Tom Purdom




Davin Sam owned a complete map of his wife's chromosomes and a detailed flow chart of her postnatal personality modification programs. Lizera had originally been designed for investors who were staffing a middle-level resort in the asteroid belt, back in the Solar System. Her designers had assumed she would spend most of her waking hours working but they had also realized she would have to relate to all kinds of people. She had been endowed with a strong appetite for learning, therefore, and a carefully measured artistic impulse. Today she had spent six hours sitting in a corner of Davin's observation tower, absorbed in her current reading program. The last time Davin had glanced at her reader she had been consuming a dissertation on the history of gunpowder military organization.

When Lizera had needed a break from reading, she had sealed herself inside a listening helmet and immersed herself in music. Usually she listened to Bach and the Chinese composers of the late twenty-first century. She played two instruments: a high quality electronic simulator and a classic Chinese qin.

There were days when Davin and Lizera prattled for hours while he kept one eye on the images on his screenbank. Sometimes Lizera played one of her instruments while he concentrated on his screens. Today, the only sounds Davin was interested in were the high pitched chatterings relayed through the loudspeakers. The lakenesters seemed to be engaging in a midwinter overhaul of their nest. Every animal in the nest seemed to be doing something.

The nest rose from the water two hundred meters from the lakeshore. Twelve of the fifty-seven animals in the nest had probes attached to their nervous systems. A hundred and twelve other probes had been attached to the structure of the nest. Davin could observe every tunnel and room. He could watch the transmissions from twenty probes at a time on his screenbank.

"I'm going back to the compound," Lizera said.

She didn't ask him if he minded if she left him alone. She knew his moods.

"I may spend the night here," Davin said.

"I'd be surprised if you didn't."

Davin didn't turn around until she was ready to leave. Then he gave her a quick up and down inspection. She had covered her gown with a red armored coat. A long gun rested in a holster built into the coat. A pair of sighting glasses covered her eyes. Their residential compound was only two kilometers from the tower, on top of a low hill, but they always went armed and armored when they traveled between the two sites.

Outside the tower, on the landward side, the winter wind bent the yellow grasses. Most of the scattered trees were bare. The rest still carried their yellow leaves.

The planet had been discovered by a Japanese probe and the Japanese had given it an apt name-- Itoko, cousin. At first glance, the flora and fauna looked like simple variations on their Earth equivalents. There were ground creatures that resembled mammals. There were flying organisms that could be compared to birds and insects. The life forms were all constructed from complicated carbon-based molecules. But nothing was quite the same. The molecules that resembled amino acids had different chemical formulas. The molecule that performed the same function as chlorophyll produced plants that looked yellow, not green. The molecule that carried the genetic code was a self-replicating double helix, just like DNA, but it was constructed from a different set of bases, phosphates, and sugars and it responded to a different array of chemical signals when it performed its genetic functions.

Davin turned back to his screenbank and switched one of the screens to the camera that would track Lizera's progress. Two guardcats greeted her at the bottom of the stairs. One cat took up a position a few steps in front of her. The other cat fell in behind her.

Sometimes Davin watched her as she walked along the path they had worn between the tower and the compound. She was a fleshy, sinuously graceful woman. He could respond to the way she moved even when she was hidden inside the tent-like armored coat. The slightest movement of her clothes evoked an image of the body moving inside them. Today he kept his attention on the screenbank.

The lakenesters could be compared to beefy river otters or oversize water rats but no terrestrial aquatic mammal had ever developed the social organization that dominated their lifestyle. Their nests were constructed with techniques that required elaborate cooperation. They appeared to be slightly more intelligent than chimpanzees but no chimpanzee had ever used the kind of communication system they had developed. Their linguistic abilities couldn't be compared to anything humans had encountered on Earth.

The lakenesters weren't the only creatures on Itoko who had developed complicated vocal systems. The exploration surveys had discovered three other organisms that had become dependent on their ability to communicate. The packhunters that roamed across most of the planet's single continent seemed to be the most developed example. One of the probes had caught a brief glimpse of packhunters launching a coordinated attack on a lakenester stronghold, complete with wide flanking movements and intense assaults at single points.

Why had so many species developed the same ability? Was there some common genetic trait? Had the pressures of competition somehow pushed entirely different evolutionary lines in the same direction? Had the lakenesters become communicators because it was their best defense against the coordinated attacks of the packhunters?

In the Solar System, Davin had been an experimental ethologist. He had designed organisms with certain qualities and watched them interact with mammoth artificial habitats. Here he was exploring mysteries that had been created by the random, unpredictable process of natural selection. This lonely lakeshore, three thousand kilometers from the primary human base camp, was the most exciting place he had ever seen. For the first time in the history of his discipline, ethologists were studying the behavior of life forms that had been produced by a completely different evolutionary history.

The top screen on his bank was an oversize rectangle that displayed the current position of every animal in the nest. The computer took in all the information coming from the probes and assembled it into a complete picture. On the top screen, Davin could see the overall pattern in the lakenesters' project. On the other screens, he could observe the small scale maneuvering that made it all happen. The lakenesters had a social organization that resembled the system employed by the terrestrial apes called bonobos. A committee of females dominated the nest with techniques that included sexual rewards, coordinated acts of violence, and behavior that seemed to resemble cajoling and even joshing. Right now the "committee members" seemed to be all over the place.

Davin frowned. His attention jumped to the screen that was tracking his wife. Lizera was wading through grass that rose above her waist. The camera was angling to the left as it followed her. It should have been panning upward, toward the top of the screen.

He widened the view and discovered she had already put ten meters between herself and the path. Her guardcats were rearing up on their hind legs so they could see over the grass. She started to move forward, toward the residential compound, and stopped after she'd taken three steps. She stared at something on her right and edged to the left.

Davin activated his communications implant. "What's going on? Why aren't you using the path?"

"There's something happening with the packhunters. They keep jumping up in front of me when I start toward the compound."

"When you start toward the compound? That's the only time they do it?"

"Some of them just jumped up when I started walking back to the path."

"How many do you see when they jump up?"

"It's just four or five when they jump up. But I think I've got the whole pack around me. I can hear them all around me."

"It sounds like they're herding you, doesn't it?"

"Just like they herd their prey animals? Do you really think they'd do that?"

The packhunters were the size of small terrestrial pigs. They had fangs and claws but they weren't particularly strong or fast. They killed larger animals by harassing them until they were too exhausted to struggle.

Davin stared at his screenbank. Three of the lakenester females were chattering at a young male-female pair.

"Stay there. I'll be there in a minute."



Copyright 2003 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited.

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