A Tangle of Brilliance
By Charles Barouch
JANICE SAKS CLUTCHED her U.N.-issued passport in her thin, carefully manicured hands, as if it were a lifeline. She had no one to blame for the situation; it was her own idea to come here. Not merely her idea, she fought for the right to take this trip. Still, Janice looked about the room nervously. It was not what she expected.
Spaceships were supposed to be hulking sterile things that communicated a sense of crushing mass when you stood inside of them. This, for all that the ceiling was only three and a half meters above the floor, felt like a small community garden. A bed of flowers—they looked sort of like flowers—here; something odd, but clearly vegetable-like, there. It was sort of pretty. Not her exact aesthetic, but she would hire whomever built this if she were architecting a major landscaping project.
The whole place was perhaps thirty meters by thirty meters—roughly a third of a football field—but it felt open in a way she couldn’t describe. Just off of center, sat a small nest-like structure that reminded her of Big Bird’s home on “Sesame Street.” It had the same proportions, but it was so pale in color as to be almost white. Resting in the nest were sixteen or seventeen of the Flen, each the size of a small puppy. They were extremely short furred, dull green-gray for the most part, with tails that had a red-orange gradient to them. Each one had four limbs of equal size, further enhancing the puppy analogy. The lack of a discernible head was the only thing stopping them from being classified as cute. The mouth and ears protruded from their backs, small and easy to miss until they moved. It was this tangle of bodies she had come to speak with about the rats. Not this specific tangle. That would be crazy.
Flen physiology had been a major scientific focus since the first ship arrived in the early twenty-first century. They had shared information fairly freely with our scientists, in exchange for details about the various forms of life on Earth. Some people were adamantly opposed to telling them anything, but caution lost out to curiosity. So we knew a lot about the structure of their bodies.
Their psychology was another matter. They were not intelligent. That was the hardest thing for us to absorb. The Flen had space travel. They had energy systems based on near-perpetual motion. Still, these squirming not-puppies were spectacularly stupid. Individually, that is.
In a tangle, like the one before her, they could reach nearly normal human intellect. In what—loosely translated into English—we’d call a royal tangle, they’d be smarter than all of Mensa. Earth scientists had bandied about theories, all now discredited, about a hive mind. It wasn’t that. Each tangle was unique and separate from every other. Further, any time a member moved out of a tangle or moved between tangles, the personality and knowledge shifted.
In a world where we expect Dave and Mary and Sue, these spontaneous entities operated far outside of our normal concepts of conversation or negotiation. Identity could change during the course of a conversation, simply because the most obstinate, or most reasonable, member of the tangle left the group for a pee break. It was into this extreme uncertainty that Janice was forced to place the future of her cause.
“What shall I call you?” she asked.
“We are partial to the Spanish words Otra Palabras,” one of the tangle said in passable English.
Janice wondered if that was an attempt to be clever, a genuine choice, or some form of disdain. It didn’t matter. She had decided before she came on board to intentionally treat everything in the most positive light and collect the karma as best she could.
“I want to speak to you about the rats,” she said.
“This was settled with Muoto in the Geneva meeting last month,” Otra Palabras said.
One of the tangle scooted off to dig its paws randomly into a flower bed and then a second swiftly followed. She was losing their attention, so they were losing cohesion. If she gave up now, she might as well have not come at all. Too much was riding on this for her to give up. Janice steeled herself and went on with her plea.
“I know about the meeting with Egg Shaped”—she wondered if that’s what Muoto meant in some other language—“but I do not agree with the conclusion. I want you to save the rats, not kill them,” Janice said.
“Why? They breed out of control and overrun your Earth,” Otra Palabras said as the tangle re-formed.
“We are all God’s creatures. We have no right to ask you to kill them when they can’t defend themselves,” Janice said with conviction.
“One moment,” said Otra Palabras.
The entire mass of bodies leapt from the nest, scampering everywhere. She feared she had offended them. Having nothing better to do, she stood there, hoping at least some of them would come back. This wasn’t just a run to the planting beds. They all left through carefully concealed holes in the walls. She wanted to simply wilt from failure but there was the smallest chance she hadn’t failed. She waited.
In threes and fours, they trotted back. Soon she realized they weren’t simply coming back, they were bringing on new members. The final tangle, while still far short of a royal tangle or even a brilliant tangle, easily overflowed the nest. They lay about on the floor, some of them, individually uncomfortable, but collectively engaged in the conversation.
“Please repeat that last part,” the new mass said.
“We are all God’s creatures. We have no right to ask you to kill them when they can’t defend themselves,” Janice said word for word.
She had been practicing that line since the day she started planning this trip. It was the core to her mission. The elevator pitch designed to save a billion lives. There was no individual face to read, there was no consensus of body language. The parts were still stupid, even in a group. The group intellect sprang from the unique collection, but the speaker shifted randomly. The puppy metaphor described the physical scene Janice saw all too well. The wiggling about was distracting. The flailing limbs and twisting bodies seemed almost hypnotic.
“This God is a subject of our intense study. We have spent a moderate portion of our time since we arrived in orbit trying to understand it. Oh, you may call us Death Walking in the Arbor for this configuration,” said Death.
Janice shuddered involuntarily. This was a garden of sorts. But, without trees, it wasn’t an arbor. She tried telling herself that no one had ever found a firm pattern or significance to their name choices. The feeling of unease would not leave. She had obsessively contemplated failure as a possible outcome. This was the first time she feared for her immediate safety.
“You wish to know God?” She asked, putting her best positive spin on the statement.
“We wish to know of God and why it permeates your culture. Do you have memory problems regarding this God of yours?” asked Death.
“Memory problems?” Janice asked, perplexed.
“When we need to keep information clear from one tangle to another, we place it in as many places as possible. Still, I don’t recall our ever naming our cities as a way of remembering, so we assume you are in constant fear of forgetting. You put God in more places than we have ever put any form of information. Do you risk forgetting?” asked Death.
“I had never thought of it that way,” Janice said.
She honesty didn’t know how to proceed. This wasn’t the conversation she expected. She wasn’t selected for her ability to explain God. Further, none of this directly helped her mission. If she had to bring them around to her viewpoint by way of teaching philosophy to a race who had no luck learning it after decades, she was doomed. Besides, Death could morph into someone else at any time and she might have to restate some or all of her points. She had to bring this back to a successful path. Quickly.
“God is everywhere, so we put the names of God and those associated with God everywhere,” she said.
“I thought rats where everywhere? Are the rats your God perhaps? A collective entity ... is your God like us?” asked Death.
As Janice tried to mentally navigate the maze embedded in those questions, Death Walks in the Arbor broke into three tangles. They chatted among each other in their own, moaning, deep throaty language. She listened to the harsh guttural bit and the deep moaning tones, unsure what the protocol was for breaking in and getting the conversation back. Even if she was sure how to refocus them, she didn’t even know which tangle to address.
The smallest tangle suddenly split again, with most of them hurrying out of the room and the rest merging into the middle-sized tangle. More moaning and hacking sounds passed between the two tangles until the biggest surged to the right and absorbed the smaller one. Janice didn’t know why, but the motion stirred up some caveman-level fear. She did an amazing job of standing still. All she wanted to do was run screaming back to her rented transport.
“We are Kaks Korda Hukule Määratud now,” the remaining tangle said.
Janice knew that one. It was Estonian for “twice doomed” and she reminded herself that the names were not reflective of anything. She reminded herself that the viscerally disturbing motions they enacted were not significant in Earth terms. None of that helped. She stayed because she couldn’t accept defeat. She still had to try.
“Twice Doomed, I would love to talk religion all day, but the solution you promised in Geneva will kill millions of rats by this time tomorrow and more each day after that,” Janice said.
“Time is short,” Doomed said.
“Yes, time is short. We cannot kill a species simply because they infest a world we want for ourselves,” Janice said.
“This audience is ended. We thank you for your words and will consider them,” said Doomed.
Janice withdrew as the tangle winnowed down to six or so in the nest and the others either took advantage of the garden or slipped off to other parts of the ship. It was unsatisfying. She might have succeeded, but she wouldn’t know until the rats were killed or they weren’t Once she was in her ship and the ship was safely away, she opened a secure comm system that was more sophisticated than any part of her rental transport.
“Agent Saks, Philosophy Division, reporting,” she sub-vocalized as she held the secure comm to her throat. Talking into such a device would, after all, be horribly insecure.
She felt the vibration of the acknowledgement signal and waited for the tingle it created to leave her skin before continuing.
“I’ve planted the seed, as requested. If they are capable of analogy, they will, hopefully, leave us alone,” Janice sub-vocalized.
A question vibrated into her skin. She smirked before answering. They should know better that to have to ask.
“Yes, I worded it exactly as instructed,” she replied, ending the conversation.
All that was left was to wait.
In a much larger, much more sterile section of the ship, several tangles developed. The largest, calling itself Ottoman Pottage, began talking to one of the middle-sized tangles, which answered to Bob. The others listened intently, or at least what passes for intently in their way of being.
“They ask us to exterminate the rats. Then they ask us to abandon the plan. All to get that one sentence in front of us: We cannot kill a species simply because they infest a world we want for ourselves,” said Ottoman.
“I believe that you are right. Every part of this was staged,” Bob agreed.
“So, do we take their point and leave the humans to infest the Earth, or do we go ahead and take Earth for ourselves as we planned?” Ottoman asked.
“I say we kill the humans and leave it for the rats,” suggested Bob.
The moaning throughout the chamber spoke of consensus.
Charles Barouch is a writer, game designer, and computer technologist. His science fiction novel, “Adjacent Fields,” can be found on his Bookmarks website along with an index of his other stories, technical writing, and blogs.