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?

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.

Short Fiction: Reciprocal Pilferage

Complements: EMERALD WAKE

Most of the rotating globes of free-floating pudding hadn’t been touched. Flan was always a big hit with the passengers, but they never went for the tapioca. That was fine with Linesman Singer. He’d made a habit of popping up for dinners and brunches at the zero-gee EyeCity lounge, ready to lend the cooking staff a helping hand with dish outs. It was easy work, always coming down to Singer reassuring the odd patron that eggs used in the floating island dessert were indeed free range. Post clean-up was tiresome, so Singer was never turned away. For his trouble, there was access to all the tapioca he could carry.

Usually.

While spooning in several mouthfuls, Singer glanced over at the assistant hoovering up blobs of wayward sweets. The fancy orbits the sous prepared only lasted the initial buffet pass. Rogue crème droplets freewheeled in all directions. The vacuum pack hummed softly, inhaling briskly as the nozzle hunted them down one at a time. He was making his way inexorably towards Singer.

The spherical room was clearing of clientele. A few were dotted here or there, but staff had free lanes of traffic. Singer could see the white clad crewmembers flitting about with platters and trays. Cleaners tidied the area with baker’s racks. Most of them kept away, busy elsewhere.

A loud voice spoke nearby, startling the unusually vigilant Linesman.

“Call me Clark,” said someone familiar.

Singer looked into the vaulted ceiling – situated below him at this perspective – and nearly swore. Mr. Ras was just wrapping up a conversation with a gaudily dressed woman. He floated, looking like a bent mantis. The woman was enjoying his company, thumping his chest in a jovial way before heading off.

He looked his way. Singer’s throat clenched on a bunch of coconut cream. Mr. Ras was his supervisor. Somehow he’d found him.

Singer left the spoon to twirl away as he oriented to meet his approach. Mr. Ras didn’t seem particularly happy, but that was hardly a change. Time to get grilled. Just please… please tell me to finish up here before reporting to my station.

Linesman,” Ras said. “Report.”

Always so formal. Ras never used names, other than relaying orders about an outside party.

“Hey supe,” Singer swallowed. “I mean, sir.”

He’d return the gesture.

“As much as I like to see the… ah, initiative to satisfy the needs of our inside customers, we have a situation.”

So this wasn’t about him being away from his post?

“What’s going on?” Singer raised an eyebrow to feign interest.

“Some alien naturists are outside Catseye’s hull. They’ve been plastered there for dangerously prolonged periods.”

“You mean alien passengers?”

“Obviously. Catseye Star-liners are equal opportunity partners. We do not discriminate on grounds of creed, religion, origin or genus. ‘Bilateral symmetry or naught, we’ll see you to your destination and back.’”

“Oh, right. Obviously.”

Ras lifted a hand to brush a knot of food away from one ear.

“We need to get them moving again. It’s everyone’s duty to perform adequate safety regulations per individual alien-entity norms. We can’t endanger life through inaction, even when deemed culturally unsound by corresponding species.”

“That serious, huh?”

“These barnacles have been in string-shadow for the past 17 hours. That’s pushing well into tolerance thresholds.”

Jesus. This guy doesn’t even need to use a handheld Portois to sound like a jerk. It’s like he actually cares to remember this jargon! Impressive.

“We’re nearing the point in-voyage that the window will completely close on their outside excursions. Thanks to inverse-square law, they can’t ‘rough it’ this far into interstellar space. We’re sailing too far from Sol’s rays to keep them adequately engaged and energy-filtrating.”

Singer nearly scoffed.

“What are they, plants?” Crap. He’d said that aloud.

“Life forms of all types: animal, vegetable, mineral and variational-hybrids thereof are completely acceptable.”

“Okay, right. So – beam them a frequency. Tell them to get back inside.”

“This species is no-comm.”

“What?”

“They do not interact in the same frequencies as vocalizers.”

“So shoot a firework. Something.”

“These barnacles respond to proximity and intent. We need to send an able-bodied crewman for a vicinity conference.”

It felt as if Singer’s feet fell away from him, or would have if he wasn’t floating to begin with. The gruel in the pit of his stomach suddenly turned to ice.

“You aren’t saying – I can’t go out there!”

“It’s mandatory, Linesman. You have to step up to regulations.”

“I’m not even certified for spacewalks!”

“You will use a Bathy Tube. All highly automated.”

“But what about… them?” Singer indicated to the still industriously working kitchen staff.

“Their insurance coverage won’t allow them to take such an untoward risk.”

Singer didn’t think his heart could sink any lower.

“But you, Linesman, are not encumbered by such policy.”

Singer made to throw out that this should be security detail’s problem, or it fell under navy jurisdiction, but he realized that the lounge was a self-contained ‘hub’. They were more or less detached from the bulk of Catseye.

Which was exactly why Mr. Ras should never have found me here.

EyeCity café itself was casting the shadow over the naturists. Management would send a nonessential-someone close at hand. Especially if it meant security wouldn’t be put off lining up an expeditionary force en masse. What quaint hypocrisy.

The Linesman wasn’t getting out of this. He didn’t have a choice, but Singer would kick and scream the whole way…

“What about air?” said Singer.

“Your tube will recycle latent oxygen. The air you breathe out is mostly oxy anyway. There is plenty of time.”

“Controls?”

“Preprogrammed coordinates.”

“Return trip?”

“Already scheduled.”

“The aliens?”

“Just get close and they’ll disperse. Probably just need a reminder; but scrape them off the plating if you have to.”

Singer winced. He was drawing a blank. There really wasn’t much room to weasel.

“And you’re sure about him…” Singer gestured toward the vacuum-laden crewman, who was currently elbowing his device in attempts to bring it back to life.

“He’s a union member. Can’t touch him.”

Goddamn it.

It was almost calming. Singer’s perspective lazily shifted as his one-man craft corkscrewed round and round. The Bathy Tube was slipping along a sophisticated ‘string’ that reached out across Catseye’s many hubs and luxurious condominiums. The linked network diverged like an insane technological spider web. Most of it lay hidden by the trackless distances and snuffing black void, but every so often a glint of light caught in such a way that Singer was treated to a dazzling spectacle.

And there were the stars; always the stars.

The Linesman wouldn’t have it. Any of it. He was still gritting his teeth at Mr. Ras. Clark Ras, that uncaring tool of a manager. Singer would start using his name. Just to spite him. Yeah, that’s right Clark. How professional indeed!

It felt as if a cloud passed overhead. His world dimmed perceptively. It took a moment, but Singer realized that he had passed into the café’s shade. EyeCity would have loomed behind, if he were able to turn and see. The dining craft wouldn’t dwindle much, which should have been reassuring.

Below – ahead, Singer saw an angular structure. It was probably a casino. It was daisy-chained into an arched semicircle, looping off into Singer’s personal horizon. In one direction he could make out the signifying moniker of a fitness center; a wide swath of stylized pink cladding specified the facility.

Nebu-Liners always made sure to keep things appealing to the eye. Shuttling passengers had discerning tastes after all.

Singer spotted the naturists.

Mr. Ras had called them barnacles. At this distance, they looked more like starfish to Singer. They could have been black scuffs on the bulkhead, but as he approached, Singer could make out the slightest movement darting through their spindly bodies. Probably guzzling all the sunlight they could. Yet, for some reason, they made no attempt to exit the shadow.

How any living thing could survive in a void was amazing. Singer glanced at a readout. It flickered red, just as Ras had warned. It was the radiation detector. When buildup became hazardous, the light would steady. Singer would have to “get back like it was yesterday” once that happened.

Singer tried not to think about all the energized particles tearing through him, but it was a lengthy descent.

Before long, the Tube was scooting free into a noiseless landing. The Coriolus effect drew him down as effectively as gravity. It was that same rotational momentum that kept the string taut without actually touching anything. Motive roadways, some called them.

If all went well, he’d be heading back up again.

There was a sense of urgency as Singer watched the string recede, like a fisherman’s line in slow motion. It was the casino. It was orbiting, ushering him and the naturists away. The spin wasn’t fast enough to get the aliens into sunlight on time.

They’d need a little bump.

Singer goosed the treads a bit and felt the reverb up through his seat. The flexiglass screen wobbled and he was underway.

Progress was akin to a slug on a wall. The uniform ‘skyline’ made movement hard to judge, but touchdown was good and close. There wasn’t a lot of time to prep for contact. Singer was on top of them in the next moment.

There wasn’t a reaction, much less a greeting. Singer wasn’t sure if they knew he was there. Maybe he’d snuck up on them? Hard to gauge when they didn’t have backs.

The Linesman parked the tube a few feet away and folded his arms across his chest. How easy was this supposed to be? Something about proximity. Not that a horn would be of much use out here. Singer edged forward a few times, practically dancing on their root-like toes. Nothing.

He tapped on the inside of his cage.

Nothing.

The aliens were dark. Not exactly space-black, but pigmentation must have been crammed wholesale into every square inch of skin. Or was that exoskeleton? It bloated and twisted like gelatin, but Singer instinctually associated it with hardened chitin or bone. Perhaps he’d find out with a handshake.

If only he could make it that far.

His hands were probably too clammy to use the external enviro-gloves.

The naturists appeared like lopsided mounds of stringy antennae. There was no symmetry to them. All of the seemingly random offshoots or tuber-like growths undulated in the same motion he’d seen from above.

They moved together. Every last one of them; and there were a lot of the creatures – every one of them flexed as one. That was their only saving grace. A kind of uniformity was at play that told Singer that these were indeed intelligent beings.

What the hell were they doing? On the face of it, Singer might guess they were waving. But that was humanizing something that wasn’t human. Not even close. The naturists were filtering or filtrating… whatever Ras had said. Only…

Shouldn’t they at least be facing the sun? Don’t dandelions turn?

Would they really need to dance about like idiots to get the energy practically humming around them at all times? Even now, the ambient radiation was intense. Plenty to gorge on ‘til bursting. If your species was into that sort of thing.

The naturists were up to something else.

Wait.

They had been waving at him. During his spiral descent, the vines or appendages or whathaveyous – they’d been fixated on his approach. Maybe if he wasn’t moaning about Mr. Ras at the time, he’d have seen it.

They weren’t focused on him now.

The aliens faced away from the direction of the casino’s rotation. Back the way they’d come.

“Hmm,” Singer mused. He busied the Bathy Tube into a protracted roundabout turn. He’d look behind him.

Immediately, he was startled to see a single alien naturist suspended in the void. It was tucking itself into a bowl, probably feeling the full brunt of the Coriolis effect. Pale pouches, like a car’s airbags, were deflating and retracting from view as he watched. It was going to land nearby.

How it was able to navigate through space, in the buff, would forever be a mystery to Singer. The thing brushed by so easily, it was almost narcissistic. The being was close enough that he might have been able to touch it, had he taken to using the enviro-gloves from before.

It brought something with it. Clutched in an array of florets, Singer could see a frosted cylindrical casing. He saw the word “Neapolitan” clearly on the side until the creature landed like a willowy parachute. What would a space-plant want with ice cream?

Singer’s mouth started watering.

There was movement all over the place. The naturists began scuttling back and forth with what had to be excitement. A few reached out to the newcomer with – reassurance? Gratitude? A few even expanded their internal gas bladders and launched away. They weren’t heading into the light.

The bulk of them scooted across the ship’s hull, heading towards the loading dock. They were going inside.

Linesman Singer was dumbfounded. What was going on out here?

Something clicked. These guys were raiding EyeCity’s storeroom. Or perhaps one of the supply tugs that came and went periodically. Management had sent Singer out on protection detail. He wasn’t here to commune. He was here to scare them off because actual security didn’t want to get their hands dirtied with alien politics.

As much as human rules applied aboard the Catseye, you’d always find rules being bent to keep the clientele happy. Hell, ritual raids might be the naturist’s way of complementing good service. You didn’t want to undermine a good reputation. The company could sacrifice a few choice goods if it meant they’d get a whole planet of paying customers.

A lone alien stayed behind. It curled its tendrils, facing him. Inviting him. Singer leaned to one side and could see the ice cream bearer leading the group. Neapolitan sounded very good right now.

An orb of light flashed behind one eye.

Inside the tube, a steady red glow shone against the Linesman’s face. He wasn’t exactly ignoring it.

A little acute radiation syndrome wouldn’t hurt any. He’d probably just get a stomach ache. Maybe a little quarantine time to himself. That wouldn’t be so bad. He’d get some ice cream out of the deal.

Just like getting your tonsils out.

Short Fiction: Lunch?

Lunch?

Complements: Photios

The Star-liner “Catseye” wouldn’t stay in drydock for long. She’d stop over just long enough to pick up her final bevy of passengers before setting out for Epsilon Eridani; a young system renowned for spectacular solar displays. It was a short round-trip pass, perfect for adventurous senior citizens and soppy honeymooners alike. Eridani was one of the closest stars that Catseye Cruise Ships offered clientele voyages to, yet it was still a grueling 10 month affair for Linesman Singer. With no vacation prospects for non-naval crew, Singer would take every opening he got. This contract had him all lined up until November.

He glanced at his wrist-chronometer and wagered he had a good ten minutes before a castoff order was piped through the PA. He’d make it. Singer was faster than a bunch of octogenarians whose flash of late-life insight saw them dovetailing their pointless existences with an equally pointless “escapade into space.”

His stomach growled.

Linesman Tam was still chattering in his ear. Singer had told her not to come, but since when did anyone ever listen to him? The older woman cast looks over her shoulder as they drifted through the dimly lit corridor of this unnamed space station. Unnamed because it wasn’t humanmade. Unnamed because it was probably only pronounceable if you had sixteen collated tongues. The hexagonal tube made him uneasy. It made Tam downright jittery. He could hear it in her voice.

“Why is it so d…dark?” she said.

“Just be thankful Celsius is smiling down upon us,” Singer hissed. “Dark we can handle. But cold…” He trailed off as he neared an entrance plank jutting surreptitiously out of the wall.

“Here we are.”

“What’s that? Is that the canteen?” Tam said, fumbling for something at her waistband.

“Sure is,” Singer replied. “It’s a doorway.” He floated towards it at an angle. It was covered in thorns, which probably gave traction to the designated alien species that used it. Singer didn’t care. He’d been told that they served Earth delicacies. Fast food.

Thank you Catseye and your many sister yachts. Octogenarians gotta eat.

Linesman Singer anchored himself and began kicking at the plank. The noise he made rattled his companion as she brought her Portois into view. She flicked it open and fingered the screen until it sputtered to life.

“You still keep that thing?” Singer said between grunts.

“Travel advisory states: Condition Orange, graded C,” Tam said.

Singer paused long enough to shrug.

“The Mammalogue Rough-Toothed Ringed Leatherglutton is in rut. They’re cleared for this branch of the station!”

Singer kicked harder.

“This is their ‘estrus cycle’.”

“You know, all that, what you just said? That’s just noise,” Singer said through clenched teeth. “I’m getting my burger. Shipboard accommodation comes out of your pay. You do realize that, right?”

Tam’s eyes stayed averted; illuminated from below.

“I know what I’m doing,” Singer said, redoubling his efforts.

A great squeal sounded and half of the wall folded in on itself like an ornate amalgam of dominoes. Though clearly distressed, Tam followed her younger coworker inside. The Portois started flashing red.

Within was a galley, if you could call it that. It was pressed flat, top to bottom. It reminded Singer of being inside an empty tyre on its side. There was movement all over, but it was gloomier in here than out in the hall.

“Allotropic gasseomorphs primarily exchange thermoception for visual acuity.”

“Shut up, Tam.”

She was quoting again. He hated when she did that.

“It explains why the lights are out,” Linesman Tam complained, looking up. “We aren’t supposed to be here.”

“There’s a bunch of creatures hunched over that hole over there. I bet that’s where the food comes from.”

Singer pushed away from the wall, but was instantly halted when Tam clasped his shoulder.

“Are you insane? If you get caught–” She recoiled, throwing a hand over the ship’s ensign emblazoned on her right shoulder.

“Go ahead. Waste your time. We’d be lucky to even find a human in here, let alone one who could trace us to the Catseye.” Singer glanced down at his own badge. Like they’d even see it!

“Why the hell did you even follow me, Tam?”

A heavy shadow fell over the pair of crewmates. Though the murk seemed to deepen, Singer turned and was able to see an enlarged being hovering nigh-motionless above them. It didn’t seem to breathe, but the rise and fall as it bobbed made Singer venture that the thing was – smelling them. It flipped a muscular appendage into a nook in the floor and pulled itself a little closer. It was shaggy, and smelled of rust and melons.

It whistled something out of a flume-like series of grooves along its ‘side’. Tam started fumbling again.

“I take it this is your Spikey-Tailed Mammal Podge?” Singer said without turning.

Tam thrust her twinkling Portois high overhead. Her lip was a severe line.

The rush of air congealed into a heavily accented form of English.

#forms of beverage# #meat grind# “Disclosure: humans served here” *HUNGER!*

“Whoa, hold it, fella.” Singer patted his hands through the air. “We’re here for the baconnaise and sirloin. Back off.”

Tam tried to speak, but was unable for the first time since he’d known her.

“That thing translating?”

The wooly figure of the alien split like a torn seam. The two crewmembers looked into an unfurling carapace. Like a silent snarl. Those were definitely teeth glinting in there.

“Listen, if I don’t get pension for this cruise, you sure as hell don’t get to eat me.” Singer frowned. He folded his arms across his chest and the chronometer started peeping. Castoff in tee-minus.

Damn it! He’d wasted his lunch break again.

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?