Species Imperative



10th Anniversary Trade Omnibus Edition!

With a special introduction
by Rick Wilber
and cover by Kenn Brown.

How do we know
why we act
as we do?
The root causation
of civilization
eludes me.

(Earliest recorded wall inscription,
Progenitors' Chamber, Haven.)




The drop glistened, green and heavy, as it coalesced at the leaf’s tip. The drop trembled, then tumbled. It fell into the calm water of the pond below, sending a ring of ripples outward, its green diffusing until invisible. Mute.
Another fell. Then another. Within moments, there were drops forming and flowing to the tips of thousands of leaves, each drop falling free in turn, the sum etching the pond’s surface, staining its clarity an ominous turquoise. Released from their burden, the leaves stirred the air as they sprang upward, only to be bent again under more of the green liquid. Below, the pond blurred and grew, consuming its banks.
Yet more fell.
The leaves themselves began to blur, their sharp edges washing away, the softer tissues dissolving with each new drop until skeleton veins rattled with the beat of false green.
Ferns lining the pond’s edge rotted as the floodwater reached their base, fronds having no time to curl into death as they toppled and sank. The trees themselves began to blur, their bark no match for this new and hungry rain, their branches weakening first where the green drops collected in fork and crook, so they cracked and fell, landing with a splash.
The drops continued for hours.
Until all that remained was a green lake, cupped by lifeless stone.
Then the mouths began to drink.

Chapter 1: Meetings and Mission


“My money’s on the plant.”
The antique clay pot on the windowsill ignored Mac’s comment, preoccupied with containing the immense aloe that folded its lower thick leaves over the pot’s rim like grasping fingers and burst roots from beneath so the combination tilted in its saucer. There weren’t cracks ... yet. But the plant would win. Time, toughness, and a single-minded refusal to accept barriers to its growth. Mac approved.
Not that she had time on her side.
Her ‘pot’ was this waiting room, her discomfort in it undoubtedly a pleasure to the man whose offices filled the remaining two-thirds of this floor. Mac was convinced those who ran the Wilderness Trusts shared a disdain for those who required roofs and meetings, begrudging any budget towards such things -- even for their own staff. This building was shabby, the neighborhood matched, and the floor space was probably donated. The waiting room? Bland, square, and furnished to test the resolve of anyone waiting. The carpet gave off a stifling aroma, a combination of stale body and damp fiber. The only window had been frosted for no imaginable reason except to prevent gazing at anything but the imprisoned aloe on its sill. The reader on the side table? Never worked. There was a framed piece of art on the wall not occupied by window or closed, forbidding door. As this was an aerial view of a dense forest, with the words: “Leave Me Alone!” blazoned in threatening yellow across the center, Mac’s eyes automatically avoided it.
Dr. Mackenzie Connor, just ‘Mac’ to anyone she cared about, avoided the mainland’s cities, including this one, just as automatically. Her preferred environment was at the ocean’s edge, where the tallest structures were snow-covered peaks. It wasn’t hard to confine her excursions to the halls and labs of academia, with the occasional foray into shopping or visits with her Dad. At one time, she’d even been able to avoid entanglement in the many layers of bureaucracy and politics that governed Earth and her solar system. During elections, Mac would ask Kammie, who was as political as they came, which representatives were most likely to keep or raise funding levels for their work and would vote accordingly. It kept her life simple.
Until Mac encountered the politics of the Trusts. One Trust in particular. The one  whose Oversight Committee consisted solely of the man sitting on the other side of that door.
Mac glared at it, well aware that Charles Mudge III knew to the second how long he could make her wait before she’d throw something.
There was an Oversight Committee for each of the Wilderness Trusts beading the western coast of the Pacific, from the Bering Straits to Tierra del Fuego. Their mandate, like such Trusts elsewhere on Earth, was identical and straightforward: keep the Anthropogenic Perturbation Free Zones, Classes One through Fifteen, exactly that: off-limits to Humans or Human activity.
As an evolutionary biologist, Mac approved. To become a Trust, these fortunate patches of nature had been undisturbed for a minimum of two hundred years -- some perhaps for the extent of Human history. They were standards against which to compare restoration and preservation efforts elsewhere, not to mention a source of biodiversity for the rest of the planet. Earth had come a long way since relieving her Human population pressure by moving much of it, and her heavy industry, offworld. She had a long way left to go, and the rules protecting the Trusts were part of that journey.
Unfortunately, as senior co-administrator of Norcoast Salmon Research Facility, located just offshore of the Wilderness Trust that encompassed the shoreline and forested hills surrounding Castle Inlet, Mac found herself in the unexpected position of asking for those rules to be, if not broken, then seriously bent.
Mac sighed and went back to the room’s only chair, the seat’s padding warm from the last time she’d sat on it. She liked rules. They helped people behave in a reasonable manner, most of the time. Unfortunately, other living things tended to run rampant over rules, blurring boundaries and refusing to conveniently exist in isolation. Case in point: Castle Inlet. Norcoast’s mandate -- her mandate -- from Earthgov was to conduct ongoing studies of the metapopulations of local salmonide species, a valued Human food source as well as a crucial portion of the energy and nutrient web of the area. Fine, but that meant more than counting fish in the ocean and waterways. Salmon were essential to the surrounding forest and its life, their bodies carrying nutrients from the ocean depths to land. The forest organisms, in turn, were essential to the vigor and health of the waterways the salmon needed in order to reproduce. Researchers at Norcoast thus required access to the land as well as water. Earthgov, through the Office of Biological Affairs, had readily granted Norcoast’s scientists that access.
Legally, that should have been it. However, a clause in the Wilderness Trust charter granted each Oversight Committee the power to ban any specific encroachment it deemed detrimental to the life therein. Which put Mac in this same chair, watching the aloe fight its pot, twice each year. Once to deliver, in person, the details of all research proposals for the coming field season, complete with Norcoast’s planned precautions to avoid any anthropogenic interference with the Trust lands.
Once a year, in other words, to beg permission to continue their life’s work from Charles Mudge III.
As if that wasn’t demeaning enough, Mac was also required to report, in person, any and all slips in those precautions, no matter how minor, that may have occurred during the course of the field season, these to be included in the Oversight Committee’s annual catalog of outside, undue influence.
Once a year, in other words, to grovel and confess their sins to Charles Mudge III.
Today’s meeting would be one of the former: begging. Mac winced. Regardless of having plenty of practice, she wasn’t good at it. Arm wrestling, verbal or otherwise, was more her style.
It had only been an hour and thirteen minutes since she’d arrived. Too soon to be pacing and scowling, though Mac admitted to temptation. To keep still, she pulled out her imp -- a tougher-than-standard version of the ubiquitous Interactive Mobile Platform carried by almost everyone on-or-off Earth --  from the ridiculous little sack she’d been forced to carry. No pockets. She laid the stubby black wand on her left palm and tapped her code against its side with a finger of the other hand. In answer, a miniature version of her office workscreen appeared in midair, hovering at the exact distance she preferred from her eyes.
Just as Mac was about to review the access request she knew by heart, she glanced at the black, unblinking vidbot hovering at the ceiling. Pursing her lips, she disengaged the ‘screen and put the imp away.
Privacy wasn’t an option on the mainland.
Not that she’d anything to hide, Mac assured herself. It was the principle of the thing.
Time. Time. Time. She folded her hands to resist the urge to fiddle with her hair. It was, unusually, tucked up and tidy. As was she, dressed in her mainland business suit and borrowed shoes. There’d been the expected startled looks from those at Base when she’d left this morning. Dr. Connor, professor and friend to an ever-changing group of grad students every summer -- when not investigating the evolutionary impact of diversity within migratory populations -- typically went about her business in clothing with useful pockets, her hip-length hair in a braid knotted into a loose pseudo-pretzel, and her feet bare or in waterproof boots with decent tread.
A fashion-statement, she wasn’t, even now. Mac had reluctantly taken her father’s advice after graduating, investing in The Suit for those all-important tenure interviews. Ironically, she’d landed her first choice without it: Norcoast, where she’d been a student herself.
Which made The Suit a decade and a half out-of-date. If she waited long enough, Mac thought pragmatically, its short jacket and pleated pants would come back in style. The dark blue weave was, in her estimation, timeless, if a trifle warm for this time of year.
The dress shoes were Kammie’s, Mac’s not having survived being worn through waves and sand one memorable night. Dr. Kammie Noyo was the other co-administrator at Norcoast and loaned her favorite shoes with the clear expectation that Mac wouldn’t mess up the applications of Kammie’s own lab and students. Mac squinted down her legs and flexed one ankle, wondering who in their right mind would design footwear to topple the wearer down the first set of stairs she might encounter.
But it would be worth the shoes and Suit. Worth the wait. Worth whatever it took. It had better be, Mac amended, time crawling over her skin. This meeting was unusual and an alteration in routine never sat well with Mudge. She’d been here, as always, midwinter to confirm his permission -- however grudging -- for this field season’s projects. However, thanks to Emily’s -- Dr. Emily Mamani’s -- recent accomplishments in the Sargasso Sea, Mac had seen an opportunity to move her own work up by three years, maybe more. With that motivation, she’d chanced Mudge’s temper and scrambled to get the changed request to him by spring, hoping for permission before the early fall salmon runs -- her target -- approached the continental shelf. But with the damnable timing of bureaucracy in general, suspicious timing from an organization and individual that surely understood that much of the natural world it was supposed to protect from Human interference, she was in this waiting room when she should have been calibrating sensors at Field Station Six.
The salmon were coming.
And Emily was late. Emily, who could charm a clearance from Earth customs, let alone a curmudgeon who called himself a committee.
Mac scowled at the empty room. Emily, her co-researcher and friend, was never late for the start of their field season. The first time would have to be this one, when so much was at stake.
The plant caught her attention and Mac transferred her scowl to its pot, willing the aloe to grow faster and shatter the damn thing. She contemplated helping it along by tossing pot and plant at the door. Satisfying, if hardly beneficial to her own cause.
With impeccable timing, the door in question abruptly opened wide enough to let a slice of face and one pale eye peer into the room. “Dr. Connor,” said a voice with clear disapproval. “You’re still here.”
“Yes, I am,” Mac confirmed. “You’d think I had nothing else to do but wait, wouldn’t you?”
“The office is about to close for the day. I suggest you come back tomorrow.”
The thin smile stretching Mac’s lips was the one which gave inadequately prepared students nightmares, but all she said was: “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
The opening remained a slit, as though the person on the other side, older and female by the voice, preferred a barrier between herself and imagined hordes in the waiting room. “I’ve been here since last fall, Dr. Connor,” complete with sniff. “You really should go --”
Mac felt a twinge of remorse. Not at forgetting the woman -- she tended to focus on Mudge, not the receptionists who appeared and vanished like shoe styles -- but last fall had been the Incident. The Oversight Committee, namely Mudge, had been outraged by the report of a near-attack by a grizzly, an episode he treated, with intolerable smugness, as incited by the grad student in question. He’d claimed the student had grossly interfered with the animal’s normal movements through the forest -- a serious charge, possibly enough to cancel Norcoast’s access.
Upon hearing this, Mac had forced her way past the futile protests of a pimpled young man into Mudge’s office, there dumping a bucket of distinctly ripe salmon on his desk. The so-called incitement had been no more than a similarly fragrant sample on its way back to the lab. The bear, needless to say, had willingly followed the scent and student. The Wilderness Trust didn’t control the air.
She’d made her point, but Mac hadn’t wished to cost someone their job. Still. Mudge seemed to have a limitless supply of new staff. She leaned back comfortably and gazed at the eyeball in the door slit. “You can go home, if you like.”
The door closed. Mac sighed and raised an eyebrow at the vidbot’s lens. “The game’s getting old,” she told it, in case anyone was watching.


[li #]

“Counting this -- this change of yours, Norcoast, there are three more applications from your facility than last year.”
No apologies, no pleasantries. Not even names, as though to Mudge their roles mattered more than their own existence. Mac couldn’t disagree.
She ran a finger along the edge of the bare, gleaming white table separating them, gathering her patience around her.
The man with authority to grant or refuse the land-based portion of Norcoast’s research was florid in face and manner, with a body determined to stress the midline of his clothing. How many underestimated him? Mac wondered. Their mistake, not hers. Charles Mudge III’s lineage could be traced back to the earliest wave of loggers to settle the Pacific coast and, beyond any doubt, he was obsessed with its forests. Castle Inlet’s forests in particular, since it was partly his great-grandmother’s doing that so many of its slopes had remained pristine enough to qualify for Trust status. Mudge vehemently opposed any Human presence in the Trust.
Mac was here, as she had been each of the past fourteen years -- in The Suit -- to arrange just that. “I turned down twenty from my staff,” she replied calmly. “We understand the restrictions, Oversight. We follow them.”
Mudge looked rumpled and aggrieved, not that Mac could recall seeing him otherwise. Now he scowled at her, his round face creased with wear and sun. His cheeks and chin sported the beginnings of a beard, mottled in grey, red, and black despite the brown hue of what hair struggled to cap his shiny head. “You’d better. Castle Inlet gains Class Two rating in fifty-one years, three months, and two days. If it survives your scientists. And you know what that means. No exemptions, none. I plan to be there on that day, Norcoast, to see your people ousted permanently.”
Mac hid her dismay. The active lifespan of a Human was lengthening with each generation -- on Earth, anyway -- so it was entirely possible she and Mudge would continue these meetings into the next century. Sit in that waiting room another hundred times? For a moment, she seriously considered delegating the job, something she’d never done -- even to Emily the charming. Then Mac looked into Mudge’s small and anxious eyes, read the determined defensiveness of his hunched shoulders and lowered head, and gave a slow, respectful nod.
“I’ll be there,” she promised. “Norcoast will be overjoyed to see the Castle Inlet Wilderness Trust reach its four hundredth birthday unspoiled. We aren’t at odds on that, Oversight, by any measure. Now, about my application?”
She knew better than to hope for a curt ‘yes’ and an end to waiting. Sure enough, Mudge tugged his own imp from a chest pocket and set an enlarged workscreen between them, one that reached to the ends of the table and almost touched the ceiling. Proposals and precautions formed chains of text in the air, most glowing red and trailing comments like drops of gore. She’d been afraid of this. He’d complain about everything possible all over again, a knight defending the virtue of his forest against the pillages of field research.
Elbows on the table, Mac propped her chin in her hands and plastered an attentive look on her face.
Good odds the aloe plant will escape before she would.


[li #]


The hired skim deposited Mac on the deserted pier, in time to watch the second-last northbound transport-lev rise and bank out over the harbor. The driver was apologetic and willing to take her somewhere else; Mac paid him and sent him away.
She didn’t mind this kind of waiting, the kind where the city lights played firefly over the dark waters of the bay, skims darting from building to building in such silence the lapping of waves against the pylons rang in her ears. She took her time walking to the pier’s end and discovered a small series of crates there, a couple stacked atop one another. Taking off Kammie’s dress shoes with a groan of relief, Mac placed them carefully on a lower crate. She climbed the stack, sat on the topmost, and dangled her bare feet over its edge, admiring the view. She had time, all right. The final t-lev of the night would be late; its driver lingering at each stop so as not to strand anyone.
Meanwhile, the cool sea air held pulses of city heat, scented with late summer flowers. Mac half-closed her eyes to puzzle at the scents, letting the tension of her meeting with Mudge escape with every exhalation, feeling her bones melt. Castle Inlet was too far north for plants who couldn’t take a little bluster and gale with their winter. Bluster. She smiled to herself. Mudge had certainly done enough of that, but even he’d found nothing in her changed request that would impact his precious Trust. Not for want of trying. In his own way, he was as tough as the aloe.
Mac’s hands strayed to her hair, tugging free the mem-ribbons making it behave. Loose, the stuff drifted down her back and arms until Mac swept it forward over her right shoulder and began to braid, fingers moving in the soothing, familiar pattern.
The meeting hadn’t been a disaster. Chalk one up for diplomacy, Mac decided proudly. It sounded better than saying she’d managed to keep her temper. They’d had their share of confrontations in the past; times when she and Mudge had shouted at one another until both were hoarse. Once, he’d walked out in a fury. Only once, since Mac had proved herself willing and able to camp in his office as long as it took. Today? He’d agreed to her request, confirmed all but one of the existing permissions, insisted on onerous but doable increases in their precautions, and been, all-in-all, reasonable. For Mudge.
Now one of Kammie’s grad students would have to travel up the coast to find a new study site. Mac could live with that, being finished with Kammie’s shoes for six months. Flexibility was worth learning, she grinned to herself. Mac always included one or more projects she knew Mudge wouldn’t allow. It let them both get some satisfaction out of the day. She’d been surprised he’d passed it in the first place.
Leaning back on her hands, Mac smiled peacefully at the city outlining itself against the night. Not a bad meeting at all.
The voice startled her out of an almost doze, an hour later. “I can’t believe you wore that thing again!”
Mac turned awkwardly and too quickly, almost falling off the crate into the bay. “Emily?! What the --” Smiling so broadly it hurt her cheeks, she clambered down, her bare feet landing in a puddle of cold seawater. It didn’t dim her joy one iota. “About time --”
The glows lining the pier’s edge were sufficient to put color to the tall slim woman standing in front of her, touching a gold shimmer from a dress that was most likely the latest rage in Paris, sliding warm tan over the skin, and lifting red along the scarf supporting Emily’s left forearm. A sling?
“What have you done to yourself?” Mac demanded, drawing back from the relieved hug she’d planned to offer.
“This?” Emily raised her left arm. The scarf fell back to show a flash of white. “Little collision between the edge of a stage, a dance floor, and yours truly.”
Mac took Emily’s left hand and pulled it gently into the light. “A cast?” she said worriedly, looking up. “A bit archaic, isn’t it?”
“I had a reaction to the bone-knitting serum. Just have to heal up the old fashioned way. Don’t worry.” The fingers in Mac’s hold wriggled themselves free. “Won’t slow me down.”
“You’re late, you know.”
“Glad to see you too, Mac.”
Mac grinned. Looking beyond Emily, she could see a trio of skims parked near the entrance to the pier, figures unloading boxes. “That your gear? Is it -- is it ready?”
“You find me your salmon run, and I’ll tell you who’s in it. Name, rank, and DNA sequence.”
A shiver of anticipation ran down Mac’s spine. “I’ve such a good feeling about this, Em,” she said. “What we’ll accomplish -- what we’ll learn --” Mac stopped, embarrassed by the passion in her voice. “Great to have you back.”
Emily stilled -- or was it merely a pause in the waves tasting the pier? Mac decided she’d imagined it, for her friend went on briskly: “Before you publish our results, Dr. Connor, mind calling in a t-lev on Norcoast’s tab? I’d rather not stand out here all night.”
Mac pointed to the nearby crates. “Have a seat. Public transit will be arriving soon enough. While we wait, you can show me the upgrades to your DNA Tracer.”
A laugh and a shake of Emily’s head greeted this. “Don’t you want to know what I’ve been up to these last few weeks?”
Mac moved Kammie’s shoes so Em could sit without climbing, joining her on the crate. “Nope. Not if it involves ridiculous prices for clothes, seedy bars, or places I’ve never heard of,” she stated firmly. “Or anything about men,” she added, to forestall Emily’s usual list of adventures. “Salmon, girl. That’s why you’re back in the Northern Hemisphere.” Mac pulled out her imp, chewing her lower lip as she activated the workscreen and hunted for the latest schematic.
The city lights faded behind the radiance of the three-dimensional image floating in front of the pair, its network of wiring and data conduits peeled back to show the innermost workings of the device. Emily reached over and traced a series of components with one finger, turning them blue within the image.
“Happy now?”
“I will be when we know it works in the field,” Mac muttered, eyes devouring the modified image. “We’ll set up right away.”
“After I settle in, you mean.”
“Settle?” Mac sputtered. “You’re late, remember? We’re moving out at dawn. The tents and my gear are already at the field station.”
“Kammie’s right. You’re a damned work alcoholic,” Emily bumped her good shoulder into Mac’s. “A day at Base to unpack. Two.” The display gleamed in her dark eyes. “Not to mention a chance to look over this year’s crop.”
Mac bumped her back. “The students are busy. As we’ll be. The run won’t wait --” She glanced at Emily’s injured arm and sighed. “One day. We can run some sims ...”
Muchos gracias,” Emily said dryly. “I trust you’ll let me eat sometime in there?”
Grinning, Mac let the plaintive request be answered by the hum of the approaching t-lev.
No more barriers, she thought with triumph. No more delays. Nothing but the work.
Life didn’t get much better.

Chapter 2: Success and Surprise

“Bah! There’s no sex in this one either.”
The offending book sailed over Mac’s head, landed with a bounce, then began slithering down the massive curve of rock. She lunged for it, scraping both knees on wet granite in the process, and somehow managed to hook one finger in the carrystrap before the book sailed off the rock for the river several meters below. Sitting back, she caught her breath before glowering at Em. “At last we have the truth about Dr. Emily Mamani Sarmiento, consummate professional researcher from Venezuela, holder of more academic credentials than I knew existed. She’s nothing but a randy teenager in disguise.”
“Nice catch.”
Mac’s lips pressed together, then twitched into a grin. “And she’s impossible.”
Emily tilted the brim of her rain hood enough to show Mac a raised eyebrow. “What I am is stuck on this rock, reduced to watching you, my dear Dr. Mackenzie Connor, also holder of innumerable awards which don’t pay rent, chase lousy books that have no sex in them. Remind me again why I agreed to such suffering.”
Mac snorted, busy sorting through their pile of waterproof bags for one to protect the latest of Emily’s rejections. Lee would not be pleased to find a member of his novel collection soaked and non-functional. Ah. There was the one from the sandwiches, consumed hours past. She shook the bag, and book, to remove most of the raindrops, before unzipping the one to shove in the other.
Mac made sure the bag was securely wedged in a crevice before turning her attention back to the river. She tucked her throbbing knees against her chest, and put her chin on a spot that seemed unscraped, her rain cape channeling the warm drizzle into tiny rivulets that converged on her bare feet. She wiggled her toes, playing with the water.
“I don’t see why there has to be sex in everything you read,” Mac commented absently, her eyes sweeping the heave of dark water below with the patience of experience. She could relax now. They’d delayed at Base for two days, not one, while Emily fussed over her equipment, settled into her quarters, and charmed ‘her’ new students. Mac’s anxious complaints hadn’t hurried her fellow scientist in the least.
Hard now to complain about Emily’s lack of speed, after five days camped with no sign of salmon whatsoever. Em had been insufferably smug the first day; bored and smug the second; simply bored by the third. Mac was rather enjoying her discomfort.
“And I don’t see why it has to rain here every hour of the day,” that worthy countered predictably. “This is worse than the Amazon.”
A bright little head suddenly popped out of the river depths, patterned in bold white and rich chestnut. The Harlequin bobbed for an instant in the midst of the maelstrom, the water’s froth seeming to entertain it. Then it dove again, seeking its prey in the rapids. Mac smiled to herself. “The sun was out this morning,” she reminded Emily.
“Oh. Was that the Sun? Tell my sleeping bag. Which, for your information, barely achieved damp status before we had to haul the gear back into the tents.” A rustle of synthrubber as Emily came to sit beside her. With their hoods and capes, the two of them, Mac decided, must look like small yellow tents themselves.
Emily was quiet for about thirty seconds. “How long before they get here?”
“When we see them – right there.” Mac pointed downstream, where the river wrapped itself around the base of a wall of rock and disappeared.
Below their toes, and the generous outcrop of granite beneath them, the Tannu River was over forty meters wide, in its midreach already swollen, powerful, and swift as it sped down the west side of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast. Along its surface, mist competed with the unceasing rain: some tossed where the river did its utmost to dislodge boulders and tumble gravel, some curling up along the eddies where the ice-cold glacial meltwater met the warm, saturated late-August air. The river always won. It had carved the sides of its valley into downward sheets of sheer rock, anchored at their base by the lushness of riparian rainforest, itself a thin line of green stitched to the water’s edge by the pale grey of fallen tree trunks. The river’s edge was a perilous place to grow.
Yet grow here life did, with a tenacity and determination Mac had long ago taken as personal inspiration. Cloud clung to the forests; the forest clung to any non-vertical surface, lining cliff tops as well as valley floors. Where trees couldn’t survive, lichens and mosses latched themselves to rock face and crevice, nourishing the mountain goats who danced the perpendicular cliffs.
The mountains’ own relentless push skyward added force to the river. The river gladly tore at the mountains. Life thrived in the midst of geologic conflict. It was, Mac firmly believed, the most wonderful place on Earth.
And the ideal location for Field Station Six.
“I don’t think it will be much longer, Em,” she assured her, relenting. “This afternoon, if I’m any judge.”
What Emily muttered to that was too low to compete with the river. Its thunder  overwhelmed the rustle of leaves in the trees and the beat of rain on their gear. Waterfalls merely underscored its voice, wherever the mountains split to add their outflow from the snow pack and glaciers above.
They’d learned to shout over it. Mac raised her voice: “Pardon?”
“I should have taken Cannings’ offer.”
Mac turned and stared. “Work with manatees? Whatever for?”
A grin lit the shadow of the rain hood. “At least they copulate.”
Mac threw up her hands. “As I said. You’re impossible. Entertaining, but impossible.”
“I do my best – Look!”
Mac had seen for herself. Both women rose to their feet so quickly they had to grab one another for balance, then push off to run to the consoles attached to the stone. It was a race to pull the protective sheets, Mac winning. Of course, she had two good arms to use. Her eyes locked on the rising glow of the observation screen as it sparkled through the raindrops, the standby flicker of indicators transformed into a psychedelic polka as data roared into the collectors.
“I’m tracking 35 – make that 240 – make that upwards of 5 000,” Emily’s voice held a hint of excitement, but only a hint. She’d already taken control of the Tracer emitters from the autos, an operation demanding intense concentration as well as quick hands. This was her technology, the latest model to be tested away from her original site in the Sargasso Sea, with its convenient lack of cliff and forest. Emily had insisted on running extra simulations at Base, making adjustments to compensate for any slowing of her left arm by the cast, working to speed up the reaction time of the equipment and herself. A perfectionist in every way.
Mac made sure the incoming feeds were all active, then tore her eyes from the resulting display to look down the river for its source.
The Harlequin was looking too. The bird stood onshore with a trio of its kind, as if preferring the stone to the unsure safety of the river -- or at the very least showing disapproval of this novelty. The Tracer couldn’t harm them, but they’d never seen anything like it before. No one had, Mac thought with triumph.
The Tracer. It was as if a translucent curtain made of rainbows and fairy dust had begun flowing upstream. It started in the air, three meters above the water surface, a distance Mac’s surveys had indicated should be above the tallest of the protruding debris and boulders in the Tannu. It stretched from side-to-side across the valley; where it met the river’s banks fading to a shadow that passed lightly over log, stone, and ducks. Within the roiling water, it was a wall moving ever forward.
On the screens, that wall sectioned the water column down to the gravel bottom. Invisible below the surface, this version of Emily’s device was marked above for the convenience of air breathing observers.
Like curtain rings, a line of tiny aerial ‘bots formed the Tracer’s top edge, each projecting a portion of the scanning field downward into the river while obeying the directions provided by both proximity sensors and Emily. At the same time, they retrieved the data and beamed it to the equipment under Mac’s rain-damp hands.
“Em --”
“I see it.” The correction was made before the line reached the upcoming bend in the valley, the curtain swinging more rapidly at its near reach to compensate. “How’s it look?”
Mac ran her fingers over the screen, following the patterns shifting and surging across the display, feeling the cool droplets under her skin as if she stroked what they represented. “Better than sex.”
“You really need to get out more.” But the quip was automatic, Emily as captured by what was happening as Mac. For this was why Emily had picked Mac out of all the biologists eager for her expertise: to be here at this moment, to be part of life as it responded to the imperatives of its nature.
Within the curtain, behind it as far as the river showed itself, dorsal fins sliced the dark water, disappeared, rose again with a muscular heave. Rose-black bodies jostled in the shallows, then vanished before the eye could be sure what it saw. The water roared to the ocean; the first fall run of Chinook up the Tannu raced against it to their destiny.
And at Field Station Six, the leaders of that race had unknowingly activated the Tracer, an ambush undetectable by senses adapted to follow clues from water, light, air, and earth. Through this stretch of the Tannu, while the fish swam oblivious, the Tracer scanned and recorded the genetic code of every individual that passed through its curtain. The codes would be matched in the weeks to come with Mac’s survey data from the past twelve years, compared to that from other rivers and other runs, to that of the resulting generation of smolts when they migrated back to the estuaries and ocean. Together, this data would test her hypotheses about the necessity for diversity, of the significance of strayed, hapless newcomers as well as those locked on course to their natal stream.
Mac felt a visceral thrill as she watched the scroll of code schooling in the depths and fighting the current. “How many?” she whispered. “How many of you are strangers; how many kin? What mix will it take for your species to endure another ten millennia? Tell me.”
This time, they might.
Having proved her device could be activated by the leaders of the run, then follow to verify those individuals, Emily halted the Tracer at the point Mac had selected during the spring low-water survey, a deep area before the next major rapids upstream turned the water into a mass of gleaming rock and mad foam. The salmon paused there too, as if gathering their strength in its relative calm, but only for a moment, individuals exploding into the air with a powerful twist from head to tail. Dippers, short tailless birds that resembled grey balls on tiny stilts, bobbed up and down on the rocks, seemingly unperturbed by either shimmering curtain or the huge salmon leaping overhead.
Meanwhile, Emily was singing at the top of her lungs as she fine-tuned the Tracer. Something in Quechua, Mac judged, and likely bawdy as could be. She’d have to ask for a translation later, over some celebratory beer.
They were a good match, Mac smiled, grateful for every step of the process that had drawn Dr. Emily Mamani from one ocean and hemisphere to another, to come here and join her at Norcoast. There were never guarantees a scientist’s personality would be as welcome as his or her abilities. Being trapped together for a field season brought out the worst in people; Mac had endured the consequences many times before. But Em had not only fit right in, she’d single-handedly turned the facility into a place where Saturday night meant a party about to happen.
To the surprise of everyone else at Norcoast, rowdy, raucous Emily had become the perfect foil to Mac’s more reserved approach to life. Within moments of meeting, they’d recognized a kindred passion for the work; within a week, it was as if they’d always known one another. Perhaps, Mac admitted to herself, it was because they were both such complete frauds in public: herself wary of showing her intensity, Emily disguising hers with jokes and flirtation.
By now, in their third northern field season together, there was no one Mac would rather have share this moment. She hummed along, doing her best to follow the melody. The drumming of rain against hood, cape, and console was her private percussion section.
After a few moments, Mac activated her imp. The imp had a ten year supply of its own -- and the ability to tap into local supplies, such as those maintained around most cities -- but not so the consoles or Tracer. No need to verify the power feed from Norcoast’s broadcast generators; it was obviously reaching them, as it would be other researchers in the field and at sea.
What concerned Mac were their results. The ‘screen now hovering over the console mirrored the one in her office at Base, winking with tallies that showed the data stream making the return trip as steady; the system flawlessly making and sending copies. She’d have it all.
Reassured, Mac let her shoulders relax and rubbed a wet hand over her face, putting the device away. “Ready to anchor it, Em?”
“Not yet. I want to make sure we don’t get some lateral drift with that wind. It’s not much up here, but there’s a funneling effect closer to the surface I have to watch – ai caramba! -- like that. How’s the feed? Still okay?”
Mac gave a quick glance. “Nominal. This looks to be just the initial group. I’ll heat some soup while you make sure we’re stable. There won’t be time for a break later.”
“Now this is why I keep telling you we should have brought along that helpful grad student of yours, John. Wonderful cook.”
Mac patted her console fondly before heading for the tents nestled against the cliff face. “I hadn’t noticed it was his cooking you liked,” she tossed over her shoulder. The fact that the good-looking John Ward blushed so abundantly had been a bonus, as far as Em was concerned, likely the reason he’d requested Field Station Four this year. Emily’s admiration tended to be outspoken and results-oriented.
“So I like men who are – Mac, get back here! Hurry!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” She returned to her console as quickly as she dared on the rain-slicked stone. “The wind ... What the hell?” Blinking rapidly, then rubbing her hand over the screen didn’t change the wrong-scale image now among the salmon. The display red-flagged its code.
“You get whales up here?” Em asked shakily.
“No, but we get idiots.” Mac hadn’t felt this infuriated since she’d found someone fishing a headwater lake with explosives, nets, and a truck. She left her console to go as close to the bluff’s edge as she dared, then judged the distance. Grabbing a piece of jagged rock, she threw it with all the force she possessed.
Close enough. Bubbles exploded on the surface, startling the ducks into flight. A shape appeared shortly afterwards, bouncing up and down in the current. Before it could be swept downstream, a repeller activated to hold it in place, a telltale ring of vibrating water plainly visible. Offended salmon burst from the river in all directions as their lateral line sense reacted to the output from the device, dropping back to scatter into the depths.
Any chance of calling this a natural, undisturbed run was gone. Emily didn’t need to be told. Mac watched the Tracer’s curtain snap out of existence, Emily’s ‘bots left hovering above the river as if lost.
Meanwhile, the begoggled head was turning from side to side as if hunting the source of the rock. Mac gritted her teeth and fought the urge to hunt for something else to throw. Something heavier -- or at least pointy.
“You’ve got to be kidding.” Emily came to stand beside her. The rain conveniently eased into a light drizzle so they had a clearer view, but the diver floating below still hadn’t thought to look up. “How’d that cabron get this far without setting off an alarm?”
Mac thrust her arm downstream, as if her finger could impale what was coming towards them. “Like that.” The big skim moved above the water’s surface, though close enough that spray from the rapids splashed over its cowling. It was heading for the diver. “Best bring in the ‘bots before it bumps into one.”
With a growl better suited to one of the grizzlies they’d watched yesterday, Emily went to her console. Mac watched the ‘bots break formation, a couple swooping near the diver’s head so he – or she – ducked back under for a moment, then they all rose until level with the rock shelf. Like a string of beads, the tiny, and very expensive, devices came to lay at Emily’s feet. One-handed, she began tucking them inside her console’s locker without another word.
Silence, from Dr. Mamani, was not a good sign.
Feeling herself beginning to shake from head to foot wasn’t good either. Mac made herself take slow, steady breaths through her nose, fighting back both disappointment and fury, forcing her heart to calm itself. They might – might – be able to salvage something if they could get the river cleared of interlopers before the big runs started to arrive – likely by tonight. She’d have more chance of that if she wasn’t throwing more rocks, tempting as it was.
Especially at a skim bearing the insignia of her own research facility, hovering beside the diver. They’d brought him, all right. They were already lowering the harness of hooked cables that would connect to one of the high-end commercial dive rigs. Interference from those who knew better was worse than unwitting trespass.
Mac turned away, uninterested in the details of extricating her problem, refusing to speculate and have her blood pressure rise even further towards rock-throwing. She spent the next few minutes locking down her console, its screen again mute and empty of code.
She was on her knees, struggling with the cover fasteners on the riverside of the device, when a deep hum announced the skim had set down on the ledge. Mac ignored both the arrival and the sound of footsteps that followed, including the unfamiliar voice saying: “Dr. Connor, I presume?”
When she was good and ready, Mac rolled her head to gaze at a pair of soaking wet, though shiny, men’s shoes, better suited to an office than lichen-coated, bepuddled granite. Her eyes traveled up a pair of damp beige dress pants, were unsurprised to encounter a suit jacket of the same color and condition topped by a conservative yet fashionable – and damp -- cravat, and finally stopped at a face she didn’t know.
And didn’t care to know. Even through the rain, she could smell a bureaucrat. Sure enough, he had a portable office slung under one arm, doubtless jammed with communication gear and clearances someone, somewhere, thought gave him the right to ruin her observations.
The bureaucrat offered her his hand. Mac stared at the manicured fingers until they curled up and got out of her way.
She rose to her feet, shoving her rain hood to her shoulders, and looked around for someone with answers. There. A familiar figure stood beside the skim. Tie McCauley, her stalwart chief of operations and the man who single-handedly kept all Norcoast equipment running through budget-pinching and Pacific storms. Catching her eye on him, he simply raised both arms and let them drop at his sides.
 That wasn’t good.
Mac found herself forced to look to the bureaucrat after all. Up at the bureaucrat. He was taller than he’d appeared at first glance, despite what seemed a permanent slouch. An ordinary, almost pleasant face, bearing rain-spattered glasses and hair that looked to have been actually in the river, so neither eyes nor hair showed their true color. Drips were running down both sides of his face, which bore an expression that could only be described as anxious.
That expression made Mac swallow what she intended to say, replacing it with a much milder: “Do you realize you’ve seriously disrupted our work?”
 “I know, Dr. Connor. It is Dr. Connor?” At her nod, he continued: “Believe me, we wouldn’t have come if it hadn’t been so important to the Honorable Delegate --”
A booming voice interrupted. “That would be me, Mackenzie Connor.”
Mac’s eyes widened as if that could somehow help her mind fit the figure now climbing from the skim into the reality of a field camp in the coastal ranges. He – she assumed it was a he – waved off Tie’s offer of assistance. Just as well, Mac thought numbly, since their visitor looked to outmass the chief several times over.
The diving suit, and distance, had helped disguise the non-human. Now, his head free and his body wrapped in what appeared to be bands of brightly colored silk, there was no escaping that she was standing three meters from a Dhryn.
Mac had seen the news report on the t-lev from Vancouver. Dhryn - the only oxy-breathing species within the Interspecies’ Union to never set foot – or more accurately – pods – on Earth, had sent a representative.


Biogeeks Unite!


This edition contains the names of many of the readers who've contacted me regarding the abundance of life in this story, for nothing unites the biology-minded more than details about slime. And other things, of course. Biogeeks!

I was thrilled and gratified to have them notice. To me it was about credibility, for speculating high and wide from science ideas means having that science as correct as possible at the start. Also, this story showcases all I love with a passion about living things, including us, on this planet. To be ready, I'd spent 5 years refreshing, updating, and learning about my chosen field. I did start out as a fisheries biologist and, yes, Mac's Norcoast Lab is exactly what I'd build for myself, given any encouragement!

Are you a Biogeek? You haven't missed your chance. I've made arrangements in each book for new Biogeeks to proclaim themselves. Please do. Let me know.

We should stick together. Mac would approve.