A Consequence of asking, “What If…?

In previous posts to this site I’ve said that I’m a writer, that some of my daydreams find expression as stories, and that the question,”What if…” is a fruitful way to begin the process of story construction. As an illustration, I’d like to offer a novelette.

I write most kinds of fiction, but I especially like writing science fiction. I’ve read a good many ‘first contact’ stories in which humanity encounters alien intelligence for the first time. Sometimes failure to immediately recognize the intelligent nature of the alien  is an important element in the plot. I like some of these stories very much.

My, “What if,” question is, what if recognition fails? If neither the native inhabitants nor the human beings settling near them perceive intellect in one another, what consequences flow from this? The story which follows offers one possible answer. I plan to post it a chapter at a time, with all of it available by the end of March.

I am an amateur writer. I hope for and am glad to receive criticism, preferably constructive in nature, but my skin is thick. Don’t hold back.

If you like what you read, you might visit my Daydreams on Demand page. I presently  feature a collection of stories that are quite different from the one I’m posting here, but if there’s enough interest I have a good many more I could make available. Enough intro. I hope you enjoy the story.

Recognition Failure

Chapter I

      What could they be doing?  They were endlessly busy but as often as not as soon as one set of them had done something, another set undid it. They did become more numerous though. Their fecundity was extraordinary. While he’d watched, a few of them had given rise to thousands. The shells they produced almost filled the valley.

     Where could they have come from? They weren’t like anything else. Odd looking things. The few he’d sampled were oddly flavored as well, but not unpleasant, and very rich in calcium, phosphorous, and iron. They made both auditory and electromagnetic noise, but not too much. He wondered if they’d come from a neighbor’s territory. No one had mentioned them, but he hadn’t told his neighbors about them yet, either.  No need for hasty babble.  Most of his kind had no tolerance for anything new anyway, but he was curious.

     It would be a shame to exterminate them. They were new and interesting, and somewhat tasty. If their growth couldn’t be limited, though, they’d have to go. Left to expand at the present rate they would quickly crowd out everything else. Maybe their expansion would slow as time went on.  Best watch a bit longer and see. No reason to  rush …

                         *                    *                    *

“Jon, how many times have I told you! Stay away from that rock!  Remember what Great Gran said about it. It’s not a place for children.  Captain and council’s edict say so, not just me.”

“Aww…  Mom! It’s just a big rock. There’s nothing bad there, just fernyfernys, hoping grass, and snaketrees around the bottom. Lots of good places, and you can pretty near see the whole town from up there.  Everybody else goes. Besides, I’m not a little baby, I’m almost ten!

“That thing’s twenty meters high and slick as glass. Do you want to get killed?”

“’Course not. Nobody tries to climb it. From the west side, it’s a walk up, just a little scramble at the top. You can see a lot from on top, but there’s nothin’ to do. Nobody goes on top any more.”

“Even so, I never liked that place. Your Uncle Danny’s best friend went up there with his girl and neither of them came back. Of course, when I was little, that place was way out of town. Now it’s almost in our back yard.”

“Mom, Bobby and Brice go!  It’s just a neat place to be.”

“But Jon, Arlen and Carrie weren’t the first people to disappear from around there. The first folks lost at least six. None of them would go within a mile of that place. You know, your Great Grandmother used to say that rock just appeared there one morning.”

At Jon’s skeptical look, Willa admitted that seemed unlikely. “Of course, back then they really hadn’t charted even the local area very well yet. It probably was just noticed when the big snaketrees began to furl their foliage in the Autumn. This part of the valley used to be thick with them.”

“Maybe those people tried to climb the face and fell. It’s way too slick to climb. Or maybe they ran off to start their own community. You and Dad used to talk about doing that.”

“If they fell, they should have been found.”

“Well, I don’t know, but there’s nothing scary there. Remember? You told me why the Firsts called this place Eden. There’s nothing bad on this planet.”

“That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Black spot and marrow fluke aren’t exactly good.”

“But there’s medicine for them. You know what I mean! No big, dangerous animals like Earth had. There’s none here, but you and Dad act as it something’s just waiting to grab us.”

“That place is dangerous enough by itself. You admit it’s slippery. Some of the rocks look unstable. I just don’t want you up there. Now, I need some kindling cut, and the wood box filled. And pump the hot water reservoir full.”

Near the center of town, people had steam heat from the fusion plant, but the farthest houses were beyond the insulated lines, and relied on wood cut in the hills for heat and hot water. Jon thought it most unfair.

Willa Langdon couldn’t explain, even to herself, why she felt as she did about the hills north of town, and especially the big glassy boulder at the mouth of the draw leading back into the hills. There just seemed to her to be something menacing there. Her husband Ron agreed, but less vehemently.

Most of the adults on Eden were a bit cautious, brought up on stories of the first settlers’ experiences. The kids were kids. They knew they were immortal and invulnerable.

There’d been a fair number of people who’d been killed or just vanished in the first couple of generations. Some were prey to accidents in the swamps, or victims of the sudden intense storms that rose in spring, or the occasional great tides that struck the coasts of the southern continent when the planet’s two large moons aligned with the sun. Every planet holds dangers, and Eden was no exception.

From Earth it had been determined that a planet with water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen in its atmosphere existed among the planetary companions of a star that was an almost invisible item identified by a catalog number. Before they landed, the first settlers had examined the planet from space for almost two standard years, and explored it’s surface completely with remote vehicles. No one knew what to expect.  Only one other life-bearing world had been found, and almost nothing was known of it when New Hope passed beyond contact with Earth, less than one light year out. The remaining twelve and a half light years had taken two centuries to cover with the settlers in cold sleep. The ship had recorded no further messages in all that time.

They had expected to find life.  Free oxygen in a planetary atmosphere is hard to account for otherwise. They hadn’t expected beauty. A place that could almost be Earth in it’s pristine state, except that there were two moons, Hera, ten percent more massive than Luna, about a fourth again as far away, and Diana, about half that size, a third closer. The day was twenty-six hours, and the year was a fifth longer than Earth’s. The axial tilt was just a bit greater than Earth’s and the seasons more severe, but the continents, with a trivial exception, were in temperate zones.

The geology of the place was varied and remarkable, but not in unexplainable ways, given the differences between Eden and Earth. The occurrence of a few hundred knobs or low hills of agate-like rock scattered around the world, often in places where that rock type wouldn’t be looked for, was a minor oddity, as were almost constant small earth tremors, usually undetectable without instruments, and the frequent electromagnetic disturbances that made communication over long distances chancy. The last might be because the sun was more active than Sol. The tremors might be because Eden had two large moons, rather than Earth’s one. No one really knew, but, except in detail, there were no surprises.

The biology was both like and unlike that of Earth. Eden’s biology makes use of proteins lipids, and carbohydrates, and in about the same ways Earth’s does. Terrestrial life makes use of twenty essential amino acids, Eden’s life uses twenty two, and eighteen of them are the same. Both are cellular, but the cells are very different. No one had worked out the genetic mechanism used by life on Eden, but it seemed to use neither DNA nor RNA, and Eden’s cells held nothing like a nucleus. The best guess was that proteins were somehow used to code the information for reproduction.

The seas held a fascinating array of living things, often surprising in detail, but showing the expected general structure; numerous small photosynthetic creatures at the base of the food chain, then grazers of sorts, then the ramified and intricate hierarchy of predators topped by a few species who feared only one another.

The land was different. Not the plant life. That was as unsurprising as the sea. It was the animals, or rather their absence. Among the small creatures there was the expected array of herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores and a number of flying things ranging in size from that of a large insect to that of a big hawk or small eagle, but no omnivores or carnivores much bigger than a fox, or small dog. There were a number of large herbivores of various sizes, depending on the environment in which they lived. When full sized none were smaller than the two hundred kilogram Hippolets, and none larger than the ten thousand kilo Rumblebellies. What seemed to correspond to the nervous system in terrestrial vertebrates was very rudimentary in them, even less developed than those of the fish equivalents in the sea. “It’s like the whole place is one big cattle ranch, but where’s the rancher?” was the comment of one early observer.

No rancher ever turned up, and the first colony grew from the initial population of five thousand to nearly one hundred thousand over the next ninety standard years. The initial plan had been to spread out into a series of small settlements, but that had proved difficult.  The valley where they’d first settled had, by good fortune, been very easy to defend against the many large herbivores that elsewhere flocked to their fields in unstoppable numbers and tended to stampede across their crops and homes when alarmed. The animals themselves proved edible, but lacking some essential nutrients, and unpalatable to most tastes.

The diet was largely vegetarian, including soybean-derived meat substitutes, though a few species of local ‘fish’ were not only edible but delicious.

Smaller settlements were made for a time on islands close to good fishing grounds or defensible locations near exploitable ore bodies or other resources, but most of these activities were automated by ship-designed machines within a few years and the inhabitants gradually returned to the original settlement. “We just never felt at home there,” or, “Damn place started to give me the willies,” seemed to sum up the attitude of most of the returnees, especially the women. As the end of the first century of human occupation on Eden neared, the population, while larger, was more concentrated than it had been fifty years earlier. Only one of the islands was still inhabited, and it offered little room to grow.

During the first years a new settlement started almost annually as young people sought distance from their parents and origins. As each of these failed in turn, the impulse to seek new lands withered. It had been fully twenty years since the last venture of that sort. The valley was filling up. As though instinctively refusing to accept that some children would have to find new places to settle, the birth rate had dropped.

*                    *                    *

“Good afternoon. It is with great pleasure that I welcome the first class to the University of Eden. For many years we have of necessity concentrated on teaching our children the practical knowledge they need as quickly as possible, and putting them to work as soon as possible. There was no choice. The work of establishing new homes in an unfamiliar place required every effort the first three generations could muster. You all have memories of parents and grandparents who worked almost every waking moment.

“At last we enjoy sufficient surplus to allow those who have shown ability to prolong their education and become specialized to a degree not possible before…”

Jon Langdon’s attention drifted from the canned opening ceremony. He couldn’t see why his elders required it. Maybe it meant something to them.   To him it was a waste of time. The image beamed from New Hope in its synchronous orbit was a simulation, as would be most of the instructors for a long time to come. New Hope had provided the engineering expertise, medical service, and indeed, all the specialized help the settlement needed since the time of its founding. Almost all information not immediately required for the survival of the settlement was still unaccessed in the ship’s data bases. The time had come to begin to use that knowledge, and to widen the intellectual life of the settlement. Twelve of the brightest of the community’s young minds would be given three extra years of training, mostly in scientific and technical fields. Jon glanced around at his classmates. They would be housed together during their training, and he was sure he’d soon know them as well as he knew his own siblings. He already was acquainted with several, and knew of all the rest. There weren’t that many people on Eden.

All the students in this class would study mathematics, physics, chemistry, a general engineering program, and a survey of Earth’s history and cultures.  It would be intense.  Only in the final year would any latitude be given to individual choice   Jon hoped to study biology as his elective selection at that time.

The welcome was over.  Jon kissed his mom and shook his father’s hand.  The families of the scholars departed.  Each student was assigned a room and given the first assignments.  A meal was served in the refectory.  Jon, who had viewed the volume of material he was expected to master before the next day with something between outrage and fright, ate hastily and went to his room to get started.

*                    *                    *

Sure enough, the new things were growing more slowly as time went on.  They did occupy the entire valley, though, and that was more space than he was inclined to allow them. He’d have to harvest some soon. They were rich in just those elements he’d need in abundance before long. In a century or so, he and the neighbor to the north would go after the old guy to his northwest. The old boy’d been around a long time. He himself had been one of the old fellow’s buds. That was thirty thousand winters ago, and didn’t matter now. The old guy was too strong to challenge while he had access to the sea, but the offspring the old boy had planted to his west were almost independent now, and would surely close the coast. His own most recent offspring would be independent but still too weak to be a threat

     Yes, another century and things would get interesting.  The new things he’d sampled had wandered near his intake orifices, and he’d used the alimentors that happened to be on hand to collect them.  Those weren’t really suitable, though.  They were grazers.  The things were small and active, and resisted collection.  He’d need a new kind of alimentation unit.  Not a warrior, but maybe a collector…

 

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