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Big Feet Speak Louder Than Words

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Tocohl breathed deep of the inviting steam wafting from her coffee while settling back into the captain’s chair. She had been up late reading the briefing papers about this assignment, and somewhat resented the early start this landing demanded. She no longer checked Maggy’s programming, trusting to her judgement to get them from point one to point two safely and efficiently. She regretted it when a dawn landing was the result, especially on a little understood world.

Mirabile was one of the lost colonies, just rediscovered in the last three years, and swiftly inducted into the Byworld economy once its rich lodes of rare minerals were discovered. The industrial base was small, however, and confined to one rocky peninsula in the southwest. Agriculture remained the most important part of the economy, absorbing the majority of new settlers each year. And, Tocohl remembered as the view screen showed this blue-green jewel of a planet they were approaching, that, unlike some lost colonies which had developed such insularity over the years they disliked incomers, Mirabilans welcomed newcomers, embracing the diversity they brought. Their most respected profession was ‘Jason’ – the word they used for genetic engineer – and the Jasons had decreed a wider gene pool was better for the colony; and so it was. Not that there had been a flood of applicants to move to this world. The initial influx of young adventurers (mostly second sons whose elder brothers were due to inherit, leaving little for them on their original worlds) had slowed to a trickle by the third year. A couple of small groups had set up their own communities; but most were peacefully integrated into already existing small existing towns and villages.

And there seemed to be no crime. Well, certainly nothing of the nature to require the attentions of a Byworld Judge. Most worlds embraced Justice. But often, lost colonies preferred to maintain local traditions of justice (claiming disputes were always better handled locally). Mirabile fit that mould; and had not signed up to the Protocol for Judgement. Yet, now it seemed that decision had not been without exception. A Judge had been requested, and not just any Judge: Tocohl Susumo had been sought by name, no less.

In the four years since her famous Judgement on Flashfever, Tocohl had gained a certain notoriety. Truly the pin of high-change she had selected the last time she had visited Scheveschke had delivered all it promised. Her next two judicial assignments had led to two more species being declared sentient. In its first years of exploration, as humans moved out from Earth to explore the galaxy, they had encountered two new species. But thereafter humanity had simply discovered the infinity of its own variations; in the subsequent 135 years of exploration of new worlds there had been not even one confirmed discovery of true alien sentience. They had all the procedures in place to ensure any sentient species they encountered was not exploited, but increasingly they appeared unnecessary as world after world was explored and mapped and surveyed and, at best, proto-sentients had been encountered. And then Tocohl rose to judgement on Lassti and three sentient alien races were discovered within just one year. She had not been asked since for judgement…until now.

“I have Annie Jason Masmajean for you,” announced Maggy, “on the main viewer.”

Startled, Tocohl looked up at the screen. (You could have given me a minute to prepare.)

(You’ve had all voyage to prepare, including three transitions!) Maggy shot right back.

Inwardly Tocohl sighed; there was nothing so trying as an adolescent on her high horse. She had not expected it of Maggy. In humans, teenage challenge was heralded by massive hormonal shifts which altered brain pathways as well as changing body chemistry and signalling developing physical maturity. Lacking the hormonal triggers of a human body, she had not expected adolescence in an extrapolative computer. But it seemed even artificial sentience could not avoid the ‘terrible teens.’ None of this showed outwardly, as she stood to bow greeting to the white-haired woman who was spokesperson for the planet below. Annie Jason Masmajean was composed and Tocohl matched her stance as the viewer was activated.

“Byworld Judge Tocohl Susumo at your service, Madam Jason,” she said.

She hoped she had the inflection right. This world used an archaic form of Anglish. As was typical for a still relatively new colony based on farming, it was technologically backward in most areas (jasoning being the main exception); this meant limited ‘push’ from one of the frequent drivers for linguistic changes, which had resulted in relatively few changes. But there had been a major shift in pronunciation during its isolation from mainstream human society, with another Great Vowel Shift. Not surprisingly, quite a number of new words had also been added to the vocabulary: mostly, it seemed, nouns for new flora and fauna discovered on this world, newly developed techniques for farming (about which Mirabile was clearly frontrunner), and genetics. Tocohl had used sleep-tapes during the trip to help her brush up. She was relieved to see the woman on screen smile and nod; it seemed her homework had been good enough. (It was a point of pride for all Hellsparks to be able to use the idiomatic language wherever they were.)

“No Madam,” smiled the spokeswoman. “Just Jason – or you could call me Annie.”

Tocohl bowed again in acknowledgement.

Annie smiled. “Your briefing was clearly thorough; but we save ship’s manners now just for special occasions. We tend to the informal here: whatever works is pretty much the rule. Don’t worry – you’ll soon get the hang of this place. We’re a pretty friendly bunch.”

Tocohl allowed her stiff posture to relax, “I look forward to meeting you.”

“How soon can you come down?” asked Annie. “We have had another sighting, this time at the entrance to the mines. Fortunately, one of the miners had his head on straight enough to use the vidcam in his helmet, so we have a brief clip, which I'm sending you now.

(Maggy?)

(Got it Tocohl.)

She flashed it to Tocohl's spectacles: a few blurry seconds of some kind of large bipedal animal moving swiftly off screen.

“How is it at the mines?” asked Tocohl. “My briefing suggested they are located in the mountains and the species you discovered came from a forested area.”

Annie’s image grimaced. “You’re partly right. Our gene bank is at RightHere, which has sea on one side and rainforest at its back. We think some of the parentage of this particular ‘discovery’ comes from that gene bank. But we also suspect some of it is Mirabilan grown, in which case – if we’re right – it represents a whole shitload of new chaining up problems we’ve never had before, and makes it imperative we have your decision about sentience sooner rather than later.”

"Why presume it is sentient? That clip just looks like an animal trying to get away."

Annie laughed. "The way it seems to anticipate us - the way it gets in and out of traps we set. I don't know: gut instinct after years of working on chaining up problems?"

“Chaining up problems?” Tocohl knew she was missing something here and it wasn’t the words. Context is everything she reminded herself; and she was the first glossi to visit. She couldn’t expect to make sense of every nuance in her first conversation.

“Back when they prepared the gene banks on Earth, the scientists manipulated all our samples to add in genetic redundancy, tucking in additional species we might want in future. Catch is, we suffered catastrophic computer damage on the crossing; so for a long time, we couldn’t find the index for what they did, or the instruction manual for how to turn it off. Led to some interesting times, as flowers grew insects instead of seeds; but it also made for some interesting solutions. In the end we found the ‘off’ switch – which means we tend not to have too many surprises nowadays.

“So if you ‘found the switch’ what’s the problem now? And why the need for a Byworld Judge?” Tocohl looked intrigued.

“The problem is this time it doesn’t look like just chaining up from flower to insect to animal – all based on Earth species. It looks the first chimaera cross between Earther genetics and Mirabilan.”

“Is that possible?”

“Shouldn’t be,” replied Annie grimly. “This isn’t one of those bad Sci-Fi novels where anything can crossbreed with everything else. In real life nothing Mirabilan should be fertile with Earther. But I did the scan and that’s what I read. I’m the senior Jason, but I had three juniors check it too, and they got the same. So, there’s no way it could be spontaneous! Plus, all the Earther genetic samples are supposed to still be frozen in RightHere; and the ape turned up fifty miles away by the mountains. Not considering all the potential recessives that should have made interbreeding non-viable. (We didn’t have many primate samples that survived the Sanoshan epidemic, so we definitely do not have a large enough gene pool for breeding.) After a bit of debate, we decided to call you. I’m a pretty decent Jason but I’m no investigator. Word has it you are. One further complication: whatever it is and whoever created it, this creature looks intelligent – acts intelligent. And you, we understand, are also the expert about that too.”

Tocohl nodded. (Maggy, estimated arrival time?)

(40 minutes. I’ve been given the coordinates for a landing field about two miles from their Orinoco mine.)

“I’m on my way,” Tocohl reassured. “Will you be there to meet me?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Annie said. “I should warn you though, feelings are running a bit high at the mines, ‘cause they’re shut down until we figure out what to do. Mirabilans know the drill; but the mines are mostly run by new settlers and they’re still getting used to our local customs. There's been a lot of shouting about loss of income."

“Should I bring weapons?” This would not be the first world where Tocohl had had to go armed.

“No need for that,” Annie shook her head. “They know you haven’t caused the problem; they’ll just be a bit vocal.”

(Coming Maggy?)

(I wouldn’t miss this for anything.)