A Beautiful Friendship — Snippet 07


“But it looks like whoever — or whatever — is behind it is starting to take more of it, and I think at least some people are worried the thieves might start branching out into stuff besides celery. Besides, like Mom says, an awful lot of it seems to be being taken out of the experimental greenhouses. In fact it looks like most of the reported incidents — the ones where people have actually noticed the celery disappearing — are coming out of the experimental plots. And if that keeps up or spreads to some of the other experimental farms’ plots, it could screw up some of the long-term research projects. So in the last few T-months, people have been getting more serious about figuring out what’s going on and stopping it. Besides, it’s a challenge!”


“Getting more serious?” her dad repeated, and she shrugged.


“Well, they started out simple. Given where the celery’s been disappearing from, most people figure whatever’s taking it can’t be too big, since it would have to squeeze into some pretty narrow places. A couple of people suggested setting traps, but the Forestry Service knocked that one on the head in a hurry because of the Elysian Rule.”


Her expression sobered, and so did her father’s. The Elysian Rule had been adopted over a thousand years before, after a disastrous clutch of mistakes had devastated the ecology of the colony world of Elysian. It absolutely forbade the use of lethal measures against a complete unknown without evidence that whatever it was posed a clear physical danger to humans, and no administration on a planet in the early stages of settlement would even consider its violation without a reason far more compelling than the minuscule economic loss thefts of celery represented.


“Since we don’t know what’s actually taking the celery, we can’t be sure how to set a nonlethal trap for it,” Stephanie said. “That didn’t keep some people from wanting to go ahead with traps, anyway, but Chief Ranger Shelton wasn’t about to let them get away with that!”


She grinned in obvious approval of the chief ranger’s stance, then continued.


“So they tried alarms and sensors. Since everybody figures we’re dealing with some sort of local critter, they decided to try simple tripwires connected to lights and remote cameras first, but that didn’t work. Whatever is actually snatching the stuff, either it doesn’t spend a lot of time on the ground or else it’s really good at spotting tripwires.”


She paused, brown eyes narrowed thoughtfully, then looked back at her father.


“I think they’re right that it’s probably something local. Something small, I bet, and really, really sneaky. But what I can’t figure out, is why something from Sphinx would be eating celery of all things.”


“I can think of several possible reasons,” her father replied. “Don’t forget, one of the things that made the Manticore System so attractive to colonists despite Sphinx’s gravity is how similar all three if its planetary biosystems are to the one humanity evolved in.” His eyes darkened. “That’s probably the only reason the Plague could evolve in it and hit us so hard.”


He paused for a moment, then gave himself an almost apologetic shake and continued.


“Both Manticore and Sphinx use the same sugars our biochemistry does, and the local amino acids are pretty similar, as well. Sphinxian genes and chromosomes are actually a lot like terrestrial ones, too. I’m speaking in a general sense, of course, because there are at least as many differences as similarities. For example, the Sphinx equivalent of RNA forms double strands, not single, and it forms longer chains than anything we’ve found in terrestrial biology. Humans and the critters we tend to take with us when we colonize planets can eat Sphinxian plants and animals just fine, though — it just doesn’t give us everything we need, like most of the essential vitamins, so we have to supplement it. Which is one reason your mom and I fuss at you about eating your vegetables, now isn’t it?”


He glowered at her, and she grinned again.


“Anyway, my point is that there are quite a few things growing here on Sphinx that humans have decided are tasty. We like the way they taste, even if they don’t have all the food values we need. So I don’t see any reason to assume some Sphinxian animal wouldn’t find celery a real delicacy.”


“Um.” Stephanie considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “Okay, I guess I can see that. Although the thought that anyone would feel that way about celery is kind of hard to accept.


“But what I was saying is that whatever it is, it’s small and sneaky, and it doesn’t go anywhere near tripwires. So they decided to try motion sensors, but that didn’t work too well, either. There are so many small critters running around Sphinx, like the chipmunks, that the motion sensors kept going off all the time. They tried dialing their sensitivity down, so they’d only go off for something bigger than a chipmunk, but then whatever’s stealing the celery started getting past them again. So then they tried setting infrared barriers just around the greenhouses themselves, but that isn’t working either.”


“I thought I remembered reading somewhere that at least a couple of alarms had gone off,” her father said thoughtfully, and she nodded.


“Yes, but whatever’s behind this, it seems to like bad weather. My data search couldn’t nail down the weather conditions when all the robberies took place. For one thing, sometimes the people filing the report couldn’t pin down the time any closer than a day or two. I mean, most people have better things to do than stand around in a greenhouse counting celery plants to make sure none of ’em have disappeared. No wonder they don’t always notice immediately when one of them takes missing! But almost all the raids I could check the weather on took place when it was snowing, or during a thunderstorm, or at least when it was raining pretty heavily even for Sphinx. And all of them — all the ones I could nail down, at least — happened at night, too.”


“So whatever it is, it’s probably nocturnal, and it only comes out when it rains or snows? It’s smart enough to use bad weather for cover?”


“That’s what it looks like to me, anyway.”


“And would it happen that you’ve shared this particular insight with any of the other investigators trying to figure out what’s going on?” her father inquired politely.


“Gosh!” Stephanie widened her eyes at him. “I guess it must’ve slipped my mind, somehow.”


“That’s what I thought.” Her father shook his head with a long-suffering expression, and Stephanie laughed.


“Anyway,” she continued, “they have had a couple of cameras go off, and something tripped the alarms on one of the experimental farms over in Long Grass, but the weather was so bad they didn’t get anything. Well, one of the cameras in Seaview got some really nice holos of snowflakes, but that wasn’t much use. All of them were motion sensor-controlled, but with no pictures, all anyone’s really sure about was that it was bigger than a chipmunk because that’s where the filters were set.”


Her dad nodded in understanding. Sphinxian “chipmunks” didn’t look a lot like Meyerdahl’s (or, for that matter, Old Terra’s) chipmunks, although they filled much the same ecological niche. The burrow-dwelling marsupials were six-limbed and only a very little smaller than a terrestrial Chihuahua, and they were about as ubiquitous as a species got. Fortunately, they were also timid, unlike their slightly smaller arboreal cousin, the equally ubiquitous (and much more destructive) wood rat.


“But the thing I noticed about all of those,” Stephanie went on in a satisfied tone, “was that even when one of the motion sensor alarms was set off, the celery thief still got through and got away with his celery without setting off any of the infrared alarms closer to the greenhouses themselves.”


She paused, looking at her father expectantly, and he took a thoughtful sip of coffee, then nodded.


“You’re thinking about what you and I discussed a couple of weeks ago, aren’t you, Steph?” he said with a smile of approval.


“Yep.” Stephanie smiled back at him. “I remembered what you said about that report about wood rats’ eyes. If Dr. Weyerhaeuser’s right and they do use a lot more of the lower end of the spectrum than human eyes do, then something like a wood rat might be able to actually see an infrared beam and stay out of it.” Her smile turned into a grin. “You’re always telling me to analyze a problem carefully before I jump into trying to solve it. Sounds to me like some other people should have been taking your advice, too!”


“Well, let’s be fair here, Steph. Dr. Weyerhaeuser’s report only came out in October. It’s not like people have had a long time to think about it or put two and two together yet for something like this.”


She nodded in agreement, but she’d also heard the approval in his voice for the way she’d put “two and two together.”


“Anyway,” she went on, waving at the partially assembled hardware spread down the workbench’s length, “what I’m doing is putting together some ultraviolet sensors. We’ve got Mom’s experimental greenhouse right here, and she’s got some of the celery from that genetic development program growing in it. I figure we’ve already got the bait, so maybe we should try the other end of the spectrum and see if we don’t get a little bit luckier than the folks in Long Grass and Seaview.” She gave him her very best wheedling smile. “Wanna help?”