Raising Caine – Snippet 17

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.”