by Frej Wasastjerna



           Rregeke Ketyhyi Ryegyi was still dazed. After she had joined pack Kalaiha, that pack had been the center of her life and, second only to the whole iagyh species, the most important thing to her. Now, in a matter of minutes, it had been wiped out. Most of its members were dead, including Kyehue Daekyh Ryegyi, with whom she had joined eggs in the latest laying. Those who were still alive were the captives of strange, two-legged monsters.

     For a moment she wondered if those monsters might be natives of Higehyelye, who had somehow survived and then emerged to wreak vengeance on the beings who had sterilized their planet and then colonized it. No, that didn't make sense. The number of legs was the only thing these monsters had in common with the natives. They had two arms and no tails.

     No tails? Then how did they lay eggs, with no tails to extrude them through? Maybe these aliens were members of a sterile worker caste or something.

     Moreover, they obviously had an advanced technology. That made them an extremely dangerous type of vermin, in fact a serious threat to the iagyh species.

     That, in turn, meant that they should, by all normal standards, have died extremely protracted and painful deaths as punishment for their presumption. But she was in no position to make sure of that. On the contrary, it was the monsters who had her in their power. Would they then torture her?

     In fact, they had already begun. The fetters holding her wrists above her back forced her to bend the forward part of her body far down, making it an extension of the horizontal rear part, to avoid breaking her arms. Even so, her arms hurt. So did her wrists, since those things were very uncomfortable in their own right.

     She couldn't even commit suicide. The claws in her fingers couldn't reach any major veins. Neither could she reach anything with her beak except her front legs, strapped down on a spacecraft deck as she was, and there were no major veins there either.

     A whimper from one of the younglings bound to the deck in front of her took her attention away from her own plight. Ketidyly Kalaiha Kytyesh was apparently in as bad pain as Rregeke herself or worse.

     Just let me get my claws on one of those egg-eating two-legs, she thought. Then I'll teach them how to treat iagyhek.

     She was so busy fantasizing about what she would do to the alien monsters if she could, and trying to invent some way of getting the upper hand, that she barely noticed the changing accelerations to which she was subjected. Not until she was unstrapped from the deck did she notice that they were in free fall.

     Two of the two-legs gripped her fettered arms and lifted her off the deck. She twisted and tried to throw herself from side to side. The two-legs, who were slightly smaller than she was, staggered a little, but their boots held on to the deck, and without very much difficulty they managed to guide her through the air, out of the craft they were in and into a bigger one. Presumably they were taking her to their torture chambers.

      By bending the rear part of her body as far down as it would go, she managed to hit the deck under her with her rearmost pair of paws, but the monsters only lifted her a little higher. In desperation she lashed them with her tail, but she only hurt herself. If she had only had a spiked tail like a wild hyegeit!

      In spite of all her struggles, she was steered into a cell with one whole wall transparent, except where some kind of manipulators protruded through it. Were those the torture instruments?

      The monsters left her floating in mid-air and left her cell. The transparent door closed behind them with a frighteningly final click.

      She was getting tired, but still she tried to wiggle out of the way as two of the manipulators approached her. It did no good, they grasped her easily. As two more approached, she tried to steel herself against the agonies that were obviously about to begin.

      The manipulators passed above her back, where she couldn't see their ends. That was just as well, she didn't want to see what would happen to her, feeling it would be more than bad enough.

      Then something snipped behind her back. The band around her left wrist was gone, shortly followed by the other one. The manipulators holding her deposited her gently on the deck beneath her, and a soft air current began blowing towards that deck and, apparently, through it.

      What was going on? Didn't the two-legs intend to torture her? Or were they just trying to raise her hopes, so that it would be all the worse when they began?

      She wasn't sure which thought she found scarier. Most certainly she didn't want to be tortured, but, on the other hand, if the monsters didn't plan to torture her, that made them really alien.

      Just as she had decided that, if she had a choice, she would rather cope with incomprehensible aliens than with torture, she heard a voice. Now she remembered that she had seen Kylytyk Rrakat Ryegyi being hauled along into this larger alien vessel after her, though she had been too busy struggling to pay much attention. Certainly it sounded like Kylytyk's voice.

      "The monsters want information out of us! They'll study us!" Kylytyk shouted. "Kill yourselves, that way they'll learn only what they can learn from corpses, and they have plenty of those already! Don't let them get any information from studying live iagyhs!"

      That made sense. Rregeke extended her claws, ready to slash one or two of her arteries... but then she hesitated. It was too passive a strategy. If she was dead, she couldn't do anything to hurt the two-legs actively. And that, above all else, was what she wanted. Revenge against those who had wiped out pack Kalaiha and might yet be a danger to her entire species. Revenge... the lure of that, remote as the prospect was, made her decide to stay alive, at least for a while. If it seemed that the egg- eaters might learn something important from her, then it would be time for suicide. But, so long as she didn't reveal anything much, she might as well keep on living and see what might turn up.

      She thought about shouting to the other captives to do the same, but decided not to. There was no telling how much Speech the monsters understood, and it was best not to risk revealing anything, even though that meant that she had to rely only on herself. 


      It was rather a relief for Gunnel Wiik that she had been assigned together with Erich Schopf to take care of the alien that would be put in Detention Cell 1, while Edward Mattila had been assigned to Cell 0. This way she wouldn't have Ed making eyes at her. Erich was interested only in Katalin Nagy, so she would be free of distractions. A good thing, too. Even with anti-nausea medication, she still felt a little queasy in free fall, and it din't help that the Janina Christensen was designed so that each deck could serve as both floor and ceiling, depending on whether she was accelerating or decelerating. A nega-mass ship like the Christensen could really accelerate equally well in any direction, but when traveling at relativistic speeds through the not quite perfect vacuum of interstellar space it was necessary to keep the shielded end in front.

      Before this voyage, Gunnel had spent her entire life aboard one or another of the airships of the Flyer culture of Thalassa. There, although the airships might heave and roll a little, there was always a well defined down direction. She needed one here too, so she told herself firmly that where her feet were planted, held to the deck by magnetic shoes, was the floor -- even though that meant that the marines bringing a struggling but bound alien to the cell were clomping along a wall.

      She forgot her queasiness as she took a good look at the alien. Seeing an extraterrestrial intelligent being in the flesh for the first time was just too interesting for her to have time to feel queasy. All right, she thought, I'm an extraterrestrial myself in that I was born on Tau Ceti II, but my ancestors came from the Earth long ago.

      This genuine extraterrestrial had six legs, two arms and a tail. It also had a head with a nasty-looking squarish beak with projections like canine teeth at the corners and with two rather human-like eyes. She couldn't see any nostrils, at least not where a Terran vertebrate would have had them, but there were openings in the sides of the head, and there also appeared to be some apertures in the back, although they were partly obscured by the plastic straps with which the creature was fettered. It was somewhat bigger than a human, but not too big for the cell to hold, since that had been designed for creatures up to elephant size. Its skin was light brown and hairless, and it was wearing no clothes.

      The two marines left it floating in mid-air in the cell, exited the cell themselves and closed the door. One of them saluted and said, "There you are. Our present to you." Then they left the way they had come.

      "Right. Here I am. Now, at long last, I have something new to study," she thought, while Erich checked that the marines had locked the cell door properly. 


      As an expert on evolutionary biology, she had until then been able to study only Thalassan organisms, and they were rather primitive. Worse, their evolution had been pretty well clarified well before she was born. However, the interaction between native Thalassan organisms and imported Terran ones had provided some interesting phenomena to observe, though usually, about as soon as she had noticed that something was happening, some artificial intelligence had figured out what was going on. Besides, even that interaction had pretty much settled down lately, so Thalassan evolutionary biology had almost become a closed and finished field.

      After she had volunteered for this expedition, she had concentrated on studying history and politics, so that she could serve as a backup for Subramaniam Dass, the expedition's expert on those subjects, if something happened to him. Not that that was really necessary, the AI to which Ed had given the name Albert had just about all human knowledge recorded in its memory. But it was a policy decision by the authorities that had organized this expedition to include enough human scientists to be able to cover every specialty that was likely to be required.

      In fact, she had soon concluded that maybe she should have specialized in history and political science from the outset. In that field, at least, there was always something new to study, with new developments every few years. Moreover, in dealing with human beings a specifically human perspective could sometimes be useful, even though the AIs already understood human psychology pretty well. 


      After Erich had checked that the cell door was locked, he used a pair of waldos to hold the alien's arms, and now it was Gunnel's turn. She took control of another pair and used them to cut the straps holding the alien's wrists above its back, then she put the remains of the straps in a compartment in the cell wall while Erich released the alien's arms.

      Through the thick diamond window that formed one of the cell's five walls she saw the creature flex its arms, move them forward and raise the front part of its body so that its centauroid appearance became clearer. She had a definite impression that it was relieved to have its arms free, though maybe she was only imagining that she could read its body language.

      Then it hooted something that lasted a few seconds. The eerie mixture of sounds almost like human speech and quite alien whistles chased chills down her neck.

      The creature extended its hands, each with four fingers, of which two were diagonally opposed to the others and to each other, in front of its face. It extruded claws from the end of each finger, put its hands to its throat and tore its throat out.

      Erich immediately tried to grab it, but the alien itself managed to grab the two waldos with which Erich was trying to catch it, and a weird wrestling match began. While this was going on, blood was spouting out of the slashes in its neck. Noting that the blood was the same color as human blood, Gunnel joined in and tried to grab the creature with her waldos, but the alien managed to evade them and threw itself towards one of the side walls of the cell, while droplets of blood sprayed everywhere and splashed on the window, obscuring the contents of the cell.

      "Let me take over," said a calm voice, which Gunnel recognized as that of Albert. Relieved at being rid of the responsibility for trying to prevent the alien from committing suicide, or whatever it was doing, she turned over control of her waldos to the AI. Through the blood covering much of the window and floating around in the air, it was hard to see what was going on, but Albert seemed to be doing a better job of anticipating the alien's moves than she and Erich had done -- or maybe it was just that the alien was already too weakened by loss of blood to struggle as effectively as it had at first. After a while, Albert had managed to fetter the creature again and then began to bandage it, in spite of its now rather feeble struggles. 


      Like most spaces aboard the Janina Christensen, the meeting room was rather small, so it felt crowded with fourteen people present: all ten scientists; two engineers from the ship's crew; Erwin Geier, the captain of the marines; and Konrad Andrzejewski, commander of the ship. At least Albert didn't need a seat, it was physically present only as a cluster of cameras, screens, microphones and loudspeakers halfway between the table at which everyone was sitting and the one suspended from what was currently the ceiling. With the ship currently under acceleration, it wasn't absolutely necessary to strap in, but everybody had done so for safety's sake.

      As usual, Albert opened the meeting. "I'm sorry to report that we lost all but one of the captives..." it began.

      There was nothing soft about Captain Geier's dark brown eyes as he snarled, "How did that happen?"

      "They committed suicide almost simultaneously. It happened just after one of them shouted something, so I suppose it told the others to kill themselves and then did the same itself. Strictly speaking, one of those who died didn't actually commit suicide. In cell 3 were two of the small aliens, and one of them bit the other's neck off before tearing its own throat out, but the other one didn't resist."

      "I suppose they were nanovitrified, so that they can be revived later?"

      "Sorry, no."

      "Why the hell not?"

      "Because we don't have any nanomachines programmed for the job. First we have to study their cytology and molecular biology, only after we understand those can we program nanos to freeze them. At least that's the way it's supposed to go. In this case I actually injected vitro-nanos intended for humans into the dead adult and one of the dead juveniles, but I don't know whether that will work or whether the result will just be to make the damage worse. The other two juveniles, including the one with its neck bitten off, were frozen rather than nanovitrified.

      "In any case, one of the adults is still alive. It may first have intended to commit suicide itself, at least it moved its hands towards its throat, but apparently it changed its mind. Of course there's a risk that it may change its mind again, so I think we need to assign top priority to learning enough about the aliens at the cellular level to develop vitro-nanos for them."

      Everybody agreed, so Albert went on: "Okay, Rita Dänner, Edward Mattila, Angela de la Chapelle and Fu-zhen Wang, you work on that. I'll also devote most of my attention to that task.

      "The next task is to figure out how to keep the survivor alive. I'm using the same atmospheric composition, pressure and temperature in the cells as on Delpav III, since the landing party reported that the aliens were capable of surviving, and apparently thriving, there without protective equipment, and I've provided water for the surviving alien to drink. After all water is as common on Delpav III as on human-inhabited planets, so I assume these aliens drink water, too. If it's toxic to them, I expect it will have enough sense not to drink.

      "But, in the longer run, we have to feed it too. So we need to know what it eats. That's also something our study of their molecular biology will have to reveal. But, in addition, I'll need to know if these aliens are herbivores, carnivores, omnivores or whatever. That's basically a question for Michiko Walters. When you dissect the cadavers, please study their digestive organs and report to me as soon as practicable what you think they are evolved to eat."

      Jan Englund raised his slightly pudgy hand and interjected, "Certainly a beak like that makes one suspect they are carnivores."

      "Agreed, but let's not take anything for granted."

      "By the way," Michiko Walters said, "the cadavers the marines brought aboard seemed to be in pretty bad shape mostly. I'd like to have a nearly intact one to study. Could I have one of those who committed suicide, maybe the juvenile you froze with its head left on?"

      "Okay, you'll get that. And, if you need help, ask Gunnel Wiik."

      Gunnel gulped. Of course, in her study of biology, she had done a few dissections, but she had never liked them.

      "Actually I expect Ms. Wiik will be busy most of the time helping me scan the books and diskettes the marines found," Albert went on, rather to Gunnel's relief.

      "Then there's the matter of those leathery, bag-like thing the marines brought aboard. Ms. Walters conjectured that they might be eggs, and, at my request, she helped me conduct an ultrasonic investigation of them. That confirmed her conjecture. They contain embryos that already slightly resemble the aliens. So, now we need to try to figure out how to ensure that they will hatch. In particular, at what temperature should they be stored?

      "Captain Geier, did anybody measure the temperature at which they were kept where they were found?"

      "With what?" Geier snarled. "Nobody had seen fit to include thermometers in the equipment of our battle suits."

      "Please ask the troopers who found the eggs if they can report anything about the temperature."

      That took Geier some time. In the end the results were negative. Nobody had paid any attention to the temperature at which the eggs were stored. It was clear that it was neither very cold nor very hot, otherwise somebody might have felt that even through the powered armor, but nobody could say any more than that. However, the eggs had been kept under a thick layer of vegetable matter, so heat produced by the decay of that mulch would have warmed them to some extent.

      "What's the body temperature of the aliens?" Edward Mattila asked.

      "Unknown," Albert replied. "We'll have to find out."

      "How many eggs are there?"


      "Then I suggest that we keep one egg at the body temperature of an adult alien and the other at a series of lower temperatures, spaced, let's say ten kelvins apart or something like that. That way I suppose at least one of the eggs will be at something near the right temperature."

      Typical of a spacer, Gunnel thought. Only they used kelvins rather than degrees Celsius as an everyday measure of temperature.

      "Yes, that makes sense. Does anybody have a better idea?"

      Nobody had, so Albert continued. "William Galbraith and Ezekiel Ngome, will you set up four incubators with adjustable temperatures?"

      The two engineers assented.

      "As for Jan Englund, Erich Schopf, Subramaniam Dass and Katalin Nagy, I think the most suitable job for you will be to keep a constant watch on the surviving alien and try to learn what you can about its behavior and language. You can also listen to our recordings of alien radio transmissions and look at the books. You'll be mostly on your own for the next couple of days I suppose, because I'll devote most of my capacity to working out the molecular biology of the aliens. Is that okay?"

      Erich Schopf's ponytail bobbed as he nodded. A second or two later the others did likewise.

      "Anything else?"

      "Yes," Ed said. "It's rather inconvenient to have to refer to 'the surviving alien' in that way. We need to give it a name. Considering what its species did to the aborigines of Delpav III, it should be a suitably diabolic name, so I suggest Beelzebub."

      Subramaniam chuckled and Angela tittered. Nobody opposed the suggestion, so it was decided that henceforth the alien would be known by that name.

      "In addition, we need a name for their species," Ed continued. "Their basic body plan can be described as six-legged and centauroid, so I suggest that we provisionally call them hexakents."

      Again, nobody objected. 


      In the event, Gunnel didn't actually have to help Michiko with the dissections. Albert handled that with his waldos. But well before she was through helping Albert to scan the books, she was no longer quite so grateful for that. Even a bit of gore would at least have been a change from the tedious, and at an acceleration of 1.32 g ultimately physically tiring, task of putting an opened book on a scanner plate, turning a page and putting the book down again, turning a page... and so on, repeated thousands of times. It was a pity that whoever designed the ship -- mostly an AI, she supposed -- hadn't seen fit to include some waldos located at the scanner stations. 


      Soon after the scanning process was finished, Albert called a new meeting. "Three days ago," it began, "we agreed on how to start studying the aliens. Now it's time for a progress report.

      "We decided that top priority should be given to elucidating the alien cytology and molecular biology, so since then I've worked at full speed, devoting more than ninety percent of my attention to that task. I'm pleased to report that, with the aid of Rita Dänner, Edward Mattila, Angela de la Chapelle and Fu-zhen Wang, we have now completed that task and programmed and produced nanomachines that will be able to preserve and/or repair Beelzebub, if it too decides to commit suicide."

      At the mention of his name, Ed wrinkled his nose and shook his head slightly, as if in self-deprecation. Gunnel knew the feeling. A high-class AI like Albert could not only think better than a human, at full speed it was also about a million times as fast. Often AIs slowed down to give humans a chance to contribute and feel useful, but when they really got going, humans were unavoidably left behind and reduced to menial tasks like what she had just performed. And, for better or worse, Ed and the others probably didn't even get much opportunity for manual work, since Albert had its own waldos in the lab. Despite all their skills, they would have been basically spectators, barely able to follow what Albert was doing.

      "We also now have the ability to synthesize food for Beelzebub, at least if it wants meat. Michiko Walters, what conclusions have you reached?"

      "It's probably true that they are carnivores. The beak does seem to be intended to tear flesh, and the digestive system is rather simple, more like a Terran carnivore than, for instance, a ruminant. So I think it's okay to try feeding Beelzebub meat, of the kind it consists of itself. I suppose we could also offer it plant stuff and see what it prefers. I believe we got some vegetable matter from the planet. Can you synthesize more of that?"

      "Not yet. We haven't yet got started analyzing that, but I suppose we can start on that next. Would you also please report the rest of your findings?"

      "Okay. I'm sorry that I don't have any pictures yet, I've been too busy doing dissections to have time to prepare any, and Albert has been working on other things, but I'll try to explain what I've found without pictures.

      "Basically, this species is kind of analogous to Terran vertebrates, just like the original inhabitants of Delpav III were. A bony skeleton, consisting of an articulated spine with a head, limbs and a tail seems to be a theme that gets repeated in higher life forms, as far as one can draw any conclusions from the limited sample yet available. As you have seen, these aliens have eight limbs, but otherwise their basic layout isn't all that alien.

      "However, there are certainly differences. For instance, consider the respiratory system. They use lungs that are rather similar to ours, but between the lungs is a layer of cartilage with muscles attached to it in such a way that, when one set of muscles contracts, so does one lung while the other expands. Apparently they inhale with one lung while exhaling with the other. That wouldn't work if both lungs were connected to the same trachea, as in humans, but in these creatures each lung has not just one trachea of its own but two. Judging by some structures that appear to be valves, they use the front pair of tracheae, running from the sides of the head to the lungs, to inhale, and the rear pair, which leads to blowholes in the back, to exhale.

      "That isn't all. There's also a branching network of spiracles leading from each lung to the skin, the outermost part of which consists of thin layers of cells attached to each other only along lines. I conjecture that this serves as thermal insulation. When insulation is needed, air is blown to the skin and slowly seeps through each layer, pushing them apart and inflating the spaces between."

      "I think you're right, dear," Subramaniam said. "That would account for Beelzebub's current appearance, which is a good deal puffier than I recall it as having been originally. I was worried that that might be a sign something was wrong, but maybe it's just chilly in there, even by Beelzebub's standards. Maybe we should try raising and lowering the temperature in Cell 2 and see if Beelzebub's skin deflates and inflates."

      "Noted," Albert responded. "I think that's a good suggestion."

      "Yes, just be cautious and don't overdo it," Michiko went on. "The circulatory system also has its oddities. It's mainly much like ours, but there are two hearts, each with two chambers and three valves. One pumps blood from the body to the lungs, the other from the lungs to the body and also, along a special artery, to the first heart.

      "There may be plenty of other differences from us, but I haven't had time to study them thoroughly yet. However, there's one more thing I'd like to mention. As far as I can tell yet, all the cadavers we have, and probably Beelzebub as well, seem to be of the same sex. I suppose you could call them female. That tail seems to be an ovipositor, and at its base is something like an ovary, which produces rather large eggs, several hundred grams or so. I haven't so far seen anything I could identify as male sex organs in any of the cadavers. I haven't studied Beelzebub closely, but the tail looks the same as on all the others. So it seems to me as if all the cadavers and all the prisoners we got were females. True, I won't swear to that yet, but it might be worth thinking about."

      "This is curious," Albert said. "Gunnel Wiik, would you care to comment?"

      "It could be just a coincidence," Gunnel began. "Or maybe there's just one male or just a few in each settlement. After all, among Terran animals it's common for a few males to monopolize the females in a harem, with the excess males wandering about waiting for a chance to take over some harem. Maybe that's the way it works among these aliens. True, that seems like a rather odd system for an intelligent species, too unstable. When a new male or bunch of males takes over a harem among Terran animals, in many species they kill the young, and at least they wouldn't have any incentive to help take care of the former harem master's offspring. In an intelligent species there's so much the young have to learn that I would expect them to have a long childhood, and, if the young are killed whenever a new male takes over, I suppose few would survive to adulthood. But maybe, in this species, the females prevent such infanticide.

      "Or maybe the males and females live apart, coming together only in the breeding season. Maybe we happened to find a female colony..."

      "Sort of like a nunnery on Earth?" Jan Englund asked.

      "A nunnery with a nursery?" Edward Mattila rejoined.

      A few of those present giggled. When that had died down, Gunnel went on, "Actually, it's rather pointless to speculate. We need more data..."

      This time it was Captain Geier who interrupted. "If you want more data, you can go get it yourself! I've already had one man killed, another badly injured and several lesser injuries -- and that was when we still had the advantage of surprise. I don't want to risk going back there with the aliens forewarned!"

      "Peace." Gunnel lifted her right hand. "I'm not actually suggesting that anyone go back there to get more data. I'm just pointing out that the information I have so far is inadequate to draw any firm conclusions. We can speculate till we're blue in the face, but we won't know how their society really works. But maybe the books and diskettes your marines found may give us something useful."

      "Speaking of that..." Albert began. "Excuse me, Mr. Mattila, did you have something to add?"

      "Yes," Edward said. "Can we be sure that the aliens really have two sexes?"

      "No, not really," Michiko answered. "Not only have I found nothing in the anatomy of the cadavers I've dissected so far that would even hint at the existence of another sex, there's also a question about how males would fertilize the eggs. As far as I've noticed, the only opening through which sperm could be introduced is at the end of the tail, and that's nearly a meter away from the ovaries. That's a long way for sperm to travel, though I wouldn't call it impossible."

      "Maybe the eggs are fertilized outside the body, like with fish," Fu-zhen Wang suggested.

      "Maybe," Michiko nodded.

      "Or maybe they reproduce parthenogenetically. Or maybe they have only one kind of gametes, the ones you refer to as eggs, so that fertilization takes place by two eggs merging," Edward said.

      Michiko nodded again. "So far as our present knowledge goes, I can't rule out any of those ideas. We do need more data."

      Rita Dänner joined the discussion. "At least I think their ancestors must have reproduced sexually some time in the past. They have cell nuclei and chromosomes just like we do, though the chemical composition of the chromosomes differs slightly from ours. Okay, I can't be sure yet that the chromosome-like things in their cell nuclei really are the bearers of heredity, but I certainly think so..."

      "And I have to agree," Albert interrupted. "They are built up of a limited number of types of subunits, like human DNA, though in this case there are six types rather than four. And these subunits repeat in a pattern very reminiscent of human DNA. But please go on."

      "Yes, well, where was I... Oh yes, the chromosomes can be grouped in pairs of identical size and shape, just like in humans -- human females, to be specific, I haven't found anything like the difference between X and Y chromosomes in human males. Anyway, in short the aliens are diploid, which to me suggests that they reproduce sexually or did so in a not very distant evolutionary past."

      After several seconds of silence, Albert resumed the discussion. "Does anybody have anything to add concerning the reproduction of the aliens? No? Then let's go on to the subject of books and diskettes.

      "Among the booty from the site were 43 books and 128 diskettes. I've scanned them all and confirmed that the diskettes were an information storage medium. Most of the diskettes were empty, however, but fourteen contained binary data. I've stored the bit patterns from those diskettes, but, not knowing the codes used, I haven't yet been able to interpret the data. We also got two computers, though, and by studying them I may be able to learn something.

      "With the books, I have one translation stage less to worry about. With text stored on diskettes, I have to figure out which bit configuration corresponds to which symbol of their written language -- or languages, I hope I won't have to cope with that extra complication. In books, I can see the symbols directly. I'm currently working on the assumption that their script is phonetic and trying to match the symbols with the phonemes of their spoken language, using frequency analysis. In fact, the results I've obtained during the last few minutes are encouraging enough to suggest that the assumption is probably correct. However, that still won't tell me anything about the meaning of the words.

      "For that, I need books with something else besides text. A few of the books contain diagrams and something that may be equations, though that still doesn't help much when I don't know what they refer to. One of the books may be a mathematics textbook, however, so that may provide some clues.

      "There are two books with actual pictures. One appears to be an operations and maintenance manual for a helicopter, the other apparently deals with forestry and agriculture. These two books seem to be my best hope for gaining some understanding of the language, unless Beelzebub cooperates. I believe she hasn't done that so far. Who wants to elaborate on this?"

      Jan Englund, Erich Schopf, Subramaniam Dass and Katalin Nagy looked at each other. "Kati, maybe you could do that," Erich said. "Not that there's much to tell, really."

      "Right," Katalin said, "there isn't much. Most of the time Beelzebub just lies there. A few times she's got up to drink some water or go to the toilet, which she quickly learned to operate. Otherwise she could just as well be catatonic, for all the information we get out of her. We've said a few words of English, such as 'water' or 'toilet', when she wants one or the other, but there's been no reaction.

      "Neither has there been any reaction when we turn up the lights in the corridor so that she can see us and then point at ourselves and say things like 'human'.

      "We're thinking about getting tough and requiring her to say something before letting her have water or go to the toilet, but we wanted to discuss the matter with you others first. Another possibility which we've considered would be to play recordings of radio transmissions and see if we get any reaction out of her. What do you people suggest?"

      None of the others had any suggestions, so Fu- zhen commented, "In my opinion, we needn't worry about the ethics of the situation." For once the habitual hardness of his expression matched his words. "We're dealing with a member of a species that exterminated another one and grabbed its planet, so anything goes. Still, we need to consider what's likely to be the most effective approach."

      "Suppose we've misunderstood the whole situation?" Edward said. "What if it wasn't this species that exterminated the natives but somebody else, and this one just picked up an empty planet?"

      "An unlikely idea," Subramaniam dismissed Edward's words. "However, I'm not happy with the idea of collective guilt, so try to keep things reasonably civilized if possible."

      There were no further comments, so Commander Andrzejewski took it on himself to sum up the situation. "You four are our experts on sociology, linguistics, history and politics, so I suppose it's best that you decide what to do, in consultation with Albert."

      "Very well," Albert said. "Next subject: the eggs. Will our engineers please report the status of the incubator project?"

      William Galbraith answered, since few people had ever heard Ezekiel Ngome use more than two words at a time if he could avoid it. "The incubators are finished and in use," he boomed. "The body temperature of Beelzebub turned out to be 312 kelvins, so, as suggested, we set the temperatures of the four incubators to 312, 302, 292 and 282 kelvins."

      "Very well," Albert repeated. "Are there any signs that the eggs might be about to hatch?"

      "None that we've noticed." 


      Rregeke had already become used to alien sounds issuing from the loudspeakers in her cell. Obviously the two-legs were trying to teach her some words of their language and maybe expecting her to teach them hers in return. Apart from words for such things as water, toilet, floor, manipulator and other objects in the cell, she had also learned their word for their own species, not that she could have pronounced those bizarre sounds. "Hiueng" was as close as she could have got, if she had tried.

      She didn't intend to try, however. That might have given them some information, and teaching them Speech was even more out of the question. She just ignored everything they said and lay still whenever she didn't have to eat, drink or go to the toilet. That way she supposed they couldn't learn much.

      They made good food, though. It was as good as the best meat she had tasted. But that was no reason to cooperate with vermin.

      When she heard the slight click that always signaled that the loudspeakers were switched on, she just expected more of the same alien gibberish. As usual, she would try to learn as much as possible without revealing anything.

      But when she heard what came from the loudspeakers this time, she gave a start. This time it was Speech!

      She listened with intense curiosity, while lying as inert as she could. Were there still other iagyhs on the ship? She hoped that that would be the case. Knowing that she wasn't alone would have been a slight relief, even if the others were held in another cell so she couldn't meet them. Or was it a radio broadcast from Higehyelye? Or a recording, or what?

      "...more than 256 kegeshek of shyele planted in the southern sector. Pack Rekatai reports that, due to a helicopter malfunction, they have been able to plant only..."

      Plainly that wasn't another iagyh aboard the ship. No, it was a reforestation progress report on the radio. And it sounded suspiciously familiar. Wasn't there something about a helicopter malfunction in the last progress report she had listened to, though she no longer remembered where that malfunction had occurred?

      Her suspicions were confirmed when the reforestation report finished and the announcer switched to a weather forecast, first giving the date and time. Right, that was the day before her abduction -- and the destruction of her pack by those egg-eating hiuengek!

      Nothing interesting, then. About the only new item of information was that the two-legs could both receive and record radio broadcasts, and what else could one expect of a starfaring race? Certainly there was no need to show any reaction. A pity about that start, but it didn't really give away anything except that she wasn't deaf. 


      Gunnel was busy trying to work out the evolutionary history of the aliens. Unfortunately the only data available was what the cadavers of the aliens themselves and the plant seeds could provide. There were no fossils, not even any related contemporary animals.

      Even so, she could draw some conclusions. Presumably the aliens were descendants of fish-like ancestors, but fish with at least four pairs of paired fins, suggesting that they might have gone ashore at an earlier stage in their evolutionary history than their equivalents on Earth, before they had lost the rather useless extra fins. She could also conclude, based on Angela de la Chapelle's, Fu-zhen Wang's and Albert's study of the aliens' cytology, that the alien cells showed no sign of any merger of symbiotic organisms, such as was responsible for the mitochondria in human cells. Comparing the genetic material of the aliens with that of their plants was mildly interesting, but they were too distantly related to shed any light on the more recent evolution of the aliens.

      All in all, though the work was interesting, Gunnel still felt somewhat useless and frustrated. The whole purpose of including scientists in the personnel aboard the Janina Christensen and Bill Soininen had been to gain a good understanding of whatever beings were responsible for the sterilization of Delpav III, especially of their psychology. Evolutionary biology had long since proven itself very useful in gaining an understanding of human psychology, and presumably it would be even more useful in understanding aliens. But with no good data on which to base any conclusions, there was nothing she could do. Even Albert couldn't draw conclusions from nothing.

      Thus, at the next meeting Gunnel still had nothing interesting to report. Neither did the team studying Beelzebub herself. When exposed to recorded broadcasts in her own language, she had shown no reaction apart from a slight jerk at the beginning of the first broadcast. Attempts to force her to speak by denying her access to food and water unless she responded to speech had also failed. She had not responded, just lying down, apparently apathetically, when she got no water or food. It was unanimously recommended that that experiment be ended rather than risk killing her.

      The other news was somewhat more encouraging. Albert reported that its attempt to associate written symbols with sounds had been successful. The first analysis had been based on comparing the frequency of different symbols in the books and documents with that of different phonemes in the recorded broadcasts. Then Albert had checked that the words in the text matched those used in the broadcasts. Mostly the agreement was good, though Albert's guesses about the phonetic values of some of the rarer letters had to be revised.

      Thanks to the helicopter manual, Albert had managed to learn the meaning of some technical terms related to helicopters. For instance, the word for "helicopter rotor" was "rrakat".

      Study of the alien computers had also resulted in an understanding of the data processing codes. The data on the diskettes turned out to be mostly spreadsheets. Based on all this, working out the alien number system was easy, and, as one could expect, it turned out to use base eight.

      Some of the words in the spreadsheets apparently referred to various kinds of plants, judging by the forestry/agriculture manual, so Albert conjectured that the spreadsheets might deal with reforestation and farming. However, the meaning of all other words was still unknown, even though Albert now knew how to pronounce them.

      Next Albert asked Angela de la Chapelle to report on the cytology studies.

      "Um, we've found, that," she began, her reddening face providing an interesting contrast to her green eyes, "that the alien cells are, that is, capable of meiosis. This, um, strongly suggests that they do reproduce sexually. Albert, I think you had better describe your, um, simulation results."

      "Okay, I decided, based on Edward Mattila's suggestion, to run a simulation, first, of what an unfertilized alien egg cell would be like, second, of what would happen if one placed two of them beside each other. It turned out that they would merge, forming a diploid zygote. Thus, it seems as if Mr. Mattila may have been right in suggesting that the aliens may have only one kind of gametes, which would mean only one sex."

      Ed looked at Gunnel and beamed. That smile should by rights melt a glacier, she thought. A pity that I can't let it melt me.

      "To be sure, that was only a simulation. We still don't know for sure how things really are, but at least we must consider it a possibility that the aliens reproduce sexually but have only one sex. Gunnel Wiik, could you please tell us about the sociobiological implications of that?"

      "Hmm, I didn't know anything about this in advance, so I haven't thought it through. However, one obvious consequence would be a probable absence of competition for mates. After all, every one of the aliens would be a potential sex partner rather than a rival, so the competition between males that is such a driving force for much of Terran evolution would be absent. I can't yet tell you all the consequences of that, but one might be much less aggression between members of the species. There would, of course, still be competition for food but not competition for mates. This, I suppose, makes it even stranger that such a species, which would presumably be less violent than we are, that it would exterminate another species, as seems to have happened on Delpav III."

      Thoughtful silence greeted this. After a few seconds, Albert said, "Does anyone wish to comment on that? If not, let's go on to the next subject: the eggs in the incubator. William Galbraith, will you please report?"

      "Nothing much is happening with most of the eggs, but the one incubated at 302 kelvins seems to be developing nicely. Ultrasound scans show that the embryo is already rather well developed. I don't know how close it is to hatching, though."

      "In any case, Mr. Mattila's suggestion about incubation temperatures seems to have worked."

      Ed beamed at Gunnel again.

      "Does that embryo also seem to be female, if that is the proper word for the single sex we've found, at least so far, among those aliens?" Fu-zhen asked.

      "Yes," Ezekiel said. 


      At last Gunnel had something to work on. Now that it seemed likely that the aliens had only a single sex, she could try to analyze the consequences of that, though she was still hindered by the lack of data. Being able to observe the actual behavior of the aliens and related animals would have helped greatly, now she could only speculate. Having Albert run simulations did help a little, though.

      Anyway, she couldn't work all the time. She wanted to stay fit, so she had managed to wangle herself an hour of exclusive use of the gym twice a week for her ballet dancing, now that the soldiers no longer needed so much training on the return trip. She had just finished showering after one of those hours and was not only tired but rather cross as well. The acceleration of 1.32 g threw all her trained reflexes off, in addition to the strain it involved, so she had stumbled badly and had a livid bruise on her left arm. It was fortunate that she hadn't broken any bones, also that there were no spectators, since she had strictly forbidden anybody else to enter the gym when it was reserved for her use. She certainly didn't want anyone ogling her as she danced, especially not men. The dancing was something she did to keep herself fit, as well as part of her reason to keep fit, it wasn't something she did to entertain others.

      Now it was time for the cup of coffee and the small piece of chocolate she always allowed herself after ballet. She entered the scientists' common room to get that snack. There was only one person sitting there, Rita Dänner.

      Rita waved for Gunnel to sit down opposite her. Gunnel thought the matter over while getting her coffee and chocolate and decided to accept the invitation. She really wasn't in a mood for company, but she didn't want to establish a reputation for grumpiness. Her life was lonely enough as it was, and though that loneliness was a deliberate choice, she didn't really enjoy it.

      So she sat down opposite Rita. Looking at Rita's rather pinched, foxy face with its prominent cheekbones, she reflected that Rita was obviously one of those people who disdained cosmetic nanosurgery. Gunnel herself had never had any need for that. Her oval face, slender body and long, straight, brown hair were far more attractive to men than she wanted, though some esthetic impulse had prevented her from deliberately making herself ugly.

      Anyway, though Rita wasn't really beautiful physically, the obvious intelligence in her blue eyes made it easy to understand that Fu-zhen Wang found her attractive.

      For a while both sat there silently, sipping their coffee. But Rita seemed to have something on her mind, and after a minute or two she spoke up.

      "You know, back when I lived in the Adenauer oneill I had a neighbor who was originally a shipper, but as a boy he had read about dogs and become so fond of them that he decided to become a spacer when he grew up, so that he could have a big dog. After all, only in an oneill is there really room to walk a dog.

      "Well, when I knew him he had a dog named Woofy. And another neighbor of mine had a bitch called Inez. And, Woofy was of course very interested in Inez and friendly towards her, but she just barked and snarled whenever he tried to come close.

      "Well, your behavior towards Ed is just like the way Inez behaved with Woofy, just a little more polite. Drat it, can't you see that he's infatuated with you, or don't you care?"

      Oh hell. I just want to rest, Gunnel thought and shook her head a little, not caring how Rita interpreted that.

      "After all, he's a nice guy with a good sense of humor," Rita continued. "And he's intelligent -- no, that's the wrong word. He's brilliant. After all, our specialties overlap, and moreover his secondary specialty is molecular biology just as mine is nanotech, so we spend a lot of time working together. And, frankly, he dazzles me. Heck, I'm supposed to be the real expert on molecular biology, but often, when we're both trying to solve some problem in that field, he solves it first.

      "In addition, he's young and good-looking and very interested in you...."

      "His nose does look a bit odd," Gunnel interjected, trying to stop the flow.

      "Hah! So the septum extends a little below the rest of his nose! Who cares? He's tall and slim, and many women would love to run their fingers through that thick brown hair. Why aren't you interested? Are you a lesbian, maybe?"

      "Hell no! It's just that I've decided to become an old maid."

      Gunnel had intended to leave it at that, but Rita's eyebrows had climbed as high as they could go without crawling out of their follicles, so she decided to go on.

      "It's my parents. When I was still a child, they spent much of their time quarreling, and even when they didn't actually quarrel I could sense that they couldn't stand each other. They really ought to have divorced each other, but they decided to stay together for the sake of us children, or so they said. Frankly I can't understand why they still haven't got divorced now that we've grown up, I really think it would have been best for us if they had divorced each other early. Sure it isn't so good for children to grow up missing either a father or a mother, at least not having both at the same time, but believe me, having parents who hate each other's guts is worse.

      "Living in a family like that made me decide that I don't want to get involved with a man. Okay, there may be some good men, but suppose the one I got turned out to be a philandering son of a bitch like my father? Better not to run that risk. So, lonely or not, I decided that becoming an old maid is safer."

      During this uncharacteristically voluble outburst, Gunnel had leaned forward. Now she leaned back and tried to relax.

      Rita was silent for a while. Then she spoke up again.

      "Yes, there is of course a risk in any involvement with a man. But, if he turns out to be bad, you can leave him -- even if you're married. After all, you were the one who just mentioned divorce. So, is it really worthwhile to spend your life alone just out of fear that you might get the wrong sort of man?"

      "I suppose that if I had already formed an attachment to a man, leaving him would be painful, and I don't want to risk that pain. Anyway, look at my parents. They're still living together, even though they detest each other. Something has trapped them in an unhappy relationship. I don't want that to happen to me."

      "I see. But, this is rather unfair to Ed, isn't it? As far as I can tell, he seems to be a nice person, and he obviously needs female company. You are the only unattached woman available, and a very attractive one besides."

      "If you're so concerned about him, why don't you, er, strike up a relationship with him? You just sang his praises, wouldn't you be glad to have him?"

      Rita shook her head slowly -- and regretfully?

      "If I tried that, Fu-zhen might get downright murderous. He's nice enough when he wants to, but he has a terrible temper, and I don't even want to think about what he might do if he gets jealous."

      Gunnel stared. "Do you really want to stay involved with a man like that?"

      "Maybe not in the long run. I'll have to think about leaving him when we get back home, but for now I think I'd better stick with him. I don't want to risk precipitating any violence here, where we live practically in each other's laps. And, actually, living with him isn't all that bad. He's quite nice so long as I keep him happy, so it's no great sacrifice."

      It takes all sorts to make a universe, Gunnel thought. Maybe Rita was thinking the same about her.

      Just then a chime sounded. That was Albert. "Attention!" it said. "The egg stored at 302 kelvins is hatching!"

      Both women got up, the remains of their coffee forgotten, and made their way to the cell deck.

      Ed, Angela, Michiko, Jan, Subramaniam and William had already gathered around Cell 0, the central one with four transparent walls. The others arrived soon after Gunnel and Rita until everybody with access to the scientists' quarters, with the exception of Commander Andrzejewski, had gathered there.

      There wasn't yet much to be seen. There were the four incubators, standing on what had been the ceiling until recently.

      Initially the Janina Christensen had had her narrow end pointed in the general direction of Taucet, occasionally directly at that star but most of the time at some other nearby star to confuse any aliens that just possibly might be observing her. That way the mirror of the telescope in that end could be used as a reflector to send messages back home. Recently, however, they had reached a speed at which it was best to keep the shielded end in front, so the ship had turned around.

      The lid of one of the incubators had been opened, but the interior couldn't be seen from outside the cell. It was visible to Albert, however, thanks to the cameras in the cell, but there were no viewscreens in the corridors surrounding the cell.

      Just as Gunnel had almost made up her mind to go to her cabin, where there was a viewscreen, a waldo reached into the incubator and fished out a small creature.

      It was much like a small copy of Beelzebub, though the head was slightly over-large in proportion, and it did seem somewhat pudgy -- baby fat, maybe? Even the wicked-looking beak was there. The canine-like projections at its corners were, if anything, even more prominent than in the adults.

      Michiko was the first to speak. "To me it looks as if that youngster is already perfectly capable of eating meat. Anyway, there's nothing like mammary glands in the aliens, so I suggest we try to feed it some meat."

      Albert agreed, and soon a waldo took a portion of what was presumably alien-compatible meat out of the dumbwaiter in the cell and placed it in front of the hatchling.

      No reaction.

      "I suppose she isn't hungry yet," Angela said.

      After a short pause, Albert said, "I suppose we need a name for this alien too. Mr. Mattila, do you have a suggestion?"

      "Asmodeus," Ed answered promptly. "Of course, that's too long for such a small baby, so it will have to be shortened to Azzy."

      As if on cue, Azzy began crawling forward, apparently not yet able to stand or to coordinate her six legs properly. She crawled past the platter of meat and began moving in a widening clockwise spiral, as if exploring her surroundings.

      "Cute little tyke, ain't she?" Ed said.

      "Keep in mind," Gunnel said with just a touch of frost in her voice, "that you're talking about a member of a species that recently exterminated another intelligent species."

      "Not her own fault, though."

      After a while, the humans began to get restless, since nothing new happened. Albert pointed out that it might be a good idea to have at least one human watching Azzy all the time, not just to make sure that nothing bad happened -- Albert itself could take care of that -- but also to let them observe and learn. Gunnel got first watch.

      Soon the others drifted off, even Ed, fortunately. Gunnel was left alone with Azzy, except for Albert.

      Looking at Azzy, occasionally moving from one cell wall to another to keep her in sight as well as possible as she crawled around, Gunnel found herself thinking that, sure enough, Ed was right. Azzy was kind of cute.

      What would it be like to stroke that alien back?

      A silly idea, really. Still she couldn't get it out of her mind.

      After a while she could no longer resist the temptation. After all, what harm would it do?

      She asked Albert to open the nearest cell door.

      "That would not be advisable," Albert answered. "The risk of cross-species infection is very small, as far as we know, but we can't rule it out completely. It would be better to use the manipulators for what you have in mind."

      Stroking Azzy with a waldo? Did that make sense?

      Well, as a matter of fact -- yes. There were the fine manipulation waldos, which could apply very gentle forces and also provide exquisite force feedback. It wouldn't quite be the same as using her hand directly, but it would be the next best thing.

      She slowly moved such a waldo towards Azzy, wondering what Albert would say.

      Albert said nothing.

      So she went ahead and stroked Azzy very gently on the back. Azzy lay motionless, stretching out as if blissfully.

      After a while Gunnel quit stroking, and soon afterward Azzy resumed crawling. Was she just exploring or looking for something in particular? 


      Some twelve hours later, the chime sounded again. "Ms. Dänner reports that Azzy seems to be weakening and has still not eaten anything," Albert said. "Will everyone please congregate in the corridors outside Cell 0?"

      Soon the same thirteen people as before had gathered there. Sure enough, Azzy was now lying motionless and the meat on the plate was untouched, as far as Gunnel could tell.

      "Maybe she needs some other kind of food rather than meat," Michiko said. "In fact, I've spent the last few hours wondering what alien hatchlings might eat. And, a while ago it struck me that there are a couple of features of the alien anatomy that might be relevant. They have a patch with a lot of blood vessels in their bellies, and the inflatable skin layers are absent there. I thought, originally, that that might be intended to dump excess heat, but there's another possibility. Maybe the hatchlings suck blood from adults."

      "It seems to me that one can't really suck anything with a beak like that," Fu-zhen objected.

      "Okay, wrong word. They may bite the belly of the adult in question and then lap blood, if you want to be accurate."

      "Then we would have to move Azzy and Beelzebub together into the same cell," Albert said. "The right way to do that would probably be to move Azzy into Cell 2. Unfortunately we don't have any provisions for doing that in any other way than having somebody walk into Cell 0, pick up Azzy and take her to Cell 2. That could be dangerous, if Beelzebub attacks, though I'll try to keep her under control with the waldos."

      "I volunteer," Ed said.

      "No," Captain Geier said. "I'll go get my powered armor, then I'll do it."

      "That's better," Albert said. "That armor should give pretty good protection, even if I fail to keep Beelzebub under control." 


      Rregeke was dozing, when two of the manipulators suddenly grabbed her wrists for no reason she could see. She woke up immediately but tried to look sleepy, though she cautiously tested the grip of the manipulators and found it unyielding, though not actually painful.

      Then she found out why she had been grabbed. The door opened, and in walked an armored hiueng -- and it held a hatchling iagyh in those weird, five-fingered hands.

      She considered trying to attack the hiueng, but even if she managed to break loose from the manipulators, she would probably fail to damage it. After all, she already knew what it was like to fight an armored hiueng. They looked as if they might be rather feeble without that armor, but with it they were both strong and nearly invulnerable. So an attack would be pointless. Better to save her strength and see what the hiuengek were up to now.

      The two-legs laid the hatchling down on the floor, and it started crawling towards her, guided by her smell.

      Then she understood. They wanted her to feed the hatchling. Her ventral blood vessels weren't as well developed as they would be in an oldster, but, yes, she could do it in a pinch.

      But should she?

      Suppose she fed the hatchling. Then it would live, and grow up a prisoner of the hiuengek. Not a good fate.

      It would also be a potential source of information to her captors, which was no doubt why they had let it hatch.

      This, then, was the opportunity she had been waiting for. Rather a meager opportunity, but nothing better was likely to present itself. At least she could deny the egg-eaters some information and, at the same time, save the hatchling from the shameful fate of growing up a captive.

      The hiueng had left the cell, and the manipulators had released her. She was free to move, so she did what had to be done, terrible though it was.

      She bit off the head of the hatchling, then took it out of her beak, positioned the skull between the upper and lower parts of the beak and bit down again, crushing the brain.

      Then, with a sense of relief at being able to atone for the horrible though necessary thing she had just done, she tore her throat open. 


      "This time I did manage to inject enough vitro- nanos into Beelzebub that we'll be able to save her," Albert said, "though how we'll prevent her from committing suicide again may be a problem. Azzy's brain was so badly damaged that we won't be able to reconstruct it, but at least we can clone her."

      That piece of good news didn't cheer up Ed. He still squatted on the deck, covering his face with his hands.

      "Also, though the 312 kelvin egg is definitely dead, the one stored at 292 kelvins is developing, although slowly. Of course, feeding the hatchling will be a problem. We may have to develop a synthetic substitute for an alien belly."

      "But it won't be Azzy," Ed said in a muffled voice that sounded as if he was having a hard time not crying.

      Gunnel, who happened to be standing right beside Ed, also felt some grief for Azzy, but even more she pitied Ed. She felt an impulse to pat him on the shoulder, maybe even to hug him and try to console him. Her right hand actually moved a little in his direction, but then she drew it back. Best not to make any gestures that might be misinterpreted.