Stories of Imaginary Places

Issue 2: Hrívë (Winter) 2004


 In this issue:

Learned Behavior

by Susan Urbanek Linville

Ann Clymer adjusted her breathing mister and watched the tall adobe dwellings of Cleveland Spaceport give way to golden terrain through the rider's open windows. In the distance, ruddy stone projections jutted skyward amidst half destroyed fields of rye, a sign of the devastation she'd come to stop.

She flipped open her notepad and scanned New Columbus information. Despite the drain of adjusting to the planet's dry air and low oxygen content, she felt excited.

"You haven't had much trouble with native species."

"Guess we've been lucky," Agricultural Agent Sterns said in the colony's pronounced drawl. "Burning beetles, only other pest problem we've had." The mister tube jiggled beneath his nose, bumping his black mustache.

Ann nodded. "And grabbers weren't a problem until last year?" Her first assignment as a Planetary Control Officer was to determine why the grabber population had suddenly skyrocketed forty years after colony settlement.

"Grabbers were helpful," Sterns said. "Kept native weeds out of our fields. About three years ago, we noticed them eating crops too."

"What population statistics do you have?" It seemed a straight-forward problem, perhaps requiring a month or two of her time. A job well done would lead to promotion, the first step toward a planetary command position.

Sterns veered right to avoid chickens feeding on the roadway. "None really. Bunch of farmers here. No time for data collection."

The rider hit a depression, throwing Ann forward. Cages, traps and bags tumbled through the back cargo space. Sterns' dog rambled forward and settled onto Ann's lap. It wasn't an Earth dog, but an indigenous species with an earless head, long snout and canine-like teeth.

"Sorry," Stern said. The dog's coloration featured wide yellow stripes against an orange background. "Bobo, get in back."

"She can stay." Ann ran her hand along its smooth back and watched its skin ripple. She'd always had cats at home, despite her dad's complaints.

"Male." Sterns pulled at an iridescent orange flap beneath its chin. "You can tell by the pouch."

"Bobo," Ann said. The dog's yellow eyes, transected by thin horizontal pupils, fixed on her face. His skin flap expanded slightly and his lips curved into a pseudo-smile.

Sterns turned the rider onto a gravel roadway leading down-slope. Ahead, a clump of buildings with reflective metal roofs stood within a circular red hedge at least a hundred meters thick. A mottled patchwork of fields extended from the hedge to rolling hills that built quickly into high plateaus.

"Toledo," Sterns said. "Glacier country to the north. Dry plateau east and west. Only good farming is down in the basin."

It took almost an hour to reach the settlement. Ann reviewed population census protocols while they bumped along the rutted roadway. Sterns wasn't much of a talker, which was fine with her.

"Roll up your window," Sterns said. Just ahead, dense hedge engulfed the road. Organisms darted in and out of foliage like schooling fish. What had looked like white blooms from a distance were seedpods with thorny protrusions.

Ann worked the clumsy mechanical roller while a mass of flying creatures like naked bats streamed past.

"Cruisers," Sterns said.

After several claustrophobic seconds the hedge opened onto a circular formation of buildings surrounding an area of grass and flowers that housed a fire-pit, playground, and small park. The buildings featured sheltered doorways framed by windows and conical roofs arrayed with solar panels.

Three children in floral jumpsuits and bright red jackets ran from the playground into a housing unit.

"Worst of the grabber problem's here," Sterns said. "Might lose the whole crop this year." An old man in orange-and-black striped trousers watched them pass from a plastic chair. He sipped a drink and patted a pink dog that slept in his lap.

With a grating clunk the rider rounded a disabled tractor and stopped before a low storefront bearing a multicolored sign that read: General Store. Bobo scrambled out as soon as the door opened, chased a few chickens and climbed the tractor.

"Bobo, get down."

Ann stretched her legs and donned her coat. The compound smelled of chicken shit and mint but looked as impeccably clean as Cleveland.

Two women exited the store: a tall, heavyset bleached blond, and another with orange spiked hair. A red jacket stretched across the blond woman's torso. The second woman, though almost petite, looked capable of lifting a tractor.

Bobo jumped down and stood before the blond, pouch expanded. She patted his head and nudged him onto all fours.

"Well, well. Bobby Sterns," she said, extending her hand. "About time you showed up."

"Had to wait for the expert." Sterns motioned to Ann. "Ann Clymer, xenobiologist from the Planetary Colonization Department."

"You called PCD?" The woman frowned at Ann. "I'm Kate." She dipped her chin toward the other. "This is my partner, Sandy. Come on inside."

It took a moment for Ann's eyes to adjust to the dark interior. An old saloon-style bar extended from one wall. The cabinet behind the bar boasted real liquor bottles, even a few Earth brands. Round tables occupied the room's center. The rest was shelved to the ceiling with everything from plastic plumbing and solar panels to shoes and fabric. The back wall supported stacked cages containing a variety of animals including earth rabbits and doves and a few species she didn't recognize. Two empty cages were labeled: Puppies - 200 credits.

"Buy you a drink?" Sterns asked. He swiveled the mister away from his face and reached into his pocket.

"Thanks," Ann said.

"Usual," Sterns said. Sandy served up a concoction that tasted like cinnamon and lemons.

"We really don't need the PCD," Kate said with a cold smile. "Bobby should've--"

"But since you're here," Sandy said, "we need something fast." She moved the mister away from her nose and drank. "Electric fences and guns don't do a thing."

"I'm sure I'll be able to help," Ann said.

"Wouldn't be so bad if grabbers were edible," Sandy said. "We could live off trapping for a while."

Kate huffed. "I'd just as soon destroy the whole damn species. All it would take is a genetic bomb, am I right?"

Their eyes locked onto Ann. Her stomach churned. Her face flushed. She'd come to evaluate the population, not rubber stamp genocide. Was that what they wanted?

"It's important that we follow protocol," she said. "Eliminating one species can drastically alter populations of other species."

"Yeah, yeah. Food webs and all that stuff." Kate chugged the rest of her drink. "When we killed the burning bugs, we ended up with sticky mold, but we learned to live with it."

"Sticky mold?"

"Fungus," Sterns said. "Grows on most organic waste: old meat, food, garbage. Burning bugs ate sticky mold and kept spore counts low. Spores act as a neurotoxin in Earth mammals. Can paralyze a person for days, even kill."

"Then you know the kind of problems ecosystem alteration can cause," Ann said.

"When it comes to us or them, I pick us every time." Kate fastened her jacket. "You might as well get started. I'll take you out to the fields."

"Sure." Ann sighed. She hadn't expected fieldwork her first day on the job.

Sterns volunteered to unload Ann's equipment and Kate led her out the back door. The hedge behind the store had been trimmed to create a hollow large enough to house a three-wheeled scooter, farm equipment and four cages. A dog stood erect at each cage door. Two bore black and orange stripes, one pale yellow markings and the fourth was a vibrant red.

"Time for some exercise." Kate held up three fingers. The dogs sat. She opened the cages and waved, three fingers extended. The dogs walked forward and sat near Ann.

Kate indicated the striped ones. "This is Beauty and Bella. The pale yellow is Yeller and the red is Firepot." She brought her arm up, swiveled her hand at the wrist three times, and pointed northeast. The dogs ran through a tunnel in the hedge.

"Well behaved," Ann commented. The ones she'd seen in Cleveland were like Bobo, more on the wild side.

"You have to train them young." Kate mounted the scooter and handed Ann a helmet with a face shield. Ann squeezed it over her head, forced her mister back under her nose, and climbed onto the long black seat behind Kate.

Kate pressed power and the vehicle jerked into gear. They rolled through the tunnel to a broad expanse of rocky red soil. The scooter accelerated, catching up to, and passing the dogs.

When they reached cultivated land the grabber problem came into clear focus. Nothing was left but green stubble. The dogs cut across the field to high rocky ground and sat peering across the plain.

"Dogs aren't interested in grabbers?" Ann asked. The animals' teeth were clearly adapted for meat eating.

Kate hopped off the scooter. "They'll chase a chicken now and then, but don't hunt. They eat dead grabbers, though. Hell, they'll eat anything dead. They're more than pets. We need them to eat stuff before the sticky-mold can get to it."

Ann observed a line of marks on the ground and took a closer look: three-toed prints about half the size of a dog's paw. She opened her field binoculars and made a verbal note on the record disk.

"And the grabbers? Are they nocturnal?"


"Are they active at night?" Ann followed the line of tracks. Other tracks converged to form a main path. "Communal living apparent," she said for the record disk.

"Yeah," Kate said. "That's why they're so hard to catch. They stay holed up all day and come out after the white eagles settle for the night."

"White eagles eat grabbers?"

Kate sighed. "Eagles eat grabbers, chickens, cruisers and humans. They're about four feet tall and dive at you from way up there. Never know they're coming."

Ann lifted her binoculars and spotted a dark speck descending through wispy clouds. "Two hundred magnification." A space transport vehicle dropping toward Cleveland.

"That's why we wear bright colors," Kate said. "Makes us look like dogs. Eagles don't attack dogs."

Ann thought about the drab brown clothes she'd brought. She followed the grabber path to a rocky incline dotted with tunnel openings. "How many do you think live here?"

"Hundreds in this field," Kate said. "Thousands in the valley." She poked a stick into a burrow. "About half this many last year."

"Well," Ann said. "Population growth is determined by four factors. Immigration and birth increase populations; emigration and death decrease populations. We just need to look at each to find out what's out of balance. Once we know that, we can solve the problem. Should be simple enough."

"Simple's fine. Quick is better." Kate stood with hands on hips. "The growing season is short here. I've got about six weeks to get this field planted again."


Two weeks on New Columbus and Ann had just begun to understand grabber dynamics: how to trap them, how to identify their sex, their activity patterns and range. She had all but eliminated immigration as a cause for the population increase but had found no other explanation. The answer was out there. If she followed protocol she was confident her field study would reveal it.

She donned thick gloves and pulled the last trap for the day from beneath a rocky overhang. The grabber inside turned its rust-colored torso away, exposing a hard plate of tissue that resembled scales. It tried to burrow, raking long claws against the bottom grate.

"Hold on," Ann said softly. Firepot came to investigate the commotion, looked at the contents of the trap and grinned. Kate had suggested one of the dogs accompany Ann to watch for eagles. Firepot became the obvious choice when he started following her around the store, flashing his skin flap.

Ann removed the grabber by the scruff of its neck. Small black eyes folded inward beneath skin flaps and its mouth opened wide, revealing three rows of flat molars. Firepot reached out a long-toed forepaw and touched the creature's head.

"Hands off." Ann pushed the paw aside and held up three fingers. Firepot sat.

The grabber wriggled while Ann examined it at arm's length, noting the fine slit bisecting its underside. Virgin female. She turned the animal over and inserted an identification transmitter beneath the dorsal scales. A plastic pail worked to contain the animal while she weighed it with a portable scale.

"Okay, you're free," she said, tipping the pail. The grabber sat quietly for a few seconds before running for cover in the rocks. Ann activated the field recorder. "Number: 235. Caught: NC time Trap number: 15. Sex: Female. Status: virgin. Weight: 10.4 kilos." She reset the hinged trap door.

Firepot bumped against her and emitted a low hum.

"What is it?" Ann instinctively looked to the sky. She'd seen two eagles so far--more like pterodactyls than birds--but they hadn't shown interest. Yet.

Today, the sky was clear but a plume of dust heralded the approach of a land vehicle. She opened her binoculars. "One hundred magnification." A rider approached through a decimated rye field.

"Looks like we have company." Ann scratched Firepot's neck. He nudged her hip.

Charles Burns, wearing red coveralls and carrying a laser-guided shotgun, climbed from of the rider as soon as it stopped, and sauntered up the hill, adjusting an orange cap over his balding head. He'd been at the town meeting the week before, tugging his short gray beard and listening intently while others took turns insisting she complete her study in two weeks.

"Ms. Clymer." He let the gun sag forward until the barrel pointed at her head. His blue-eyed gaze flitted from Firepot to the ground. "Any luck?"

"I'm making progress."

"And that means?"

"I know that grabbers are dispersing out of and not into the valley, and so far it looks like they aren't reproducing rapidly." The captured grabbers had been overwhelmingly female but she'd only trapped one that was obviously pregnant.

Burns coughed and scuffed the ground with his boot heel. "Let me get to the point, Ms. Clymer. Our livelihood depends on moving the grabbers out of this valley. Either we get a second crop planted this year or we starve." He looked her in the eye. "As an officer of the PCD, you can approve a species' elimination for the good of the colony."

"I'm not even finished with my population study."

"They're dumb rodents." He raised the gun to his eye and sited across the valley. "I can shoot a grabber a mile away with this thing. Pellets explode on contact."

"Am I being threatened," she said, "or merely intimidated?"

Burns smiled tightly. "If you try very hard, I'm sure you can see things from our point of view." He lowered the gun. "I've worked my entire life to get this farm into shape and am not about to give it over to a pack of rats."

"I'm not saying you have to."

"Poison's no good. They'll hole up in those burrows and die and we'll have a ton of mold spores. We can't shoot enough of them to protect a second crop." Burns tipped his hat brim to her. "We will get this problem solved, Ms. Clymer. With you or without you." He turned and strolled to the rider.

Ann shivered. She didn't think Burns would actually shoot her but he didn't seem the type to make idle threats either.


Ann woke to a rumbling drone. She'd fallen asleep on the cot Kate had set up for her, notebook open on her lap, screen showing an ever-changing collage of alien animals. She touched the touchpad and the screen reformed as a spreadsheet filled with grabber population figures and an inset trend graph. Three weeks of field data, leading inevitably to the conclusion that the grabber death rate had declined in recent years. But she had no indication as to why. She closed the book and stood.

Morning light filtered through windows near the bar. Before Ann fully dressed, Kate entered, trailing a tall thin man with spiked black hair and a series of gold loops through his right ear. He carried a plastic crate under one arm, a notebook under the other.

"I've got pipe," he said, throwing the crate onto the bar and propping open the notebook screen. "Three centimeter diameter, twenty credits a meter."

"Twenty?" Kate said. "Do we look like rich bitches here or what?"

"Sorry." He shrugged. "I have to make a living too."

"Yeah, sure." She snorted. "I'll take twenty meters at fifteen credits per."

"You drive a hard bargain."

Ann lifted a cage containing a sleeping grabber she'd captured for observation and exited the back door.

Firepot stood at his cage door, pouch partially inflated. Cruisers clattered in the hedge behind him, stirring up swarms of fly-like insects.

"Morning, Pot. Want to go for a ride?" Ann opened the latch and walked around to the store's front. Firepot followed on two legs, pouch puffing and falling with each step.

Children had gathered to investigate a long truck parked next to the repaired tractor she intended to take for the day. It seemed to be a general store in itself: pipes covering the roof, plastiglass clamped to the sides, crates of fruits and chickens crowding the cargo hold.

Ann noticed a cage among the crates. Inside, a red-and-orange-striped dog lay staring warily at the children. Ann moved closer and saw that it was a female with four pups. Firepot, seemingly oblivious to the new animals, followed an insect around the vehicle's edge.

Ann leaned forward. The female lunged, rattling the cage and scaring her silly. She backed away. The grabber made a grunting noise and glared. Ann remembered going to the zoo with her dad, witnessing a tiger's hungry stare. Never trust predators, he'd warned.

"She's not usually unfriendly." The man with spiked hair stood beside her now. "Lookin' to buy a pup?"


"Good pups from Southlands."

Kate came around the truck, a smiling Firepot in tow. "Officer Clymer won't be staying long enough to need a dog. How much you asking?"

"Four hundred."

"Four hundred? That's robbery."

The man shrugged. "Supply and demand."

"I'll give you three hundred."

"Can't do. The female cost me nine hundred and who knows if she'll breed again."

Ann's ears perked. "Do you have trouble breeding dogs?"

"Dogs don't breed," Kate said. "Had my dogs ten years. Two males, two females, not one bit of interest." Kate looked south. "Gonna' be a busy day."

Two dust plumes rose from the ridge beyond the hedge's protective lip. The leading vehicle was Stern's yellow rider, the other a streamlined truck trimmed in gleaming silver -- certainly not of New Columbus manufacture.

"Two hundred magnification." The driver wore a gray jumpsuit and had her hair pulled back in a pony tail. The image bounced. Ann couldn't quite read the insignia on her pocket.

"Stabilize." A familiar double helix logo came into focus. Anger boiled.

"Who called Gene Corps?" Their nearest home base was on New Deli, at least two months transit time, meaning that they'd been called at about the same time as Ann. "You can't bomb without authorization."

"Sorry," Kate said. "Sterns wanted to be prepared."


It was planting week. The grabbers were still in the fields and Gene Corp's truck sat next to the store, preliminary tests completed. The town center brimmed with angry people: they surrounded the fire pit, leaned against playground equipment, virtually covered the park's grassy expanse. Ann peered out the store window. They had all come to see her and she was sure they weren't looking for a sensible discussion on planetary ecology.

"Looks like you have some visitors," Kate said.

"A mob," Ann whispered.

Someone threw a rock. A crackling a spider's web formed across the small window in the door.

"Doesn't look good," Kate said. She broke out the glass with a broom handle and stretched to look out. "Back off you damn tillers," she shouted. "You own me for a window, Louis." She glanced at Ann and motioned her forward.

Ann hesitantly approached the door and opened it. The crowd quieted.

"I just need a couple more weeks," she said. Hisses and curses erupted.

"Please, just listen."

"We've listened long enough," someone yelled. People surged forward. Three men pushed to the front, guns in hand.

Ann backed away, a burning ache gnawing her stomach. With no backup from Sterns, her life was in her own hands.

"Give us what we want," the tallest of the three said.

"I'm not authorized," Ann said. "I'll have to contact the main office." That would give the rowdies time to cool off.

The man shifted his gun off his hip. "You'd better get authorized in a hurry."


It had been seventeen hours since Ann sent her message to PCD and still a group lingered on the square. Some had camped the night, waiting for word.

Ann stepped up into the Gene Corp's truck. Sterns leaned casually against a lab stool, mister pulled to his forehead. Dr. Marva Lasher, genetics team leader, sat at a table cluttered with plastic collection tubes and syringes. Her two assistants busied themselves packing travel bags for the field.

"No word yet," Lasher said.

"I know you're just doing your job." Ann turned an angry glare on Sterns. "But I don't appreciate being rushed. This is an important decision that could effect the long term survival of this colony."

Sterns crossed his arms. "Livelihoods are at stake now."

"I don't--" The com-link chimed that a message had been received. All faces turned to the communications monitor while Lasher leaned across the table and pressed the accept key.

Harden Jenkins, Director of Affairs, a man Ann had met briefly when she was hired, appeared on the screen. His gray hair was cut short and he wore a blue suit and tie.

"Officer Clymer," he said. "I have received your communication and information from the local agent. Your request for additional time is understandable, especially as this is your first planet-side assignment." His features relaxed. "You wish to do well. You wish to impress us with your understanding of protocols and interdependencies."

Ann found herself nodding even though she knew Jenkins could not see her.

"However, I must stress that our relationship with colonists need not be adversarial. We must weigh both sides of the equation. Surely there is some compromise to be reached here. I am told that the window for replanting is three weeks, your time. Given that it will surely take almost that long to design a suitable genetic prophylactic, and given that Gene Corps lacks authority to proceed without PCD authorization, might I suggest that you consider authorizing the work now and continue your own study in the meantime?"

No, Ann thought. Once they started designing a bomb, they weren't going to stop. This bloodthirsty colony wouldn't back off even if Gene Corps would. Surely Jenkins knew that.

Jenkins leaned back from the monitor. "The final decision is yours, Clymer, but we don't want an incident over this." The recording ended.

Ann fumed. Jenkins had sold her up the gravity well. If the bomb worked out, he'd take credit for suggesting it; if not, guess who would get the blame? She didn't know who to be angrier with, Jenkins or the colonists.

"Just play the game, Clymer," Sterns said.

"Right. It's all a game to you."

"No," Lasher said firmly. "We don't take this lightly either, Agent Clymer. No one wants to eliminate a species." She pointed to the cluttered table. "It's going to take time to target this animal. We have to alter behavior as well as metabolic processes so that they leave their burrows before dying. It's going to be close even if we start right now."

All eyes fixed on Ann. Ann's fingers clenched at her sides. "Build your damned bomb. Who am I to hold up progress? Do you need my thumbprint?"

"We can get that later," Lasher said.

Ann opened door and stepped down, head pounding like Firepot's pouch. What was the point of having her here? She was a biologist, not an economic analyst. She wasn't supposed to see everything as an oversimplified equation, species on one side, human convenience on the other.

Kate stood outside the store scratching Firepot's head. He rose to two legs when Ann approached, people watching anxiously from the square.

"You've got what you wanted," Ann snapped.

"You can't blame us for wanting to survive."

"If you wipe out the grabbers, what's next? Grabbers control weed growth. How many weeds will you need to eliminate? How many insect species will die because they feed on the weeds?"

"We'll deal with it."

"Like you deal with sticky mold?"

"We do what we have to do. It's nothing personal. You're a good kid and I'm sure you're doing a good job."

Kate's patronizing only made it worse, like arguing with her dad. No use trying to save something that can't live alongside humans. Survival of the fittest. It's so obvious. A species that interferes with economic development makes itself expendable.

Ann glanced down. "Want to go for a ride, Pot?" She clomped through the store, the dog on her heels.

"See you for lunch?" Kate said.

Ann shrugged. I'd rather eat with the grabbers, she thought. She marched out the back door and hopped onto the scooter as a ragged cheer sounded from the town square.

"Come on, Pot." She steered through the hedge-gap toward a rocky outcropping that looked like a man riding a horse. By the time they reached it, it was past midday.

Ann sat on the edge of a sheer drop, legs dangling. From here, Toledo appeared a quiet enclave of humanity nestled in a sea of hedge. Dust rose from dried-out fields.

Firepot nestled her leg. She scratched his head until a hum emanated from his throat pouch. He blinked slowly and smiled.

"Guess I was naïve to believe I could come here and solve anything." She watched dust clouds spread across the land. The Gene Bomb would act the same, coating everything with its killing haze.

"If we had a natural predator, Pot, we wouldn't need a bomb." She stood and stretched her arms. Firepot rose to two legs. He touched her elbow and fully expanded his throat pouch. His humming reached a high-pitched trill.

"What's up?" He had inflated his pouch before but this communication seemed more intense, like a mating signal.

Of course! Why hadn't she realized this before? These colonists were taking dogs out of the wild and training their pups to live with humans. What was it Kate had said? Got to train them young.

With Earth dogs, much behavior was instinctual. Maybe this wasn't the case for the New Columbus species. What if they needed to learn an appropriate mate? She remembered Bobo flashing his pouch at Kate. Of course they wouldn't breed. They thought they were human, but couldn't get humans to respond to their signal.

Pot continued to hum, showing sharp canine teeth. What if they also needed to be taught to hunt? Populations of wild dogs had declined because people were taking them on as pets. Ann remembered the wild female in the truck. She'd thought its lunge was intended for her, but she had been holding the grabber cage. If dogs were the main grabber predator, the grabber population would increase as wild dogs were systematically eliminated from an area.

"I've got it, Pot." She lifted the dog and gave him a hug. Firepot's pouch deflated and his pupils widened. "Sorry, Pot." She put him down. "Didn't mean to scare you."

"Let's go." Ann jumped back on the scooter. "We have a species to save.


Ann retrieved a trap from beneath a rocky overhang, cocked the pistol and shot the grabber in the head. "Two hundred and thirty four, virgin female," she said into her recorder. "Do you want to eat this one, Pot?"

Pot ignored her from his perch atop the overhang. He hadn't eaten anything that morning. Ann assumed he was agitated from the sperm sampling Gene Corps had conducted that morning.

"You can't stay mad all day." Ann stuffed the body into a plastic bag. "With luck, you'll be a father in a few weeks."

To the north, Burn's tractor raised orange streamers; Kate's tractor tilled a field to the south. Closer, Stern's yellow rider bounced toward the field site. It had taken three days to convince Toledo residents to hold off on the gene bomb in exchange for a lot of hard work on Ann's part. In the end, she'd had to pull her trump and point out that she hadn't actually thumbed the approval. Lasher, who could have called Ann's bluff easily enough, had been more amenable than expected. Maybe she'd meant what she said about not wanting to needlessly destroy species. Go figure.

With the help of dozens of teenagers, and using two months' travel allowance to purchase additional traps and guns, Ann had promised to reduce the grabber population to acceptable levels by the time rye crops sprouted. At three hundred grabbers per week, it appeared they would make that deadline.

Gene Corps' crew had turned the lab truck into an artificial insemination facility and, with their extensive physiology and genetics database, was able to identify fertile female dogs. Whether the subsequent insemination technique worked wouldn't be known for a few weeks. With luck they would produce puppies to regenerate the wild population, dogs that would have to be taught to hunt and identify their own species.

In the meantime, she would spend every day setting traps and sacrificing grabbers. It wasn't the most cost effective way to solve the problem and definitely didn't follow protocol, but if it saved this species, it would be worth the effort.

Sterns' rider rumbled to a stop, trailing a cloud of flying insects. He rolled down the window and stuck his head out. "Got more critters?"

"Fifteen," Ann said. She dragged a bag to the cargo compartment, where Bobo paced.

Sterns climbed out and hefted the bag. "Didn't think this would work." He opened a rectangular bin and threw it atop others. "Guess we were a little shortsighted after all."

Ann smiled. "Bunch of farmers."

"Farmers learn if you give 'em a chance."

"So do xenobiologists." Ann scratched Bobo's head. Her training had not prepared her for New Columbus, where a straightforward investigation could turn into a convoluted tangle as thorny as Toledo's hedge.

No promotion was worth the destruction of a species. She would be ready next time to look beyond the obvious and stand her ground.

Susan Urbanek Linville received her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Dayton, with a speciality in animal behaviour. She has taught biology at Ivy Tech State College, is an assistant editor for the Journal of Comparative Psychology, and works for the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior at Indiana University.

Her fiction has appeared in On Spec, HMS Beagle, Sword and Sorceress, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine. With her husband, Stephen V. Ramey, she has cowritten a fantasy novel.