Reprieve - copyright 2011 S.S. Wilson

Reprieve

 

by S. S. Wilson

 

     The Coordinator settled into his bowl.  He had deliberately arrived early, well ahead of all other Participants, in order to signal his recognition of this meeting’s gravity.  Of course, in actuality that was beyond question.  The meeting itself was unprecedented, having been called so far in advance of the current Quarter Circuit end.

     As his ever-attentive symbionts attached his sensory leads, the Coordinator scanned the meeting chamber through a viewer.  His visual organs were not well adapted to distance, but the amplifying viewer would have been necessary regardless, for the oval chamber was quite vast, stretching away from his bowl until the furthest stone walls were but vague tones of grey.  It was necessarily large, having to accommodate the Participants with their widely varying sizes and wildly varying life-support systems.

     The chamber was ancient almost beyond imagining, having been constructed by the Originators nearly 20 Circuits past.  It was hollowed out of solid rock, beneath the surface of the moon which orbited the Study.  Said moon, being lifeless, lacking an atmosphere, and being an easily traversable distance away, was an ideal observation post.  It had been key in choosing the Study itself.

     The Coordinator now saw two groups of Participant representatives entering -- Dinosauria and Mammals.  They, too, had arrived well before the scheduled meeting time.  Well, no surprise there. 

     The Dinosauria reps were hung up in their pods by their slaves, while the Mammals reps flattened themselves on their customary rounded stones.  The Coordinator could feel the tension right through the quartz walls of his bowl as the two groups regarded one another with outright hostility (via optical infrared and microwave sensory organs, respectively).

     He heaved an ironic sigh, which is to say he forced a cloud of methane bubbles through his dorsal dilators.  He was the first Coordinator in history to preside over two consecutive meetings.  Normally, meeting transcripts were recorded, translated, stored and, when a Quarter Circuit had passed, etch-pitched into the minds of the next chosen Coordinator and Participant representatives (all of them many generations removed from their predecessors).  This system had proven reliable for maintaining continuity over the extremely long duration of the Study.

     Yet, here he was at his second meeting, and it was hardly an honor; for the Study was in jeopardy.  This was not his fault.  The Coordinator’s species, by original agreement, took no active part in the Study itself, so as to avoid conflict of interest; but it was nevertheless his responsibility to resolve the current issue and prevent the potential collapse of the Peace Agreement.  What a thankless task -- to defend the longest-lasting treaty ever known!

     The Study had been borne of galaxy-wide, eons-long conflict.  Before the Study itself had coalesced from dust, myriad life forms had set off exploring from their respective worlds.  Inevitably they had encountered one other.  Over untold millennia, there had been wars, standoffs, raids, isolationism, annihilation -- all the chaos that arises when confronting that which is different.

     But eventually, the Coordinator’s distant ancestors had sought to bring an end to the bloodshed, mistrust and misunderstanding.  Arranging an historic gathering, they had put forth a proposal based on an inarguably simple truth -- the thing all then-known advanced life forms had in common was curiosity.  Curiosity had caused them to leave their planets in the first place.  They all sought to understand the forces that drove the creation, development and evolution of life.

     The proposal was equally straightforward: instead of analyzing much-evolved eco-systems on their home planets (or abducting members of neighboring solar systems), and trying to guess at their history, why not cooperate to create an eco-system from scratch?  Select a newly-formed planet that had not produced life on its own, introduce the potential elements of life in a controlled manner, and meticulously record each and every permutation that arose from that beginning.  The ongoing findings would enrich the knowledge of all Participants.

     The proposal was enthusiastically accepted by the members of that original congregation.  The Peace Agreement was drafted and, dubbing themselves the Allied Intelligences, they set out on the largest, longest experiment imaginable.

     Pooling their information, they scanned the galaxy for budding planets, focusing on those rich in carbon, since carbon-based life-forms predominated among the Allied Intelligences.  When the Study was selected, it was still being bombarded by its young star system’s debris, but that assured that its surface would be pristine when work began.  During this period it was agreed to add water, as that compound was common on a majority of Participant home worlds.  Icy bodies from the outlying edges of the system were nudged inward to strike the study and thus significantly augment the water existing there.

     While the planet stabilized, the Allied Intelligences worked on their considerable communications issues.  Enormous effort went into refining translation techniques, establishing intra-galactic data transfer systems, and working out the experimental protocols for the Study.

     Time measurement varied widely among the Intelligences, but they soon hit upon an elegant way of logging time at the Study.  A Circuit was chosen as the base unit.  It was the time required for the planet’s parent star to travel around the galaxy.  All Participants could easily translate that immutable (very long) span into their preferred units.  Face-to-face meetings would be held four times per Circuit.  Between meetings, routine Study business would be carried out via sub-committees communicating over the data channels.  A small, permanent interdisciplinary staff would remain on the moon, monitoring the Study environment and collecting specimens as directed by the various Participants.

     Before long, the little star system had cleaned itself up (as they all do) and the Study was officially launched.  The Participants had many different theories about what compounds had been the seeds of life.  Each group separately prepared samples based on those theories.  It was a momentous occasion when they were at last invited to send proscribed amounts of their compounds to the planet’s surface.  Everyone watched and waited.  The first Circuit was deemed to have begun.

     The early environment of the Study was quite chaotic.  Much of that first Circuit passed before any evidence of success appeared.  But at last it did.  Certain compounds began to spontaneously self-replicate.  Not long after (at least, not long in Study-time) single-celled creatures arose.  Great mats and blobs and strands of these early life forms spread across the planet.  Many awards and congratulations went to the Participant group whose compounds had spawned them.  That group adopted the name, Bacteria.

     With the first major questions about life answered, additional experimentation was now authorized.  Participants were given permission to manipulate the proven building blocks of Bacteria’s thriving population to see what else might develop.

     To the gratification of all involved, much developed indeed. 

     Over a few Circuits, give or take, an absolute explosion of variety appeared -- life forms ever more complex.  The first long-term successes were in the planet’s oceans.  The group responsible, at first known simply as Sea Life, achieved such rapid diversification that it was necessary for them to divide into a number of sub-groups in order to better monitor their many organisms.  One of those sub-groups, Worms, methodically prodded their specialty into many environmental niches.

     More groups began to specialize, focusing on and becoming associated with their specific experiments.  In those early eons, a spirit of camaraderie and cooperation arose among the Participants (exactly as hoped-for by the Originators).  When any one group’s work achieved long term success, this was genuinely lauded by the others.

     While the planet’s seas overflowed with life, it proved much harder (confirming earlier hypotheses) to devise creatures that could colonize the Study’s land masses.  But this undertaking was met with relish.  Participants whose experiments had failed in the oceans redoubled their efforts to be the first to establish creatures on land.

     Plants (originally a Sea Life subsidiary) made some early inroads.  But it was the group eventually named Arthropods that made Study history, peppering the non-water areas with a dizzying array of robust, if rather small, creatures.

     All this while, Bacteria (now called Bacteria/Virus, because they had implemented a new and, remarkably, even simpler life form) remained loyal to their original creations, endlessly tinkering with the mechanisms of their tiny but astonishingly prolific and adaptable beings.

     Looking back on it, as the Coordinator was now forced to do, it was inevitable that Participants would become protective of their creations, and that some of these creations would gain advantages over others -- and that this would lead to conflict.  A not-so-subtle competition developed.  Groups sought to make changes that weren’t intended simply to explore processes of evolution, but also were aimed at gaining prominence on the Study (and thus notoriety for the group and its home planet).

     The Coordinators hoped that this competition might be healthy, that it would spur creativity, which in turn would unearth ever more knowledge.  And it did so for quite a long time -- until the unparalleled success of the group that came to be known as Dinosauria.  Capitalizing on certain environmental developments, refining predation and food-gathering techniques, and gambling on vastly increasing life form size, their new class of creatures marched relentlessly across the globe, achieving unheard of numbers and spectacular prevalence.

     The Coordinator also reflected on a detail that had seemed trivial at the time, but had now taken center stage.  Just before Dinosauria’s rise, a new Participant group joined the Study.  Having only recently affiliated with Allied Intelligences, they were regarded by established Participants as inexperienced upstarts.  Their home planet hadn’t even been discovered until the Study was fully 10 Circuits old.  Nevertheless, they had embraced the concept of the Study, willingly exploring those few environmental cubbyholes untrammeled by the work of others.  They quickly established a class of warm-blooded vertebrates for which their group was soon named: Mammals.

     But from the start, Mammals found their experiments consistently overshadowed, overwhelmed and outnumbered by Dinosauria’s prodigious menagerie.  In less than a Quarter Circuit, they were openly complaining about this over the communications network.  In earlier times such behavior would have been denounced as wholly unsporting, but, as it happened, the timing couldn’t have been better.  The fact was, Dinosauria’s long-term success was wearing thin with other Participants as well.

     Mammals saw opportunity, assumed leadership, and built the malcontents into a force of opposition.  At two consecutive Quarter Circuit meetings, Mammals’ representatives (and descendents) argued persuasively that Dinosauria’s supremacy was stunting new research, even working against the original goals of Study.  They tried to soften the attack by also suggesting that, of course, Dinosauria should be congratulated on their success.  Their methods should be enshrined alongside the most revered of Study annals.  But the time had come to step aside and allow freedom for new experimentation.

     Dinosauria rebutted aggressively, claiming that the suggestion was heretical and illegal under Study guidelines.  They held that their success was precisely the sort of thing the Study had been intended to uncover.  To arbitrarily scale back their work was to negate, nay to denypure science.  They should be allowed to pursue their methods to their natural end, whatever that might be, and however long that might take.

     They capped their response with a simple challenge, “Stop us if you can,” inviting all other Participants to devise life forms which would unseat theirs.  Wasn’t that essentially how the Study had functioned up to now, with Participants in friendly competition?  Was the opposition asking for an intervention simply because they were not creative enough to out-do Dinosauria?

     This struck a resounding chord, especially with long-standing Participants.  Mammals’ position was crushed.  Dinosauria’s challenge was eagerly accepted.  Yes, that was the fair way.  The scientific way! 

     Worms attacked with new parasites.  Plants created new toxins.  Bacteria/Virus offered up new diseases, even joining forces with Arthropoda, enlisting some of their creatures as carriers.  The rough-and-tumble competition spanned yet another Quarter Circuit.  Ironically, along the way, Mammals complained bitterly that their creations were suffering more from some of these assaults than were Dinosauria’s.

     In the end, while isolated reductions and even small-scale extinctions were achieved, Dinosauria’s hardy population rebuffed all counter-measures.  Participants began to feel that Dinosauria could not, in fact, be unseated, and Mammals’ opinion crept back into vogue.  Perhaps, went the thinking, Dinosauria had offered all they had to offer to the Study.  Perhaps their approach was now sufficiently explored and demonstrated.  Perhaps, just perhaps, it was not necessary, or even wise, to wait indefinitely for Dinosauria’s “natural” decline.  Mammals rammed this last point home at the conclusion of a particularly tumultuous meeting, “Do we keep waiting until the Study’s star expands to consume it?  What more will we have learned then?”

     Until that meeting, it was the Coordinators who approved all research and resolved all minor conflicts.  But the then-current Coordinator recognized that it would be potentially divisive to pass judgment on this monumental issue by herself.  Instead, she broke with tradition and ordered that a vote be taken.  The Participants themselves would choose what course to take.

     The ballots were counted.  Stunningly, Mammals’ position was overwhelmingly validated.  The first-ever Mandated Adjustment was approved.

     As a practical matter, there had already been a number of adjustments in the Study (a point Mammals had made repeatedly), but these had not been mandated.  They had been accidents.  For example, the Study’s inherent tectonic processes occasionally gave rise to enormous volcanic eruptions that effectively wiped out the work of one group or another.  And once (fortunately early on) the sea floors had unexpectedly unleashed an Study-wide cloud of methane that virtually eliminated the life forms of every Participant save for Bacteria/Virus.

     Each time, Participants had simply started over, accepting these events as part of natural planetary evolution.  Life, as they say, went on.

The Mandated Adjustment was different.  The Participants had to agree upon the scale and nature of it.  An event that would curtail the Study’s dominant life form would unavoidably affect all others.  So there was much discussion about what course to pursue.  At one point, a sub-group of Bacteria/Virus whimsically offered to concoct another methane extinction, pointing out that they could easily modify their organisms to create an abundance of the gas.  Of course, the other Participants virulently rejected this suggestion on the grounds that it would return the entire Study nearly to the beginning, forcing all groups to start again from scratch.

     Eventually, after much dispute, presentation and calculation, a projectile-based scenario was agreed upon.  A rocky orb of suitable size was chosen from the debris of the star system and guided into collision with the Study.  Participants from throughout the galaxy, more than at any other time in history, made the trip to the moon to watch the event in person.

     The math was good.  The spectacular strike had precisely the desired effect.

     As predicted, Dinosauria’s over-sized beasts suffered the most.  But almost everyone else’s work, including Mammals’, was drastically diminished.  Herculean effort was needed by all to recover from the Adjustment.  Even so, the work was undertaken in high spirits (except for disgruntled Dinosauria).  The Study was once again a wide open field of opportunity.

     A Quarter Circuit meeting came and went calmly, with typical data summations, exhibits and discoveries.  Plants had expanded the scope of their dissemination systems.  Sea Life continued to refine the shape and size of its denizens.  Mammals had been free to field a host of much larger creatures (doing little more, grumbled some, than feebly imitate Dinosauria’s work).  Dinosauria managed to maintain a vestige of their former presence, scrambling to salvage new (albeit much smaller) creatures from the remnants of their former population.  They insisted on keeping their original moniker, even though, informally, they were now referred to as Birds, so strikingly had their surviving life forms changed.

     The Coordinators had breathed a sigh of relief.  Things were back to normal.  Who would have predicted that, in barely a twentieth of a Circuit more, the first ever non-scheduled emergency meeting would be called. 

     This meeting.

     The other Participants’ representatives were arriving now -- walking, floating, wriggling, scrabbling onto, or in some cases, materializing in, their allotted positions.

     Sea Life’s many overseers were all present.  Plants, in particular Trees, had sent a full complement of department heads and assistants.  Arthropoda, who normally sent only a single representative (since they felt secure in their long-term hold on environmental niches) had present reps from all subdivisions, indicating their concern over the possibility of another Mandated Adjustment.

     Last to arrive, of course, were Bacteria/Virus.  They rolled in (literally), chortling among themselves in the annoyingly supercilious way the Coordinator had seen many times via records from past meetings.  They had sent no less than seven envoys, when one wondered why they sent even one.  Everyone knew they didn’t care which way the meeting went.  Many felt that they came only to revel in their relative invincibility.  First to appear on the Study, it was clear that their diminutive creations would also be the last to die.  Never mind that (it was privately complained) their line of research had yielded no genuinely new information since something like the 5th circuit.

     The Coordinator sighed again.  It was time.  He formally opened the meeting.  Dinosauria, fittingly, had been granted permission to make the opening remarks.  The pod of their spokes-thing opened and the grey-green blob within descended on slime-strands to face the gathering.

     It was always mildly disturbing to see a Dinosauria rep in the flesh.  While very few creatures on the Study bore any resemblance to the Participants who had created them, Dinosuria were perhaps the most unlike their formerly grand animals.  Indeed they were unusual even among the diverse life forms of the Allied Intelligences.  Dinosauria were hive-beings.  An “individual” was actually a mass of thousands of tiny, independent gelatinous creatures, held together in a hard-shelled pod maintained by the outermost members.  Upon reaching a certain population mass, the assemblage achieved a collective intelligence that in turn allowed them/it to communicate, work and build as a single unit.  They/it even lacked the male/female distinction common on many worlds (and on the Study).

     The Coordinator’s neural leads came to life, tickling his pressure lobes.  Simultaneously, similar devices went to work for each attendee, translating the Dinosauria representative’s remarks into sounds, signals, flashes of light, tactile rhythms, odors -- the many languages of the Allied Intelligences.

     The representative was eloquent, lacing its remarks with compelling and disturbing findings independently corroborated by the permanent moon-based staff.  The hammered and re-hammered point:  Mammals’ latest “tweak” to their work was wrecking havoc on the Study.

     To the chagrin of many, no one had paid much attention to Mammals’ creatures after the Mandated Adjustment.  If anything, Participants had only continued to titter that Mammals seemed intent on simply trying to grow their life forms as large as Dinosauria’s once grand creatures.  But along the way, Mammals had made an unnoticed change in one subset of their coterie, a fragile and clumsy bi-ped considered to have a very low chance for success.  They had increased the relative size of its brain. 

     On the face of it, this was of little interest.  Most Participants had long ago adopted various forms of the brain as useful for coordinating their creatures’ bodily functions, but no one saw value in increasing its size beyond that needed to perform those basic tasks.  Species survival was the goal.  Requiring an organism to maintain an oversized brain was viewed as a waste of precious energy.

     And yet, without warning, this unlikely big-brained mammal had suddenly spread out from its home continent, and had done so in a time frame so brief it was barely comprehensible.  Not in a Quarter Circuit, not in a twentieth Circuit, the creature had shot across the entire Study in something on the order of a hundredth of a Circuit.

     Having laid its groundwork, the Dinosauria rep launched into a description of the havoc to which he had earlier alluded.  The Coordinator had, of course, steeped himself in this material prior to the meeting.  Nevertheless, it was unnerving to hear it now poured forth so effectively, so emotionally. 

     “The situation is urgent beyond anything we have faced in the entire life of the Study!” boomed the Dinosauria speaker.  “The damage being done by this species is occurring at an almost incomprehensible rate, so rapidly that the moon staff has begun measuring it in terms of ‘micro-circuits,’ that is, the brief time required for the planet to pass once around its star.”

     Notes of amazement rustled through the translators.  Most Participants did not even have terms for such an infinitesimal length of time. 

     The Dinosauria rep pressed on, “Yes, the damage has been done in but a few thousand of these micro circuits.  If I may emphasize, in less than 5 hundred-thousandthsof a normal Circuit!”  Even as members struggled to grasp that, Dinosauria answered the next obvious question, “How is Mammals’ Big Brain doing this?  The species has invented its own rudimentary technology.  It is contaminating the Study oceans, modifying the Study atmosphere, and increasingly covering Study land masses with enormous nests made of various complex materials.  Along the way, species of every other Participant have been utterly wiped out.  Even,” he paused for effect, “including one or two of Bacteria/Virus!”

     This was indeed amazing.  Other than after the most extreme adjustments, no one could remember a whole family of Bacteria/Virus’ creatures being eliminated. 

     The Dinosauria rep had built to a well-planned crescendo, “Finally, and not least, Big Brain is actively modifying other Study life forms through breeding and even direct genetic interference.  They are now meddling in the very processes used by the Participants themselves!”

     Having presented an appropriately gloomy vision, Dinosauria requested to cede the floor to, not another Participant, but rather a representative of the Study’s permanent moon staff.  The Coordinator had been forewarned of the request, and approved it without comment.  The staff member’s bowl was slid into a position near his.  He could not help noticing she had remarkably attractive dorsal dilators (moon staff was predominately of the Coordinator’s species).

     Without preamble, she made the staggering announcement that members of Mammals’ Big Brain had traveled to the moon itself.  There were gasps/burps/pulses/flashes of astonishment from the assembled.  The visits had happened so recently that some Participants had already been en route to this very meeting from their home worlds, and thus were now hearing of it for the first time.

     The moon-rep quickly offered assurances that steps had been taken to camouflage the meeting chamber and living quarters, and that the Big Brains had ceased coming to the moon after a few visits.  But the event was no less alarming and instantly spawned a rash of worried discussion.  If Big Brains were capable of crude space travel, might they not also have instruments that would detect the arrival of the Participants on the moon?  Might they not have weapons?  Might there not some sort of attack?

     The Coordinator called for order and, when he finally got it, explained that this was the reason Participants had been asked to approach from the side of the moon which, fortunately, remained turned away from Study.  He encouraged the gathering to focus on the more pressing point.

     What were they to do?

     Dinosauria answered without hesitation.  Surely it was obvious!  To curtail Big Brain’s destruction of the Study, a Mandated Adjustment was needed immediately!  One did not need a translator to sense the response.  The cavernous chamber fairly bristled with support.

     But first, Mammals was, of course, invited to offer a defense.  Their representative raised the center of his flat, circular body and extended his three microwave sensors as high as possible for dramatic effect. (Like Dinosauria, Mammals were in no way similar to their hirsute handiwork down on the Study.)

     His defense was surprisingly brief.  “I remind the Participants that Dinosauria was allowed a full Circuit to expand and refine their creatures.  That would be about two hundred million micro-circuits, to use the moon staff’s new unit.  Surely it is grossly unfair to truncate our extremely successful Big Brain species in a minute fraction of that time.”  Then he added quickly, “That said, we of the Mammals group are sensitive to the concerns of our fellow experimenters, and will graciously accept a lesser time.  We suggest a Quarter Circuit.”

     The suggestion caused an angry outburst that the Mammal rep was, judging by the speed with which he retracted his sensors, clearly not expecting.  Members clamored to be heard.

     The Coordinator, after again demanding calm in the chamber, spoke instead.  He knew he spoke for the majority, but felt he could do so in a more impartial manner.  He calmly countered to Mammals that, given the facts already presented, the Quarter Circuit requested was much too long.  Big Brain might irreparably harm the Study in far less time.

     The Mammals rep re-raised his sensors, “We do not feel that any of Big Brain’s effects on the study are necessarily irreparable.  We respectfully point out that, during the reign of Dinosauria’s large creatures, the Study endured long stagnation.  In the current situation, even if Big Brain proves damaging, it will happen quickly and is, in any case, a valid outcome within Study guidelines.  Is not the creation of a life form that may essentially self-destruct via its own creative energy a most unusual and worthy discovery?  Dear Participants, the Study had weathered many cataclysms, not least the Mandated Adjustment.  Yet most of us were able to recover in some form.  At worst, Big Brain’s effects will be merely another form of adjustment.  I repeat, a Mandated Adjustment at this time is extreme, unwarranted, and unfair.”

     The Mammals rep then went further, rather tastelessly making a thinly veiled accusation that Bacteria/Virus had already attempted an unauthorized Adjustment on Big Brain.  He presented evidence that, a fraction of a Circuit prior to this meeting, a strain of Bacteria/Virus’ brood had killed nearly half Big Brain’s population.

     All seven representatives of Bacteria/Virus instantly sprang from their web tunnels.  The Coordinator recognized their speaker, who fumed, “We vehemently deny this accusation!  It is well known that our life forms have routinely struck down certain weaker Study populations.  These events are inevitable naturalinteractions, with no direct manipulation required or attempted on our part.”

     Mammals instantly protested.  A rather unseemly shouting match ensued.  The Coordinator had to temporarily interrupt the translators to end the interchange. 

     He suspected that Mammals hoped their accusation would help their case by deflecting consideration of Big Brain’s activities.  If so, the ruse had failed.  All Participants’ creations had felt the sting of Bacteria/Virus at one time or another.  The attendees were not disposed to take Mammals’ side in the matter.

     Mammals was saddled with another issue.  While they had formerly been a united and persuasive force in Study proceedings, they now suffered from extensive in-fighting.  The Big Brain sub-group found itself at odds with others in its own camp, because Big Brain was destroying many non-Big-Brain Mammal species in addition to those of other Participants.

     Mammals had bungled their defense.  The Participants demanded a vote.  While a small minority voiced tentative concerns about the work inevitably needed to recover from another Mandated Adjustment, it was clear that any vote would be overwhelmingly in favor of wiping out Big Brain.

     The Coordinator sighed a swirl of bubbles.  Personally, he did not think Mandated Adjustments were in harmony with the Originators’ design for the Study.  But, like his predecessors, he also felt it was folly to override popular will.  That might endanger the Peace Agreement itself.  So he prepared to ordain the vote.

     But then, softly, unexpectedly, Worms asked to speak.  Even the Coordinator was surprised.  Worms, like Bacteria/Virus, was extraordinarily successful; but unlike them, was humble and patient.  Lowly and little heard-from, they had, from nearly the beginning, persevered in cultivating the most unappetizing niches of the Study.  Participants with more extravagant creations tended to downplay Worms’ success, but everyone secretly recognized that, if the entire Study were suddenly to disappear, leaving only Worms’ countless creatures, the shape of the planet would actually still be visible in space, so thoroughly had Worms colonized it.

     Grateful for any delay, the Coordinator instantly gave the Worms rep the floor.  She gracefully unfolded into a large rectangular sheet, becoming nearly invisible, because her body was only one cell thick.  She began to undulate, and the chamber lighting played off her in roller-coaster rainbows.  The translation devices went to work interpreting her wholly visual ripple-speech.

     She opened simply, bluntly, “I propose that this assembly may be overlooking the obvious.  A Study creation has invented technology and even achieved limited space travel.  Must we not ask ourselves if in fact Big Brain is a sentient life form?”

     The translators nearly overloaded with a frenzy of exclamations --  shock, confusion, outrage!

     Dinosauria demanded, and got, the floor.  “Worms’ question is irrelevant to the proceedings!  We are here to discuss the horrific damage being done by Big Brain!  We must not be distracted from this central matter!”

     Worms replied evenly, “Supposed urgency aside, has there been any attempt to communicate with Big Brain?”

     Again the translators buzzed with consternation.  The Mammals representatives themselves were disconcerted.  Clearly they had not considered these points.  Their sole defense had been predicated on how long Dinosauria’s creatures had been allowed to rule the Study.

     But Dinosauria, better prepared, was ready an answer to Worms’ query.  Yes, there had in fact been attempts to communicate.  They smugly called upon the moon staff for a report.  Struggling to maintain his own composure, the Coordinator indicated his willingness to accept it.

     The moon staff rep again took the floor.  This time her information was new to even to the Coordinator.

     She explained that she was the current Director of Collection.  On her regular shuttle craft sorties to the Study, she had captured and examined many specimens of Big Brain.  When it had become clear that the creatures had a knack for using and making tools, she had recommended that the staff attempt communication.  However, since this was not possible on the cramped shuttle craft with its limited, (primarily surgical) equipment, Big Brain specimens had to be transported to the moon.  She apologetically admitted that it had taken quite some time to solve the problems of keeping a Big Brain alive, given that the moon staff’s life support systems were methane-based.  But, after a number of failures, several Big Brains had been lived long enough to attempt meaningful communication with them.

     Sadly, it had been a frustrating exercise.  While Big Brains used a fairly common sound-wave speech system, it turned out that specimens from different locations on the Study seemed unable to communicate even with one other, let alone with the moon staff.  To date, all attempts had failed.  The staff member hastened to point out how long it had taken, in the beginning, to solve the language translation woes among the Allied Intelligences.  She did not feel it was fair to judge the moon staff as deficient or derelict, given the short time they’d had.

      Dinosauria came forth again, taking the position that it did not matter whether or not anyone could communicate with Big Brain.  “It has long been evident that most creatures on the Study communicate in one form or another.  It is entirely beside the point.  The destruction of the Study, 19 circuits of labor and research, looms before us if we do not act!”

     The Coordinator could feel that Dinosauria’s remarks had swayed the body even further against Mammals.  But all the while, the Worms representative had rippled thoughtfully, and she now signaled that she had more to say.

     “My initial question has not been answered.  What if we, in concert, and Mammals specifically, have created truly sentient life?  What if we are now witnessing in them the birth of the very curiosity to which we ourselves respond?  To which we ourselves are slaves?  What if we have spawned rational thought and creativity?  Does such a creature have a claim to continued existence?”

     The Dinosauria rep’s glistening surface-ooze formed wrinkled yellow spots which, the Coordinator knew, indicated anger.  The rep declared, “The Study is an experiment, a proving ground, a laboratory, and nothing more!  Every Study life form was created by a Participant and placed there purely for experimental purposes.  Mammals’ Big Brain is artificial.  Its very existence is arbitrary.  It is ludicrousto suggest that it might have some ‘rights’ similar to those of the members of the Allied Intelligences!”

     “I concede your logic, however rigid,” Worms rejoined.  “Even so, is not the primary goal of the Study the pursuit of knowledge about life?  If we have created sentience similar to our own, its rise is by far the most recent in the known galaxy.  The fact that this life form technically has no ‘rights’ is meaningless measured against that possibility, against that unparalleled opportunity for the advancement of knowledge.  I suggest that we have an obligation to at least try to determine if this is the case.  In conclusion, I humbly ask the members two more questions.  Is it not the nature of experimentation that you do not know where it will lead?  Is it not the responsibility of the experimenter to accept, rather than to deny, an unexpected result?”

     The chamber translators suddenly fell eerily silent.  The Coordinator turned to the Dinosauria spokes-thing, but it remained silent, as well.  With those two succinct questions, Worms had turned the tide, even with those who most passionately wished to strike down Mammals’ rambunctious aberration.  A vote for a Mandated Adjustment would not now succeed.

     The meeting was thus plunged into lengthy debate.  The stakes were still very high.  Something still had to be done.  But what?  Arguments were vehement.  Compromise would be difficult.  Experts in the Study’s environmental ebbs and flows offered up worst- and best-case predictions of the speed and extent of Big Brain’s effects.  Moon staff gave estimates of how long it might take to achieve meaningful communication, assuming it was possible.  Proposals were made.  Votes were taken and re-taken (with Bacteria/Virus merrily abstaining every time).

     At last, a compromise was found.  Mammals’ Big Brain was granted a reprieve.

     It was an extremely limited one.  Big Brain would be allowed but .000005 Circuit more of unrestrained existence.  Mammals pointed out, with obvious annoyance, that this amounted to a mere 1000 micro-Circuits, 1000 trips of the Study around its star.  But the majority held that the rate of Big Brain’s destruction allowed for no greater leeway.  After that exceedingly brief time, Big Brain would be allowed to survive only if one of four conditions was met.

     One, another Participant life form would “naturally” unseat Big Brain, satisfactorily reducing its impact.

     Two, Big Brain would spontaneously reduce its destruction of the Study environment. 

     Three, the moon staff would succeed in translating Big Brain’s language or languages.  In that case, members of the species would be informed that they must cease the destruction of the Study.  If they complied, their kind would be spared.

     Four, if Big Brain revisited the moon, the craft in which they arrived would be ferried to the dark side where the meeting chamber would be revealed, in the hope that it might spur them to attempt communication on their own, with the same result as condition three.

     If none of these outcomes came to pass, Big Brain would be annihilated through Mandated Adjustment, the nature of which would be determined at a special meeting to be held at the end of the reprieve period.

     The exhausted attendees began to disperse.  The Coordinator shook off his neural leads and settled to the bottom of his bowl.  He knew that many representatives now faced the same trial as he -- the time until the special meeting would be far less than that required for a round trip to and from their home worlds.  They would be doing as he must do, remaining on the moon in uncomfortable, improvised quarters.

     He hoped his family would understand.  And he hoped they would take some comfort in the knowledge that he would most likely be the only Coordinator in all the Study’s long history to preside over three consecutive meetings.  As he drifted off to sleep, he even hoped Big Brain would survive to learn of and appreciate the sacrifice he and his fellows were making.

 

copyright 2011 – S.S. Wilson

 

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