This is part 3 of Natural Selection, FtB’s Darwintine Festival story chain.
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Patricia stood perfectly still just inside her cabin, ear pressed against the door, listening. The chaotic yelling rose to a crescendo, then slipped into a more structured cadence; it sounded as if someone had taken charge and was now rapidly firing commands to others, who in turn barked at their underlings, and so on until it seemed some order had been brought to all the chaos. Human voices were soon drowned out by the sounds of heavy machinery and equipment being dragged or driven toward the eastern fenceline. A helicopter landed briefly, then took off.
Patricia unlocked the cabin door, and stepped outside for a look. Colleagues on the science team, whose cabins were clustered nearby, had done the same. One by one they drew together and proceeded eastward. No one spoke a word as the group moved steadily toward the locus of all that clamor, until what they saw stopped them dead in their tracks.
An all-encompassing spectacle splayed out before them, the likes of which no one on earth had ever seen. The backdrop consisted of several large swaths of torn cyclone fencing and strings of barbed wire strewn haphazardly over the rocky hill just beyond the encampment. Security teams carrying automatic weapons and heavier artillery had taken up positions on the slope, while a phalanx of armed guards had begun spreading out along the camp’s north and west borders.
The southern border of the site provided natural protection of a sort, in the form of a wide outcropping of rock leading to a sheer dropoff of several hundred meters. The rocky canyon below housed a winding feeder stream, leading to the Yukon river somewhere in the distance. The fencing along the cliff’s edge, rather than keeping anything out, had been erected mainly to keep people in, lest anyone be inclined to take a rambling stroll after dark.
It occurred to Patricia that this was the only thing all that fencing was good for now: keeping everyone nicely kettled up together, in the remote Alaskan wilderness, with strange and powerful predators for whom barbed wire and steel mesh were mere playthings lurking outside. Gosh, what could possibly go wrong with this whole fish-in-a-barrel scenario? Patricia chuckled to herself, then snorted. A morbid sense of humor had always helped her keep her wits about her in life-threatening situations, and there sure had been quite a few of those in recent years.
Someone shot her a sharp elbow to the ribs. Seems not everyone could see the hilarity in anticipating their own imminent deaths.
Really, though, it was the astonishing tableau before them that held the science team utterly transfixed. An enormous, soaring tent structure had been erected next to the fence breach. The back and sides were gray and opaque, but the entire front-facing wall was comprised of clear plastic sheeting. A large and bulky metal slab stood solidly in the center of the space, and on it, lashed down tightly with heavy steel cables, an enormous creature struck out wildly at its surroundings with its few partially unsecured tentacles. A tech crew in head-to-toe hazmat suits were busy making notations on tablets and setting up equipment against the far wall, careful to give those lashing tentacles a wide buffer.
And as if this scene were not intense enough to burn itself permanently into the minds of those on site, it was all blazingly lit up by telescoping towers of blindingly bright lights.
“Over here!” shouted a voice from the direction of a smaller structure pitched against the larger chamber. It was Dr. Emily Kimura, gesturing toward the huddle of stunned scientists to come join her.
Inside the smaller space, several techs were just finishing the setup of two large screens: one displayed a high-resolution livestream of the captive creature thrashing violently against its restraints, and the other an array of outputs from various monitoring devices as they came online. But the most unsettling element in the room was the sound. Captured by a microphone hung just above its head, the creature’s vocalizations were routed directly to a pair of speakers that hung near the screens. At first it sounded like any large animal might under extreme duress, although no recognizable species came to mind in a room full of animal experts.
As the group shuffled behind a long table and settled into seats, the sound suddenly shifted into a distinctly human voice and began to repeat, “Lo siento, pero el no es apto para la nieve. No puedo seleccionarse.”
“Oh okay, it’s Spanish now, is it? Well that’s new, but not exactly helpful!” snapped Dr. Robert Stavinsky, a limnologist who did his fieldwork in the freshwater lakes of Mexico and Central America.
“What’s it mean?” asked Dr. Sheila Brach, an astrobiologist out of Yale.
“It means, ‘I’m sorry, but he is not suited for the snow. I cannot select him.’” It was Dr. Emily Kimura, projecting her voice over the moderate speaker volume and the buzzing among the group. “I have some new information to share–”
She was cut off by an abrupt break in the repeating Spanish loop and the start of long, overlapping low- and high-pitched tones that seemed to bend and stretch, on and on, and echo with cavernous reverberation.
Stavinsky flipped his pen in the air and let it land on the table with a loud pop. He crossed his arms, rolled his eyes and said, “What the hell could even make a sound like that?”
“That’s easy,” Will Stokes, the cephalopod guru, replied to the question Stavinsky had thought to be rhetorical. “It’s whale song.”
“What?! Whale song?!” Stavinsky was becoming more and more exasperated–and exasperating–by the second, demanding constant attention while contributing nothing of use. “Well, what’s it saying?”
“I don’t know, Bob. I don’t speak whale,” Will quipped right back at him. That broke the tension in the room, as a bevy of world class scientists, exhausted from a grueling day of travel, challenged beyond anything they had ever encountered before and terrified of the ramifications of what they had seen, broke out in raucous laughter. Even Stavinsky cracked a smile and shook his head. He had walked right into that one.
As the laughter died down, the creature again altered its vocal emanations and began huffing, interspersed with low growls and throaty moans. The camera feed showed it struggling and twisting against the steel cables, seemingly in an effort to project these low-frequency vocalizations in multiple, distinct directions.
“Jesus Christ,” Patricia said, stunned. “Those are bear sounds.”
“Are you sure?” asked Will, sizing up Patricia over the rims of his glasses. He knew her only casually, and thought bird migration was more her thing.
“I’m positive,” she replied, sensing the creeping doubt among her colleagues. “I did an internship for BT studying polar bears, not too far from here actually, over the Canadian border. I had to learn to distinguish polar bear sounds from black and brown bears, because their habitats overlap and any misidentification would muddy the data.”
Will nodded, and the others seemed less unnerved if not overly impressed. Regardless, it was now established that Dr. Patricia Gorman knew more about bear sounds than anybody else there.
“Well, what are they saying?” joked Sheila Brach. “Do you speak bear, Dr. Gorman?” The room was roiled again with laughter.
“Ooh, I know!” Stavinsky shot back, “It means ‘listen bear, you can’t take the snow? Then I cannot select you!’” More laughter.
Patricia stood up as the snickering finally died down. “I know this will sound highly implausible, but…I guess I do speak a little bear.” She expected more howls of laughter, but instead she had their full attention. “Those sounds are like warning signals. Warnings to other bears, to stay back, to go away.”
Dr. Emily Kimura now stood and cleared her voice to speak. Despite her bubbly personality and disarming grin, she could exude a calm, serious and authoritative stature that was downright magnetic. The room quieted, and all eyes were on her. Patricia had not seen this side of Emily in their brief time together: the natural leader, who effortlessly commanded the attention and respect of a room filled with extremely accomplished scientists, most of them many years her senior.
“For all of us,” she began, “Every thing we thought we knew about the history of life on earth, from biology to geology to evolution to genetics to… to… we don’t even know what else we’ve yet to consider, has been turned upside down, in a single day. It’s a lot to take in.” Emily paused for a moment to let the enormity of the new reality begin to sink in.
Patricia leaned forward on her seat, mesmerized. My god, she’s magnificent, Patricia thought. She’s up there flying without a net. There’s no handbook for this, no S.O.P. you can simply follow when you’re in charge of dealing with a walking, talking, deadly cephalopod.
Emily still held the room rapt. “We don’t have time to waste, so let me get right to it. Questioning alternative explanations, demanding robust evidence, subjecting our work to peer review – this kind of rigorous skepticism is the cornerstone of good science, right?”
Heads nodded and mouths mumbled agreement.
“Skepticism is absolutely critical to what I’m going to ask of you, though not in the way you might think.” Emily paused, scanned the faces around the room, then pressed on. “I must ask you to turn that skepticism inward, on your own area of expertise. I need you to question all of the foundational principles and assumptions you have been working under, and doubt them. Doubt them hard. Look for any chink in the structure that holds all of our knowledge about life on earth together. Because something we are absolutely sure of, something we all truly believe we know without a doubt, turns out to be very, very wrong. And we need to find what that is, or we’ll never get ahead of this thing.”
Just then, Brandon’s face appeared in a box on the data monitoring screen. “Sorry to interrupt, Dr. Kimura. I’d like to give everyone a download on new information we’ve acquired.” Emily gestured for him to continue.
“First, I am sorry to report that during the engagement with the creature tonight at the east perimeter, we lost a guard, S2 Salvador Alonzo. Two others were seriously injured, but they are expected to survive the encounter. What we’ve learned is that this creature kills with a single tentacle by directly piercing soft tissue, like just below the ribcage, then makes its way back and upward along the spinal column and under the skull until it makes contact with the cerebral cortex. Then it quickly retracts. The body cam streams, autopsy footage and other data are being downloaded via secure satellite link to your location as we speak. We were able to obtain DNA samples from the creature and they’re processing now. As soon as this or any other information becomes available, it will be directed straight to you. If there’s anything else we can provide, please let Dr. Kimura know. I know the task in front of you is monumental. We are all counting on you to figure this thing out. And unfortunately there isn’t a lot of time.”
BT’s signal went to static, then flickered out. Emily picked right up where he left off.
“Time,” she said, “might be our biggest problem. We don’t even know how much or how little time we have, to come up with meaningful answers to the questions we’re facing here.” Emily lowered her voice in volume and pitch, sounding almost conspiratorial. “And it is only a matter of time until the U.S. government is on to exactly what we’re doing here. Once that happens, our ability to operate here will be severely curtailed.” Or worse, she thought, but didn’t say. “BT has very good relationships with the feds of course. But once they start asking the right questions, it will mean they’ve already got surveillance up and running, or we’ve got a mole leaking our intel. At that point, even BT won’t be able to hold them off.”
Emily paused and took a deep breath, just to let the likely consequences of US government involvement sink in. She didn’t need to expound on that point. These were smart people; they would figure it out.
“Any questions before we get to work?”
“Yeah,” said Stavinsky, “What’s this about a mole? You mean right here, in this room?”
“With any operation of this size and importance, there’s always a leak,” Emily said matter-of-factly. Patricia’s scrunched up forehead signaled her puzzlement and disbelief. Emily locked eyes with hers and repeated, “Always.”
A guard entered and made a beeline for Dr. Kimura, who had taken a little longer to linger over Patricia’s eyes than was strictly necessary. “What is it?”
“Dr. Kimura, there’s a snowstorm headed our way. The first squalls are predicted to hit at 0 six hundred hours, with high winds and blizzard conditions expected. Our generators should still run, but the satellite link will likely be severed until after it clears out.”
“Thank you,” said Emily, and turned to face the group. “Any more questions? No? Let’s do this.”
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