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The Muffin Migration
Deep-space explorers struggling to survive on a new world. Bizarre alien life-forms, sometimes friendly, oftentimes not. Issues of survival, interpersonal conflict, malfunctioning equipment, the impossibility of rescue in the event of harrowing circumstancesall these are tropes of the adventure science-fiction story that existed even before the arrival of Amazing Stories in 1926. That they are old, even hoary, does not automatically render any of them invalid or useless as plot points in the telling of a tale. Or as John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding/ Analog, used to prefer to say when he found a good old-fashioned story that he liked, "I think you've got a pretty good yarn here."
A good story is a good story. I see the proof of it in the faces of very young readers whenever the occasion arises for me to read to them. They respond to the same elements as their ancestors have down through the millennia. Danger, new discoveries, the need to cooperate in order to survivethese are fundamentals of adventure storytelling that have existed since Ur-storyteller Norg first enthralled listeners around the cave fire with tales of what really lay behind those mysterious lights that appeared in the sky every night.
Today we look up at those very same stars with a good deal more understanding of their true nature. But our science is not yet all-encompassing, our knowledge far from absolute. Those stars still hold many mysteries, and where there is mystery there is always room for adventure. We know now for a certainty that around those stars orbit other worlds. Perhaps some that are much like our own. On those planets we can yet hope to experience the adventures that Norg and his fellow myth-spinners first began to envision.
We might even imagine that one of those still-unknown alien worlds could be home to creatures as strange as muffins . . .
It was a beautiful day on Hedris. But then, Bowman reflected as he stood on the little covered porch he and LeCleur had fashioned from scraps of shipping materials, every day for the past four months had been beautiful. Not overwhelming like the spectacular mornings on Barabas, or stunningly evocative like the sunsets on New Riviera; just tranquil, temperate, and bursting with the crisp fresh tang of unpolluted air, green growing grasses, and a recognition of the presence of unfettered, unfenced life-force.
In addition to the all-pervasive, piquant musk of millions of muffins, of course.
The muffins, as the two planetary advance agents had come to call them, were by incalculable orders of magnitude the dominant life-form on Hedris. They swarmed in inconceivable numbers over its endless grassy plains, burrowed deep into its unbelievably rich topsoil, turned streams and rivers brown with their bathing, frolicking bodies. Fortunately for Bowman and LeCleur, the largest of them stood no more than fifteen centimeters high, not counting the few thicker, lighter-hued bristles that protruded upward and beyond the otherwise dense covering of soft brown fur. A muffin had two eyes, two legs, a short fuzzy blob of a tail, and an oval mouth filled with several eruptions of tooth-like bone designed to make short work of the diverse variety of half-meter-high grass in which they lived. They communicated, fought, and cooed to one another via appealing sequences of chirruping, high-pitched peeping sounds.
It was a good thing, Bowman reflected as he inhaled deeply of the fresh air that swept over the benign plains of Hedris, that the local grasses were as fecund as the muffins, or the planet would have been stripped bare of anything edible millions of years ago. Even though a patient observer could actually watch the grass grow, it remained a constant source of amazement to him and his partner that the local vegetation managed to keep well ahead of the perpetually foraging muffins.
The uncountable little balls of brown-and-beige fur were not the only native browsers, of course. On a world as fertile as Hedris, there were always ecological niches to fill. But for every kodout, pangalta, and slow-moving, thousand-toothed jerabid, there were a thousand muffins. No, he corrected himself. Ten thousand, maybe more. Between the higher grass and the deeper burrows it was impossible to get an accurate account, even with surveys conducted with the aid of mini-satellites.
Such qualified stats filled the reports he and LeCleur filed. They had another five months in which to refine and perfect their figures, hone their observations, and codify their opinions. The House of Novy Churapcha, the industrial-commercial concern that had set them up on Hedris, was anxious to put together a bid and stake its claim in front of the Commonwealth concession courts before any of the other great trading Houses or public companies got wind of the new discovery. By keeping their outpost on Hedris tiny, isolated, and devoid of contact for almost a year, the managers hoped to avoid the unwanted attention of nosy competitors.
So far the strategy seemed to have worked. In the seven months since the fabrication crew, working around the clock, had erected the outpost, not even a stray communication had come the way of the two agents. That was fine with Bowman. He didn't mind the isolation. He and LeCleur were trained to deal with it. And they were very well compensated for maintaining their lack of offworld contact.
A few clouds were gathering. There might be an afternoon rain shower, he decided. If it materialized, it would be gentle, of course, like everything else on Hedris. No dangerous lightning, and just enough distant thunder to be atmospheric. Then the sun would come out, attended by the inevitable rainbow.
The smoky-sweet smell of muffin on the grill reached him from inside, and he turned away from the brightening panorama. It was LeCleur's week to do the cooking, and his partner had long since mastered multiple ways of preparing the eminently edible little indigenes. Not only were the multitudinous muffins harmless, cute beyond words, and easy to catch, but their seared meat was tender and highly palatable, with a sugary, almost honeyed flavor to the whitish flesh that was nothing at all like chicken. Tastewise, it easily surpassed anything in their store of prepackaged concentrates and dehydrates. There wasn't a lot of meat on a muffin, but then, neither was there a shortage of the hopping, preoccupied, forever foraging two-legged creatures.
The slim, diminutive humanoid natives who were the dominant species on Hedris virtually lived on them, and lived well. Only their metabolism kept them thin, Bowman reflected as he closed the front door of the station behind him. Overawed by the far more massive humans, the native Akoe were occasional visitors to the outpost. They were invariably polite, courteous, and quietly eager to learn all they could about their extraordinary visitors. Their language was a simple one. With the aid of electronic teaching devices, both experienced field agents had soon mastered enough of it to carry on a rudimentary conversation. The Akoe were always welcome at the outpost, though sometimes their quiet staring got on Bowman's nerves. An amused LeCleur never missed an opportunity to chide him about it.
"How's it look outside?" LeCleur was almost as tall as Bowman, but not nearly as broad or muscular. "Let me guess: clear and warm, with a chance of a sprinkle later in the day."
"What are you, psychic?" Grinning, Bowman sat down opposite his friend and partner. The platter of grilled muffin, neatly sliced, sizzled atop a warmer in the center. It was ringed by reconstituted bread, butter, jams, scrambled rehydrated eggs from three different kinds of fowl, and two tall self-chilling pitchers flamboyant with juice. Coffee and tea arrived in the form of the self-propelled carafes that approached the men whenever they verbally expressed their individual thirst.
"Thought we might run a predator census between rivers Six EW and Eight NS today." Having finished his meal, LeCleur was adding sweetener to his hot mug of high-grown tea.
Bowman was amenable to the suggestion. "Maybe we'll see another volute." They'd only encountered one of the pig-sized, loop-tailed carnivores so far, and that from a distance.
The agent was smearing rehydrated blackberry jam on his toast when the perimeter alarm went off. Neither man was alarmed.
"I'll get it." A resigned LeCleur rose from his seat. "My turn."
While Bowman finished the last of his breakfast, LeCleur activated the free-ranging heads-up. A cylindrical image appeared in the middle of the room, a perfect floating replica in miniature of a 360-degree view outside and around the outpost. A spoken command from LeCleur caused the image to enlarge and focus on the source of the alarm. This was followed by an order to shut down the soft but insistent whine.
The agent chuckled into the ensuing silence as he recognized the slender standing figure that had set off the alert. A combination of experience and study allowed him to instantly recognize the expression on the alien's face: slight bewilderment. "It's only Old Malakotee."
Wiping his mouth, Bowman rose. "Let him in and we'll see what he wants." It was always interesting and instructive to observe the elderly native's reaction to the many miracles the outpost contained. Also fun. He and LeCleur had few enough diversions.
Precisely enunciated directives caused the circumferential viewer to be replaced by a floating command board. In seconds LeCleur had shut down the station's external defenses, rotated the bridge to cross the deep artificial ravine that encircled the outpost, and opened the front door. By the time Bowman was finishing up the dishes, the Akoe elder had arrived at the entrance.
Old Malakotee was a venerable leader among his people, wizened and much respected. The Akoe were led not by one chief but by an assembly of elected seniors. Decisions were made by group vote. All very democratic, LeCleur mused as he greeted the alien in his own language. Malakotee responded in kind but declined to enter, though he could not keep his eyes from roving. Nor did he accept the offer of one of the chairs that sat invitingly on the porch. His much slighter, smaller body and nearly nonexistent backside tended to find themselves engulfed by the massive human furniture. Also, he never knew quite what to do with his tail. It switched back and forth as he chattered, the tuft of kinky black hair at the tip swatting curious flying arthropods away.
Dark intelligent eyes peered out from beneath smooth brows. The alien's face was hairless, but the rest of his body was covered with a fine charcoal-gray down. When he opened his mouth, an orifice that was proportionately much wider than that of a comparably sized human, LeCleur could see how the stubby incisors alternated with flattened grinding teeth. In place of a nose was a small trunk with three flexible tips that the Akoe could employ as a third, if very short, hand.
A cloak comprising the skins of many native animals, especially that of the ubiquitous muffin, was draped loosely over his slim form. The garment was decorated with bits of carved bone, handmade beads of exceptional qualitythe two humans had already traded for samplesand shiny bits of cut and worked shell. The Akoe were very dexterous and possessed substantial artistic skill. Necklaces hung from Old Malakotee's throat while bracelets jangled on his wrists. He leaned on a ceremonial kotele staff, the wood elaborately garnished with feathers, beads, and paint.
"Thanking you for offer to come into your hut." The native had to tilt his head back to meet the much taller human's eyes. "I not stay long today. Come to tell you that my people, they are moving now."
LeCleur was openly surprised. Recovering from their initial shock and stupefaction at the humans' arrival, the Akoe had been a fixture on the shores of River One NS ever since. Calling for his partner to join them, the agent pressed their visitor for an explanation.
"The Akoe are moving? But where, and why?"
Raising his primitively florid staff, the elder turned and pointed. "Go north and west soon. Long trek." Bowman appeared on the porch, wiping his hands against his pants as Malakotee finished. "Find safety in deep caverns."
"Safety?" Bowman made a face. "What's this about 'safety'? Safety from what?"
The elder turned solemn eyes to the even bigger human. "From migration, of course. Is time of year. When migration over, Akoe come back to river."
The two men exchanged a glance. "What migration?" LeCleur asked their pensive visitor. "What is migrating?" Uncertain, he scanned the vast, barely undulating plain that extended in all directions beyond the outpost's perimeter.
"The muffins. Is time of year. Soon now, they migrate."
A modest herd of less than a hundred thousand of the small brown browsers was clustered in the grass in front of the outpost, grazing peacefully. Their familiar soft peep-peeping filled the morning air. LeCleur watched as several, each no bigger than his closed fist, hopped as close as they dared to the edge of the steep-sided ravine that surrounded the station to graze on the ninicumb flowers that were growing there.
"We'll see you when you come back, then."
"No, no!" Old Malakotee was uncharacteristically insistent. "I come warn you." He gestured emphatically. "You come with Akoe. You big skypeople good folk. Come with us. We keep you safe during migration."
Bowman smiled condescendingly to the native, whose appearance never failed to put him in mind of an anorexic Munchkin. "That's very kind of you and your people, Malakotee, but Gerard and I are quite comfortable here. We have protections you can't see and wouldn't understand even if I tried to explain them to you."
The miniature tripartite snout in the center of the Akoe's face twitched uneasily. "Malakotee know you skypeople got many wondrous things. You show Malakotee plenty. But you no understand. This is ixtex," he explained, using the native word for the bipedal muffins, "migration!"
"So you've told us. I promise you, we'll be all right. Would you like some tea?" The chemical brew that was Terran tea had been shown to produce interesting, wholly pleasurable reactions within the Akoe body.
Ordinarily Old Malakotee, like any Akoe, would have jumped at the offer. But not this morning. Stepping down from the porch, he gestured purposefully with his staff. Beads jangled and bounced against the rose-hued, dark-streaked wood.
"I tell you. You come with Akoe, we take care of you. You stay here"he made the Akoe gesture for despair"no good." Reaching the ground, he promptly launched into a slow-spinning, head-bending, tail-flicking tribal chant-dance. When he was through, he saluted one final time with his ornamented staff before turning his back on them and striding deliberately away from the outpost.
As LeCleur called forth the heads-up and rotated the bridge shut behind the retreating native, Bowman pondered what they had just seen. "Interesting performance. Wonder if it had any special significance?"