Despite dire rumours of disappearances on other worlds, biologist Dr. Mackenzie (Mac) Connor, is far more interested in salmon than aliens. Until the day aliens become interested in her.
“Plain and simple: This is Czerneda’s best work to date.”The Barnes and Noble Book Review
Excerpt from Survival
How do we know
why we act
as we do?
The root causation
(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.