Monday, July 11, 2011

Maggie's Marbles - Part 4 of 4

 © 2011 by Henry Melton

When she returned ten minutes later, cleaned and hydrated and caffeinated, she found Dell still staring at the wooded lands below, thumb and forefinger making tiny adjustments on the azimuth ring. His bleeding had stopped on its own, but she winced at the thought of the torn flesh below. This planet's microorganisms were close enough to Terran to inflame open wounds.
Dell looked up with a smile. "Maggie has cousins."
Sara slipped into her control seat. "You found her?"
"There's a whole flock of her species, all in flight, probably because of our engine noise. I watched them move, and they all congregated at this spot." He tapped the view screen. A peak rose sharply above the rest of the terrain.
Intrigued, Sara tapped a few controls, and a cross-hair centered on the peak. The lower half of the screen switched to a false-color magnified view.
"See this spot. I'm getting flickers of monochromatic light. I would guess there is a stash of marbles there. Good work Dell."
He sagged in his chair. "I guessed there would be a stash, and that would be where she would flee to when she felt danger, but I couldn't know."
Sara shook her head, "Right out in the open. I wouldn't have expected that."
"Tapigs don't look up. They can't climb. If the marbles are tough enough to stand up to direct sunlight and weather, then a nest on the top of a mountain would be the safest place the Goobers would think about."
"Good." Sara rubbed her hands. "All we have to do is warn everyone, collect the marbles and 24 Ceti Alpha 4 will have made our fortunes."
Dell shook his head. "Not quite. A warning is essential, but we need to phrase it right."
"Lock in our claim."
"That too." Dell's head was furrowed in thought.
"Tapigs are in the early stage of an intellectual chain reaction. How smart will they get, and how soon? There are rules against looting on inhabited planets."
She shivered. Their whole business was based on the finding that the native intelligences had died out. "We can't have that happen. What can we do?"
He tapped the screen. "Go down there and ask Maggie."
All of the translator birds fled the scene when they approached. Dell waved Sara off to a small meadow. They shut down the engines, opened the door and waited.
"This is on Maggie's flight path." He took the perch and clamped it to the open hatch.
Sara scanned the surrounding terrain with her hand held viewer. "I don't see any tapigs in the vicinity. A cache of marbles is just at the top of that peak. We could probably hike it in an hour or so."
Dell shook his head. "I'm not putting my feet on the ground here. We're stinking up the place with tapig battle scent already. I've learned my lesson. The marbles are easy to find, once you know what to look for. There are probably hundreds of nests. We don't have to collect them all. Let a trained scout with a personal hoverbelt go get them.
"No, what we need is Maggie, and one marble."
"Yes. One to analyze and to determine if we can easily copy off the code. If the courts and the popular press get into this, we'll be in much better shape if we just take a copy of the data and leave the marbles in place for future generations of the Goober's children.
"But we need Maggie. She's the Rosetta Stone. As far as we know, she's the only one that's picked up English. Maybe we could train others, but that might take another year. Maggie is here, now. She's the proof when we make our claim."
They waited. Sara dug into her pantry for bread wafers. Dell called for Maggie out the open hatch.
"Here comes another one." Sara reached for her wafers.
"Hold off. That isn't Maggie."
"How can you tell?"
"The feathers are wrong. Scat. Go away. I need Maggie. Maggie, come here girl!"
Sara set a packing crate near the door and sat with him. "Don't you think we should send out our warning? This could take time."
He nodded. "I know. I just want to ask a couple of questions first. Once we go public, there's going to be a flood of questions coming our way. I want to say the right things."
"Can't some of that wait until we get better information later?"
"Perhaps. But how good are my guesses?"
Maggie landed on the perch with a flutter of wings. Dell gestured at the wafer box.
"Maggie. I'm glad to see you. Do you want a wafer?"
Sara tossed one on the deck, and the bird was on it in a flash.
"Are you sure it's Maggie?" Sara whispered.
He nodded, smiling at the bird. "Yes, you're my Maggie aren't you? I've got a question, Maggie. A question. How can the children stop the changes in their bodies? Maggie, how can the children stop the changes in their bodies? Answer my question, Maggie."
The bird didn't look up from her meal until the last fragment was tacked down and devoured. Then, she shivered and acted as if she were sensing the air. She shook her feathers down. Dell kept up his repetitive questioning. She fluttered over to the perch, and then off into the sunny sky.
"Stay put. If she is going for a marble, it won't take long."
Sara nodded. "Do you think the Goobers looked like the tapigs? Maybe they morphed from something bipedal, like us."
Dell relaxed into archeological speculation mode. "They probably changed very little. I'd guess they just regressed to what they were before they developed hands. It was the original fall from paradise for them. They developed hands to make them better at searching for roots and grubs. Once they made the jump to tool using, their brain expanded and their vocal range adapted to communication.
"But I'd guess they never looked up. They never looked at the stars. They never expected us."
Maggie returned with a blue-gray marble in her beak.
Sara started recording. 
Maggie looked them over, and then dropped the marble carefully into the cavity. She pecked at the marble to start it spinning. She shivered and parted her beak.
"My children, you have asked how to stop the changes in your bodies. By now, you realize that you can talk with one another, and that you can pick up things. The pain of the changes will go away shortly. The changes will never go away.
"Paradise is lost to you. Your children yet to be born can remain in paradise if you find the danger and remove it. The scent of one who dies strangely changes you. The scent will cause the change in your children.
"Find out what causes strange death and stop it. Then, the changes stop in your children."
When Dell was sure that Maggie was done, he took a couple of bread wafers and set them out. Maggie abandoned her marble in a flash and attacked her reward. Dell casually eased towards the door and pocketed the marble.
As soon as he removed the clamp that held the perch, he said, "Sara. Close the door." 
She touched a control at her pilot's seat. With the faintest of noises, it sealed itself.
"Whew," Dell whispered. "I thought we were going to have trouble catching her." Maggie hadn't noticed, content to demolish the bread. It had been a very good day for her.
Sara asked, "Is that all you wanted to ask?"
He laughed, "No! But it's all we have time for. We have to get the warning out."
Dell composed it, and Sara's saucer had the transmitter and security codes for a planet-wide alert. It was brief but they made it sound official.
Alert! Alert! Alert!
There has been a tapig attack at the Dell Carver dig. No fatalities, but the site is now restricted due to tapig activity.
New guidelines: All sites be on the alert for any tapig activity. The aggressive behavior is triggered by the scent of dead tapig. Avoid killing tapig at all costs, as the scent travels widely. The last attack was triggered by the residual scent brought in by a company survey saucer. If attacked, evacuate the area or get above ground level and call for help. Tapigs do not climb, but they are persistent and clever. They will knock down or uproot trees. Tapigs do not fear humans and cannot be frightened away.
Important: All tapig bodies must be sealed off in airtight containers or removed from the planet. All transport vehicles carrying dead tapig must undergo standard quarantine fumigation before being returned to surface duty. No incineration to dispose of bodies.
It is unknown how long the effects of the scent will last. All sites need to review their evacuation procedures.
Sara winced as she sent the message out. "I'm not really supposed to use these codes. The company will be calling for me shortly."
Dell was attempting to feed a wafer to Maggie by hand, with intermediate results. "Better a warning now than later. And once they review our recordings, all will be forgiven.
"By the way, are there any other digs out there with no radio? We need to contact them as well!"
Sara wrinkled her nose. "Not on my route. You are the low man on my list."
"Thanks a lot."
"Oops. There's the recall beacon. I'd better answer it."
"Let's get in the air first."
She nodded and activated the engine systems.
Maggie shrieked and fluttered to the floor, a mass of twitching feathers.
"Kill the engines," Dell yelled, dropping to his knees. He reached out one hand, and pulled it back with a bleeding red stripe across his fingers.
The engine noise faded to nothingness in a few seconds.
"Maggie girl. I'm sorry girl. I won't let it happen again." He soothed the ruffled feathers and kept up a croon of comforting words.
"Sara, open the door."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! Now! Do it." The door whispered open. Maggie launched herself out into the open air in an instant.
Dell watched her sail off into the woods. Sara had her fists on her hips.
"There goes our Rosetta bird!"
Dell nodded. "Don't worry." He reached into his pocket. "I still have the marble, and the perch. With our recording, it will be enough to get started."
Sara turned to her controls, and began lifting the saucer above the landscape. Out the hatchway, Dell could see hundreds of birds take flight.
He moved over to the side seat. He had a grin on his face. "I forgot that Maggie, and all of the translator birds are sensitive to engine noise. Maybe that's why no one ever mentioned them before in the reports. Only a dirt poor digger with no regular visitors could have made contact."
She looked at his face and frowned at his expression. "What's so funny? I don't relish having to report that we let the only English-speaking translator bird go free."
Dell spread his arms and leaned back. He looked at her fondly, "I think things are finally going my way."
"What do you mean by that?"
"The corporation will love us. We have strong evidence of extremely valuable genetic technology. Just the hint of that leaked in the right places will put all of our stock options well into the money. The whole planet will love us."
"Well, yes. But we still don't..."
"We still don't have all the translations, yes indeed. The corporation will want those dearly. And they can get them. All they have to do is fund my little project."
"What little project?"
"Oh, a little research lab at my dig site. Nice thick walls, maybe a nice elevated veranda among the trees. All the equipment needed to decode the marbles. Maggie lives there, you know. And she'll return to me. We have a good working relationship. Even the corporation will see that."
He sighed contentedly as he visualized his new camp. Sara sniffed, setting her saucer on autopilot and turning around to listen.
"I suppose you are fixed pretty well. Even with all the hints, it would take them a year get another translator bird listening to a human. All that time, the tapigs will be learning from their own birds, and who knows how smart they might turn out to be."
Dell nodded. "I thought of that. If I were a tapig, well versed in Goober technology, I think I could whip up a mutant flower whose scent could fumigate the alien invaders off the planet. It might be a real good idea to learn how to say 'We come in peace' in tapig-latin.
"Oh yes, there will be lots to do in my new place. I will need an assistant or two of course."
She nodded, "Of course."
"Yes, and an escape saucer docked right up to the building in case the attacks get too bad. A permanent pilot on hand, of course."
"Oh yes. It's a shame I only know one pilot in the whole system who I trust. Do you think I could convince the corporation to station her permanently at my place?"
Sara shook her head. "Not without a big pay raise, and an extra bonus for hazard duty."
"Hazard pay? I should think with strong walls, it shouldn't be too dangerous. The tapigs...."
She put her hand across his lips. "It's not the tapigs that are the danger."
Dell kissed her fingers. "It's a problem."
Sara smiled. "I'll risk it."

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