Below, there were five. Two were working on the pit that completely exposed the roots on one side. The other three were arranged in a triangle, standing guard to keep them from escaping should they jump down from the tree and try to make a break for it.
"Dell, tapigs are herd animals! They aren't tool users either. Goobers built tools and shelters. How could these be their children?"
"Paradise and puzzles. The children of the Goober lived in paradise and now have to suffer through puzzles to survive. Think about it. Tapigs relaxed in the sun, with food always available. Predators don't bother them. Even the hard-wolves ignore them. Their meat is unpleasant--maybe their smell, too.
"Can you imagine a better nirvana?"
Sara laughed. "Not for an intelligent, tool-using species! Humans would go insane from the boredom. And you can't convince me that tapigs can handle your water pot, let alone make the full range of artifacts we've collected here. They don't have hands!"
Dell looked down at the tapigs. Two workers had their heads down in the soil, kicking dirt behind them. The guards appeared to be asleep, heads down, and motionless.
"Sara, look at the forepaws on that one."
She leaned over close to him, hanging on to another branch. "What am I looking at?"
"Don't they look swollen, inflamed? Some of them have been walking with a limp."
"You are right, both of them. Digging too hard?"
"I don't think so. Tapigs dig for roots all their lives. They are growing hands."
"I am. Tapigs have a hoof and a pair of vestigial fingers, one on each side of the hoof. I think the fingers are growing. Two fingers with an opposable hoof could make a serviceable hand. Good enough for tool-users."
Sara was still looking down at them. "Maybe. But I've never heard of anything changing like this before."
"Oh, the genetics is common enough. Some genes can wait in an organism inactive, passive, waiting for some change in the chemical environment before 'waking up'. Single-cell species do it all the time. When bacteria crowd together, they 'smell' each other and whole sets of genes turn on and off as they switch from being free-floating individuals to being part of a bacterial sheet.
"Goobers could have engineered their own species to exist with limited brain capacity and no hands, but with the abilities still there in reserve, awaiting some environmental cue to re-activate.
"They lived peacefully in nirvana, until something we did triggered the change. All at once, the tapigs woke up.
"They invented language, turned aggressive, and started working together to get rid of us."
"Whoa! They invented language overnight? No way."
"I didn't say overnight. Who knows how long they've been at it. But if their brain expanded, simple grunts could quickly take on more meaning. Brain centers and vocal apparatus both have to develop. They'll get smarter, but the idea is already there--exchange information and work together."
Sara leaned back against the tree trunk. "Maggie talked about pain. How much pain? If you are right, and their bodies are changing on them day by day, enough to look inflamed, then they must be nearly mad with pain."
He nodded. "Don't expect talk them out of attacking us. We're the evil invaders from space, after all--killing them, pillaging their cities."
"I am not evil!"
Dell patted her on the shoulder, "Of course you aren't. I wonder how to say 'We come in peace' in tapig-ese."
She shrugged off his hand. "I can't believe the Goobers would do that to their children. What kind of monsters would modify their babies to be brain damaged and deformed?"
"Don't be ethnocentric. What parent wouldn't jump at the chance to have their children grow up in peace and happiness all their lives? Human cultures had their share of nirvana seekers, of various stripes.
"Think about it this way--imagine you could give your child grace and beauty and serenity, and all they had to do is give up pain and hate and worry."
Sara shook her head. "No. I don't buy it. We need our pain and suffering. We thrive on it."
"Humans thrive on it. Tapigs aren't human."
Dell waved his hand, "But that isn't our problem yet. We still have to get out of this tree. I don't know about you, but it'll be a race to see if I fall off of this branch before they uproot the tree. As it is, I am about ready to ask you to turn your back for a moment while I take care of a pressing issue."
She stifled a giggle. "I have the same problem."
Just then, there was a loud snap below, and the tree trunk shook.
Dell gripped the side branch tightly. "They severed one of the main roots. We don't have much time left. If you have any ideas, I'm listening."
Sara looked pale, hugging the main trunk. "I talked to John Hall, when I was ferrying him back to the hospital. They came at him from all directions, tearing at his legs. He had a gun, or he wouldn't have survived. We had to dig him out from beneath several tapig carcasses...
"Oh Dell! We hauled a couple of them back to the port for analysis. Do you think there might be a residual smell coming from my saucer? Maybe I started all this."
He thought for a moment. "No, a scent arriving just a few hours ago couldn't have triggered the language development and the body changes. It must've already been happening. My dig is small and my impact here has to have been minor. If these tapigs were affected too, then I'd bet it's a global thing. One modified tapig emits a scent that triggers the change in others.
"No, the scent of dead tapig in your saucer triggered this attack, but they'd already started developing."
Sara said, "The tapigs will get smarter--better organized. The attacks will get more widespread and the death count will rise."
"Starting with us, if we don't do something quickly." Dell looked at the surrounding branches. "Sara, I'm going to ask you to turn your back."
He nodded grimly. "Really." He reached for his zipper and she turned her head.
The urine scent and the sound of splashing on the tree trunk below made no mystery of what he was doing.
Dell explained, "Tapigs can't look up, so they aren't tracking us by sight. Maybe they can hear us, but unless you can make your viewer playback voices, a distracting scent will have to do."
The smell was definitely doing something to the tapigs. The guards squealed and tried to climb down into the pit with the diggers.
Dell put his finger to his lips and motioned Sara to follow him out on the limb. The main branch sagged as they moved farther from the trunk. It cracked, and they tumbled to the ground.
He grabbed Sara's arm and pulled her upright. She nodded and pointed in the direction of the saucer.
"Go!" he whispered, shoving her on. A few steps later, she realized he'd turned towards his camp. Her heart hammered, and her steps faltered.
The squeals changed, and shrill cries sent a shock through her spine. She was running again, and the only thought in her head was the memories of John Hall's horrible wounds. She crested the rise between the camp and her saucer, where three tapigs waited.
Behind her, tapigs squealed in chorus. The saucer guards halted their mock battles, turning their hefty bodies to scan the horizon. Sara tried to be motionless, as well as heaving lungs would allow, but she knew that was fruitless. Dell proved well enough that they tracked by scent.
One guard by the saucer shifted his fore body side to side with his legs, making up for an inflexible neck. His snout pointed directly at her. He snorted, and then squealed. He charged in her direction. Behind her, another call answered. She turned toward the nearest tree.
Tapigs saw her move, and began a full-throated charge. Panic rose in her throat.
"Heee! Yaw!" Dell shouted. Sara glanced to the side and saw him waving and shouting from the next rise.
Tapigs saw him too. As a herd, they turned from chasing her and charged him.
Sara turned in mid-step, racing back towards the saucer. Two broke off from the main herd and headed back her way. She leaned into the wind, her eyes focused on the door.
There were scrape marks all over the thick black flexible skirt that was used to keep in the air-pressure when the saucer acted as a hovercraft. Tapigs had attacked it, but a material designed to stand up to rough landings had been more than tough enough to resist hooves and teeth.
She sensed her pursuers on her heels as she raced up the side of the saucer and into the open door. She slammed it shut just seconds before the saucer shook with the impact of two large animals slamming into the skirt at full speed.
She didn't take any time to react. The control seat was her home--had been for five years. She slapped the switches without thought. Systems came on line. The view screen lit. Engines roared to life.
Her right arm fit into the yoke like a glove and she lifted the saucer on a pillow of air. The saucer rotated under her touch.
Dell was in a tree. More tapigs than she could count surrounded its base. He swung at the beasts below with a stick. No, that's Maggie's perch. The fragmented lower end of the pole was a cluster of sharp splinters and he was using it to full effect.
The tree shook, and Dell was hard-pressed to hang on. The herd wasn't content to dig him out this time; they were going to topple the tree by brute force.
"Not if I have anything to say about it!"
Sara edged the saucer forward, closing on the tapigs a little better than a fast run. She expected them to scatter.
They didn't. The saucer's skirt slammed into the mass of bodies and was met by a mass cry of annoyance. They are used to being rammed by others of their kind.
Dell looked panicked, holding onto the trunk of the tree with all his strength.
Sara edged back from the tree, and opened the hatch remotely. She had to fly sideways, but she moved back in.
"I'm bigger than you! Get out of my way!" She put on more side thrust when she mashed up against the herd. They weren't taking her move tamely, shoving back. She raised the power again.
There was a crunching sound, wood against metal. I'll mash Dell! She was backing down the power when she heard him.
"I'm in Sara. Go!"
She eased away from the tapigs and made the jump in power that lifted them off of ground effect and into free flight.
Dell slipped into the side chair.
"Oh, you're hurt!"
His leg was bleeding, and he still gripped the bird perch tightly in his hand.
He waved aside her concern. "Can you spot Maggie?"
"Maggie? I don't know."
"Look for her! She flies north when she hears your engines."
Sara changed her view angle. "We're still too close to the ground." She gestured toward the screen helplessly. "It's all a blur of treetops."
He moved the side chair closer. "Get some altitude then. We don't want her to panic. Head north, but slowly."
Sara took them higher, and then her arms started shaking. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
Dell looked up from the screen. "Problem?"
"I'm putting us in hover mode. Autopilot. Unless I take a break, I'll crash us. I'm a mess."
He nodded, gravely, but glanced back at the screen. He was clearly unable to give up his search for Maggie.
Sara sighed. "You can turn this ring to adjust the angle of the view. Don't touch any other control."