GWJ Writer’s Throwdown: January 2013

Contact Protocol

“Biologist, report.”

“We have performed a thorough examination of the specimen, Commander. We have observed its behaviour and tested its response to external stimuli. We have dissected it and tasted its molecules. We have learned many things about this species, but we will need to compare our findings against data from other individuals before we can complete our evaluation.”

“Your initial findings?”

“Much of the organism’s biology is quite unsophisticated. Its dominant sensory organs are limited to extremely narrow bands of electromagnetic radiation and atmospheric pressure oscillations. It also possesses two rudimentary organs for detecting specific molecular compounds, but these senses are similarly limited and require the organism to physically ingest a molecule in order to detect it, which severely hinders its ability to identify harmful materials.” The Biologist paused for a moment to consult her notes, and then continued. “Despite these perceptive limitations, the specimen’s somatosensory capabilities are surprisingly well-developed: proprioception falls within expected norms and the organism’s exterior covering is equipped to sense both temperature and pressure. In addition, the organism exhibits a strong electrochemical response to any stimulus that inflicts physical injury.”

The Commander shifted in his seat and there was a subtle change to his pheromone excretions, signaling amusement. “It seems appropriate that creatures with such limited senses would be well-adapted to bumping into things. Please, continue.”

The Biologist delivered the rest her report, describing the organism’s physical characteristics in great detail. As this went on, the meeting’s third participant felt his attention begin to wander – he had already carefully reviewed the Biologist’s findings as part of his own mission preparations, and her dry delivery did little to hold his interest.

“Contact Specialist, report.”

The Contact Specialist snapped back to attention. “Ready to embark on your order, Commander, the meatsuit is prepared and I have selected a suitable landing site.”

“Excellent, then we are ready to proceed. Good fortune, Contact Specialist, we eagerly await your first status update.”

There was something about this particular customer that made Carlos very uncomfortable. The man sitting alone looked normal enough–well-dressed, average height, greying hair, slightly overweight–but every so often he looked up from his menu and stared at Carlos with a weird intensity that made his skin crawl. At first, he thought the man was checking him out; Carlos was flattered, but uninterested. However, as more time passed he became convinced that this wasn’t a look of attraction. It was oddly clinical, like an entomologist studying some new species of insect. After what seemed like hours, the man put down his menu and Carlos forced a smile and walked over to the table. “Sir, are you ready to order?”

The man stared at him a moment longer, then nodded his head. “Yes,” he said, “I would like to try everything.”

“Communications link established.”

“Excellent. What is your status, Contact Specialist?”

“No surprises so far, Commander. Most of my observations match our remote assessment: they are still quite primitive, both culturally and technologically. They can be quite creative, but their artistic expression is necessarily constrained by the limited range of their senses. They have made some effort to augment these capabilities with technology, but these devices are rudimentary and mainly restricted to scientific research.”

“Disappointing, but not unexpected. Anything else?”

“We originally observed that these creatures display very little biological variation, but this isn’t entirely true. Most individuals do conform to the same set of physical features: four major limbs, two light-sensitive organs, and so on. However, there is a tremendous amount of variation in minor details such as the size, shape, and coloration of these features. As such, it is not nearly as difficult as we assumed it would be to tell one individual apart from another. It is really quite fascinating, as there appears to be no inherent advantage to most of these variations. In fact, sometimes they can actually be detrimental to the individual in question.”

“Very curious indeed, perhaps we can yet learn something from these creatures. Continue your observations, Contact Specialist, we will speak again soon.”

“Acknowledged, Commander. Contact Specialist out.”

Alice stood in the hotel room beside the bed and gave her customer an appraising glance. “It’s two hundred for an hour, cash up front. Weird shit costs extra.”

The middle-aged man closed the door behind him and turned to face her. “I have no desire to engage in sexual intercourse” he said, “I merely wish to taste you.”

Alice rolled her eyes. Why do I get all the friggin’ weirdos? After a moment’s hesitation, she shrugged. “Two fifty.”

“Agreed.”

Alice took off her clothes and lay on the bed. The man instructed her to remain still, and then proceeded to explore every inch of her body with hands, nose and tongue. When his hour was up he rose from the bed, thanked her for her time, and left the room. After the door clicked shut behind him, Alice got up and began collecting her clothes. “Well that was weird.”

“Welcome back, Contact Specialist. Are you prepared to deliver your final report?”

“I am ready, Commander. In my previous report, I mentioned that the creatures of this world display an extraordinarily high degree of phenotypic variation. After further observation, I have discovered the source of this phenomenon: these creatures are the result of the most unusual evolutionary process I have ever seen.”

“Can you elaborate?”

“The organism in question has no mechanism for controlled gene transfer between individuals. Any new genetic traits can only be gradually introduced into the gene pool via reproduction.”

“Inefficient, but hardly novel. We have encountered other species that operate in a similar manner.”

“Yes, but these creatures also exercise no control over which traits they pass on to their offspring. A male will supply a female with millions of packets of genetic data, and each individual packet will contain an arbitrary subset of the male’s genetic structure. Of these millions, only one will combine with a similarly random subset of the female’s genes, and this combination will define the inherited genetic traits of the resulting offspring.”

“But that’s absurd! How can any evolutionary progress result from such a flawed reproductive strategy?”

“Slowly, over thousands or even millions of generations. Given a sufficiently long period of time, beneficial traits will eventually be propagated throughout the species by granting individuals with these traits a greater statistical likelihood of successful reproduction.”

“This is unbelievable. These creatures are born of pure genetic chaos. It’s remarkable that they have reached even their current level of biological development.”

“Had I not seen it for myself, I would never have believed it myself. The evidence is there, however, preserved within the genes of each individual. Biologist, I believe you mentioned in your report that large segments of the specimen’s genetic structure appeared to serve no purpose?”

“Yes. It is still a matter of some confusion.” said the Biologist.

“Those genes may be useless now, but they were not always so. It’s difficult to tell from a single specimen, but in a larger context it becomes clear that each individual carries within it a partial genetic record of its entire evolutionary history. These useless, dormant genes may have once defined an important trait for some distant ancestor. Examine enough specimens and you could likely derive a genetic snapshot of the species at any point in time.”

The Commander released a sharp odor, indicating a mixture of confusion and surprise. “But… why? Surely these dormant genes offer no advantage. Why persist so much old data?”

“I don’t know, but I suspect it is simply an artifact of their unpredictable reproductive process. These creatures are incredibly inefficient and unlikely, and yet the longer I observed them the more I became fascinated with them. In their own strange way they are… beautiful.”

“How so?”

“Let me give an example: in most styles of music on this world, there is a concept of improvisation, wherein a musician spontaneously creates a new melody or alters an existing one during a musical performance. The improvised melody will be different in every performance, but it will almost always adhere to a specific progression of chords, rhythm, or some other quality defined by a pre-existing musical composition. In other cases the improvised melody might simply be intended to convey some less tangible quality, such as a range of emotions.”

“I am familiar with the concept, Contact Specialist. It is not unique to this world.”

“Of course, Commander. I mention it because the genetic variation present in every individual is in many ways similar to an improvised performance. Each individual’s genetic signature is a unique composition derived from its parents, and yet it is still conforms to the broad criteria that define the species, much as a musical solo can be a unique melody while still conforming to some underlying chord progression. Similarly, much as an improvised solo might incorporate elements from other melodies, each individual’s genetic composition contains elements from long-dead ancestors. Looking at the species as a whole, I cannot help but view it as a vast, ever-changing biochemical orchestra of dazzling scope and complexity.”

“That’s all very interesting, Contact Specialist, but how does it affect our course of action with this species? What is your recommendation?”

“I’m conflicted, Commander. In many ways I see no advantage in pursuing further contact with these organisms. We have nothing to gain from them technologically, and they have no surplus goods or materials valuable enough to warrant a trade agreement. Even cultural exchange would be hindered by their limited senses; most of our cultural works would be incomprehensible or even imperceptible to them, and their own range of cultural expression is so limited that I cannot expect there would be any strong demand for it. Under other circumstances, I would recommend that we abandon this world until they have achieved a much greater degree of technological or biological complexity. In this specific instance, however, I find these creatures far too fascinating to ignore. At the very least, perhaps our artists and philosophers will find new inspiration in the chaotic complexity underlying these seemingly simplistic animals. Therefore, my recommendation is that we dispatch a second expedition, with artists and poets in place of biologists and contact specialists. Our own training has ill-equipped us to assess the true value of this world.”

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