The team-building coordinator’s species evolved from some kind of free-swimming sea-slug, but I wouldn’t know that if it hadn’t told me.
Its body is supported by three arching legs covered in feather-like gills. A third appendage, more like the trunk of an elephant, protrudes from where the legs meet. When the door closes, this trunk vomits up a clutch of eyeballs embedded in a lacy froth of digestive tissue. The coordinator whistles.
“All right, everyone!” says the cheery chatbot in my ear. “It’s time for the icebreaker exercise. Please form groups with your closest evolutionary relatives.”
I scan the crowd dubiously. My colleagues scan me back with eyes and other, more cryptic organs. We’re all new to the Multiverse Council, and unused to talking to beings from other timelines. I suppose that’s exactly the problem this week of team-building is supposed to remedy.
The creature next to me is igloo-shaped and reddish, standing on a pair of round, spiny organs that might be mouth-parts, wheels, or domesticated pets. It doesn’t appear to be a deuterostome, let alone a mammal, so I nod politely and step aside, scanning the other twenty organisms in the room for fur or milk glands.
I don’t find any. Well, finding such a close relative as a mammal would be unlikely. There are only a dozen individuals in the room, unless that thing shaped like a bridge made of blue lemons is actually a colonial organism, in which case I’m severely outnumbered…
I take another look at the blue lemon bridge.
“Pardon me, gentlebeeing,” I say, approaching it, “but would you by any chance, be a chordate?”
“Why, yes I am!” There is no pause for translation. Our chatbots may not be able to handle much in the way of small-talk, but they have a damn good grasp of cladistics.
Little mouths open and close on the lemons closest to me. “Are you a chordate too? Your anatomy does indeed resemble some free-swimming aquatic larvae of my lineage. Why, you’ve turned the notochord into a rigid support structure—part of your skeleton! Fascinating!”
“Thank you. Have you seen anyone else in our clade?” I say, hoping for a vertebrate.
The lemon-bridge shuffles one of its ends around to point behind me. “That fellow might be. Look at those rigid limbs.”
Rigid indeed. The creature stands on three stout legs in segmented armor. From its spiny, pitted body rises an organ less like a head than the claw of a praying mantis, except that on the claw’s bulging elbow, a pair of eyes stare at me with damp hope.
“A vertebrate?” Says the claw-head, its voice a wheeze through three pairs of slats on its body. “Dare I say, a fish? Don’t say your lineage went the way of internal skeletons!”
“I’m afraid so,” I say, stepping to put the claw-headed placoderm between me and the lemon-bridge salp. “And it’s possible I’m not the only one.” I wave at another person. “Pardon me, sir, do you have a skeleton, too?”
The answer is a growling hiss. “Why, yes. Yes I do.”
It is the size of a Great Dane. Its long, graceful legs end in hooves, but upward of these hardened, elongated fingers, other digits curl, waiting for a tool to hold. The skin is covered in a cracked, waxy coating like lacquer, and its broad, neck-less head is twice the width of mine. Quills rattle from a tail like that of a porcupine. Nictitating membranes flick across eyes like mud-colored tangerines. When it opens its enormous mouth, light gleams off needle-teeth and a tongue like a ceramic pestle.
And yet, I feel as if I’ve found my long-lost brother. That must be the purpose of this exercise.
“Welcome,” the giant amphibian hisses. “Welcome, fellow tetrapod!”