how tax deductions work. But thanks for the tip,” Thomas said.
“Please? It’s for science,” she said with a beseeching look that he really could not find it in himself to ignore.
“Fine,” he sighed, handing Butch a card.
Butch whistled softly as he pushed buttons on the key pad. “Okay, here’s your receipt,” he announced, handing it to Thomas. “All sales final, sold as is, no guarantees; and due to liability, we are unable to assist with transporting merchandise,” he rattled off.
“Okay!” said Tabby, stepping aside and gesturing for Thomas to pick it up.
“Oh, so that’s what I’m here for,” said Thomas, wondering if he would ever see the money again.
Butch unlocked the shop door after returning from an errand at the post office. He tossed a receipt on a sloppy pile on his desk and leaned back in his chair.
“Hah hah, a sucker born every minute, as they say,” Butch chortled, remembering the amount he’d fleeced from the veterinarian. “The other guy wasn’t going to pay more than two hundred for that piece of junk.”
The bell over the door rang as someone entered. “Ah-hem, I’m sure you remember me,” said a dapperly-dressed human of modest stature. “I’m here for my equipment.”
Darn! Speak of the devil. “Wait, what? Who are you?” Butch looked at the man skeptically.
“Shane, Dr. Malcolm Shane,” the human said impatiently, checking a pocket watch dangling on a chain from his waistcoat. “I was here last month and made a down payment on a gene sequencer that you were refurbishing.”
Butch preferred not to lose the down payment, if he could finagle his way out of issuing a refund. It was amazing what you could get away with, with the right fast talking. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific,” he said coolly. “I handle a lot of merchandise.”
Shane sighed. “It was a gene sequencer, oricalcum reinforced, later-middle Tartulian era. I do have a lecture in forty-five minutes, if we could wrap this up quickly–”
“How do you spell your name?” Butch interupted, flipping halfheartedly through a dogeared notebook at hoof.
“Honestly! What kind of operation is this!” the human huffed. “It will be under Shane. S-H-A-N-E.”
After another minute of searching, Butch shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I can’t find your account. Do you have a receipt?”
“You didn’t give me one!” Shane said shrilly. “You said it would be no problem.”
“Well, then, I reckon that IS a bit of a problem,” Butch said sternly.
“I want my property!” Shane raised his voice, and in a spurt of unexpected violence, lunged across the counter and grabbed Butch around the neck.
“Dude, chill, chill!” Butch caved. He had not expected this to turn to violence… at least not so soon. “I sold it this morning. The… uh… hold period expired yesterday.”
“I paid you generously to hold it for me!” Shane thundered.
Butch disentangled himself from the angry man’s hold and took a step back. “Sorry, no refunds.”
“No refunds!” Shane spluttered. “I didn’t get any product! It’s your fault, not mine!”
“Just settle down, pardner,” Butch said, walking out from around the counter. “Maybe we can find something else for you. What about this one?” He gestured at a nearby artifact.
“Oricalcum reinforced? No?” Shane looked at it with disgust. “Then it’s just a piece of junk, only fit to collect dust on a collector’s shelf. I need the unit we agreed on. Who did you sell it to?”
“I have strict client confidentiality rules!” Butch protested. “But… it’s that girl from the vet clinic,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “What’s-her-name, you know… Tabby.”
“Not her!” Shane sighed heavily. “She’s always trespassing at my dig sites and destroying archeological evidence. The vet clinic, you say?”
“Yeah, over on Birch Street.” Butch relaxed as Shane turned to the door.
“I’m not done with you yet,” Shane warned, turning back to the pony, “but I have to get it off her hooves before she breaks it beyond repair.”
Might be a good opportunity to take some time off, get out of town, until this all blew over, Butch decided, locking up for the day.
Back at the clinic, Tabby and Thomas found themselves busy with appointments the rest of the afternoon, and there was not a spare moment to work with the gene sequencer until much later in the day.
“Sugarberry, you still have that box thing, don’t you?” Tabby asked, availing herself of an opportunity.
“Of course. I’m guarding it with my life, as you asked,” Sugarberry said, pulling out the rusty metal box from under her desk.
“I don’t understand how this is supposed to do anything useful,” Thomas said, joining Tabby.
The clinic door opened, and in walked a human, on the short side, with grayish hair, wearing spectacles.
“I’m afraid I must inform you that you are in possession of stolen goods,” the man stated solemnly. “That gene sequencer is mine.”
“Gahhh! Not my gene sequencer!” Tabby threw herself possessively over the box. “I bought it fair and square!” She glared daggers at the man.
“On someone else’s credit card, no less,” Thomas pointed out.
“There was a prior agreement,” the man said with deadly calm. “Butch wasn’t authorized to sell it to you. I’m afraid your transaction is void.”
“Do you have a receipt?” asked Tabby waspishly.
“What is it with you ponies!” Shane blustered.
“Then come back when you have some evidence,” Tabby snapped.
“It’s mine, and I’m leaving here with it, one way or another!” Shane stood his ground.
“Never!” Tabby declared.
Thomas, seeing a way to possibly recoup the money he had spent, broke-in: “Tabby, you only need it for one test. Why don’t you run your analysis, and afterwards, we can take it back to Butch and… sort things out.”
“I don’t trust her,” Shane fumed. “She’s a loose cannon!”
“I don’t trust him!” Tabby shrieked. “He’s a pompous buffoon!”
Thomas sighed. This sounded like another of Tabby’s long-standing feuds. “What exactly do you two have against each other?”
“She compromises the integrity of valuable anthro-hippological sites!” the human said shrilly.
“I’m only transcribing tomb inscriptions for the genealogical record,” Tabby said, affronted.
“Hah! As if ‘researchers’ like you have any idea what you’re doing!” Shane sneered. “Let me guess, you have your lineage traced back to the royal family of Atlantis!”
“Who doesn’t!” retorted Tabby. “At least the information is getting out in the open, unlike your research that stays buried in notes in your office, doing no one any good!”
“Okay–well–that aside…” Thomas said carefully. “Mr, uhh…”
“Doctor. Dr. Malcom Shane.”
“Dr. Shane, what if you operate the machine and run Tabby’s test?”
Shane glowered. “Fine, but she stays out of the way. Is there somewhere more private than the reception desk?”
Once the operation was relocated to a room in the back, Shane took the sample jar that Tabby reluctantly handed over and extracted some of the goop with a scalpel.
Tabby winced from her post on the other side of the room. “How do you do anything with all those random fingers wildly flailing about?”
“Quiet!” Shane snapped, placing the sample in the machine. His hand hovered over the red button.
“Wait!” Tabby exclaimed, leaping forward from her assigned position. “That’s the wrong button–”
“I would be a poor excuse for a scholar of Atlantis,” Shane said haughtily, “if I didn’t know how to operate a gene sequencer. You–” he said, gesturing angrily at Thomas, “–make sure she stays put.”
“But Butch said–!” Tabby protested. Thomas kept a light hold on her foreleg.
“Yes, well, I actually know what I’m doing,” Shane said snidely.
“It’s just, I’m pretty sure, that it’s the green button.”
“Do you want these test results or not?” Shane asked, glaring at her.
“Oh, just do it,” she huffed.
Shane pushed the red button.
At first, nothing happened. But after a few seconds, the machine started to hum. A beam of light emerged and focused on Shane.
A shockwave then erupted from the box, knocking both ponies to the ground, and the building shook. There was a blinding flash of light.
When Thomas’ vision cleared, he found Tabby draped over him in a disorganized heap, which was somewhat… distracting, but there were probably other matters of more critical importance to focus on right now. He helped her to her hooves.
The work bench had collapsed, and the floor was littered with metal chunks and gears, which was all that appeared to be left of the machine.
Rising from the pile was a figure–thank goodness, Shane hadn’t been killed–but something was wrong. This figure, though somewhat humanoid in form, was clearly not human. It had sleek, gray skin, finned appendages, an elongated head, and… spectacles perched behind a blowhole.
“I told you it was the green button!” Tabby shrieked, pushing disheveled hair out of her face.
“What have you done!” the creature thundered.
“Don’t pin this on me!” Tabby snapped. “What… what are you, anyway?” She looked at him curiously.
“Clearly, I’ve just had my DNA combined with a beluga whale’s,” Shane fretted, “as you can clearly tell from the distinctive rounded, oar-shaped fins that are slightly curled at the tips!”
“Does that mean the sample was just from a whale after all?” Tabby looked crestfallen. She certainly had her priorities.
Shane twisted around to view his newly-developed dorsal ridge, and shook his head in exasperation. “I really wasn’t planning on having my DNA merged with a cetacean. Most inconvenient.” He turned his attention to the twisted metal at his fins. “As for the machine–now it’s a worthless piece of junk! I never should have done this for you!”
“It’s your own fault! Why didn’t you listen to me!” Tabby stomped her hoof.
“Maybe because of your belief that Atlanteans made pets of absurd puffballs with clairvoyant abilities,” Shane snapped, “an idea which only an utter moron would adhere to!”
“You don’t know,” Tabby said sulkily.
“Would Butch be able to do something?” Thomas interjected. It was hard to believe he was suggesting that, but this situation had gone outside the realm of believability.
“Can you put an animal together from primordial elements? No? That’s what we’re talking about here,” Shane said, impatiently gesturing at the pile of parts. “Butch may have some skill working on an existing framework, but this is outside his scope.” He glared at Tabby. “Heaven only knows when a comparable find will come to light. And in the meantime I’m trapped in this… this… body! You will be hearing from my lawyers!” With great dignity, he strode to the door and let himself out.
“Well, now we’re in for a lawsuit, so there’s that to look forward to,” Thomas said, frowning.
“Oh, any case he makes will just get sent to the Bushwoolies’ Court and never go anywhere,” Tabby said nonchalantly.
“Is that an effective legal system?” Thomas looked at her incredulously.
“It saves the city a lot of money,” Tabby said. “Bushwoolies work for ice cream vouchers to the SSSS!”
“That sounds… reasonable.”
Tabby kneeled down and picked through the rubble. “Ooh, I could turn this into a necklace,” she said, lifting out a gear. “And this… I don’t know what this is, but I bet someone is looking for it.”
“Remember, you still have to pay me back,” Thomas reminded her. “Will this junk be going up for sale in your online store?”
“Yes, and I sense your skepticism, but ‘this junk’ is worth more than you think,” Tabby stated confidently, standing on her hooves.
“I’ll reserve judgment until I have my money back,” he said, but a smile belied the severity of the statement. They stood looking at each other, enjoying the shared moment.
It would be so easy to lean over and kiss her…
“Did I miss something?” Sugarberry bustled in the room. “The phone has been ringing off the hook, I felt the building shake, and a whale man just walked out… oh dear! This doesn’t look good,” she fretted, surveying the mess.
“Well, I suppose The Old Milk House Foundation will be out here to check for structural damage. They’re very good about that sort of thing,” Tabby observed.
“I don’t know how much more of these shenanigans they’ll put up with,” Thomas snapped, ill-tempered from having the moment interrupted.
To add insult to injury, a familiar purple stallion strolled into the room. “What’s going on here?” Toby asked, frowning.
“This is an employees-only area,” Thomas pointed out.
Toby gave him an exasperated look. “I’m here to take Tabby to dinner. Are you okay?” This he addressed to the pink unicorn.
“Oh, is that tonight?” she asked, sounding a bit dazed. “Uhh, yeah, sure… can I take care of clean-up tomorrow?” She looked at Thomas.
“Fine,” Thomas said shortly.
“Are you sure you don’t have a concussion? You seem a bit off-balance. Maybe we should go to the hospital.” Toby shot an accusatory glance at Thomas.
“No, that’s not necessary,” Tabby insisted.
“Well, we’ll see how you feel after dinner,” Toby begrudgingly agreed, ushering her out of the room.
But Tabby turned her head before going through the door and weakly addressed Thomas: “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Thomas nodded curtly, and then they were gone. He would have liked to be the one with her while she recovered her equilibrium. But, that was life.
Silently, he turned his attention to helping Sugarberry clean up the mess.