“You have genetic blanks in storage in orbit. The Workstation is shot but it will still transmit code. Input the correct parameters and…”
“That’s highly illegal,” Sean said. “Not to mention it would leave us without any spare tissue for limb replacement in case of emergency.”
“We’ve been on this planet for two years,” Verne said. “We’ve had about two dozen bites, and three twisted ankles. Do you really think that in the next week someone will suddenly get his leg chewed off?”
“Verne, we can’t just make a creature! I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite ready to live the rest of my life in a controlled facility.” Sean turned to Santos.
“It’s a good idea,” the Chief of Security said.
“I can’t believe you two.”
“It’s a good idea,” Santos repeated.
“It’s up to you,” Verne said. “You’re the one who didn’t run the transmission through the Great Wall. You’re the team leader.”
Shawn opened his mouth. On one side fifteen careers. On the other, his life thrown away if he were found out.
“Alright, let’s say we do it,” he said hoarsely. “The only person who can code something like that into the genetic synthesizer would be…”
“Jennifer,” Verne finished grimly.
Jennifer crossed her arms on her chest. She was petite and ten pounds on the right side of plump, and Sean couldn’t help but note that the way her arms were crossed pushed her breasts up and out.
Sean took his eyes from her chest and stared at the ground. That had been a problem all along. He knew it. He wasn’t sure if she knew it, and it worried him to think that she might. It may have turned out fine, possibly they could’ve even become a couple, but after Ickman had left, Jennifer was named his Joint Team Leader, which meant that she was the only person he could argue with without fear of entering a leader-subordinate relationship. And they argued a lot.
Sean took a deep breath. “I apologize for what I said earlier. I do concede that not all supporters of Autonomous System Structure are naive, slack-jawed, starry-eyed rich kids, who seek to alleviate personal guilt caused by their life of privilege. I also would like to say that a strong centralized government does have its weak points. And that I take back anything bad I’ve said before that could possibly piss you off.”
Jennifer brushed back her brown hair. “What do you want?”
It took him ten minutes to get through the explanation.
“You’re insane,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
“There’s a reason why it’s illegal, Sean! You can’t introduce a man-made species into an ecosystem. It can wipe the whole biosphere out.”
“We only need one. You could make it sterile.”
“Jennifer, I beg you…”
He desperately raked his mind for a way to convince her and found none. “Look,” he said miserably. “There are fifteen people who gave two years of their lives to study and assess this planet. Their careers will be destroyed. It will reflect badly on both of us – in the entire history of Survey, there has never been an instance when a team hasn’t turned in a Final Evaluation Report. Except for Captain Chef, but that doesn’t count because he and his crew were eaten. But that’s not even the important part. The important part is that without the survey report we can show no basis to support preservation. They’ll chuck this planet for development. The trogomets, the tari trees, the dwarf cows, the ino, all of it will be gone.”
She was looking at him. He took her gently by the elbow and turned her around to the window.
Long-stemmed grasses shivered in the light breeze, dotted by pale red flowers with white stamens that sparkled in the sun. In the distance, in a soft patch of Maiden’s hair weeds, a herd of dwarf cows watched two small calves butt heads with mock ferocity. Beyond the field, the tari forest rose like a jagged mountain ridge, silver, tall, and majestic. Above it all long feather-brush strokes of clouds highlighted the crystalline depth of the emerald sky.
“Emily, I want you to understand what’s at stake here,” Jennifer said.
Sean remembered to unclench his fists. They sat in front of the Workstation, tapped into the mainframe of the unmanned orbital laboratory. The complex interface of the genetic synthesizer filled the screen. Verne hovered somewhere in the shadows behind them like some menacing guardian of the cybernetic treasure trove.
“You can never, ever, ever tell anyone about this,” Jennifer continued. “Otherwise all of us would lose our jobs and Sean, Santos, Verne, and I would go into a controlled habitat. I realize this is a lot of responsibility for a fourteen-year old. I’m sorry to have to ask this of you.”
“I understand,” Emily said. “I promise not to say anything. I give my word.”
Jennifer took a deep breath. “Very well then. Let’s begin. It’s a chimera, so give it to me piece by piece.”
“Head of a snake,” Emily said. “Body of leopard. Haunches of lion. Feet of a deer.”
“What are you selecting as the primer?” Sean asked.
“A Polberian running lizard,” Jennifer answered.
“It doesn’t sound like a lizard,” he said.
“Sean, shut up. Go on, Emily. What else do we know?”
“It was big. It made noise like forty baying hounds. It lived to be hunted and it was smart, because one time when Pellinore stopped hunting it, it came and found him.”
“We don’t want it too smart,” Sean said.
“I can’t guarantee the baying,” Jennifer said.
Sean thought of saying that he doubted she could guarantee anything. For all they knew the whole thing would come out as a puddle of goo, but under the present circumstances, he decided against voicing his opinion.
Sean stood in the field, knee-deep in grasses. Somewhere a taina bird sang a trilling song. They had yet to catch one.
The incubation of Questing Beast took two days. They had less than twenty four hours until the Committee’s arrival.
A falling star winked into being. It blazed across the sky like a glittering emerald and streaked toward him. The pod. Finally.
The star grew into a white ovoid. For a moment it looked like the pod would plunge into the ground, and then the guides kicked in pulses of intense white flame, righting the pod, slowing the fall, and gently bringing it down in the middle of the field.
A hairline crack split the pod’s surface. Sean stared at the developing door with a sick feeling. Behind him Jennifer made a small noise.
The door swung upward, revealing the dark interior. Something stirred within the gloom, something large and alive. A long head attached to a flexible neck appeared from the darkness, elegant, narrow, almost equine rather than reptilian in its lines. Big eyes with cobalt-colored irises regarded them. The Questing Beast blinked and stepped into the grass.
“Dear Gods,” Sean said.
Lean and graceful, it stood on four muscled legs, ending in wide hooves. Silver fur, dappled with a spray of pale green and carmine rosettes, sheathed its body. A long silky mane flared on its sinuous neck.
It didn’t look like a chimera. It looked like a cohesive being, like nothing he had ever seen before, and it was beautiful.
The Questing Beast opened its mouth and a clear voice issued forth. “Dear Gods.”
Sean’s heart jumped into his throat.
Behind him Verne exhaled. “Oh, shit!”
“Oh, shit,” the Questing Beast said.
“It’s a mimic.” Jennifer strode toward it. “I told you I couldn’t guarantee the baying.”
“Jennifer!” Sean barked sharply. “Don’t get close to that thing!”
“Oh, please.” She reached over and the head dove to her hand. “It’s an herbivore.” She rubbed Beast’s silvery nose and it licked her palm with a long pale tongue. An odd noise emanated from it, as if it had swallowed a beehive and now the infuriated bees fought to escape.