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On Jevlen there was a group of several large, tropical islands known as the Galithenes. Inland, they were mostly mountainous, but the wider valleys and the coastal plains supported dense canopies of rain forest that excluded all but a feeble twilight. And in the midday gloom of the two most northerly islands of the group, there lived a peculiar flying creature called the anquiloc.

About the size of a pigeon, it had strongly developed hind legs; modest, clawed forelegs with rudimentary grasping abilities, which it used, when at rest, to attach itself to vertical surfaces such as tree trunks; and black, scaly wings that glistened like wet asphalt. In its basic structure, it conformed to the general, bilaterally symmetric, triple-paired limb pattern of the Jevlenese animal classification corresponding roughly to terrestrial vertebrates.

The anquiloc's face had a narrow black snout that bulged at the end like the nose of a hammerhead shark, into an organ that luminesced in the infrared. Below its eyes were two large, forward-directed, concave areas, formed from a mixture of reflective and absorbent tissues that functioned both as variable-geometry focusing surfaces to produce a crudely directed beam that could be steered by moving the head, ans as receivers tuned to the reflections Thus, it navigated and hunted by means of its own system of self-contained, thermal radar.

The anquiloc's main prey was a small, wasplike octopod known as the chiff. The chiff possessed IR-sensitive antennae that evolution had shaped to operate in the same general range as the anquiloc's search frequencies, which gave rise to an unusual contest of every-changing strategy and counter strategy between the two species. The chiff's first, simple response on detecting a search signal was to fold its wings and drop out of the beam. The anquiloc countered by learning to dip its approach in anticipation when it registered a chiff. The chiff reacted by skewing its escape to the left, and when the anquiloc followed, the chiff switched to the right; when the anquiloc became adept a checking in both directions, the chiff reacted by climbing out of the beam instead of falling; or of gong left, or maybe right. Whichever was adopted, all the possible ensuing variations would unfold in some order or other and them maybe revert to an earlier form, producing an ever-changing pattern in which new behaviors constantly appeared, lasted for as long as the were effective, and gave way to something else.

But what made the anquiloc more than just "peculiar" was the way it came preprogrammed with the right maneuvers to deal with the latest to have appeared from the chiff's repertoire of routines for evading it. And it was not simply a statistical effect, where newborn anquilocs possessing all possible varieties of behavior appeared equally, and only the ones that happened to be "right" at the time survived.

Newborn individuals exhibited the same response pattern as the latest that the parents had learned up to the time of conception. Since that pattern changed depending on the current mode of chiff behavior, the mechanism represented a clear case of inheriting a characteristic that had been acquired by the parent during life and not carried by the gene line—a flat contradiction of the principles determined by generations of researchers on Earth. Jevlenese and Ganymean scientists had long before settled the point by training anquilocs in certain tasks and testing their offspring for the ability after separating them at birth, and there was no doubt of it. Neither was it the only instance of the phenomenon that they had encountered int their probings of the nearby regions of the Galaxy.

But for the biologists of Earth it was a revelation that went against all the rules, throwing some of their most precious tenets into as much disarray as their colleagues from the physical sciences were already having to come to terms with.

* * *

 

Professor Christian Danchekker operated a tracker ball on the control panel of the molecular imager and peered at the foot-high hologram as it rotated in the viewing space in front of him. He tapped a command key to create a ghostly sphere of faint light, about the size of a cherry, and turned the tracker ball again to guide the sphere until it enclosed a selected part of the image. Then he spoke in a slightly raised voice toward a grille in the panel to one side.

"Voice on. Magnify by ten." The part of the image that had been inside the sphere expanded to fill the viewing space and resolved itself into finer detail. "Reduce by five . . ." Danchekker rotated the image some more and repositioned the sphere slightly. "Magnify by ten. . . . Increase contrast ten percent. . . . Voice off."

For a few moments he sat back and contemplated the result with satisfaction tinged by a dash of undisguised amazement. He was tall and sparse in build, with a balding head and antiquated, god-rimmed spectacles perched precariously on a hollowed, toothy face. The assistant seated on another chair called a set of neural mapping charts, heavily annotated with symbols, onto one of the auxiliary display screens while she waited.

"There it is, Sandy," Danchekker murmured. "The base sequence has altered. Run a delta-sigma on the code and correlate it against the map. But I have no hesitation in predicting, now, that you'll find it embedded there. This is how it transfers."

Sandy Homes leaned forward and studied the enhanced section of the molecule's structure now being presented. "It's a cumulative progression from what we had before," she commented.

Danchekker nodded. "Which is what one would expect. As the learned routine is registered by the nervous system, the encoded representation impressed into the messenger increases. We're actually looking at transferable memory in action."

They had taught some anquilocs, brought from Jevlen, to adapt to artificial patterns of IR return signals resembling chiff evasion responses. The changes written into the configuration of circulating electrical currents in the brain as a permanent imprint of the learned behavior could then be identified and mapped by the established techniques of neural psychotopography.

But the molecule that they were studying represented a step far outside the bounds of familiar terrestrial biology. It was created in specialized cells of the anquiloc's nervous system and carried a chemical encodement of the changes recorded in regular memory. Acting as a messenger, it transported the code to the reproductive cells, where it was copies into the animal's genetic control molecules as they replicated. Hence, it provided the equivalent of reprogrammable DNA.

Danchekker went on, "The possibilities of further evolutionary refinement of such an ability are intriguing. For example, can you imagine—" The call-tone from the terminal on a table by the far wall interrupted him. "Damn. Go and see to the wretched thing, would you, Sandy?" he muttered.

The girl got up, crossed the laboratory, and touched a key to accept the call. A woman's face appeared on the screen, mid-fortyish, perhaps, with hair tied straight back in a matronly fashion that added to her years. She had a long, sober face with beady dark eyes, high cheeks, and a large nose, and stared out with a commanding sternness.

"Is Professor Danchekker there, Ms. Homes?" Her voice was shrill but firm, brooking no nonsense. "It is most imperative that I speak to him."

"Oh God," Danchekker groaned, over by the imager console. It was Ms. Mulling, the personal secretary who had come with his appointment as director of Alien Life Sciences, calling from her domain in his outer office on the top floor, from where she ruled the building. Danchekker shook his head and made frantic to-and-fro motions with a hand to indicate that he had spontaneously evaporated off the planet.

But the movement in the background over Sandy's shoulder only caught Ms. Mulling's attention. "Ah! You are there, Professor. The budgetary review meeting is due to begin in M-6 in thirty minutes. I presumed that you would want reminding." She rolled the rs and spoke with as much of a hint of disapproval in her voice as a personal secretary with a strict sense of propriety could permit.

Danchekker rose from the console and advanced toward the terminal, stopping halfway across the floor as if wary of too close a proximity, even to an image. Sandy withdrew discreetly out of the viewing angle. "Can't Yamumatsu deal with it?" Danchekker asked irritably. "He understands convertible assets, depreciation ratios, and other such intricacies—I am only a scientist. I spoke to him this morning, and he said he'd be happy to substitute."

"It is customary for the departmental director to chair the quarterly review," Ms. Mulling replied in a tone as yielding as the hull armor of a battleship.

"How can it be customary?" Danchekker challenged. "The department is new. The division itself is barely six months old."

"The precedent derives from UNSA Corporate standard procedures, which predate the new organizational structure and have not been changed." Ms. Mulling's eyes moved up and down to take in his full length. "What on earth are you doing in those?" she demanded before Danchekker could respond. Following her gaze, he looked down at his feet. To save time getting to a black-tie dinner that evening which he had been unable to evade, he was already wearing evening dress underneath his lab coat—except for his shoes, which were of white, rubber-soled canvas.

"What do they look like?" he riposted. "They are popularly referred to, I believe, as sneakers."

"I know. But why are you wearing them with evening dress?"

"Because they are comfortable, of course."

"You can hardly appear at the Republican Society dinner like that, Professor."

The light glinted of Danchekker's spectacles and teeth. "Madam, I have no intention of doing so. I shall be changing them before I depart. Do you wish me to produce my patent leather pair from the closet and show them to you as proof?"

"That won't be necessary, thank you. But such a combination wouldn't be appropriate for the review meeting, I'm afraid. After all, both the deputy financial comptroller and the executive vice-president of planning will be attending."

Danchekker stood before the screen, seeming to crouch in the attitude of some scrawny bird of prey, his lab coat hanging from his hunched shoulders like a vulture's wings and his fingers curling by his sides like talons, as if he were about to pounce on the terminal and tear it to pieces.

"Very well," he granted, finally conceding. "Would you kindly arrange for the agenda, and whatever figures I might need, to be ready for me to collect?"

"I've already seen to it," Ms. Mulling replied.

* * *

Ten minutes later, Danchekker exploded through the door into Caldwell's office high up on the far side of the complex. "You've got to do something!" he insisted. "The creature isn't human. Can't you transfer her to one of the Martian bases or a deep-space mission probe? I cannot continue with my work under these conditions."

"Well, maybe it doesn't matter too much anymore," Caldwell said over his interlaced fingers. "Something else has come up, and—"

"Doesn't matter!" Danchekker stormed. "I'd sooner be married to one of the Gorgons. The possibility of retaining any modicum of sanity at all is utterly out of the question."

"I talked to Vic yesterday afternoon. He's probably been looking for you. There's—"

"The situation is preposterous. Now I'm even being subjected to dress inspections, for God's sake. I am adamant: She has to go."

Caldwell sighed. "Look, transferring her wouldn't be so simple. She was with Welland for thirteen years and came with his personal recommendation. He might be retired, but he still has a lot of pull though the old-buddy net. It could cause complications—especially at a time like this, when we've got all kinds of people looking for career opportunities ind slices of the new action."

"I have no interest in the adolescent attention-seeking antics and Machiavellian inanities of other people. If this woman—"

The door opened and Solomon Cail from the public-relations office appeared. "Oh . . . excuse me, Gregg. I didn't realize. Mitzi thought you were alone."

"I was away for a couple of minutes," Mitzi's voice called from outside.

"It's all right, Sol," Caldwell said. "Chris just stopped by. Is it something urgent?"

"As a matter of fact, it was Chris that I wanted to talk about," Cail said.

"Me?" Danchekker looked suspicious. "What about?"

"Senator Greeling's wife has been onto us again. It's this woman's discussion group that she runs. We've as good as promised them a tour of the alien-life-form labs, and she wants the director to look after them personally—mostly to impress her friends, I guess." Cail shrugged and showed a palm. "I know it's a drag and all that, Chris, but Greeling did a lot of work for us, getting the college sponsorship program through. We don't want to upset a friend like him if we can help it. She'd like an afternoon next month, maybe?"

"God help us," Danchekker moaned bleakly.

A call-tone sounded in the outer office. Mitzi answered, and a moment later Ms. Mulling's voice rang through. "Is Professor Danchekker there, by any chance? He has an imminent appointment, and it is most imperative that I find him."

And the Hunt appeared in the doorway on the far side of Mitzi's desk, carrying a sheaf of papers in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. "Hello, what's going on here? Ahah, Chris! Just the man."

"Sol, give us a minute, would you?" Caldwell said, at the same time relieving Cail of any choice in the matter by rising and coming around the desk to steer him back toward the outer office. He waved Hunt in and closed the door behind him, holding up a hand to stay Danchekker before Danchekker could start talking again. "Yes, I've been aware of the problem for some time, Chris. But we needed a tactful solution that wouldn't create more hassles than it cured."

Danchekker shook his head and waved a hand impatiently. "I'm being turned into a club treasurer. We've got enough tally clerks and ledger keepers who can take care of that kind of thing. I was under the impression that this establishment was supposed to be dedicated to the advancement of the sciences. I've seen more—"

"I know, I know," Caldwell said, nodding and raising a hand. "But something's come up that—"

"Now they want to make me a tour guide for women's tea-party outings. The whole thing has become farcical. It's a—"

"Chris, shut up," Hunt interrupted calmly. "Delegate the lot. That's what being a director is all about. You haven't got the time now, anyway. Gregg's got an off-planet assignment for the two of us."

"And not only—" Danchekker stopped abruptly and sent Hunt a questioning look. "Off-planet? Us?"

Caldwell grunted and nodded at Hunt to continue.

"On Jevlen," Hunt said. "There's a Thurien ship in orbit that's due to go back there shortly. Just think of it: a whole planetful of alien biology, literally light-years away. I think that a director of life sciences should be breaking new ground in the field, don't you?" But it was clear already that Danchekker needed no further convincing. His expression had the rapture of a revivalist seeing the light through the parting of the clouds.

They came out of Caldwell's office a few minutes later. "I think we're going to have to come up with some other arrangement," Caldwell said to Solomon Cail, who was still waiting. "Chris is going to be tied up on a priority project." He indicated the door of his office with a nod, and Cail disappeared inside.

Danchekker strode over to the terminal where Mitzi was still holding Ms. Mulling at bay. "Ah, there you are, Professor," the image on the screen began. "The review meeting—"

"Find Yamumatsu and get him there," Danchekker said. His voice rang with the newfound confidence of the reborn. "Also, contact the secretary of the Republican Society and give them my apologies, but I shall be unable to attend. Maybe Yamumatsu would like to stand in for me there, too."

For a few seconds Ms. Mulling was too shocked to reply; she stared back at him form the screen, open-mouthed, like a mother superior who had just heard the Pope proclaim his conversion to atheism. She recovered herself falteringly. "I don't understand. . . . What's happened? Is something wrong?"

"Wrong?" Danchekker replied lightly. "Not at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. Effective immediately, I shall be preoccupied with other matters. Have Grady come to my office, would you? Get out all the plans, charts, budgets, and other wastepaper that holds up the walls over there, and tell him he'll be deputized as from tomorrow morning. I"—Danchekker spread both hands in a careless throwing-away motion—"shall have flown."

Ms. Mulling looked confused. "What are you talking about, Professor Danchekker? There are urgent things to be attended to."

"I have no time for anything urgent. There are too many important things to be done instead."

"But—where are you going?"

"To Jevlen. Where else can a science of alien life be practiced?" Danchekker lifted a leg to dangle a sneaker-shod foot in view of the screen and waggled it provocatively. "Far, far away, Ms. Mulling. Beyond the horizons of imagination of the entire Republican Society, the verbal compass of a gaggle of senators' wives, and even, if you are capable of comprehending such a thing, beyond the reaches of the sacred UNSA Corporate Procedure Manual."

"Jevlen? Why? What are you going to do there?"

But Danchekker wasn't listening. Hunt and Mitzi could hear him singing tunelessly to himself as he ambled away down the corridor beyond the open door.

"Far, far away. Far, far away . . ."

 
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