Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (6 page)

Imelda nodded.

“One more thing,”
Caldwell said.  “I realize how you feel about your assignment, but you were the only one whom I felt could handle an independent study of this complexity.  You won’t have an individual physiologist or cellular biologist assigned to you, but I will ask Grady, who is leading the Materland group, to help out.  Try to find a workstation close to his people.”

Imelda’s expression darkened.  “I don’t know.  I’d rather wait and see whom I need.  Once I get good visuals of a few specimens, I may be able to classify them without additional help.  I don’t need special treatment.”

Shaking his head, Caldwell sighed.  “You are the only person I know of who would consent to an arrangement like this without demanding ransom, Imelda.”

“I want the project to run smoothly too.  I don’t do frivolous research.”

Nodding thoughtfully, Caldwell flicked off the monitor and they both stood up, welcoming the sudden silence.  He led her to the door and opened it, standing briefly to hold her hand.  “I’ll be calling you,” he said.

Imelda nodded.  “Sure,” she answered.

She turned to see Trefarbe busily pretending to work at her desk across the hall.  She approached to tower over Trefarbe, staring down at the top of her head.  With only the faintest trace of a wicked gleam, she said, “Now, Trefarbe, about my workstation.”

Trefarbe looked up with a start.  “Oh yes, Dr. Imelda.  I’ve been working on it.  I’m sorry about the confusion, but Dr. Caldwell, well, sometimes he just doesn’t make himself clear.  Now, I looked over the assignments, and all of the workstations are pretty much occupied.  Instead of trying to find an empty one and worrying about getting someone to share quarters with you, what I thought we could do is split usage time on one of the stations into twelve hour shifts.” 

She pulled up an assignment sheet on her screen.  “You could work in this station here, the closest one to your desk.  I’m sure we could get Dr. Frowhim to agree to share it.  In any case, he’s the youngest member of the team, right out of training. I just know he wouldn’t mind.”

Like blazes he wouldn’t.  He’d have every researcher in the project out to roast her.  “No, sorry, that won’t do.  I need my station to be freely accessible.  I work very irregular hours; I never know when inspiration will hit.  Let me take a look at the list of assignments and.…”

Trefarbe’s expression was that of a mother dealing with a naughty child.  “Now Dr. Imelda, you’re being very difficult.  I was told to expect this sort of behavior from you.  There is no reason why you can’t accept this arrangement.  The expense of finding you an individual station or of moving people about…”

“Doesn’t come close to that of building a workstation on the administrative floor.   I’m sure
Caldwell also has a list of assignments, but I was hoping we wouldn’t have to bother him with this.”

Trefarbe’s face flushed.  “We wouldn’t have to consult the list at all, if you’d just be reasonable!  Now, I’ve thought a lot about this and…”

‘I’ll bet you have,’ thought Imelda.  “The list, Trefarbe.”  Her look at Trefarbe did not brook further discussion.

“Well, all right, then, although I’m not sure I’m supposed to.”

Imelda sat down in the chair next to Trefarbe’s desk, running through the assignments.  Since when had workstation assignments become secret?  Trefarbe was a gas.  She wondered if Caldwell would have been able to do anything with her even if he’d gotten her into the sack.

“Here, g
ive me that one.”   A space was open in Grady’s unit.

“All the way over there?  That’s on the opposite side of the station!”

“I like exercise.”  Imelda gazed at Trefarbe expectantly.

“Well
okay, if you insist.  I guess I’ll have to cancel my orders to Engineering regarding the workstation we were going to build for you.”  Her voice implied that this was all a big mistake.

“Yes, and while you’re at it, I’m changing apartments.  You can ask
Caldwell about it.”  She rose to leave.  “See you later, Trefarbe.  And oh, thanks for your help.”

The look Trefarbe sent after her was pure venom.

Chapter Four
Of kindred souls and slime

Click.  A black smudge on the horizon appeared.  Noiselessly, it came closer.  Just as the features of the creature became recognizably features, it ducked under the mud. 

Click.  She froze the frame.  Click, maximal magnification.  Fuzzy black blob on top of fuzzy brown mud.

Click.  A new scene appeared.  A distant dot on the horizon rapidly enlarging to become another black blob.  Swoop in for a closer look, yielding black blob disappearing beneath gray mud. 

Click.  Freeze frame.  Click.  Maximal magnification: Big black blob.

This particular subject under study did not welcome the intrusion of flying machines into the bucolic paradise of the planet below.  The scene that Caldwell had shown them had been the only clear view of any of the large members of the group, and the surveyors had not flown low enough to get clear close ups of smaller varieties, if there were any.

Intelligence.  Groundbase clearance meant that there was no evidence of life with techno-capacity.  No life that could copy earth technology and get a jumpstart on space travel.  She could see the headlines: “BLOBS IN SPACE! Video:  A mysterious space ship, drizzling mud behind it, swoops over Syned. One of the ship’s inhabitants, seen only briefly, appeared to be a huge black blob slurping worms while taking a mud bath.” 

Aerial surveillance was a crock.  It was going to take groundbase observation in order to properly catalog this group.  Other than knowing that one of them, Borg, was warm-blooded and liked mud, she was limited to population and distribution studies for now.  She had been hoping she could quickly reclassify the creatures as members of other phyla and go on to a subject more likely to result in an independent research paper.  The knowledge that all of the work she was doing now was likely to end up buried in the pages of someone else’s report did nothing to increase her enthusiasm. 

Caldwell
was a creep.  He must figure her for a brown-noser of major dimensions to expect her to do diminishing-return work just to satisfy a few governmental requirements, plus help him to hide from Trefarbe to boot!  Maybe she should storm back to his office and quit.

The mud beasts had been sighted on Materland.   Mud
bogs had also been sighted elsewhere and some seemed inhabited.  Were all mud inhabitants the same species?  Unlikely.  No aerial reports confirmed that the species were even similar.  Of course, no aerial reports confirmed that there were any species either.

So, to indirect evidence.  Groundbase clearance question # 1: Did Mud Bog habitations represent civilized society? There was a list of CHA checkpoints so
mewhere.  She had forgotten the checkpoints as soon as she had finished the Bioethics exam.  Awfully embarrassing if she couldn’t find a copy on file.  “Uh, boss, now what is it that I’m supposed to do?”

As she clattered the first keys to be
gin a search for the list, the door to the room opened.  The other three workstations had heretofore been empty.  Her new roommates filed in.

#

God, his eyes.  Brown soul-sucking chasms squeezing every ounce of reason out of her.  He was chatting with the others, laughing easily at nonsensical inanities.  She refused to look at him again. 

She had slammed the privacy sphere shut almost as soon as they entered.  She originally intended to be somewhat amicable, but one look at his face killed that idea.  She had to be dreaming this.  He was really an Iagan and she was hallucinating.  Against her own advice, she risked another glance.  Dimples!  Dimples and a sense of humor.  A
gentle
sense of humor.

Her heart raced in panic.  She had read about this sort of thing… recognition of a kindred spirit.  Fatal attraction.  If the idiot were to speak to her she’d dissolve, slobber all over him.  What a disaster!  She’d been sitting here the hour since he’d arrived and gotten nothing done.

She was going to have to change to another workstation!  No, she couldn’t.  Trefarbe would ask questions, figure it out, and gloat.  That would end the ruse with Caldwell.  No, she was just going to have to deal with it.  If only she could stop shaking, she would leave and recoup in a bottle of wine.  Deep breathing was supposed to help.  She tried to gulp air silently.

He was leaving!  He glanced at her, seemed upset about something.  Maybe she did seem a bit rude, hiding behind Plexiglas, but the situation was desperate.  She watched him leave with peripheral vision, wishing she wasn’t too cowardly to stare.  When the door was safely shut behind him, her pulse finally began to slow.   Damn!

What was it the philosopher Packard had said?  “Love is where the body harmonizes with the soul.”   Well, her body and soul were in great discord now.  It couldn’t be love.  Reason inserted an idea into her head.  Someone who looked like him had to have a girlfriend.  Or even a wife.  Good thought.  Hold on to it, she told herself, for dear life.

Her legs finally less rubbery, she beat a hasty retreat, ignoring the two remaining coworkers.

#

Cencom’s database surrendered the checkpoints after only minimal cursing (and one threat to an infotech). There were four main categories of checkpoints: ‘Anatomical structures compatible with intelligence; Constructions of a non-instinctive nature; Non-instinctive solutions to threat; Evidence of a complex social structure capable of rapid response to change.’

Analysis of the beast according to the last two categories was a waste of time.  Ducking under the mud to hide didn’t require any more brains than a paramecium.  She couldn’t see enough to know if there was a social structure, or even if there were enough beasts to socialize.  The first category she had already drawn a blank on.  She would have to concentrate on constructions.

She checked the stats on the environments the mud beasts inhabited.  The type of mud bog they favored was widely scattered throughout most habitable land areas.  The bogs were odd geographical formations, oval to circular, and anywhere from six meters to kilometers across.  The infrared scanners had analyzed a few, and some contained one or more warm blooded somethings beneath the surface.

More Borgs?

As she looked at the data, she thought she could see a regular pattern of distribution to the bogs, a neat spacing.  Strange.  There was a subheading under the checkpoint: ‘Regular spacing irrespective of geology.’   As a check, she consulted ‘Alternatives to Intelligent Creation.’  There it was... ‘Geographical formations resulting from a meteor shower,’ that was probably it.  She would have to ask the geologists. Hadn’t they said there weren’t many impacts on Iago? She e-mailed a note to the division requesting more careful measurements.  She made sure her name wasn’t on it, just in case Straiss read such things.  She refused to do anything that might help Fish’s dream for her come true.  

She wondered if a Borg slimed at the bottom of every mud bog.  If so, Borg was a striking exception to the rule of regionalization of species on Iago.  There were mud bogs on every nook of every continent, according to the survey.     Her eyes squinted as she thought about it.  Mud is not universally available.  It takes both dirt and water to form a good bog.  The environment of Iago was wetter than Earth’s for the most part, but there were still scattered desert areas.  She accessed the desert surveys.  As expected, the mud bogs stopped at desert edges.  But on telescopic examination, there were regularly spaced sand pits in some desert areas, tunnel-like constructions in others.  A few had warm-blooded somethings hidden beneath. 

Imelda squelched a growing excitement.  If this data was truly indicative of the geographical spread of the bog creatures, then they were a highly successful life form.  What was that other subheading?  ‘Variant structure based upon local resources.’   Alternative explanation:  ‘Separation of individual populations over lengthy periods resulting in evolutionary variance.’  She
hadn’t seen any traveling Borgs or any roads to help them travel, so this explanation sounded good to her.  Other alternative?  ‘Different species.’  An even better explanation.

She rubbed her eyes.  She needed a cigarette. She glanced at the workstation next to her, where a lone coworker sat.  A name intruded into her consciousness and said Camille.  A sure sense of rationality told her that Camille’s didn’t smoke and didn’t like people who smoked either.  She would have to wait until she was back at her own apartme
nt.  She’d risk a quick break now, but ‘he’ wasn’t here.  She’d better get as much work done as she could before ‘he’ returned, while she still had functioning neurons.  

She muttered to herself.  Her thoughts felt sluggish.  She had been drinking too much booze lately.  With an effort, she forced herself to concentrate.

So, the bogs were everywhere.  The concept of Borgs scattered everywhere was disgusting.  Assuming that Borgs or near-Borgs had something to do with the mud pits, what about when the mud froze?  Did Borgs hibernate?  With their worms?  Could they live in cold climates?  They were warm-blooded, at least some of them.  They should be able to survive.

She did a quick look at polar surveys.  The axis of Iago IV was not tilted like earth’s and there was no seasonal variation in climate.  There were large ice caps at the poles of the planet which remained stably frozen.  There, the infrared scanners detected a few warm
-blooded somethings in a regular distribution beneath the ice, presumably more mud beasts, only substituting powdered snow for mud.

Imelda sat back
, shaking her head.  If she was right, then these creatures were extremely adaptable and very widespread.  Maybe she had better think again about the checkpoint regarding social structure...  Nah.  Mud-based societies wouldn’t need to be complex.

Ocean surveys!  Borgs
couldn’t be on multiple continents unless they could cross the ocean somehow!  Maybe they could swim!  One looked at a floating Borg ought to be enough to get her off the hook.  The Scout ships had sent a few lifeboats down briefly to float on the ocean surface and film the shallower sea bottoms.

She accessed the marine videos hopefully.  Her heart sunk again.  Borgs might be swimming in there but she had no way of knowing which of the floating multitude of shapes represented a Borg.  She scanned through several of the videos disheartened, and then suddenly clicked the replay button.  A small group of ‘eels’ darted past to hiding places in the sand. 
Worms?  What was that on the ocean floor?  A sinkhole?

Her eyes glinted as she ran back through several of the videos, her attention now directed towards the rocky bottom.   Regularly spaced sinkholes rewarded her search.

“Blast it!” she said out loud, then muttered more lurid phrases under her breath.  The ugly creeps must realize how ugly they are, she decided.  They hid from sight even under the ocean.  How the blazes was she supposed to get a look at one?

A heated sense of desperation floated beneath her thin veneer of devotion to research.  She could see months or years of work ahead of her, with no promise of recognition for any of it.  A small hope was being seeded, however, that just maybe these creatures were a unique species.  Still, if they weren’t...she muttered to herself again, something she had been doing a lot of.  If only she could identify some characteristic that would fit some of these monsters into somebody else’s niche now, before she had wasted too much time on them.

Were these things intelligent?  Or just well adapted potato heads?  External morphology ought to give her some sort of clue.

She risked a quick look again at the one good shot of the large black mud beast.  It was every bit as grotesque as she remembered.  Borg had been caught aboveground only for a moment.  The worms stuck out of his mouth like lively spaghetti, with a greenish yellow sauce.  And the beast was a sloppy eater.

She almost threw up again.  “Damn,” she said out loud.

“What’s the matter?” asked Camille.

“How am I supposed to study a species when even looking at it makes me sick?   Goddamn Scuzzhogs!”

Camille absorbed Imelda’s language calmly.  She had been sitting at her study console next to Imelda’s for the entire shift.  She was getting used to her speech pattern. 

“Scuzzhog?  Is that what you’re going to call Borg?”

“You’re damn right I am.  We’re supposed to choose a name that characterizes the species, aren’t we?  Well, I have determined their character.  From henceforth they will be phylum Guzzlewormea, order Scuzzporcino.  That big black bastard there will represent Scuzzporcino humongous aceospadus.  I’ll come up with names for the rest of the species if and when I ever get a chance to see them, not that I particularly care to, mind you.”

Camille raised her eyebrows.  “Dr. Caldwell won’t approve.”

“Well they certainly don’t deserve the name cutesy fuzzball.”

“I don’t think Dr. Caldwell had in mind terms quite so graphic.  Perhaps there is some other feature you could incorporate into their classification.”

Imelda grunted.  “I suppose I could use the designation ‘Lookfast blackblob.’“

Camille grimaced.  “Maybe you had better wait awhile before assigning them a name.”

Imelda shook her head.  “Scuzzhogs they are, and scuzzhogs they will be.  I wonder if all the different varieties eat those scuzzy little worms?”

Camille shrugged.  “Upon such questions Pauling prizes are born.  Good luck on finding out.”

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