Author: David Penn

As with many worlds in the Small Megallanic Cloud, Ah! presents intriguingly aberrant evolutionary features. The dominant species, dubbed “exploders” by early missions, has, over several million years, developed a unique response to danger.

Each individual possesses the ability to shatter into thousands of tiny fragments whenever threatened and reassemble itself once the threat has receded. Every exploder is made up of thousands of super-cells or particles, themselves made of microorganisms close in type to Earth biological cells. It is into these particles that an exploder disperses in the face of threat. Each particle contains sensory capabilities analogous to Earth animals’ sense of smell, and a hydrogen-based method of aerial propulsion, which together enable it to detect and propel itself towards other dispersed particles in the re-grouping process. The particles also have multiple lock-and-key cells, much as some Earth viruses do, which effect the final re-joining. Studies have shown that it is possible for an exploder to spread itself over an area up to two square kilometres, depending on the severity of the threat faced, and still recombine; though of course, the more widely the individual has been dispersed, the longer reintegration takes.

This adaptation worked well for the exploders in earlier stages of their evolution but, having aided their dominance, has itself come to present them with formidable challenges. So severe are these problems that the species has begun a population decline.

In their apex position, exploders no longer have natural predators. Neither do they seem to have developed the institution of war as most other advanced species do – presumably because any opposing exploder is almost impossible to destroy, except at a technological level Ah! has not reached – so they fear no intra-species attrition. The only real physical dangers they face are accidents, such as overturning carts, collapsing buildings, earthquake or lightning. But in the relatively benign environment of the exploders’ agricultural-level economy, on a stable and temperate planet, these events are infrequent.

However, the species’ flight response, instead of receding into the evolutionary background, has adapted in a rather unfortunate fashion.

As the level of threat surrounding the population has decreased, the sensitivity underlying the protective “exploding” reaction has increased. Thus it takes surprisingly little to set it off. Irrational fears in a dark place, for example, may be enough to make an exploder dismember. It may have what we call a nightmare and shatter into every corner of its dwelling. Simply tripping up in the street may prompt dispersal. In certain situations, it may feel insulted and instantly splatter its perceived adversary with tiny gobbets of itself – while the victim may well respond in kind. Given the time it takes each individual to regroup, this makes for a great many inconveniences. Meetings of any sort are frequently interrupted by spectacular self-disruptions. Public performances of Ah!’s rudimentary theatre or – to our ears, somewhat agitated – music sometimes have to pause while over-excited members of the audience re-amalgamate. Traumatized witnesses to crimes are almost impossible to regather, severely impeding criminal investigations, and domestic arguments often result in days of silent re-constitution. The problem has even redoubled as the exploders’ fear of exploding itself has become a trigger.

Reproduction too has become fraught, between partners who are often labouring under an apprehension that, at any second, they may spread themselves across an impractically wide area. So, with tragic evolutionary irony, it is the exploders’ own in-bred protection from danger that has become their greatest threat, and the sense of shallowly repressed hysteria and extreme over-caution that pervades Ah! has been sensed on arrival by many a troubled visitor.

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