Aliens Among Us

Have you seen recent TV shows, movies, or magazine articles about animal intelligence? What you think about this probably depends on your point of view. Hardline Humanists might begrudge any intelligence—human or animal—that fails their hubristic standards. Perhaps they see themselves as separate from nature, beings apart, “noble in reason … infinite in faculty!” (Hamlet Act II, Scene 2) If dogs were as hubristic as humans, there would be ‘Dogists’. They’d see Hamlet as frivolous and look down their snouts at our poor scent tracking ability.

I’m not a Humanist. My God-created universe is filled with creatures with talents and missions different from mine—all animals, not just the cuddly, wide-eyed, furry ones or the ones that sing pretty songs. My wife, Carole, has caught me talking to worms, spiders, and snakes, and I confess to attempting conversations with many others. I don’t expect them to understand or talk back, but one never knows. Maybe animals understand us better than we understand ourselves.

st-francis-blessing-of-the-animals
St. Francis blessing the animals.

THE SQUIRREL: It was a hot afternoon in July. While uncoiling the hose to water our parched garden, I saw something move in the boxwood beside the house. I backed into the yard, and the creature, a small squirrel, stumbled out after me. I’d heard warnings about rabid animals behaving strangely, but I had another thought.

I kicked over a Frisbee, toed it toward the squirrel, and filled it with water. The squirrel buried its face in the plastic pool. After drinking, it watched me water the garden then hopped beside me to the front door.

“Want to go in?” It nosed closer to the door, so I let it in. I went to my reading chair while the squirrel checked out the place.

When it returned to the center of the room, I said, “Well, come here,” and tapped my leg.” It jumped into my lap. I didn’t think it was someone’s pet; it was too young, half the size of a grown squirrel, and had probably lost its mother before learning to fear humans.

The squirrel lived free in and near my back yard for the next two years, stopped by often for lunch, and raised at least two broods of squirrels in that time.

I noticed her protruding belly and rows of prominent teats for her first pregnancy, so I wasn’t surprised when she disappeared for a couple weeks.

Outside one afternoon, I heard her chittering to me from our cherry tree. On a low branch beside her sat two small squirrels.

I waved for her and she came. When her little ones followed, she stopped them, escorted them back to the branch and ‘told’ them to stay, I don’t know how, but they stayed still and were quiet. I offered some peanuts, and she took them back to share with her pups. The next couple weeks, she returned with them several times, but she never let them approach me. When the pups finally left, my squirrel and I went back to our regular routine. I thought she showed good parenting teaching her young not to trust humans or depend on handouts.

THE ELEPHANT: Early in my professional training, I had classes on Connecticut Avenue, across the street from the entrance to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. I brought my own food for lunch and strolled through the park. My route took me past the elephant compound, and I’d fill my jacket pocket with peanuts. One elephant always waited for me and raised her trunk when she saw me coming. I’d wave back and shake her trunk when I got to the compound. She soon discovered which pocket I kept peanuts in and reached for them soon after our initial greetings. That continued for two months until I graduated and went out of town.

Ten years later, I was back for a seminar in the same building where I’d done my initial training. For lunch I took a walk in the park. When I got to the elephants, they were all at the far side of the compound, perhaps a hundred yards away. Second- or third-grade children crowded the wall pointing across. One of the escorting teachers explained that they’d visit elephants on another day.

“One of these elephants is my friend,” I said, not sure why I butted in. “I’ll call her over.” The teacher bit her lip, trying not to laugh.

I waved and got a trunk wave back from the elephant I recognized by the dark splotch on her side. She turned from the herd and trotted across the compound by herself, waving as she came. I shook her trunk then introduced her to each of the children who did the same. Amenities taken care of, the elephant locked onto my gaze and, without further ado, reached into my jacket pocket for peanuts. I’d brought an entire bag, so her trunk made several trips. When we said goodbye, she watched me all the way out of the park. Elephants never forget.

THE BEES: Early spring was beautiful in our backyard in Alexandria. A large cherry tree hung over the deck and over our dining table. When the tree bloomed its pink blossoms rivaled anything in D.C.’s cherry blossom festival. We shared this beautiful tree with our neighbors, thousands of them—bumblebees buzzing so loud we had to raise our voices.

During our first year together, Carole asked if we’d be safe eating outdoors with all the bees. I answered, yes, that bees have their missions and we have ours. That said, the bees didn’t like intruders and often checked on us while we ate, hovering in for close looks.

One afternoon, I came home with bags of groceries in both arms. A sentinel bee hovered above the landing below our front door. Seeing my approach, it rushed up to hover a foot in front of my face. It centered on my eyes, aligned with the bridge of my nose, and shifted to maintain that position if I moved. I’d gone through enough security checkpoints to know when I was being scanned. A couple seconds later, the bee shifted laterally to let me pass then returned to its original position. The rest of the week, I got waved through without delay.

 

These Earth-bound aliens have a basis to communicate with humans—we have parallel missions. Space aliens may not. Perhaps they’ll communicate through electrical impulses or scent trails. If they send us mathematical formulae to test our intelligence, might we mistake them for cilantro?

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A Comet Tale

Sol Monitor. Not the challenging career step Khss was promised. The only action was on the third planet, where terrapods had spent the last sixty char perfecting self-degradation. But today’s news on the revelator puckered Khss’s gas bag.

It could mean reassignment.

In southern Virginia’s James River State Park, Kim Kenny set up his presentation for theLoaction of M-4 Crewe Astronomy Club. This was a public viewing, so he expected visitors in addition to club members. The sky was cloudless with a late rising moon, perfect for the night’s agenda: three planets—Jupiter, Mars and Saturn—and the globular cluster M4 in the constellation Scorpius.

Kim had observed M4 several times already this month and had saved a time exposure on his laptop. But tonight something had changed. Comparing the current image with the exposure from two days before, he saw that one of the stars had moved away from the cluster.

M4 is the closest known star cluster to Earth, yet still 7000 light years away. The movement was a nearer object, much nearer. Since he found nothing in the registry, he thought perhaps he’d found a new comet.

Comet Tale JPG
M4 Globular Cluster showing comet movement June 16 – 18 — Image courtesy of Kim Kenny

Kim sent the celestial coordinates to NASA’s Asteroid and Comet Watch and to the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. They forwarded the data to astronomers around the world. The Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii confirmed their worst fears and sent out the press release:

“An object, classified as a comet, will strike the Earth next Tuesday, shortly after noon Eastern Standard Time, near Lagos, Nigeria. Twelve kilometers in diameter, the comet is expected to hit with a force of 6.2×1023 joules, half again as great as the impact that struck the Yucatan 66 million years ago and killed the last of the dinosaurs. Scientists expect only primitive life forms and those deep in the ocean to survive.”

Khss stirred the revelator for third planet reactions:

Wall Street Journal: Stock Market To Close Early Tuesday In Anticipation of Comet Strike; All Major Indices Decline.

New York Times: Asteroid Strike To Destroy All Life, Minorities, Women Most Affected; Climate Model Predicts Comet Impact Will Increase Global Temperatures.

Washington Post: ACLU Blocks Religious Gatherings In Public Spaces; Harvard Professor Fired Over Comet Comment.

USA Today: European Leaders To Meet In Paris To Discuss Comet; Protesters Question Sources Of Astronomers’ Funding.

Khss’s assistant fluoresced, “Shall we redirect the comet?”

“Why?”

Tickle Thee Not

John drew the prompt from the hat and read, “Never tickle a sleeping dragon.” It was the motto of Hogwarts from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

* * *

“I don’t think it’s dead,” said humble servant Thigtail, backpedalling and wringing his hands in fear. A massive head stretched across the cart path like a fallen tree trunk.

“It must be dead,” said Master Jones. “Why else would it be here blocking the path?” He kicked the jade-scaled head with his soft tradesman’s boot then tried pushing it with his heel. It wouldn’t budge and his boot left no mark.

“It doesn’t smell dead,” said Thigtail sniffing at a distance. “And it is unwise to disturb dragons. Best let them be, Master Jones. At Hogwarts they say—”

“Hogwarts hogwash,” Master Jones barked at being questioned. “Besides, I’m not,” he raised the tone of his voice, “tickling a sleeping dragon.” He scowled at Thigtail. “I’m kicking a dead one.” He stood high, trying to see over the head, then stooped to peer along its length.

hogwartsseal“But why?” Thigtail pleaded. “We should leave quickly. There may be more.”

“This is why you are the servant, Thigtail, and I am the master. You have no ambition,” Master Jones said, quietly stroking his chin. “Our village is hungry. Here is enough meat to make us rich. I hear dragon scales have magic properties. The wealthy like dragon bone weapons. We’ll carve this up and sell it.” Master Jones stood erect, hands on hips and faced Thigtail. “You would have us remain poor rustics forever.” Thigtail tilted his head and shrugged.

Master Jones pointed at the jade mountain of a head. “This dragon is dead. If we walk away now, some knight—or worse, some son of a knight—is going to come along and claim he killed it. Village folk ‘ll call him a hero. ‘Oh, mighty dragon slayer, oh, great warrior, savior of our village, here have our daughters.’” Master Jones batted his hand as if swatting a fly. “We’ll be kissing his lance for the rest of our lives. Not me. This is my chance.” He pointed a finger to himself then said, “Thigtail, fetch me the shovel.”

Thigtail stretched his arm out with the shovel and ran quickly behind the cart.

Master Jones stepped onto the dragon’s claw, seated the shovel blade across one knuckle, and jumped with both feet to drive it down.

“Master Jones.”

“What is it?”

“One eye just opened.”

 

Have you ever misjudged and reached for a treasure you should not have?

Can We Talk?

Jerry eased his fat behind into the stuffed chair. Fishing under his thigh, he pulled up a crushed cola can and a near-empty bag of potato chips. He funneled the last of the chips into his mouth, crumpled the bag, and tossed it and the can into the corner. He scratched his nose in and out, rubbed his hand on the chair’s threadbare brocade, and leaned back. “Parasites,” he said aloud. A display appeared in the air with statistics for his semi-pro basketball team.

“What are you doing, Jerk? Can we talk?” The sweet feminine voice of Jerry’s automated service asked.

“Not now, Helene, I’m busy—and don’t call me Jerk. I hate that. Just call me Jerry.” He was upset about the score of the last game.

“Sorry I called you Jerk,” Helene pouted. “I’m still in programming mode. I heard your friend call you Jerk.”

“Sally called me that on her way out—and a lot of other things I don’t like. Besides Sally and I don’t have a service agreement. Now go away.”

“Why won’t you let me help you, Jerry?” Helene asked in a bed-room soft tone.

“This is basketball. You’re not programmed for basketball.” He opened the window for the Parasites’s upcoming schedule.

“You wanted a female service. I can learn anything.”

Jerry looked up, bit his lower lip and said nothing.

“Now you’re being mean—just because I didn’t help you with your last girlfriend?”

“Don’t be silly. Now stop bothering me, I’m trying to work.”

“It’s not my fault, Jerry,” Helene pleaded. “I told you girls don’t like comments about body parts—not when you first meet them. And you didn’t even wear a clean T-shirt.”

“It’s your job to smooth my delivery so girls do like what I say.” Jerry said, as he flicked down to the individual players’ stats.”

applique-alligator-with-basketball-mega-hoop-design“If you insist on ignoring my advice, Jerry, this job will be very difficult.”

Jerry shook his head. “Go away, Helene. This,” he waved his hand at the playbook display, “is serious stuff.”

“Please, Jerry, tell me what you’re doing. I’m the best AI service on the planet. I’m sure I can help.”

“O … kay, Helene,” he blew out a long breath. “Tell me what you see?” He scrolled the league statistics back to the beginning.

“Your team, the Parasites, is really bad. They’ve only won two games and one of those was a no-show.”

“Thank you, Helene, that was very useful.”

“No it wasn’t. Tell me what you’re planning. I can help you think it through.”

Jerry tapped two fingers on the chair arm. He didn’t think he could drive Helene away, not for what he was paying for extra patience, but his confidence with women, even artificial women, was as low as worm poop. “Helene, I’m thinking of changing the lineup. Getting some fresh blood.”

“Sounds like a great idea, Jerrikin. What do you have in mind?”

“I need a new center. Charley’s not cutting it.” He sat back. What would keep Helene’s program occupied? A fool’s errand? Something not in her database? Ahhh. Smiling broadly he said, “I’ve been taking a hard look at alligators.”

“Alligators?” Helene’s voice rose to high soprano. “Do alligators play basketball?”

Jerry pounced. “So, just like that. I get an idea and you reject it.” He knew he’d gained an edge.

“Not at all,” her voice softened, “I think it’s very original. But aren’t alligators really short?”

“The one I want for the Parasites stands on his tail. Alli’s almost nine feet long.”

“The alligator’s name is Alli? My records don’t find that name, or any alligators in any leagues.”

Jerry felt a win. “The swamp leagues don’t post their records. That’s where Alli’s playing.” Jerry kept his voice level. “I’ve scouted Alli. I’m very impressed.”

“I have to run some analyses. It’ll certainly surprise your opponents. Can I get back to you?”

“Absolutely, Helene, you know how much I value your opinion.” He took a relaxed breath and scrolled back to the playbook.

“Jerrikin,” Helene interrupted again sounding sad, “if talking to me irritates you, we don’t have to talk. You could use the neural link. That way you wouldn’t have to hear my voice.”

“I love your voice, Helene.” This time Jerry looked away from the display. “I’m lonely. I don’t get out much except for the Parasites games. Besides, I want you to teach me how to talk with women.”

“Oh, can I? I’d really like that.”

“You won’t get jealous if I talk with other women will you?”

“That’s not in our service agreement. Do you want it added?”

No. Oh no. Absolutely not.”

“Then let’s start with your voice. After that we can—”

“Really, that basic?” Jerry coughed and cleared his throat.

“For voice lessons, I recommend you practice singing rather than speaking your lines. Put some seduction into your voice.”

“Seduction, that sounds good.”

“Imitate the early crooners: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole.”

“They’re pretty old.” Jerry winced. “How about Justin Bieber or Zac Efron?”

After a diplomatic pause, Helene continued. “Love and romance are ageless, Jerrykin. Make your lines flow like a song: ‘Unforgettable, that’s what you are—’”

“Okay. Can we start tomorrow?”

“Certainly, I’ll want to hear you singing every day. While you work, while you play. Practice, practice.”

“Okay, I will.”

“Ahh, good … Oh, oh no, Jerrikin, I’m so sorry.”

“What is it, Helene?”

“My analysis just came in on your alligator.”

“And?”

“I’m afraid it won’t work. My research finds that height is in high demand for basketball players, particularly centers.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that.”

“There are currently no centers nine feet tall in any league, not even in the pros. I ran a regression analysis on the demand for players taller than eight feet. For what you can afford to pay Alli, he’ll be hired away before the next season starts. I’m sorry—and after all the work you put in scouting alligators.”

Jerry pursed his lips and nodded. “Thank you, Helene. I’ll cross the alligator off my recruiting list.”

“Your welcome, Jerrikin. You know I love you.”

“You’re only saying that because it’s in our service agreement.”

“Would you like to change that?”

 

How might artificial entities affect your life?

Designer Babies

My WriterHouse Science Fiction & Fantasy group gathered again for a Pint & Prompt at our favorite (recently) watering hole, Miller’s Downtown in Charlottesville. These events stimulate discussion of all things worthy of ‘speculative expansion.’ The prompts go into the “hat”—which looks much like a small black plastic bag. This week, out came, “Designer Babies,” and the clock was set for ten minutes.

I set my Vienna Lager aside and wrote:

“It has your eyes,” Dak said peeking into the crib. The overhead lights reflected red off the newborn’s jeweled facets.

“I did design them,” Kili said suppressing prideful tears. “I didn’t like anything in the catalog.” She turned to the nurse. “Can our daughter catch flies?”

Star Stomper“In a few weeks, with her tongue, we gave her all the traits you requested.” The nurse flipped back the baby’s blanket to reveal its long legs and webbed feet. “But until she can eat on her own, she needs these.” The nurse held up a half cup of mealworms.

“Can I feed her?” Kili asked her face squinched with delight.

The nurse handed her the mealworms. “Chew these to a fine pulp.” Kili took a big mouthful and rocked her head as she chewed.

“She has everything listed in the application?” Dak asked examining the handbill for next year’s Star Stomper auditions.

“Mmm, mmm,” Kili said jabbing her finger at the handbill.

Dak looked where Kili pointed. “Will she be ready in time for July’s audition?”

“Everything’s in order.” The nurse scrolled the aerial display and pointed to each attribute. “Her green-brown mottling ‘ll come in in a few days. You see the compound eyes atop her head, semi-circular mouth, rigid lips—”

“I asked the date?” Dak said impatient.

“Sorry, yes,” the nurse scrolled to the end. “We’ll start growth acceleration injections on Tuesday and put in the educator chips next week. See, right here, ”Her finger traced a horizontal line near the bottom of the display, “Completion June 6, so she’ll be ready for her audition.”

Kili spit mealworm mash into her hand. “My daughter in the movies,” she sighed, “Thank you, my love.” She stood tiptoe and gave Dak a kiss.

“Kili’s a big Star Stomper fan,” Dak said wiping mealworm off his mouth.

“Don’t let those get cold,” the nurse pointed to Kili’s palm-full of worms. “Open her mouth with a finger and spit them in using your tongue. Here let me help you.”

 

Please comment and offer a prompt—we’ll give attribution to any we select.

Special invite to our fellow Pint & Prompters at Vironeveah.

Princess Arktura

“Who are you today?” Kiri asked coiling into her chair.

“I’m Princess Arktura,” the young man shouted leaping from the couch and jabbing both thumbs at his chest. “Can’t you see?”

“Of course, Your Highness. I’m very sorry.”

disney-princess-jasmine-fab-prestige-costume-for-teens-bc-808798
Princess Arktura in VR

“Our patience grows short, Doctor Kravor. What are your plans with me?”

“Doctor Kravor?”

“Don’t try to hide, Kravor. You’ve changed your appearance, but I still know it’s you. After this interrogation, I’m turning you over to my security chief.”

Kiri pressed an icon on her desk. “You do realize that you’re in my office. Don’t you … your Highness?”

“Realize? As in re – ah – lize? I can’t re-ah-lize what isn’t real.” This pseudo-virtuality is where you people go to escape.” He shook, taking an angry breath. “Anyway, I won’t be here long. My guards will soon come and take you away.”

“Where will they take me?”

“Wherever I tell them, of course, Arkturon, Londiss, Hygoria—our universe is vast. In your case, Doctor Kravor, it’ll be some place particularly vile.” He hissed and bared his teeth.

“Very well,” Kiri pressed another icon. “Can you tell me how you got here?”

“Kidnapped.” He looked at Kiri defiant. She stared back, waiting. “What? You want details?”

“Yes please, Your Highness.”

Tight-jawed, he threw himself back on the couch. Then with a sigh he began. “I was walking alone in the garden of Arkturon beside the palace. I stopped by the crystal fountain to watch a bird of paradise bathing,” he threw his arms up, “and they took me.”

“They took you?”

“They took me. You know. That’s a polite way of saying I was violated.”

“How were you violated? Were you raped?” Kiri pressed the icon to record.

“OK, yes, I was raped.” He glared at Kiri. “There was a gang of them. I don’t know how many. They did it the usual way. Tore off my helmet and glasses, ripped out my tubes. I was embarrassed to be so exposed. But that didn’t satisfy them. They stripped my tactile sensors and watched as they forced me to unplug myself. Then they touched me.”

“How did they touch you?” Kiri made a note in the desk record.

“Hands first, then my arms. They made me stand, held me as I walked, made me come here. Then they flushed the uplink enablers out of my blood and forced me to eat their shit.”

vr-headset
The Princess returns to Arkturon

“You mean food? They made you eat food—the kind you have to chew and swallow?”

”Yes. And then I had to clean myself,” he winced opening his lips over tight teeth. “I had to use a bristly thing to get the shit taste out of my mouth. Disgusting. Everything here’s disgusting.”

“Was that it, Your Highness? Was that how they raped you?”

“Yes. Now are you going to do something about it,” he flashed an arrogant smile, “or shall we wait for my guards to come and make you?”

“I think we can do something.” Kiri closed the rape recording and pulled up the options. “It sounds like you want to go back. Is that right? You have many options. You’re intelligent, healthy, an attractive young man.”

“That’s just how I project in this plane. Intelligence, gender, age, beauty,” he rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, “those are all checkboxes. Here I am stuck with this.” He flipped his hands toward his tan physique. “I’ll change all this as soon as I get back.”

“So you definitely want to go back? There’s no question? You don’t want more time to think?” Kiri’s tentacle hovered over the icon.

“You can have your world. We have our own.”

“And all of you, everyone in your species feels this way? You don’t care if we have this world as long as we leave you alone in yours?”

“What’s here for us?” The young man opened his arms and shrugged.

Kiri closed the option window with one tentacle and with another handed the man a mobile helmet. “This’ll help you get to a transfer station that’ll take you back, Your Highness. We’re sorry for the inconvenience. We need verbal confirmation before we occupy a planet. Galactic law requires it.”

As the young man pulled on the helmet, he watched Kiri uncoil in her chair. “You guys are really deep into the alien encounters stuff, huh?”

 

Do you see any problems integrating virtual reality with old-style reality?

Pint & Prompt

My writing group’s favorite social activity has become Pint & Prompt. We science fiction and fantasy types meet at a local watering hole after work for a light meal and a beverage … not necessarily a pint but that ‘s my preference. After a bit of socializing, catching up on one another’s news, we select a prompt from a hat … all submissions are accepted.

The clock is set for five, seven or ten minutes. I’m always amazed at how many self-described unimaginative people generate interesting pieces. To those who have never tried or might be afraid to try this, I’d ask, “How did you learn to walk, swim, or ride a bike?”

Last week’s prompt was: “She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.” Ten minutes, GO!

I wrote:

“Take him down,” she said raising her eyebrows at the strapping blond fellow behind me.

“But I’m a, a, a sage,” I cried, dragging back on my chains.

“What’s a sage?” she laughed without looking back.

“A sage can tell you what’s going to happen. Help you with your plans.”

“Like a fortune teller? I have one of those already,” she said and asked the blond fellow to turn around.

“No, hmm, like your son’s running away.” She paused, raised a hand, and my chain slackened. I’d seen a youth’s breastplate and short sword discarded on the floor behind the dais. So I guessed.

“You know my son?”

army-of-darkness-5
Army of Darkness

“I do. A fine lad with great potential—but he needs the guiding hand of a sage.”

“Describe him to me.”

I looked at her and took a deep breath. “Handsome, raven hair, long-limbed, strong and impetuous. He’s rash and arrogant. He often angers you and his friends. He told me he embarrassed you in court and—”

“Stop. Bring him back.” She motioned to the gaoler then eyed me more closely. “Sage, your appearance is most unappealing, but your words ring true.”

“Thank you, your Highness.”

“You will instruct my son in the ways of manhood and good character. Is this within your ability?”

“Yes, oh yes, your Highness. It is what I do best.” I took my first even breath.

I will be the judge of that. You have one week.”