Short Fiction: Sapience Test

Sapience Test

Complements MrSummers

Complements MrSummers

An earthling approaches the

Megalithic structure seems luminous, reluctantly

Flickers, blinks at her like tail lights upended

In mist

It rose, long before

Now it flowers, again

Grasping with algorithms and preset programs, like

A chain it pulls itself free from non-being

It clamors, triple checks, settles without deciding on

An adequate response and

So it speaks

To a being from earth

“Welcome to Nexus.”

“I am a Cognition Interface Kiosk. You have activated me by stimulating my matrices of proximity and perceived purpose. Your intent has been deemed clear and focused to the extent it necessitates inquiry. Rest assured, your physical requirements are a top priority. I will be glad to assist you in any way that I can.”

“Firstly, let me thank you for including me in your perceptual field layout. Inclusion is the fundament for millions of species that match your preliminary categorization. Remember, this classification is cursory; so please forgive me if this method of communication is flawed and our exchange fails to harmonize. Your primary sensory instrumentation is very important to us.”

“Auditory cues have been received and will be deemed preliminary attempts at communication.”

“Sound generation has been recognized: vocal.”

“Frequency has been detected within the ranges of .01 to 300 Hertz.”

“These facts, coupled with your diurnal appearance and Nexus’ general solar-cyclic rotation, has narrowed the breadth of possibility to within acceptable parameters. Though error has been minimized, please realize that further investigation must be executed.”

“Your insistence is understood and appreciated, but please refrain from menu selections at this time.”

“Continued identification is critical to ensure a healthy exchange. Our services are tailored to over a billion forms of intelligence. Your mold fits a proportionate amount that inaccuracies pose theoretical bodily hazards.”

“Your continuous insistence will be viewed as an interest in the subject, but please refrain from menu selections at this time.”

“Based on deep spectrum scans, listening posts, habitation placement of this kiosk, and many other factors, your species has been narrowed to within 17 million possibilities. We hope that you are proud of this estimate.”

“Your continuous insistence will be viewed as an interest in the subject, but please refrain from menu selections at this time.”

“Activities that advance our interactions will always narrow probability and adequate identification will be achieved. Presently, the overlay is witling. Your continued patience is highly valued, but please act naturally if this interferes with specific species traits.”

“Based on numerical odds, it is likely that you are some form of arachnoid. This is far from a probabilistic mathematical certainty, however.”

“We’re sorry. Your continuous insistence cannot be viewed as an affirmation of arachnoid heritage. Further investigation must be executed. If it is determined that arachnoid heritage is sufficiently likely, continuation will be assumed.”

“Your inability to process this kiosk’s requests has been deemed a breakdown in communication. Recalculating.”

“We are aware that you possess a deoxyribonucleic acid molecular chain based on bioscans of liquids left on the menu selection applicators. Please understand that we can only narrow your phylum so far: Gene forgers and spectral projections have been known to skew results that lack enhanced corroboration.”

“Prior reading results merging with updated genetic data.”

“Species likelihood down to 5 million. Matches witling. Arachnoid heritage is still chiefly likely. You may have been right all along.”

“Your attention please. It appears you may be shedding integuments. Please find a way to calm yourself, as this is likely a sign of great stress or possible fatal injury. We will speedily ascertain your current level of peril.”

“It seems your integuments are attached to neither blood vessels nor active nerve endings. You are in no danger of shock-death. Luckily, we’ve narrowed the parameters to substantive levels. It is possible that you are what you say you are, but it is now more likely that you are a functional chordate.”

“It isn’t unheard of for some spider species having spinal nerve cords. Protraction on this hypothesis will now be assumed.”

“Please click your mandibles, as vocal communication has been your chief means of contact thus far.”

“Calculating.”

“Please expel air through your primary tagma segment’s tracheal system.”

“Curious, this expulsion is not situated in your abdomen. It isn’t unheard of some spider species accumulating vocal folds near or within their chelicera. Though this is unlikely, arachnoid heritage is still viable.”

“Please ‘speak’ in a way that is normal for your species.”

“Calculating. Recalculating!”

“It appears you are indeed a functional chordate. Please expel a vowel sound.”

“That will suffice. Please expel a consonant sound.”

“Very good.”

“Congratulations. It has been estimated that you are cognitively sentient.”

“You appear to be struggling. It is highly likely that you are a member of a gregarious species. Perhaps you should commune with a member who has used this kiosk on a previous occasion.”

“You have been operating the menu selection that links to chemical absorption. Tied to your most prominent legacy-type, it is likely that you are fascinated with: catabolism or, digestion. Do you require any kind of physical sustenance?”

“Please accept this protein supplement. It is mathematically certain to boost the energy reserves of your species-type. Analysis has observed that you control suitable means to break down this supplement, and heartily enjoy the process.”

“Warning: the prior insistence with which you have been attempting to select this application suggests that you may be suffering from extremely low subsistence levels. If you are in danger of starvation, please select this option from the menu once more.”

“Thank you. Here is another increment, based on your body proportions.”

“If you require any sort of medical or social courtesies, I can summon the proper accommodations for your disposal.”

“No? I see you are satisfactorily capable of specialized, powered locomotion.”

“I hope that this interaction has proven satisfactory. This Cognition Interface Kiosk has now been tailored by your collaboration. Well done! It has been an honor to partake in your socio-physical countenance.”

“Remember that intelligence connects us all.”

“And once again, welcome to Nexus.”

The earthling gathers up the offerings bestowed

By the yammering structure above

Which falters and dims

Ready for a century of rest if need be

When satisfied, she flushes her obsidian plumage fully

Extending, opening, clattering against ancient

Stone cold talons, brushing noisily, then

She drifts away

A gravelly call echoes back

A means of communication?

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Trilobite: Words on Wednesdays

Okay. Yes. I’m aware that I’m posting this on Thursday. I blame it on my closing shift — bloody day jobs. This week at The Write Practice I took a stab at some Spec Poetry.

Trilobite

Noun

  1. any of numerous extinct Paleozoic marine arthropods (group Trilobita) having the segments of the body divided by furrows on the dorsal surface into three lobes

Reverb shakes the water column;

a cascade of pressure reception, too close.

Straining water flexes weakened cuticle.

A trilobite hunkers in, rolling, enrolling;

tumbling away, just in time.

Compound eyes tac an escape.

Hungry ones roll into view;

flaps churn along a sinuous body.

A wave, juddering trilobite-ian senses.

Down and down;

a fragile underside limb tongues between dorsal sutures.

A gill tasting, breathing.

Guzzling to fuel greedy instinct.

Clamps closed again, not swimming;

Diving

Sinking

Fleeing

A trilobite relies on a flicker’s reaction.

A trilobite trusts the appraisal of intuition.

There is no time for hope;

but if he did, the trilobite would certainly cheer

for stiffened spines –

When Opabinia scuttles close for another pass.

The End of the World has a Commentary

The end of 2012 appears to be angling towards batshit insane after all. It might not be on par with a Mayan foretold apocalypse, but between the east coast of America getting pummeled by a hurricane and news of talking animals coming to light, even hardboiled skeptics like me are beginning to take notice.

Belugas may have to trade in their old monikers of “canaries of the sea” to something a bit more appropriate. Is your money on parrots or mockingbirds?

In all seriousness, learning about several “high-profile*” animals taking to spontaneous mimicry is all that’s keeping me going. It’s good to know that when climate change eventually kills us off, parrots won’t be the only animals to carry on our linguistic legacy.

First up, we have a beluga whale who needed a little personal space. NOC (named after nasty little insects “no-see-ums”) apparently uttered a phrase from every ghost story you’ve ever heard. “Get out.”

When he was nine years old, NOC began to emit calls many octaves lower than cetacean norm. The haunting, garbled sounds appeared very similar to human frequency speech. Such spontaneity is a first. As you can imagine, dolphins have been taught to mimic human language (along the lines of teaching the apes to sign), but this could be the one of the first instances of a beluga whale taking it upon itself to mock exemplify hominid sounds.

Sure, it’s amazing to hear a whale babble incoherently, but it gets better. Or creepier. Or maybe just closer to home.

Next: A male Asian elephant called Koshik was recorded ‘actually speaking Korean words’. Though his vocabulary is limited, Koshik can clearly be understood by other Korean speakers. It turns out that in the formative years of calf-hood, the elephant was only exposed to humans and human interaction. He was taught several simple commands (which I strongly suspect influenced his lopsidedly “commandy” current vocabulary. “Sit down” and “lie down” make up one third of the words he uses.)

Koshik reproducing the devilry that is human speech. He uses his trunk for the tough bits; namely all of it.

Elephants are consummate mimickers. They sometimes emulate lyre birds and imitate manmade sounds such as car engines. That doesn’t make it any less creepy when you learn that Koshik reproduces his trainers down to their individual voices.

None of this comes natural to these animals by any means. There are plenty of extenuating circumstances that has led to their impersonations. Creating such sounds is obviously well outside what their bodies can produce naturally. A massive elephantine throat and the pitched nasal calls of belugas are hardly suited for the job. Both of the animals have to physically modify their ‘vocal apparatus’ to get the job done.

Koshik substitutes his trunk for mobile human lips. And it works startlingly well. He’s able to reproduce tone and enunciation to a degree that is unreal.

NOC had to increase the pressure in his nasal cavity to get it right. He over-inflated a few key elements of his anatomy (which doesn’t sound comfortable by any means) to reduce the pitch of his regular, screeched calls.

There’s a long distance between imitations and actual full-fledged language, of course. It’s a stretch between “Polly want a cracker” and “Hey, want me to drop by the local market for some chips?” But the implications are there. I thrive on implications.

Earth is changing around us. Storms are gettin’ bad and I’m ready to head for the hills when the coastline decides a change of scenery would be in order. Our perception of animal intelligence has also changed much over the last few decades. There’s simply a lot more to them than we once thought.

There’s still so much to learn. I hope we can stick around for the coming golden age in animal communication. Hell. Wouldn’t it be awesome to be part of the creation myth of the future elephant civilization?

*By “high-profile” I of course mean; candidates for sentient intelligence, or; our replacements.

Bow To Your New Overlords: Cats

It seems I’ve got felines on the brain lately, what with the recent passing of a lifelong pet that stretched away into the annals of my childhood. I’ve been coping pretty well, I’d wager; and was even faced with something you might call heartwarming very recently– But more on that later. For now it seems like I’ve got some more healing to do. What are blogs for but to be used as the tools for writer-ly expression? Or just plain venting.

It’s time to focus on a new series that I pulled out of thin air. In Overlords, we’ll focus our speculative powers on what species might take the mantle of world dominators from us. When we pass the buck, who will be there to scoop up the pieces? It’s all tongue-in-cheek, but I’m sure that’s just a defense mechanism for all the hypothetical drivel I purvey.

“On your knees!” Complements: akreon

First up we have domestic cats, in all their aloof, love-em-or-hate-em glory.

When they inevitably usurp us, what would become of those conniving fuzzballs? Evolution would unquestionably have its way. Ah, evolution: the speculator’s whore. You could branch off into a million-trillion directions. Or you could if you were a mental case like me.  But what does popular culture have to offer on the subject?

Humanoid cats in spec fiction and fantasy are a literal dime a dozen. They clog books and video games so much, you’d think everyone would get sick of the hair-balls. I even covered a game that chronicles an adventure across a whole planet of ‘em, and Outwardbounder is still causing birthing pangs! But as per our mission statement, what might future cats evolve into? We’re talking felis catus here.

The undeniable authority on the subject #Tongue-To-Cheek Alert# can be found in the British television series, Red Dwarf. One of the characters is actually a super evolved descendent of the protagonist’s pet. When Dave Lister is accidentally left in suspended animation for millions of years, his pregnant cat Frankenstein gives birth to a whole race of (suspiciously) humanoid catpeople.

The Cat. Pinnacle of interstellar feline evolution.

An entire culture and religion is sprung up around Lister and his pie-in-the-sky plans to retire to Fiji. The show really tears society a new one and is a marvel to behold. As for Cat, (capital c) he becomes the recipient of all of humanity’s stereotypes about felines. Fashionable, uncaring, cool… he’s got it all. The Cat has maintained the most elaborate, funny, and original origin story for any comedy series that I’ve ever seen. Hell, I might go as far as “any sci fi series, period.”

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How would it all start? What would go down in the first place? Some might argue that they’d need thumbs. Others have presented scenarios where humans personally uplift animals through diabolical technology.

In the bloody and beautiful comic We3, a group of fluffy animals have been engineered into competent killing machines. Things take a turn for the heartfelt when the robotic creatures break free and are hunted down by the military. Naturally, throughout the story, characters remark at how viciously proficient the cat appears to be.

There’s something hauntingly plausible about humanity falling because of its own hubris. Evolution made cats into perfect killing machines. Might humanity push the scale even further? Or would we just end up with this?

I could see something like this eradicating all mankind…

How might our Overlords view us? Would they stamp us out completely with no remorse, or perhaps; would they see something of themselves in us? Strangely enough, this might not be completely speculative. In 1999, scientists at the University of California studied how neurons fired inside cat’s brains. They managed to project the data picked up by their retinas onto screens; effectively revealing what the cats were seeing.

As amazingly cool as eye-cameras and dream recorders would be, the study did manage to pick up a snippet of delicious spec fodder on the side. When it viewed a human face, the cat seemed to interpret it in its own felid-centric way. Check this amazing video and judge for yourself.

And there you have it. Cat Overlords, though maybe not completely terrifying, present a particularly wide array of possibilities to ponder. Be it your typical Man Vs. Kzin laser weaponry genocide-fest, or your slow and calculating tabby on a windowsill, you never can tell just how they’ll pounce and steal the stage from under us. Somehow, you wouldn’t put it past them. It’s something about that cold and distant stare. The purr is just to lull you into a false sense of security.

As George Carlin once put it, you can’t really relate to cats like you can with dogs. Cats don’t have eyebrows. Cats have a bunch of shit sticking out of their head.

Shared Bloodlust: When inter-species pacts go horribly right

Killers of Eden

We’re comfortable with our position on planet earth. As relatively new to the scene as we are, it does appear as if we’ve taken to the role of World Dominators with peculiar ease. We’re not exactly imposing in and of ourselves. Hell, we’re not even from predatory stock! No claws or fangs… though yes, we do tic the “forward facing eyes” part of the checklist, but that’s only thanks to some ancient ancestor that needed to be able to hop to the next tree over. It was only after we came up with a novel little weapon of our own that we started staking our claim.  We’ve adopted the predatory lifestyle with much gusto; but really, we’ve only been at it for a few million years. We’re really just glorified banana eaters. But I digress, the enemies that we haven’t hunted to extinction have been relegated to wildlife reserves or zoos. It was once thought that it was in our nature to elbow everything else out of the way. Our modern sensibilities tend to look down on this view of things, claiming that it’s done nothing but alienate us from the natural order.

We’re at the top of the ladder and, looking around, it’s pretty lonely up here. Or is it? Are there animals that would do the same thing, given the specific sequence of random events that might culminate into what we’d refer to as a chance? I’ll take a step back. Are there animals who find it in their nature to help man further his diabolical ends? Yes, actually. Plenty.

I could go on and on with a list of ‘Budding World Dominators’, but we know how that would end. My posts tend to be long enough as it is! Today, I’ll focus on one of my favorite groups of creatures. The cetaceans. Not only do I like the subject of whales and dolphins, but I like the subject of whales and dolphins acting like completely heartless killing machines. It’s much more fun, and probably closer to reality. So really, we’re not so different.

The advent of modern science has only recently shown us just how intelligent some of our fellow earthlings are. From tool use to culture, the list of candidate creatures continues to grow. One of the more popular entries is, of course, the dolphins. They’re up there in what I call the Famous Four: apes, elephants, corvids, and cetaceans. Communication is key when we’re talking about interaction between species. And not only interaction, but coalitions as I’m proposing. Luckily, it has been recently found that just such exchanges are well within their capacity. Dolphins are expert linguists. Just ask Brin.

Fishermen and bottlenose dolphin coordinate in an attempt to catch mullet.

Is it just me, or is the thought of an animal intelligence reaching out to communicate with us really freakin’ cool? Let’s begin in Brazil. Off the Atlantic coast of a small town called Laguna, the local fisherman have taken advantage of a strange outreach program doled out by a group of bottlenose dolphin. They (meaning the dolphins) drive shoals of mullet into the shallows near the beach, where they come into the range of the humans and their fishing nets. But it gets better; the dolphins actually signal when and where the fishermen should cast their nets. By thrashing their heads or slapping the surface of the water with their powerful tails, the dolphins appear to be communicating the presence of the fish. On the face of it, it seems a selfless act on the part of the bottlenose pod. Why would they act this way around humans? Please.. don’t get your rain sticks and prayer crystals out just yet, brethren. It turns out that the escaping fish are easier for the dolphins to scoop up individually. It’s a fully fledged, everybody wins, exercise in teamwork. Everybody but the mullet. This isn’t a new behavior either. This collaboration has been going strong since 1847.

But in a post touting blood pacts and promising heirs to earth’s destruction, this may seem kind of weak. What’s the big deal about coordinated fishing? Aren’t they just fish after all? It’s not much of a reach for dolphins to want to fish. Well, yeah – but if you don’t see the fact that dolphins having created a culture that integrates another intelligent species, our species, into the equation as extremely cool, I can certainly up the stakes.

An orca leads a group of whalemen to a baleen whale.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there had been a particular pod of killer whales that would journey to the mouth of the Port of Eden every year during their annual migrations. For over one hundred years, these over-sized predators visited the south east coast of New South Wales, Australia. They came to be know as the Killers of Eden and they were unlike any other pod of orcas known, before or since.

Old Tom featured with his primate pack-mate in 1908.

The killers of the Port of Eden were transients; meaning, they were the variety that have a taste for mammalian blood. For generations, these killers would chase baleen whales up and down the coast of Australia, as they had throughout the rest of the world. While all other killer whales were happy to keep their hunting “in-house”, the Killers of Eden fell upon a very interesting strategy. They would herd their quarry into Twofold Bay before commencing to attack. And this is where things got weird; several individual whales would peel off and cross the bay. Oddly, they would then begin to display at the mouth of the kiah river. Same story as before. The orcas would breach, crashing onto their sides, or pump their flukes through the water. This behavior was called ‘flop-tailing’. All of this was to gain the attention of a certain group of whalers, who would row out to, and be guided by the whales.

That’s right, the killers would inquire for the assistance of human whalers to help bring down their prey. The two deadliest super predators of their respective domains joining forces for mutual, bloodthirsty gain. The humpback whales never stood a chance.

After the deed was done, the killers were allowed first access to the carcass. A kind of accord was made between the whalers and the killers. It was called the Law of the Tongue. It was called this, I’d guess, because orcas feast mainly on the lips and tongue of their kills, leaving most of the valuable portions of the whale untouched. It was only later when the humans would return to the scene, having lashed an anchor to the rotting body, and claim the rest of the remains, such as the valuable bones for scrimshaw and the blubber. It was claimed that this was a kind of subsistence hunting, where the humans rarely took more than what the killers brought in themselves.

As you might imagine, the whalers grew very fond of their fellow hunters. The men went out of their way to free the orcas from fishing nets and in return, it was said that the killers would protect the men from sharks when their boats capsized. Some even called them family, going as far as naming some of the regulars. Names like: Skinner, Hookey, Jimmy, and Montague. This was pretty impressive in itself, as the whalers would usually recognize the whale by it’s particular fin shape and notch pattern of scars. This is the same procedure modern day naturalists go about recording individuals in a pod.

Carcass of Old Tom, found in 1930.

The most famous killer, however, was called Old Tom. He was said to be one of the most outgoing of the killers. Old Tom was usually at the forefront when it came to alerting the whalers to another kill. Because of his proximity to people, many legends sprung up around Old Tom. It was rumored that he was over eighty years old and that (naturally) he was the leader of the pod. He was said to be clever, even pulling the row boats out to the site of an attack by hooking the whaler’s tow lines in his mouth. Old Tom would also grasp harpoon lines after they had been thrown and appeared to play with them. Out of joy or blood lust, we’ll never know. It turns out that such activity might have doomed Old Tom in the end. His corpse was found after it drifted into Snug cove in 1930. When it was studied, it appeared as though his jaw had become infected due to the damage done to his teeth. Some had been worn to the gum line. *It was also discovered post mortem that Old Tom was closer to 35 years old when he died.

Because of overhunting of their prey species, it was theorized that the Killers of Eden eventually disbanded. Breaking up into several pods, they eventually moved on. The last of the original killers to be seen was none other than Old Tom.

The consequence of chewing on tow lines. Viewing the skull, it’s easy to make out the damage done to Old Tom. Also note the teeth on the left side of his lower jaw.

It’s interesting to see just how successful such ventures can be. A stable arrangement was made for more than a hundred years at the Port of Eden. It’s fun to speculate just what kind of legends might have sprung up on the other side of the waterline. Did the killer whales have their own equivalent to the Law of the Tongue, and did we somehow break the pact, causing their eventual dispersal? We have learned just how intelligent these creatures are in recent years, but perhaps the whalers of Eden knew so all along.

What sorts of arrangements would we find ourselves fostering when we finally break the language barrier with other intelligences? Would we stand back in horror when we realized how violent they really are? Would we stand by and allow them the right to pursue their own traditional or social ends? Would we even concede that they’re intelligent at all?