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The meteorologists were all so completely fooled it was embarrassing. They didn't just make a wrong forecast; that happened with regularity anyway. This time they raised their erroneous weather forecasting to new heights of inaccuracy. It was on a day in late fall, with no fronts anywhere near, with the waters in the Gulf of Mexico no longer hot enough for hurricane formation, with no signs of a tropical storm apparent, with no weather patterns coming in from Mexico or the Pacific and with the whole state of Texas enjoying warm, balmy and cloudless weather. Suddenly a vicious low-pressure system formed over East Texas with the rapidity of a striking rattler. In an area about a hundred miles north of Houston, and fifty to a hundred miles wide, near hurricane-force winds suddenly sprang up and began ripping through the countryside in a counter clockwise movement.
Trees blew over, power lines went down, commuters were caught on their lunch hour or while shopping with no protection and no warning. Fortunately, there were few casualties; Texans are used to sudden changes in the weather, but even the old-timers had to admit this one was a little too abrupt for their tastes, Texas weather or not.
For a solid hour the gusty winds blew in the counter clockwise motion around the center of the low pressure as if a tropical storm had sprung up from nowhere. The meteorologists went mad trying to explain how this could be happening when there was so little moisture available to work with, a required ingredient for that type weather system. In fact, it never rained a drop the whole time. And then, just as suddenly as the weather had changed, it went back tonormal, leaving debris strewn on yards, roads and highways, and a number of motor vehicle accidents caused by high winds and junk on the highways as the only sign it had ever existed.
Some meteorologists claimed to their dying day that it hadn't existed. It was impossible; therefore it hadn't happened. Others conveniently forgot about it, putting it out of their minds and going on about their business, as if by not thinking about the phenomena, it could be relegated to the same category as forgotten names, dates or the times in high school they had embarrassed themselves by being turned down for a date or tripping over their own feet on the dance floor at the prom. Others remembered and made conscientious efforts to find an explanation for the oddity. They studied past weather patterns, fiddled with the exotic equations peculiar to their science and ran all the data again and again through their super duper fast weather computers, but for all their sweat and mental effort, wound up none the wiser afterwards.
In contrast, a few meteorologists in the Pentagon knew more than their fellows. They were the rare breed who studied upper atmospheric phenomena, the patterns and shifts of the jet stream and even farther up, the mechanisms which made weather work on the fringes of space; if that thin mix of charged particles, the streams of sun-stuff that managed to elude the Van Allen belts, could be called weather. Those men and women needed every bit of data they could garner in order to program the missiles and spy satellites and space launches and experiments the military was constantly conducting. They knew right off that something was badly awry.
Just as the out-of-nowhere low-pressure system was forming, several of the radars that monitored the near space environment picked up an anomaly. It was somewhat akin to the play of upper atmospheric lightning and trails of charged particles left in the wake of satellite launches, but different. In the mist of the sudden whorl of thin clouds not even visible to the naked eye, one meteorologist thought he detected something solid, or so it appeared; yet within the blink of an eye it was gone. If there hadn't been a recording of the phenomena, and if the military computers hadn't been programmed to flag anomalies, it would have been missed entirely. From the area of the briefly appearing solid object, a faint stream of near-undetectable particles shot toward Earth, but dissipated long before they could have reached the ground; or so it was thought. What was extremely and unaccountably odd was that later examination of the records showed that the anomaly and the particles associated with it resembled what theorists thought a giant ion propelled spacecraft might look like, a clearly impossible situation.
The occurrence was studied and worried about and tweaked and gone over like an unexpected burst of previously unknown sub-atomic particles appearing in a cyclotron. Despite all the study, little more was learned. Whatever the thing had been, it was gone; gone with the wind, or so it was thought. Almost all of them finally agreed that what they had seen wasn't an object at all, but simply a glitch in the instruments, such as occurred sometimes when sunspot activity was high. Only one person in the department not only held the conviction that they had spotted something material, he noted what he decided was a direction the microscopically brief particle stream had taken. None of his colleagues agreed with him; they couldn't see it, and eventually Marco Whitman, a big burly dark haired Italian who looked more like a construction foreman than a scientist, quit mentioning it. He never forgot about it, though. The direction he thought he had seen had been toward Texas. He was a native Texan and hoped to retire back in Texas in the not too distant future. In East Texas, to be exact. He didn't like to think that a bunch of space stuff was preceding him there, but he knew of little he could do about it. And then it happened again, in reverse.
• • •
At the same time the low-pressure area formed, and at the same time the problematical stream of odd particles, seen only by their reaction with the atmosphere, headed somewhere (toward East Texas, Marco Whitman thought), a breeding was taking place in Shepherd, a little town about an hour's drive north of Houston. Dora James watched with satisfaction as her pair of miniature dachshunds successfully culminated their tryst, seemingly unaffected by a stream of invisible particles from space which passed through the bodies of the little doggies at just about the same moment. She complimented the little floppy-eared weenie dogs with some treats and smiled, knowing that within a few months she would have another litter of purebred mini-dachshund pups to sell. They would go for two hundred, perhaps two hundred and fifty dollars apiece. For San Jacinto County, not a reservoir of high-income residents by any measure, the prices were pretty steep, but she was sure she would find buyers. She always had before. Miniature dachshunds were in demand, especially the traditional solid red dachshunds such as she was looking at while dollar signs danced happily in her head.
• • •
When the low-pressure area formed over East Texas, Damon and Beth Stone, a middle-aged couple who lived on a former Christmas tree farm near Shepherd were grieving. Their mid-sized red dachshund, Biscuit, had hurt his back, a not uncommon occurrence in dachshunds with their excess of vertebrae. They rushed him to see Doctor Bob, their vet, who recommended surgery. Not willing to stint, Damon and Beth sought the best; the small animal surgery clinic at Texas A&M University. Unfortunately, Biscuit developed a rare complication from the back surgery and died a week later.
They brought Biscuit home to the farm and buried him by the garden behind their home where he had spent many happy hours digging for gophers. He was only five years old when he died. The grave was covered and Damon set one of Beth's beautiful handmade and hand-decorated wreaths firmly into the ground on a heavy wire stand to mark Biscuit's final resting place. After that they stood with arms around each other, shedding voluminous tears over Biscuit, a dog so intelligent, so attuned to his people, so happy and so absolutely full of life that Damon had made him the subject of a book, entitled Doggie Biscuit! , just ready for publication. At that exact moment the wind rose, blowing dry weeds, pine straw and dried pin oak leaves and bits of debris across the open pasture as if God were paying final tribute to a truly remarkable dog. The wind rose higher, becoming a howling presence that bit through their clothes and carried swirls of dust that brought more tears to their eyes to overlap those from crying over Biscuit's untimely death.
"Let's go, it's going to be pouring in a minute!" Damon said, having to raise his voice to be heard over the gale force winds. He grabbed Beth's hand and they trudged, half running, the fifty yards back to their house, a dwelling that would be a much lonelier place now without Biscuit's presence to lighten it.
Inside, they sat together, not speaking, each of them alone with their thoughts, remembering some special event in Biscuit's life that had brought laugher and happiness to their home. Eventually, they hugged, and sadly, got up to finish the chores for the day. There weren't many. The previous Christmas had been their last with the Choose and Cut Christmas tree farm they had operated the last twenty years. It still seemed strange to Damon and Beth to not be outside working. A farm, even a Christmas tree farm, is never idle, even during the off-season.
• • •
"It's a likely planet," Exttax remarked after their craft was down and properly stealthed. "It's hardly worth the bother using the Testers."
"Procedure, Exttax," Scout-Leader Fxrrax chided. "Always proper procedure. Get the Testers' kennel and the instruments ready so we can begin the next sunrise."
Exttax grumbled, but not in thought range of the Scout-Leader. It's always me he chooses to clean the kennel and service the instruments, he thought. And it's me he'll dump the responsibility on if anything goes wrong. Not that Exttax thought anything would. The protocol for using Testers was so strict, and their genetic character changed enough, so that accidents just didn't happen any more, not since the horrible episode on the planet Rebssttuf, where somehow the Testers had gotten loose. His tendrils quivered at the thought. A whole planet ruined, one that would have been suitable for generations of the race to use. The punishment of the miscreant who had allowed the Testers to escape was legendary, an example for all to think on when handling the creatures.
The Testers had been developed from a little animal native to the home planet, one whose primary defense mechanism was imitation. Selective breeding had been so successful that their powers of duplication had become well nigh perfect, and they were sapient as well now; at least they were once the organism they were imitating reached a certain size. Fortunately, so long as they remained on the home planet, they had no interest in imitation other than as a temporary defense mechanism, and once the danger passed, they always reverted to their original form, where they were only semi-sapient. They kept their numbers low on the home planet as well, like a perfectly behaved domestic animal. If only they didn't have such strong drives when away from home -- but they did.
It was hoped that the last gene reconstruction of the line of Testers used in exploration would prevent such tragedies as happened on the planet Rebssttuf. But of course no one knew yet, and the race hoped they never knew, because who wanted to see something like that happen again if the gene manipulation hadn't worked as they thought it should? No, best to just be careful, especially since the Testers relied on a sensing organ that used quantum powers for communication and imitation, powers that were still only dimly understood.
Despite the potential danger, they were perfect for testing the habitability of a planet when scout ships needed to land and replenish their biomass. Hence their name: Testers. Precautions had been decreed for using Testers after losing that one planet. Only two of their three sexes were ever allowed onto a new planet at one time so that even if by some wild chance the Testers did get loose again, their reproductive drive would be limited (they thought). Without the third sex, they would eventually die off, albeit not without causing a lot of problems if the planet happened to be inhabited by sapient beings, such as this one was.
Their homing instinct would decree that they begin the step-by-step process of duplicating the intelligent beings, gaining sapience themselves, along with the ability to build interstellar spaceships and go home. That was definitely not an outcome any of the Twppstt race desired. So far as they knew from their explorations, they had a monopoly on space travel, and they wanted to keep it that way. If the Testers built spaceships in their disguised forms, some of the beings they were mimicking would almost certainly wind up learning to make them too, a horrible thought! The Twppstt race was very xenophobic.
All spaceships carried some testers, especially scout ships such as Exttax served on. Scout ships normally bypassed inhabited planets but this had been a long journey and Fxrrax had decided to stop here to rejuvenate the biomass of the recycling systems.
The Testers weren't normally all that prolific, but if they ever got loose on a new planet, the reproductive drive kicked into higher gear. Given the chance to spread through a new environment, they would, by any means possible, motivated by the homing instinct. Too bad that other dangerous drive couldn't be suppressed as yet, that of one of the sexes being able to disguise their single identifying mark when in the imitation mode, but the specialists were working on it. And in the meantime, extra special precautions were in order.
Exttax was conscientious enough, but he tended to be fearful of the flora and fauna of new planets, a shame he was loath to admit to his fellows. His status was low enough as it was. He made sure the kennel was clean and sterilized, with plenty of trace elements on hand should there not be enough in the immediate vicinity for the Testers to use in their imitative processes. Mostly they simply took advantage of surrounding material, levitating it into their kennel (by quantum exchange, the scientists thought) and that was sufficient, but occasionally some of the rarer elements weren't available close enough for the levitating trick to work.
The little scouting spaceship was well-stealthed when it came through the atmosphere and landed in a pasture, separated from a native dwelling by a narrow line of tall, branched vegetation. Good enough, and the ship remained in the stealth mode while on the ground. Now to see if the biological flora and fauna was compatible with their needs.
Sunrise came and Exttax very carefully trundled the Tester kennel down the ramp from the spacecraft and onto the soft earth of this so far unnamed planet. The floating beams caused the kennel to wobble a little as they bit at the soft, uneven soil, but he corrected every deviation. The meter ticked off distance until the kennel was far enough from the scout ship that the Testers wouldn't try to levitate objects from inside it once the kennel suppressor fields were turned off and if they needed some element not in the vicinity.
He flicked on his own protective stealth field, then watched the two odd little organisms inside the electrowire cage. Their normal shape of a little six-legged furry animal with three enormous eyes and three small sensing organs on its belly would remain in place until they obtained a gestalt of a living organism from this planet, one near their own size to begin with. If they could duplicate an organism of the planet, then the Twppstt race could live on it if they decided to conquer it later or use its biomass to continue exploring for the present. The testers were perfect at determining that. They were never wrong.
Now all he had to do was hide and wait and pay attention to the recorder. The Testers would not make an imitation of anything if it were watched. In order for the Testers to duplicate a living organism, it first had to come near and then hold still long enough for them to obtain a gestalt, and then hold the form for a sufficient number of time units, without harm, for the test to be a success. Exttax hoped it wouldn't take too long. It would probably depend on the size of the first animal that came near and held still. The larger the animal, the longer it took for the testers to form a gestalt of it. He also hoped the tests would be successful and they could reconstitute the biomass needed by the recyclers, otherwise the whole procedure would have to be done again on another planet.
Exttax could only sit silently and patiently on his four legs until some small fauna sample came near, perhaps one of the four limbed creatures with the fluffed out appendage trailing behind which scampered so frantically among the upper branches of the tall growths, up where the brown support columns turned to green. They were probably too active, though. Or perhaps one of the little gray colored creatures that were only a few kitz long. As he waited, his thoughts wandered to the new and exotic tastes of foodstuff they might expect once the biomass here had been declared safe by the Testers.
It might be a long wait, but sooner or later the Testers would get their chance, whenever one of the native animals came close enough, and held still long enough, for them to get a gestalt of it. Even the scientists weren't certain how the testers accomplished that, but it worked, every time. The Testers were semi-sapient in their native form, but knew their role well enough. Of course on this new planet, they would much prefer not to be confined so they had room to scout and gradually progress up the scale of duplication to the large native sophonts and become fully sapient in their form. Then they could multiply that form and try to return home as their genetic makeup decreed.
Unfortunately for them, unless they were loose from the kennel it was impossible to imitate anything but a small animal. And even if out, the small ones came first, then larger and larger ones until they could gain enough brain power to expand their domain; a whole planet of domain in this case. Even then there was a catch. There were only two sexes in the kennel; a third was needed to keep their species healthy and reproductive past a certain time span. Unfortunately (for the Testers), the only place any of that third sex resided was inside the spaceship or on their home planet, and the Twppstt meant to see that they stayed there. However, this pair of Testers contained one of the sexes able to disguise its distinguishing marks when desired, but none of them worried about it. They were only going to test the biomass, then load up with it if it was suitable and depart for other planets.
It was mid-afternoon when one of the scampering creatures Exttax had seen flitting about in the tall vegetation came to ground and landed by the kennel. It swished its bushy hind appendage and looked around while moving in fast, jerky little hops that covered the ground with amazing rapidity. However, it was young and curious and didn't sense any danger. It came right up to the electrowire cage and paused just outside the electrical barrier of the kennel for a few moments, just long enough for one of the Testers to get a gestalt of it. Then it promptly began to imitate the odd little animal. There was plenty of material near the kennel. The proper amount was levitated inside, drawn by the Tester's quantum powers of exchanging atoms of elements, probably through use of its sensing organs, though that was uncertain. The whole process was incredibly fast once it got started. Exttax had hardly blinked his three eyes when the recorder announced it was complete.
Exttax still waited, but he thought it wouldn't be long now. If the duplicate animal the Tester made maintained its new form long enough, the planet would be designated as inhabitable. However, as an extra precaution, the second Tester in the kennel was required to imitate a native form as well. Two examples of the local fauna would do.
It seemed forever before another creature came near. This one was very peculiar. It had no appendages at all, but still managed to move by slithering smoothly along the ground. It paused near the kennel. A thin forked tendril extended from the front end of the animal, waved briefly, then was withdrawn. It stayed still for a moment, basking in a thin ray of a stray sunbeam peeking through the dissipating clouds. Exttax was certain that the other Tester had time to obtain its gestalt, but for some reason it failed.
Curious (and exasperated) Exttax trained an analyzer ray on the creature as it slithered away. He was astounded at its obvious lack of a temperature control mechanism and its feeble brainpower. He had never seen anything like it, but there it was; without a means of controlling its bodily heat, and being nearly brainless besides; the Testers would naturally fail to imitate it. They might be only semi-sapient, but they were smart enough not to go down the scale of sapience so far, especially when the odd creature was so cold.
Exttax wondered how many other species of fauna on the planet displayed the characteristics of the limbless organism. He hoped it wasn't many. He wanted to leave this place, but now he had to wait some more, even though the required amount of time had passed for the first creature. A second successful imitation was necessary according to standard procedure.
At last another little creature wandered by. This one was even smaller than the Testers and had four legs like the one with the bushy appendage, but it sported only a tuft on its rear end and its back legs were much larger than the front. It moved with a peculiar hopping motion. Exttax cared little about how it traveled; he wanted it to stop near the Testers, and he was very pleased when it did. He was even more pleased when the other Tester made a successful imitation. He waited out the required amount of time and was just preparing to recover the kennel, mission successful, when trouble arrived.
It was a big, double horned devil creature that caused the accident. It came along a well-defined trail that Exttax hadn't noticed earlier. It was huge and threatening. Those curved horns alone were sharp enough to rip him to pieces! Exttax backed away, then backed still farther. The horned beast came on, obviously after him. How it saw past his stealth field he had no idea, but he didn't intend to let it get anywhere close to him. He could feel his rear tentacles twitching and trembling with fear, the same fear he took great pains to conceal from his shipmates.
The huge animal suddenly broke into a lope. Exttax screamed through all three orifices and ran, not even watching to see where he was going, other than in a direction opposite the horned beast. He no longer cared who saw how afraid he was.
• • •
The milk cow heard the feeding bell in the distance and speeded up its pace, not wanting the rest of the herd to eat all the mash before it got to the barn. Unfortunately for the cow, its feet became tangled with Exttax's stealthed kennel. Not only that, the locking mechanism was designed to give a sharp electrical shock to unauthorized beings trying to unfasten it, or even come in contact with it, and the cow was certainly not authorized.
The shock panicked the cow. It tried to back away, but one of its hoofs was hung up in the electrowire of the kennel. If it couldn't see what was entangling its hoof, it could certainly feel, and it didn't like the continuous wave of electrical shocks being administered to its entangled leg. It lowered its head and did its best to grind the invisible obstacle into scrap. When its horns met resistance, it shook its head from side to side, attempting to gore whatever was keeping it from its feeding time and hurting it in the bargain. Since one of its hoofs was still attached to the kennel, something had to give. The kennel surrendered first. The cow's hoof ripped free and its horns flung the kennel over a nearby barbed wire fence and against the trunk of a big pine tree. It smashed solidly into it at just at the right angle to further enlarge the opening made by the cow's hoof. After it came to rest beneath the pine tree, there was no movement in the kennel for a moment, but then the two Testers saw and took advantage of the unexpected opportunity. They wormed their way through the mangled part of the damaged kennel to freedom, leaving it behind and almost hidden from sight near the remains of a fall garden.
The undergrowth beneath the tall vegetation beckoned as a hiding place. Both Testers headed for it without a second thought; escape foremost in their semi-sapient minds. The cow, having vanquished its invisible foe, went on its way, hurrying even faster now, eager for its evening mash and milking.
• • •
Eventually, Exttax stopped running; or rather, a sweetgum tree stopped him when he looked back with all three eyes to make sure the aggressive beast wasn't following. He ran square into the tree and knocked himself silly. By the time he regained his senses enough to listen, he could no longer hear the sounds of the horned devil creature. Breathing a sigh of relief through two of his orifices, he trudged back toward where he had left the kennel.
Copyright © 2007 Darrell Bain.