1000-Word-a-Day Bit for July 29, 2017

Today’s bit inspired in part by Alien Planet, a speculative documentary about an automated probe from Earth that explores a planet, Darwin IV, and its lifeforms.

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The giant creature lifted its forward leg up with difficulty, balancing its weight on the other two, moved it forward a little, and then put it back down with a thud that shook the ground. The left back leg was next, followed by the right back leg and then the cycle repeated itself. The animal was not bipedal and could not stand for long on the supporting two legs while the third was in transit.

As the species continued to gain weight, even this slow shuffle became impossible, and Rick Messer had several times seen huge, elderly Traiserdors standing on their tripod of legs stranded, unable to take a step, bellowing and being ignored by their fellows who trod past them. These stranded Traiserdors didn’t last long. They combined the qualities of helplessness with a plentifulness of food source that small predators known as Dixon’s Drivers found irresistible. He had watched these little devils attack and destroy a Traiserdor once. They didn’t really need any strategy: the Traiserdor was immobile, and its weak little arms, vestiges really, on either side of its mouth were intended to grab the vegetation it fed on and scoop it in rather than defend the animal from attacks from Drivers.

The Drivers would take a running start, jump, and simply plow directly into the unfortunate Traiserdor’s legs, using its sharp beak to excise a chunk of nutritent-rich flesh from the poor animal. The biology of the Traiserdor’s blood worked against it, as it almost instantly coagulated over the wound, forming a hard covering that prevented blood loss which might have resulted in an end to its agony–instead, the blood sealed the wound and the Drivers just kept coming and coming, each taking its pound of flesh. Eventually, one leg or the other would be so weakened that it would collapse, the Traiserdor would fall over, and then be unable to breathe as a result of its own weight. It was a toss up as to whether the unfortunate creature would die of asphyxiation or by virtue of being gutted, and in the end it didn’t much matter. Either way, it was dead, and once on the ground, it would be picked apart pretty quickly.

The walk cycle of the ambulatory Traiserdor consisted of this three-step, spider-like process of front leg, back left, then back right each being moved forward in turn. Traiserdor pups sometimes moved the front leg forward and then both back legs up at the same time, but only before their bellies and back acquired the large pads of fat that were characteristic of mature Traiserdors. After that, they were too heavy.

The slow step of the adult Traiserdor was about a yard at a time–slow progress for such a large beast, and yet, Traiserdors demonstrated the raw power of persistence as they migrated up and down the planet’s single large continent, which extended to 78 degrees north latitude and 59 degrees south latitude, and Traiserdors were sighted at each end, the north in the summer when it was cold there, and the south eleven months later when the planet was on the other side of its 22-month rotational period. Traiserdors liked it cold–the planet was at the very edge of its star’s human Goldilocks zone. It was difficult living there, even with underground shelters and nuclear furnaces, but it would have been impossible without.

Rick drove the clear-domed rover around the several Traiserdors that were plodding here and there and as he approached Colony Hab 71, he pressed the button that opened the rover airlock, deftly steering the vehicle into it, and then closed the door and waited for the chamber to pressurize.
“Rick,” his helmet radio crackled. “Rick, I’ve got something to show you, come on up here when you get suited out.” The voice belonged to Valerie Pons, chief engineer to a staff of two, but who kept the colony’s somewhat trouble-prone dual Takson-IV supercomputers running and had lately been occupied with calibrating the new GPS satellites that had been put into orbit around Traiser. The system had already vastly improved the colony’s exploratory efforts, and added a layer of safety and reliability that made everyone–especially Messer–a little more comfortable when outside the confines of the underground shelter.

He depressed the push-to-talk. “What is it?”

A pause, and then: “I’d rather show you.”

He sighed–Valerie was often a bit dramatic, but what she was dramatic about was usually worth seeing. “All right, are you in the lab?”

“Yep.”

He pushed the button twice–shorthand for ‘okay, that’s all’–and looked up to see the green lights through the rover’s clear dome. He unbuckled the seals, popped the top, and hefted himself out of the small vehicle.
Rick got himself out of the suit and climbed the stairs to the colony’s engineering lab, one of two well-appointed laboratories. The other was the xenolab, outfitted for isolation and analysis of life forms. Valerie was studying a computer display, her face appearing to be only inches from the screen. When she heard the doors open, she grunted, but did not turn around. “Val,” Rick said. Then louder: “Val!”

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Come on in.”

Rick was somewhat put off by Valerie’s manner, but she was good at her job, and this was the major factor is his calculus of her value as a crewmember. He was willing to tolerate some idiosyncraticities in his crew–if their value to the station made up for it. Valerie’s did. Rick moved over to a position beside and slightly behind her, and she spun around, appraising him with her ice-blue eyes. “You know those position markers we put on the Traiserdors?” she said.

“Sure,” Rick responded. He had helped do it–over the course of the last couple of weeks, whenever he and other crewmembers had been outside the shelter collecting samples or checking on experiments, when they encountered the inevitable three or four or five Traiserdors blithely plodding on their way to wherever it is they were driven to, they would use the rover’s manipulating arms to retrieve a harpoon from the outside deck, arm it with a GPS marker, and fire a dart into the animal. The marker would report the animal’s position once per second to the orbiting GPS satellites and enable the creature’s path to be plotted on a map. The idea was to get some data on their movements.

“Well, look at this,” she said, sliding her chair back from the screen.
The screen showed a map of the surrounding area, about 50 miles around the shelter. There were a variety of green lines running this way and that, and some of them seemed immediately familiar to Rick as he first considered it “What am I looking at here?” he asked.

“You’re seeing the path of about eighty Traiserdors,” Valerie responded. “I’ve removed the duplicate tracks and you’re actually seeing individual creatures here. Now look at this.” She moved a mouse to the side of the keyboard and the map moved, then she zoomed in on a particular spot until the green trail turned into a familiar figure.

“What’s that?” Rick asked.

“You know what it is, Commander. The question is, why is that Traiserdor drawing that on the ground as the walks along?”

The animal had drawn, by virtue of its GPS-tracked movements, a familiar figure on the ground. It was a right triangle, perfectly straight lines, and on the outside of the triangle, each leg had been used as the base of a square, also perfectly stepped out on the Traiserdorian plan. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“I think you know the meaning of it,” Valerie responded.

“You’re very annoying,” Rick said without humor.

“It’s the Pythagorian theorem,” she said. “A squared plus b squared equals c squared. Straight out of a geometry textbook.”

“How can that animal be tracing this on the ground?”

“I don’t know,” Valerie said. “They’re smarter than we think, apparently. I found something else, have a look at this.” Again, she manipulated the mouse and the map moved in a blur until she stopped in a new spot. She zoomed out this time, and again, Rick realized what it was before Val said anything. It was a circle, well formed, with a polygon inscribed inside and outside.

“Whoa,” Rick said, and then he exhaled sharply as the full impact of the diagram dawned on him. “It’s pi, isn’t it?”

“Yep. The inside polygon established a lower limit, and the outside one establishes an upper limit. Archimedes used exactly this method to establish that pi was between three-and-one-seven and three-and ten-seventy-firsts about four thousand years ago.

“Who knows about this?” he asked.

“Me, Dave, Pamela–and you.”

“Any more little diagrams like this around?” he asked.

“Still looking,” she responded. “They walk around all the time, you know.”
“Yeah.” Rick thought fast. “Let’s document everything you can find in the next three hours, and then meet me up here at three-o’clock. I want you to be on the line when we call this one in, okay.”

“Captain speaks for the ship,” she said, returning to the screen.

“Yeah, but you’re the expert.” Rick was leaving the room now. “Don’t argue with me, and I’ll see you at 3 pm.” The doors whished open and closed, and he was gone.

“Asshole,” Valerie said to herself as she scrolled the mouse back and forth, following the path of the Traisedor which had drawn the inscribed circle.

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