At the end of Chapter 1, the island of Caelestis was rocked by an exploding methane swamp. Now dear reader, read on……..
Thermday the 5th
“Big trouble often comes in small packages.”
Traditional Fulfic proverb
In the staff canteen the following morning, there was only one topic of breakfast conversation. Beneath the buzzing strip lights, at each of the long, laminated tables, excited cliques and gaggles of staff compared their versions of the night’s events.
Sat in their usual spot near the windows were Hudley, Pingree and Chippo.
Chippo liked to talk with his paws and the young Fulfa’s arms waved excitedly in front of his face.
“It was so loud, I thought Durle had finally flipped and gone on the rampage. Imagine him stalking the halls in his posing pouch, armed to the teeth with grenades and a machine gun.” Chippo’s impersonations of Major Durle were the stuff of canteen legend. He sat up stiffly in his chair, furrowed his brow and dropped his voice by an octave. Speaking in a clipped, exaggerated nasal tone, he bobbed his head rhythmically for emphasis. “Eat lead, you ruddy blighters!” Pingree and Hudley howled with laughter.
The canteen was awash with theories as to the cause of the explosion. Some said it was an accident, some believed it was sabotage and a few thought it may have been a drunken prank, but all agreed that whoever was responsible was in big trouble.
Meanwhile, Major Durle and Marci Mee, Head of Climate Control and Natural Phenomena, were in the security office, watching aerial footage of the explosion on a surveillance monitor and trying to locate the ignition source.
“Dash it, it’s going to take forever to find it,” cursed the Major. “Those swamps cover more than half a million square metres.”
“Play it back again, but even slower,” said Marci, squinting at the screen. “There! The initial flare is over in the north-west corner of the swamp. Zoom in closer.” Durle zoomed in the display until a fifty metre square of swamp filled the monitor screen.
“OK,” said Marci, “pause it as soon as the blast starts. Right, now take it back frame by frame.” The screen was white, but as the footage was played backwards, the white area shrank, until it was just a small white smudge.
“There!” said Durle, pointing, “on the path.” About ten metres from the edge of the swamp was a small, green light. He zoomed in on the object. “What the blazes is that?”
Marci and Durle gawped at the monitor. What appeared to be a small, green frog gawped back, its gaping mouth full of emerald fire.
After breakfast Hudley, Pingree and Chippo settled themselves around the table in the simulation suite. Chippo as usual had both paws full of biscuits, and Pingree was making fanza, so Hudley logged in to his terminal and loaded in the crabskipper hybrid. Above the table top appeared a long shiny creature, with a tapered tail and a gaping mouth. Two eyes on stalks roved independently, and it scuttled to and fro on crab’s legs. It waved its pincers menacingly. Chippo put down his biscuits and shuddered.
“That is profoundly disturbing.”
“It doesn’t look right,” agreed Pingree, handing out mugs of fresh fanza. “You can see that it is two animals spliced together, the design just doesn’t flow.” He picked up his sketch pad and began drawing. “The legs are all wrong. They need to start further up and they need to be longer. Rather than coming directly out and having that seventy degree angle, they need to come out at an elevation, then angle sharply downwards, like so.” He turned around his drawing for them to see. “That will make it more spider-like. Alternatively, ditch the legs and replace them with tentacles.”
“No,” said Hudley, “I like what you’ve done with the legs. But it will need tentacles somewhere. Perhaps around the mouth to pull food in.”
“What about mandibles?” suggested Chippo, picking up his pad and pencil. He sketched for a minute while Hudley watched the crabskipper prowling above the table. Chippo turned his pad round. “Too much?”
“No, that’s good,” said Pingree, leaning forward and jabbing at the crabskipper with his pencil. “Let’s try making the pincers sharper, but smaller, and adding short tentacles around here, here and here. The tail too, it needs to be thinner. I also think it needs some armour around the thorax, perhaps a partial shell.”
“It’s going to be great on land, but not much of a swimmer,” said Hudley. “I think we have to lose the pincers and make them into flippers, otherwise it won’t get near enough to anything to use them anyway.”
“Legs and flippers?” spluttered Chippo. “You can’t do that!”
They sat and sipped their fanza for a while. Chippo resumed his munching. “Let’s ask Tedford,” he ventured between mouthfuls. “Hey boss,” he shouted. “Do you have a minute?”
Tedford came in, spied the crabskipper on the table and pulled a face. “Ugh! Nasty!”
Chippo explained the problem while Tedford nodded and said, “uh-huh” at appropriate intervals. Once Chippo had finished explaining, which took about five minutes and seven biscuits, Tedford sat back and stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“The problem is that you have too much skipper and not enough crab. I’m thinking horseshoe crab or even shrimp, something with a tail. Also throw some asymmetry in there. One big claw and one small one perhaps, like a fiddler crab.”
“How about one tentacle and one claw?” suggested Hudley. “Perhaps one of those spring-loaded ones like a mantis shrimp. It could hook its prey with the tentacle, then KAPOW!” He gave a quick flick of his wrist to demonstrate.
The three juniors started busily discussing what types of claws to use and how many legs might be needed.
“Some of the non-decapods have more than a dozen pairs of legs. Plenty of capacity to replace some with tentacles.”
As Tedford rose to leave, the phone rang. He sat back down and picked up the handset. For a minute he listened intently, then hung up looking solemn.
“What’s up?” asked Hudley.
“Durle wants to see me,” said Tedford, “and he sounds pretty angry.”
Beneath Evolution House are Evolution Technology’s laboratory and testing facilities. Darwin had come here for a meeting with Professor Knut Dolman, Head of Special Projects. Dolman was a light brown Ufro in his late thirties, with spiky dark fur on his scalp, high cheekbones and a pair of narrow rimmed spectacles. His bright blue eyes and handsome features earned Dolman much Ufrette attention, but since his divorce he had largely neglected his social life, preferring to immerse himself even more deeply in his work. Ironically it was his devotion to his work over his social life that had contributed most significantly to his ex-wife’s decision to end the marriage. They were still on good terms, probably because they spoke so infrequently.
Evolution Technology was currently working on two main projects; Project Saddle, a contract to produce new non-lethal methods of crowd control for the Amican Police, and Project E.S.P, the extreme sports planet.
It had been six months earlier when Professor Dolman had requested a meeting with Evolution’s Board of Directors in order to make one of his rare presentations.
“Clear your schedule, Mr Darwin,” his memo had read.
The Board of Directors had filed in to the boardroom at the allotted time to find a very excited Professor Dolman pacing up and down. A holographic projector had been set up over the boardroom table. Once everyone had taken their seats, the Professor tapped a few keys on his computer terminal and the letters, “E.S.P” hovered over the tabletop.
“Gentlemen,” he began. “I have an idea for a new planet that will revolutionise the tourist industry and leave Devine Interventions crying in the dust.” The room was silent; he had their attention.
“As you all know, my main area of research for the last few years has been gravity control and manipulation. Recently, I have been studying the effect of multiple moons on tidal phases, and started to see some very interesting phenomena, but it was not until a few nights ago, while my son was watching the sports channel, that the significance of it hit me. As I watched Ufros and Fulfae hurling themselves through the air attached to various pieces of wood and fibreglass, I thought to myself, I can improve on this. I can design somewhere that every surfer, snowboarder and skier in the galaxy will pay through the nose to visit.” He indicated the tabletop. “E.S.P; the extreme sports planet.”
There were nods and murmurs of approval from the assembled panel of Ufros and Fulfae. Professor Dolman tapped at his keyboard again.
“Gentlemen, if you would please turn your attention to the simulation in front of you.” Over the table hovered a water-covered sphere, lit from one side and slowly rotating, with a smaller sphere orbiting around it. As the smaller sphere orbited, the water surged gently in its wake.
“This is the twice daily tidal pattern that we all recognise. The gravitational pull of the moon causes the water to surge as the planet rotates beneath it. See what happens if we add a second moon, orbiting at the same speed.” He pressed another key and a second sphere appeared and began to rotate. “As you can see, for each rotation of our planet, there are now four tides, but if we have two moons orbiting at different rates, something interesting happens. As the two moons near one another, the tides become grouped closer together and become stronger. When the two moons are in line, the tide is correspondingly twice as large. Now see what happens when we have three moons, each of different masses and velocities.”
The tides were now very dramatic, rising and falling in complicated sequences and, when the three moons were aligned, unnaturally high.
“Furthermore,” continued the Professor, “the moons’ gravitational effects are so strong that in certain conditions, they will exert a tidal effect on snow, a phenomenon which I have named snownami. If we add some snow to the poles of this planet and tilt it on its axis, we can have ski resorts where the day lasts for six months, while four times a day, the snownami would carry great drifts of snow up and down the ski-slopes. We could enhance the effect further by reducing the planet’s gravity to ninety, or even eighty percent. These conditions would make E.S.P the go-to planet for extreme sports enthusiasts everywhere.
In conclusion gentlemen, prepare to start hammering nails into the coffin of Devine Interventions.”
Six months on, and things were moving on apace. Professor Dolman had assembled a team of researchers to generate simulations of different sized planets with varying mantle thickness, differing axes of tilt, and countless combinations of moon size, speed and orbiting distance. They had experimented with mean planet density, temperature and gravity, as well as mountain slope alignment and angle, air speed and humidity and even different colours of snow. A scale model of a working tidal snownami had been constructed in an underground hangar, previously used for shuttle design and testing, and Dolman was confident that all the calculations should be complete within three weeks.
Dolman and Darwin sat at a simulation table in Evolution Technology’s theoretical neophysics lab.
“You simply can’t rush these things,” said Dolman. “Even the tiniest of errors can have a huge effect. I need to show you something.” He typed a command on his computer terminal and a simulation of E.S.P complete with its three orbiting moons, appeared over the table. “Zoom in on snownami,” said Dolman, and E.SP vanished to be replaced by a snow-covered mountaintop. A ripple of snow gently moved up the mountainside, then back down again. This was repeated every few seconds.
“This is one of last week’s simulations. Obviously this is speeded up, but I’ll slow it down again when it starts.”
As they watched, small flurries of snow began to appear here and there upon the slope. The rippling snownami started to become irregular, becoming initially V shaped as it rose and fell, then W shaped. More flurries appeared and started to merge to make larger and larger flurries. The snownami became completely asynchronous and the slope rippled and bulged at random. “Slow down to normal speed,” said Dolman.
The snow flurries were starting to concentrate in one area, swirling around one another. As they swirled, they started to merge, forming a narrow column. The column rotated faster and faster, pulling snow up from the ground to join it. The column became wider and taller, rising higher and higher, spinning faster and faster until it became a great funnel towering over the ski slope. The column of whirling snow began to move up the mountain side, throwing great banks of snow and ice up into the air. They watched as it moved sideways into the surrounding forest, the icy vortex ripping trees from the ground and hurling them in all directions. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it faltered and collapsed, leaving a wedge shaped area of deforestation and a few swirling snow eddies in its wake.
Darwin was agog. “What on Amica was that?”
“That,” said Professor Dolman solemnly, “was a snownado.”
Part 2 coming soon.