Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (23 page)

She glanced at the destination panel.  The Syned Hilton.  The corporation that owned the hotel had nothing in common with the ancient Earth original, but an irrational fascination with earth history had captured students over the past year and antique videos had become popular.  It was the fad to spend a night at the Hilton with primitive amenities.  Imelda could tolerate this mental aberration s
o long as the steaks weren’t real meat but properly manufactured.  Only slime ate muscle carved from higher species.  Shrimp were okay, though.  Shrimp had shrimpy brains.

The t
rack swooped down into a forest and the coolness enveloped her.  The sudden scent of leaves and musty shadiness that filtered through the vents reminded her of her childhood love for Earth’s wildlife.

She might have become a bioengineer if she hadn’t hated the wretched sameness of dealing with a limited number of earth species.  Earthculture was such a routine procedure for sterile planets that a bioengineer was hardly needed.  Just punch the keys that told you how much oxygen and water to add.

She could have majored in earthculture research and development maybe, but she would never have been allowed travel to Earth on an exploratory mission.  She was too many generations removed from the ecology there.  Death inside of two weeks was the average without treatment.   

As the coilcar switched to the local access lane and slowed to enter Hilton’s docking area, a message notice beeped on the coilcar’s communication panel.  Grimacing, she answered it.

“Imelda, this is Caldwell.  The board doesn’t want to wait.  We will meet you at the hotel.  Don’t take the scenic route in.”

A stream of curse words muttered their way under her breath.  “Don’t I get to unpack?” she growled to no one in particular.

#

Board members for a corporation don’t have to meet any requirements for competency, just prestige.  As she outlined the events on Iago she found herself becoming increasingly irate at the number of blank stares she was receiving.

“But you found no evidence that a contamination actually occurred?”

Imelda stared at the speaker.  He was the director of social services for a large city near the coast of
Aasha on Syned.  He seemed intelligent enough, just abysmally ignorant.

“What we are most concerned about is a viral or bacterial contamination.  Evidence of such an event may be subtle or cataclysmic.  We do not have any idea of the incubation period for such an infection because we do not yet have a good understanding of the local ecology of the area where the contamination occurred.”

“Why don’t you?  Your group has been there long enough.  The average time for completion of a project such as yours is six standard months.  You’ve been there much longer than that already.”

Imelda stared back at the woman.  She was chief executive officer for a large chain of electronic shopping malls.  She was better dressed than most cover models and spoke with perfect diction and a faintly arrogant air.  She clearly despised any evidence of a lack of efficiency.

“The average you mention includes the time it takes to culture a primitive planet coated with only three major organisms.  The complexity of Iago IV’s ecology approaches that of Earth.  It has taken us a lot longer than six months to catalog Earth’s ecology.  In fact, we’re still working on it.”

The woman sniffed, unimpressed.  “There is only so much that we NEED to know about the ecology on Iago IV.  If you had completed your project on schedule the accident would have never happened.”

Imelda frowned.  This was a mean bunch of people.  No mercy was to be expected.  Maybe a little threat would improve their willingness to empathize with the research spirit. 

“Regardless of your estimates of our previous efficiency, I am afraid that our need to know has now increased.  I don’t think the popular press will be too pleased if we abandon our project now after possibly wrecking Iago IV’s ecology.  I think some good public relations can be salvaged out of this for Biotech if we represent ourselves to the public as concerned and conscientious corporate citizens, rather than as superficial and overly cost
-conscious bureaucrats.”

She could hear
Caldwell swallow hard next to her.  A row of hardened faces glared at her.  It was going to be tough finding a new job after Biotech blackballed her.  She wondered if even maintenance would hire her.

The woman from the shopping mall chain stood up.  “Why would the popular press find this story interesting, Dr. Imelda?  Another of your publicity tricks, perhaps?  I think all of us here are aware of your past history.  We don’t like threats.”  The expressions around her were consistent with those of a mob getting ready to start lobbing stones.

Suddenly Imelda understood why Caldwell had insisted that she come with him.  All of these people thought she had an ‘in’ with the media.  Her very presence was viewed as a threat.  Idiots.  She hated the media.

“I am only pointing out that the contamination may not be completely controlled.  I recommend that we defer a decision here and allow CHA to advise us as to when to cease direct surveillance.  We will have less difficulty explaining our actions to the public and to our insurance adjuster if we allow CHA to set the rules.  Our nose is clean regardless of what happens.”

Another member of the board spoke up.  Imelda’s PC said that he sold some sort of personal orgy device.  Her old psychiatrist had once suggested that she buy one to help make up for her lack of intimate friends.

“You have already completed the usual procedures.  Why would CHA wish us to continue the surveillance?  How could they possibly hold us accountable for what happens if the procedures were ineffective?  We have done what they require, so they can’t find us legally liable.  Anyway, the Iagans can’t sue us; they aren’t human.  I don’t see why we should be concerned at all.”

The man had a point.  After all, social responsibility had long ago been abandoned as too difficult to enforce in corporations.  It was easier to adhere to statutory law.

She cleared her throat.  “Um, I suppose a lack of concern is justifiable.  In fact, I could get quite philosophical about it.  Why be concerned about what happens to other biospheres
at all, so long as humans aren’t involved?  After all, humans are the only species worthy of caring about, aren’t they?  We have discovered less than a hundred planets with biospheres as developed as that of Iago IV, but I realize that they are all expendable. We should probably nuke them anyway, just in case any of them might develop intelligent...”

Caldwell
stood up hastily and pushed her away from the microphone.  Imelda noted with surprise that he was trembling.  Of course, he cared more about his job than she did about hers.

“Um, uh, I, uh, apologize for Dr. Imelda’s, uh, zealous attitude, but I am afraid that I do agree with her, uh, that is, with her impression that it is premature to halt this phase of the project.  I, uh, realize that there are those of you whose grounding in, uh, exobiology is, uh, somewhat superficial, but those of us who have been closely involved in the project are concerned about gaps that remain in our information.  There is a large concern, um, worry, that we could do great harm by not filling in those gaps.”

The sweat was back, Imelda noted.  Gads, why had he ever taken this job?  She considered pushing HIM away from the microphone and having another go at the assembled personages.  At least SHE wouldn’t be particularly upset when they told her to file for unemployment.   

There was a low buzzing as the members of the board talked among themselves.  Imelda sat back in her chair, stretching out, her jaw set.  She had been pretty good with handicrafts back in kindergarten. She wondered if there was a market in woven baskets.

Finally, the chairperson of the board, who had heretofore been listening in silence, took the microphone.

“Thank you, all of you, for coming at such short notice.  I spoke with Dr. Caldwell at length prior to calling this meeting and felt it important to reach a rapid decision.  I have been impressed with both his and Dr. Imelda’s conviction regarding the project on Iago IV, but we are discussing a large financial outlay for Biotech.  Since the two of them are the most eloquent on their needs, I suggest that we send them to speak at the stockholders’ convention on Cogenta.  That m
eeting will be in several weeks and we can allow the project to continue its current operation until then.

“I have already contacted the local CHA representati
ves regarding the contamination and they are awaiting a response from their headquarters on Collata.  I suspect that they will wish to hear details on the accident themselves and I can think of no one better than Dr.’s Imelda and Caldwell to meet with them.  Any discussion?”

Imelda sat
up in her chair.  Why weren’t they firing her?  The chairperson must be joking about sending her to the stockholder’s convention!  The stockholders knew even less about biological research than did the board members!  Caldwell had promised that she could go back to Iago in a week or two!  Her eyes were blazing as she turned to face him.

He glanced at her warily as the board members voted. The vote was unanimous to send them to plead their case to the stockholders personally and similarly to meet with CHA.

Imelda sat mutely in astonishment while the shopping mall lady rose and praised Imelda’s presentation effusively to the applause of the other board members.  “Sorry,” he whispered to her as they filed out.  “They liked you, I’m afraid.”

Imelda went to her room to join Igor.  Igor stretched out beside her on the oddly uncomfortable bed as she turned on the single bulbous video monitor perched atop a hideous brown turntable attached to a wall.  The blasted place didn’t even have a food bin.  You had to g
o down to the restaurant to eat or ask an actual person to bring the food to you.  She was embarrassed and apologetic when a waiter arrived with her food on a tray.  She couldn’t believe that anyone would agree to serve someone else their food without being on drugs.

“Igor, people are strange.  We invent the word ‘logic’ and then choose to disregard it.  One of these days, you and I are going to earthculture our own planet and populate it with nothing but cats and things for cats
to eat.  Take my word for it, it will be a much saner place to live.”

Chapter 15
Uncovering the innocent

She paced restlessly, her ey
es inexorably drawn to the viewscreen.  It was really too bad that portholes weren’t practical.  It would be nice to be able to look directly outside without an intervening camera.

The station grew
incrementally larger, its appearance unchanged since she had left.  She shouldn’t have been surprised, of course, but somehow the sameness was reassuring.  She wasn’t sure exactly how much time had passed on the research station since her own time frame had been altered by the weeks spent in paraspace shuttling from one corporate meeting to another.  It had been months since she had left the station, and that was too long.

All of Biotech seemed convinced that she was
Caldwell’s lover.  Indeed, they did spend a great deal of time together.  But they spent the time poring over the irregular reports that managed to follow them from the project.  She had been expecting great revelations, especially from Post’s work on the borgettes, but disquietingly, none had been forthcoming.  In fact, there had been no reports from Post at all.  That was the reason that she insisted on returning, finally.  Caldwell was unable to convince her any longer that the reports were merely delayed or lost.

The biospheres that had been erected in orbit were apparently thriving.  The small borgettes could be maintained with continuous infusions via stomach tube of a glucose solution containing a liberal protein and fatty mix.  In fact, it appeared that the large borgette might have died because of a lack of glucose intake during its flight from the bog.  She hadn’t seen any further physiologic evidence to support that theory, though.

Pleister’s leg was healing well.  The nerves were growing back and he was able to walk and wiggle most of his toes again.  A few scraps of tissue from a worm had lodged at the wound edges and had required debridement.  No other contamination had been found.  He lounged in isolation still, held captive until it was felt safe to return him to his fellows.

Caldwell
flew on to yet another meeting with the board, to report on their latest meeting with the stockholders.   It looked as though the project might be allowed to remain on Iago IV indefinitely, so long as he kept flying back and forth between meetings.

When docking was complete, she entered the narrow corridor linking the ship to the station eagerly.  Her few belongings were being offloaded in cargo and her hand baggage consisted only of a wheeled carrier holding a recalcitrant and very heavy cat.

As she emerged from the corridor, she found Kreiss waiting for her with Trefarbe.

Kreiss looked positively haunted.  Trefarbe was smiling.  Imelda silently cursed.

“Dr. Imelda, it’s so good to have you back.  The captain told me that Dr. Caldwell couldn’t return?”

“He has been supping with lions.  They aren’t finished with him yet.  How are things here?”

Kreiss stared at her with the look of a drowning man who had sighted the shoreline.  “Uh, okay.  Everything is stable.  It looks like the decontamination procedure was successful.  All cultures remain negative.”

Imelda nodded.  Kreiss was not going to say more in front of Trefarbe.

“The Board approved another year.  If cultures remain negative, they will request permission from CHA to pull the team out at the end of the year.  For now, we’re go.”

“Good, good,” Kreiss looked at her expectantly as though to say more, yet words failed him.  His fingers flexed in need of a keyboard to communicate with.

“I need to make a general announcement,” Imelda included Trefarbe in her look.  “To brief the staff on the board decision.”

Trefarbe put on her most reassuring expression.  “Oh, I am sure that you needn’t bother with that.  I know that you will be much too busy with your work now that you are back. I’ll send out a memo for you.  It’s too bad that Dr. Caldwell couldn’t return with you.  It has been difficult for all of us in his absence, but we have managed, haven’t we, Dr. Kreiss?”

A look of persecution remained firmly clamped across Kreiss’s features.  He didn’t answer.

Imelda nodded.  “No need for the memo.  I brought a taped announcement with me from Dr. Caldwell. I’ll broadcast it as soon as I get unpacked.  CHA was... ah... receptive to his presentation.”  Imelda was hesitant to give Trefarbe anything that resembled good news.  She did seem so unhappy when she discovered that things actually were going well, even though she was
always quick to assure everyone that things were going well, particularly when they weren’t.

“Good.  The decontamination procedure has gone well, according to plan,” said Trefarbe. “Are you sure about CHA? I mean, they can be very tricky to deal with.  I don’t think we should say much to the personnel about all this.  I have assured them that t
hey have nothing to worry about and Dr. Caldwell, well, his announcement might actually alarm them, you know. He isn’t very good with speeches.”

“He is the boss, as I recall.  If you don’t mind, I need to get my gear to my apartment.  I have some work to catch up on.”  She started to walk past them.

Trefarbe smiled.  “Why of course.”  Her eyes narrowed slightly.  “I suppose you won’t be needing your office any more since you are going to be too busy with your study to be checking on the project.  Dr. Kreiss has been doing an exceptional job in your absence.”

Imelda halted.  Kreiss had been steamrollered.

“Dr. Caldwell specifically requested that I continue my duties as he had assigned them previously.”

“You mean he has been dissatisfied with the job Dr. Kreiss has been doing?  Oh, I’m sorry, Dr Kreiss.  I’m sure that he wouldn’t mean that.  It’s just that Dr. Caldwell has such strange notions at times.  I really do think that he is only trying to make Dr. Imelda feel better, that is, more confident after her mistakes.”

Imelda turned to stare at her.  Kreiss went a pale shade of purple.  He was completely at a loss as to what to say.

Tre
farbe smiled a truly evil smile and turned to face Kreiss, ignoring Imelda.  “You know, by giving her a way to redeem herself by supervising the cleanup.  So she wouldn’t feel so responsible for what happened.  He can be so thoughtful at times to those he favors.”

Imelda frowned.  Trefarbe was a near genius at manipulation.  A lesser soul would see this as an opportunity to slink away in ignominious retreat, a ploy that appealed to her greatly.

“Dr. Caldwell feels that Dr. Kreiss has been doing a superb job with the primordial species, but knows that I have had more experience with the more complex.  I think he expects us to work together on supervising the project while he continues to argue our case within the corporation.  My office can serve as a resource for both Dr. Kreiss and myself.  It is still functional, is it not?”

“Oh, yes.  I would never do anything without Dr. Caldwell’s permission.  It is just as you left it.”

Imelda nodded.  The viper.  Trefarbe did exactly as she pleased as long as no one was looking.  She turned away and headed towards her apartment.  Kreiss followed behind.

He started to speak, but Imelda shook her head, motioning him to wait.  When they arrived at the do
or to her apartment, Kreiss peered at her uncomfortably, hesitant.

“Come on in,” she said.  “Igor is tired of his cage. Let me unpack him while we talk.”

Kreiss sat gingerly on the edge of the couch.  He opened his mouth again to speak and Imelda held up her finger.  As he watched in amazement, she quickly debugged the apartment, flushing the uncovered listening devices down the toilet.

She sat down, Igor giving her room in his chair begrudgingly.  “I can guess.  Life has been hell.  So what has she been up to?”

Kreiss began stuttering, his agony boiling out in too-rushed words.  “She, she hasn’t listened to me at all.  She w-won’t tell me anything.  I d-don’t have any idea what is going on with the project.  I haven’t seen any f-full reports. She just sends me a synopsis, you know, cultures negative, ph-physiology assessment complete, genetics assessment complete.  Every time I schedule a conference or a seminar it gets c-cancelled.  Everyone on th-the project thinks that I’m an idiot.  They thought I was a g-genius when you were here before.  Now they k-keep asking me questions about the things you wrote and scream at me when I can’t answer them.  I don’t know anything about the borgettes or Pleister or what P-Post has been doing....”

Imelda stared
at him in alarm.  “What do you mean you don’t know anything about the borgettes?  Post has been keeping an eye on them for me hasn’t he?”

“Trefarbe said that your study had to w
-wait until you came back.  You were the only one approved to study them.  I told her that you had l-left instructions but she said the rules....”

“The borgettes were assigned to me because of CHA regs. I waived the regs for Post.  My responsibility and my option.”

“W-Well, she said that you couldn’t do that.”

Imelda closed her eyes, trying to take slow, deep breaths.  The cold knot of worry that had accompanied her all the way from Syned had blossomed into panic.  No one had been watching the borgettes!  Borgettes had been identified as a major reproductive form for a substantial portion of the ecology and no one had been watching them since the contamination!  She willed her voice to speak.

“The video monitors, are they in place?”

“Oh yes!  I refused to let her move those.  I told her that even with you gone we still needed to collect the information.  She reported me to Jinks for not being cooperative, but I insisted.”  He was proud of himself for that.  It had probably taken every ounce of his courage to stand up to her even that much.   

“Has anyone reviewed the data at all?”

Kreiss squirmed uncomfortably.  “I asked the computer if there were any significant changes in the borgette physiology since the contamination, and it said not.  I couldn’t do anything in depth, of course, because of the blocks.  There is no obvious disease, I made sure.  The baby borgettes have been okay on the tube feedings since they quit eating the worms.”

Imelda frowned.  “No worms in their diet at all?  I never approved putting them on a completely artificial diet.  Did Post run out?”

“Oh no.  The worms quit letting the scuzzhogs eat them.  We don’t know why.”

Imelda opened her mouth and shut it.  She peered at Kreiss quizzically.  “LETTING the borgettes eat them?”

“Um, yes.  They run away now.  Post seemed excited about it, but he hasn’t written any reports.”

Imelda sat back in her chair, her mind running down several paths at once.  Voluntary?  Well, yes, that made sense.  The borgettes had never chased the worms.  But the word ‘voluntary’ opened a door to new ideas.  Maybe the worms did ‘smile when eaten’, just like Camille had said.  She desperately needed to speak with Post.

#

Imelda stared at the console in front of her.  Eleven long months of data waiting for her tired neurons to process.  The computer had been mindlessly gathering, cataloguing, and storing, and now it was her turn.

She reached to input her ID code.  No place to begin but at the beginning.  Where was the beginning?

The intercom sounded.  She punched the receive button and her monitor lit up.  Just as she did so, Camille and Kellogg entered the room.

“Hi, Post,” she said to the image on the monitor, her hea
rt somehow delighted to see him despite everything.  She completely ignored the two who came to stand behind her chair.

His face lit up at her voice.  She could see new lines of strain that had appeared since she left.  “Where the hell have you been?  You said six weeks, tops!”

“Trolling paraspace for parallel universes.  I finally became slime deficient and came back.  What has been going on here?  I got nothing from anyone except AOK reports.  I know better.”

Post kept a grin but a worried flicker was in his eyes.  “AOK?  Sure, everything is just AOK.  But I’m hungry. Come eat with me.”

Imelda felt her panic explode.  Post would never offer to dine with her socially again, not after the last time.  This meant things really were dismal.  He was calling for a war conference.

Camille spoke up from behind her.  “Is it okay if we join you?  We could use some chow, too.  You can’t hog her for yourself, Post.”

Camille?  Want to join?  Gads, what the blazes WAS going on?  “Yeah, sure.  The observatory, maybe?”  The observatory was required to be regularly checked for bugging and was usually safe to talk in.

After cutting the connection, Imelda stared at her workstation and its secrets longingly.  Yet first things first, then other first things.

Camille interrupted her thoughts.  “What did you and Caldwell do, go on a honeymoon on company time?”

Imelda rolled her eyes wearily.  “It was the board’s idea.  They figured that the research itself is less important than the meetings to discuss it.”

“Do you know what Kreiss did?  He locked up all of the Scuzzhog data banks!  Said we couldn’t touch them until you got back!  Why did you tell him to do that?  What could you have possibly been thinking?”

Imelda muttered a few curse words under her breath. “Shut up and come with me,” she finally said after a long ten count.  “Let’s go eat.”

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