Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (10 page)

Imelda shrugged.  “Okay, but we’ll have to go to my workstation.”  She pushed the other button that told Caldwell she was leaving.  They followed as she led the way.    

Sitting down at her station, Imelda glanced at Post suspiciously.  “This is spying, you know,” she told him.   Post’s expression became unhappier.

“I brought him along in order to interpret any technical jargon you might use,” said Fish.  Imelda raised her eyebrows.    “To verify that what you’re telling me is true.”

Imelda shrugged, and turned on the monitor, accessing her files.  She removed the unidirectional bias from it, allowing them to read with her.  She covertly turned the screen around so it couldn’t be seen by the shiny black dot on the ceiling she had noticed months earlier.

Fish leaned forward, his eyes squinting.  Post read silently, grunting occasionally.  He glanced toward her with eyebrows raised several times as he read some of her notes to herself.  It was not long before Post reached forward to flick the monitor off.

“Sorry, Imelda,” he said.  She turned her eyes away from him, avoiding his gaze, and noticed with a start that Igor had followed them.  He was sitting in the doorway licking his paw.

“Hold still,” she commanded.

“What?”  Fish turned around to see Igor and inhaled. “What on earth is that?”  Everyone seemed to have the same reaction to Igor.

“Giant Manx.  He’s attack trained,” she said.  She walked over to pick him up, grunting as she did so.  She sat back down and Igor immediately went to sleep in her lap.

“You keep a dangerous animal in your apartment...?” began Fish.  Post stood smiling.

“Hardly.  I just didn’t want you guys to scare him.  Last time he ran away I found him in a laundry chute. He thought it was a nice hole to hide in and almost went through a wash cycle.”  She scratched Igor’s head absently.

Fish didn’t look convinced.  Post hid his grin.                                            

Fish raised his voice irately.  “So, when are you going to file your request?” he asked.

Imelda turned to her workstation.  With a quick clattering of keys she pulled up the request she had long ago composed and directed it to be sent to
Caldwell’s office.  “Anything else you want, boys?”

“Yes.  I want you to slow down your drinking and smoking.  Your apartment looks more like a sleazy bar than a place to live.”

“And destroy my research environment?”

Fish glared at her in unmistakable furor.

“Okay, mom.  I’ll try.”  Imelda’s voice was unrepentant.  Fish spun and stamped away.

Post remained uncertainly.  Imelda noticed that the hate had faded.  This was not good.  “Why haven’t you been coming here?” He asked.

Imelda examined him closely.  His eyes were kind, curious.  There was a sensitivity there, bordering on affection, contrasting strikingly with the total disgust that she preferred.  Instead of her usual panic reaction, she felt immensely comfortable with him, feeling herself drawn, wanting to...  No!  Very, very bad!

“Butt out, Post,” she muttered hurriedly, and rose to go back to her apartment.

His hand stopped her.  “Why, Imelda?”  His touch startled her.  He had never touched her before.  She stiffened.

“My report is done.  My groundbase request is low priority.  No point in sitting at a workstation when I have nothing to do.”  Her voice was gruff.

Post’s expression changed subtly.  “Except see Caldwell?” he asked, his hand falling away.  Not answering, she left hurriedly, resolving to get drunk again as soon as the pill wore off.

#

Caldwell was solemn as he sat in the single chair in her office.  “You know how it is.  The company suffered major setbacks on the Sciffel project.  They are afraid of losing money on this one, too.  They want to cut our budget back by fifteen percent and limit duration to eight months.”

Imelda shook her head.  “Didn’t anyone explain to them that it will cost two thirds of the fifteen percent they might save just to ship the equipment back?  Or that the personnel have already been promised a year’s salary?  May as well use them until their contracts are up.”

Caldwell leaned back, his bony shoulders slouched in the chair, his hands in fists.

“That is my job, I’m afraid.  My department is the largest and most expensive.  Jinks wants me to meet with him back at headquarters to defend our expense vouchers.  I will be gone for two months, minimum.  I don’t have anyone here that I can trust to keep the project on an even keel.”

“What about Kreiss?  I thought he was second tenure under you?”

“Kreiss cares more about his beloved sessiles than he does about anything administrative.  He leaves administration entirely up to Trefarbe.  You wouldn’t believe what I found when I got back....”  He closed his eyes, shaking his head.  “The rest of the project would rot while he categorized colonies.  No, I need someone with experience.”

Imelda looked at him guardedly.  She could feel it coming.

“I want you to take over while I’m gone, Imelda.”    

“No!  Absolutely not!  Trefarbe hates me!  She’d rather see Biotech go bankrupt than watch me run a successful project!”

“Imelda, I don’t have anyone else that I can trust.  You’re more than capable of running a project.  I read your study plan.  You are the only one who seems able to understand how to coordinate work with other departments.”

“By writing a project plan that has me sitting on my duff?”

“Sitting on your duff with the Scuzzhogs is exactly what you should be doing at this point.  I have several options regarding where I can put you until it’s time to look at the Scuzzhogs again.  I could put you on the Materland group working on the mammaloids with Camille.  She’s young and would benefit from your experience.”

“Are you kidding?  She’d quit!  They’d have me euthanized!”

“I could assign you to drive another team’s mobile unit.”

She frowned.  “Ugh.  I could do it.  I’d just stay drunk most of the time until I needed a brain again.”

He frowned.  “I’m not wasting your talents like that.  You’re worth much more to Biotech looking at the raw data, helping the less experienced scientists interpret it.”

“Dr. Caldwell, in case you haven’t noticed, most of the scientists here would like to see me deep fried.”

“One week of working with you and they’ll change their minds.”

“No!”

“You are in charge of monitoring the progress of the research project while I am gone.  I will instruct Calliope to route all information through this office, and to instruct the computer to accept your recommendations as it would my own.  You will have level four security…you’re more than qualified for it according to CHA.  Kreiss won’t disagree, he will be relieved, believe me.   I will make an official announcement today before I leave.”

“No way!”

“You will get a salary increase to compensate for the extra work.  Your title will be ‘Project Consultant’.  I insist, Imelda.”

“Wait a minute, you arrogant idiot!  This isn’t legal!  I don’t have to accept a promotion! Project Consultant?  Get real.  Titles are for egoists.  They don’t mean crap.  I don’t know what I make now, so you can stuff the salary nonsense.  I can relapse on my drug habit if I need cash.  If I move up to a supervisory position I can’t do my own project.  I’ll be forced to nursemaid brain-dead cub researchers into thinking about something besides video games!”

She jerked her head angrily.  “Look.  If you want me to keep an eye on the project, then okay, I’ll do it.  But no announcements. I don’t have a managerial contract, and it isn’t ethical for me to have open access to other researcher’s raw data unless I agree to manager rules.  So, I agree. Right now.  Whatever I see, whatever they show me isn’t mine unless it directly pertains to my own project with the scuzzhogs.  If attributing credit is at all questionable, you make the call when you get back.  Nobody knows about this except Kreiss.  I review while I’m in my office and sign the notes with Kreiss’s name.  These jerks will have heart failure if they find out I’m looking at their stuff.  They’d never believe it if we told them I was ethical.  Deal?”

Caldwell eyed her hesitantly, and then sighed in surrender.  “Deal. With one exception.  You have a managerial contract already.  Groundbase clearance can only be completed by someone with managerial status.”  

She stared at him.  “Oh.  I didn’t read that part.”  This wasn’t a complete lie.  The truth was that she hadn’t read any of it.  She hated reading contracts.

“I will complete the authorization process right now.  As project manager the staff will have a dotted line reporting relationship to you.  They have already been told to cooperate with you, so technically I am not required to announce this change if this is how you want it.” 

“This is how I want it.”

He smiled ruefully.   “Thank you.  You don’t know how much I appreciate your help.  Biotech wants to can us.  We must maintain high output and I can’t be in two places at once.  Just be sure that the researchers file their reports promptly and flood the databanks with descriptions of new biological systems.”

Imelda frowned.  “Sure.  You’ll owe me on this one though.  I was beginning to enjoy a life of total dissolution.”

“No you weren’t.  I can tell when someone is dying inside.  You hate being idle.”

“If I’m going to be doing your job plus mine while you’re gone, that certainly won’t be a problem anymore.”

He laughed.

She didn’t.

Chapter Six
Gag is in the eye of the beholder

“I don’t hate men.”

“You hate men, Imelda.  You hate them because you have never gotten over the rejection you felt when your boyfriend abandoned you.”

“I rejected him.”

“Imelda, you must face the truth.  You subconsciously put up barriers between yourself and others because of your fear of becoming emotionally attached again.  You can be a very attractive, even charming person if you want to be.  But as soon as you sense friendship, you deliberately antagonize.  You reject before you can be rejected yourself. You did not leave your boyfriend.  He left you.”

“So you were there?”

“I didn’t have to be.  Your actions speak for themselves.  I have rarely seen this degree of panic in interpersonal relationships.  My hope is that if you can understand the reasons behind your feelings, then we can work together to help you learn to relate with others again.”

Imelda shrugged.  Fish must have monitored her and noticed some of her physiologic responses to Post.  He was obviously trying to reduce her anxiety.   “Nice theory, Fish.  Too bad it’s wrong.  I’m just a misanthrope.  I treat everybody the same, men and women.  Ask my friends, they’ll tell you.”

“Imelda, you have no friends.”

Imelda drew herself up insultedly.  “That’s a nice thing for a psychiatrist to tell a patient.”

Fish shut his eyes in frustration.  His chair groaned and squeaked softly as he leaned forward over his desk and put his hands over his eyes.  Imelda could swear that she could smell perfume, but decided that there must be a flower plant hidden somewhere around.  Most people avoided wearing chemical contaminants like that anymore.

Fish leaned back and the scent grew fainter.  His hair had been neatly combed when she arrived but it was now disheveled from their conversation.  It looked a little thinner too.  “If you feel my theory is incorrect, then perhaps you can explain to me why you enjoy antagonizing people.”

“I’m a sadist.”

Fish’s frown deepened.  “You only hurt yourself, Imelda.”

“I’m a masochist, too.”

“You hate men, Imelda, and you’re jealous of other women who relate well with men.  Admit it, and you can begin to deal with it.”

Imelda was bored.  She had been through this conversation before with other therapists.  Fish was not being very original in his tactics.  She sighed.  “Page 107, right?”

“Pardon?”

“Pfeiffer’s Philosophy of Psychotherapy, Book five. Subject must realize the basis of his or her maladjusted behavior in order to make subject more amenable to therapy. I don’t hate men, Fish.  Except maybe you.  I do hate stupidity.  I enjoy antagonizing people.  They then become a challenge to manipulate.  Friends are too easy to manipulate.  I prefer a challenge.”

Fish sat unperturbed.  “So you enjoy it when people avoid you because of your unpleasantness?”

“Sure.”

“You like being alone?  With no sex life?”

“Betelgeuse, no.”

Fish paused.  “Then perhaps you can tell me why you have virtually assured that you will have no sex life?”

“I don’t want a sex life.”

“But...?  You drive away anyone who shows an interest in you.  You do your best to make yourself unattractive. Yet you say you don’t LIKE being alone, you just WANT to be alone?”

“Let me fill you in, Fish.  I’m choosy, very choosy in my choice of companionship.  A lot of men will hop in the sack with anything that looks even vaguely agreeable.  Some guys seem more interested in quantity than quality of encounter.  Some don’t even require that the partner be either human or alive.  I don’t need those kinds of relationships.  

“I’m not one of those women who play the male game.  I haven’t been taken in by all the ads, the popular myths that say that a woman must plaster herself with powder and body augmentation and madly pursue her chosen mate.  Contrary to popular belief, that’s what men do.

“For a woman, attracting a man is easy. The hard part is saying no.  Why dress yourself up in mating feathers when all they need is an unharsh look?  You belittle me for showing discretion, respect for myself?  I only look lonely, Fish.  I’m not, really.”

“So you’re not depressed, then?  Why the booze if you’re not depressed?”

“Listen to my words, Fish.  I said I’m not lonely.  I didn’t say anything about depression.  I’m always depressed.  It’s a condition of life for me.  I almost enjoy it; it gives me a reason to feel sorry for myself, a source of creative energy.”

Fish was getting upset, she could tell.  But his eyes weren’t round enough.  “I like having friends, Fish, but I don’t want a lover. Men aren’t good at just being friends with me.  Even when they really do want to ‘just be friends,’ their girlfriends get jealous. Girlfriends get jealous of me when I don’t even know their boyfriends.  It’s easier just to keep to myself.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Imelda.  Why should women be jealous of you?  You are using this as an excuse to avoid facing your own inadequacies in social interaction.”

Imelda shook her head.  “If I were to ask you for a date, would you go?”

Fish paused, his face flushed.  “Well, uh...”

“Of course you would, even though your ethics say not to go out with patients.  Even you aren’t immune to the lure of a night of debauchery, Fish.  I gave up all of that for my work.  Biotech is paying me to work here, not look for dates. They might get angry if you successfully cured me, you know.”

Fish’s face reddened further.  “You are mistaken, Imelda.  You don’t understand.  Biotech is interested in your happiness.  A happy biologist is a productive biologist.”

“What about my production in the past?”

Fish hesitated.  “Erratic, but overall, you have shown superior performance.  It’s your personality....”

“Is it a sin to be obnoxious?”

“If you are interested in advancement, it most certainly....”

“I’m not.  So lay off.  I’m offensive, pure and simple.  It is a talent of mine.  I do my work.  Period.  When I quit doing my work, you can tell Biotech to fire me.”

“Dr. Imelda, you have a very poor attitude.”

“I have a good attitude.  You are hypercritical.”

Fish flushed again, his eyes bulging.  “What about your drinking and smoking?  You are damaging your health!  You have absolutely no good habits and you’re going to be expensive for us to maintain medically as you deteriorate.  Biotech certainly has a right to be concerned about that!”

Imelda shrugged.  “Preexisting conditions, Fish.  I signed a form.  I pay.  You claim I’m suicidal, self-destructive.  I’m too chicken to slash my wrists, so I chose slow suicide instead.  Consider it a form of natural selection.  People with inferior coping mechanisms die young.  Right?”

“Doctor Imelda, have you no self
-control?”

Imelda shrugged.  “All that I care to have,” she answered.

She waited for him to argue further, but he merely opened and shut his mouth a few times with only the faintest of gasps.  Not quite the strength of reaction she strove for in him, but he was getting used to her, after all.  She resolved to try harder next time.

#

Imelda sat at her station flipping through files.  Camille had been given one of the first units, a decision which had met no opposition.  Post and Kellogg were to assist her in trapping mammaloids before they went on to look at other flora and fauna.

Post had been glued to his workstation ever since their unit had touched ground.

“Look at that!  Here we have encountered thousands of individuals that only resemble two or three other individuals, and now we find two huge herds of almost identical animals grazing on the same plain.  Their skeletal structures are the same in proportion, internally they appear to be the same, but one herd is exactly 30 centimeters tall and the other is almost two meters tall.”

Imelda glanced at him, her curiosity piqued.  Something like this would have to be based upon social structure.  It was hard to imagine a species segregating itself based solely upon size.  Either the males and females lived in separate herds, or juvenile forms banded together.  Post must be exaggerating.  There had to be some variation in height.

“They aren’t uniform in weight, though.”  Camille was scanning the visuals closely, taking careful measurements.  “The older ones are fat and the young ones are skinny.  You’re right; they are all exactly the same height with the same skeletal structure.  Weird.”

Imelda couldn’t resist butting in.  “How do you know that it is the young ones that are skinny?  Maybe the fat ones are the young ones.”

Post glanced at her, surprised to hear her speak.  She usually kept silent unless directly spoken to.  “It’s a little premature to be linking age or any other parameter to bodyweight for this species.  We haven’t captured any yet for biopsy or metabolic studies.  Just going by the visuals, the fur on the fatter ones in both herds looks faded, probably as a result of sun damage.  See that big one there, in the small herd...”  He pointed at an extremely obese member of the group sullenly plodding along behind the rest as they grazed.  “It’s covered with scars.  Half his fur is missing and his ear is torn.  If he’s not old, then he’s a badly deformed juvenile.”               

“Or he’s so fat that he keeps falling down and hurting himself,” she said, leaving her workstation to get a closer look at Post’s screen.  She stopped just shy of arm’s reach.  Her curiosity has almost made her forget whom she was talking to.  “Advanced age is not a bad guess.  Look at his food
-gathering.  Very slow, inaccurate reach.  Can you get a close shot of his eyes?”

Post’s forehead furrowed but he nodded, working the controls.  After a brief minute, the camera zoomed in for a close-up.

“Cataracts.  I thought he was acting a bit odd.  The creatures must have a fairly structured society in order to maintain a cripple like that.”

Camille and Kellogg sat bolt upright at her words, staring at the visual of the creature’s eye.

“Senile cataracts!  Good god, Imelda! You walk up behind and casually show us senile cataracts in one of our own subjects!  This is a major find!  We’ve got our first paper, boys!  She’s right; this is evidence for a supportive social structure!  Log it fast!  Right now!” Camille was fairly hopping in her excitement.  The three researchers were adolescent in their jubilation. 

Suddenly Post paused, staring at Imelda.  “But, what about CHA guidelines regarding intelligence?  Will we have to halt groundbase while you...?”

Imelda shook her head, scanning the preliminary anatomical reports.  “Miniscule cranium.  No secondary brain.  They have only a rudimentary society at best. Ants do better.”  She returned to her work hastily.   Not her study, she reminded herself.   Let Camille handle it.  She had inadvertently gotten a little too close to Post.   What the devil was it about him that did this to her?  Zombie brain, initiate now!   Kill the heart rate!   She focused determinedly on her workstation’s screens.

The official log confirmed that they were the first to document cataracts and they pounded each other on the back. “I can get three papers out of this at least!” Camille crowed.  “Social structure, ocular physiology, and aging, just for beginners!  Even if the roly poly little twerp only got too much dust in his eye, we’re in the green now!”

Imelda forcibly ignored them, watching her visual.  It was a mountaintop view of a distant mudbog, flat against the horizon.  Numerous animals grazed about the bog, occasionally stopping to drink from the narrow rim of water that eddied at its foot.  A small feeder stream wound down the mountain behind, its waters disappearing into the sludge.

This bog was not brown but green, completely overgrown with plant life by the looks of it.  What plant life, she was not nearly close enough to see.  So far, this was the only groundbase visual that she had received of a mudbog.

Imelda grunted in frustration.  The visual was not particularly helpful.  A scuzzhog had not been sighted, but a heat emitting body beneath the mud glowed softly on the infrared scanner.

She sighed.  She did not fully trust
Caldwell.  Caldwell had known of her reputation among the other biologists as being a greedy climber, using the news media to advance her career, stealing ideas from coworkers and calling them her own.  One sure way to kill a study of the scuzzhogs was to assign them to her.    Caldwell would not outright sabotage her, of course.  He was too much the scientist for that.  Slow her down, yes.  The extra workload was no doubt designed for that purpose.

All of this made sense only if he were afraid of what her work would show.  Her study had to be completed to satisfy CHA requirements.  Most likely, he simply wanted the other groups to have a chance to grab tissue specimens before she went in for a real look.  He had seen the herds and cranial sizes.  He must suspect that the scuzzhogs might be intelligent.  Certainly, the bog structures did not look natural.  They were too uniformly circular and too often associated with water sources to be routine geological formations.  Geology’s report was not particularly helpful, only stating that they MIGHT be the result of meteor showers.  They needed groundbase exploration to confirm this, of course.

This planet had been evolving for a long time.  If there were very many species with highly developed social orders, then it was quite possible that one of them may have crossed that fine evolutionary line into intelligence.  When that species was found, groundbase operations would be aborted until CHA had completed another analysis, which had been known to take centuries.

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