Fellow Tetrapod: speculative evolution, office politics, and cookingby
1: A Hand On The door
Picture by Timothy Morris
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.1
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. The man's name was Koen.
He didn't cry. His eyes stared, as if through the wood, plastic, and metal. They twitched back and forth, as if watching a dream or a memory.
His hand trembled as it rose to the latch. It tightened. Loosened. Fell back to man's side, for the third time.
He closed his eyes, forehead furrowed against his cool door.
"Go inside," he ordered himself. "Go in! Don't be stupid. Stop this!"
His shoulders twitched like the shanks of a scolded dog. His hand rose, too high, and pressed against the door. The pads of his fingers flattened as they pushed the man back, away from his apartment.
"This won't help," he told himself. "This won't protect me! The apartment isn't why dad died, for Christ's sake! My job isn't why he died. It was just bad luck, so just let me...let me – "
In his neighbor's apartment, a dog barked, small and neurotic. Koen's ears twitched. He looked up, wishing he could open that door instead of his own. Go in there and calm the animal down. Feed it some liver. Take it for a walk.
A walk. Koen's nucleus accumbens leaped at the thought. A run. Run away. Escape this stack of boxes where he'd spent the last two years shut in. And what good had it done? Koen's father had never tested positive for Covid, but hadn't he presented several times with flu-like symptoms? And then a muscle in his heart had just stopped working. Was that coincidence? Was it not coincidence? Which would be worse?
Another bark. Koen's head jerked up again as he scanned the hallway. No people. No neighbors to watch him. Well, what if there were? Koen told himself – silently, now – that of course his neighbors would understand. They'd give Koen a break, like his colleagues at the museum. The people he was abandoning. Well, he had to. He just had to.
"A break." His lips moved around the words and Koen found himself bending. Was he about to collapse into a sobbing fetal position on the floor of the hallway? No, no, just reaching into his pocket and pulling out his phone.
Koen pressed his finger against a colored patch of pixels on the little glass screen. The change in conduction at the spot triggered a sensor, which opened an application that searched for cheap flights. Another that connected to his bank account. The last, to a taxi service. Koen's breathing had slowed, although he didn't notice this.
"Fine," Koen said to himself. "Fine!" and strode away from his apartment door, filled with new purpose.
A moment later, he scurried back to his door, flung it open, and dove inside to get his passport.
Six hours later, Koen was in the air, bound for Argentina. This was because Buenos Aires had been the cheapest airfare to the farthest place away at the time he'd checked his app. In turn, because Koen had his phone on airplane mode for nine hours, he missed the news.
A signal from intelligent life had been detected. The signal came from Switzerland.
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.
And this particular Quotidian was gleeful. Her teeth loosened their grip on each other, while her limbs stretched, raising her gun-turret eye toward the display in the glowing mucus of the display-crotch before her. Call her Professor Figs mix Sluice Delta.
Professor mix Sluice sprayed pheromones from a brush-like organ at the top of her body and rasped her teeth against each other. One might translate her words as, "A hit!"
Her clones and colleagues came scuttling. Demands were made, clarifications given, congratulatory smiles shared in patterns of eye-twitch and tooth-rattle. Metaphorical backs were slapped, and the equivalent of a magnum of champagne was popped (or, in this case, chased down and ritually slaughtered).
Fifty thousand years ago, the ancestors of mix Sluice might have celebrated so to see water flowing into a newly dug channel. A new first contact! Who could guess at the down-stream effects?
Mix Sluice did the honors, powering up the magnets in their ring of superconducting, vacuum-filled pipe-work. Protons were stripped from their subatomic siblings and accelerated through this pipe in two counter-rotating rings. The volume of space-time contained within the rings churned with uncertainty, wobbled between dimensions… flipped…
And on that first Earth, the lights went out.
But let's back up for a moment.
As its name suggests, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN is a tool that humans use to bash tiny things into each other. Electromagnetically accelerated protons whiz around an enormous circular track, they hit each other, quarks go wiggling off in different directions, and physicists run statistical analyses on them.
When the LHC was first used, there was worry that it might create a black hole that would eat the planet. This was a silly thing to worry about. Could two colliding streams of super-accelerated protons even create a black hole? Well, yes, but it would be very small. There has never been any reason to believe that any of the events unfolding within the collider ring might threaten life on what self-centered humans call the Earth.
There is still no reason to worry; contact with creatures from alternate universes is also quite safe.
For as long has humans have been keeping track of these things, it's been helpful to assume that the same amount of stuff goes into a reaction as comes out. That's why, when the detectors inside the LHC started registering 16% more Higgs bosons than yesterday, the news generated excitement as well as matter and energy. Either the Law of Conservation was wrong, they'd tapped into a hidden dimension, or a sensor somewhere had fried.
That last was everyone's first assumption, of course. But the maintenance came and went and the anomaly popped back up. Then it reversed. Now they got less matter/energy out of collisions than they should have, without any apparent change in starting conditions.
Just when everyone was cautiously losing their minds (Nobel acceptance speeches started appearing on the walls of bathroom stalls), things went back to normal. A few days later, matter/energy was generated, then lost, generated again, and so on.
This was all very stressful for the CERN staff. They knew there was a mechanical error somewhere, they but couldn't find it. And meanwhile no good data could be collected, because even when the machine was behaving normally, nobody could figure out why.
Until someone noticed that the anomalies depended on the time of day. It was hard to see at first because most SPS runs were done at the same time of day, and therefore reported the same anomaly. After enough time (and enough frantic chaos and damage to work schedules) runs at other hours had been done and the pattern became clear.
Francesco Arnaboldi, a physicist and data analyst, saw it first. Over the course of an average day, the energy output of a collision would be anomalously high, then low, then high, then low again, then normal, then high, low, high, low, high, low, normal, then high, low, high, low, high, low, high, low, high, low. Periods of energy generation counted up through prime numbers until the end of the day, when they would go back to "two" and start over.
Francesco, who had once met Carl Sagan and kept a copy of Contact on his night-stand, swore lowly at his computer. He sat very still, thinking about whom he should call first.
Nobody believed him. Nobody believed him. Aliens trying to contact us by squirting energy through particle collisions? Give me a break! Forget about it. Don't you dare tell the press. But, just...let's sync our schedule to this "Prime Count" and...uh...see what happens, okay?
The Prime Count, by the way, was not the Swiss Signal.
The Count was found to tick up once every 90 minutes. That was too rapid a turn-over for the LHC to follow. The best the staff at CERN could do was run the collider once a day, each day an hour and a half later than the one before, and get the whole pattern that way.
It worked beautifully. Every day, exactly one sixtheenth of the sidereal day later than the day before, the energy yield of proton collisions ticked up and down, counting out the next prime number. Each day the count climbed higher, each day the exuberance of the press got harder to control ("Is Your First-Grader Smarter than an Extra-Dimensional Intelligence?"), until the sixteenth prime number (53) was reached.
With a loud WHUMP, the lights went out.
When they came back on, everything was fine except the Large Hadron Collider, which was dead. Very dead. All readouts zero. You could smell the cooked metal from the control room.
It was several panicky hours before the source of the problem was discovered: the inner edge of the formerly-magnet-lined ring and the whole disk of equipment and rock it encompassed had vanished. In their place, there was some air and a stack of gold-plated titanium disks, each about six centimeters thick and eight kilometers wide. How they were lifted and moved around is left as an exercise to the reader.
The disks had symbols engraved on them. These started (at the center of the topmost disk) with "one plus one is two." By the time they got to the outer rim of the bottom disk, the symbols had worked up to "...The Convention of Sophonts looks forward to receiving your membership application."
That was the Swiss Signal.
1 Waal, Frans de; Waal, Frans B. M. (2007-09-30). Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801886560.
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Bio: Daniel M. Bensen is an author of science fiction, alternate history, and fantasy.