Cultures of the Imagination
COTI III: The Mossback
CONTACT III - 1985
From "The Evolution of COTI: A Personal Memoir"
by Jim Funaro © 1994
By CONTACT's third year, we had had a chance to evaluate some of the problems which had emerged in the previous sessions. One was that there was just not enough time in three days to create two complete worlds from scratch; God took seven for only one...
Artwork by Joel Hagen
So we prepared a pre-conference package. Poul Anderson gave us a planet, Ophelia, with its primary and solar system. (Over the years we have been presented with several worlds by science fiction writers; we learned to accept such divine gifts graciously and eventually even with some aplomb.) We then sent the planetary specifications to C. J. Cherryh, who suggested the Mossback and provided us with its basic design. Next, Larry Niven elaborated on this alien, contributed other species for the ecology and explained the conditions that the human team would face on this world. Finally, Joel Hagen produced some sketches of the critters. This "homework" was then distributed to all the guests several weeks before the conference.
As nearly as I can reconstruct it from memory and records, the group consisted of: Mischa Adams, Poul and Karen Anderson, Greg Bear, Paul Bohannan, Paula Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Ctein, Jim Funaro, Joel Hagen, Barbara Joans, Mary Mason, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Reed Riner, Devayani Smith, and Bob Tyzzer.
Ophelia and the Mossbacks
Ophelia is not a happy planet for humans. Its F5 sun is larger and brighter than Sol, but, at 3.28 a.u. away, Ophelia receives only half the irradiation the Earth does from its sun. So, it's cold. That and heavy gravity (1.3), dense atmosphere (9.2 bars at sea level), thick fog and cloud cover, high winds and cyclonic storms, and powerful tectonics all mean that we could only find tolerable conditions for us on a 12 mile high mountain. Luckily, there are many. On one of them, the humans landed and set up their Base One to observe.
The Mossbacks, like any other life forms that can survive on this planet, are big and tough. Picture a warm blooded, hermaphroditic, tool-using, horny toad as big as a grizzly bear, with colorful algal symbiotes imbedded in thick tissue of its naked skin. It sports a beak that would look just right on a 500-pound eagle and eats about anything it can catch. And it's smart. That's a Mossback. (see photo)
They live below the clouds, in mud villages. (C. J. Cherryh built a charming little model of one, which is a prized possession of mine. See below.) Remote observation by probe had unobtrusively revealed many details of their socio-cultural behavior. For example, upon greeting, they expose their backs to one another. This seemed to simultaneously indicate their non-aggressive intentions and display their individual and family identities, via the patterns of algae they "cultivate" through mutual grooming into intricate and distinctive dorsal "gardens," like living, growing tattoos.
What seemed to be one of their most significant cultural events was what humans had dubbed "the death quest." The eternal cloud layer above made the "sky" appear to the Mossbacks as a sort of mirror which covered their world. As each Mossback felt the end of its life approaching, it began a one-way migration up a high mountain, whose peak was never visible because it disappeared into the "other world." These were the only occasions that they were ever observed to climb the mountains, and they never returned to their homes afterwards. It was assumed that this behavior constituted what we would call a final religious experience, a sort of solitary "last rites." As a matter of fact, Mossback bones littered the mountain tops, including the one upon which we had landed, a native "burial grounds."
At last, the final session was convened at noon on Sunday, and all the folks who had been working for two days on the Mossbacks were suddenly transmogrified into the human expedition sent to study those same aliens. Packed at one long table on a raised platform stretching across the front of the meeting room was the entire stellar cast of almost twenty scientists, writers and artists, all very bright and mostly very opinionated. As you might imagine, there emerged interminable discussion about what to do and how to do it, with arguments usually polarizing between the "scientists," operating via consensus and usually and infomally represented by Greg Bear, C. J. Cherryh and Barbara Joans, and the "military," commanded by Jerry Pournelle. How many people should go? What should be the composition of the initial team? Should we initiate contact? If so, where? On and on. After forty-five minutes, all we had agreed upon was that our ship/base had landed on a mountain peak and our perimeter was guarded by an electric fence, with enough power to knock out a grizzly bear. Within this barrier, our debate continued in safety.
Mossback Village - Artwork by C. J. Cherryh
At this point, exasperated by the lack of action, Paula Butler, geologist and present Board member of CONTACT, stood up, screamed and then announced, "I'm a Mossback! I've just encountered your electrified perimeter on my death quest and have been rendered unconscious. Now what are you gonna do?" Bless her heart. Role-playing had just been spontaneously introduced, out of frustration.
In all previous simulations until this moment, I had always felt a bit useless in the discussions, somewhat abashed by the prodigious intellects which surrounded me. But suddenly, an actual situation had arisen in which I could play the practical role I had been trained for, without any rehearsal. As an anthropologist confronting a "real" intercultural encounter, I found I could define interaction contexts, apply field techniques learned in biological and cultural anthropology and develop an emergency protocol on the spot.
I approached the stunned alien, stopping short of what I calculated (on the basis of probe information) to be outside its "flight distance." When it awoke, I did not want to be discovered suddenly within threatening proximity. (Remember, the Mossbacks are big and beaked, and had never met an alien before!) To be on the safe side, I asked Jerry to keep his troops on alert, but to stay clear and not interfere unless the situation got obviously out of control. I crouched into a posture which reduced the size of my body outline, another common way of showing non-aggressive intentions among earth animals, and waited.
When it regained consciousness and saw me, I utilized known Mossback greeting behavior, slowly turning my back and displaying a particolored robe I had just borrowed from a fellow crew member. Such an action might seem in some human cultures to be rude, though primates commonly use it in submission or to elicit friendly grooming from others. But here, I'm using familiar and nonaggressive actions learned from the Mossbacks themselves. Luckily, the Mossback responded appropriately, and "read" my back. Still mimicking its own cultural behavior, I reciprocated. No doubt, neither of us understood the patterns, but we were polite; I found myself relieved that the robe lent to me did not seem to have, by ill chance, displayed the markings of a rival or an enemy clan to my quarter-ton companion.
In general, I did not initiate action, especially close up, but confined myself to reacting, so as to remain as much as possible within the Mossback's world of expectations. That is, I tried to let it tell me what to do, by observing its behavior.
One amusing incident. Primates are touchy-feely critters, but I specifically harnassed my heritage here, not because Mossbacks aren't (they are), but because we had learned that physical contact between them using their primary manipulators, which are also their tongues, initiates mating behavior. At one point, the Mossback did touch me, whereupon I asked rhetorically, "Does this mean I have to mate with this thing?" Pournelle immediately quipped, "You're already pregnant."
Another fairly univeral activity seen in human greeting or friendly "allying" contexts is mutual gift-giving, though results can be uncertain unless the local value of the offered items is known. I tried it, anyway, placing an object on the ground between us and stepping back. It was accepted, and the Mossback offered its own gift (a bone whistle to be used in its death ceremony, I believe) in return.
A new technique seemed to emerge naturally out of the created situation: I simulated an interaction, modeling appropriate human behavior for the alien. Taking advantage of the Mossback's "following" response, I led it to another human, Mischa Adams, a medical specialist who wanted to examine the alien for injuries. I shook hands with her, modeling our greeting behavior, then carefully attempted to shake "paws" with the Mossback. It allowed this. Then I instigated its hand-shake with Mischa, and contact was achieved.
Of course, this simulation is artificial and limited. The Mossback was human and the situation occured on earth. But, like the real intercultural contacts that anthropologists have been participating in for more than a century here on our home planet, the interaction was unrehearsed, proceeded carefully from known behavioral and ethnographic methodologies towards consistent and ethical choices of action, and provided at least a possible model for developing a protocol for an extraterrestrial encounter. And the value of spontaneous role-playing in enhancing the effectiveness of the simulation was convincingly (however unexpectedly) demonstrated. It has been an essential part of COTI forever after.
Ophelia Expedition - CONTACT III
Ophelia by Poul Anderson
Poul Anderson, C.J. Cherryh and Larry Niven
Copyright 1986 by CONTACT: Cultures of the
For present purposes, we assume that human explorers have bestowed their own names on bodies of this system, starting with the sun, which they call Hamlet. The various planets, satellites, etc., they have generally named after other figures in the play or historical associations with it.
Hamlet is a star of spectral class F5. Its mass is 1.75 times that of Sol, its luminosity 5.4 times as great. Seen from the planet Ophelia, its photosphere subtends as arc of 16', i.e. it appears about 0.5 times as wide as Sol does seen from Earth. The light is brilliant, looking white with a faint bluish tinge to the human eye, somewhat like a fluorescent lamp's. However, at its distance Ophelia receives only 0.5 the irradiation that Earth does; this is proportionately richer in ultraviolet and proportionately poorer in infrared than Sol's, though the difference is not very great for practical human purposes. The solar ( or stellar ) wind is stronger, and occasional bursts on the surface outdo anything on Sol and produce significant electrical phenomena in the atmosphere of Ophelia.
Hamlet is slightly younger than Sol, but being brighter is evolving more rapidly, and has only about one billion years before it goes off the main sequence. Its brightness was, originally, considerably less than now, and will continue to increase; so Ophelia may actually have only half a billion years or less remaining before a runaway greenhouse effect gets started and destroys life upon it.
There are no other lifebearing planets in the system, as should be evident from a glance at their mean distances from Hamlet, here given in astronomical units (1 a.u. = Earth's mean distance from Sol [semi-major axis] = about 149,680,000 kilometers): Osric, 0.24; Claudius, 0.45; Gertrude, 0.63; Horatio, 0.96; Ophelia, 3.28; Polonius, 6.00; Laertes, 12.60; Fortinbras, 24.89 ... add more if you like. Inward from the fifth planet, Ophelia, all are too hot; outward, all are too cold. The inner planets are mostly seared, cratered rock with little or no atmosphere, except for Horatio, which is about the size of Earth and reflects brilliantly off its veil of Venus-like clouds. Polonius, which approximates Jupiter in size and composition, can appear equally bright. Laertes and Fortinbras are comparable to the lesser giants of the Solar System; any thing beyond that is mostly icy, more like a huge comet than a proper planet.
At its mean distance of 3.28 a.u., Ophelia rounds its sun in 4.48 Earth years, in as orbit of slight eccentricity. As said, it receives half as much irradiation as Earth does. (The human eye is adaptable enough that this illumination does not appear dim; and it is even more dangerouse to look straight at Hamlet than at Sol.) Its equatorial diameter is 15,077 km., or about 1.18 Earth's, partly due to more self-compression and partly to a higher content of heavy metals; apparently the whole system formed out of a cosmic cloud which had shortly before been enriched by a number of supernovae and red giants, now long dispersed beyond finding. The surface gravity of Ophelia is 1.30 Earth, so that a 100 kg. man would find himself weighing an extra 30 kilos. The rotation period is 16 hr 31 m 2.75 s, or about 0.69 Earth's. The axial tilt is 25 50' 4.9", about two and a half degrees more than Earth's. As a sidelight, the theoretical horizon distance for a man standing on a flat plain at sea level is 8.69 km., a bit more than Earth's 8; but topography and atmosphere hardly ever allow anybody to see that far.
Ophelia has two moons, Rosemary and Rue. Their characteristics are tabulated in the table to the right:
|Mean orbital radius
||9.77 Ophelian days
||120.14 Ophelian days|
Some notes on these quantities: The sidereal period is the time it takes to complete an orbit as measured from the center against the stars. The satellite day is the time from the rising to rising as observed from the planet; thus Rosemary's rising or setting is retarded about 40 minutes each Ophelian day, Rue's slightly less that 10 minutes -- on the average. The synodic period is the time from new moon to new moon as seen from the plant. Since the Ophelian year is 2371.48 Ophelian days long, it contains 79.66 Rosemarian and 19.70 Ruan months. The angular diameter is as seen from Ophelia; Rosemary's is about twice Luna's, Rue's about one-third. Assuming their albedos to be about the same as Luna's, Rosemary when full gives about twice the light that Earth gets from its one moon, Rue only about one-eighteenth. Assuming densities about the same as Luna's, approximate tidal effects on Ophelia are estimated. Rosemary has about twice the tide-rising force that Luna exerts on Earth, while Rue's is essentially negligible -- and so is Hamlet's, at its distance. However, such an estimate gives only a vague general idea of actual tides, which vary enormously from place to place as they do on Earth.
The orbits of these two moons have small but different inclinations to the Ophelian equator; an occultation of Rue by Rosemary is a rather rare event. However, both are eclipsed fairly often. Only Rosemary can eclipse Hamlet entirely, but that is total, with the corona and prominences blocked out as well as the disc, unless the satellite limb just grazes an edge of the sun. These eclipses occur somewhat oftener than Solar ones do on Earth.
Returning now to Ophelia itself, the planet would be too cold for life were it not for the thick atmosphere which its large mass out gassed and then -- given the gravity, the strong planetary magnetic field, and the comparatively weak irradiation -- was able to retain. Life arose by processes analogous to those on Earth, and in the same fashion converted the atmosphere, which is now chemically very similar to earth's. However, it is much denser, the sea-level pressure being about 9.2 bars (1 bar = 1 Earth atm.). Such a concentration of gases is toxic for humans to breathe unless they can reduce it by artificial means. At about 12 km. altitude, pressure has dropped to approximately one bar. The atmosphere provides a greenhouse effect strong enough to keep Ophelia habitably warm. It is still quite cool -- some such temperature as 10 C. would be considered ordinary at sea-level midday on the equator -- but most of it remains in the liquid-water zone.
Because of compression, radioactivity (bearing in mind that there is a noticeably higher heavy metal content in the planet), and the heat-conserving operation of the square-cube law (Ophelia being larger than Earth), the core is bigger, denser, and hotter than the Terrestrial. This, together with the more rapid spin, generates the comparatively strong magnetic field we have mentioned, several times the strength of Earth's though even more variable through both space and time. Geological activity is powerful, with hard-driving continental and oceanic plates, much volcanism and orogeny, so that a very few mountains actually do reach heights at which humans can breathe without artificial help (although they need it to keep from freezing to death!). Such peaks are, though, geologically young, and soon worn down, for erosion is fierce. There is the powerful drag of gravity, which, among other things, makes waves travel faster than on Earth -- 14% faster on deep water -- as well as hit harder. Winds at lower altitudes tend to be slow but have much mass behind them; the rapid spin generates many strong cyclonic storms, temperature differentials bring on high linear winds. Weather can get even fiercer at higher altitudes. It is worth noting, because it affects both climate and biology, that the pressure gradient is steeper on Ophelia than on Earth; a given change of altitude brings a greater percentage of change of air pressure. The altitude brings a greater percentage of change of air pressure. The concentration of gases also gives the chemistry of erosion more power than on Earth.
Perhaps in part because of this, as well as numerous sea mounts, oceans are generally less deep than on Earth. However, they are more extensive; only about one-sixth of the Ophelian surface is land, mostly in the form of islands of varying size, none of the scattered continents much larger than Australia. To be sure, because the planet is larger, the total land area is about 90% that of Earth. However, a considerable part of it is glaciated, not only in the polar regions but in most highlands and some high-latitude lowlands. The ice-free low areas generally enjoy adequate rainfall in summer; snow in winter is usual, outside of the tropics. Yet nowhere is precipitation as abundant as in the wetter parts of Earth, because water vaporizes less readily; at sea level its boiling point is about 175 C.
Deserts are few and small. Some are due to topography, rain shadows or the like, some due to devastation wrought by volcanism or erosion; all are geologically transient.
Air at low altitudes is often somewhat hazy because of mist, smoke (fires can sweep fast over enormous areas), dust, etc. An astronomer would call the seeing chronically poor, although sun, moons, and the brighter planets and stars are visible when weather permits. Hardly any of Hamlet's strong ultraviolet output gets down this far. Sunrises and sunsets are apt to be colorful, with the disc flattened into a red step pyramid beneath glowing clouds. Coastal areas tend to be especially hazy because of droplets flung off the high, hard-moving surf and long suspended in the dense, cool air. Thereabouts, too, the great tides produce many salt-water swamps.
As noted, these conditions change comparatively fast when one climbs into the uplands; air gets thinner, clearer, drier, colder, and moves faster when it blows.
There are thus quite marked biological zones, adapted to various conditions. On the whole. Ophelia is hospitable to the life forms it has brought forth.
One feature is especially worth remarking on. At sea-level pressures and temperatures, the concentration of oxygen dissolved in water approximates the partial pressure of this gas at sea level on Earth. Hence aquatic life can become as active as Terrestrial mammals, and even maintain oxygen-hungry brains like ours, under water.
Otherwise all I have to say about the biology is that it must have some basic chemical similarities to ours. The existence of free oxygen implies photosynthesis, which presumably implies some kind of division into plant and animal kingdoms -- or can we think of an alternative? Considering the probable course of biochemical evolution on Earth, I should think it likely that Ophelian life also depends on proteins in water solution -- but if so, they need not be the same proteins at all, as far as I can see. ( Ours don't use nearly all the possible amino acids; and then there are possibilities of isomerism, not only in the proteins but in other classes of organic compound such as the sugars and lipids.) I'd be wide open to any plausible suggestions about a really different chemical basis for Ophelian life.
Likewise, we can have a lot of fun imagining some of the species that may have evolved here, and their interrelationships. Besides a greater variety of aquatic animals, we might also have a proliferation of airborne types; the dense low-level atmosphere offers more support than the gravity increases weigh. Conceivably plants (?) tend to have a more energy-storing chemistry in the uplands, where ultraviolet light penetrates, and an ecological chain extends down from them to the coasts; in that case, the geologically rapid changes in terrains would doubtless affect the course of evolution.
If there are intelligent Ophelian natives -- but now I'm only throwing out random suggestions, and will stop here.
Ophelia by C. J. Cherryh
I do not feel comfortable doing all the work on the alien concept. I wish that you would pass this Round Robin fashion to Poul, Larry, and Jerry, and see what they come up with.
I ran Poul's planet on my software for which I dead-reckoned some quite critical not-specified-in-that-form data until I began to get some results that paralleled Poul's world but not quite. Most notably, the program does not take density into account, and persists in linking it to the figures for the curvature. I had to fudge the gravity downward to get rid of the hydrogen-helium mix.
But the figures on the stellar future come up a lot grimmer. To get enough time in there for life to have evolved with a star of that mass I had to push it to 95% of it's life span, which means it (according to this set of figures) hasn't got a billion years left. It is facing immediate disaster, in about 50,000,000 years, and if Murphy holds, the star is probably already going peculiar.
This is a rather violent planet. Tough is going to win here, and natural selection is going to weed out the unfit rather quickly, I should think.
I should think also that if life downs come from this sea, it is going to become rather adept at a fast tidal scramble for safety. The tidal surge is also going to tend to keep the icepack fractured, and while the seas may be shallower and tending to freeze more readily ion the north. and perhaps not to unthaw, and there is some greenhousing which brings the temperature up a little more if Poul's reckoning of lots of stuff for forest fires holds true.
Salt marsh and estuary seems the likeliest cradle of landfaring life---now, if Poul would like a little different ecology, we could imbed chemosynthetic-photosynthetic cycling algae in the tegument of said critter, a sort of a symbiosis in which the algae and host are bound together for certain critical nutrients in a cycle in which algae absorb chemicals from the tissue of the host as well as from sea-baths, and return its own waste in the form of oxygen and certain byproducts. Anyone want to touch such a mossy creature?
I would surmise it is otherwise omnivorous, and probably live bearing, as otherwise it might surrender too much of its body mass into reproduction in too short a time span. . . unless maybe it infected its oversized egg sacs with algae which might lie there and fester in a nutrient bath. But I rather think on such a violent and probably competitive planet, something would eat the young. Far better to encase the embryonic rascals in a large and surly host.
It is only a dice throw, I think, which made earth's genetic heritage bisexed instead of hermaphroditic. . . possibly sex specialization turned out to be an advantage in our global climate, but I am not convinced an everybody-gets-pregnant arrangement like earthworms would not have been just as advantageous, and in an environment where the offspring may have a hard time surviving, it is one way of ensuring a high birth rate without granting too much mass to the offspring, as is the case with litters and twinning. Take your pick. Maybe they make mating balls, like garter snakes. Maybe a lot of the life here does.
I'd guess maybe being shaped like a horned toad would be a real advantage in handling the swamps and spreading out for warmth, and riding the tidal surges without getting killed. Also short and stumpy would do well with the higher gravity.
But the critter would have to be warm-blooded, and probably have an insulating layer of some kind, maybe a king of thick tissue which contains its parasites/ symbionts. It would also need a very efficient heart and possibly a couple of booster organs if it is very large and moves very fast. I would suggest a genetic heritage of mud crawler in the tropics, that got finally to a critter which has a better developed front end, with manipulators (probably but not absolutely) forelimbs which began as digging and gripping limbs in food seeking and sex an then became more and more agile. The eyes are probably large, the skull probably set on a tolerably short neck and maybe having the important regions of the brain in (again a dice-throw) a different orientation and alignment and therefore a different skull shape. The jaws are probably full of cutting and grinding teeth. Likewise it might well have a vestigial migration-compass dependent on the magnetic field, well developed in birds and other such, and in fishes, but dominated by the intellect in the more intelligent critter.
I imagine that it could as well be vocal, since that is still the most efficient means of communicating in a gaseous and violent medium; in which case both ears and nostrils are probably seal-able, or possess vestigial musculature once enabling it.
If it has lived long enough to become well established on the land, and the tidal creature is to it as the chimpanzee to us, it is probably by now a dry lands creature which is capable of living about anywhere but the frozen north, and which tends, if it is still hampered by its mossy back, to go mostly naked. On the other hand, a highly evolved form has perhaps given up any earlier tegument as we did abundant hair, allowing it in this case to go impoverished and to contribute in the higher life forms hardly more than what melanin does for us, a king of natural sunscreen which tends to flourish where there is bright light and die off otherwise.
The most difficult environments would be the cold ones for such a creature. I rather imagine that the arctic and Antarctic seas are the reserve of large and intelligent predators which dominate that food chain, and that undersea volcanism has created some warm water upwellings that enrich the cold seas and make life varied. Possibly the open-sea predators are rather like our whales in the food chain, preying on the seal-like flat critters that come and go by the seasons, so on down to the fish and the plankton. Perhaps quasi-mammals are well developed throughout the world, and perhaps the sea-critters are, like our dolphins and whales, of considerable and quite alien brain.
Perhaps there have been several attempts at intelligence on several landmasses, isolate from each other and of quite different species. I reckon that it was an accident of geography and probably the nastiness of our ancestors that kept us from having competition: perhaps the locals have fought it down to one species, but then, maybe they haven't crossed the seas yet. Who knows?
Perhaps this will kick something off. Over to everyone else and good luck.
Ophelia by Larry Niven
Ground Rules: I'm deriving consequences from the notes of Poul Anderson and Carolyn Cherryh.
The attendees of Contact are anthropologists and SF writers with a bent for anthropology. The Bateson Project in particular will work best if Ophelia can evolve one or more species with something to say. The ides, then, will be to work out a way for our human society (which must also be described) to talk to them.
Note that Ophelia is not comfortable anywhere. In fact, even ignoring the gap of light-years, Ophelia is harder to reach than Mars. Higher gravity. Storms. Quakes. What are we doing here?
Who Are We? Some choices:
- Humankind will be looking for longevity until we've got it. Humans with an expected lifespan of 10,000 years might well get involved in a project that might only take a few hundred, even if that's a few hundred years of discomfort and frustration. The payoff would come in awards and fame. Movie rights might be important. (Picture a movie that takes a year to watch.)
- No longevity. They were ordered to Ophelia by a government that can get away with that. They don't expect to come home soon, or perhaps at all. One variant is that families are large and powerful; their families will gain the honors.
- Bob Forward's choice. In a population of six to ten billion, in a settled solar system beginning to explore interstellar space, can you find a couple of hundred dedicated scientists willing to go to a world of another star, one-way? Hell, yes! In 1960 it would not have been difficult to find astronauts willing to travel to the moon one-way.
- Easy travel. Instantaneous drive. The Ophelia group doesn't exactly commute, but they can get leave on Earth: two years here, one on vacation. (I tend to work within the rules -- no FTL -- but take your choice. It's just that we must make this choice early.)
We've got heavy gravity, but it's not so bloody heavy as to cause much discomfort. Anyone who uses aerobics or Heavy Hands exercises or a weighted jump rope to keep himself fit on Earth, can do the same with long walks on Ophelia. Expect cardiovascular problems in the aging. Expect medical techniques to compensate.
Heavy gravity, dense atmosphere, and serious winds all act to shorten the mountains. High radioactivity in the core, and high spin of the planet, act to replace them. There will certainly be a highest mountain. The peak is BASE ONE.
We hope it's twelve miles high, because that gives us the right atmospheric pressure. It's still too bloody cold, but with proper clothing you could walk around.
If the mountain's too short, then we need a pressure lock, and lower pressure in the base. Going outside (clothed) won't kill you fast. And we still pick the tallest mountain, because wherever it is, it's too bloody cold; we'll have to heat the base.
It's big and roomy inside, with plenty of recreation facilities. News (from Earth, and outdated), games, novels, and interactive novels, 3D movies and interactive movies; restaurants, and kitchens manned by hobbyist chefs.
Ophelia is not entertaining enough. The view from Base One is of clouds, though it's spectacular. Anywhere else, it's all fog. The lure is in the life forms; and they'll be interesting enough, but there will come a time when what you want is a travelogue of the Great Barrier Reef or Saturn's rings.
The Base Fours are a class of vehicle. They are dirigibles. They are enormous. They've got big tiltable fans to move them up and down and sideways, and emergency rockets too, because those storms are likely to fling a dirigible about like a toy.
They constitute research bases; one or another may stay anchored in one place for weeks or months.
They're transportation from the surface to Base One. We put Base One on top of a mountain, and it's hard for a conventional airplane to land. In Fact, our airfield (harbor might be a better word) is some big indentation in the mountain rock, permanently shielded from the wind.
They are also escape craft; because the mountain beneath Base One cannot be considered stable, and neither are any of the Base Twos and Threes. Any base may have to be evacuated an entire population at a time.
Base Five is an interstellar spacecraft, assuming the damn thing doesn't just go home for another load, which it would do only if we have easy FTL. Even then, something would be left behind: one or more interplanetary craft, and a compliment of communication satellites.
All of the above is subject to cost evaluation. This is what we want; but what can we afford? What did we bring, what can we make? We may need more research facilities; we may need mines and refineries to build facilities on the spot. The resources, particularly metals, are easily come by.
We do not give up Base One or the communications satellites. We might communicate with the surface only through remote devices, giving up the Base Twos and Threes. The dirigibles might have to be smaller; but not too damn small. because they need mass to stand up to the winds. They may be designed to lock together to lift something heavy.
The surface is where the action is. Living conditions there include killing pressure, hurricanes and tornadoes, hypothetical hostile action from hypothetical natives, sensory deprivation (from the endless fog), the shock of an alien environment (when the fog clears), and (as compensation for all of these evils) the joy of discovery.
Mostly there's pressure.
In the Base Twos and Threes you wear shirtsleeves or less. The walls are thick; they must hold against the outside pressure, because the inside is a partial vacuum. At least we don't have to refine our air.
Outdoors you wear armor. By the time of the exploration of Ophelia, there may be Flash Gordon spacesuits, mere body stockings with helmets, for use in vacuum. But Ophelia is different. Outside the bases, your armor is braced against hundred of atmospheres of pressure. You can't lift it, so it has to be a braced tank or boat or submarine or flying vehicle.
Under the circumstances, your armor may look like anything you desire. For instance, it may be shaped and painted to resemble Caroline's horned toad, or any other ETI, as a means of getting its attention.
Let me offer some possibilities; and then the Bateson Project can decide who they want to talk to.
Caroline makes a good argument for hermaphrodites. Let's go with hermaphrodites; but in that case everything is hermaphroditic.
Some points hold for all natives of Ophelia.
Fish can get as much oxygen out of the water as an air breather. That's awesome, all right; but we still might not get an intelligent fish, because of the competition. An air breather gets far more oxygen to play with. If the fish are as agile as dolphins, what are the air breathers like?
They need far more food to match their air intake. Predators are rare compared to herbivores, and the food chain isn't long; only carrion eaters eat meat eaters, even in the ocean.
Predators move like a bat out of hell. You wouldn't want to step out of your armor.
We find a great many flying fish. In this atmosphere their fins make good wings; they fly fast and far, and turn on a dime. Large creatures, antelope-size predators, may be able to take leave of the crest of a hill like a flying squirrel.
Intelligent beings will almost certainly be air-breathers, They burn their food fast; they live fast; probably they breed fast, grow fast, die fast. If you want to talk to any intelligent Ophelian, you have to talk fast, and that holds for all of the species that follow.
Land-dwellers will find less use for their sense of smell. There's too much wind to take away the clues.
I accept Caroline's suggestion that intelligence may have evolved in various environmental pockets. The oxygen density is a driving force.
The Moss Back
I like Caroline's evolved horny toad with the mossy symbiote. Picture the prototype (the ape ancestor) as toad like, but bigger, with legs that are thicker and stronger: perhaps an elephant's or rhino's legs. The way the planetary surface moves around, that thing wants gripping appendages.
We want a tool maker. We'll give it something to grip with. Give the prototype a mucking great beak, powerful enough to fight and kill with, or hang onto some support during a quake or flood or hurricane. Put a soft, mobile mouth inside . . . and that's our early "rat" prototype.
To make a tool maker, give it an "outside tongue", a short arm above the beak. Recess in beak into which the arm fits; for the arm is vulnerable. Now you've got a hand right next to a powerful gripping appendage.
Caroline suggests they would lose that mossy symbiote. I'd like to see them keep it. And play with it. Men have had symbiotes, and they played with them, making new breeds of horses and dogs. What Mossback does with its symbiote may be viewed as a cross between dog breeding and styles in coiffure and beards.
In this species the leader of a group becomes the male. He thus has more progeny than the females, and is never burdened by the clumsiness of pregnancy. We get a solid drive for leadership, leadership which would be retained for long periods; and this would have been an evolutionary plus; for millions of years before Mossback became intelligent. It also gives us serious problems in talking to Mossback. Mossback is very prone to dominance games.
Mossback is found across a large part of the world (we'll decide how large a part.) She's got boats; she uses arrows and lines to hunt flying fish as she goes.
The Flying Dolphin
It's easy to picture her. She's an air breather. She's got dolphin proportions; a bird on Earth would be slender, but she has to stand up to the wind. In the thick air her fins (a little larger than a Tursiops truncatus's) make adequate wings. She tends to take off into the wind, veer fast and ride the wind away from a predator. Her senses of balance, directional hearing, and radar are even more finely tuned than an Earthly dolphin's, because she needs them to swim and fly. Thus her brain is large and complex, and thus she attained intelligence. But she doesn't use tools or fire.
She's a hermaphrodite and a carnivore. She carries no photosynthesizing symbiote, but there are symbiotes in her gut to help digestion, and they may be more evolved than our gut-bacteria.
Humanity's first problem will be to recognize that she is intelligent.
Picture a thick-armed spider, heavy as a man. This a highlands dweller. She's a hermaphrodite, and a fairly adaptable herbivore. She likes altitudes above the regions the Mossbacks have colonized; though they're down below, and they know Skitter exists. She can open a fin on her back, like a sail, for two purposes: (A) to run downwind, or (B) to signal a potential mate; for the wing is naturally brilliant scarlet. Some Skitters. The Skitters don't like the dominance games; they won't hold still long enough to talk; and there's no profit in it.
Few Mossbacks have tried to talk to Skitters. The Skitters don't like the dominance games; they won't hold still long enough to talk; and there's no profit in it.
Locale: a rocky New-Guinea-sized island. Water is not a problem, usually. Wind moving over the mountains tends to drop rain. The Mossbacks live below. A Base Two situated above the Mossback city (?) has two shots at making First Contact.
The Skitter is agile. She must outrun or outwit a changing variety of predators; for new species arrive fairly frequently on the waves or the winds. Skitter families (small) tend to reinforce natural cover, a wall or a cave. Their legs make good tool-grippers. They would build more if the hurricanes didn't keep carrying their work away.
If we like the Skitter, we may want to design the predators which threaten her. We might get her talking by offering her protection.
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