Sunday 19 October 2014

A story from the Archives

At present I am quite ready to resume blogging!

But some time ago I decided to have my house renovated, and anyone who had done so will know that it is exciting to decide to do so, and pleasant to have the process behind you. The bit in the middle is where I am right now, however, and that part leaves no time for... well, anything, really. So expect the blog to resume in January. Meanwhile, I may delve into the Archives to see whether there are snippets there that can be posted with little effort.

I found something never shown before: I once wrote two small stories, or rather sketches, of human life in The Institute of Furahan Biology. Mind you, I have never claimed to be a writer, but for what it is worth, here we go.

In the New hades book shop on the Furaha site there is a book by Sigismunda Felsacker, titled 'Paleo days'. The story below is supposed to be a chapter from that book, called 'Landfall in North Palaeogea'.


From ‘Paleo Days’, by Sigismunda Felsacker
Landfall in North Palaeogaea

North Palaeogaea, I found, was quite different from the other palaeogaeas. Compared to the humid jungles of South Palaeogaea the landscape of North Palaeogaea is much more open. Although it was still warm in ‘North’, as we quickly came to call our new home, the heat was much more bearable because it was not nearly as stifling and damp. I grew up in the temperate climate of Bogoria, where my family was involved with the Institute, as was of course everyone else’s. Perhaps because of that I have never been able to like a hot climate, so the stay in South was at times hard for me.

In all fairness, I have to admit that it can’t have been too easy for my co-workers, because I tend to get crabby when the heat gets to me, or at least that’s what people say. Everyone else probably felt the heat in south just as badly, so I don’t think I was the only irritable soul around. My touchy state may explain how Gianfranco Mascalzone got to be so mad at me. I still think it was his own fault, so he had it coming, but anyway, here is what happened.

The flight from South to North was as boring as these flights always are. The lack of windows in the cabin did not help at all. Apparently, flyers in the past had actual windows, but the Management must have decided at one time or another to stop putting them in. I suppose they discovered that windows were expensive. We had screens, of course, but their small size -another cost-saving measure?- made everything look unreal. After a few hours of looking at the sea on a small screen from a few kilometres up we were all anxious to do something.

When we finally set course for our chosen landing area in the middle of North, the members of the out crew made for the 'outroom'. The outroom is a space in the flyer specifically adapted for exobiological surveys. Its most important feature was that it could be sealed from the rest of the flyer. After so many years of human habitation we knew there wasn’t any microbial danger, but Furaha had surprised us with stinging animals and other nasty surprises before. I was in charge, I wanted no mistakes, and so I insisted on going by the book.

Our impatient out crew was hardly able to wait for the doors to open. When they did, we saw that the pilot had set us down at the shores of a then unnamed lake surrounded by low hills. We saw grasses in the usual colour mix, from red and ochre to green-gold. There were trees and slender mixomorphs, and we heard the familiar sound of chikking spidrids. It looked good, sounded good, and smelled good, so we all wanted to go out.

The procedure held that we should only pass the screen after putting on our gear. But Mascalzone didn’t even bother to put on his Class I suit. He just jumped through the screen, wearing his normal clothes, and ran through the waving grass towards the lake. This was stupid, even for Gianfranco, because we had no idea whether there were any dangers hiding in the grass.

‘Gianfranco’, I yelled, ‘Get back here, you fool! You don’t know what’s out there!’

At that, he turned back to us and hopped up and down, waving his ungainly long arms in the air. I remember the sun reflecting off his glinting bald head. Shaven heads for men were the fashion that year, I think.

'What is there to worry about?’ he shouted back. ‘There’ve been surveys for over a hundred years, and what did they show? Nothing!’

What he didn’t mention was that the surveys of North had been Landscape Class only, and could easily have missed anything up to 50 kg in mass. He knew this, obviously, but Gianfranco never could be bothered to actually use his judgement. He drove me crazy.

The worst thing was that he had had ample opportunity to learn better, because his recklessness had landed him flat on his face in the past. In fact, it did so again now, literally. He kept on running and milling about, stupid grin and all, when his legs suddenly appeared to be yanked back from under him, throwing him face forward to the ground. He disappeared from sight into the vegetation.

Everyone in the outroom of the flyer froze on the spot, waiting for Gianfranco to get back up again. But he didn’t; instead, something thin and threadlike seemed to move and wave at the spot where he went down. We realised that this was something we hadn’t seen before. He could be in real trouble, and certainly wouldn’t be the first to die for no good reason. Helmut was the first to react; he had been putting on his environment suit, according to regulations, when all this happened. He only had his feet in the legs of the suit when Gianfranco dropped from sight. Now he went into high speed. I’ve never seen anyone getting into a Class I suit that quickly. He somehow managed to jump to the ground while getting his arms into his suit and closing it, all at the same time. He ran towards Gianfranco. The rest of us were either standing there, frozen, looking at the moving grass, or fumbling with our own suits, which seemed to resist being put on.

Helmut got to where Gianfranco was, and was cool headed enough to actually follow regulations: he stopped several meters away from Gianfranco, and carefully took the situation in. For what seemed like an eternity he did not do anything but just looked. Anyone who has ever been in an emergency knows how difficult it is to force yourself to take the time to think. Most people just start doing something, anything, no matter what. Helmut didn’t. Suddenly, he must have reached a decision, because he got out his knife, bent down, and started to saw at something near Gianfranco’s legs. When he had cut whatever it was he was sawing at, he again withdrew again to a distance of four meters, and froze in place again. Gianfranco, however, did nothing of the sort: he started to roll around on the ground and to scream. We could clearly hear him. “Get me out, you coward. Help me! Get on with it, you dumb bastard”.

At this, Helmut did nothing at first, and kept on staring at the tendrils at Gianfranco’s feet he had just cut. Gianfranco kept on shouting abuse at Helmut and slammed his fists against the ground. Helmut only reacted when he was satisfied the tendrils did not look dangerous anymore: he slowly stepped up to Gianfranco, and maliciously, with clear forethought, kicked him sharply in his left side with his Class I Environment boot. Gianfranco made an “oomph” sound and shut up.

Helmut stepped back, and when some of the rest of us finally got there, turned away and walked back to the flyer, looking very irritated. I knelt down near Gianfranco’s feet. A single tough-looking loop of fibrous material had wrapped itself around his right ankle, and had caused him to fall. The loop was still very tight around the ankle, and both cut ends were waving like crazy. That was all; other loops could be seen in the grass, but they moved only slowly, and did not look very menacing. That was it; there were no gaping maws, no venom-filled pits, nothing particularly dreadful.

Gianfranco was by now sufficiently calmed to look at his feet himself. He had gotten his wind back after Helmut’s kick, looked around at us, and said, stupid grin and all: “Look everyone! I just discovered the first new North species. I’ll call it a something mascalconata! I discovered it.”

At that we all stepped back. Not only could the fool have killed himself and perhaps Helmut as well, but he actually had the affront to suggest that a species be Named after himself. That's something you never do. Names are decided upon by an entire expedition, and only at a Naming. Suggesting your own name is barbaric, and I never would have expected any Institute member to do it.

I admit I wasn’t thinking too clearly, feeling the effect of the heat, still surprised by his complete disregard for proper procedure, and his bad manners. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done it, but at the time I swear I just saw a red haze before my eyes. I stepped up to Gianfranco, who looked at me expectantly, with his big grin. And I kicked him in the precise spot where Helmut had kicked him, only harder.

Later, we of course studied Gianfranco’s tendrils more closely. Apparently, they are mixomorphs, forming loops that lie hidden in the vegetation. When small hexapods or other animals get their feet snagged in the loops, the tendrils tighten, partly passively, and partly actively. Other tendrils in the near vicinity become active, swaying around for something to tie down. The tendrils are very tough, and can keep smallish animals tied down for quite some time. Long enough for predators to get there and kill off the unlucky animal, which is devoured on the spot. It has to be, because the tendrils keep it, or at least one of its legs, in place. The 'morph gets its reward by taking in some of the nutrients leaking out off the carcass into the ground. 

We had never seen anything of the sort in South or anywhere else. The ecological communities of the Palaeogaeas are so old that there are many more species per square kilometre than in places with more recent biotopes. The ‘holdit’ was a good example. We later called it that because that was typically what you said when you got one of your feet in one. It did not occur all over north, but only around the lakes we had just landed near. We learned to avoid them. When we did get snagged, the loop could be cut relatively easily with a knife.

When we later held the first Naming in North, the expedition almost unanimously decided to call it the ‘Supplantator incuriosorum’, meaning the ‘tripper of the careless’. There was only one abstention. That particular Naming ended in a still-famous party. Mascalzone’s feelings were seriously hurt though, and he chose not to talk to the rest of us for several days, which suited us perfectly.

But that was later; that particular day, we hauled a protesting Gianfranco to the flyer. He was subjected him to a full medical by a very unsympathetic doctor Dendycke, who could have an awful bedside manner when he chose to. The rest of us had to stay in the flyer for at least a whole day, according to Regulations. So we spent our first evening and the next day in North in the flyer, grumbling about Gianfranco’s folly. Helmut, usually not that popular, received some well-meant slaps on the back. People grinned at me; I knew they wouldn’t exactly dare to slap my back, but anyone who had kicked Gianfranco was popular that evening.

But it was that day of delay which probably got me to be the first to ever see a Bogorbes, which is one of the best memories I have of North Palaeogaea. That discovery was worth kicking Gianfranco for; in fact, if it had given me a pair of Bogorbesses, I would have kicked him some more.