Monday, August 27, 2012
My planned departure for the mountains was delayed by a sloth. At least their hands and claws remind me of a sloth—in fact, that is about the only part of the animal that is in the leastways sloth-like. I took one last look around my lander before lifting off, only to discover this Pseudosloth sleeping beneath it. Though the lander was once an ancient heavy lifter, its engine was one of the first things replaced. I could have easily lifted off without harming the creature thanks to the propellant-less Space Drive. Instead, I decided to try and capture this creature and study him while in the mountains. I doubt a week of captivity would harm the creature. The blank look in its open eye left me suspecting the creature probably would not have a clue what was happening.
What was once the cargo hold of a heavy lifter is now an extensive biology lab. I adapted one of the isolation labs to serve as a terrarium for the Pseudosloth. I even went as far as to spend an hour bringing in sand and rocks for the creature. No point in unduly stressing it out. Since I planned to bring in specimens long before I arrived, I included adjustable lights within each chamber. With a simple command, the ship’s AI toggled them from the yellow/white light of Sol to a dimmer, redder light more comfortable to the creature. Every time I stepped out of the brightness of my lander into the relative dimness of the Sun Spot Desert, I feel more like I am entering a cooler place. Only looking at the temperature gauge on my E-suit’s HUD reminds me that this desert is closer to boiling than freezing. I left the isolation chamber at around three hundred forty Kelvins.
Catching the Pseudosloth proved far simpler than I expected. The creature paid little attention to me. Whatever smells that remain on my E-suit from inside my own atmosphere meant very little to the animal. When my boot crunched on a particularly brittle piece of stone, the Pseudosloth’s head bolted straight up. Its eyes scanned all around me, but never once focused on me. Billions of years of evolution never prepared any creature for an alien encounter. Even a species as intelligent as my own (or so we claim) had its own difficulty in wrapping out collective heads around the concept of life off Earth.
The Pseudosloth is a rather rotund creature, with a fat tail. I suspect, and later confirm, the fat tail is just that; a fat reserve. Lying down, the animal does not appear nearly as large as its true size. As I step even closer, the narrow (and sharply beaked) head finally turns my way. The dull eyes register that something is approaching, but the animal’s small brain cannot understand the nature of the danger. As the Pseudosloth stands, I am surprised to see the animal is as tall on all fours as I am standing up. I begin to wonder if the isolation chamber will even hold the fellow.
It would, but the fit would be like a turtle in a glass bowl; functional and not as comfortable as I would like. Misjudging the animal’s size, I back off for a moment and reevaluate my strategy. An animal lighter than me I was prepared to haul inside. E-suits might not be powered armor, but their mechanical assistance would allow me to carry my own weight. The Pseudosloth is probably twice my size. Too bad teleportation was physically impossible; it would be a really useful tool at moments like this—even if it did kill the original in the process.
In the end, all those worries proved themselves moot. When I made another, more assertive move on the Pseudosloth, it might not have understood the nature of the danger, but it understood danger stood before it. I never would have imagined a creature that knuckle-walked could move so fast. Perhaps Pseudosloth was not the best name for the creature, but I could not help but make the association with the extinct ground sloth. Oh well, I still have more than two months left on the planet, and I am bound to capture a live specimen sooner or later.
Tuesday, August 14, 2012
I know it's not much in the way of alternate history, but here's more about Hypnale.
The Hunting Pod moved little since its successful hunt. According to the airborne probe, nothing remained of the animal I saw earlier. The probe did observe some activity in the oasis. As much as I would like to get a sample of the water, I dare not move hastily. Just because my E-suit suffered no damage this time, that did not mean I could get a spear through my faceplate in the next encounter. The heavy elements in my body (to say nothing of the E-suit) would be quite lethal to the Pod. Too much time would be wasted properly mapping the Pod’s sensory network. I am still unsure if the Pod detects its prey by physical contact with small branches, or by vibration.
Just as I sat down to begin my breakfast; one of the consoles began to beep. I ordered the probe to also keep an eye out for anything out-of-the-ordinary. In the Sun Spot, that amounted to anything large on the move. When I checked the read out, I certainly did not expect to see an animal the size of an elephant. Perhaps the Sun Spot is not that different from the Kalahari after all. The probe did not detect just one of these animals, but three of them, all moving towards the oasis.
I quickly slip into my E-suit and step outside for a closer look. I have to call up another probe, this time a hovering probe from the University of Montana. The zoology department of the University was as small as the area’s population, which forced them to turn to machines to aid in their research. Their hover probes could not stay aloft for months (or years) on end like aerial probes, but they could keep pace with the swift animals of the vast Canadian tundra. I somehow doubt these duck-billed beasts will be as swift as a Pronghorn.
My first impression of the animals was that they looked like a cross between long extinct duck-billed dinosaurs and camels. Or perhaps the humps on their backs were closer in shape and form to that of a bison. Either way, they did store an abundance of fat on their backs. Their broad, flat snouts looked perfect for plowing through sand. Their lower jaw sagged quite a bit, almost like a pelican. I cannot picture any fish surviving long in a desert spring, so I will rule that out until proven otherwise. I wonder if they are used for digging.
The animals’ tan hide stick out against the reddish sands. They were easy enough to spot out in the open. The aerial probe has given no indication of predators in the area, but even if they hid in the darkest corners of the eternally lit oasis, they would be hard pressed to take down an animal of this size. The hover probe begins to stream back its findings to my computer gauntlet. They were cold blooded, which was hardly a surprise. Any animal living in a region of constant temperature need not worry about maintaining their own, save for shedding excess. Sand particles caking their hides led me to believe the animals might escape overheating by burrowing somewhat. Their shovel-like duckbills should have little problem with that.
The beasts proved me correct once they started digging for food. They used their jutting lower jaw to scrap a groove into desert sand. Groover is what I shall call them, at least until I consult my taxonomy files to find a smashing scientific name for them. I could tell the Groovers were not what one might call discriminating eaters. If it was plant, they ate it. The hover probe scanned the lead Groover’s head. They have many rows of teeth-like structures in their mouths. Initial scans puzzle me for a moment. I would be unable to tell without dissecting one, but their teeth are similar to the incisors on rodents. No, they are in no way genetically related to mammals (a basic scan of the skin can extract that much genetic information), but rather their teeth grow constantly, probably throughout their lives. Constant grinding of roots and tubers covered in sand would quickly wear down conventional teeth, and leave most Groovers to eventually die of starvation or hunger-related illnesses.
One Groover took a bite out of a Hunting Pod’s spear-branch. A second branch quickly lanced out towards the Groover. The blow struck the animal squarely, but lacked the force to penetrate the hide. The animal showed no sign of discomfort save an annoyed snort. These certain explain some of the damage I have seen on a few Hunting Pods; they were partially eaten. To their credit, the Groovers did not take more than a few bites from each Hunting Pod. They did not eat in any one place for more than a few minutes. Their grooving did disturb another species of animal that I had no idea even existed.
The new animal’s eyes sat on top of their heads, much like a frog, or perhaps a salamander. Given the way they wiggled out of the Groovers’ path, the latter struck me as apt. A mound on top of their head, between and ahead of their eyes, housed a pair of nostrils. This would allow the animal to remain underground for most of the time. I dub thee Sanphibians. I directed the hover probe to take a look at these Sanphibians. My first impression was one of predator. Their mouths housed at least a hundred sharp, spike-like teeth. Those teeth looked more suited to grasping than tearing, and the set of jaw muscles on the Sanphibians meant they might be able to simply crush their prey. They reminded me of bug-eating animals back on Earth. The oddest trait of the Sanphibians was spines protruding from their back. The hover probe’s sensors screamed venom, but I could not confirm that without an actual specimen.
One of the red-skinned creatures wondered too close to the water. It turned out to be a fatal mistake. Like a flash of lightning, a larger animal launched itself from the water and clamped down on the Sanphibian. Neither I, nor the hover probe, could glimpse the ambush predator for more than a second. Its head comprised thirty percent of its body, and was lined with serrated teeth. I must admit, I was most astonished to find anything like a crocodile residing in the middle of a desert. Who would have thought an aquatic ambush predator could evolve here. Maybe this was just a land predator trying to cool off when opportunity knocked.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
After two days in operation, the airborne probe finally located something large and alive. I order my lander to move a hundred kilometers starward towards the probe’s last location. Further reports from the probe indicate a natural spring in the desert. If life on Earth taught me anything, it was that where there is water there is life. The trip was short and uneventful. I spent a few minutes checking out the countryside at one of the consoles. I am certain a geologist would find the desert fascinating, but without any life, the land beneath the sun holds little interest.
When I land at the spring, I am not greeted with a palm-infested oasis. Instead of tall trees, the only plants I see are either small, purple shrubs (rather similar to thistles) or these giant pods with spikes protruding from the ground around them. Upon landing, I am quick to scoop up another soil sample, as well as clippings from the thistles. I decided to avoid the pods until further observation. There is something about those spikes that look ominous. My instincts tell me to avoid them, and seeing how they have saved my life on more than one occasion, I am inclined to listen.
Without surprise, I learn that the soil is teeming with microbes. Their basic structure is not that different from microbes found on Earth or Europa. Even the genetic material within the nucleus is arranged in a double-helix. I will need a more detailed scan to determine just what Hypnalaforms use for genetic material. The plant’s cellular structure is slightly different from what we know on Earth. The cell walls and chlorophyll are as familiar as my own face, but the secretions are very alien. As I postulated upon learning of the planet’s acid rain, plants on Hypnale do have a thin coating to protect them from the rain. The coating is rather thin on the thistle, but given the vanishing low chance of rain in these parts, that is hardly surprising.
My first animal came into view just before lunch. It was house cat sized, and covered in scales the color of red sand. The animal moves cautiously towards the water, expecting an attack. At the time, I was outside searching for any bones. Watering holes have always been magnets for predators on Earth. It was a reasonable assumption here, yet no bones. Sensors detected traces of cartilage and skin, but not a single bone. My expression was one of major disapproval. When I ran a series of meteorological scans in the morning, there was no sign of rain lately. In fact, it would not rain often enough anywhere in the desert for the rain to eat away the bones.
Perhaps I could study this animal if predators lurked nearby. They did, and came in the most astonishing form. I first noticed the spear thrusting through the air when I spotted a blur from the corner of my eye. In less than a second, the animal went from cautious to dead. The spear was far larger than anything a human could hurl. Alas, it did not come from any megafauna. Instead, the spear belonged to megaflora. I watched in morbid and scientific curiosity as the spear swung upwards towards the top of one of the stationary pods. With a jerk, the impaled animal slipped from the spear and into the pod.
What could only be a branch of this predatory plant quickly returned to its place in the sand? I have observed a few carnivorous plants on Earth while in college, but never have I seen one make such a complex move. A Venus flytrap’s “mouth” was little more than a pair of specialized leaves. All they did was open and close. I move closer to the Hunting Pod as I dubbed it to find out if it is plant, or a stationary animal similar to an anemone. If a plant, I could only suspect the Hunting Pod hunted for nutrients it could not extract from the soil. Perhaps those Hunting Pods further from the spring even extracted their water via hunting.
I took one step too close to the Hunting Pod in my search for knowledge. I was nearly knocked off my feet as a spearing branch glanced off the composite hide of my E-suit. I jump back to catch my breath, and try to slow my heart rate. Never before that moment was I so thankful for Hypnale’s toxic atmosphere. If I made the same approach in shirt-sleeves, I would be dead now. As soon as my wits return, I take up a new position just outside of range of the Pod. At least I hope I am out of range.
I call up a full-scan on my E-suit’s computer gauntlet. The suit’s built in scouter runs every known scan at every known frequency on the Pod. All my eyes can tell me is that they are black (scans say they are actually ultra-violet) and that spears radiate outward. Smaller vine-like structures also radiate outwards, reminding me of the strawberry plant of all things. I call in the airborne probe to get a top view at the Pod. The trunk of the Pod turned out to be a hollow pit full of digestive juices. The animal whose death I witnessed was nowhere to be seen. I seriously doubt they could breakdown their prey that fast; to I conclude the animals are simply denser than the juices.
The Hunting Pod had enemies of its own. The spear-branches form a radial pattern around the trunk, but within a minute of scanning, I already spotted three branches missing. Not only that, but the Pod appeared to have damage on its trunk. While I was searching for bones without success, I also failed to discover any foot prints. I find it difficult to believe that large herbivores could survive in the desert. In school, I was told that elephants roamed what was once the Kalahari Desert, and that desert was almost as dry as the Sun Spot.
I shut down my E-suit’s scouter and decide to return to the ship. I further neglect my E-suits structural integrity at my own peril. The spear did not penetrate it, but it would not be wise to assume there is no damage. The airborne probe can hover above the Pod and continue observations while I checkout my hardware and run a little analysis on the data already collected. With a little childish delight, I find that I can hardly wait to see the look on some of the older scientists when I show them the new heights of plant evolution. If nothing else, my first encounter with the Hunting Pod will make for a good story.