"You've got our specimen then?" Mycroft didn't really need to ask. It couldn't be anything else in that lab, under that sheet, not with the pool of water positioned so carefully beneath the operating table.
And yet, on another level, he needed to. It had been so long waiting for this that the thing was legend. He'd never truly believed that anyone would get it back to Earth at all, let alone in his lifetime, for him to work on.
"Take a look." The other scientist's face told the answer, even as he nodded invitingly to the sheet. Shears might be controlling his excitement for the sake of professionalism, but he was only barely managing it.
Tentatively, Mycroft twitched back the sheet and for a moment the pair regarded the specimen in silence. The huge head, the fearsome teeth, the impenetrable exoskeleton. It was alien in every sense of the word, and a long minute passed before they moved to don gloves and masks, switching on the recorder which would log what they did here.
The first cut was a nervous one. After so many stories about what these things could do, they weren't about to take risks, and Shears barely scratched the deep black of the surface. His hands were shaking, and they looked at each other for a long moment before he tried again. This time blood welled slowly in the cut, and rolled down the body to eat through the table. The water below hissed as the first drops began to fall, quickly neutralised.
"Tough exoskeleton," Mycroft said, surprised at the steadiness of his own voice. "Perhaps to ensure protection from predators on its home world?"
Shears was staring at the beast, caught between revulsion and wonder. "Predators? What sort of thing could hunt something like that?"
There was nothing that hunted anymore here, at least not in the conventional manner. The People had seen to that. Smaller predators had been defeated, or died when they could not compete with the People for food. Larger predators were hunted, ruthlessly, in packs until no more walked the earth. Now, there were only the People, and the Thinking Food.
"Huh! Now, that's odd," Shears said out loud, probing only cautiously even now when most of the blood had drained away.
"What is?" Mycroft craned to see. "I don't see anything which shouldn't be there."
"You don't see anything that should be either," Shears said flatly. "Where are the reproductive organs?"
"It was speculated that they might reproduce like ants," Mycroft said. "Maybe the males are separate. This one could be neuter."
"Okay, so where are the digestive organs then?" Shears demanded. "It's a predator. A big predator. It should have a great big digestive system to support its great big self when it's eating great big hunks of meat." The professional language was long gone now. Maybe they could re-record later, script a version where they sounded less than shell-shocked. It wasn't as though the Company was going to ever allow this report near anyone who might peer-review it. "All of this talk of aliens. Has anyone reported any samples of alien dung?"
They hadn't, Mycroft knew. He knew most of the database of specimens by heart. "Maybe they excrete differently."
"Maybe." Shears sounded doubtful though. "Any meat-eater though, should have a whole lot of stuff to excrete. I'm not seeing any appropriate orifices." He eyed the specimen. "Let's have a look at that head."
Of course, the People did not eat. Not as adults. Eating was for the young -- the pupa and the half-grown with skins to shed before they had reached their final size. Queens were the exception, but then queens were needed to produce the young. They needed that extra energy.
Adults defended the young, and brought food for them. If they needed sustenance, they drank blood --a quick source of energy, and easily digested -- for that was all that was needed for the short time they lived after reaching maturity. An adult existed, not to be a drain on the People's resources, but to protect and provide. Thus the People were ever young and fit, and an adult did not need to worry about saving its own short life when it entered a fight.
Not that there were many fights. Not now. Who should fight them? The Thinking-Food? Knives and projectile weapons made little impact on the People, though certainly they might think that they tried. Only the People's ability to plan saved them from extinction, controlling the hatching of their own eggs so as not to eat away their own food supply. Allow too many to hatch and become hungry pupa, or hungrier half-grown and demand might outstrip supply and then what? Fighting each other for food?
No. This was better. This was the civilised way. When there was food available to them, eggs hatched. When there was enough food and a suitable host, a queen pupa might be allowed to implant. In such a way, the People ensured that competition for food was not needed.
But now the Thinking Food were building something, and the People watched them, as they watched everything. They thought they kept their secret safe, kept the People at bay with their fragile spears and flimsy arrows, but the People watched, and waited to see what it was to be this time. Something that could kill them? Unlikely. Only the Swarm could kill them, and the Thinking Food has little to do with that.
"A head inside a head." Mycroft's voice was wondering, even as Shears examined the lethal-seeming teeth, detailing them into the recorder. "What purpose does that cause? A scare tactic perhaps, to dissuade predators with the larger one?"
"There you go again with the predators," Shears said, breaking off his commentary. "I'm still struggling to imagine the beast that could think of this as dinner. Besides, we know they're functional. You've read the reports, haven't you?"
Of course, he had. Everything from the historical detail on the first discovery of the creatures, to the most recent reports of how they had attempted to implant a young queen into Ellen Ripley, the woman who had been lost and found, and lost again on the prison planet Fiorina 161, the place which had yielded this, most recent, specimen.
They said that she was not lost forever, even now, and somehow Mycroft did not doubt it. The Company had ways of ensuring that things they wanted always became theirs in the end. That, however, was a different team of scientists.
"It's odd," Shears said, interrupting his train of thought. "The teeth are certainly made for function, rather than display, but the larger head isn't created for eating."
"What?" Mycroft leaned in for a closer look, confused. "What do you mean?"
"There's no capacity to swallow," Shears said, patiently. "There's no throat in the larger head. It can bite, and tear.. but it can't swallow. And there are no teeth created for chewing -- the pieces of meat this thing would end up ripping off would choke it if it tried to eat them."
"Huh," Mycroft said, because he could think of no better response at that moment. "Huh. Well, I suppose that explains the lack of a digestive system."
"But nothing else," Shears said. "How does it live? Why does something like this even evolve?"
There was little to be done about the Swarm. There was no running from them, and no way to fight them. The little creatures were everywhere, buzzing about the People -- settling on their bodies, on their heads, in their mouths.
And it was that last which did the damage. The Swarm had mandibles too small and weak to pierce the flesh of The People, but their blood was as pure and strong an alkali as the People's was acid. It only took one -- crunched between teeth as they tore at the Thinking Food, or swallowed on reflex if they made it to the back of the throat. One was enough to kill, in the messiest way possible, alkali meeting acid.
After the explosion, the Swarm would land, the sacrifice of their fellow providing ready food for them. The flesh once protected by the impenetrable exoskeleton was opened up. So, the weapon which had once evolved to protect the People was now used against them.
There was no way to fight the Swarm. The only protection was to keep the smaller head, the head that was used for sustenance rather than for killing and capturing, tucked safely away.
"Wonder how they got off their planet," Shears said. "There's nothing that indicates much cerebral development here. No opposable thumbs, no signs it's evolved to civilization, only a very tiny brain.."
Mycroft shrugged. "Maybe they didn't. Maybe we came to them."
"Last of their kind?" For a moment, Shears' gloved hand stroked along the beast's jawline, almost affectionate. "You might be right. Which means that unless the Company succeeds in.. whatever it wanted doing with that Ripley woman, we won't see their like again."
"You think it's over?" Mycroft found himself caught between relief and sadness at the thought. Relief because he had read the reports, knew what this creature could do to human flesh and blood given the chance; sadness at an ending which seemed to come before he'd truly had time to even begin learning.
"It's over," Shears confirmed, sounding grim about it himself. "So maybe we'll never know the answers to our questions. A pity."
Finally, the Thinking Food's contraption was finished. It did not go unnoticed, the huge crowd of them which suddenly gathered in the area, those on the outskirts eying the People as though they might stand a chance should they choose to attack.
But the People watched. They were sated, for now. Their young were fed. These ones would wait for another day.
There was a flash of bright light before the metal cone left the earth, travelling almost too fast for the eye to follow until it disappeared up, out of sight. A cheer went up from the Thinking Food.
The People turned away, disinterested. Another of those things. It was of no concern to them if the Thinking Food tried to flee. If there were Thinking Food on board then there would also be the People, hidden away, young and developing but ready to burst out when they had grown enough.
There always were.