Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (7 page)

Pauling prizes indeed.  Only dead people won those.  It wasn’t until a study had survived a hundred years of criticism that anyone would believe it had merit.  “These videos are a waste of time.  I need a full capacity mobile groundbase unit in order to study them.  But we can’t start groundbase until I’ve completed my survey.  Which presents me with a dilemma.   Biotech had better pray that the things come out of the mud to move around occasionally.”   She yawned, tired by hours spent chasing what appeared to be a figment of a vidcam’s imagination.

“If any of them do come out, I think I’ll view the beasts only in infrared.  Those worms ought to be cold-blooded so they shouldn’t show up at all on the scanner.  No slime to look at either.”

Camille’s eyebrows rose.  “I thought you were a behaviorist.  You can’t observe behavior adequately if you only see part of the action.  Your most well
-received paper was on the physiologic responses of prey while being chased and devoured by predators, and whether the adrenaline release improved the meat’s flavor.  I should think that watching a few little pseudoworms being eaten would be tame compared to that.  I am eagerly awaiting your next paper on whether or not cold-blooded pseudoworms become anxious or merely smile when eaten.”

Imelda grinned.  Camille was young but had all the trappings of a truly able researcher.  “An excellent idea.  I’ll load up on tranquilizers and antiemetics like I did last time and order a bowl of popcorn.” 

She paused, remembering.  “Oh, that’s right, we don’t have any popcorn here.  They won’t let me have any more tranquilizers, either.  Oh well.”

Camille peered at her.  “Did you really take tranquilizers?”

“Tons.  I was on my way to becoming an official addict but decided I didn’t want a government subsidy.  I figured I was ripping the government off enough with the research grants I kept getting.”  Imelda was getting tired of the conversation.  She knew that she had almost sounded friendly to Camille.  That would never do.  She needed stone walls in this room.

Camille, though, had her curiosity piqued.  Hesitantly, she asked, “Was it your interest in carnivores that made you quit reproductive?”

Imelda made her voice gruff, irritated.  “Oh god, no.  I just got tired of the bad jokes.  When a woman says she’s majoring in reproductive biology, not one man alive can keep his idiotic mouth shut.  They equate it with a major in whoring.”  She said the words with an air of finality, as though the subject was now closed.

Camille frowned.  “That’s unfortunate.  Your graduate thesis was first rate.  I read it again when I heard you were coming here.  Did you ever think about going back to reproductive?”

Camille waited for Imelda to answer.

Imelda, however, was apparently engrossed by the figures in front of her and remained silent, frowning.  Camille’s expression remained uncertain and she seemed about to say something else.  Finally she shrugged and turned back to her work.

Chapter Five
Performance evaluation

Jamison watched her curiously.  Imelda swirled the wine around in her glass, admiring the sparkle, savoring the aroma.  She hadn’t decided how friendly she would be with Jamison yet.  Jamison was not quite the innocent social inept that Caldwell would have her believe. 

Jamison had knocked on the back door connecting their apartments, introducing herself as
Caldwell’s ‘friend.’  At first merely polite, their conversation had now taken on the tone of a grilling session.  Jamison wanted to know everything about her, which meant that she actually knew very little.  Like Camille, she was fascinated by the report that had made her ‘public’ reputation.

“Actually, I didn’t watch the live action, just a computer simulation of events.  Little stick figures on the screen.  I was protesting the practice of perpetuating hunting skills and carnivorous eating patterns in caged animals by feeding them live prey.  The caged specimens in my study had been propagated as laboratory animals for five hundred years.  There was no reason to pretend that they would ever be released to the wild.  Fully half of their instinctive memory had degraded from lack of reinforcement.  The geneticists could show the loss of cellular memory macroscopically even.”

“Macroscopically?  There was that much loss of DNA memory?”

“Half the things were piebald, some of them albino.  I am all for species preservation and genetic warehousing, etc. etc., but it was too late for that strain.  I doubt that they could have caught any of their so
-called prey outside of a one-meter cage.

“The PR department insisted that the species was surviving as a wild strain equivalent.  They told the public that the species used as food was completely insensate.  What we had actually preserved was a ritualistic sacrifice to human biogod vanity.  The company CEO was furious with me when the paper was published.  So I came here.”

Jamison nodded.  “We were wondering how you could do a study like that and stay sane.”

“It helps if you’re not sane to begin with.”

Jamison chuckled.  “Now, me, I stick to microbiology. I can experiment on my subjects all I wish without any animal rights activists getting upset.”  She paused, eyeing Imelda calculatingly.  “We heard a lot about you on Syned.”

“All bad, I hope.”

Jamison smiled openly for the first time and shook her head.

“Worse than that.  We heard that you were a first class, A
-one bitch, if you’ll pardon my non-scientific terminology.”

“Was that private opinion
or general consensus?”

“Hard to tell.  It depended on whom the informant was.”

Imelda guffawed.  “Well, personal nonbiased observation is still the best means by which to arrive at a conclusion.  Who knows?  In another few days or so, you’ll be telling everyone I’m a bitch yourself.”

Jamison peered at her oddly, frowning as Imelda poured her another glass of wine.

“Perhaps, but I will give you your period of non-biased observation first.”  After a long silence spent moodily sipping, she asked, “Do you really hate men?”

Imelda shrugged.  “Only the jerks.”

Jamison nodded soberly.  “Then you hate the vast majority of men.”

Imelda smiled, throwing a glance at Jamison.  “You may be right.  I’m still engaged in my own period of non
-biased observation, however.”

Jamison’s eyes twinkled.  “That’s not what I heard.”

Imelda shrugged.  “I give each of them ten seconds in which not to act like an ass.  It’s not my fault if most of them don’t last that long.”

Jamison laughed.  “Then it’s the length of your observation period that’s at fa
ult.  Reduce it to five seconds and you may find fifty percent acceptability.”

Imelda shook her head firmly.  “Nope.  Ten seconds.  I’ve already cut it down from twenty.  I do have principles, you know.”

Jamison grinned back.  “Alas, the price we pay for principles.” Her expression became more serious.  “I spent years finding Caldwell. I hope you find someone yourself some day.”

Imelda stared morosely at her reflection in the glass of wine.  Her idiotic heart whispered that maybe she already had.  She was trying very hard to drown him.

#

Camille was struggling.  She was given the task of categorizing chordate
-like species found in the northeast region of Materland, the largest of the five continents.  This was her first field study and she was enthusiastic at the chance to analyze unique life forms.

She and two other biologists comprised the
North Materland team, her teammates assigned to “invertebrates” and “plants” respectively.  Several warm-blooded mammaloid and avian types had been sighted in the area, contributing to Camille’s excitement. Mammaloid forms were an unusual discovery on alien planets, and Camille was obviously aware of the opportunity to enjoy a little celebrity if any of the creatures were confirmed to be truly mammalian. 

Of course, ‘mammaloid’ was merely a term of convenience for the exobiologists.  It remained to be proved whether the specimens they were examining harbored anything even remotely resembling mammary glands or Earth-like sexual reproductive organs. 

In most research missions categorization was an automated process whereby information about specimens was collected into a database and indexed.  Once certain characteristics could be reliably linked to genetic sequences and catalogued by species, human interpretation was no longer necessary.  On Iago IV, with no genetic information available and no consistent identifiers for species, the program presented nearly every individual for human review.  Camille also developed the habit of muttering to herself.

Warm
-bloodedness is a major advantage in temperate and cold climates, enabling a species to survive winters and continue to seek food in hostile environments.  On Iago IV, the adaptation was of more dubious benefit since there were no winters to survive through.  Even so, the fact that the biosphere had been evolving long enough to develop such a physiology was itself a major find.  On Iago, warm-bloodedness was not limited to furred and feathered forms or even species with skeletons.  The problem Camille and her team faced was the opposite from Imelda’s.  Instead of a dearth of data, they suffered a deluge.   

The chordates were not shy like Imelda’s subjects and there were a lot of them.  For the most part, they were found eating what passed for plant life and they came in a seemingly endless variety of shapes.  Deciding which specimens ought to be considered ‘mammaloid’ was difficult, because remarkably similar specimens would be warm
-blooded in one area and cold-blooded in another.  Warm-blooded specimens would occasionally be identical in every respect except that one was furred and the other chitinous.

While Imelda spent her time seeking heat
-emitting life forms buried beneath mud, Camille was counting legs and categorizing torsos.

The other two members of Camille’s team, Kellogg and Post, sat in matching workstations down the narrow hallway from Camille and Imelda.  Unlike most researchers, the group was not quiet.    “Postman, I don’t care what you say.  There aren’t any species here.  There’s just a bunch of beasties that sort of look like each other.  Iagans thrive on inconsistency.”

Post, assigned the invertebrates, was trying to decide if any of the chitinous creatures that had been sighted might actually be invertebrate.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Millie.  We haven’t had a crack at the genetics yet.  It’s unusual to see this much variation, to be sure, but the environment here is quite stable.  Natural selection hasn’t been as rigorous a process on this planet as it was on Earth.  Adaptability is less of a criterion for survival.”  Post continued to regard his monitor, musing.

“Personally, I’m intrigued by the absence of any large species with hunting claws or canine teeth.  I can’t imagine an ecology without predators.”

Kellogg, further away than Postman, grumbled, “Yeah, Imelda would feel pretty lonely down there.”  Kellogg had been assigned plants generically since further classification had to await a look at internal structure and reproduction, both difficult to determine from an aircraft.

Camille shushed him, throwing a glance in Imelda’s direction. 

Imelda pretended not to have heard.  She was having her own problems. 

Over the past weeks she had almost convinced herself that her initial reaction to Post had been a mental aberration.   He was the team leader for the researchers she shared the wing with.  Older than his coworkers, he appeared close to her age.  His work in the past had been competent but not flashy, attracting little attention.  He had worked for corporations his entire professional life.  Imelda wondered how good he really was.  Corporations never allowed their best researchers to attract attention.  Their competitors might get interested.

Camille was glaring in Kellogg’s direction.  “We’ve been able to survey only the large specimens in the few areas where we have flyby data, Kellogg.  I’m sure predators exist on Iago IV.”

Post was grinning.  Imelda’s knuckles whitened.  Those *% dimples.  “I’m simply surprised there aren’t obvious predators among the large species that we can see.  Makes you wonder if the plant-things they are munching are superior energy sources to meat.”

Camille laughed.  “A predator on this planet wouldn’t need teeth or claws to catch prey anyway.  Look at that thingamawhatsit there.  It shouldn’t even be alive.”

Imelda glanced towards Camille’s screen where an incredibly ridiculous animal was hobbling about, apparently trying to catch the foodgrass.  The view was shaky as the aircraft flashed by at low altitude, but the camera got a tantalizingly good close-up.  It had five legs in a roughly radial distribution, and its mouthparts swayed awkwardly at the end of a short central neck.  Its chances for a meal didn’t look good.  As it shrank into the distance, it swayed and fell, then tottered upright again.   

“Must be a mutant,” said Kellogg.

“In that case, there’s a lot of mutants down there,” answered Camille.  “I haven’t seen any more of those things, but there’s other creatures almost as weird.”

Imelda continued to review her report, enlarging the database as the three of them chattered on.  She was slightly disapproving of the open talk.  The only way that any researcher could earn fame or fortune was through original observation.  For all that they knew, Imelda could be spying on them, using the info for her own research papers or feeding the information to undeserving others.  Their lack of secrecy showed their youth and ignorance of the research process.

“Blast it, when are we going to start groundbase?”  Post shot a glance at Imelda.  “We need real specimens to work with, not videos.  At this point all we can do is guess about those creatures down there.  We don’t even know if that green stuff they’re eating is chlorophyll-based or just slimed from Imelda’s worms.”  Most invertebrates were small, unlikely to be seen from an aircraft.  Post was getting extremely impatient.

“Who says they’re my worms?” asked Imelda.

“Scuzzy worms for scuzzy people,” answered Kellogg, grinning.

“Hush, Kellogg!” Camille said sharply.  “I’m sorry Dr. Imelda, but some of us were talking.  Post said that it was strange for worms to congregate like that just to be eaten.  He thought they might be baby scuzzhogs.”

Imelda glanced at Post with raised eyebrows.  “Very good, Dr. Post.  You just stole about two pages out of my paper.  I had already considered the possibility that they were being gobbled up to hide in the mouth for safety.  But, if you would care to review the video in detail with me...?”

Post shook his head vigorously.  “No, thanks.”

“It looks as though some of the worms break in half as the scuzzhog bites down.  If she is their mom, she is a very careless one.”  She shrugged.  “At this point we have no proof that they are anything more than stupid food, maybe lured by some sort of attractant, or perhaps being gobbled up while nesting together.  If I were you, I’d keep my ideas to myself.  The worms are your property, in any case.”

Post stared back at her coolly, obviously angered by her faintly derogatory tone.  “Mine?”

Imelda turned back to her workstation.  “I didn’t see any skeletons stuck between Borg’s teeth.  They look pretty invertebrate to me. Borg was found in your geographic region.  Who’s to say the worms aren’t the grub forms of all those arthropodians you keep chasing?”

Post smiled back sarcastically.  “Who’s to say they’re not scuzzhog tentacles and that your scuzzhog isn’t slurping slime?”

Imelda shot a nasty look at him.  At least she hoped it was nasty.   “In any case, it will be six months to a year before I can get the Scuzzhogs classified.  You guys will be getting a close look at the worms long before I will.”

“What?”  Camille asked sharply.  “I thought we couldn’t start groundbase until you had completed your investigation?”  Kellogg and Post stared at her suspiciously.           

“CHA requires only that I make sure that their sump holes aren’t masterpieces of intelligent technical engineering.  Cranial size estimates aren’t necessary if I can show that their behavior is instinctive.  Once that is done, they’re no longer priority research.  Camille has lucked out and been assigned some of the most advanced species on the planet, with the most potentially useful enzyme systems.  Species complexity will push your team’s priority to the top.”  She shrugged.  “Biotech isn’t going to make money off of a bunch of mud suckers like the ones I’m looking at.  Difficulty in observation will push my priority status down to the fractional.”

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