Author: David Penn

Widespread among the civilized population of Semblant is a belief that they do not originate from the planet they presently inhabit.

They infer this from their world’s geology and long comparison of their own physiology to that of all its other life forms. Semblant is desert over almost all of its surface. Its scientists believe – correctly – that such conditions have persisted for two billion years and long pre-date the earliest fossils of their own species. All other creatures on their world are fully adapted to this environment, some insect-like, needing little water and able to take energy directly from the sun; some rodent-like, able to dig down to wetter levels. However, the bodies of the single civilized species are built differently, with soft central tissue protected only by a thin layer of bone-like shielding, projecting twelve tentacles, all of which end in twelve smaller tentacles. Their respiration system, though lung-like, retains gill elements. Their breathing becomes laboured even after mild effort and ineffective above a height of five hundred metres. Their locomotion along the flat has always seemed, even to themselves, ungainly, involving a twisting movement of their body and an inefficient lashing out and grasping with limbs.

Neither has it been lost on thoughtful Semblantines that their societies have only ever existed around scattered oases. Here they have long built houses and bathed for relief in the shallow water, or in special stone cisterns that have been in use for millennia. Much philosophical argument has centred on this extreme geographical specialisation, supporting the uneasy feeling of displacement that has grown up in the culture.

A century ago, one of the planet’s foremost scientists proposed a transport network that suited Semblantine physiology better than the natural flat terrain. She built an experimental branchway between two fixed points and, using herself as a test subject, climbed into it. She found, with a primal sense of relief and delight, that she could swing easily between the branches, employing all twelve limbs interchangeably, and after only a little practice cover the whole distance at great speed. After a few initial demonstrations and trials, branchways were quickly erected between every settlement. She further developed vastly enlarged water cisterns with similar branch-like structures placed inside them. As she had guessed, all members of her species found it easy to swim through the water and brachiate among the subaquatic “trees”. Some, as she had hoped, even found themselves able to breathe underwater – although it was found that this retention of the full gill function was not universal.

Partly due to such advances, in recent times the Semblantine lead-species population has grown enormously, albeit still limited to oases. Beyond these lie vast areas of desert, which even now remain unexplored, and in general the culture’s haunting sense of displacement, or unbelonging, has not diminished.

It is interesting to note that throughout the galaxy there are other populations who feel similarly alienated from their environment and indeed seem to live in some sort of disjunction with it. On Saltus there is a race of hoofed creatures who live in patches of land they must continually clear on an otherwise virulently tree-covered planet. On Deneb 4/Alpha there are bird-analogue inhabitants who live in a vast bubble, made of a self-repairing material, whose provenance and constitution are mysteries to them, floating in a uniformly globe-spanning ocean.

Considering such phenomena, some observers have begun to speculate about the possibility of a “mistranspermia” at some period in our universe’s history, where many species were transplanted to worlds with environments wholly unsuited to them, either by accident or design.

Isvara 9

Author: David Penn

From a human perspective, the dominant inhabitants of Isvara 9 are some of the most physically repulsive creatures known. With their metallic carapaces, they resemble enormous blue bottle flies, though instead of the compound optical organs of Earth insects they possess large, remarkably human-looking eyes, positioned either side of a whip-like prehensile nose. Also, oddly enough, as with most humans, their heads are capped by hair which, again like us, they take great pride in, adapting into various shapes pleasing to their tastes.

Though not technologically advanced overall by galactic mean standards, Isvarians have a sophisticated philosophical and religious culture, informed by their highly developed astronomy. The majority believe, for instance, that everything in the universe, in fact the universe as a whole, is alive and conscious.

The Isvarian concept of “alive” seems to correspond to what in Earth or Earth-colonial languages would be called “changing”, “developing” or “unfolding”. Since they observe that all things are in process, or are processes, for them the term “alive” also applies universally. Consciousness for them is a matter of complexity: the more processes taking part in the compound of processes that is a “thing”, the more conscious it is bound to be. Thus even in a grain of sand it cannot be said that there is absolutely no consciousness. In a mountain, especially seen over time, there is more. In a microbe, a little more and in the Isvaran equivalent of higher animals, more still.

It therefore makes perfect sense for them to believe, as they do, that a planet is itself alive, with a consciousness related to its complexity. Therefore, a world flourishing with geological activity, weather patterns and biological organisms such as theirs takes part in consciousness to a greater degree than a barren moon. Star-systems potentially possess even more awareness and galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the largest conscious bodies in the universe. It follows from this that the universe itself, taken as one entity, is the ultimate consciousness.

Their reasoning leads them to an intriguing practice. Since all things are aware and sentient to some degree, all can feel pain. They therefore say prayers and direct thoughts to all things in the universe to help allay that pain. They may meet together in groups to increase the power of such benign wishes or take time in the ordinary run of their lives to reflect with compassion. But almost all Isvarians spend a great deal of time, in one way or another, engaged in these affirmations. The long group rituals typically proceed by first wishing well to a particular sand grain or pebble, expanding their scope from that to include all sand grains, all pebbles, on through all orders of being up to animals and entities of higher consciousness. They will include their own species, though it is considered improper to single themselves out for disproportionate treatment. In the grandest rituals, they will send warm and encouraging thoughts to a particular planet, one perhaps that their astronomers have recently been studying, then to all planets, to the whole galaxy, and so on to the universe as a whole.

Despite the withdrawal of cloaked field teams from Isvara 9 some years ago, on the expiry of the permissible window, we have been able to observe these ceremonies, due to welcome reinvestment in the Telescope Fleet. Many observers have remarked that one of the most moving spectacles that they have ever witnessed is that of these superficially unappealing creatures, chanting and meditating in harmony, in rites devoted to the happiness and well-being of all things whatsoever, wherever they may be.

Jacob’s Ladder

Author: David Penn

On this planet in the Emerson V system, sardonically named Jacob’s Ladder by its first explorers, the dominant species looks superficially like an Earth stick insect. However, these creatures are as large as our blue whales, have ten minutely-jointed legs, each ending in an eye, and mouths which operate more like ancient vacuum cleaners than an insect’s mandibles. The ‘climbers’, as the first visiting team called them, have developed a rudimentary civilization amidst an extraordinary landscape: around the equatorial region of their world, vast plates of rock thrust miles upwards through the atmosphere, their outer edges running parallel with the line of the equator, so that the planet from space appears circled with a jagged ridge of rocky fins. On each side of this range, north and south, runs an impenetrable band of thick cloud, which produces constant lightning storms.

The climbers live on the very top of the plates, and on bridges which they have built between them – and at that only on the innermost peaks since, with good reason, they fear the storms that rage either side. They move by grasping hold of the rocky edges and hauling themselves along, or by slinging themselves under their slender bridges, which are composed of strands of the only material which the climbers have ever used for construction: their own dead bodies, held together by their saliva, which when spat out develops extremely powerful adhesive qualities. The corpses of any who have freshly died are first pulped – by specialised members of the community – into a paste, to which the saliva is added. Before this mixture hardens – which it does into a tensile chitin-like material with more than the strength of steel – it is flung out between the rock plates in a technique analogous to that of Earth spiders’ web-spinning.

The death rate among these rather graceful and even beautiful beings is pitifully high. Even with their many delicate and agile legs, it is easy for them to slip off the rock plates or bridges into the gulf below. How far that gulf descends, or what is at its bottom, none of the creatures know, because not one of them has ever been there and returned alive. Some courageous adventurers have attempted expeditions to the base of the fins, descending on woven body-paste ropes, but all expeditions so far have been lost or abandoned. No rope has been made which is long enough. Winds and storms also regularly blow individuals off their uncertain purchases. Rescue attempts are always made but are only successful if the victim has been caught on a ledge and not plunged too far into the depths.

In a terrible irony, what these creatures do not know, while it is plain to us through instrumental observation and cloaked visits, is that stretching away from either side of the central rock-plate range, beyond the cloud bands, is a world as close to paradise as any the galaxy has to offer. It is composed of warm seas, temperate land masses with wide grasslands and vast, fruitful forests, with no other intelligent species anywhere who might compete with the climbers, were they ever to venture into it. The situation on Jacob’s Ladder has haunted the minds of many an explorer and even Cosmographical Department official. But we are bound by the Galactic Non-interference Protocols, and there must be no exceptions.

Planet K3997C: Ah!

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.

Planet G32A: Tzogg-Char

Author: David Penn

On this world in the Pica region each house has a bell. It calls constantly to the families in every other house and the bells there call back. It is the business of all Tzogg-Charans to keep these bells ringing, and so sacred do they hold that duty that if one stops they will scythe off parts of their own glassy flesh to repair it.

The clamour of the bells is considered beautiful and something that must be allowed to grow to perfection. Over many decades the bells may be shaved, re-layered or otherwise modified, as households tune each to its own individual sound, or “ke-ra”, a term for which there is no adequate English translation.

The tone-field, shape, harmony, pitch and clarity of each bell must reach certain levels of perfection which are beyond the capacity of human ears to distinguish. An achieved perfection of tone-field is particularly important as it will please the whole household, with its many levels of occupants. It is intended that it will also please the community at large, though it is well understood that this is not easy, given the differences of tastes between households, which can be profound while at the same time subtle and hard to discern. Nevertheless, it is the avowed desire of every Tzogg-Charan community, however large, that one day all its bells will chime in harmony, and the highest and most skilled levels of tuning and re-tuning are dedicated to this probably impossible goal.

The tuning of the bells, however, cannot go on indefinitely. Though the bells are extremely long-lived, each one reaches a point after many decades when adjustments, modifications, grafts, and shavings and so on no longer have any effect, and at this point a bell is considered to be in decline, indeed “dying”.

Through some interior agency or process that no outside observer has ever understood, at a certain point the sounds of the bell will begin to convert to light, which pulses in a vast range of dazzling colours, many unknown to the human eye. When the bell is fully agreed by the whole household to be, now, a lamp – or a “krin-girri” (again, translation into English can only be very approximate for this term) – it is placed on a long, tough kind of Tzogg-Charan leaf, much like a banana leaf though gold in colour, and “given to the river”. This is floated gently and with much ceremony on the surface of any local flowing body of water and allowed to travel downstream.

Tzogg-Charans wear special metallic red and blue feathers for this occasion, giving their intricately plated armour a tinselly effect, which is a sign both of mourning and celebration.

Strangely, as the lamps float along the river – particularly after they reach the community’s outskirts or disappear out of sight of the mourners – they begin again to emit sounds, often more beautiful than they ever gave out during their whole life as bells. When this happens, the guardians of each bell-lamp will find each other and embrace, however estranged by distance or time they may have become over the course of their lives.

It is outlawed for any Tzogg-Charan to see what forms the bell-lamps have taken during this final transformation, an edict which all obey out of the deep respect they hold for their planet and the unseen ocean beyond the rivers, and so no living Tzogg-Charan has any idea what the bell-lamps in this last stage look like, though the flashing lights seen above the jungle in the distance, and the occasional clear, mesmerising note of music, provoke endless speculation.