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Raising Caine: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Wednesday, August 26, 2015 20:19 EDT



Bioband’s valland; GJ 1248 One (“Adumbratus”)

    As Caine worked his way to the head of the legation, Yiithrii’ah’aash continued on into a grove of immense, hypertrophied bushes which were simultaneously reminiscent of pointy mushrooms and very squat Christmas trees. “These are one of our most effective biots for inducing xenobiots to become receptive to our own flora. And ultimately, to our settlers and other fauna.”

    Trent Howarth looked around, puzzled. “Isn’t this planet already inhabited by Slaasriithi?” He glanced meaningfully at the ambassador’s shorter, thicker assistants.

    “What you see, Mr. Howarth, are pioneer inducers of change, not colonists. Their life work is to shape the environment by fostering symbiotic or cooperative relationships between the indigenous biota and our own. Where that is not possible, we will establish preserves of our own biota by crowding out the native ones. These plants excel at that task.” Yiithrii’ah’aash gestured toward what Riordan was already thinking of as a cone tree. “By using their canopy to capture all the light and water that would normally find its way down to the ground, and by selectively sharing the resulting resources with our own — or receptive exogenous — biota, the trees claim the area beneath them for our exploitation. We introduce our own biota into it, and then work at inducing further mutations to maximize the harmony between the two families of bioforms.”

    Phil Friel’s soft voice rose from the rear of the group. “You keep using the word ‘induce’ when you speak about changing an organism. Since you seem to have a wide command of our language, I’m wondering if that repetition is not merely intentional, but important.” Tina Melah glanced at the quiet Irishman with unveiled admiration. Of course, Tina didn’t seem to bother with veils of any type.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash purred. “Indeed, we use the word ‘induce’ quite purposefully. It describes how we prefer to transform biota; to provide the correct environmental circumstances and monitoring to encourage natural change in a desired direction. Creating change by using sudden force, whether by traumatic stimuli or mechanistic alteration, rarely produces stable environmental blending.”

    They left the grove of cone trees along a path that straddled an irregular border between day-glow green lichens struggling out from beneath the Slaasriithi plants on one side and a diffuse violet moss pierced by intermittent black spikes on the other side. Caine tried to recall an analog for the latter flora, but the only image that came to mind was of sea urchins trying to push up through a carpet of violet cotton candy. The ground between the two masses of plants was a tangle of runners from both, many of which were brown and lank: die-off where the two families of vegetation met, fought, and died.

    Oleg Danysh squinted along their probable path, which remained in the shade of the brightside wall: the high terminal moraine that sheltered both the indigenous and exogenous biota from the steady red-gold light of GJ 1248. “It seems, Ambassador, that you mean to follow the contact margin between your own imported species, and those native to this planet.”

    “Very astute, Dr. Danysh. In addition to keeping us in the shade of the ridgeline, it allows us to visit where we are making our greatest progress to transform the native life. And so, it offers you the best opportunities to learn about us.”

    “Well, about your work as planet-changers, at least,” Tina Melah drawled.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s head turned back in her direction; he did not slow his forward progress. “You may find, Ms. Melah, that the latter reveals the former more profoundly than any other behavior of ours. What we do here is no different from what we do everywhere.”

    “Even on your homeworld?” she wondered.

    “Especially on our homeworld,” Yiithrii’ah’aash emphasized. “We seek to reconcile and blend different species, taxae, individuals. It is the great challenge and conundrum of life, wherever it exists, that stability is only achieved by acknowledging the inevitability of change, and is only preserved by working with the forces of entropy to create a dynamic equilibrium in the natural order.”

    Gaspard aimed his chin toward the rose-tinted cream sky. “And if those endeavors reveal the nature of the Slaasriithi best, which behaviors would you say reveal humanity’s nature most clearly to you?”

    “We have not known you for that long.” Yiithrii’ah’aash might have sounded evasive.

    “True, but you have had reports on us from the Custodians while we were a protected species, and you have had access to a full compendium of our history and media for almost a year now. Surely you have some sense of which endeavors reveal the most about us.”

    “I do,” Yiithrii’ah’aash admitted slowly. “Human nature, we find, is best revealed in endeavors characterized by uncertainty, innovation and crisis. So, we find depictions of your exploration, and of rescue operations, particularly informing.”

    Caine waited for the third category of activity and, when he did not hear it, asked outright. “And war?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash slowed slightly, swiveled his head back at Riordan. “Yes. Most especially, war.”

    They continued up the rough trail in silence.



    As the legation descended into a shallow, bowl like declivity, a number of indigenous creatures — akin to eyeless, arthropod-legged horned toads — leaped up from the native sward. Their coloration changed rapidly from an almost pixilated purple-magenta pattern that blended into the violet of the cotton-candy moss, to a cream grey. They hop-sprinted on their stick-pole legs to a pond fed by the small watercourse that burbled down from the rear lip of the hollow. Leaping into the pond, they remained in the shallows — and promptly disappeared, their cream coloration now blending with that of the sky-mirroring surface.

    Hirano Mizuki lagged behind to observe the arthropod-toads. “How do they see where they are going? Sonar?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s tendrils switched downward, stayed there. “No. That creature’s eyes, while individually rudimentary, are distributed across the trunk of its body. Our analysis of its ocular neurology suggests it has full three hundred sixty by three hundred sixty degree vision: not as acute as yours, but highly sensitive to changes in its visual field. It is very difficult to surprise them. Which is no doubt why they evolved their visual arrangement. It is their only defense against most of the local predators. That and their numbers.”

    “Their numbers?” Nasr Eid echoed. “I do not understand.”

    “A predator can only concentrate on, and eliminate, one creature at a time, Mr. Eid. The ubiquity of this species is an integral part of its evolutionary survival adaptation: it can easily absorb casualties which sate its predators.”

    “Like rabbits,” Phil Friel observed.

    “Sure don’t look like bunnies, though,” Tina Melah said quietly, using her confidential tone as an apparent justification for leaning in toward him.

    “There are predators?” Gaspard’s assistant Dieter sounded more worried than curious.

    “Most assuredly. Here at the contact zone between our exogenous biota and the planet’s indigenous species, we have particular need for the protection of our biological markers. The prey species learn quickly enough that the predators and larger creatures are perturbed by the scents and fauna of our transplanted ecozones. So the local prey species tend to gather at the margins of our ecozone, and may even flee into it to disincline predators from sustaining pursuit. This, of course, induces the prey species to form positive associations with our ecozone.”

    Hirano Mizuki had not taken her eyes away from where the eye-gouging arthropod-toads remained motionless in the shallows. “It seems that you have done this many times before. Have you not, therefore, identified any of your own pheromones, or spores, which have the desired effect upon the local fauna?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash emitted a two-toned buzz-purr. “That is indeed a suitable question from an environmental planetologist. And yes, we have identified such species among our own flora. But unfortunately, the methods whereby our plants transmit the desired compounds does not have acceptable latency in this environment.”

    “You mean, they die off?” asked Miles O’Garran.

    “Eventually, but that is not the primary drawback. The difficulty is in how quickly our compounds are carried out of this sheltered spot of the bioband, which we call its valland. Obviously, during your descent, you encountered the winds that blow constantly from the bright face to the dark face of this world.”

    “Hardly noticed them,” Karam grumbled. Qin Lijuan hid a smile behind a hastily raised hand.

    “Those winds create downdrafts as they reach the rear, glacier-wall of the valland. The lowest air currents are cooled as they pass over bioband and sink. However, the speed of the wind also creates a following draft, and the combination of the two exerts mild suction upon the air of the valland, creating a faint updraft. This updraft picks up any light airborne materials, such as our spores and pollens, and carries most of them over the glacier into the dark side wastes.”

    Karam nodded. “Yeah, that kind of meteorology doesn’t sound ideal for airborne seeds that developed on a world where they could spread around easily.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash nodded. “There is a second challenge that is almost as great for seeds that evolved in an environment where they might, as you said, ‘spread around easily.'” The Slaasriithi gestured to the panorama of the valland: distant white glacial walls toward the darkside, the tall, shadowing moraine beneath which they walked, and an irregular and light-dappled post-glacial terrain that stretched and rolled between them. “This biome is as long as Adumbratus’ equator. With the exception of some areas where the valland is disrupted by longitudinal, and thus transverse, mountain ranges, the vigorously biogenic part of this world averages less than one hundred kilometers in width. However, on most planets, plants evolve in an environment where there is global circulation of air and water; it is an ecosystem based upon radial patterns of expansion. Here, life exists within a narrow trench. Consequently, our species, which lack highly motile reproductory cells, are slow to spread, slow to take hold, slow to thrive. But even so, this world will thrive more profoundly because of them.”

    “How so?”



    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s fingers wriggled without specific direction. “Our flora is increasingly dominating this shaded lee of the terminal shielding moraine. This increases the amount of water retained in the valland, since our flora is more hydrophilic than the local plants. This has increased the density of indigenous fauna, particularly here along the margins of the two different biota. The creatures which thrive on water tend to be more prolific breeders when they are more lavishly hydrated, and so, improve their own biome. Ultimately, this new, positive survival trait for local species — the ability to tolerate the presence of ours — will dramatically enrich the entirety of this biosphere. That is in the nature of all biota: it changes its planet to become more suitable to its own procreative impulse.”

    Riordan smiled. “When you put it that way, your process of biosphere transformation sounds almost mystical.”

    “Does it? I wonder if something is simply being lost in translation. There is nothing mystic in this process. Life’s mission is to expand itself, to bring existence to where there was nothingness. And so, life is the great conundrum of the universe: it is a lever which lifts itself up. Its presence in the organic molecules, and what you label their panspermiate diffusion throughout space, is the evidence of just how pervasive and powerful that impulse is.”

    “So, one of the defining impulses of the physical universe is the creation of life?”

    “It is, to use your own apt idiom, a force of nature.” Yiithrii’ah’aash ascended to the rim of the bowl, pointed down the opposite side. “Come; let us see this force at work.”



    The lip of the bowl opened on to a flat expanse where the native “forest” — stacks of vine-bound cream-teal tumbleweeds — were embroiled in a war of econiche flanking maneuvers against the cone trees and giant ferns of Slaasriithi origin. Arrayed just in front of that latter mass of Kelly- and lime-green vegetation, Slaasriithi were patiently watching some of their own fauna roll what looked like unripe grapefruits toward a waiting clutch of indigenous creatures. The Slaasriithi creatures, which resembled a nutria-flying squirrel hybrid with far too many eyes, deposited the fruits in the mid-ground between the two groups, then backed off a few steps and waited.

    Their local counterparts — smooth, leather-backed creatures with six squat legs, four small eyes, and a head that resembled an armor-plated badger crossbred with a catfish — waited, watched, and began side-winding forward. Several emitted a crackling hiss as they approached. In response to those which hissed, the surprisingly swift Slaasriithi nutria-squirrels scuttled forward and grabbed their fruits back to safety. In the case of the local creatures that approached more placidly, the flap-legged nutrias edged forward slightly. In most cases, the local creatures retreated. In several cases, they tolerated the modest advance of the alien creatures until they could grab the fruit and scramble away. When the more truculent catfish-badgers then tried to muscle in and get some of the water-rich fruits retrieved by their fellows, the Slaasriithi summoned an almost invisible drone, which made a quick pass between the two creatures. It was noiseless and did not visibly discharge any payload, but it must have released a marker spore which repulsed the less cooperative local creature: in each case, the would-be fruit hijacker scuttled away empty-handed.

    Another group of Slaasriithi, a taxon subtly different in physiology, unobtrusively followed the more cooperative local creatures. When they began tearing into their fruit, the Slaasriithi released insects which quickly caught the familiar scent. They hovered over the backs of the greedily feeding indigenous creatures until they abandoned the stripped rind. Then the insects descended to scavenge the remains.

    “Let me guess,” Ben Hwang muttered, his arms folded. “By hovering over the local animals, these insects inadvertently ‘marked’ them. That allows you follow the individuals which grabbed the fruit and to encourage their propagation.”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash seemed pleased. “You are an exceptionally quick study, Doctor Hwang. Your surmise is correct. The rest is, I trust, is obvious.”

    Hirano Mizuki nodded. “The indigenous creatures which have tolerated greater proximity with your own species, being better fed and hydrated, now have better survival and breeding odds. In that way, you are increasing the prevalence of whatever combination of predisposition and learned behaviors made them more tolerant. Conversely, by ensuring that the aggressive ones cannot hijack the fruit, you reduce their breeding odds and, consequently, their ability to impart the unwanted traits to subsequent generations. Over time, you will provide the changed species with additional training opportunities and consequent survival and breeding advantages. And the final step will be to increase their toleration for your own fauna until they are comfortable mingling, and even sharing the fruit.”

    Dora Veriden was watching the flapped nutria-squirrels. “Must be handy to have those trained muskrats ready to work for you. How long does it take to bribe them into submission?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash turned, as did several of the legation, at the facetiousness of Dora’s tone. “The species you refer to, Ms. Veriden, has several of our own traits, which we find not only useful but crucial. Specifically, Slaasriithi intelligence arose not so much from tool use, but from our reflex to establish relationships with other species and thereby, increase our social sophistication, specialization, and survival strategies.”

    The ambassador gestured back toward the squirrel-nutrias. “We did not train these creatures to apply a crude version of operant conditioning upon these indigenous species. It is a reflex, coded into their genetic matrix. This is how they, and we, survive and ultimately thrive in new environments.”

    Ben Hwang nodded thoughtfully. “It sounds like a very gradual process, however.”

    “‘Gradual’ is an extremely subjective concept, Doctor.” Yiithrii’ah’aash began leading them into rougher terrain that was centered around a drumlin in the lee of the terminal moraine. “Time cost is strongly influenced by how one perceives time itself. And that perception, in turn, is strongly influenced by one’s concept of self and mortality.”

    Gaspard eagerly snapped at the discursive bait Yiithrii’ah’aash had left trailing in the wake of his last statement. “And how would you say Slaasriithi perception of self, and mortality, differs from human?”

    Yiithrii’ah’aash purred low and long. “Our individualism and self-worth derive from the role we play in the polytaxic matrix that is our community. Conversely, in human cultures, community is the outgrowth of a consensus between individuals. Which is to say, the individual is the foundation of your society, not the community.

    “And so, when you label our bioforming a ‘gradual’ process, I believe you are measuring it according to the life-costs you would associate such an enterprise: lost experiences, socialization, resources, additional accomplishments. It is, according to your species’ natural scales of value, a ‘bad deal.’ However, for my species, one’s role is innate to one’s taxon, so our instincts and aptitudes lead inexorably to the tasks that are our sources of fulfillment.”

    Gaspard cleared his throat. “And which, er, taxae, are working here on Adumbratus?”

    “My assistants are hortatorae. The trainers you saw are gerulorae. Only one other taxon is present, and very few of those: the novitorae. They are responsible for researching innovations in biota.”

    Caine, on Yiithrii’ah’aash’s other side, asked quietly. “And what of you, Yiithrii’ah’aash? To what taxon do you belong?

    The ambassador swung his sensor cluster slowly toward Caine. “I belong to a taxon that is much, much less populous than the others. In your language, the closest approximation would be ratiocinatorae.”

    Caine smiled to himself: And why am I not surprised?

    They made their way down into the rougher terrain.



    Gaspard was gasping as the legation, now strung out, paused to regather in a wide, rocky wadi. “I must confess, I am astounded at what you have achieved in the modification of this planet. I admit enough envy to wonder if these are skills you might teach us?”

    And so begins the pre-negotiation process. Riordan hopped up on a rock, waved for the stragglers to catch up. Macmillan and Wu, now at the rear of the group, waved their acknowledgement. Collarcoms had very limited range on Adumbratus.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash responded to Gaspard with a lazy roll of his fingers. “Our bioforming processes are not difficult if one does not proceed in haste.”

    Caine wondered if that caveat would remain audible over the cascade of imaginary gold ringing in CEOs’ ears. With Slaasriithi methods, marginal planetary environments could be made shirt-sleeve, and brown worlds could be made at least marginally green.

    If those long-term prospects were not a sufficient hook with which to snag the attention of human avarice, Yiithrii’ah’aash’s next offer was sure to irresistably harpoon it. “A selective application of the processes you have seen here, and on board our ship, might also help you in other ways. For instance, what if your spacecraft were able to reduce their environmental resupply needs by ninety percent?”

    Morgan Lymbery broke his long silence abruptly. “That would mean achieving a ninety-eight percent efficient bioloop compared to the eighty percent that is our current best.”

    “Yes,” Yiithrii’ah’aash answered simply.

    “You could do that?” It was no longer shortness of breath which made Gaspard sound like he was on the verge of panting.

    Yiithrii’ah’aash’s neck oscillated diffidently. “Your ships, being mechanical, have intrinsic efficiency limits. But they could be dramatically improved, with the right biota and symbiots.”

    “The right biota and symbiots”? Caine hopped down from his perch. And what pheromones or spores might they start releasing, either on our ships or our new shirtsleeve worlds, to make sure that we don’t hiss or growl when grabbing the next piece of fruit you offer to us? I just wonder if —

    “Caine, come in.” Bannor’s collarcom-distorted voice was sharp, no-nonsense. “We’ve got trouble.”

    Riordan saw a plume of dust at the mid point of their slowly re-collapsing column. Damn it — He started sprinting in that direction. “Sitrep, Major.”

    “Something charged out from the shadows of the shield moraine. Didn’t seem affected by the scent markers; went straight at its target.”

    “Which was?”

    “Dora Veriden. And she’s running like hell in your general direction.”

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