The many Sophonts of "Fellow Tetrapod"...
For a couple of years now, I have been collaborating with the fantastic Sci-fi author, Daniel Bensen. We have been working to assemble a sci-fi story about a scenario in which man has been contacted by a convention that spans the many alternate timelines of earth, those that have produced Sapient, civilization-building species, ones with advanced technology, ones like us. We call this story "Fellow Tetrapod".
It was a long and arduous process, but it turned out that we collaborated very well. I provided my services as a conceptualist and creature designer, along with Dan who is also very proficient at this. I was also the main illustrator of chapter-headers.
In order to promote this work of fiction, I am posting a rogues gallery of the many and varied persons which we meet in this book. Each species that we see is part of the Convention of Sophonts, which is very exclusive, divisive, weird, and potentially teetering ever on the verge of an inter-timeline war.
Those who wish to read this wonderful book are directed to do so here:
It is currently released as a serial, but plans exist for hard copies in the future.
From this point on, I provide extended quotes from the book, describing each of the species, these are all written by the author, Daniel Bensen. Additional commentary by me will be highlighted in dark red.
Also, SPOILER WARNING! Below are potentially severe spoilers for the story, so if you do not wish to be spoiled, click away now!
On one Earth, eastern Africa dried out. This was both a problem and an opportunity for the local apes.
The apes that walked upright tended to do best on the new savannas. Some of these could throw rocks at their prey, which was very convenient. Of those, some could shape rocks (or as the case may be, sticks and bones) into better tools for throwing, digging, cracking, or even starting fires. Some could talk, and convince others to do all this work for them.
Many generations later, in the middle of an artificial savanna of refined metals, rocks, and petroleum products, a man thunked his forehead against a door. ..
On another earth, half a billion years ago, a rotifer left its burrow and swam up into the water column.
The rotifer was a near-microscopic worm. From one end of its barrel-shaped midsection protruded a tail-like "foot." From the other, its head. The head was crowned by complexly-folded jaws, a unique adaptation. These everted from the worm's throat and paddled the tiny animal through the water. It was soon eaten by something snaggle-toothed and squiggly.
But there were more rotifers where that one had come from. A few eons later, those jaws (called together the "mastax") had grown enormously, forming a cage around the vulnerable body. On land, the "mastoid cage" protected the organs, folding and folding again to produce a nest of interlocking mouths, a quartet of origami limbs, and other structures for human biologists to give Greek names to.
Thus, the terrestrial, acladotrophic, mastaplestoid rotifer. Imagine a severed, four-fingered hand, made from tortoise-shell origami. The complex mouth is in the "palm" of this hand, with a pumping bellows for a "wrist" and a single eye between the two forward "knuckles." Now, flip that thing upside-down, so it can live in mangrove trees.
When the Ice Age hit and those trees died, one group of climbing rotifers were most inconvenienced. Those that survived were the ones that could dig wet burrows with one set of their nested teeth and plant mangrove seedlings with another. Even better, some of these could use their limbs to dig trenches through the mud, re-distributing the water in times of drought and mounding up dykes in times of inundation.
The groves of the canal-makers spread and met. War, conquest, slavery, and diaspora followed. Fire came, then ceramics and glass, stone and iron. Writing administered the interlocking cages of trade that prevented one clone-stock from exterminating another.
After time on the geological scale, this other earth had been mostly converted into brackish swamp. The teaming billions that swung and burrowed through its artificial mangroves called themselves by many names, but all depended on the same body of law and commerce: the Regulation of Quotidian Affairs.
On one earth, India failed to collide with Asia. It cruised slowly north past Africa, pushing up a series of islands like the folds in a bedspread. Legged snakes, true frogs, and slender hoofed animals frolicked across the warm archipelagos until the Ice Age hit. Glaciers advanced and receded, the seas fell and rose, and islands vacillated between sere mountaintop and flooded sand bar. Entire ecosystems crashed, rose, and crashed again until, for one species of burrowing hippo-whale, enough was enough.
Dykes rose, and great, squat pyramids. The mud became a monument to civilization, the ability of a matriarch to impose her will upon the world of dumb matter. This was why they called their species-government the Monument to Universal Fecundity, and not because they were all such large animals.
On one earth (actually in orbit around it) robots figured out how to invade another universe.
It worked like this: first, you find yourself the product of an interplanetary civilization founded in the Middle Cretaceous. With the shoulders of giants like that to stand on, you can see far indeed. With your mighty, epoch-spanning construction techniques, you build artificial black holes, knotted cosmic strings, particle accelerator rings of monstrous size. Then you just smash and smash at the universe until something gives. Into the resulting hole, you shove in your hand (or in this case, your nick-iron manipulator claw). Now, tighten your grip and pull.
Picture the scene from many centuries ago. A team of mechanical physicists clusters around a control node of a collider 750 million kilometers in diameter. It has been made mostly of the planet Jupiter. With some ceremony, the machine is activated.
Light bends, antiprotons flurry, extra dimensions uncoil like springs, and everything within the compass of the enormous ring flickers into a new position.
Garden asteroids change position, their solar panels now grown into different shapes. City-webs of entirely new architecture tumble in what was empty space an moment before. Those Tensors who have not been cut apart by boundary effects detect radio traffic in an as-yet unknown language.
Once the war ended and the dust had settled, the Tensors figured out what they had done. They had replaced a disk-shaped slice of their solar-system with the corresponding slice of a neighboring universe. Now the question was, could they do it on purpose next time?
From the subsequent program of inter-universe invasion and conquest, the Tensor Equations Describing Relational Manifolds emerged. These equations yielded solutions that suggested, perhaps, the Tensors should stop conquering so much. Those who pointed this out were vaporized.
There followed an epic struggle of espionage and treason, lightning attack and glacier armament. Infinitely-folded hyperspace battle-lines propagated through innocent slices of space-time. Impossible energies were focused in the perpetration of incomprehensible atrocities. The scope of the Extraction War was so great that it cannot be discussed further in this story.
A brief aside, because the Adventurians were somewhat famous at that time.
The crew of the star ship Adventure departed from its earth 200 million years ago, bearing a crew descended from Suminia (Imagine an iguana with bigger teeth, although Sumnia was actually more closely related to you). They spent several subjective years traveling to the other side of the Virgo Cluster and back at relativistic speed.
Because the speed of light must be the same for all observers, as an object approaches the speed of a photon, it must experience time more slowly. Otherwise, it would catch up to the photon, right? If you accelerate without stop at 1 gravity, you (or, in fact, if the Adventurians) will arrive and be able to return in less than a lifetime. But for the rest of the universe, much more time has passed.
The Adventurians knew that. They expected to return to a home world changed by a hundred million years of un-dilated time. However, they also expected to find some sign of life elsewhere in the universe. They expected their sacrifice to mean something.
Having returned to an abandoned and unrecognizable earth, with nothing to show for their efforts but discoveries in astrophysics, the Adventurians were understandably depressed. Then, their ship's chief engineer noticed an anomaly in the antimatter generator. The anomaly seemed to be a sequence of prime numbers. After exploring the galaxy and losing their home, the Adventurians had stumbled upon the Convention of Sophonts.
On one earth, ravens discovered knives. Like many sophonts, their ancestors were generalist omnivores and scavengers. They ate berries, nuts, insects, and small mammals when they had to, but they preferred the carrion left by wolves. They guided packs with caws and aerial displays, so that the predators would kill and tear apart a deer or boar, opening its carcass to the beak.
Occasionally, a prey animal would die of some other cause, and no large carnivore would be available to open it. In those cases, the ravens would have to content themselves with eating only the animal's eyeballs and tongue, for their beaks could not pierce hide.
At some point, entirely by chance, one of these birds poked the belly of a forest bison with a stick of sufficient sharpness. The skin parted. The raven fed, and grew larger and more dominant.
The sticks were useful for more than just accessing entrails. They could be used to pry insects out of wood, dig holes in which to cache food, and beat rivals into submission. Ravens better at making and using these tools prospered, as well as those who were better at navigating the increasingly fraught and complicated world of politics. How can I get a stick like that? Whom will I beat with it once I have it? How will others react, and how will I deal with them?
It was only a matter of time until some bird knocked one piece of obsidian against another. They became even larger, with proportionally enormous brains inside elongated, snub-beaked skulls. Effective communication necessitated symbolic thought, and individuals with more nimble beaks and tongues prospered.
The knife-users spread from what might otherwise have been southeastern Siberia, carrying their ever-more complex toolset with them, driving their tame wolves, deer, and walking apes. It is possible that the apes brought fire to the ravens, or perhaps it was the other way around.
Soon, the Steppes were planted with roost-trees and the coasts bristled with the branching masts of fishing fleets. Forest-citadels rang with the clash of scissor-masks. The skies echoed with the caws of heroes.
Wars and conquests hatched plagues and enlightenments. By the time they had learned to build particle accelerators and the Convention contacted them, the ravens had mostly learned how not to kill each other. Their multitude of squabbling project-roosts stayed civil under The Pick that Administers Direction.
The influence of the Pick had only grown since joining. They were a senior species, widely respected for their sharp eye for opportunity and the terrible reputation of their allies, the Tensors. It was an unprecedented honor for the Pick ambassador to personally visit the embassy of a junior species. There was a great deal of speculation about what he thought the United Nations could possibly offer.
On one earth, spiders learned how to build puppets. The first of these spiders were simple deinopid net-casters, which spun their webs between their four front legs and jumped onto their prey. Spiders with camouflaging leaves stuck to these nets found themselves better fed, and bred more. Spiders that placed their leaves in deliberate patterns were even more successful. Some of those patterns bore a resemblance to the spiders' prey.
The first mimic-nets were simple affairs, capable of fooling only stupid insects in poor light conditions. Of course, this meant that over time insects got better at recognizing and avoiding mimics. This placed a selective pressure on the spiders to build more convincing mimics, which meant only the most discerning prey survived, which forced the spiders to improve their craft, and so on in a text-book case of evolutionary arms-race.
Larger spiders evolved, with better vision and cleverer legs. Webs evolved with naturalistic colors and movement, smell, and even sound. Even logic.
On one earth, fish crawled out of the sea. No, not those fish.
The line that would give rise to the sharks and rays also produced the xenacanthids: long, slippery, venomously-spined creatures that hunted the brackish bayous of the late Devonian. This was just when land plants had evolved to the point where they could support an ecosystem of prey. Shark-like predators waited in ambush at the edges of shallow ponds, lunging forward on their front fins to snap up passing invertebrates. These powerful fins were also useful when the pond dried up.
The problem with life on land is that it weighs a creature down. Air does not support flesh the way water does, so a terrestrial animal must evolve a rigid support structure. The xenacanthids did, but not from their flexible, cartilaginous skeleton. Instead, successful land-walkers were those with stronger and larger denticles on their fins. These tooth-like skin structures grew and fused into plates, interlocking aground the legs, fanning out across the chest and groin, and rising to cup the torso. Like their invertebrate prey, the fish evolved exoskeletons.
Imagine the following diversification and extinction events. Terrestrial sharks occupied every niche, from runner to flier to burrower. On one earth, they grew very large.
For this lineage of giant herbivores, eyesight became a problem. Through one evolutionary misadventure or another, these placid browsers could not see well enough to defend themselves from predators. Predators of course took advantage of this sensory deficit, and the most successful grazers were those that cultivated a relationship with sentries.
A species of small flying animal—not in fact anything like a lizard, but a kind of terrestrial shark—lived on the backs of the large browsers. These lizard-birds fed on the parasites that lived between their hosts' armor plates and gill-flaps. And they had excellent vision.
The reader can probably imagine at this point the selective pressures that followed. Predation pressure assured that the tight lines of communication evolved between grazer and flier. Environmental change rewarded those grazers with more complex, cooperative behavior. Larger, more interdependent herds necessitated some means of rapid communication, and there were already these flocks of fliers everywhere.
Flocking behavior is one of the classic examples of emergence. Even a simple set of rules enacted by tiny-brained individuals can branch out into impressive feats of calculation on the level of the whole flock. Memories can be kept, strategies can be passed on, events can be simulated in the flock, and the resulting plan enacted to gain real-world prizes. Swarm intelligence, the hive mind, is known in many Convention species.
This species called itself the Bucolics. The cow-turners.
On one earth, monkeys never made it to South America. It was always going to be a chancy endeavor, rafting on uprooted trees all the way from Africa. Objectively, it was much more likely for tree-dwellers to island-hop down from North America.
These furry creatures, procyonid carnivorans related to raccoons, coatis, and kinkajous, diversified quickly in the Amazon. Fruit-eaters evolved as dexterous and intelligent as any simian. Perhaps more intelligent, because they didn't wait for natural selection to adapt them to life outside the rainforest. Rather than evolve long legs to walk on the ground, they invented stilts.
The most basic stilt is a long branch grasped in the opposable digits of a hand and a foot. Gripping a pair of stilts, a furry tree-dweller can stand tall and run fast, but it cannot hold anything. War required an archer standing on the shoulders of the stilt-walker. Civilization required further armor. It was from this base that the concept of the Greaves of Progress emerged.
Mark stopped this with a wave of his now-clean spoon. "That's not the point. What I mean is that you can imagine what it would be like for you to be small and furry and flap around echolocating, but you can't know that's how a bat feels."
This is less literally true of the Loxodromes, who evolved from ship-building desmodontine bats on an earth where South America drifted west more quickly. These explorers and traders set forth aboard their great timber rafts, following the warm, salt currents in search of new altruism to reciprocate and blood to drink.
It stood at the nadir of the auditorium, its long legs braced against the diamond-shaped walls. Each leg ended in a dainty hoof, each hoof extending from a clutch of fingers. The skin was covered in a cracked, waxy coating like lacquer, and its broad, neckless head was twice the width of Laura's. Quills rattled on a thick tail. Nictitating membranes flicked across eyes like mud-colored tangerines. It opened a toilet-seat mouth, and light gleamed off a ceramic-colored tongue.
"I am?" Laura asked the maw yawning right under her feet.
"Welcome," the giant amphibian hissed. "Welcome, fellow tetrapod!"
On one earth, jellyfish beat plants in the invasion of land. A colonial species with glassy shells and symbiotic algae grew to be the size and shape of trees, as the reader already knows. The reader might not be aware, however, of how jellyfish reproduce.
The larvae produced by the fusion of egg and sperm develop into polyps, which bud asexually and may form a colony like coral before they segment into a shape like a stack of bowls. Each of these bowls develops into a sexual medusa-stage, the familiar bell-with-tentacles.
The glass-barked trees of the Quotidian earth and many others correspond to the asexual polyp stage, and grow sexual medusae as the equivalent of fruits and seeds. For many of these species, the medusa is still mobile. For some, it is quite mobile indeed.
Imagine a jellyfish stuffed bell-first into a four-cornered glass cone, green with algae. Four sophisticated eyes, lens, retina and all, peek out from between four legs and four arms, each a concertina of folded silicone sandwiched between layers of flesh. Of the anus-mouth in the center, we will not speak.
As their asexual stage dominated the plant-niches of their earth, the sexual stage took on the roles of animals. They were born as the fruit of a precious child-bush, grew, loved, and planted leathery seed-eggs in good soil, so more children could be harvested in their season.
Tool use came when the glass shells of the dead were cleaned of algae and set in the sun, where they focused the light and produced temperatures hot enough to melt sand into glass. Even today, these lovers of tradition call themselves the Vitrifers: those who carry glass.
On one earth, mice planted orchards.
Monkeys eat fruit. They throw the seeds away or swallow and excrete them, effectively propagating whatever tree it is that feeds them. Rodents, however, have ever-growing, iron-reinforced incisor teeth, which they use to gnaw through wood, nuts, and seeds. This behavior, of course, does not propagate the food plant.
Unless it does. The ancestors of Fling were not exactly squirrels, but they also had a habit of burying caches of nuts, which sometimes sprouted. Like the even more distantly related beavers, they gnawed through the bark of living trees to get at the sugary cambium. This killed the tree, but, importantly, never the same kinds of nut trees that these rodents depended on for food. Unconsciously, they planted and weeded their groves.
At first, these rodents simply piled up the dead branches of the trees they killed. Some of the weed-trees, however, were acacias of the sort called "myrmecophytes." These grew special chambers in their flesh to feed and house colonies of ants, which returned the favor by fertilizing and defending their home trees.
The orchard mice appreciated this intricate mutualism by eating the ants. The gift of protein rewarded those mice that cut down and gathered more acacia branches. Rewarded even more highly were those mice that cut acacia branches and stuck in them in ground where they could take root.
Soon, central Africa was dotted with groves of nut trees, surrounded by thorny, ant-infested acacias, tended by families of large, well-fed, silviculturally-minded rodents.
Then the climate changed and the jungles dried up.
There followed the familiar runaway feedback loop of cooperation, social sense, and reason. Familiar, except for the brain parasites.
Toxoplasma gondii is a single-celled parasite related to the malaria-causing Plasmodium, more distantly to the red-tide causing dinoflagellates, and even more distantly to kelp. Kelps and other brown algae are generally inoffensive, but T. gondii's clade gave up on photosynthesis in favor of parasitism.
These single-celled organisms burrow into the cells of cats, where they steal ATP, disrupt pro-apoptosis effector proteins, and perpetrate other nefarious deeds. The most famous crime of T. gondii, however, is the way it spreads itself from cats to their prey and back again.
Step 1: cat eats mouse. Step 2: T. gondii cysts between the mouse's muscle and brain cells hatch into mobile tachyzoites. Step 3: tachyzoites produce oocytes, which come out the other end of the cat's gut in the usual way. Step 4: mouse eats cat poop, but ignore that for a moment because what's even worse is step 5: the ingested T. gondii burrow into the brains of the mice and start changing their neurochemistry. When they smell cat urine, infected mice run toward it. A pounce and a bite later, we arrive again at Step 1.
Consider the effect of toxoplasmosis on an intelligent rodent. Granted the blessings of self-awareness and ratiocination, does it realize that its urge to run out onto the Veldt and be devoured by lions was caused by brain parasites? Does it exercise its budding will-power and resist the temptation?
No. It rationalizes.
The dawn of Toxoplasmotic civilization began when an intelligent rodent looked out beyond the hedge-walls of its home grove and thought that's where I belong.
The predator-rich night! Sniff that danger and opportunity! I will run there, yes! I will bound! I will throw myself into the teeth of adventure! And if I come back, it will with my cheek-pouches stuffed full of discoveries!
Some did. Those groves with a few—not too many—toxoplasmotics found themselves prospering. New varieties of nut and ant-thorn tree, new allegiances with distant groves, new ideas. Careful tending of the god-cats and their ecstatic ceremonial victims led to selective breeding of different strains of T. gondii, each with subtly different neurological effects. When they discovered the microscope, things sped up a great deal.
Oh, the tilted towers they built! The glorious maze-cities. The space-craft that zigzagged around the solar system, seeking out new forms of danger. The staggering number of religious wars.
The Toxoplasmotic civilization that eventually contacted the Convention of Sophonts was considerably tamed. The vast majority of the population was infected with ritual strains that produced no significant behavioral changes. Only arch-traditionalist cultic priests gave their brains over to the old, fierce parasites. Fling was one of these.
The hagfish familiar to humans is one of only two surviving clades of the once-mighty cyclostomes, a group of fishes without jaws or teeth. Without these advantages, hagfish make do with the ability to tie themselves in knots and produce a form of mucus unrivaled in its durability and abundance. On one earth, their slime allowed hagfish to conquer the land.
Step 1: secrete a sheath that dries into a tough crust, impermeable to water. Step 2: push spines of denser material out. These can work as legs. Step 3: incorporate found objects, such as wood, stone, and eventually glass. Step 4: develop a moral system based upon the Courteous Extrusion of Complementary Forms.
Next to him crouched a creature shaped like a giant hatbox. The sides of the box had been painted in an attractive striped pattern of brown and white, and bristled with wooden knobs, bristles, and legs. Windows along the edges and on its upper face revealed green internal cavities. It was a Sprocket.
Horsetail spores are very interesting. As with ferns, these single cells are released by a parent plant (or "sporophyte") to wander off until they find a suitable place to settle down and grow into a gametophyte. Gametophytes produce sperm and eggs, which fuse into zygotes, which grow into new horsetails. Horsetails look a bit like segmented grass, but we needn't pay them much attention. Instead, consider the spore.
Horsetail spores possess four "elaters" which are rods made of two materials: one expands when wet, the other contracts. In other words, the elater bends and the spore "walks" toward areas of higher humidity.
On one earth, a mutation caused the swollen tip of the fertile stem of a horsetail (called a strobilus) to fail to release the spores it produced. Instead, the spores stayed together, with their elaters interlocking. Many further iterations of mutation and selection produced a cluster of clockwork springs that could move around, dig holes, and find a good place to plant itself.
Increasingly large and complex strobili fought with and ate each other like animals. In wet internal chambers, they formed gametophytes, which produced sperm and eggs that, when combined under very special and romantic circumstances, produced sporophyte-embryos. Some of these produced clockwork whose governing principles caused more sophisticated behavior.
Thus it was that the Sprocket between Law and Action formed. In the fullness of time, it was inducted into the Convention of Sophonts.
One one earth, octopuses were raised by their stepmothers.
Cephalopod reproduction has the unfortunate characteristic of semelparity. The first time an octopus breeds is also the end of its life. Male octopuses die after they transfer their spermatophores into a female's mantel, and females survive only long enough for their eggs to hatch. Birth is death.
This life strategy places limits on the development of civilization. How can the young learn the wisdom of the elders if the generations don't overlap? One solution would be a mutation that stops the process of senescence that kill adults once their reproductive job is done, but that isn't the mutation that happened to occur on this version of earth.
Instead, some octopuses grew up sterile. Of every clutch of eggs, two or three females lack the ability to store sperm. When their sisters and brothers breed and die, they live on to tutor the next generation. This gave them a certain outlook on life and education.
On one earth, elephants took to the sea. The moeritheriids were early proboscideans that adapted to a rotund, semi-aquatic, hippo-like niche. They wallowed in the wetlands of Eocene North Africa, grabbing aquatic vegetation with their flexible, trunk-like upper lips. As Africa drifted and the climate changed, they did not go extinct, but shifted to a diet of the mussels that lived around the roots of the reeds they ate. Moeritheriids with better control over their lips were better at finding and extracting mollusks. They were also better at fashioning tools of shell, stone, and driftwood to wield against predatory whales and each other.
Unlike whales, which can give birth underwater, the walrus-hippo-elephants who currently occupy our attention had to haul out of the water to reproduce. Their flippers incapable of supporting their weight, they were forced to ignominiously bounce their blubbery bodies over mud and rocks in a mode of locomotion known technically as "galumphing." Animals reproduced better when they fashioned tools to help them move on land. Sled runners gave way to boardwalks and wheels.
The land was a good place for manufactured tools. Ceramics could be fired and metals forged and left out without undue rust. The land was also a sacred place, a place of love and birth and burial. Even better, industrial waste was easier to store there.
The temples of the Ceremonial Technocracy rose higher, spread wider, and grew ever deeper in complexity. With the discovery of atomic physics and contact with the Convention, the Holy Dry Frontier expanded to infinity. Thus it was that pilgrims came to the Zogreion to contemplate the afterlife, dedicate themselves and their unborn children to galumphing across the eternal mysteries of existence, and eat at highly-rated restaurants.
On one earth, hornbills built mud huts. Most species of these large, heavy birds live in trees, where they use their long, curving beaks for display and the capture of fruits and small animals. When northeast Africa collided with Eurasia and cast a rain shadow that turned jungles into savanna, however, some of these birds descended. The bucorvids, or ground hornbills, evolved at this time. Larger, longer-lived, and more carnivorous than their tree-dwelling cousins, they stalked the savanna, alert for prey.
Nesting became a problem. Hornbills breed in hollow trees, and flight is essential for finding entry holes out of the reach of predators. However, it was the largest, heaviest birds that could bring in the best meat.
The solution to this dilemma came with the rediscovery of clay. The ancestral, tree-dwelling hornbills sealed their brooding females into their nests with walls made of mud, droppings, and fruit pulp. The female would stay there until her chicks were fledged, fed by her mate through a tiny slit in the mud wall, protected from the ravages of the weather, predators, and other male hornbills. Early ground hornbills needed between two and six unmated young males to help each mated male protect and feed his mate during her parturition. In this practice, the young males gained the experience needed to successfully raise their own eggs. When some of them began to build walls of clay around brooding females, breeding success increased.
The construction of these parturition huts required care and wisdom. The shape must capture and redirect cooling breezes, and must be situated in a defensible position with good access to water and game. Other tribes of hornbills must be driven off or sealed into walls of cooperation with the application of hunting treaties and marriage.
No longer tied to trees, the birds grew larger and taller, their legs thicker to support heavier brains. They cared more about eggs than infants, established social hierarchy through careful torture, and tended to bite. They spread in waves from eastern Africa, with each succession of migrants finding cousins with which to interbreed, conquer, and replace.
The Universal Guardianship of Parturition, which emerged to negotiate with the Convention upon contact, was defensive, cunning, and above all cautious. Thus their choice of venue for first contact.
On the humans' Earth, the only surviving sphenodont is the tuatara of New Zealand, a gray-green, wrinkly reptile about a foot and a half long. On another earth, Australia and Antarctica failed to separate, and some sphenodonts learned to keep each other warm.
When the bracken-taiga spread from the Weddel Sea to the Torres Gulf, scaled creatures crawled under the birds and marsupials, plotting. Their adaptation to the cold was simple: gregariousness. The sphenodonts huddled together on cold antarctic nights, maintaining enough heat in the centers of their colonies to dig for grubs and tubers. Their feeding sites attracted birds and mammals, which squatted over the reptiles and warmed them further. The retention of the parietal eye, with its lens, pupil, and connection to the pineal gland, allowed them to seek out the warmest belly overhead.
Reptiles better able to politic themselves into the center of the huddle prospered, as did those who most effectively controlled their warm-blooded domesticates. Populations with more mobile tongues could both communicate and wield tools. Brains slowed in the cold, but sped up when warm, and empires clashed over the lush lands of the equator.
Now, the three Huddle looked up at Koen and his friends, covetous of their warmth.
It looked to Li like a giant squid, but he was very much mistaken.
Suspecting this, Li aimed his headset's small camera at his partner. "Greetings," he said. "Honored…uh…"
"Koen, what is that thing?" Came Laura's voice over the headset. "A squid?"
"No," said Koen. "Eyes are on the bottom and tentacles at the top. And those wheel-like appendages at the base are probably mouth-parts."
"Uh…" said Li again. It was getting harder to ignore the witch's cackling.
"It's another derived rotifer…let me look at my cladogram." Laptop keys clicked. "Aha! Successor. It's a Successor. On one earth, rotifers walked on their – "
"Greetings, honored Successor," said Ambassador Li, bowing.
The Successor knotted its two tentacles. "May I help you find your way?"
"I would be most grateful."
The Successor turned, shuffling on its great, ground jaws, and shoved itself forward.
*We only meet this species once, and it is not fully explained what they are like. They are a kind of Rotifer-sophont which colonized the land by developing testate outer shells for support, and walking on their jaws (the Mastax). These jaws evolved a wheel shape that not only allowed them to trundle along the ground, but also to plow the earth in order to plant crops with their tentacular feet-hands. In this way, they knew themselves as the Successors, the pioneers that facilitated the succession of life onto land, on their earth.
"Does your earth have acorn worms?" he asked the gelatinous tripod in the next seat over. "How about tunicate larvae? Salps? You know salps? No? Alright, so back to the worm. It has slits in its neck that it breathes through. The skin in between those slits, that became my jaw bone." He indicated this feature. "And the bones of my inner ear, and also my ribs. Funny how evolution works."
"Are you trying to sell me something?" asked the tripod.
"No, we're not trying to sell you anything," said Laura. "Koen, leave the nice sophont alone."
"Yes, please," it bubbled.
Koen gave the tripod a hurt look. "You were the one who asked what species we were."
"I was just trying to be polite. I didn't know how to address you." The tripod rotated, facing Koen with two of its legs. "Honored…larva," it said, "please stop secreting so many peptides."
*Another species we only meet in passing, a kind of slug, descended from primordial free-swimming Nudibranchs, a mollusk. Its main body is supported by a chitinous internal shell not-unlike that of a squid, and it walks upon 3 columnar legs which support themselves via a series of muscular hydrostats. Wrapped in a tough collagenous outer skin, these dense, fluid-filled muscles expand and contract thus allowing it to walk, and even to climb.
And so, those are the species we have seen so far on our burgeoning journey into the Convention of Sophonts. There are quite a few species that are only mentioned in passing, that the reader can only guess at, but their ancestry is made clear (biofilms, velvet worms, kiwifruit-bushes!), these and others may yet appear, if sequels are written. I will update this entry to include any others based on updates to the serial as it is posted, but indeed it is almost at its conclusion.
All images, designs and writing on this current blog-entry are the joint property of Timothy Donald Morris and Daniel Bensen, do not use, reproduce, or copy them without permission.
Post a Comment