Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (3 page)

“We haven’t assigned them a phyla yet, since they, um, seem to have characteristics in common with several other phyla.  This is a heterogeneous group, including odd species from all of the continents.  They appear to be quite unusual, although the surveyors weren’t able to get good observations.  One in particular seems to eat a certain species of worm as a major part of its diet.  The pilot who sighted this one christened it ‘Borg.’“

He fiddled with the controls again and a shaky view of a large black beast partially hidden in the mud appeared.  Although the entire beast couldn’t be seen, the flyby did give a good glimpse of a rather hideous face indolently chomping down on a mass of wriggling and very slimy worms.

Imelda nearly retched.  Judging by the looks around her, her sentiments were deeply shared.

Studiously avoiding looking at the screen, which he had frozen on a particularly disgusting view, Dr. Caldwell continued.  “We have with us on this project a researcher of very impressive talents.  Dr. Imelda 957, would you stand up, please?”

Imelda froze, startled.  Wait a minute; she was supposed to be an unknown here!  And she was already standing.  She stepped forward reluctantly.

“Dr. Imelda’s work on Holyose has been widely acclaimed, and we welcome her aboard.”

Imelda did not smile.  “Thank you, sir,” she mumbled, and leaned back against the wall.

“Dr. Imelda, er, would you like to give us your opinion of this specimen?”

Imelda refused to look at the picture again.  She directed her gaze narrowly at Dr. Caldwell.   “It’s a pretty scuzzy looking beast, sir.”

Laughter erupted.  Dr. Caldwell fumbled awkwardly with the podium.  “Scuzzy?  Well, um, yes, you could say that, I suppose.  But, um, so far at least, it seems to be the only confirmed large carnivore here.  I’m sure you are honored to be assigned this group of animals, since much of your previous work was with carnivores.”

Honored?  To be assigned a monster?  Of the phyla ‘Other’?  By all the... She managed a polite, “Thank you, Dr. Caldwell.”

She could have sworn she heard a muttered, “Yeah, carnivores, she should feel right at home.”  But how would anyone know that when nobody knew her?

“Dr. Imelda’s area of specialization is ethology, the study of behavior, as many of you know.  Since these species reside in a number of geographic areas to be investigated simultaneously by several other groups, I expect all of you to cooperate with her.  Her work is especially important since our groundbase operations must wait until she confirms that these are low potential species.”

Scientists cooperate?  Was he out of his mind?  He was giving her the job of groundbase clearance?  Since when had she been qualified to do that?  She had never received her scores from the Bioethics exam!   Probably flunked it royally!

He cleared his throat.  “I feel certain that she will do an excellent job, since her qualifying scores on the Bioethics exam were outstanding.”

What?  Oh wait, maybe the letter was in her mailbag.  The examiners were probably too cheap to send the scores by priority mail.  Her E-mail was unlisted, had been ever since the network crash on Holyose.  She hadn’t checked it in years.  Every now and then she’d see a ‘mailbox full’ alert flash rather forlornly on her screen, and she’d tell it to delete everything. 

“Once we have completed classification of the life forms, I suspect that we shall have to reorganize ourselves to a certain extent, to allow each of you to more properly pursue your specialty.  If indeed, as we suspect, the mud-dwelling specimens turn out to be similar appearing members of several different species, Dr. Imelda will transition into ethology proper, and will act as a resource to all of you.”

He allowed the frozen beast to resume chomping worms as the view receded into the distance.  Imelda felt nauseated, for multiple reasons.  The son of a %&*&.
Caldwell was a jerk.  Not only had he singled her out in front of the entire group, ruining her anonymity, he had as good as guaranteed that her work would never be accepted on its own merit, but would be absorbed into someone else’s part of the project as soon as she had properly classified any of those goddamn hideous beasts.  It would all be her fault if they happened to discover that one of those monsters was smart enough to sling mud balls at them after they started groundbase.

She had been assigned phyla, all right, the phyla ‘garbage can’.  Her study’s title was going to be,  “Oops, I couldn’t see his cranial cavity for the mud on top of it.”  She didn’t know which idiot had hired
Caldwell but she was going to strangle somebody.  Caldwell 201, or 102, it didn’t matter.  The entire cell line needed erasing.  If they weren’t floating so unspeakably far from civilization, she would walk off the project right now.   Maybe she could get a transfer to Molecular.

 

Chapter Two
The doctor is in

Imelda stretched out on the couch watching the game.  It was hard to tell how many of the players were computer generated and how many were her shipmates.  The players were anonymous, for good reason.  She lit a cigarette and coughed.  Bronchitis again.  Medic’s revenge for vice.

She sipped a glass of wine morosely.  The game stunk.  No plot, no brains, just raw sex.  She clicked it off in irritation.  Sex was no fun unless you were doing it yourself.  With someone you liked.  It was that last requirement that was the hooker.  She didn’t like anyone she knew.

She glanced at the clock. Almost time for her appointment.  She stood up and stretched, dumping Igor out of her lap.  With the tomcat glaring at her desultorily, she glanced at herself in the mirror.

The clean scrub suit was just as wrinkled and shapeless as the one she had taken off.  Her hair was a snarled mess.  She had forgotten to brush it.

She ran a brush through the thick, reddish brown curls a few times, popped a mint into her mouth, and, only slightly more kempt than completely unkempt, headed out the door.

The walk was not long and she covered the distance quickly in long strides.  With the station’s dedication to research, the laboratories took up most of the habitable areas.  The living quarters met only the minimum requirements to be classified as such.  She frowned as she surveyed the corridor.  The width of her bedroom was only slightly greater than the width of this hallway.  A real first class operation, she reflected sarcastically, not for the first time.  CHA inspectors inspected the labs, but no one inspected personnel quarters.  The professional unions were supposed to look out for their own members, so the government didn’t figure it had to.  Unfortunately, the Professional Research Scientist’s Union was headed by Ph.D.’s who were also stockholders of Biotech, Inc.   Biotech, Inc. had to control costs somehow.

Arriving at the HR Administrative wing, she surveyed the nameplates.  There it was, ‘Dr. Hiebass, Psychiatric Medicine, Human Resources.’   The door was an incredibly ugly chartreuse color that clashed strikingly with the gold nameplate.  She hated psychiatrists with bad taste.

The door opened automatically to allow her to enter the waiting room.  Good, nobody here.  She hated casual conversation.

She sat down on the couch.  A voice said, “Welcome, Dr. Imelda.  Dr. Hiebass will be with you shortly.”

She grunted, picking up a reader.  ‘Shortly’ was an ill-defined term, closely linked with Einsteinian math.  Its meaning depended on your time-space continuum.

“Would you care for something to drink while you wait?”

She shook her head.  She didn’t bother to use spoken words with a computer unless she had to.  Rudeness wasn’t a concept they were programmed to understand.

For the corporate world, it amounted to a religious belief that they must maintain the psychiatric health of their employees.  They kept better slaves that way.  Psychiatric rehab had originated in brainwashing techniques used by ancient civilizations to control prisoners.  When technology and drug intervention refined the techniques, new and even more frightening applications were developed, just as had been the case with gunpowder.  Now, a Department of Human Resources’ primary responsibility was to orient all new employees to the appropriate mental attitude.  For other services or information, employees could read the employee handbook.

After a few minutes, a concealed door at the back of the waiting room opened and two men walked out.  They were laughing.

“See you later, Fish.  When’s my routine checkup due again?”

At the sound of his voice, Imelda started.  Straiss!  Of all the...!  Straiss had tried to hustle her on the trip over.  A walking set of gonads thinly disguised as a human being.  She knew for a fact that there were more than five hundred employees on the research station, and the odds would indicate that she needn’t worry about meeting the regressive here!  Her emotions settled into a repressed growl.

“Regulations say monthly for three months after arrival, then we can go to six month checks.  Of course, you’re always welcome over for a chat,” the shorter man said.

Imelda inspected the shorter man suspiciously.  Kind of bug-eyed, nervous.  He looked a good bet to be Dr. Hiebass.   Psychiatrists were usually short or clumsy or neurotic. The only reason they became psychiatrists in the first place was out of a desire to learn how to deal with their own shortcomings.

So this guy’s shortcoming was that he was short.  A simple enough problem.  If he had only learned to enjoy jockeying horses or spelunking, he would never have become interested in psychotherapy.  He had the innocent demeanor that is usually associated with someone who figures they already know the answer to everyone else’s problems.  She wondered if he knew about her fight with Straiss on the ship.

“Oh, Dr. Imelda, how are you?”  His expression transformed as he turned to face her, becoming utterly obsequious.  Wonderful.  He already disliked her based on her personnel file alone.

She nodded.

Dr. Hiebass paused excessively long, waiting for more of an answer.  He gave up.  “Um, ah, I would like you to meet Dr. Straiss, one of our geologists.  You and he have a lot in common.”

Rigged, all rigged.  He knew the whole story and was trying to turn animosity into affection.  The idiot had watched too many movie romances.  She managed to grimace a smile. “We’ve met,” she said curtly.  The look in her eye did not harmonize with prolonged conversation.

Straiss was just as obnoxious as she remembered.  She marveled at his ability to leer in the face of outright rejection.  “Hello, Dr. Imelda.  It’s nice to see you again.”

The earwig spiraled in a nice arc directly into Straiss’s left nostril, missing his ear by inches.  Rats, it would take him three hours to die instead of two.  Too bad.  She scowled, wishing she really had an earwig.

Dr. Hiebass apparently had planned to say more in the way of reconciliation, but his resolve faded in the face of her stony face.  “Well, um, perhaps you can talk with each other again some other time.  See you later, Straiss.”  

“Sure, Fish,” Straiss answered, turning casually back to Hiebass.  Straiss recovered really well, Imelda thought.  He acted as though she had disappeared.  “I want to show you that game I was telling you about.  It’s really something.”

Sexist crap, thought Imelda. The whole plot was boy chase girl, boy fight boy, girl tease boy, etc. etc.  She didn’t have to ask which game he was talking about.

She followed the psychiatrist back to his office silently.  The fellow kept opening his mouth as if to say something but then kept shutting it again.  Fish was a good name for him.  She decided she would use it exclusively.

She sat down in the chair across from his desk and said nothing.  He looked at her and blinked.

“Fish don’t blink,” she said.

His eyes widened and his mouth opened and shut again. Better. 

“Um, Dr. Imelda.”

She sat waiting for a more complex statement to emerge.

“You are a very difficult person to deal with.”

Probably true, she thought.  She wouldn’t challenge that, certainly.  Hiebass was clearly frustrated.  This was going better than she had hoped.  Now the idhead was going to be too mad at her to try to help her.  He might even leave her alone entirely.

“I have reviewed your file extensively.  According to the information I have here, you suffer from a number of unresolved conflicts and have never fully recovered from an unfortunate juvenile love affair.”

Wonderful.  A direct attack, pointing out her weaknesses, emphasizing his own superiority.  The jerk hated her.

“I have outlined a treatment plan entailing weekly visits with me.  I realize that you enjoy antagonizing people, and you are extraordinarily good at it.”  His look at her was not exactly an understanding one. 

“I see on your record that you have not been compliant with prescribed therapy in the past.  Such noncompliance would be tolerated if you had not already proved in any number of ways that you are dangerous to yourself.  I hope you realize that you could easily have merited a supervisory position here if not for your attitude.”

Imelda met his earnest glare with an implacable calm.

He raised his voice a little.  “I intend to change that attitude!  While you are here, you must attend every one of our sessions, without exception, or I will pull you off of the project!  Do you understand?”

“Sure, Fish.  Wouldn’t miss it.”  Imelda watched him curiously.  He was awfully excitable for a psychiatrist.   

Hiebass was geared up for battle and paused disconcertedly.  He blinked some more.

Imelda sighed.  Bladderwort, he was out of character again.  She smiled benevolently. “However, your assessment of my psyche is a bit akilter.  I have fully recovered from my juvenile love affair.  My last psychiatrist merely disagreed with my method of coping.”

Hiebass’s eyes widened again. His fat lips circled to form an “Oh?”

Much better, she decided.  “Yeah, she was a ‘les’.  She wanted me to be one too.  She never did figure out why I rejected her.”

Fish looked exactly like a fish as his eyes rounded completely and he gaped in apoplexy.   Imelda was utterly pleased.

“Dr. Imelda, I would appreciate it if you would be serious and at least attempt to cooperate with me.  I am aware that your research work has been faultless but your personality dysfunction threatens your career!  Psychiatrists are thoroughly screened for sexual compatibility prior to being allowed to encounter patients directly.  A homosexual psychiatrist would never have been paired with a fragile heterosexual patient.  You only hurt yourself by telling such tales. It is this poor contact with reality that led you to your suicide attempt.”

Catching his breath, he shifted in his seat.  “You will be carefully supervised for any further evidence of suicidal ideation while you are here. Telling untruths only highlights your inadequate grasp of the real world and increases the amount of supervision you will be under.”

Imelda shrugged.  “My subspecialty was reproductive biology, before I changed it.  I should think that I know how to recognize a lesbian.  I did not attempt suicide before.  I was attempting to retrieve a valuable specimen.”

“On the edge of a ravine?  With no safety line?  Standing on a narrow rock outcropping?”

“It wasn’t my fault that it crawled out there.  It was too busy chasing prey to look where it was going.”

“So, apparently, were you.  We cannot tolerate carelessness on this project, Dr. Imelda.”

She shrugged.  “I didn’t fall.  I had already turned around to walk back when everyone got excited.  Dr. Caldwell tripped over his two left feet and knocked me down.”

Fish peered at her narrowly.  “He doesn’t have two left feet.  He’s not a mutant.”

She shrugged again.  “Coulda’ fooled me.”

“Dr. Imelda, this is what I mean by your attitude!  You are extremely critical of everyone and everything around you!  Nothing pleases you!  Yet your own personal habits are obnoxious and unacceptable!”  His voice carried a distinct undertone of threat.  “I intend to do everything I can to change you.”

Imelda huffed up insultedly.  “I take baths!”

“You know what I mean...  Smoking, drinking, never enough sleep.”  He was obviously pleased with his diagnostic acuity.  “And your apartment is a mess.”

Her eyes narrowed.  “I don’t have a psychiatrist, I have a mom,” she muttered.

“What was that?”

“Yes, momma Fish.  I’ll try to be better,” she said, louder.

Fish’s face turned red.  “You listen to me, Dr. Imelda!  I am just doing my job!  Personally I don’t give a damn what your apartment looks like, or for that matter what you look like!  But personal disorder is a symptom of emotional dysfunction!  I don’t know if anyone will ever be able to set your head straight, but I can sure as hell attack the symptoms!”

Honesty, in a psychiatrist?  This fellow was going to get himself fired.  She did her best to look shocked.  “Fish, baby, where is your professional attitude?”

Fish’s eyes were bulging.  He was gasping as he swallowed the words he really wanted to say.  Imelda smiled at him.  “Would you like some water?” she asked.

“No!” he bellowed.

He paused, attempting to lower his blood pressure.  It took a little while.  Finally, in a calmer voice he said, “I do not feel that we are going to accomplish anything further today, Dr. Imelda.  Your next appointment will be in one week.  I will be expecting you promptly then.”  He left his desk to open the door for her.

“S
ee you later, Fish.  Appreciate your help,” she said.  She noticed his eyes bulging again as she left.  She doubted he would be setting her up with Straiss anymore.  He was going to be too busy trying to keep himself from strangling her.

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