Trial By Fire – Snippet 25
Trevor shrugged. “So what? A little sensory deprivation might make our guest more cooperative.”
Caine’s helmet lights picked out the spacesuited Arat Kur, floating motionless in a corner on the opposite side of the room. The cables wrapped around the oblong shape were intact. Trevor centered the laser aimpoint on the lower half of the alien’s belly. “You’re covered.”
Caine activated the room’s lights and the two humans closed to a meter’s range. Still no movement. Caine undid the knotted cables. The coils fell away from the Arat Kur, which simply floated, inert.
“Is it dead?” asked Trevor.
He had meant the question as a rhetorical gibe, but Caine leaned closer to inspect the life-support unit on the alien’s back. “I doubt it. There are no red lights showing on its life-support pack. However, a number of gauges have changed since we came over from the wreck. Probably those are simply measuring the drain on energy and air supplies.”
Trevor nodded; a reasonable hypothesis. “What do we do with him now?”
“We dress him out,” said Caine.
Trevor’s stomach contracted, trying to get away from the alien and the notion of seeing it fully exposed. “Is this a suitable environment for him?” he croaked.
“He should be okay. The atmosphere we found on his ship shows that they are oxygen breathers. If anything, he’ll find our air a little bland. His had higher traces of sulfur.”
Trevor found that removing the Arat Kur’s spacesuit was not especially difficult. The garment was semirigid, with a more flexible strip running across the dorsal surface. This strip functioned as a hinge, which allowed the suit to split into anterior and posterior halves. The ventral surface was quartered by the intersection of longitudinal and latitudinal seals. Opening the suit involved undoing these ventral seals and then exerting a slight pressure on the dorsal hinge; the Arat Kur eased out of the garment like an irregular pea forced out of its pod. Its six legs also dragged free of their coverings limply, then they slowly curled back up toward the torso until the rear two pair laid flat against the flat belly and the front pair were bunched up just under the alien’s chin.
Chin? Well, at least that’s how Trevor thought of it: the Arat Kur didn’t really have one. The creature’s body was essentially a front-heavy ellipse. The front was a blunt, flattened surface with a large, recessed central orifice: the alimentary opening, maybe? Two wide-set eyes were located above this “mouth” and two equally wide-set orifices were located beneath it. Slight, rhythmic alterations in those lower orifices suggested that they were respiratory ducts.
The Arat Kur’s back was most notable in that it seemed to be the only part of the body that sprouted any hair. The growth was sparse, occurring as small, evenly distributed clusters of short, fine spines. Each spine rose from the center of a pronounced pore. These, and a few other apparently hairless pores, were the only ones on the alien’s entire body.
Trevor pushed away from the presumed Arat Kur. “Any helpful insights?”
Caine shook his head. “None. You?”
“No. But I don’t trust it, the way it just floats there, waiting. Waiting for what? For us to turn our backs? To die?”
“Maybe it’s not waiting at all. Maybe it can’t move.”
“Maybe it’s in shock. Or in an altered state of consciousness. Or is too emotionally traumatized to respond.”
“Strange behavior for a race that settles its diplomatic problems by invading another species’ territory.”
“I agree.” Caine continued to inspect the creature. “Unusual eye structure: no pupils.”
Trevor leaned over to look for himself. “No pupils?”
“None that I can see. But then again, the whole eye is different.”
Trevor studied the area surrounding the organ. “I can’t see any ducts or moisture. In fact, I don’t think there’s much capacity for ocular movement.”
“Odd.” Caine paused. “What about those wrinkled ridges around the eyes? Maybe some kind of folded cartilaginous sleeve?”
“Doesn’t look like it to me. Why?”
Caine shrugged. “Could be the sign of an extrusive mechanism.”
“Eyestalks, huh? I don’t think so. Why are you checking the eyes so closely, anyway?”
“Sensory ability tends to be a first cousin to communication. If we get an idea of how the Arat Kur perceive their environment, we might learn a little about how they–now this is interesting.”
As Caine drifted closer to the Arat Kur, Trevor pushed farther back, retightening his grip on the gun. One fast slash of its front claws might filet Caine. But he seemed oblivious to the threat, staring closely into the alien’s eyes. “What are you doing, trying to hypnotize it?”
Caine’s voice suggested that he hadn’t even heard the gibe. “This isn’t really an eye at all. It’s the end of a thick fiber-optic bundle. It’s a–a kind of lens. No soft tissue whatsoever.”
“So where is the retina, or its analog?”
“Probably back in the carapace. Which makes sense, when you think about it.”
“Well, they appear to be evolved from some kind of burrowers, right? So, lots of dirt and debris flying around, airborne. Trapped in tight, subterranean spaces where it can’t disperse. The Arat Kur eye, evolving in that environment, develops a fairly insensate outer surface: a thick lens. Multiple lenses, if I’m seeing things correctly.”
“Why multiple? Redundancy in case of obstruction or injury?”
“Maybe. Or maybe it gives the Arat Kur more visual options.”
“The ability to change depth of focus, for instance. Our eye changes focus by using muscular force to reshape the lens. The Arat Kur eye doesn’t seem to have any muscles and the outermost lens certainly doesn’t look very flexible. So instead, they might select different lenses for different focal requirements.”
Trevor carried the idea one step further. “That could even give them a means of compensating for their lack of eye mobility. Perhaps the right combination of lenses gives them a fish-eye lens effect, a wide-angle view. But that wouldn’t give them very good vision. Compound eyes aren’t terribly efficient.”
Caine kept starting at the Arat Kur. “First of all, I’m not sure this is a real compound eye. Just because there are lots of lenses doesn’t mean there’s a retina for each one. And when it comes to efficiency–well, I suppose that depends upon what the eye is supposed to achieve. As burrowers, the Arat Kur probably don’t spend a lot of time above ground. So, how essential is three-hundred-sixty-degree vision? How much do they need highly mobile eyes?”
Trevor saw the point, finished it. “Instead, they’d need eyes that weren’t particularly sensitive to debris. And they’d also tend towards developing superior sensitivity to lower wavelength light in order to increase their ability to see in the dark.”
“Most specifically, to see in the infrared,” agreed Caine. “That way, in a completely lightless burrow, they can still locate other Arat Kur by their body heat.”
“Okay, but how does knowing all that help us to communicate with it?”
Caine was floating around the side of the alien. “It helps us by suggesting that vision cannot be the primary sense for the Arat Kur.”
“Well, as you said, long-distance vision probably isn’t so good; that’s pretty much a constant with any multiple-lens ocular structure. That means that they would tend to be even less dependent upon visual warning, so it will be less important to their evolution. And if they are truly shortsighted, then they’re going to have to find another medium for long-distance communication.”
Trevor thought. “Which means that this critter should have a really good set of ears. But I’m not seeing any.”
“I think I’ve just found them.” Caine sounded like he was smiling. “Come take a look.”
Trevor moved forward slowly, keeping the aimpoint on the alien’s belly. He stopped, looked where Caine was pointing: at the Arat Kur’s back. Again, Trevor saw the big, raised pores sprouting rigid, short black hairs, although some of the biggest pores showed no hair at all. He looked for an orifice hidden amongst them, or a tympanum. Nothing. “I give up; where are its ears?”
“You’re looking at them.”
“Ugly back hairs?”
“I’m betting that those aren’t hairs. Those are retractable antennae. Almost fully retracted now, I’ll bet.”
Trevor looked again. “That’s an awful lot of antennae.”
“No more than you’d expect for a creature so completely dependent upon sound. They probably go straight down into acoustic chambers of some sort, transmitting the vibrations they detect to an audial nerve.”
“Then why are the hairs–antenna–retracted now? Are we being purposely ignored?”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s a reflex that reduces stimuli.”
“So it is ignoring us.”
“No, more like it just can’t handle what it’s experienced and has withdrawn its consciousness from the outside world.”
“Maybe. Or perhaps it’s a natural trauma response for the species.”