Maggie perched on her favorite limb, watching him brush the loose dust off of the rippled, ceramic board. Dell Carver, in sandals and threadbare khaki shorts, looked up at her. "I don't suppose you want to tell me what this thing is, do you?"
"Brakk," the black bird replied, turning her head to the side, watching him with her left eye this time. For a native life form, she was remarkably similar in body shape to a magpie, if a bit larger. Even the black and white feathers were reminiscent of the Earth bird.
"I didn't think so. But if you do see anything you recognize, feel free to chime in."
He tossed a wafer of bread her way, and she dropped to the dirt in a flash to devour it.
A scrub board? A counting board? A work of art? He shook his head. No one even knew what the vanished natives of 24 Ceti Alpha 4 looked like. Their tools were plain and utilitarian--no decorations or markings. Diggers called them Goobers.
Maggie chose that moment to flutter down from her perch and land among his untagged collection of artifacts. She latched onto his new find.
"A good choice," Dell commented. "I found that in a rock slide next to a cliff a couple of kilometers west of here. It doesn't appear broken, except at the base. It was probably mounted on a longer pole. But I haven't any idea what it is."
He put his hand on the pole and Maggie fluttered her wings as he propped the broken pole up against a bench. She never let go of her grip.
"Maybe you're right, Maggie. It does look like a perch. Did the Goobers keep your kind as pets?" A fist-sized block of some hard material was mounted just below the perch. Dell fingered the thumb-sized dimple in the block. "If that's a feed dish, your ancestors certainly ate a lot lighter than you do."
"Klakk-kak." Maggie examined him, first with the right eye, and then her left.
"If that's a hint, you can just wait until later. I just fed you."
Abruptly she gave a loud shriek and fluttered off at high speed.
Startled, Dell looked around, scanning the nearly cloudless, blue sky. "Is it Sara's day?" Isolated as he was, he lost track of calendar dates.
He dashed to his tent and spent five seconds sniffing at his two shirts, before throwing on the old one and quick-walking to the clearing next to his dig site.
The saucer shaped craft was now visible, whistling as it descended. Dust kicked up as it settled onto hover skirts. Engine noise wound down to silence.
A smile came naturally when a light brown mop of hair poked out of the hatch. Sara jumped down to the ground and sauntered over towards him, looking very good in her wrinkled bush gear.
"You miss me?" she asked.
His smile said yes, but he shook his head. "You scared Maggie off again."
She waved at her craft. "Well, this time I even killed the life support blowers. I would like to meet this friend of yours."
"No telling how long it will take her to come back."
"I can wait. It will take hours to talk you out of your stash in any case."
He shook his head in sorrow and turned back towards his tent. "You know it makes no sense to give you any of my finds."
"But Dell, honey." She tripped lightly up beside him and intertwined her arm with his. "You know you can't sell them to anyone else. The Diggers Board has a contract with the corporation. Think of your stock options."
He laughed, and she joined in. It was all they could do about the situation.
"What is the stock price down to these days?" he asked.
"It was two and a tenth this morning."
"And what's the exercise price for the options the corporation is trying to tempt me with?"
She looked bashful. "Well, the director did drop it to five last week."
He sneered. "Down, down, down. I guess that reverse split didn't do the job. How long before the corporation goes bankrupt?"
"You aren't going to get out that easy, Dell. You know that the contract with Diggers will just be sold to one of the big archeology corporations if it goes belly up."
He led her over to his work table and pulled the drop cloth off an assortment of artifacts.
"Well, if that happens, maybe their stock options will be worth something. Until then, I can't see any advantage in giving up these."
She already had a viewer in hand, looking at the weathered collection of Goober objects. He kept behind her, so he could read the screen over her shoulder. He lusted after her toys.
"This one has a magnetic residue." She looked back at his face. "You see." He nodded. The false colors showed striations around the handle. He had it tagged as a watering pot, and it certainly looked like one--if the gardener had hands twice the size of his.
She shook her head at the readings, shifting scales. She sagged and slipped the viewer back into its holster.
"Oh, Dell, I'm about ready to give up on this place. All these hints, but no breakthrough. I have more worthless stock options than you do. All it would take is one good discovery, something to give the stockholders back on Earth hope that some lost alien scientific process is ripe for decoding--hope that with just a little more patience, they will all be richer than the investors in the Lambda Pegasus expedition."
He laughed. "We could fake something. All it has to do is last long enough to push the stock back up to make it worthwhile to cash out."
She slapped his hand. "You don't mean that!" She chewed her lip. "Although, it is a tempting idea."
"Ha. Sara, you know you love this stuff as much as I do."
She nodded, guiltily. "But I'm smart enough to ride around in air-conditioning and make you do the digging." She sat down on the bench and crossed her hands one knee. “What else do you have for me?”
"Here comes Maggie." He pointed. Sara looked up from her portion of his supper. Negotiations had lasted most of the afternoon and he had talked her out of an extra ten options, tempting her with fresh grilled tallots. The fish he caught in the nearby stream were low in usable nutrients but tasted wonderful.
The options were worthless as stock derivatives, but they were the only currency on the planet. Diggers were incurably optimistic--it was an occupational hazard. There was always someone who would barter real goods for options. Dell knew that from long experience. He traded away too many critical supplies his first year here.
Sara watched as Maggie settled onto an overhead branch. "She doesn't want to get too close."
Dell smiled. "She likes me okay. She knows I won't bother her--and I won't try to sell her any options."
Sara pushed her hair back and looked at Dell with a smile. "Do I bother you?"
He grumbled low. "I would be bothered a lot less if I didn't know for a fact that you were just as friendly with every digger on your circuit."
"But Dell, Honey, I really mean it with you."
Maggie fluttered her wings and Dell reached for one of the dried wafers. He sailed it over towards her tree. She was down on it a second later.
"What's that?" Sara pointed.
Maggie had dropped a small gray object in her hurry to devour the wafer.
"Looks like a pebble, or a marble."
"Artifact?" She started to get up.
"Let me. You'll startle her." He rose slowly and stepped gently towards the fragments of the wafer that Maggie was hurriedly cleaning up. He rolled the marble between his fingers.
"A little more than a centimeter. Hard. Looks perfectly spherical." He set it down on the table. "Heavier than wood, but lighter than rock."
Sara picked it up and held it into the sunlight. "The surface looks textured, not metallic. Maybe with a polish over it." She looked at Dell's eyes. "Can I have this?"
He shook his head. "Sorry. My dig. I thought I had you trained. Nothing gets sold until I've logged it and tagged it. I'm not here for the money--I'm here to solve a puzzle."
Dell looked over at his feathered friend, now finished with her scavenging. "Besides, it's Maggie's marble. She might want it back." He set it on the table.
"I know some Earth birds collect shiny objects. Has Maggie brought you anything else?"
Dell shook his head. "No. This is a first for her. I've infected her. I talk to her all the time as I work."
He sighed. "Poor thing. To become a digger--what a curse. Sorry Maggie."
Sara laughed. "Well, I guess I'd better put her on my client list and see if she's easier to deal with than all the big smelly galoots I see every day."
"Smelly! I'll have you know I chose the cleanest shirt this time."
"But when did you wash it last?"
Dell sat back with a puzzled look on his face. "Wash?"
Sara slapped his arm and collapsed into quiet laughter. As she squeezed a tear from her eye, she started collecting her papers.
"I'd better get back. I'm losing the light, and if I stay here any longer, you'll own the corporation."
"Hmm. If I'm so wealthy, how come I can't buy a radio?" But he helped her carry the first tub toward her vehicle.
They topped the ridge and Sara stopped cold. She whispered, "Look over by the door. That's a tapig."
He looked, and in the dimming light, the large animal was suddenly visible in the shadows. Dell shrugged.
"Don't worry about it. Tapigs are big, but they scatter when they see men." He took a step toward the large grazer, half hippo and half tapir.
Sara grabbed his arm. "No, Dell. They're dangerous!"
"Since when? I've seen them since I settled this dig. They've never given me any trouble."
"But ... surely you heard? The killings over at Blueman's dig?"
"What killings? Remember ... no radio! I only know what you tell me."
"Oh. Well, tapigs are dangerous now! It started a month or so back. Two men were trapped in a pit and several tapigs went in after them and ... well it was a gory mess from what I heard. There've been others. John Hall, on my circuit, for one. He's still in the hospital with cracked ribs and a useless left leg. There was a general alert!"
"Over the radio?"
"Yes, over the radio. Don't look at me like that."
They backed down behind the rise. The beast paced around below the saucer's open door. Sara hadn't lowered the ramp, and the opening was too high for the four-footed grazer.
"Look," Dell pointed. There was another, coming to join the first. Low-pitched snorts could be heard.
"What's changed them?" he asked. "People have been here for a dozen years or more. Tapigs have always been timid and avoid a dig area."
Across the clearing, one of the tapigs turned its snout in their direction and snorted. The others turned their way, too.
"Let's get out of sight." Sara whispered.
"You may be right." Two of the tapigs started moving their way.
Dell led the way back to camp, looking over his dig with a new eye. Where to hide? Tents were no help.
"Can you climb?" He boosted her into the largest tree in his camp. Neither of them were agile, but working together they made it up to the thick lower branches.
Tapigs came through the camp, snorting and pawing at the ground. Dell held his breath, expecting them to tear everything up and destroy his cache of artifacts. Instead, they quickly searched the area and although their heads weren't articulated to let them look up, they soon began circling the tree.
Sara and Dell sat quietly, sparing one hand each to hold on to each other. Maggie landed on a nearby branch and watched them. After fifteen minutes of snorting and pawing, the tapigs left together.
Dell whispered, "I'll go down and check."
"No, wait a minute." She reached into her pouch and pulled out one of her gadgets. She scanned the surrounding darkness. It showed a dozen heat signatures, behind the bushes.
Dell shivered. "They're hiding, waiting for us to come down."
"When do they expect you at the port?"
She sighed. "Not for a day or so. I knew you'd take a long time, so I planed to go half-way to Kreiger's dig and camp out for the night."
"Why? You could have stayed here."
Her lip wiggled slightly. "There's a pool at the office. I'm not supposed to know about it. People check my transponder to see where I spend the night."
"Really? They think you...?"
"Drop it, Dell." She stared off at the shadows below.
"Okay, but... Well what do we do now?"
"Emulate Maggie, I guess." On the next branch, a motionless ball of feathers waited out the dawn.
Dell nodded, and repositioned himself, trying to find comfort and a way to stay on his perch without keeping a death-grip on the branches. Soon, using their belts, they managed to settle in. He had his back to the main trunk, and Sara nestled her head against his chest.
“If I’d known what it took to get you to sleep with me...”
She poked him in the ribs. But she didn’t move away.
Below, an occasional snort let them know their captors had not left.