Read Scuzzworms Online

Authors: Ella Mack

Scuzzworms (8 page)

Camille frowned.  “But I thought
Caldwell said...”

Imelda interrupted harshly, as though lecturing a class.  “Priority is also based on team size.  I’m the smallest team.  In fact, I’m not even a team.  I will be the last in this project to get access to a groundbase station.  The best that I will be able to hope for is to piggyback with someone else, which will be difficult to get permission to do.”

Post was unconvinced.  “The entire division has been instructed to cooperate with you.  I don’t think we’ll have any choice about letting you piggyback.”

Imelda turned to face Post impatiently. “CHA has strict regs about evolutionarily advanced planets.  Nobody piggybacks on high priority species.  My species is under review only because it is big and hard to see.  Sessile specimens like mine usually have primitive enzymatic systems.  Camille’s are active, highly evolved, and similar to mammalian earth species.  Biotech’s greatest chance of hitting pay-dirt is with them.”

Her face remained hard, unfriendly.   Her autonomic response to Post was getting more controllable, but she needed him to keep his distance.

Post’s expression was no friendlier than hers.  His eyes glistened.  “I’ve got an idea.  Piggyback with Geology if you want pictures of subterranean monsters.  They’ll be excavating lots of dirt down there.”  His expression changed to wicked.  “Who knows what lurks beneath the surface? Maybe you’ll find miniscuzzhogs eating miniscuzzworms.”    

“And then we can minigag,” smirked Kellogg.

Imelda grimaced.  She slammed the privacy sphere around her workstation.

She could see their mouths moving and surmised that the comments weren’t complimentary.  Too bad.  Post was making fun of her.  She wanted him to dislike her, not converse with her.  That mischievous little sparkle in his eye… her autonomic system was completely wacko again.  Damn, he would be fun to play with.   Better kill that thought.

#

Four weeks of sifting through videos and scans, over and over again.  She was tired and irritable, for a lot of reasons.  Her report on the Scuzzhogs was near completion, but there was more to groundbase clearance than looking at a dominant species.  She had to consider other lifeforms as well, the component she was just starting. Caldwell might be in charge, but she was forced to work through Trefarbe and her administrative connections to obtain CHA clearance.  She had no doubt that Trefarbe would do everything in her power to undermine her reputation and would take credit for anything she happened to do right, claiming that it was her badgering that forced her to do her job.

Trefarbe.  The woman was impressive, in her own way.  Sleeping around with corporation honchos certainly appeared to be an effective way to secure a career when competency was a problem.

#

Jamison was insistent.  “You’ve got to come, Imelda.  I never see you do anything but work.  You need a break.”

“No.”

“Imelda, if you don’t, I’ll bring them over here.  I’ll report you to Hiebass.  I’ll tell him you’re abusing Igor and force you to give him to me.”

Imelda frowned.  She hated it when someone developed a liking for her.  They always seemed to adopt this mother-hen approach.  Well, she could fix that.  She could say yes.


Caldwell coming?”

Jamison’s smile disappeared.  “I only wish.  He’s working. This will keep me from spending an off shift alone.”

Imelda shrugged.  “It’ll be hard leaving Igor home alone.  But I can make the sacrifice, I suppose.”

Jamison glanced at the large furry form barely visible through the bedroom door.  It had not moved from its position buried in the bed’s pillows since she had arrived.  “You mean he notices when you’re gone?”

“I’m really not sure.  He notices more when I don’t feed him on time.  I like him because he’s afraid of mice.  He runs away and hides.  Something to do with a defective kittendom, I suppose.”

“Bring him along.  Grady’s dog has never seen a cat.  It should be entertaining.”

“Sure.  Neurotic people with neurotic animals.  Why not?  How big is the dog?”

“Ten kilos.  Why?”

“Tell Grady he’d better bring a bodyguard for it, then.”

“I haven’t seen your cat do anything but sleep.  I thought you said he was afraid?”

“Only of mice.”

“Oh.”

#

Imelda gazed at Igor contemplatively.  Igor yawned, revealing needlepoint teeth. 

“I don’t know about this, Igor.  Maybe I’d better muzzle you.”  Igor’s eyes were half-shut, almost asleep.  Imelda always marveled at how relaxed a cat could look, seeming to melt into a cushion.

Grinning to herself, she shook her head.  “Nah, it’d just spoil the fun.”  She reached to attach a leash to Igor’s collar.  “Now remember, no clawing the furniture, okay?”

Igor blinked lazily.  She grunted as she picked him up.

“You need to go on a diet,” she muttered.  Igor hung limply in her grasp, only his alert ears giving evidence for identity as more than a fur coat.

As the door to her apartment closed, she dumped Igor on the floor unceremoniously.

“Sorry, pal.  You’re walking.  I don’t want a hernia.”

Emitting a low-pitched ‘rowr’, Igor sat in the hallway looking around curiously.  Heading towards the rec room, Imelda tugged on the leash.

Unwillingly, Igor lifted his hind end off the floor and dragged a few steps.  With a pounce, he loped ahead of her and sat down again.  Imelda took the lead again in a few steps and repeated her tug.

In this leapfrog fashion, Imelda managed to tug, drag, and chase Igor to the rec room.  She entered hesitantly, scanning the lightly populated, dimly-lit dining area.

Spying Jamison at a table, she herded Igor in that direction.

“Hi, Jamison.  I would like to formally introduce you to Igor. His table manners are impeccable but he snores like a buzz saw.”

Jamison’s eyes widened as she actually saw Igor for the first time.

“That’s a cat?”

“Giant Manx.  When they get to the size you want them you take out their pituitary adenomas.  The
y’re very gentle if they like you.”

Igor jumped up on a chair
and sat looking over the table interestedly.

“How can you tell if they like you?”

“I don’t know.  I just tell people to ignore him.  If he comes over to be petted, then you can pet him.  I pretty much let him have it his way.”

Jamison stared at Igor warily.  “I’ve been sitting in a room with that thing loose?  You should have made me sign a release!  Ignore Igor, huh?  Words to live by.”

Imelda sat down next to Igor.  She looked around the table.  Across from her sat a medium sized, athletic appearing man who was grinning broadly.  From his lap peeked a medium sized dog.

“This is Grady, with Chip. Chip is a basenji.  No bark.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Imelda said politely.

Grady stuck out his hand, smiling.  Imelda responded gingerly with her own, which he grabbed and shook vigorously.   “Glad to meet you.  Jamison said you were a good kid, if weird.  Anybody who owns a cat like Igor can’t be all bad.”

Imelda glanced at Igor, who was still staring at the table expectantly.  More specifically, he was staring at the food bin.  “I suppose,” she answered uncertainly.

Chip began whining and Grady laughed. “Won’t do you any good, Chip. You can’t play with Igor.  He looks hungry to me.”

“Postman, you made it!” Jamison’s voice called cheerily.  Post waved from across the room, making his way to join them.

Imelda froze in her chair, trapped.  Jamison knew Post?  Of course she might.  This was a small operation. 
Caldwell probably handpicked his staff, using friends wherever possible.  So much for being an equal opportunity employer.

“Hello, Dr. Imelda,” Post said quietly.

Imelda met his look coolly.  “Hello, Dr. Post.”

Jamison looked back and forth between them.  “I take it that I don’t have to introduce you two?” 

Their expressions remained frozen.

With a brave smile, Jamison turned to Post.  “Zelda couldn’t come?”  

Post had a girlfriend?  Imelda felt acute relief for some reason.

Post shrugged.  “She had some work to do.  Geology is getting cranked up for groundbase.”

“I’ll bet,” Jamison smiled.  “Geology doesn’t give a rip if they disturb the ecology.  They just want to dig holes and crack rocks.”

Post glanced around the table.  Has anyone ordered yet?”

“Just a pitcher.”

“Good.  The cook told me about a special recipe.  He insisted we give it a try.”

Post reached to push an intercom button on the table. “Hey, Jack.  Got the stuff ready?”

“Sure, Post.  You want it now?”

“Most certainly.”

The others at the table looked at each other uncertainly.  “Special recipe?” asked Grady.  “How’d you swing that?  I thought w
e were on standard rations here?”

“I brought my own supplies with me.  But I don’t cook.  Jack didn’t min
d doing a gourmet turn for me so long as I let him keep some of the goods for his private use.”

He looked different when he wasn’t behind Plexiglas.  Better.  She shivered.  She glanced at the pitcher of beer and the mug in front of her.  Booze was for when he was absent.  It could get dangerous when he was actually around.   Nothing but water tonight. 

He offered to pour her a glass.  She declined. 

“You sure?” he asked pointedly.

“I’m not a social drinker.”

“You’re not a social anything, are you?”

Grady interrupted hastily.  “Cool it, Post.”  He glanced at Imelda apologetically.

“Don’t mind him, Imelda.  He’s a terminal grouch.  He’s jealous of your assignment. Tell me, how did you rate it so good with
Caldwell?  Did you know him from before?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“How did you get him to give you a study all to yourself?  Groundbase clearance is not usually linked to a species study.  Was it in your contract?”

As Imelda gaped at Grady in consternation, their food arrived.  Wondering if Grady was serious, Imelda was quiet as she made sure that Igor had his own plate.  “He doesn’t like to share,” she explained. 

The others gazed admiringly at the food.  The cook had obviously consulted their dietary preference files when preparing the food.  Before them sat an array of colorful dishes, with a delicate seafood sauce brimming with shrimp and crabmeat as the centerpiece.

“You must have spent a fortune for this!” Jamison exclaimed.   

“I stopped by Sea Isles on my way here. Great place to stock up.”  Post dug in heartily. The others followed suit eagerly.

The conversation skittered along gaily for a while.  Jamison left the table briefly to check on a procedure her workstation was performing.  Post watched her leave, and then turned to Imelda, his eyes suspicious, probing.     “So how?  A payoff for sleeping with
Caldwell?”

Oops.  This was an interesting situation.  How much did these two know about Jamison and Caldwell?  No wonder Post despised her.   She didn’t need to be nasty to keep him convinced she was evil.

She shrugged.  “What’s it to you, Post?”

His look hurt her indescribably.

“Nothing.  Nothing at all.  Just curious.  So how long do we have to wait for groundbase clearance?”  he changed the subject.

She kept her eyes on him warily.  He had nice lips.  “A few weeks.  I’m required to run a meta-analysis of the results of all the team reports to confirm that there aren’t any other species with potential.  So you’d better get your own report in as fast as you can.  I can’t finish until you do.”

“I’m done,” Post responded.  His expression was dangerous.  He hated her.  A significant portion of her didn’t like that.  “My report says there’s a lot of chitin down there, plus a few worms with non-cartilaginous guts.”  To her chagrin she almost grinned at that.  Fortunately, he turned away.  “What about the rest of our group, Grady?”

Grady had been watching the two intently, clearly fascinated.  He started.  “Um, almost done.   About 90% of the staf
f has filed.  So far so good, nothing that would slow groundbase down.”

Jamison reappeared and Post returned to his meal, frowning.  Grady opened his mouth to say something else, but almost simultaneously his dog began to howl.

Igor sat frozen in his chair, a piece of shrimp dangling from his mouth.  His hair stood on end as he stared intently at the dog.

“Quiet, Chip.  What’s the matter?”  Grady could see nothing to have caused the dog’s alarm and stroked him gently.  “For a dog who can’t bark, you sure do make a lot of noise.”

Chip was staring at Igor, and Igor continued to stare back.

“I think they just noticed each other,” said Imelda.

Chip bared his teeth and lunged for Igor.  Igor didn’t budge, but hissed like a snake around the shrimp in his teeth and a very loud, hoarse tomcat rowrrrr echoed through the room.  Chip froze at the noise, and with a yip ducked behind Grady, shivering.

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