As her foot hit the soil of the alien world, Jane felt a tremor run through her. This was it. Her first offworld assignment. Her first chance to study truly alien species in a truly alien environment.
She looked around. Kahle was one of the few earth-type planets ever discovered, so she felt doubly honoured to have been chosen for the Science Assessment. Because of the similarity to mankind’s home planet, the authorities had been doubly cautious about allowing access, for fear that other life forms besides humans and their ilk might be able to flourish on both: microbes, bacteria, viruses.
It certainly looked earth-like. The trees, bushes and flowers were familiar forms, but all as subtly different from her native Zuala as Home Earth’s were to her.
“I know. It takes a while.”
Pulled out of her reverie, she turned to regard her guide, a short, bearded man of middle age. “Sorry, Dr. Janus. It’s all just so…” words failed her, and she flung her arm out to encompass it all.
“A survival-positive reaction.”
She smiled in recognition of her own jargon being applied to herself. Exobiologists were like other scientists, with their own terms, prejudices, and especially their own jokes.
“Don’t worry. It’s all new to me as well.”
“For the past six months I have not stepped outside without a filter. For the first two months, it was a biohazard suit and full breathing apparatus.” He spread his arms and breathed deeply. “This is true freedom.”
She looked down at her survival coverall and knee boots. “Not exactly shorts and sandals.”
He smiled. “Don’t worry. That will come. Within the compound, it already has.”
His gesture indicated a gangly individual, hirsute chest bare to the sun, wandering nearby.
“What’s in his hand?”
“I would suppose a bottle of wine. There has been a lot of celebration this week.”
Her new mentor grinned. “You’re from Zuala, aren’t you? You’ll find things a bit different here. We don’t stand on quite so much ceremony. You’ll get used to it.”
“I suppose so.”
“But enough chatter. I’m anxious to see my subjects without the restriction of goggles.”
They strolled through the high wire fence, the gate now gaping open and the electric warning signs turned off. A rough-hewn road wound along beside a stream.
“This road is fairly close to the water, isn’t it?”
“Low precipitation. Less runoff, less chance of contagion.”
“Had enough of civilization?”
She glanced at the sterile road surface, then at a clump of trees temptingly near. “May we?”
He made a sweeping gesture. “The planet is free. Go where you will!”
Suppressing a giggle she stepped off the road, automatically keeping to the bare earth, avoiding the mossy ground cover that thickened as they approached the forest. “Any chance of seeing something large?”
He grinned. “You know the answer to that.”
“Yes, but I had my hopes that someone on the ground could beat the statistical averages,” She glanced at him, “which aren’t optimistic.”
“No, the larger vertebrates are thin on the ground and very elusive.”
“Which says predators.”
“Of which we have found none. Interesting, yes?”
“Very. It piques more than my scientific interest.”
Once again they shared a moment of common ground. Every scientist was looking for an entry point into the study of this ecosphere. The one who found the first true anomaly, who attracted the most publishing attention, could be made for life.
He grinned easily. “Plenty here for all, I’d say.”
She returned the smile. Competition could be fierce, destructive though it might be to the goals of research. Janus was the only expert in her field who had a lead on her. She had paid mightily in sweat and dedication (and other methods she didn’t want to be reminded of) to get the position she held, and his cooperation could make a great deal of difference.
“You’ve made it difficult for yourself, you know.”
“I know. No vertebrates, no position for me.” She gave him an ingratiating grin. “Optimism of youth.”
“Hmm.” He raised his eyebrows. “Meaning that I am…?”
She felt a jolt of awareness. A spark of humour? She merely tilted her head in response and turned back to her observations. A glance out of the corner of her eye showed him doing the same. People with beards were difficult. You tended to miss what their faces really looked like. Now that she noticed, his beard softened a well-defined chin and his collar-length hair hid small, shapely ears and a high forehead.
Suddenly a detail in the bushes ahead leaped to her consciousness. “What’s that?”
His only motion mirrored hers, a hand slipping up to engage his headband camera. “Where?”
She spoke in a low voice, not a whisper. “In the crook of that bush. Smooth hide, mottled green.”
“Nothing. Which bush?”
She pointed, moving slowly. Now that she had seen it, the creature seemed obvious.
“Smooth snout, black eyes, rounded ears. Long neck. The rest is less distinct.”
“Yes.” His voice suddenly became strained. “It is. It’s a dragon!”
A pang of disappointment shot through her. Nothing new. “A what?”
“A dragon. What a beauty!” He glanced at her. “You’re exceptionally lucky. I’ve only seen one of them before. Wonderful camouflage.”
“See how it has one wing stretched out along the branch to disguise the shape of its body?”
As the creature remained still, his voice returned to normal volume. “Yes. They were not included in our research findings, because there’s no solid scientific data on them. More of a legend, actually.” He smiled at his own humour. “We suspect a degree of intelligence. Look at it. It knows we’re here, but it shows no fear of us at all.”
“More like interest. Look. It’s ears are mobile.”
“Listening for predators?”
She looked around, but saw nothing.
“Damn! It’s gone.”
She scanned the area. “There it is. Going behind that tree.”
“How did it move so fast?”
“It didn’t. It waited until we looked away. Do we follow?”
“I don’t want to chase it, but if we’re careful…”
They stalked forward, two trained experts at their trade, intense and competent.
“By the way, they move in packs. Or flocks. If we see a group, you can choose the name.”
She nodded and changed her visual awareness to include a wider area, her scientific training forcing the jubilation down. “There.”
“Didn’t see it.”
“Under the bush with the red berries.”
“On that log.”
“Missed it again. You have good eyes.”
“I’m tuned to it now. You watch for others.”
She was aware that she had taken the point role in this hunt, and was pleased that he filled in behind her. She knew that his camera, like his attention, was on a wider angle, hers concentrating on the subject.
The creature stayed in the open now, scuttling between the tree trunks as the bush closed in around them.
“It moves well on the ground. The wings seem to be part of the front limbs.”
“Really more like bats than dragons. Fur, not scales.” She heard humour creep in again. “We just preferred the name.”
She watched the creature. “It knows we’re following.”
He did her the honour of not questioning her intuition. “So what does it want?”
“If they are as intelligent as you say…”
“…it wants us to follow.”
She strode out faster, and the little dragon increased its pace, bounding in as straight a line as possible now, glancing over its shoulder at her, urging her to follow.
“There’s no question. It wants us to follow, and it wants us to hurry up.” She began to lope, trying to keep her head steady for the camera’s sake. Now the creature was speeding too, launching itself from logs to fly wherever possible.
“Easy, Dr. Olsun. Let’s not have an injury.”
“There’s something wrong. We have to get there.”
“Wherever the problem is. It came and got us to help.”
He was panting behind her now. “What do you mean?”
“Can’t you see? It’s frightened, and not of us. Something is wrong ahead of us.”
“Whoa, there. Dr. Olsun. Stop right now.”
The snap of his voice brought her up short.
“Don’t stop! Hurry.”
He shook his head. “No. Let’s not get panicked into something stupid.”
“I’m not doubting your instincts, Doctor. What if you’re right? What if the predator we have been looking for is up ahead? Where is your sidearm?”
That shocked her. “I’m not carrying one. This area has been cleared.”
“That’s right, and I’m not either. So we have to be careful. First rule of rescue: don’t become another victim.”
“But look at it!”
The little dragon had swooped back, now, weaving through the trees towards them, then turning back with a somehow pleading movement.
“All right, little guy. We’re coming. Just let’s be careful, all right?”
They moved forward at all possible speed, but side by side now, keeping sharp lookout.
“More of them.”
“How do you know?”
“The chittering is getting louder. More voices.”
“The noise it’s been making since it started flying. A sort of anxious chittering sound.”
“I can’t hear it. High-pitched?”
He nodded. “Woman’s hearing. Picks up different frequencies. The camera will have it.”
He motioned forward, and they eased even slower now, in spite of the anxious flitting of their dragon.
They paused at the edge of the clearing. A large tree had fallen, rending a hole in the canopy and flattening the underbrush. The torn roots reached skyward, and in the cavity they had left…
“Look at that!”
A seething mass of wings and bodies covered the indentation, flowing and combining so quickly that it was impossible for the eye to maintain a pattern.
As their dragon approached, the mass suddenly parted and the chittering cut off. A path appeared through the bodies, and every eye was focused on the aliens.
“What’s down there?” She moved forward.
“Careful, now. They have teeth and claws.”
She glanced at him.
“Forward-facing eyes. Ironic if they were the predators.”
“No, they are definitely in need of help. I have to go.”
“Just take it very slowly. Don’t precipitate a mob reaction.”
“Got it. Take my back.”
Again she was at the point, her backup spreading his senses to protect what he could.
She eased between the rows of bodies, noting their positions. She spoke for him and for the recording. “They don’t look threatening. No muscle tension, no foot-gripping. Eyes not staring. In fact, their eyes keep flicking backwards. There’s something important down there…Oh.”
“I’ve found her. Oh, the poor thing!”
“What? Careful now, don’t rush…”
“Don’t worry.” She knelt beside the body that lay curled in the hollow of the roots. Like the dragons, but larger, much larger. The longer hair which covered her body now matted with blood. Long gashes scored her flanks, and one of the rounded ears was completely torn away. The creature raised her head slowly, her eyes boring into Jara’s.
“Pain. She’s in terrible pain.”
“How can you know that?”
“Look at her wounds.”
He slid in beside her. “Uh. That looks pretty bad. What kind of predator?
“That’s not our worry now. She needs help.”
He backed away. “It’s our worry if it comes back.”
“They aren’t new wounds. Blood pooling and crusting. She came here some time ago. Crawled in to die, I suspect.”
“You think she’s that bad?”
“She’s very weak. Wait a moment. She’s moving.”
The long neck straightened, and the whiskered muzzle approached, the eyes never leaving Jara’s. She could hear the chittering again, louder, with deeper tone. The scientific part of her brain questioned the wisdom of looking so deeply into the eye of an unknown predator, but all was washed away in a deluge of pain and sorrow, yet wisdom and pride as well. She was aware of a fluttering at her back, of warm bodies pressing against her. Then the pain surged back, and a fierce will pushed at her, lancing into her mind with its intensity. She watched her arms, separated from her by a great distance, rise, her hands reach out, seize the neck, flex…
The chittering ceased.
“Jara! Dr. Olsun! What happened? What did you do?”
She looked down at the creature in her hands. “She wanted it.”
“What? What did you do!”
“She was in terrible pain. She wanted to die.”
“What do you mean? How could you know that?”
She looked down. “Look at her wounds. Look at the blood.”
Then she realized. “Where did they go?”
“The others? They all swarmed around you, and I thought they were going to attack. Then they just exploded out of here in all directions, disappeared. That’s when I saw you…” He mimicked her hand position.
She laid the creature down and stood, staggering slightly as her back protested the sudden movement. How long had she stood there? She edged back from the hole, scanning the woods around.
Dr. Janus was shaking his head. “Well, Dr. Olsun, I must say this is all highly irregular. I understand the unusual circumstances, but your actions have been…I don’t know any easier way to put it…very unscientific.”
The change in his tone showed that he was no longer speaking to her, but to the camera. A shiver ran through her. “I only did what any civilized person would.”
“In our civilization, perhaps. And that’s all that either of us should say at the moment, I think.”
She appreciated that. A comment in the heat of action could be misconstrued later.
“I think we should take steps to secure the…body.”
“Yes. Shall we pull her out?”
He regarded her. “You keep referring to it as ‘she’. Do you have any reason for that?”
She shrugged. “It seems right. A larger creature with a host of smaller ones indicates some kind of mother function in most hive and pack animals.”
“Hive. That’s an interesting thought. Anyway, lets get at it.” He reached down and selected a limb that was clean of blood.
Suddenly the air was filled with chittering bodies and wings. And claws and teeth. The two humans stumbled back, arms flailing. At the edge of the clearing, the attack stopped and the dragonets returned to the root cavity.
“Are you all right?”
She looked at him: hair disheveled, shirt loose. Then she looked at her own hands, arms. “I’m fine. In fact, I’m not injured at all. How about you?”
He scanned himself doubtfully. “Me neither. I thought they were going to tear me to bits.”
“So did I. Somehow they drove us off without injury.”
“Well, I guess we’re about to find out why we’ve never found a dragon’s body lying around.”
“Bones, yes. A full body, no.”
Their attention turned to the scene before them, cameras on close focus.
“Can you see?”
“Yes. I think…Oh.”
“What? Oh. Yes, ‘Oh’ is right. They’re eating her, aren’t they?”
“I confirm that, Dr. Janus. The dragonets are eating the body of their mother.”
“If that is their mother.”
“Whatever. They are definitely ingesting the flesh. Not gorging. There is no fighting, no hierarchical struggle. It is…almost like a ritual.”
“Yes, there is definitely a ritual aspect to their behaviour. They seem to be taking turns.”
Jara took refuge in her own rite of scientific observation, but her mind was whirling. What had happened? She had an image of eyes boring into hers, of a powerful will imposing itself upon her. She had blanked out for some time. Long enough to kill the first sample of an alien species she had laid hands on.
Her mind raced on. There would be an inquiry. Worst case scenario, she would be thrown off the planet, out of the university. No, even worse. This new species could be declared sentient, and she would be charged with murder. Her defense? “She asked me to.”
She’d have to talk to her lawyers about mercy killing.
“Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking…”
“Yes, I can imagine.”
The feeding had been slowing, and now it stopped. All the eyes turned to the humans, and a path opened.
Jara frowned. “An invitation…?”
“Yes, We’re being invited to join in.”
“Oh, shit. Now we’re in deep trouble. They’re sentient, we know nothing about them, and our chances of choosing an appropriate response are diminishingly small.”
“No they aren’t.”
“What? You think we should accept?”
She managed to smile at him. “No, Doctor. I don’t know much about exosociology, but there are guidelines. Humans are willing to be cooperative, but there are certain actions our society does not take. There are rituals counter to our ethos. Eating the flesh of another sentient creature is one of these. We politely refuse.”
“I don’t know what they will consider a polite refusal. Be my guest.”
Once again she took the lead, conscious of the camera upon her. She stepped forward and pushed her hands out, palms forward, the universal human signal of rejection. At the same time, she tried to form on her face and in her mind the acceptance of their right to their own actions.
There was a moment of stillness, and then they moved. Again, with that storm of wings and bodies, they were gone, and the forest glade was still.
The two humans looked at each other, then at the skeleton.
She shrugged and tugged a specimen bag from the pouch in the back of her survey vest. “Keep your eyes open.” She started slowly, but as her work progressed and there was no interruption, she rose to her usual efficiency, labeling and sorting the bones with precision. When she finished, handed him a bag.
“Well, that does it. Any sign?”
“I guess we keep our eyes open and head home.”
He shrugged. “Nothing else that I can think of.”
With a final sweep of the scene, cameras on full magnification, they turned and plodded back to camp.
They were silent until they reached the gates, their minds probably following the same inevitable path. As they entered the camp, Dr. Janus turned to her.
“Dr. Olsun, you know what has to happen now.”
She heard the formality creeping into his voice, and thought back to their brief moment of personal interaction at the start of the day. “Yes, Dr. Janus.” She slipped off her camera and passed it to him. Only then did he reach up and shut down his own recorder.
Without further comment, they strode to the security office beside the gate, where Janus asked for the Security Head. He arrived, looking surprised at the formal poses of the scientists. He straightened his shoulders. “What can I do for you two?”
“Dr Jara is to be confined to her quarters pending the outcome of an enquiry.” He placed his specimen bag on the desk, and she did the same. “These are to be considered evidence. Secure them and mark them clearly as such.” He turned to Jara, raising his eyebrows.
She felt a gush of relief at being included. “Refrigeration, I think. The bones are clean, but there will be connective tissue…”
“Right. Refrigeration of course. And mark them very clearly.” The only refrigeration was in the kitchen.
“Right away, sir. What is the charge?”
“There is no charge, and there might never be. We are simply following strict procedure in a very complex situation. Understand?”
This formal language obviously struck a familiar tone, and the officer nodded sharply. “Perfectly, sir. If you will follow me, Doctor.”
With measured stride he escorted her to her rooms: correct and polite, laying a great chasm of humanity between them. He inquired if she needed anything, informed her of the meal schedule, and departed. She barely noticed. Her actions of the day hammered at her head. What had happened?
It was easy to see. Caught up in the enthusiasm of her first day, buoyed by Janus’s treatment, overconfident because of her leading role, she had done…what any human would have done in the same circumstances. And no scientist. The scene roiled past, again and again, until she finally came to a conclusion. She would go to her grave knowing she had done the right thing. If that meant she wasn’t a scientist, that all her work and sacrifice had been for nothing, then so be it. She had acted true to her nature.
Then she let herself go and did something she hadn’t done since her first heartbreak at the age of fifteen. She cried herself to sleep.
She was awakened by the feeling of enclosure. The room was pitch black. Suffocation pressed in on her, and she pawed for the light switch. While the light helped, the stale air choked her. The window…sealed…those regulations were void. She tore the plastic off, wrenched the handle, jerked the window open.
Fresh air poured in on her, and she breathed deeply, sponging the sweat from her forehead with the hem of her nightgown. A thought niggled that the air in her room shouldn’t be stale. Lights in the rest of the camp showed that the power was on. However, the relief was so great that she shrugged off the worry and went back to bed. The room seemed larger, and some light sifted in. She slept.
Warmth enveloped her. She knew she was dreaming but it didn’t matter. Flight. She could have smiled in her sleep. Flying dreams were her favourites. She swooped and soared through the night sky with her sisters and brothers, snapping food from the air with ease: crunchy, piquant, satisfying. They worked higher along the mountain face, where a stream rushed over a cliff so high that the wind blew the spray away before it reached the ground. They flirted in the drifting plumes of water, the drops cooling their fur.
Then out, out, soaring above the countryside, the lights of the camp a beacon far below them. Down in swoops and spirals, the world spinning in heady ecstasy beneath them.
A blaring claxon blasted her awake, dimly aware of a fluttering in the air of the room. Harsh light flooded the camp, running feet and shouts everywhere. She slapped on the light and fumbled into her clothes.
“May I have your attention please. Stay calm. Our sensors show alien life forms in the compound. None pose physical threat to a human. Please stay in your rooms with your doors closed. I repeat, nothing to cause you harm. Please keep all doors and windows closed. Thank you.”
She tiptoed over and closed her window, then sat on the bed.
It didn’t take long.
There was a knock on the door. “Dr. Olsun?”
“Are you all right?”
“Are you alone?”
“May I come in?”
“Will you open the door?”
She walked over, wondering what would be outside. To her relief and mild amusement, it was a very young soldier in shirtsleeves, his sidearm held in the approved two-hand neutral position, muzzle upwards. She motioned him in.
His caution gradually relaxed as he checked her sitting room, then her bedroom and closet, finally the washroom.
“You forgot to look under the bed.”
He started, then relaxed and grinned, leaning over and lifting the bedspread. The mattress sat on a solid raised platform.
“Thank you, Soldier. I feel ever so much better, now.”
He sobered. “The lifeforms were sensed in this area, Doctor.”
“Were they? What sort?”
He shrugged. “Birds, I guess. They flew down to this building, then they flew away.”
“Dunno, Ma’am. Big enough to set off the sensors.” He glanced around. “You’re fine here, Ma’am. I have to check the rest of this corridor.”
“Carry on, then, Soldier. Thank you for coming.”
“No problem, Doctor. See you ‘round.” He seemed in no hurry to leave.
“It’s a small camp. If they ever let me out of here, I’ll see you around.”
The lad recovered his formal face. “Please stay in your room until the ‘all clear’ is sounded, Dr. Olsun.” He saluted and left, closing the door firmly behind him. Not before she saw the gun go back to the ‘ready’ position.
She smiled to herself. There weren’t many women in this scientific bunch. Hard for a young private far from home. Especially if he finds an old stick ten years his senior interesting.
She stretched out a slim leg. Not such a bad stick, actually.
The thought came to her that no young lady of Zuala should ever have such an idea. Well, I’m no longer young, and being a lady never got me anything.
She returned to her bed, but sleep was slow to come. Or maybe it wasn’t. She kept reliving the vividness of the dream, the flight, the joy. She needed to do some research.
Breakfast was late, served by a steward who was obviously in a rush. She took no offense at his brusque behaviour, in case she was responsible. The moment she had brushed the crumbs away, she hauled out her tabscreen, accessed Geoforms.
Her knowledge of direction and distance was precise, and it only took seconds to find the site and bring up the photographs. A high valley in the mountains above the camp, glaciers spewing water over a ledge, to float away on the winds gusting up the pass. She watched the video sections, amused at the attempts of the pilot to approach the falling plumes without running too much risk. There were some regulations strained to the breaking point that day, she surmised. Still, the flat screen showed nothing to compare with her dream.
Which wasn’t a dream. She was deep in thought when Dr. Janus came to collect her.
He shrugged, the informality raising her spirits. “Nobody knows what to do. You pose no danger. What you did was completely unprecedented, yet so completely befitting human nature that nobody wants to deal with it. So you’re making the rounds like the proverbial hot potato, being dropped by everyone.”
“We’re going over to see the Science Head. He’s already talked to the Station Master up above, and they don’t see it as any problem of theirs.”
“Which is good.”
“Oh, yes. If this gets outside the atmosphere, it could go anywhere.”
“So I’m in the hands of the bureaucracy?”
“Not if we can help it. Let’s see what Dr. Anderstein has to say.”
She had only met the Science Team Head briefly and had a vague recollection of a heavy shock of white hair above an unlined face. Tall. Sounded friendly. “What’s he like?”
“A fine scientist. Paleontology. Good administrator. He’ll take the path of least resistance.”
“Ship me out on the next shuttle.”
“File a report and put you back to work. He doesn’t like waste.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“I can’t promise…”
They reached the Station Office – a pale green door in a prefab two-story like all the rest – and he held the door for her. The secretary ushered them straight into Dr. Anderstein’s office. He leaned across his desk to shake her hand.
“I always like to have a private meeting with new staff as soon as they arrive. You seem to have jumped the queue.”
“Have a seat, you two. I gather you have also rather jumped the gun on new scientific discoveries.”
She glanced at Janus. He seemed to want her to answer.
“We took some amazing footage, Sir.”
“I watched it. You have groundbreaking footage. Both on the scientific and the legal front, I’m afraid.”
“Not actually, Sir.”
The Head’s eyes jumped to Dr. Janus. “what do you mean?”
“I’ve been looking at the images. At the crucial moment. Dr. Olsun was covered with dragons. My camera shows absolutely nothing. Hers was obscured by darkness and too close to focus. It only shows a blur, which could be construed as anything.
“I mean that there is no evidence of her doing anything. We came upon a wounded alien being. She went close to ascertain its condition. She was swarmed by other beings, who seemed to be crowding in to help, as they did her no harm. The wounded being died. The body was devoured immediately afterward. ”
“But we have the skeleton.”
“I checked that, too. The neck vertebrae have been separated in two places. One looks like a cut, the other more of a tear. Nothing conclusive.”
“So what is all the fuss about?”
“No fuss, Sir. I have taken steps to secure all evidence pursuant to the death of an alien lifeform while in close proximity to, and communication with, one of our scientists. It will do no good to Dr. Olsun’s reputation or to her studies if the evidence of such an important occurrence is obscured, sullied or contaminated by inaccurate procedures. I suggest that we need to draft out a policy on this topic, and submit it to the Site Oversight Committee. With guidance from them, we will be able to deal with such an event, should one occur in the future.”
“You suggest that, do you? I suggest a three-person taskforce. You may submit a shortlist of four possible cross-disciplinary candidates. Dr. Olsun, you cannot be one of them. Unfortunate. You should have been. I will inform the Station Master of my decision, and await his approval. You must remain confined to the compound for the nonce.”
“To the compound?”
“Yes. My staff is too small to have anyone sitting on her duff requiring service. As an administrator, I must be concerned with the welfare of all, and that includes the overworked kitchen staff, whose happiness is far more important to the camp than that of a junior scientist.” Was that the beginning of a twinkle?
“I suppose I have just learned my place in the hierarchy, Sir.”
“I hope this whole situation has been a learning experience, my dear Doctor. Many of us are perforce both bureaucrats and scientists, and we take a dim view of those whose actions tip the balance away from our avocation.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.”
“And this isn’t the military. Until you know me better, I am Dr. Anderstein, although ‘My Lord’ will suffice.” He rose.
She offered him a full curtsey and a grin. “Yes, my Lord.” Trying to keep the elation out of her step, she left the office.
When they were far enough across the compound, she turned to Janus. “I am going to be in your debt for the rest of my career. What kind of bureaucratic mess have I got you into?”
He shrugged. “Just another committee. I know who to ask. Meetings short and to the point.” He fixed her with a stare. “You are going to do more work than anyone else, though. You owe me that.”
“With pleasure. It might be useful, actually.”
“That thought had crossed my mind. We could do ground-breaking work if we approach it seriously.” Then he smiled. “What do you think of Anderstein?”
“What a mind! ‘For the nonce?’ I have never heard that expression outside of a historical drama.”
“He’s only fifty-five, you know. The hair is just genetics.”
They strolled a few paces, then he stopped and turned to her. “Now we should deal with your real problem.”
Sudden fear coursed through her. “What’s that?”
“I ran through some other video this morning.”
“Is the environmental seal broken on your window?”
“I’m afraid it is. I felt really stuffy last night.”
“Stuffy? Nothing wrong with the air system that I’ve heard. I’ll have it checked. Maybe it was caustrophobia. Ever been confined before?”
“Well, that solves that. But it still doesn’t solve the dragons.”
“The video was very poor. What it showed could have been birds resting on the eaves. But it also could have been dragons. Pouring in your window, then pouring out again as the alarm went off.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
She tossed up her hands. “It’s the same as when the Den Mother died. All a muddle. Last night, I thought it was a dream. Till the alarms went off.”
“Why do you call her the Den Mother?”
“Because that’s what she is, I suppose. Dragons – den – mother. It fits.”
“Yes. But the way you said it…never mind. Just keep them away, all right?”
“Keep them away?”
“At the moment, you’re stuck in here, and they’re out there. Just for the nonce.”
“I didn’t call them.”
“I don’t know how to stop them!”
“Well, you’re going to have to find a way. I can’t. It’s you they came to, it’s you they talk to.”
“Dragons don’t talk.”
“They don’t have to. They just know.”
“Really. How do they know?”
“It’s like a hive mind. What one knows, they all know. The Den Mother is the repository. When she dies, the others eat her, to symbolize…to start…What am I saying?”
“I understand what you’re saying. What I am in awe of is how you know it.” He raised a hand. “No, don’t say it. You ‘just know,’ don’t you?”
“Well, it seems logical.”
“It’s more than logical.” He took her arm in a grasp that allowed no argument. “You’re coming with me.”
Unable to form a coherent thought, she followed him to his office, where he sat her down in a comfortable chair. Then he adjusted the lighting and set his camera up on its desk pod. She suddenly knew what the white rat felt like at the start of the experiment.
“Now, Dr. Olsun, let’s look at what happens when the Den Mother dies. We know that the Den eats her, but that’s symbolic? Is that all?”
“Of course.” She shuddered. “It’s not as if they eat her brains to share out the knowledge or anything like that. They aren’t barbarians.”
He grinned and she knew what he was thinking. Every society thinks its own rituals are perfectly reasonable.
“What happens then?”
She considered, and as she did pictures came to her.
“Her death is the end of the Den…No, not right away. They have been together for a long time.” She saw his eyebrows rise. “For years…many years…They don’t do numbers like we do. I’ll figure it out somehow. They stay together, but they gradually drift apart. Their memories diverge with no Mother there to link them. Then they find mates and start new dens.”
“But there we have the problem.”
“Yes. This Den isn’t ready to split up. They’re too young. And the Den Mother was in so much pain, she wasn’t really thinking straight.” She pondered, the ideas passing through her head so quickly she couldn’t arrange them.
She came back to reality with a start. “Sorry, Dr. Janus. This is all very new to me, and I’m still processing it.”
“But now we know what happened.”
“Simple. The Mother is in pain and dying. Wants to die. Then you come along. She lures you in, dumps the Den’s wisdom into your head, including her death wish. Mission accomplished.”
“But that means…I’m…”
“You came here to make a name for yourself. You’ve succeeded beyond your wildest imagination.” He smiled and shook his head in wonder.
“You’re the Den Mother.”