Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (2 page)

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The observatory had been chosen to hold this conference.   Imelda paused as she entered, drawing in her breath.  For once, the designers of this station had come up with a truly credible idea.

Two paraspace ships had been required to transport the main body of research personnel out to Iago IV and both had been booked to capacity.  Yet, even with that same mass of humanity gathered within the observatory, the room was not filled.

The floor curved visibly as it mirrored the contour of the external hull of the space station, and tall lush vegetation created a sense of forest hideaway.  Massive, faintly hissing air vents created a gentle breeze, which carried with it the heavenly aroma of ripening fruit.

Overpowering the entire scene was the huge, eerily silent image of Iago IV, shining through the dense glass of the observation dome.

The observation dome comprised one entire wall of the observatory, and centered in front of it was a tall podium.  Several people clustered behind the rostrum, and Imelda tried to make them out as she found a mossy seat at the very rear of the crowd.

With blaring fanfare, a giant screen erected itself next to the podium and announced the speaker:  Dr. Jinks 394, Vice President of Research, Sector 575788, Biotech, Inc.  Imelda steeled herself.  Company airbag speech, 27th replay.  Gahhhh!  Only bits and pieces of the lecture penetrated her growing fog. 

“... I hope all of you understand how important this undertaking is. Iago IV h
as a highly developed biosphere and is very advanced evolutionarily.  This is a rare opportunity for science, the investigation of complex life forms that have developed along completely independent lines from any known earth types.  You are all extremely fortunate ... “ blah blah blah.

This time she chose a missile launcher.  She had to
carefully select her firepower so as not to rupture the thin fabric housing the space station but yet completely annihilate the enemy.  Responsible for supervision of the supervisors of the worker bees, vice presidents talked a lot but never said anything.  They weren’t paid to.  They were paid to go to meetings and nod.  His head neatly vaporized in a quiet poof.   His body, freed from the restraints of a worthless mind, jerked happily in relief.  The crowd, grateful, carried her away to spend the rest of her life in complete privacy in a little tiny cell, free of any disgusting human social contact.

“...All of you are of course aware of how important it is that we not contaminate this biosphere.  I can’t emphasize this point enough.  We must not disrupt the uniqueness of this ecology by the introduction of even one insignificant earth form.  Biotech, Incorporated won the contract for this investigation because of our superior record for safety in previous research projects.  CHA, the Committee for Human Advancement, has strict regulations governing the exploration of evolutionarily advanced planets.  They will keep
a very close eye on the project and require us to provide regular reports.  One slip-up on the part of any of you could lose the entire contract for us, and all of us will be out looking for new jobs - quite possibly in maintenance.  I’m sure you appreciate my point.”

People were actually laughing!  Brown-nosers.

He introduced a couple of the people behind him.  One was an astrogeologist and the other was a planetary analyst.   With little prompting they launched into a prepared presentation.  Actually, they only launched a prepared presentation, a video glossy designed to awe and amuse.  Their participation was limited to pushing buttons and hoping nobody would ask them any questions. 

She had read much of this before.  Clear space, a planet old enough and located far enough from any asteroid belts that it had been relatively free of bombardment for thousands of years.  It was bathed in an earth-like level of radiation and had a stable atmosphere and crust.  Non-radioactive heavy metals, lots of
carbon and oxygen, liquid water - all the conditions necessary for the evolution of advanced life forms were here.  There weren’t many planets like this one.  Only an extremely stable planet evolved complex life.  She yawned mightily.  Evolution took an incredibly long time, just like this meeting.  Most planets never gave evolution a chance.  They didn’t want to evolve a Caldwell or a Jinks.

The glossy finally over, Jinks took the podium.  “After this meeting, I would like each division to meet separately so that each of you can meet your coworkers.”

She could stow away on the flight back with Jinks!  No one would miss her.  It would serve Caldwell right.   

As the chiefs were paraded to the front she didn’t see
Caldwell.  Instead, a tall, skinny, awkward-looking guy stood indecisively with the others.

“And this is Dr. Caldwell 102, who will head our biological research team.  The biological division is the largest and most important of this project.  Dr. Caldwell’s record was brilliant at
Vendost University where he corroborated data obtained on site with archival data.  He participated on numerous research groups during his early training and brings with him a great deal of experience.  We look forward to his...”

Well, damn.  She had been thinking of
Caldwell 201.  She had never met this guy before.  He looked like a bigger wimp than the other Caldwell, but not so greedy.  He had that lost little boy look of the brilliant researcher who couldn’t remember to take his shoes off at night.  Still, appearances could be deceiving.  From what Jinks had said, this guy was a big time operator.  He probably took the chiefdom just for the prestige of it, maybe bucking for a raise back at Vendost.

As the crowd dispersed to various meeting rooms, she felt encouraged.  She didn’t know one benighted soul in the entire project.  Blissful anonymity was hers.

She entered the conference room reluctantly.  It was crowded beyond capacity.  She found a spot to lean against the wall in the back of the room.   Caldwell cleared his throat nervously.

“Ah hrmmm.  Uh, I would like to ah, well uh, welcome you to the project.  As all of you know, our division will be charged with the most important portion of the project, that of categorizing the various life forms to be found here.  Um, when you read the handbook, you will find that we didn’t divide the project up along the uh, usual lines, uh, because of the, uh... well, I suppose the best way to explain it is to show you some pictures.”

He looked down uncertainly at the glowing buttons on his podium.  Just as one of the watching scientists started to get up to help him, his fingers flashed into motion, the lights dimmed, and the screen behind him came alive.

“There is a peculiar regionalization of species here, marine as well as land dwellers.  As is usually the case with land dwellers, each continent appears to have its own separate groups of species.  But unlike Earth, there seems to have been very little intermingling of continental groups almost from the inception of land life here.”

A series of videos was flashing on the screen behind him as he spoke.  A very professional presentation, Imelda decided.  Definitely not a bumbling fool.

“...When CHA received the first reports from the Scout ship that discovered this planet, they requested that the Scouts spend additional time in aerial surveys.  The reason this project came into being is that while aerial surveys suggested an evolutionarily advanced carbon-based biosphere, they were not useful in classifying even plants versus animals clearly.  There is hope that we may discover entirely new sets of biochemical pathways here!  A potential major new source of profit for our company...!”

Imelda squelched a growing desire to go back to her apartment.  Igor was surely getting panicky by now alone in a strange place.  He might have even trashed that horrid green couch.  She really didn’t need this lesson in basic biology.  So, Iagan beasties looked weird when you peeped at them through a telescope.  So what? The exobiologist’s maxim still held.  Tissue will tell.  All they needed was tissue.

Caldwell
looked around at the group.  “We will not be zoologists or botanists here.  We will not be entomologists or ichthyologists here.  We will all be biologists in the true sense of the word.”

A female voice interrupted him.  “That may be true for higher species, but what about the primordial types, microscopic and slightly larger?  You will keep the microbiology division separate?”

Caldwell stared at her for long moments.  “Um, cultures of the atmosphere have all remained negative.”

A buzz greeted that statement.  “All planets have microscopic life.  That’s how life begins.  You can’t maintain ecological balance without microscopic life.  What about...?”

Dr. Caldwell interrupted apologetically.  “I, um, make no conclusions.  I am merely giving you data.”  He paused a long minute, apparently collecting his thoughts.

A rather eager but confused looking young man on the first row interjected.  “But why no intermingling?  Are you saying there has been no tectonic drift of the continents?”

His chain of thought interrupted again, Caldwell stared at him for long seconds. “Um, it would appear so.  The geologists will be working on that question.” 

Another long pause followed.  Imelda decided that it wasn’t wise to interrupt Dr. Caldwell if one wanted to have a short conference.  He cleared his throat.

“Even more confusing, the preliminary marine surveys have also revealed a striking regionalization of species, to the extent that every set of observations look as though they could have come from different planets.  We won’t be able to verify these observations, of course, until we begin groundbase observation.  Only then, when we obtain tissue specimens and genetic assays, will we be able to get an idea of how completely each regional group is separated.”

A buzz of conversation followed. 
Caldwell was exaggerating the problem just for the sake of drama.  Maybe she could sneak out.  She wasn’t too far from the door.

“We, uh, can assume that life originally crawled ashore here.”  He pointed toward a large land mass labeled ‘Materland’.  “The, uh, life forms here appear most plentiful, with development of a number of unusual and advanced appearing species.”

He paused again, staring at a flyby video he was showing of an incredible herd of bizarre beasts, some with what looked like carapaces, others with feather-like coverings or scales, all grazing placidly on moving greenery.

Imelda’s feet hurt from standing.  If
Caldwell’s aim was to increase their enthusiasm, he could better have shown a video of the beasties in their mating dance.  It had always worked for ‘Geographic’.

“...I, um, plan to divide the field biologists into continental groups, which will be subdivided into teams, each assigned one geographic area to study.  Each individual biologist will then be assigned one or more phyla to investigate.

“Our division of the life forms here into phyla is of course based solely on appearance, and we expect alterations in the groupings as our work progresses.  I want to assure you that each researcher will receive full credit for individual contributions.”

Another pause followed, as he blinked his eyes at the controls in front of him.  “Um, and, I, uh, wish to remind you that Biotech, Inc. has assured me that, uh, anyone who is able to make any discoveries with commercial value back home will be richly rewarded.  Um, very richly rewarded.  I myself will not receive sole credit for any discovery, of course, but am required to share the credit with the researcher responsible.”

He looked at them uncertainly.  “My salary is fixed, in any case.  All the financial reward will be yours alone.  As a result, I, um, will expect all of you to share your findings with me openly, so that I can, uh, coordinate the research efficiently.  If any of you try to hide, uh, what you are working on, uh, and we end up duplicating our work as a result, uh, you will be penalized accordingly.”

The fellow was sweating.  Imelda felt sorry for the guy.  He obviously hated administrative work.  She listened with half an ear as he told the other biologists in the room what their assignments were. It wasn’t until he was finished that she realized that he had given her no assignment.  All of the Phyla listed had been assigned.  He seemed to be getting ready to dismiss them.  She looked around uncertainly.  She was in the right place, wasn’t she?  Had someone cancelled her contract and forgotten to tell her?  She hadn’t seen any talking white rabbits, but...well,
Caldwell was pretty close.

He was scratching his head, a disoriented look on his face.  A woman leaned forward and whispered to him. 
Caldwell’s head jerked up and he grinned weakly.

“I’m sorry, I almost forgot.”  He surveyed his audience.  “Um, as you know, this planet has been astronomically and geologically stable for a very long time, long enough for evolution to have evolved to a high order of complexity.  With a high order of complexity, we must consider the possibility that intelligence has evolved.”  He paused for effect, surveying the group’s reaction.  The audience rustled attentively. 

“Whenever we encounter such a promising situation, CHA rules state that groundbase operations can’t be initiated until we verify the absence of technology-capacity intelligence.”

He paused again, his eyes sweeping the room.  Imelda wondered if he had forgotten the rest of his speech.  “There, uh, is only one group of species identified thus far that might harbor a cranial cavity of sufficient size for the required intelligence.”  His hands were twiddling nervously with the controls.    

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