Thursday, September 27, 2012


When last we parted ways, gentle reader, I had returned from an interventionist mission to the Empire of Texas, and ended up with a twelve-foot-tall living machine for a house guest.

The original colonists from Earth - mainly from Texas, Oklahoma, and surrounds - had been transported millions of light years and thirteen thousand years into the past. These people had, through the intervening millennia, transformed themselves into superhuman beings, gone all crazy and dangerous, and had fortunately been repressed by their former operating system/machine servants. The godlike trans-human Texans are now trapped - like evil djinns - as collections of contorted photons running at near zero speeds in ultra cold and attenuated gases enclosed in vacuum flasks.

Clear enough summary? Good.

Our expendable intervention team came to an agreement with the Empire of Texas - live and let live. They wouldn't force their technologically-advanced civilization upon humanity, and humanity, in return, would not go extinct from exposure. One visitor was allowed from the Empire of Texas - my house guest, Edward Hopper. Well, Edward Hopper, the twelve-foot-tall robot, and unknown to us at the time, a myriad and variegated mechanical support bestiary orbiting about and upon his person like a bad case of crabs. Which Edward proceeded to give to pretty much the entire ecosystem of Alterra - even after he and I spending a month in the isolation dorm up on Sessus (the smaller moon of Alterra).

Oh, did I not mention that my adopted planet, the one out Hercules Way, was named Alterra? I thought I had.  Well, Alterra was first settled back in 1996, and primarily by folks from Pacific Northwest coast of the USA - mainly Seattle, Portland, Northern California, some from San Francisco. The colonists were pretty much people trying to get away from the chronically depressed economic conditions that exist there.

The survey biologists characterized the planet as being about the same as Earth during the middle Miocene, perhaps the Serravallian stage (13.8  - 11.6 million years ago). They were gobsmacked, much as European explorers to the New World, by the sheer immensity of numbers of living creatures there. Not to mention lush plant life. The planet has extensive woodlands. Kelp forests and grasslands were recent additions to the pageant of life. In the sea, sharks as big as whales, and shark-toothed whales big enough to eat other whales. Big animals on Alterra are in general are twice as big as on Earth. On Alterra, there are pelicans with 15-20 foot wingspans, as well as flightless predatory terror birds, some 10 to 12 feet tall. There are saber-toothed lions and tigers, giant running bears, herd animals the size of dump trucks. Not surprising, as no intelligent killers evolved there.

In short, Alterra is - for outdoorsy types - Paradise. And it worked out well for the colonists, what with plenty of pristine wilderness to despoil. Of course, due to the tree-hugging Left Coast influence, and a healthy influx of Finns, not as much despoilation as you might expect from Americans has occurred. The seas are filthy with life, and the extant megafauna pretty much left unmolested.

Spiral City was founded on a northern pointing peninsula of a very nice navigable bay on the west coast of the largest continent. Surrounded by the analogs of giant redwood and sequoia, oak and pine, and to the east a large mountain range with snow-capped peaks, the place was similar enough to make more than one colonist's eyes well up with tears of homesickness.

Seeing as the downtown of Spiral City was hastily built from native wood and rock, and then almost immediately declared a historical preservation site, it has a frontier quality about it. The strip malls downtown may be strip malls, but they are crafted from rough-hewn timbers, and collected boulders and rocks.  A conscious choice was made to built the rest of the city different, and so, aside from the spiral road plan, much of the outer city looks like it was given over to Antoni Gaudi's imagination. There's a playful quality to almost every building - regardless of its use.

In short, when I visited back in 2001, I said to myself "This is a really cool place, with really nice people, and I think I will stay".

The first time I met a kraken was at Sam's Pub in Spiral City, I thought it was a pile of fur coats splayed on a couch. Only when it opened it's eyes, and extended a partially fur-covered, leathery brown, hook-taloned tentacular limb, did I realize it was not. I also almost quite literally jumped out of my shoes.

Scientists prefer that laypeople call them teuthids, but they are not squids. Nor are they cuttlefish,  or terrestrial octopi. Kraken are large, furry, alien monsters that have eight limbs. They spawned on a world hundreds of millions of light years from Earth, and at least a billion years before primates appeared.

Kraken do possess a filamentous protein material that is primarily keratin, and so their fur can be rightly called fur. They do have eight limbs. There are times, however, when they move much more similarly to giant tarantulas, and other times when their "tentacles" move in a sinuous, snakelike manner. Taken together - given what some might call humans instinctive fear of snakes and spiders - time spent among the kraken can be quite exhausting, as one is constantly fighting semi-autonomic panic responses from the sight of them, or worse, a sight garnered from the corner of one's eye.

When it comes to danger, evolution has graced us humans with two main pathways in the brain to detect it. One pathway takes the sensory (say, visual) data, and pumps it through the thalamic regions (the ancient lizard brain) to the amygdala - an almond-shaped region of the basal ganglia that processes primary emotions (and most importantly fear) and memory associations. Another pathway takes the sensory data, and sends it along a more leisurely route over the cerebral cortex to the frontal and pre-frontal lobes, where the sensory data is classified, parsed, massaged, categorized, and identified. Thus, if you see something that might be a snake, you unthinkingly react and jump away from it. This actually is a rather mild summary of a whole remarkable cascade of events that causes - among other things - the stomach to tighten, the heart to race, veins and arteries to constrict, blood pressure to rise, pituitary adrenal glands to pump out hormones, the feet and hands to turn clammy, the mouth to go dry, the brain to jump out of its skull, and the muscles to coordinate in an amazing superhuman feat of action.

It is only after the frontal lobes, or perhaps the parietal, have determined that the movement you detected was not a snake, but a stick, or a rope, or something, that you feel like an idiot. Fortunately for me, whatever that titanium spike does that they drove into my skull, it seems to cancel or short-circuit the thalamic fear response. So, I'm quite comfortable around them, having only to deal with the aesthetic response to their unsightly appearance. They have little in the way of a sense of personal space, and so being in a mass of them - often not unlike entering a giant nest of snakes, their long, furry, spiderlike/tentacular limbs pressing up against my body, occasionally pricking me with their kitten-sharp talons - is something I've, well, not exactly grown used to, but have learned to tolerate. Others of my kind get the yammering willies just being around them, so the bar, Sam's Pub, that they frequent here on Alterra is usually not at all crowded.

A few nights ago, Ed Hopper came back into town. He had been sojourning across the Eastern Steppes, which extend just beyond of the Dawn Mountain range all the way to the other end of the continent.  I'd asked him on his last journey, southward to the Great Southern Gulf, what he was doing, and he had replied "Just surveying what an unaltered world looks like".

I'd invited Ed to Sam's Pub to watch me drink, it being a slow afternoon for me, and the early evening nearly upon us. The bar was half empty, a few regulars, and in the corner table, two kraken.

I'd just gotten over a mild case of the flu, or rather, me and half of Spiral City. The other half was just coming down with it. There have been a few cases of pandemic respiratory distress throughout the population ever since this world was settled. I was feeling better, and what better way to complete the recovery than a shot and a beer. I'd just returned to the table when a commotion broke out at the far end of the bar, at the kraken table, a hissing and fizzing and breaking of glass.

I'd seen this happen once before, a kraken fight, and you don't want to be anywhere near it. It is a magnificent sight. It's like being in a giant spider fight straight out of a horror movie. There is really no other way to properly describe it. Both kraken rear up on their hind tentacles, talons out along the full lengths of all their limbs, black fangs dripping foam, vagina dentata mouths spewing stringy snot. They go into a kind of a standing kung fu pose for what seems forever, and then they are just a knot of fur and flesh and claws and teeth that rolls around the bar from wall to wall, chairs and tables cracking and splintering under them. The bar patrons who are smart bolt for the exits during the initial stance. The rest cower in corners or against walls. I sat stock still, full shot glass and beer bottle in either hand. Ed Hopper, taking a cue from me, did the same. The kraken pair rolled around the bar, threatening to wreck the entire place. At one point, they actually rolled over our table and I saw a row of talons impale the wall inches from my face, as they caromed back into the center of the room. The violence ended as quickly as it had started. The kraken separated, paused as if nothing had occurred, and left the building. (I was told that a kraken later delivered the bartender an ingot of pure niobium).

With the fight over with, and practically every stick of furniture in the place broken to pieces, I downed the shot and gulped the beer with a pair of shaking hands.

"Does that happen a lot?" Ed Hopper asked.

"Yup" I replied, and then noticed that there was a long gash on Ed's metallic thigh.

"Dude!" I pointed, directing his attention to the torn up mesh and plate, "I thought you were made of super metal or whatever".

Ed Hopper inspected the wound, and probably in much greater detail and analysis than my human senses, for he paused for a long time deep in thought and obviously startled.  I swear, had he been human, he'd have blanched. "It is, as you put it, super metal, and self-healing as well!" he replied in astonishment. The long gash didn't appear to be healing.

Once I'd finished my beer, we departed the bar. The sun was close to setting. Edward Hopper looked pensive, or at least his posture I interpreted as pensive. He kept looking down at his torn-up thigh, as if he expected the gash to disappear, but it wasn't. Finally he bid me good-bye, and headed east out of town. 

About a week went by before I saw Ed again. In the meantime, the flu pandemic had subsided, and word had come down over the Alterranet that every human on every human planet had become ill, but had recovered. Curious, as some worlds had received no visitors, and, generally, strict protocols are in place to prevent the spread of interstellar disease (witness my extended isolation on the moon). 

In any case, Edward Hopper returned to town, and I spotted him as I was leaving Manny's, a literally world-class Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of Spiral City. Ed greeted me, and I invited him for a walk, as is my wont to do after a large dinner. We walked in silence for a good half-hour, and I finally took a seat on a boulder to burp and fart happily. We were just in time to see the Big C appear in the western sky, through the clouds, just above the setting sun.

There are a few oddities about Alterra. Take, for just one example, the Big C, the Copyright Nebula. First time visitors are struck stupid by the sight of it in the night sky. It's a nearby planetary nebula, the remains of a supernova explosion, that looks like the copyright symbol. You know, a "c" inside a circle. Why, even during the daytime, especially when it appears from behind clouds, it is often confused with the larger moon Algemina. It's that big and bright. Here's the weird thing about it. It's only ten light years away. The supernova occurred some five thousand years ago. At ten light years away, the gamma ray flux should have completely eliminated my adopted planet's ozone layer, turning the upper layers of the atmosphere into a ugly brown smog, exposed all life to prolonged UV radiation, and at the very least caused some kind of a mass extinction. Alterra should be a dead world. Instead, it's a lovely peaceful, whole and healthy one. What's the explanation? We have none.

Ed Hopper turned to me and said "The kraken are protecting you. And I am but a toy compared to them. I am a primitive and inept bumbler next to them. Not even a savage. Just a dumb animal".

"What are you talking about, Ed?"

Ed jutted his head up a the Big C. "You see that? They did that!"

"The supernova?"

"No, you idiot, the shield, or field, or whatever it was, that kept the supernova from destroying this world. The Teuthids did that."

"Well, wait. That happened thousands of years ago. The kraken didn't even know we were going to settle here".

"No" said Ed, "they did. They saved this world for you. He stared up at the Big C.

"You know that flu bug that swept through the populace?" Ed continued, "That wasn't just a flu bug. That was an engineered teuthid plague to counter the invasion of our little mechanized beasties".

"What? What are you talking about?"

"Honestly, Kurman, how your species ever managed to evolve into beings like me is a mystery sometimes. Look, we infested you humans with our microtechniome, our little mechanical zoo, as a just-in-case measure. You may fear us. But, we fear what you could become. You know, evil godlike superbeings. So the plan was to infest all of you with a control mechanism, all sorts of little critters that could be triggered to keep you in line. Livestock maintenance".

"What?! What a shitty thing to do!"

"Yeah, well, it doesn't matter. The teuthids engineered a suitable countermeasure. Or rather, they had the planet evolve one. All the human worlds evolved one. It's pretty much neutralized our techniome. And, even though they've left them all operational, save with a few exceptions. And I just got a little reminder", as he glanced down at his torn-up thigh, "just where I stand around here. I'm a feral cat, a varmint, allowed to live near the house. But that's about it".

He looked at me with, for lack of a better word, fear, and I have to admit, I liked it.

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