H’a’nola floated along in the strong current, gently jostled by the turbulence as he rested for a few moments. Weak tendrils of sunlight refracted through the eddies above glinted around him, creating a muted cacophony of blues and pale greens that played across his spherical surface.
Like all of the males, he had spent the long winter deep in the atmosphere. Away from the light. Away from the warmth. Away from the food. Alone.
The chittering of newborns far above had roused him from his winter lassitude, aching with hunger in the numbing cold. He welcomed the sounds that announced the end of his long isolation. Weak from his long fast, he struggled to inflate his float bladder and slowly rose, being careful to avoid collisions with other ascending males.
As he rose, strengthening shafts of sunlight filtering down reassured him; he had survived the winter. He willed himself past exhaustion and continued his climb. Now would be the time to feed, regain his lost mass, and reunite with his mate.
Eventually reaching the altitude where the tan’ko 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 shut down for so long, but then tore off large fronds with surging gusto as his hunger overran his caution.
Finally sated, at least for a while, he stretched his muscles and flexed his skin, preparing to call to his mate. A few other males had already begun their calls; the sounds reverberated around him.
Undulations spread across his surface as he sent out waves of sound. His entire body vibrated to produce the complex series of changing tones and harmonics that his mate, Cali’tan, could recognize as his unique voice. When she responded with her own part in their shared song they would find each other. After their long separation she might be far away. He was eager to start the journey.
As he finished calling, he flattened himself into a disk lying horizontally in the rippling atmosphere so he could listen for a response, his surface a mottled grey except for bright yellow at the fringe and seventeen radial blue stripes.
He hoped for a response from her soon. Winter had been long and he missed her.
Captain John Bowles walked into the cramped space that had been set aside for the biology lab, his footsteps masked by the hum and clanking of the ship. In a deep baritone he asked, "Dr. Thomas, how is your research coming along?"
Dr. Jillian Thomas jumped at his sudden appearance. In the confines of what had surely been a storage space before being assigned to her, the only place for him to stand was practically on top of her. She leaned away from the large man looming over her.
He continued, "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. Or at least larger."
"That’s quite alright. My grant came through late. I’m very 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 just junior faculty, she knew, bad accommodations and small grants arriving late would be her lot.
"I wish I had been able to get down here earlier to see how you’re doing. Overseeing the mineral surveys has absorbed all of my time. I haven’t had a single moment to drop by to check on what’s happening with your charming ball of gas."
The ‘charming ball of gas’ was the sole gas planet in the system and, as the only place in the system that harbored life, the focus of Jillian’s work. The rest of the ship’s passengers were all focused on the rocky planets where they could establish the mining operations that would pay for the trip. She had been lucky to get a ride for herself and a graduate student.
"The planet is just getting into the summer season when the young are born. Male and female adults have been separated over the winter, but will be forming mating pairs as the summer progresses. We’ve started monitoring them with the acoustic probes that you launched for us. We’ll be listening as the males vocalize to attract females."
"So it’s like birds singing in the spring? How interesting. I do hope the probes left behind by the previous survey have been of use. I believe my crew was able to recover almost all of them for you."
"Thank you. They were very thorough."
The Captain smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. "We’re quite happy to have you along. Please drop by to see me about anything you might need."
She watched the Captain leave, removed her black rimmed glasses, and rubbed her eyes. She hoped he wouldn’t become a problem on this trip. The work here was too important for her to allow any distractions. No longer young, although certainly not yet old, the university she worked for was her third such institution. She had been forced to leave her previous two positions after failing to obtain tenure. The time for that decision at her current school was rapidly approaching.
H’a’nola was high in the atmosphere, well above the safe altitude where tan’ko grew. He would not be able to stay here for long, but needed a good look at the sun and the stars. It was as he had feared. A deep current had taken him far to the north over the winter. The sound channels ran east and west so communication from the north to the south would be difficult. That would explain why he had not heard from Cali’tan. He was lucky that at least 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 began the trek southward. He would pass the information along to any other southern males he encountered on the way.
Jillian looked up to see Captain Bowles standing in the doorway, his third visit in a week. She forced a smile and said "Captain, nice of you to drop by. The mating season is underway and we’re getting good recordings."
"So these things are flying around trying to find their mates?"
"Floating or swimming, really. Not flying. The planet has a dense atmosphere. The animals store lightweight gasses in a bladder so they’re able to float. They move more like fish than birds. Not fast, but they can cover great distances."
"Their mate seeking can’t be a very quick process."

"It isn’t. They make preliminary contact at the beginning of the season after the young are born and the males have come back up from hibernation. The herd becomes quite spread out over the winter, so moving towards each other will take many of them the rest of the summer. Their main activity now is feeding and putting on weight to survive next winter."
"Well, then, that should leave you a fair amount of free time."
Jillian suppressed a shudder at the implication. "Unfortunately, no. We’ll be working on the data collection and analysis continuously. It’s essential we keep up with it."
"I see. Well, be sure to contact me for anything you need."
Jillian breathed a sigh of relief at the Captain’s departure. The last thing she needed was someone taking up time she should be working. She turned back to her screen.
Ha’a’nola and Cali’tan had created their song many cycles earlier, and he thought of 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 would not be able to create a song that was worthy of his ambition, he continued working on his ideas until he realized that most of the other juvenile males had already started. Quite a few of them were already 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 her own variation, the harmony was perfect and he had his mate.
Brad Kelenov stared dully at the wavering lines on the screen, watching as the computer sorted out signals from the various acoustic probes and began identifying individuals. As Jillian’s graduate student, he was assigned the boring task of monitoring the instruments. The tones, well below the range of human hearing, could only be processed on the machine. ‘Nothing new here. This mode of communication has been seen with other species, including some on old Earth’, he wrote in his notes. ‘The natural sound channels and the very low frequencies let these things communicate over huge distances. That’s how the herd is able to stay in touch. The atmospheric bands in the atmosphere are like Jupiter in the Sol system and affect the sound propagation. Sounds travel well along latitudes, but poorly in the north-south direction. That may cause the animals 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.
He continued to watch for a while. The acoustic signatures of two more individuals were isolated and classified. He yawned and leaned back in the chair. 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 subsisting in a harsh environment. He thought of them as mindless animals, not very interesting, but different enough from species that had already been studied for him to get a dissertation and a degree. Not a brilliant start to his career, it would have to be enough for now.
As he travelled southward, H’a’nola began to encounter groups of females and their offspring. The females carrying young stayed in the upper layers over the winter where they could feed on tan’ko that survived from the previous summer. They were all in much better shape than the males who had fasted through the winter. H’a’nola 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 tan’ko as they fed. Their clumsy, fledgling attempts at movement amused him. Brief flashes of color, in simple combinations, were the first attempts at communication by the newly spawned. Tan’ch’lee, the older permanently joined couples, hovered around the young, making sure all of the children had an opportunity to eat.
H’a’nola was looking forward to seeing his and Cali’tan’s newborns. He had been certain that their last mating had been successful, so there should at least a dozen of their offspring, but they would be close to her.
None of their progeny had yet survived their first two years to reach adulthood. But he and Cali’tan had many more cycles of breeding before they became Tan’ch’lee and produced no more young.
The long journey south was making him hungry so, 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 tan’ko.
"How are your alien fish coming along?"
Jillian closed her eyes for a moment and calmed herself. Captain Bowles’ visits had become more frequent and more intrusive, disrupting her work and annoying her. Still, she needed his forbearance, no, his support to conduct her research. "They’re much more complex organisms than fish. The complex vocalizations they use to locate each other over long distances are quite interesting."
"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 officer’s mess for quite a while. You need to get out of your lab once in a while and have some fun."
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.
H’a’nola continued his trek. He and Cali’tan were southerners, by her choice. Although he agreed that the color of the light was most pleasant down there, he had never been as picky about the taste of the local tan’ko as she was. Still, she was his mate and he would go wherever she wanted.
He had 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. He hoped she was not worried about him.
Jillian had to admit to herself that the officer’s mess had a much more pleasant atmosphere than the crew cafeteria where she normally took her meals. The lighting wasn’t as harsh and the noise level was lower. It was less crowded and with better table settings, too. 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 way out here? 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 about 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 they have a two year mating cycle. It’s 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 far from the star. After the summer mating season, the males hibernate for the winter very deep and below the level where the plants grow. They shut down, not eating for the whole season. And the winters are very long. The pregnant females stay higher up and survive over the winter on the plants left from the summer. The next summer the young are born and the males come back up to rejoin the females. That’s where we are now. Then in the second winter the males and females hibernate together in the deep so the juveniles can have the food. The adults go back up the following spring and the mating season starts all over again."
"That is odd. I grew up on Farrago. Nearly circular orbit and no axial tilt, so no seasons to speak of. Mating season never really stops. What are you hoping to learn about these things?"
"We started out expecting to get at the standard characteristics. Average size, life span, fecundity, mortality rates, mating behavior, things like that. Getting the data on this complicated mating cycle is a real bonus."
Brad entered the room quickly and hustled over to Jillian. "Dr. Thomas, I think you need to come down to the lab and see this."
Jillian pretended to be annoyed at the interruption. "Something in the acoustic data?"
Brad nodded vigorously and turned to leave. Jillian excused herself and strolled out after her student.
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