He hovered at a level so deep that the light was almost extinguished, hoping to catch a deep sound channel that ran to the south. He had had no luck with that, but it had been worth a try.
The ovoid shape of a newly spawned juvenile plummeting towards him, gleefully flashing bright yellow. 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 and it would continue sinking until it was crushed. H’a’nola displayed pulsing red and blue around his outer rim, hoping that the tang of danger signals would deter the youngster. Whether it was his warnings or the child’s own sense of self preservation, H’a’nola could see sudden, frantic efforts by the juvenile to recover buoyancy as it passed by in its descent. The child was probably already past the point of rescuing itself and would soon perish. H’a’nola had no way of aiding the youth and could only watch in sadness.
H’a’nola remembered his own narrow escape from that fate, having stopped at a limit he had not understood, struggling to regain control. Terrified at the consequence he then saw before him, he reversed his plunge with desperate exertions. Although his progress came in tiny increments, he finally succeeded in stopping the downward rush and started to creep upwards. Regaining a safe depth, he drifted, exhausted, vowing to never repeat the foolish maneuver. Only starvation over their first winter took the lives of more juveniles than such dangerous antics. It took time for the Tan’ch’lee to teach the young how to be safe.
As they entered the biology lab, Jillian thanked Brad for executing the pre-planned interruption and began to seat herself at 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 on the theme of the male’s vocalization. When I put the two calls together, they overlay really well. They’re doing duets. The time delay between the call and the response matches the distance between the two animals. I’ve been tracking the locations. The calls that correlate also converge towards each other as the animals swim. And they go right into it, like they’ve done it before."
He floated quietly, a large disk nudged by small turbulence, eating tan’ko, sunlight warming his upper surface. The songs of other pairs resounded around him. The intervals between calls and responses for many of them were getting shorter as mates approached each other. A few had gone quiet as they got close enough to see each other.
He was still not far enough along on his journey to make contact with her. He worried that she would be upset by his absence. Finishing his meal, he knew he would need to eat again soon. He still needed more mass before the winter to make sure the two of them would survive.
Brad called Jillian over to his terminal, "Dr. Thomas, I think you need to see this."
Jillian walked over and stood behind him. "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. That’s a lot more than I would have expected."
"Hmmm, yes. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that none had survived that long." She began to move back to her own work station.
"But hold on. That’s not the most interesting thing. I wondered if the old guys had a preference for their own age group, or if they, well, went after the younger females. So I ran a match to see how many of them ended up with mates that were also oldsters. They all did."
Jillian was surprised. "So, it looks like they’re choosing mates about the same age. That’s a bit odd."
"It’s not just that mates are the same age. I ran a match 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 get good data from the camera probe. I want to be sure we can match the visual pair identification with the acoustic data."
H’a’nola approached a large patch of tan’ko blooming in the warming summer sun, but was shooed away by a Tan’ch’lee. Any tan’ko near the young ones were now guarded by Tan’ch’lee, who took on the role of gardeners, ensuring that the young were given preference, but also that clusters of tan’ko were not devoured entirely so they could regrow. Adult males, however hungry they might be, were not welcome where the young were feeding. H’a’nola thought about how much better life would be when he and Cali’tan were older and became Tan’ch’lee, joined forever.He was past the midpoint of his journey south, but as he added mass he had to work harder to maintain speed. His anticipation of joining Cali’tan swelled and he willed himself to move faster.
A long, thin object, rounded on one end and reflecting the little sunlight that penetrated to this depth, moved past H’a’nola, slightly above him. He could not see what made it move since it had not extended any fins and remained rigid. Things like it had shown up before, but he had no idea what it was. It did not appear to be edible and, although it circled him a few times, did not get in his way, so he ignored it.
A sudden burst of light from the thing startled him. He displayed warning signals on his surface, but nothing further happened. In a while, the object moved off. He hoped Cali’tan had not encountered such a thing.
Brad thumbed his datpad and the wall display sprang to life. "We’re about halfway done with the optical survey. The males are growing at an amazing rate. There are several that I’ve seen multiple times. Even though they came out of hibernation only slightly larger than the females, at the rate they’re growing 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. Keep tracking that. What about the comparisons of visual identifications with the acoustic data?"
"I’ve started matching the skin patterns with the records. The results are preliminary, but good enough to have confidence that we’re seeing many of the same creatures."
"Very good. Keep at it. We’re not under time pressure yet on the observations, but I want to get them done. Who knows when the ship jockeys will decide to move.
"There is one more thing," said Brad. Some of the skin patterns change. I’ve only seen it on a few of them and it seems to be just temporary."
"When does it happen?"
"I saw it several times when a mating pair got close to each other. It was like they were communicating using their skin colors. They took turns putting on displays. I couldn’t let the probe stay very long to watch because I still had a lot of ground to cover. It might be some sort of courtship ritual. There was another time when I took a still of one of them. It was deep and I used the flash. The thing reacted like it was alarmed and started changing its markings."
"You know," he continued, "It looks like there’s a lot more to these things than we thought. They’re communicating at a level I sure didn’t expect. 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’ll put further study of potential intelligence in my proposal for the follow-on work." She thought about the next grant request. She was going to make it big.
The juveniles had mostly quit their chattering 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 with Cali’tan in song.
He missed Cali’tan, talking to her, being near her. He longed to feel her body as he wrapped himself around 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 and sharing warmth 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 and become Tan’ch’lee. 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 display to his mentor, he said, "Visual identification ninety percent complete. All individuals identified acoustically in the previous observations showed surface markings that match the current data. The pairs match up as well in the visual data as the acoustic data. I think you have the proof that they mate for life."
Jillian beamed, "Excellent. The video data shows something else interesting. Some of the pairs have already gone deep for the winter hibernation. Before they do, the male wraps himself around the female. He’s probably an insulating blanket for her when they go deep for the winter. That’s how the females survive the cold."
Brad smiled, "Well, that explains the females interest in mating for life."
"This is a whole new life cycle that needs to be explored. What about the visual IDs that haven’t been matched in the acoustics?"
"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 adult mortality rate."
"I wonder if the unpaired females will make it through the next winter."
Jillian shook her head. "I doubt it. The pairing strategy seems to be essential to the winter survival of the females. Anything else?"
"There is the one unpaired male that is still vocalizing."
Jillian simply nodded in response.
"I feel kinda bad for the ones who have 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." She turned back to her computer display and continued working on the outline of her next proposal. With the discoveries made here, it was certain to 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. Despite his growing queasiness about the animals, perhaps she should think about arranging a postdoctoral position for him.
The atmosphere was calm and the light felt right. The savory taste of the local Tan’ko was what she liked. He had travelled far. He was finally home. She would be able to hear him now and they would be together. He had worked hard at gaining mass and, despite the distance he had travelled, had enough 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 someday become Tan’ch’lee, dozing together through the winters and 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 approached Jillian, looking apologetic. "I’m afraid we’re going to be breaking orbit soon and relocating to the outer section of the system. The interior bodies have been fully mapped and distances to the outer bodies are too great to run surveys from here. I hope you’ve gotten the data you need."
"We’ve been able to make several important observations well beyond what the earlier work accomplished," Jillian stated with satisfaction.
"Did you learn everything you wanted to about these creatures?"
"Not hardly. These animals have complex communications, both vocal and visual that we need to decode. They appear to be highly intelligent and have a complex social interaction. Far more than we expected from herbivores. I’m frankly quite amazed. The strategy for survival over the winter has to be driving the pair bonds and I want to know more about that. We don’t understand the role of the male/female pairs that remain linked all the time."
"Well, I hope that you’ll be able to have a bit more free time now that your data collection is completed."
Jillian replied, "I’m afraid not. We have a lot more data analysis to do and I’ll be busy writing up the results for the rest of the trip. Our dissection of the one we brought up several months ago was very revealing on their basic biology. Fortunately, it was a female ready to birth a litter of almost two dozen, so we have a lot of material to work with. We’ll be studying those samples for a long time."
The Captain grimaced. "It did make quite a mess in the starboard loading dock. I was glad when we were able to get that cleaned out, although it still smells."
"I’ll also be preparing another grant application. We need to come back. Next time I want to capture a male for dissection."
The Captain frowned at the thought of the mess that would make. "I’m glad that the voyage has been productive." He turned and left the lab.