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It was the narrowest of escapes. One second they were all over me and the next, they were gone. They covered me like a blanket, filling my nose and mouth—so suffocating, I couldn’t even scream. I could only die. I remembered when I stopped struggling and surrendered to my fate. If I was to die on this stupid planet, then so be it. You have to die sometime. I’d had a good run, seen a lot, been around. Sure I hadn’t done nearly everything I’d wanted, but still, I’d accomplished more than I expected. What galled me most was dying so young. At 29 I was just getting started. I could have been so much more than a First Lieutenant. I would have been a Captain after this mission. Ad then the sky was the limit. A captaincy was practically promised to me. Now that would never be.
I remembered letting it all go—regret, ambition, sorrow, ego. Somehow all that felt insignificant in the face of immanent death. Somehow all my expectations didn’t matter anymore. If I had to die here, I was going to die in peace. That was the moment they left me. It was all over in an instant. Breathing never felt sweeter, let me tell you. As quickly as they appeared, they left. I hadn’t a clue as to why. Was there a connection between my last thoughts and my release? I was convinced there was, and that conviction changed everything. Here’s some background.
The dominant life form on Tsampa, the Tsampans for lack of a better term, are an enigma. They are tiny by human standards, no bigger than a grain of sand and similarly colored. Scientists aren’t sure what they are let alone whether they are intelligent or not. There is even uncertainty about how they move. They live in large organic nests like termites on old Earth, yet they exhibit some very un-termite-like characteristics namely a complex agriculture and what can only be described as “parade behavior”— marching in broad ranks down dirt paths after what appear to be military exercises or military victories.
In the ten years since humans first landed on Tsampa, a fierce debate has raged over whether to colonize and exploit the planet or to recognize the Tsampans as a native intelligence and leave them unmolested as demanded by international and interplanetary protocols. The parties in favor of exploitation and colonization are formidable and well funded. Big agricultural and mining interests only too eager to brush the Tsampans aside and get on with development. “What stand in our way are a few bleeding heart animal lovers” was how one lobbyist put it. Only a tiny handful of scientists stood in the way of human “progress”; a thin, fraying wall of resistance against a tide of powerful special interests. It’s the oldest story in the book; the future doesn’t look good for the Tsampans.
This expedition was designed to answer the question of Tsampan sentience once and for all. My name is, First Lieutenant Auroch Tinley, I have the final say on Tsampa’s future. I am to write the final report and that will put an end to the debate. I did my best to remain neutral on the question, I really did, but so far everything points to non-sentience. There is no communication between Tsampan and human—though not for lack of trying. It’s like trying to communicate with a colony of ants or bacteria. If the Tsampans communicate with each other, it isn’t in any way human beings can understand. I’m trying to be an impartial judge but the Tsampans do not meet any of the criteria for sentience.
One thing in favor of sentience is that any disturbance to Tsampan fields or cities is met with a highly organized response. Tsampan armies march out and arrange themselves in ordered ranks reminding one scientist of Greek legions arrayed in phalanx formations. Although we humans can elicit this response at will, the Tsampan armies never attacked. It is as though we are so out of scale, they fail to even see us. And whether the armed response is instinctual or intelligent remains under review. The same mystery surrounds the afore mentioned “parade behavior”; the Tsampan armies marching in tight formation back to the nest, the populace cheering the returning legions, or so it is assumed, although no “cheering” has ever been detected. Just how much of this behavior is human projection is not known.
Another curious thing about Tsampan society is their agriculture. Their fields, although no larger than a postage stamp, are weed free and carefully tended. Farm workers move through the fields daily and harvest what appear to be a wide variety of crops. How the harvest is distributed, whether through markets or some other method, has not been determined. Several species of insects on old Earth exhibit similar sophisticated agricultural techniques. There is even a species of ant on Earth that keeps and milks aphids like domesticated dairy cows.
There is scant evidence that the Tsampans are even aware of our presence on their planet, although they are found everywhere and removed daily from our lodgings and equipment. Are they spying on us or simply foraging? There is no way to know. The true problem is one of communication. How does one species communicate sentience to another? It is like the Turing Test in reverse. When you think about it, inter-species communication is no easy matter. Humans lived with large brained mammals for tens of thousands of years before realizing that they have a complex language, culture, mythology and oral history of their own. How much more difficult is it for a completely alien species to reach across that impossible gulf of understanding and let us know they are aware, intelligent and matter?
I had been promised a promotion after this mission. It wasn’t explicitly said that a promotion was dependent upon my delivering the “correct conclusion” but, with a wink and a nod, it was understood. Before I left, the Admiral said, “This world is ripe for the taking and no little dust people are going to stand in the way.” All I had to do was say what was expected. Truthfully, I was ready to play along. I had reached my conclusion. The final report was written. The expedition was packing up. Lift off was only a few hours away. That is when the attack happened. A billion Tsampans swarmed up my legs and brought me to the brink of death. When I came to I had a realization.
The Tsampans must have been aware of what was going on. They must have been as frustrated as we were about their inability to communicate. They must have known it was my decision that would seal their fate. This attack was a desperate and calculated attempt at convincing me that there is a serious intelligence at work. If I needed any further proof, the only thing damaged in the attack was my written report which was shredded into a thousand narrow strips.
I have since re-written my report. The Admiral and his corporate friends are not going to like it. But I have concluded that the Tsampans are sentient. Tsampa will not be terraformed, mined, colonized or exploited. It will be studied.
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