February 21st, 2020
The topic of radically different alien species came up in one of my favorite podcasts Alienating the Audience, and that reminded me of this part of Star Charmer. If you roll your eyes at SciFi movies where the aliens look just like us, this is for you. The only setup I need to give is this: the story of the peng-weasel history is told by the character Thomas, so it’s a story within a story. Thomas has made contact with an alien that looks like a cross between a weasel and a penguin.
My motivation for writing this as part of my book Star Charmer was to explore the idea of aliens without the evolutionary pressures that we assume are required for the development of technology. One of these assumptions is cooperation. We always assume that our success is attributable to being more like dogs and less like cats. This would mean that dogs only need proper hands and they would soon be inventing things since they like to share and (mostly) get along with others. But, what if a solitary species had hands. What if cats had hands...
Once upon a time, there was a world completely covered by water. All of the life on the entire planet existed in the layers of varying darkness and pressures. The plankton at the surface were eaten by small fish who were in turn preyed upon by larger species and so on into the dark depths. Each species had evolved to live within a specific pressure range, and each could venture no farther. A clever species would evolve from time to time, and some developed complex languages but none had ever invented any tools. There simply wasn’t enough time in the water epochs punctuated by ice extinctions. These extinctions happened every two hundred million years as the water planet’s system was visited by a large comet. Unlike most comets, this one had an orbit in the same plane as the planets. So, when it came, it left enough material on each pass to dim the sun’s warmth and freeze the ocean. All creatures great and small perished as the ocean froze solid. In the fullness of time, the sun once again shone brightly on the icy surface, and the long spring announced the age of renewal once again.
Jack rolled his eyes and groaned at this flowery prose, and Thomas extended a middle finger at him. The alien saw this and imitated with one of its own digits at Jack. Thomas smiled and continued.
The first seven epochs generated only plants and plankton beside the tenacious bacteria which always survived the extinctions. Each time the plankton evolved a bit more resistance to the dim light that killed the previous iterations. Until on the eighth epoch, one species survived the entire long night. It could live on the surface of the ice in the dimmest of light and fell dormant for the worst of the darkness. Soon, this one species became many through the countless eons afterward. Night would come as it had before but the ice was no longer a craggy white blanket. In its place was a tapestry of green in a variety of forms. Some had evolved the ability to move in the first puddles of the melting, taking advantage of nutrients trapped in the ice. These tiny drifting plants quickly developed ways to move as they pleased and became the first animals and although these lost their battle against the extinctions, each time they were reborn in the long epochs and each time their rebirth was a little quicker. After countless such cycles, a single species managed to survive the freezing, shed bits of itself into tiny floating plants, enter a larval stage and emerge as the simplest of marine animals. The previous pattern repeated, and soon there were dozens of species that could do the same. But there simply wasn’t enough information in the DNA molecule to go all the way from algae to phytoplankton, to zooplankton, to fish all in one species. So, each time, the many species that developed from those beginnings into a panoply of larger aquatic life would all die off, leaving only the green algae for the next cycle.
The next event that marked a turning point in the planet’s catalog of life was a very simple adaptation. A species of whale-analogs had gills, not lungs, which marked them as fish but in every other way, resembled the whales of Earth. They swam near the surface, filtered the water for the plankton they ate, moved in groups, and even communicated. They were so successful, during their epoch, that they dominated the entire planet. This was not the remarkable part, however. There had been many successful large species in previous cycles. The singularly important trait that evolved in the whales was their low-density bones which helped them stay near the surface. These enormous creatures were the first to leave behind any remnant on the surface of the water. They were so numerous that when the next freeze came, the equator was covered with floating bones of various sizes pushed there by the advancing ice. Some were crushed but most, owing to their cylindrical shape, were simply pushed to the top of the ice, where they remained to once again float on the liquid seas at the next melt.
The first species to take advantage of this bounty were the penguins. They weren’t actually penguins of course but occupied the same ecological niche and so, therefore resembled their cousins from Earth. Their heads, backs, and sides were black to absorb the sunlight and warm them quickly after a frigid swim. Their undersides were white to camouflage them from predators peering up at the bright surface. Two things marked them as distinct from terrestrial penguins. They had teeth, and very different appendages. Gone were the comical flippers, replaced by slender arms tipped with fingers perfect for tool making. The first of these tools were simply broken pieces of whalebone which they used to kill fish. Soon they learned to tie larger pieces together, and boat-building became an integral part of their lives. The Penguins of this world were solitary creatures who developed language for the sole purpose of taunting each other from their whale-bone boats which they used as status symbols and to attack each other. From time to time, through the early centuries of boat-building, smalls groups would form and experiment with social structures. Inevitably, one individual would betray the others, and the survivors would disperse into solitary life once more. Cooperation simply wasn’t in their nature. Food was plentiful enough and the only thing worth fighting for, besides attractive breeding partners, was the rarest of things on a water planet - metal. Like all planets, this one received a constant bounty of meteors, large and small, which fell upon the vast oceans only to quickly sink to the bottom. But sometimes, and rarely, it would fall onto the shrinking ice. In the epoch of the Penguins, it was gathered up before the last of the ice retreated. Great care had to be taken when moving a stolen treasure of metal from a vanquished enemy vessel. Too much in one, would sink it, so the boats were usually combined. But the increased size carried with it two disadvantages. They were slower, and their size advertised their heavy, valuable, cargo.
This pirate-style warfare of the Penguins continued unchanged for a thousand years of the long summer before an especially clever individual designed his boat with a free-floating vertical tube at the center which allowed him to adjust buoyancy. He kept the tube filled with water and in its high and locked position which made the boat ride low in the water. The visible portion, above the surface, resembled the tiny vessels used by the young and inexperienced males. His tactics were simple. He would wait for another vessel, usually a younger opponent, to approach, release the tube causing his boat to rise to twice its previous height and use this advantage to defeat the less experienced opponent. Usually, this involved threats and occasionally a thrown spear, but rarely bloodshed. A typical craft was ringed by downward-facing spears which prevented a swimmer from climbing aboard. So, once in the water, without a rope ladder, his opponent’s own security measures would prevent him from climbing back aboard.
One day this clever penguin spotted a small boat on the horizon. Easy prey he thought and adjusted his sails. The sails of tightly woven seaweed vines did the job well enough, but they were heavy, and his modified boat meant he would probably not be fast enough to catch the smaller vessel. To his surprise, he made good progress and soon realized his opponent was not moving. This sometimes happened when an individual was asleep, ill, or even better, dead. As soon as he was within shouting distance, he tried a few insults but got no reply. His boat was still in its low profile so the two vessels were at the same height above the water which meant he could not see the deck of the other boat. With the heavy ballast tube released, his boat rose quickly. He scrambled back to the side and looked down to see a young individual lying motionless. Injured? He thought and hurried to drop his rope ladder over the side. He climbed down, jumped the last bit of distance, and ran to the motionless form. As he got close, she rolled over revealing a crossbow. A female in a boat! Is that a weapon? It looks like metal! She aimed for his chest but missed her target and struck his upper arm instead. He was on her in seconds. At nearly twice her size, he easily lifted her with his good arm and threw her overboard. He sat down to rest and swore as he pulled the bolt from his arm. What is that thing? He thought looking at the crossbow lying on the deck at his feet. And what is a female doing on a boat? This one is very unusual. She even seemed amused as I threw her overboard! Who understood females? They are strange creatures. I suppose mating with her is out of the question now. A spell of dizziness shook him as he stood to look over the side. Some of his other victims had loitered in the area afterward. Would a female? While he was pondering the inner workings of the female mind, she was swimming under her boat where she untied a second crossbow from its hiding place on the keel. Next to the spare crossbow, was the entrance to the diving tube she had invented. It gave her access to the water without jumping over the side as the males did. She pulled away the netting that disguised her tunnel, swam up the short distance and climbed out of the water onto the lower deck. She glanced at her small pile of metal and hurried up the steps to the main deck. He was leaning over the side, and his arm was bleeding profusely yet he seemed unconcerned. Giving up his search, he turned around to find her aiming another weapon at him.
“Over the side,” she ordered.
“I am injured. You would have me die?”
“I will kill you now if you prefer,” she waved the crossbow at his chest.
“Let me return to my boat at least,” he pleaded.
“No! It is rightfully mine. You attacked me, and I won! Those are the rules. Over the side!”
He slumped into the posture of the defeated, which he had seen so many times from his own victims. He was about to climb over the side when she stopped him.
“Wait! Show me how you did that with your boat first.”
“I will not! You have beaten me, but you do not own me!”
“A trade then,” she suggested. “Show me, and I will give you one of my boats,” she gestured at the larger boat.
“That is my boat!” he shouted.
She tilted her head to the side in a strange gesture he had never seen before although he didn’t have a great deal of experience to draw from. In fact, this was the longest exchange he had had since leaving his mother. His victims usually just complied and jumped over without much whimpering and certainly no conversation.
“All my metal!” He complained and stole a look at his boat. “I should let you use that thing and just throw you over again!” How did she get back aboard?
She took a step closer. “At this distance, I will not miss.”
But he was not listening. The blood loss and arguing had made him dizzy. He was still trying to process his last thought. As he fell to the deck, he slowly muttered, “how did you get back on…”
* * *
When he awoke, he was still on the deck of her boat. His arm had been bandaged, and there was a meal of fish next to him which he devoured quickly. The boat jerked forward, and he went to the side to see what had caused it. Stretched out in front of the bow was a long rope tied to the stern of the larger boat - his boat. He was being towed by his own boat. He shouted some perfunctory curses and insults but got no response. This female does not seem to know the rules. He decided on another tactic and just shouted “Hello?” which brought an immediate response.
“You are not dead?” she shouted.
“Why are you towing me? Why not just leave me?”
“I have a proposal,” she said as she turned a crank which drew in the tow line a bit and brought him closer.
“I will not mate with you.” He called back, waved a hand dismissively in the air and began pacing.
She tilted her head to the side again.
She keeps doing that. What does it mean?
“You have the largest collection of metal I have ever seen,” she shouted down at him.
“You are impressed!” he said surprised. “I knew it!”
“I can show you how to use it,” she said.
Use it? He thought. What was she talking about? Metal was for collecting and trading - and occasionally, impressing females but until now that had not actually worked. She makes weapons out of it!
A new age of invention began. The two inventors, as history named them, created tools for everything, including the manufacture of other tools. In the beginning, they simply used the harder metals like iron to pound softer ones like copper, but with their first furnace, they were able to melt and bend even the hardest metals. Through the trade of tools for raw materials, they soon accumulated enough metal to make a fully submersible boat and plunder the ocean floor for all the metal that had fallen to its depths. The inventors themselves lived long enough to see this, but it was their descendants, trained in the ways of tool making and building, who created an empire of industry and eventually traveled to the source of all metal - space.