by Wayne Martin
Malish was roused from his winter lassitude, aching with hunger in the numbing cold, by the babbling of newborns far above. He welcomed the sounds that announced the end of his long isolation. Like all of the males, he had spent the long winter deep in the atmosphere. Away from the light. Away from the food. Alone.
Weak from his long fast, he struggled to inflate his float bladder and begin a sluggish ascent through the darkness. As he rose, strengthening shafts of sunlight filtered down to reassure him; he had survived the winter. He willed himself past exhaustion and continued his climb. Now would be the time to feed and reunite with his mate.
Reaching the altitude where the tenga plants could get enough light to grow, he began to eat. He nibbled small amounts at first, being careful with a digestive system that had been idle for so long, but then tore off large fronds with surging gusto as his hunger overran his caution.
Finishing his meal, he stretched his muscles and flexed his skin, preparing to call to his mate. A few other males had already begun; the sounds reverberated around him.
Undulations spread across the surface of his long, cylindrical form as he sent out waves of sound. His entire body vibrated to produce the complex series of tones and harmonics that his mate, Celeese, would recognize as his unique voice. When she responded with her own part in their shared song, he would swim to her. After their long separation, she might be far away. He was eager to start the journey.
As he finished calling, he stretched out to listen for a response, his surface a mottled gray except for a band of bright yellow along his sides and two blue stripes down his back.
He hoped for a response from her soon. Winter had been long and he missed her.
Captain Groves walked into the cramped space set aside for the biology lab, his footsteps masked by the hum and clanking of the ship. In a deep baritone he asked, “Dr. Sanborne, how is your research coming along?”
Dr. Jillian Sanborne flinched at his sudden appearance. In the confines of what had surely been a storage space before being assigned to her, the only place for the large man to stand was uncomfortably close.
With an apologetic smile, he said, “I’m sorry you’re jammed in here like this. If we had gotten more notice that you would be joining us, I could have arranged something more suitable.”
“That’s quite alright. My grant came through late. I’m grateful to be here.” Jillian forced a smile, hiding her annoyance at being confined to a tiny space on a worn-out survey vessel. As long as she was junior faculty, she knew that bad accommodations and small grants arriving late would be her lot.
“I wish I’d been able to get down here earlier to see how you’re doing. The mineral surveys have absorbed all of my time. I haven’t had a chance to see what you’re doing with your critters. It’s amazing that anything lives on a place like that,” Groves said, referring to the gas giant below them.
Jillian’s focus was on the giant planet, the only place in the system that harbored life. The rest of the ship’s passengers were surveying the rocky planets to establish the mining operations that would pay for the trip. She had been lucky to get a ride for herself and a graduate student.
Jillian pointed towards a graph pinned to the wall that showed the planet’s orbit. “We’re just getting into the summer season when the young are born. Male and female adults have been separated over the winter, but will now be forming mating pairs.” Turning back to the screen in front of her, she flicked a gesture at the wavy lines tracing across it. “We’re monitoring them with the probes you launched for us. We’ll be listening as the males vocalize to attract females.”
“So it’s like birds singing in the spring? I’m sure that’s lovely.” The Captain smiled and put a hand on her shoulder, not seeming to notice Jillian flinch at the contact. “We’re happy to have you along. Please come to see me about anything you might need. Anything at all.”
Jillian watched the Captain leave, removed her black rimmed glasses, and rubbed her eyes. She hoped he wouldn’t become a problem on this trip. Her ex-husband had been a distraction. She didn’t need another entanglement. The work here was too important to her career.
No longer young, she held a position at her third university. She had been forced to leave her previous two schools after failing to obtain tenure. Competition for the rare open slot was fierce. The time for that decision at her current school was rapidly approaching.
She closed her eyes for a moment, breathing carefully. She couldn’t let anything mess up what might be her last opportunity.
Malish floated high in the atmosphere, well above the altitude where tenga grew. He did not want to stay for long, but needed a good look at the sun and the stars. It was as he had feared. Over the winter, a deep current had taken him far to the north. The sound channels ran east and west, so communication from the north to the south would be impossible. That was why he had not heard from Celeese.
Very few lived in the northern bands of the planet. He was lucky that one set of newborns had been close enough to wake him. Other males might not have been so fortunate and would continue to sleep until they exhausted their energy. The thought chilled him.
He descended to the level where he could feed and begin the trek southward. He would pass the information along to any other southern males he encountered on the way.
He thought back to first meeting Celeese as he traveled southward. They had created their song many cycles ago, and he remembered his initial anxieties with amusement. He had wanted to craft a tone sequence that would delight a female with its beauty and complexity. Worried that he wouldn’t create a song that was worthy of his ambition, he continued working on his ideas until he realized that most of the other young males were already calling. Quite a few of them were receiving replies from females. He fretted that he was too late to find a mate and began his call.
Starting with a middle tone, he produced an energetic sequence to set a confident air. Against that he added long low notes for an earnest feel, and then blended in higher frequencies for what he hoped was a vibrant, exhilarating flavor. The echoes of his own voice returning from along the sound channel left him unsettled. It was a mess. No, it was really good. Or was it?
After waiting for so long that he thought no reply would come, he heard two, both from far away. One was a nice pattern replication of his call, adequate, but with no embellishment. The other was a beautiful variation on his theme that demanded a response. He blended a portion of her new line into his and propelled the sound outward. When she called back with another variation, the harmony was perfect and he had his mate.
Brad Kelenov, Jillian’s graduate student, was assigned the dull task of monitoring the instruments. He stared dully at the wavering lines on the screen, watching as the computer sorted signals from the various acoustic probes and began identifying individuals. The sounds, well below the range of human hearing, could only be processed by machine.
He made an entry in his notebook. Nothing new here. The natural sound channels and very low frequencies let these things communicate over huge distances. The atmospheric bands in the atmosphere are like Jupiter in the Sol system. Sounds travel well along latitudes, but poorly in the north-south direction. That may cause the animals to live in groups separated by latitude. He wondered if the data would support his conjecture, and if he could get another research paper out of it.
As Brad continued to watch as the acoustic signatures of two more individuals were isolated and classified, he yawned and leaned back, eyes glazing. It would be a few more days before he had enough data to begin any serious analysis. He wasn’t expecting much, just counting and describing a herd of herbivores that were barely surviving the harsh environment. He thought of them as mindless animals, just different enough for him to finish a dissertation and get his degree. It wasn’t a brilliant start to his career, but would have to be enough.
With the sounds of mating calls echoing around him, Malish travelled southward, encountering groups of females and their offspring. The females carrying young stayed in the upper layers over the winter where they could feed on tenga that survived from the previous summer. They were all in much better shape than the males who had fasted through the winter. Malish knew that some males had not survived the winter. Their mates would not survive the next one.
He looked around at the newly released juveniles. A multitude of round young bodies bobbed and jostled around patches of tenga as they fed. Their clumsy, fledgling attempts at movement amused him. Brief flashes of color, in simple combinations, were the first attempts at visual communication by the newly spawned.
Malish was looking forward to seeing his and Celeese’s newborns. He was certain that their last mating had been successful, so there could be a dozen of their offspring.
None of their progeny had yet survived their first two years to reach adulthood. The failure to produce even one child old enough to mate was an ache for both of them. He and Celeese had only a few more cycles before they were beyond having young.
The long journey south was making him hungry. Knowing that he would need to put on much more mass for the coming winter, he moved away from the clusters of juveniles to find an undisturbed patch of tenga.
“How are your alien fish coming along?” asked Captain Groves, once again barging into the lab uninvited.
Jillian closed her eyes for a moment and calmed herself, suppressing her irritation. Captain Groves’ visits had become more frequent and more intrusive, disrupting her work. Still, she needed his forbearance, no, his support to conduct her research. “They’re much more complex organisms than fish.”
“Well then,” chuckled Bowles, “I stand corrected. The real reason I came down is to see if you would join us at my table for dinner this evening. We haven’t seen you in the officers’ mess so far this trip. You need to get out of your lab once in a while and have some fun.”
Burying her annoyance at the imposition on her time, Jillian put on a smile and nodded. She couldn’t turn down the invitation, but didn’t want to waste an entire evening talking to a bunch of engineers. She’d have her grad student arrange an ’emergency’ sometime late in the meal.
Malish hurried along his journey. He and Celeese were southerners, by her choice. Although he agreed that the light was most pleasant down there, he had never been as picky about the taste of the local tenga as she was. Still, she was his mate and he would go wherever she wanted.
He passed several areas where the young of northern pairs were sporting around. Their antics were charming, but left him with a lonely yearning for his own mate, his own offspring. Sometimes the world seemed too large.
Jillian had to admit that the officers’ mess had a much more pleasant atmosphere than the crew cafeteria where she normally ate. The lighting wasn’t as harsh and it was less crowded so the noise level was lower. Maybe the evening wouldn’t be so bad. The food was the same, though.
The man to her right was one of the mining company leads. Powerfully built, with broad shoulders, large hands, close-cropped hair, and a square face, he would easily have fit her conception of a rough and uncultured mining engineer except for his kind eyes and gently inquisitive nature.
“So what gets you doing research out this far? What makes these animals so interesting?”
Jillian smiled and allowed herself a bit of candor. “I’m up for tenure soon. Unfortunately, in my specialty, if you want to get ahead, you have to find something new to work on. And if you want to find something new, you have to go way out in the field. Everything close has been studied to death. So to speak.”
The man chuckled, “Well, it’s the same for us. The close-in fields are getting worked out. So we go out a long way to make new finds. What’s special about your critters?”
“They have an odd mating pattern. There was an expedition twenty years ago that initially found them, but didn’t have time to really study them. Fortunately, they left monitoring probes so we now know their mating cycle is driven by the highly elliptical orbit.”
“Big seasonal changes, eh?”
Pleased to find herself sitting next to someone who could hold a conversation, Jillian began to relax. “Yes. There’s a lot of plant food available in the summer, very little in the winter when the planet is way out in its orbit. After the summer mating season, the males go deep to hibernate for the winter and shut down for the whole season.”
“That must be rough on them.”
“It is. Some don’t survive.”
“What about the females?”
“The pregnant females stay higher up and survive the winter on plants left from the summer. The following summer the young are born and the males come back up to rejoin the females. That’s where we are now. Next year the mating pairs will hibernate deep and leave the food for the juveniles.”
Brad entered the room, hustling over to Jillian. “Dr. Sanborne, I think you need to come down to the lab and see this.”
Jillian pretended annoyance at the interruption. “Something in the acoustic data?”
Brad nodded vigorously and left. Jillian excused herself and strolled out after her student.
Malish hovered at a level so deep that the light was almost extinguished, hoping to catch a deep sound channel that ran to the south. It hadn’t worked, but had been worth a try.
He was surprised by the ovoid shape of a juvenile plummeting towards him, gleefully flashing bright yellow across its body. The joy of discovering the ability to control their depth often led the young to unreasonably bold or outright foolhardy plunges. At that age, a youth could easily drop to a depth where the pressure would overcome whatever it could create in its float bladder.
Malish could see sudden, frantic efforts by the juvenile to recover as it went by in its descent. The child was already past the point of rescuing itself and would soon perish. Malish had no way of aiding the youth and could only watch in sadness.
As they entered the biology lab, Jillian moved to her desk.
Waving her over to his terminal, Brad said, “There really is something you should see. Male/female pairs are starting to match up in the acoustic data. But it’s not just the males vocalizing to attract a mate. The females are calling back.”
Jillian swung her chair around. “How do you know that you’re seeing a response to the initial vocalization?”
“I’ve been running the data through a pattern recognition algorithm. It’s been able to identify pairs whose calls correlate. The female response is a variation of the male’s vocalization. When I put the two together, they overlay really well,” he said, pointing to a chart in the corner of the screen. “They’re doing duets. And they go right into it, like they’ve done it before.”
Jillian stared. Pair bonding among herbivores? It would be remarkable if she could prove it. Controlling her excitement, she said, “Keep track of that. Let me know if you find anything more definitive.”
Malish floated quietly, munching on tenga, nudged by small turbulence with sunlight warming his upper surface. The songs of other pairs resounded around him. The intervals between calls and responses were getting shorter as males approached their mates. A few had gone quiet as they got close enough to see each other.
He was still not far enough south to contact Celeese. He worried that she would be upset by his absence. They both knew what her fate would be if he didn’t return.
Finishing his meal, he knew he would need to eat again soon. He was still underweight and would need more mass to make sure the two of them would survive, but he had further to go. He pushed on.
Brad called Jillian over to his terminal, “Dr. Sanborne, I think you need to see this.”
Jillian looked over his shoulder. “Something more in the acoustic data?”
“Yeah. I was matching the signatures of individuals in the current data with those of the survey twenty years ago to see if any of the animals from then are still alive. Turns out that almost a third are.”
“Hmmm, yes. That’s more than I would have expected.” She began to move back to her own work station.
“But that’s not the most interesting thing. I ran a match to see how many of them ended up with mates that were also oldsters. They all did. Then I looked to see how many of them ended up with the exact same mate this year as before.” He tapped an icon on his screen.
Jillian stared at the result. This was fantastic. It was all of them. These strange herbivores mated for life.
This was her ticket. This would show her Department Head who was really the department star. With this she could… She stopped herself. No time for fantasies. The results had to be nailed down.
“Make sure you keep on this,” she directed.
Malish approached a large patch of tenga blooming in the warming summer sun, but was shooed away by several females. Adult males, however hungry they might be, were not welcome where the young were feeding. In his hurry south, Malish had not stopped to feed often enough. Knowing that he hadn’t put on as much mass as he would need for the winter, he resolved to eat more later. His anticipation of joining Celeese swelled and he willed himself to move faster.
Brad turned to Jillian. “The males are growing at an amazing rate. They came out of hibernation only slightly larger than the females, but it looks like they’ll be ten times as big by the end of summer.”
“That might be linked to the male/female pairings over the next winter,” said Sanborne. “Stay on it. We’re not under time pressure yet, but who knows when the ship jockeys will decide to move.”
“There is one more thing. Some of the skin patterns change when a mating pair gets close to each other. I think they communicate using their skin coloration. They take turns putting on displays like some sort of courtship ritual.” He cleared his throat. “You know, it looks like there’s more to these things than we thought. They’re communicating at a higher level than I expected. There’s some real intelligence here. I’m beginning to think we should be more careful.”
“They’re specimens for study. Don’t get sentimental or you’ll lose your objectivity. I’ve put further study of potential intelligence in my proposal for the follow-on work.” The thought of her next grant proposal brought a smile to her lips. It was going to be a big one.
The juvenile chattering had subsided and the world was getting quiet. Songs from a few pairs that had not yet met up were crisp and beautiful. He would soon join Celeese.
He missed her, talking to her, being near her. He longed to feel her body as he enveloped her, protecting her, keeping her warm in the cold, and providing her with nourishment when they went deep into the dark for the winter. He thought about the gentle ecstasy of becoming one as they slowed each other down and entered the merged dreaming of the joined hibernation. He hated the cycles he spent alone in the deep. When they were beyond mating, they would unite forever. That would be wonderful. But he had further to go. He moved on.
Brad brought a tablet over to Jillian’s desk. Showing the data to his mentor, he said, “Analysis ninety percent complete. All pairs that survived from the last survey match up. I think you have proof that they mate for life.”
Jillian beamed, “Excellent. The video data shows something else interesting. Some of the pairs have already started their winter hibernation. Before they do, the male wraps himself around the female, like he’s an insulating blanket for her. That’s how the females survive the cold.”
Brad smiled, “Well, that explains the females interest in mating for life.”
“How many individuals have you recorded that haven’t met a mate?”
“We have thirty seven females that haven’t vocalized at all. Apparently they wait for males to start. My guess is that their mates didn’t make it through the winter.”
“Thirty seven. That sounds about right for the mortality rate.”
“I wonder if the unpaired females will make it through the next winter.”
Jillian shook her head. “I doubt it. Anything else?”
“There is the one unpaired male. He’s been calling all summer without getting an answer.”
Jillian simply nodded in response.
Brad’s shoulders sagged. “I feel kinda bad for the ones who lost their mates. There’s obviously a tight bonding there. It must be hard to lose a life partner.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not going to let it bother me and you shouldn’t either. They’re just animals. Study subjects. That’s all,” she said turning back to her computer. She didn’t see the look of incredulity that crossed Brad’s face.
As she continued working on her next proposal she was certain that, with her discoveries here, it would surely be funded. She would come back with better equipment and a larger staff. She thought to herself that Brad had been useful on this trip. His growing queasiness about the animals bordered on unprofessional, but he could probably overcome it. Perhaps she should consider him for a permanent position.
The atmosphere was calm and the light felt right. The savory taste of the local tenga was what he knew she liked. He was finally home. Celeese would be able to hear him now and they would be together. Even though he was smaller than he wanted to be, he thought he had enough mass to carry the two of them through the winter. He would need to hurry; it was late in the season and they would be the last to join, but he would see her and be with her. They would spend the winter together with thoughts and dreams intermingling; they would see their offspring grow; they would be together in the summers watching and guiding the young, singing their song and making new harmonies for each other.
He allowed himself a few moments of rest and then stretched himself out in preparation for calling her. In joy, he began.
The Captain leaned into the laboratory doorway, looking apologetic. “I’m afraid the mining engineers have finished their work, so we’re going to be heading home shortly. I hope you’ve gotten what you need.”
“We’ve been able to make many important observations,” Jillian said with satisfaction.
“Did you learn everything you wanted to about these creatures?”
“Not hardly. These animals have complex communications and social interactions that we need to decode. They’re far more intelligent than we expected from herbivores.”
“So, you were able to collect a fair amount of data?”
Jillian smiled. “Besides all of the probe data, our dissection of the one you brought up for us when we first arrived was very revealing about their basic biology. Fortunately, it was a female ready to birth a litter of over a dozen, so we have a lot of material to work with. We’ll be studying those samples for a long time.”
The Captain grimaced, thinking about the mess and the smell in the starboard cargo hold.
Jillian thought about the free time she would have now that the data collection was complete. The Captain was certainly an attractive man. He had shown interest in her throughout the trip; perhaps he would be worth having a dalliance with on the voyage home. She might even be willing to extend the relationship to another expedition. She turned to him with a smile.
“We need to come back. Next time I want to capture a male for dissection.”
The Captain frowned. The idea of cutting up an intelligent creature seemed heartless, at best. “I’m glad that the voyage has been productive for you.” He turned and left her to the work that consumed her. Halfway down the passage, he glanced back, wondering if the alien he had plucked from the cold depths of the planet for her to dissect was the one with greater warmth.
Malish sang a message of elation as he approached Celeese. She returned notes of rejoicing and thankfulness that they were together at last.
Malish knew the winter would be difficult. His travels had taken so much energy that he had barely enough mass to survive the hibernation. He wrapped himself around her to protect her from the cold as they descended for the winter, suppressing a shudder. He had been as afraid for her as she had been for him. None of that mattered now. He could feel the pulsing of her three hearts. They were together, their song joined in perfect harmony.
Wayne Martin writes in Annapolis Maryland where he lives with his wife and two dogs. His background in oceanography came in useful in forming the idea for the peculiarities in sound propagation used in this story. This is his first story sale.
Man, this is a good story.