Second Stage

 

Patrick Welch

 

Casian Porteau sat on the edge of the brook, dangling her feet in the water. She could easily spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the warm breeze, perhaps get a bit of a tan. Then she looked down at her computer pad and sighed; wouldn't do, wouldn't do. Her instructions were clear; this planet was too promising for a leisurely evaluation of the native life. The voice of her superior came unbidden and unwanted. Make your report. And soon.

This was not how exobiology worked. According to all the textbooks, the lectures and case studies, a reasonable evaluation of a planet's flora and fauna required years, not weeks. But then, her employer was not concerned about being reasonable. The Federation directive was clear: a planet with intelligent life had to be avoided at all costs lest human interference affect the natural development of the native race. Scientists applauded it, the corporations did not. And Magus 7 Prime offered outstanding profit potential ...if it could be exploited.

Casian activated her computer and scanned the initial data submitted by the first wave of explorers. Most of the native life had already been catalogued, with nothing of interest found. There were no relics that suggested tool-making capability or any other recognized signs of notable intelligence. She was tempted to merely follow the company's wishes and declare the world open for exploitation, but that would jeopardize her career if her findings were later proven wrong. So for the dozenth time since her arrival, she studied the list of fauna and reached the same negative conclusions for each. Flora she ignored completely; the Federation had yet to discover any intelligent plant life and she had no way to test it in any event.

A scream of pain interrupted her musings. An animal was being attacked, she realized. What I do in the name of science, she thought as she went to investigate. It didn't take her long. She found several weasels in a nearby clearing ripping away at a smaller animal they had just killed. They weren't weasels, of course, but the name fit them well enough. Small and furry and particularly vicious. They ignored her as they continued their feeding frenzy. She had observed them several times and they had been indifferent then as well. They did not consider her a threat and, she was relieved, not prey either.

Which, to her, spoke volumes about their potential intelligence. The more intelligent the animal, the more cautious and curious it became. These creatures appeared only interested in killing and feeding. Still she waited until the weasels had finished, then reached into her bag, retrieved a piece of raw meat, and threw it several feet from her.

One warily approached her offering, almost immediately joined by the others. After a few seconds they attacked it and each other, ignoring her completely. Casian sighed. Again they revealed no concern for their safety, no instinct for self-preservation. They were merely eating machines and not worth more consideration. Unless, of course, they tried to eat her.

She glanced at her watch. Watching the weasels had made her hungry. The post would be serving mess in half an hour. Gathering her equipment, she started back.

* * *

The post commander joined her at her table. This was a corporate operation but they maintained an air of military organization to simplify the chain of command. "Miss Porteau," he greeted her brusquely as he sat down. "Have you anything new to report?"

She paused, her fork halfway to her mouth. "I've hardly been here a month. You certainly can't expect any revelations that quickly."

Petr Jenowitz merely grimaced. "We were given six solar months to determine the suitability of this planet. Your department is the only one that has not made significant progress."

She stifled a laugh. Her "department" consisted entirely of herself, the corporation not willing to invest any more than necessary in a venture that might prove fruitless. "Determining whether the air is breathable or the water potable is a much easier task than discovering intelligent life forms. Especially since nearly anything can be intelligent."

"Surely you've made some progress."

"Some. At least I've identified quite a few forms that are not intelligent."

"Excellent. Keep me appraised." He rose and picked up his tray. "If you'll excuse me, I do have to talk with our engineering group."

She shrugged as he left. She understood he was under a great deal of pressure from the corporation to provide a positive report. This assignment could make or break his career. Of course, she mused as she returned to her own meal, it could do the same to hers.

* * *

A chorus of squeaks, growls and chirps greeted Casian as she entered her lab. It housed her latest collection of native live. It was more by necessity than anything else; the larger carnivores she had observed lived in resolute solitude, as did the birds and very few primates. Socialization and species interaction had long proven to be a prerequisite for intelligence and learning and, what she had discovered thus far, these creatures acted mostly by instinct. Still she dutifully attempted a few tests on the small furry primate in the chance its ability to grip objects might be a sign of increased brain power. After half an hour, however, she stopped in frustration. The creature refused to imitate any of her gestures and seemed only concerned with the native fruit she gave it.

A few cages away, a large insect clamored over a ball. Nearby was an aquarium filled with several species of fish. She shook her head as she glanced at them. If they were intelligent she would never know because it had taken years to make breakthroughs with Terran dolphins and she only had months.

She walked past several more cages and paused in front of a small herbivore. It looked a bit like a deer, although smaller and shaggier, and everyone at the camp called it that. It stared back at her, openly curious and not at all afraid. Casian had seen them frequently in the woods near the camp, gathered in small herds. In her studies, herbivores rarely were promising choices, their chief concerns in life eating what was readily available and avoiding being eaten. This specimen she had collected three days previous and, until now, ignored except for requisite feeding. "So, how are we today?" she greeted it.

The creature shook its head and snorted.

"This shouldn't take too long," she said as she pulled up a chair and sat across from it. She reached through the bars and set three large cards on the concrete floor, one a circle, one a rectangle and one a triangle, each a different color. Although she doubted the colors would matter much; she was quite certain the creature was color blind. She watched as the animal sniffed each card in turn and half-expected it to eat one. Instead it returned its attention to her. "Okay, class, listen up." She held up a card with a triangle, pointed to it and then the matching card on the floor. Then she did the same with the other two shapes. "Okay, get the idea?"

The animal merely looked at her.

"Not much of a conversationalist, are you? Here we go." And she held up the card with the circle.

The creature looked at her, the card, then the ones on the floor. And placed a foreleg on the card with the circle.

Casian nearly dropped her cards as a tingle of excitement ran through her. Just chance, she thought as she caught her breath. This time she tried the triangle, and the animal responded correctly again. She quickly conducted the test more than a dozen times, even adding several additional shapes. The creature never missed.

It could just be the colors, she thought as she set down the cards. But even that wouldn't matter. "Let's try this." She held up one finger, then tapped her foot one time. She held up one finger again and the creature responded correctly. "Try two," and she tapped her foot twice. Again the creature copied her. Next she held up all five fingers but didn't tap her foot. The animal tapped its hoof five times.

"Enough for today," she said and nearly staggered as she made her way to her desk. She sat and stared at her computer. Yes, she knew one could argue. The animal had done nothing more than what a Terran horse could be trained to do. But this animal had needed no training, did not require food or punishment to perform. It had wanted to respond to her.

"How intelligent are you, my friend," she whispered as she watched it in its cage. It seemed to know she was observing because it stopped eating and looked at her, its ears cocked forward, its tail erect. Casian sat back and considered the possibilities. Problem-solving, that would be the first battery of tests she would run. The standard battery of O'Hara/Diego short-term memory evaluations. Beyond that...

She quivered at the possibilities. How did this species communicate amongst itself? Could it be taught to communicate with humans? Discovering an intelligent alien race. Casian, you've done your momma proud.

But, she brought herself back to reality, not her employer. If future testing bore out what she was beginning to expect, to pray for, then this planet could be declared off-limits. "So, girl, what are you going to do?" she whispered. In the morning, she knew, she would have to inform Jenowitz. The news would not make his day.

* * *

As she expected, her report was greeted with cold skepticism. "You really think those 'deer' are intelligent?" The commander blew angrily into his coffee.

"My initial tests are very promising. Quite stunning, actually."

"The corporation will require much more convincing proof than what you have told me so far." He pointed at the offending manuscript. "What I see are parlor tricks a mouse could do."

"Not tricks I assure you."

Jenowitz pushed his breakfast away. "This planet offers great potential. I won't risk it over one talented animal."

She remained nonplused. "You know the Federation mandate. Do you or the corporation plan to defy it?"

"Of course not." He sighed. "How soon will you have a definitive report?"

"I would hope within a few more months."

"You realize that we can't approach the Federation for an extension. We could lose our exclusivity arrangement if we delay beyond the regulations."

"I understand your concerns. And I share them." Which, she realized, was the truth.

"In that case I am putting any further development on hold. I won't spend any more of the company's funds on a venture that may become a dry hole." He stared at her. "You better be right."

I am, she thought. "I'll get to work immediately. If you'll excuse me." She took her tray and headed back to the laboratory.

* * *

Casian stepped away from the cage and smiled as she studied the results of the test. True, they were conducted under less-than-ideal lab conditions, but the results were stunning. Symbol recognition, short-term memory, basic problem-solving ...each and every standardized test had been passed with flying colors. She glanced over at the deer, which was now contentedly enjoying a well-earned drink of water. Unfortunate, she thought, that it could not manipulate objects with its paws. Or, from what she could tell, communicate with a verbal language.

Still the possibilities fascinated and excited her. What kind of civilization could these creatures create? Where would the physical limitations they were burdened with take them, or how far? Unfortunate, she thought, that the Federation prevented them from assisting directly with the native's development. Prosthetic limbs, robots... the possibilities were endless on how their physical limitations could be overcome.

Enough testing, she decided and set the results on her desk. Time for direct observation. Grabbing her computer pad and some of the native fruit to eat, she headed for the nearby forest. It didn't take her long to find a family of the deer grazing in a clearing. It surprised her that they were all roughly the same size; unless the young grew very rapidly, this group all appeared to be adults. Perhaps the young were hidden elsewhere, she decided. A common practice for many animals.

They continued to graze unmindful of her presence. She tried to look for signs of socialization and interaction, but right now their sole interest was in feeding. That was fine with her. She sat down next to a tree and watched and waited.

She had almost fallen asleep when an animal's cry roused her. It was a cry of pain, and very close. Another successful hunt? she wondered as she roused herself to investigate. She looked at the herd but they ignored it. Since it's not you, you don't care, right? The keening guided her to another clearing. She stopped in disgust when she saw the cause: a deer was being attacked by the weasels. It was lying helplessly on its side as the tiny creatures crawled over it, slashing at it with their tiny claws and teeth. The deer, still alive, cried out and shuddered.

Casian cried out as well. Then she turned and staggered from the clearing.

* * *

"You are absolutely sure?" Jenowitz tapped the report on his desk. "Your opinion was much different yesterday."

Casian sat stiffly across from him. She was still unnerved by what she had discovered and she had been up half the night finishing her report. Now she was exhausted. And deeply depressed. "My opinion of the deer hasn't changed. My opinion on how to use this planet has."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"The deer *are* intelligent. But they'll never have the opportunity to develop it."

"Why?"

"I came across a deer giving birth yesterday. Their offspring are the weasels, vicious, nearly mindless creatures who will eat nearly everything, including their parents. Including the parent they destroy when they are born. Obviously at some point the infants mature enough to reach a stage where they are transformed into the deer, like a tadpole into a frog. But when doesn't matter. Because of their life cycle, there is no hope the deer can pass down from generation to generation whatever they learn, or ever develop beyond what they are now."

"In that case I will forward your report to the Federation and the corporation. They will be pleased. Thank you, Miss Porteau." He rose. "And I'm sorry."

So am I, Casian thought as she left his office. So am I.

 
 
 
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Author Bio

Patrick Welch earned a BA and MA in English from Bowling Green State University. While in college he had stories appear in several university publications, Riverside Quarterly and Analog. After graduating he concentrated on writing articles and advertising for Toledo, Ohio markets until about four years ago. Since returning to short fiction, he has had more than 40 stories appear in such e-zines as Jackhammer, Eternity, Orphic Chronicle and The Haunted.

He currently has four e-books available; The Thirteenth Magician and The Body Shop from Dark Star Publications, and also Westchester Station and Before/Beyond (Dream Realm Award finalist) from Crossroads Publications.

An anthology of fantasy/mystery stories, The Casebook of Doakes and Haig will be available mid-September from Twilight Times Books. Another anthology, Brendell, Apprentice Thief, will be available at the end of the year from Crossroads.

Visit Patrick's web site.

 

Read other stories by Patrick Welch
Demon in a Box
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Tiny Losses

 


 

 
 
 

"Second Stage" Copyright © 2000 Patrick Welch. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 
This page last updated 7-14-01.

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