We don’t have a problem with the West, we’re just obsessed with it

When you don’t write about scientific and technological research for its inherent wonderfulness but for its para-scientific value, you get stories born out of jingoism masquerading as a ‘science’ piece. Take this example from today’s The Hindu (originally reported by PTI):

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company.

This story is in the news not because a scientist in Rajasthan (Tailor) developed a new and better spray-coating technique. It’s in the news because a white man* (Smialek) wrote to its inventor expressing his interest. If Smialek hadn’t contacted Tailor, would it have been reported?

The article’s headline is also a bit off: ‘NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft’ – but does Smialek speak for NASA the organisation? He seems to be a senior research scientist there, not a spokesperson or a senior-level decision-maker. Additionally, “India-made”? I don’t think so. “India-made” would imply that a cohesion of Indian institutions and laboratories are working to make and utilise this technology – whereas while we’re fawning over NASA’s presumed interest, the story makes no mention of ISRO. It does say CSIR and DRDO scientists are “equally” interested but to me “India-made” would also then beggar the question: “Why cut funding for CSIR?”

Next, what’s a little funny is that while the Indian government is busy deriding Western ‘cultural imports’ ruining our ‘pristine’ homegrown values, while Indian ministers are constantly given to doubting the West’s scientific methods, some journalists are using the West’s acknowledgment to recognise Indian success stories. Which makes me think if what we’re really doing is being obsessed with the West instead of working towards patching the West’s mistakes, insofar as they are mistakes, with our corrections (very broadly speaking).

The second funny thing about this story is that, AFAIK, scientists writing in one part of the world to those in other is fairly regular. That’s one of the reasons people publish in a journal – especially in one as specific as Ceramics International: so people who are interested in research on the same topic can know what their peers are up to. But by reporting on such incidents on a one-off basis, journalists run the risk of making cross-country communication look rare, even esoteric. And by imbibing the story with the quality of rareness, they can give the impression that Smialek writing to Tailor is something to be proud of.

It’s not something to be proud of for this reason simply because it’s an artificial reason. It’s a reason that doesn’t objectively exist.

Nonetheless, I will say that I’m glad PTI picked up on Tailor’s research at least because of this; akin to how embargoes are beacons pointing journalists towards legitimate science stories (although not all the time), validation can also come from an independent researcher expressing his interest in a bit of research. However, it’s not something to be okay with in the long-term – if only because… doesn’t it make you wonder how much we might not know about what researchers are doing in our country simply because Western scientists haven’t written to some of them?

*No offence to you, James. Many Indians do take take some things more seriously because white people are taking it seriously.

Featured image credit: skeeze/pixabay.

Better to have been a mammal in India

The Copernican
April 10, 2014

Studies of fossils and soil samples collected at a site in South India have revealed unique attributes of the ecosystem not found in many parts of the world. In particular, an international team of scientists found that most mammalian species in the region seem to have survived at least 100,000 years in conditions that could have pushed them to extinction in Europe or the Americas.

Their research, for the first time, reports on dated and stratified deposits of mammalian fauna in the Indian subcontinent over the last 200,000 years. In addition, “one of the most significant findings is that a variety of mammals survived through major fluctuations of climate in the past,” said Michael Petraglia, one of the authors of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the week of April 7.

Apart from climactic changes, the Indian subcontinent was also subjected to the devastating Toba volcanic super-eruption 75,000 years ago as well as increasing numbers of humans in the last 10,000 years. Mammals in the subcontinent, however, survived almost unchanged because they had access to a unique range of ecosystems to inhabit. Meanwhile, those in many other parts of the world were becoming extinct in large numbers. The difference lay in the nature of their habitats.

A mosaic

The configuration of geographic landmarks and monsoon patterns “has given rise to a network of ecosystems like the coastal mangrove, evergreen upland western and eastern ghats, deciduous forest, semi-arid inland regions, the Thar desert and plains of the Indus and Ganga,” explained Dr. Ravi Korisettar. “Between the Vindhyas in the north and the Nilgiris in the south, the Deccan Plateau has preserved a variety of these ecosystems suitable for habitation since prehistoric times.”

Dr. Korisettar is the Dr. D.C. Pavate Professor of Art and Archaeology, Karnatak University, Dharwad, and a member of the team that conducted the study.

It found that the variety of ecological settings available for habitation as well as their interconnected nature were essential for the continued existence of mammals. “The mosaic of habitats allows for the presence of a diverse range of species, whereas the connection between these habitats allows animals to migrate between them as the climate changes,” said Dr. Petraglia, of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, UK.

Their findings are consistent with fossil records from around South Asia, and with parts of tropical Africa.

Both these scientists were part of a team that studied samples collected from the Billasurgam cave complex in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh, a state in southern India. The site was chosen because investigations in the 1970s had found that many animal fossils and archaeological deposits were present there.

Describing their findings, Dr. Korisettar said they’d found “11 families and 26 genera of birds, mammals and amphibians. There were antelopes, gazelles, horses, pigs, primates, rhinoceroses, rabbits, and evidence of crocodile amphibians.” The samples were then studied using optically stimulated luminescence to discern their ages and characteristics. With the exception of one primate – identified in the paper as Theropithecus cf gelada – all other mammalian taxa, or population groups, survive in the subcontinent to this day.

Conservation efforts

However, even as Dr. Korisettar remarks, “Conserve the habitats, the rest will take care of itself”, the quality of the mammals’ survival these days is deteriorating. One of the suggested causes for extinction of fauna in other parts of the world in the last 1,000 centuries was over-hunting by early humans. An analogous threat has come to modern India after all these years of resilient survival: anthropogenic climate change.

Is a mutually beneficial coexistence possible once again?

“Climate change, in combination with the dramatic increases in human populations in the last 10,000 years in India, may be leading to decline of certain animals, restricting them to smaller geographic ranges,” Dr. Petraglia said. For example, the Kaziranga National Park in northeast India hosts two thirds of the world’s population of Great One-horned Rhinoceroses, an animal whose habitat may once have spread farther south.

But whatever has been pushing them over the brink, mammalian conservation efforts in India may now find it essential to not just preserve habitats but also their inter-connected nature in the subcontinent. Moreover, Dr. Petraglia suggested that the Billasurgam caves also be protected against economic development in the region, especially mining activities. “The caves should be considered for national protection owing to their fascinating history of research and the significance of their deposits for future research,” he said.

If prey can eat predators, we're ignoring evolution

The half-century old mathematics that ecologists use to understand how predator and prey populations rise and fall has received a revamp. Two scientists from Georgia Tech did this by crediting evolution for what it is but not commonly thought to be: fast, not slow.

The scientists, Joshua Weitz and Michael Cortez, applied a branch of mathematics called fast-slow dynamical systems theory to model how two populations could vary over time if they are evolving together. Until now, this has been the exclusive demesne of the Lotka-Volterra equations, derived by Alfred Lotka and Vito Volterra in the early 20th century. On a graph, these equations are visually striking for how they show predator and prey numbers rising in falling in continuous cycles.

For example, cheetahs eat baboons. In an ecosystem good for baboonkind, baboons will thrive. Cheetahs will eat them and thrive. As the number of baboons increases, so will the number of cheetahs. With too many cheetahs, the number of baboons will decline. As a result, the number of cheetahs will also decline. But the ecosystem is good for baboons. So after the number of cheetahs has declined, more baboons will appear. As the number of baboons increases, so does the number of cheetahs. And so on.

Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

However, the Lotka-Volterra equations make several assumptions to get this far, many of which oversimplify natural conditions to the point that they no longer seem natural. Chief among them concerns the ignorance of genetic variations. Animals do possess them whether in the field or in the laboratory but the Lotka-Volterra equations assume the differences arising from them don’t exist. As a result, while “predators and their prey differ in their abilities acquire food or avoid capture,” the equations just overlook such traits, said Michael Cortez, a postdoc at Georgia Tech and first author on the paper describing the revamped equations. It was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences May 5.

Turned on its head

In fact, Cortez and his postdoctoral mentor Joshua Weitz were particularly motivated by three studies, two from 2001 and one from 2011, whose findings gave rise to absurd implications if the Lotka-Volterra reasoning was applied. The equations – like depicted in the chart – require the prey population to peak first, followed by the predator population. The studies from 2001 and 2011 investigated gyrfalcon-rock ptarmigan, mink-muskrat and phage-V. cholerae pairs, and found the opposite: they showed the predator population peaked first, before the prey population did.

So are the prey eating the predators? “This is not the case,” Cortez explained. According to him, the reversal in peaking is driven by fluctuations in the abundance of different types of prey. One type of prey could be more or less able to avoid capture, while one type of predator could be more or less able to capture prey. Thus, these two kinds of animals are developing distinct genetic traits at the same time, i.e. coevolving.

The difference between the Lotka-Volterra and the coevolution cycles.
Image: Joshua Weitz

To understand how coevolution influenced the number of predators and prey, Cortez and Weitz applied fast-slow dynamical systems theory. The ‘fast’ applies to the change in the number of types of predator or prey. The ‘slow’, to how the population as a whole is changing. Between them, says Cortez, “I was able to break the reverse cycles into pieces and study each piece of the cycle individually, allowing me to understand how coevolution was causing the reverse cycles.

The most surprising and exciting prediction from our work is that co-evolution between predators and prey can reverse this ordering, yielding cycles where peaks in prey abundance follow peaks in predator abundance,” Weitz added.

A different fast-slow

While this is not the first study to investigate what effects evolution has on changing populations, it is the first to accommodate fast rates of evolution, i.e. evolutionary changes that are more rapid and occur within a few generations. As a result, their implications are far-ranging, too, for the Lotka-Volterra equations were not restricted to ecology even though they were inspired by it. One other area of science in which a system could go back and forth between two stable states is chemistry and all its chemical reactions.

However, just like in ecology, the precise mathematics that governs them is computationally intensive. On May 6, researchers from Oxford University published a paper in The Journal of Chemical Physics explaining how the mathematics could be further simplified, making it easier to model them on computers. While this team also considers fast-slow systems, the designation is different. The Cortez-Weitz model compared how rapid evolutionary changes (fast) affected population (slow). The ‘Oxford model’, on the other hand, compares how changes in the sources of food (fast) affect the time taken for the predators to become extinct (slow).

This image shows the evolution of a prey (blue line) and predator (green line) system in three parameter regimes: from the low extinction risk in Regime 1 to the high extinction risk in Regime 3.
This image shows the evolution of a prey (blue line) and predator (green line) system in three parameter regimes: from the low extinction risk in Regime 1 to the high extinction risk in Regime 3. Credit: M. Bruna/University of Oxford

To demonstrate, Maria Bruna, the first author on the paper, explained that in their system, she and her team consider whale and plankton populations. Plankton is an important food source for whales. While whales live and function over many years, plankton blooms can be fickle and change their yield of food on a daily basis. However, some environmental conditions can push the plankton blooms to take many years to shift their yield. “In such cases, the whales will ‘care’ about these metastable transitions in plankton, since they notice the changes in plankton abundance on a timescale which is relevant to them,” she said.

Weitz expressed interest in this work: “It would be very interesting to see what happens when their method is applied to more complex contexts, including in which populations are comprised of two or more variants.


References:

Cortez MH, & Weitz JS (2014). Coevolution can reverse predator-prey cycles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 24799689

Bruna M, Chapman SJ, & Smith MJ (2014). Model reduction for slow-fast stochastic systems with metastable behaviour. The Journal of chemical physics, 140 (17) PMID: 24811625

Smaller dinos were harder to wipe out, and they're still around

The asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs 66 million years ago didn’t get them all. Some of them survive to this day in the form of birds, and they may have made it because they got smaller.

For about 170 million years, dinosaurs were the dominant life-forms that lived on land. In this period, spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, they evolved to acquire a variety of traits. One of them was size. As different lineages competed for different resources, some of them became very big: the t-Rex weighed almost eight tonnes. The dinosaurs that would evolve to become birds, on the other hand, weighed a few kilograms or less. The lightest, Qiliania graffini, weighed 15 grams.

A new data analysis has revealed that their small size helped them continue to survive after the mass-extinction event that was to follow. “There is increasing evidence that this extinction event was ecologically selective, and that large animals in particular suffered the most,” said Roger Benson, a palaeobiologist at the Department of Earth Sciences, Oxford University.

Dr. Benson and his colleagues conducted the analysis, published in PLoS Biology on May 6. First, they compiled a list of dinosaurs to study. Then, the team used the results of a previous study to estimate these reptiles’ masses. That study was conducted by two members of the same team who had established that the thickness of the leg bones have a strong relationship with body mass, “allowing the masses of extinct animals to be estimated”.

Their analysis found that once some dinosaurs evolved to giant sizes, they had it harder to invade new ecological niches and didn’t evolve new body forms. According to Dr. Benson, they were effectively ‘locked in’ to their niches. After the extinction event, these dinosaurs had a hard time adapting to their new environment.

I've gotten too big, haven't I?
I’ve gotten too big, haven’t I?

However, why the smaller ones had it easier is not immediately clear. Nick Longrich, from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry, University of Bath, who wasn’t involved in the analysis, thinks the crashing asteroid’s impact would have altered the environment drastically enough to favor smaller animals over bigger ones.

“There probably wasn’t much food when the asteroid hit,” he said. “It would have put a lot of dust and debris in the air, covering the sun, so there would be no photosynthesis going on. It would have been a global famine.” As a result, the available food would have been insects and invertebrates, the smaller animals that eat them, and their predators.

The dust and debris would also have caused a global cooling, and smaller animals will have had it easier to find shelter. These animals also reproduce rapidly, according to Dr. Longrich, implying that they would have been harder to wipe out.

Dr. Benson’s analysis also found the early birds were able to survive because they were able to maintain a rapid rate of evolution. The other dinosaurs also evolved rapidly in their early years, but as their respective ecological niches became saturated, the rate at which they diversified slowed down. The birds however continued to produce ecological diversity and adapted better.

One such study was published in the International Journal of Organic Evolution in February 2014 which noted, “The high evolutionary rates arose primarily from a reduction in body size.”

However, it is not immediately clear why birds and their close relatives became small in the first place. “The explanation must be specific to the ecology of these animals, because many other dinosaur lineages existing at the same time did not become as small,” Dr. Benson explained.

So although the odds are 70 million-to-1 that a big asteroid will impact Earth and threaten life, birds and insects will have it easier if it does.


References:

  1. Rates of Dinosaur Body Mass Evolution Indicate 170 Million Years of Sustained Ecological Innovation on the Avian Stem Lineage. PLoS Biol 12(5): e1001853. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001853
  2. High Rates of Evolution Preceded the Origin of Birds. International Journal of Organic Evolution. doi:10.1111/evo.12363

A cultured evolution?

Can perceptions arising out of cultural needs override evolutionary goals in the long-run? For example, in India, the average marriage-age is in the late 20s now. Here, the (popular) tradition is to frown down upon, and even ostracize, those who would engage in premarital sex. So, after 10,000 years, say, are Indians more likely to have the development of their sexual desires postponed to occur in their late 20s (if they are not exposed to any avenues of sexual expression)? This question arose as a consequence of a short discussion with some friends on an article that appeared in SciAm: about if (heterosexual) men and women could stay “just friends”. To paraphrase the principal question in the context of the SciAm-featured “study”:

  1. Would you agree that the statistical implications of gender-sensitive studies will vary from region to region simply because the reasons on the basis of which such relationships can be established vary from one socio-political context to another?
  2. Assuming you have agreed to the first question: Would you contend that the underlying biological imperatives can, someday, be overridden altogether in favor of holding up cultural paradigms (or vice versa)?

Is such a thing even possible? (To be clear: I’m not looking for hypotheses and conjectures; if you can link me to papers that support your point of view, that’d be great.)

Universality of the Lotka-Volterra equations

If humankind were to discover a planet that harbours water, and if, by some provenance, the same unicellular organisms that were the precursors to Earth-bound evolution were to be introduced into this environment…

  1. Would the significant differences between our evolutionary pattern and their evolutionary pattern be equivalent in any measure to the significant differences between our environment and theirs? (akin to linguistic relativity; see Whorf-Sapir hypothesis) How might we measure these differences?
  2. How would the second-degree Kolmogorov model predator/prey population functions change? (Lotka-Volterra equations)
  3. Will the timeframe for “onset” of intelligence be determinable? Will intelligence manifest itself again at all? (Naturalism)
  4. Will the Earthborn megapode be able to recognize the “alien” megapode (or vice versa)? (Vitalism)
  5. Will evolutionary parameters in similar environments be similar, or will small changes in the evolution of genetic components manifest as large deviations in the final morphology?

Winterwolf VII

At that moment, the semi-AI beeped completion, and 34 jumped out of the chair in one fluid motion and lunged at 32, pinning him to the floor as the gun spilled from his hand and clattered a few feet away. Did you upgrade yourself?! 32 simply smiled. I REPEAT, DID YOU UPGRADE YOURSELF?! “No!” Why not? “Because I want to stop this war. I want to go home.” No, you don’t. “I don’t?” The grip loosened and 32 was able to turn his head to face 34’s. You must be upgraded. “No!” He screamed without regard, and incessantly, struggling all the while, kicking and grabbing at 34’s crystal frame; however, neither relented in their individual efforts. Eventually, just as the final pellet was about to be fired, 32 was strapped in and the semi-AI had been mounted to the binary-encryption projector. There is no time. They are coming. I will not let you receive all the memories. Know simply what is to be known, for your future is short.

32’s scream was abruptly silenced, casting upon his person a ghostly sheen, because wherefrom the alarm had issued there was only an faint-blue darkness, the face contorted with terror and the jaw held open by the lack of electric impulse.

Twelve minutes later, the door banged open and six members of the crew tumbled in, clumsily wielding guns and looking around frantically. When they spotted the two cyborgs standing next to the viewing port, they held their guns up and advanced.

“You! What’re you doing here? What happened to Commander Fanderay?!” The two part-machines turned around to face the advancing belligerents, a strange expression on their faces: their eyebrows were flicking, cheeks flushing and unflushing over and over. The Earthborn couldn’t understand any of it, and in response, they brought their guns closer and closer. “Which of you killed Commander Fanderay?” one of them yelled. One of the cyborgs answered in the negative, and the men immediately trained their guns on the other one, and saw a quick transition in his facial features. The gel in 32’s eyes was diluted by an array of microfluid valves set behind his “eyes”, quickly expanding and pushing the iris films out. His eyebrows adjusted and consequently widened across the structure of his square face, but only by a few millimeters. The hydraulic pistons underneath his jaw went slack and muscle control across most of his limbs was lost, rendering them momentarily slackened. All this 34 observed with indifference: 32 was finally human.

Winterwolf VI

“Right. Caution. Good. Anyway, where was I? Yes! Evolution! This race of new humans was enabled to evolve at an accelerated pace, to mutate and reform within a decade without having to wait for a million years, with a genetically implanted trigger that would terminate mutatory control once human intelligence was reached.” The New Chance. “Fantastic! Yes! And do you know who they really are?” Humans? “They are us, you idiot! We are the New Chance!” Silence. “Hmm. The people of the New Chance quickly attained human intelligence, in a little less than two centuries, in fact, but the trigger never went off. Why? Can you tell me why, 34?” Because the New Chance lived through an alternate history, the quick development of intelligence was used by the bodies developing in the local environment to acquire complementary adaptation systems. The trigger did go off, but it had as consequence… nothing. “Yes! We were as babies born with super-human intelligence!”

“And then, 2051 arrived when the Earthborn discovered that we had colonized almost seven arcseconds of the Milky Way. And, I suppose, this is where our ‘histories’ start to differ?” I suppose so, too. “As for the logical consistency–” There were no logical inconsistencies. “So you agree with me?!” 32 was elated. I don’t. “Why not?!” Deflation. Because I can tell you five stories, ten stories… no, I can tell you a thousand stories that comprise the facts in your knowledge and yet amount to disparate conclusions. “Are you telling me my facts weren’t unique?” I’m telling you that no fact is unique. “Oh…” You seem confused. “How do you affirm your disbelief, then?” Because, now, I am equipped only to serve Master Fanderay, whom you have slain. “What?!” Because, now, even though your facts may be just as unique as mine are, we are part of a reality that is antecedent to our actions. I understand you. You wish to terminate this mission because you believe the Winterwolf is a warship conceived to join war with the New Chance IV, the last outpost of the New Chance. , however, believe that and your… adopted kind squandered your intelligence, corrupted your purpose, and abused the world around. Now, you are faced with nuclear war.

Winterwolf V

The alarms didn’t bother him; no one would believe an upgraded cyborg could have committed murder. On the other hand, the CEs 32 and 34 were the only cyborgs aboard the Winterwolf, and would quickly turn suspect if the intervention of any other Earthborn could be ruled out. Of course, the Earthborn were quite capable of suspecting themselves with greater conviction than any outsider: such was their legacy. After inspecting the scene of his crime, 32 turned around and sprinted to Bay 32. There, he found CE34 staring out through the window, and quietly closed the door behind him.

“Thirty Four?” Yes, Master Fander – You are not Master Fanderay. 32 laughed. “Of course I’m not. I am Thirty Two.” You are task-mate Thirty Two! Welcome, comrade. Where have you been? Master Fanderay was looking for you! “I had… sent myself in for maintenance.” Indeed! I will inform Master Fanderay that you have returned. 32 quickly thrust an arm out and held 34 against his shoulder, pressing him from moving any further. “You will do nothing of the sort.” Why not? “Fanderay is dead.” There was an uncharacteristic pause. Whether 34’s compiler was computing the causes or the implications of the information, 32 couldn’t tell. After a few thousand microseconds, though, shock registered on 32’s face: the gel in his eyes was diluted by an array of microfluid valves set behind his “eyes”, quickly expanding and pushing the iris films out. His eyebrows adjusted and consequently widened across the structure of his square face, but only by a few millimeters. The hydraulic pistons underneath his jaw went slack and muscle control across most of his limbs was lost, rendering them momentarily slackened. All this 32 observed with disdain: 34 was finally human.

How? When? Where? “Calm down.” 32 quickly realized that was a stupid thing to say to an assembly of chips and wires. “I killed him.” He would later think that 34’s systems hadn’t been reprogrammed with the possibility of having to register incredulity in mind, but the “matured” idiot’s face did come pretty close. When no other reactions seemed forthcoming, 32 spoke. “I fired a bullet through his head and killed him. He is not one of us, cannot be resurrected. Now, you must help me–” Who instructed you to fire a bullet through his head? Who served the orders? What do you mean he is not one of us? We are Earthborn and must protect each other in this time of distress! Who served the orders? Do you require my help to steady our crew’s moral and instate a substitute leader?

It was really funny, the string of these words, because they were uttered without intonation or emphasis, anywhere and in any measure, but were simply blurted out just like any Turing machine would: receive input, compile, communicate output. The anomaly heartened 32 – his brain commanded his body’s core temperature to rise by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in line with some external command. This provided a better ambient environment for the metabolic, defensive, and nephrological systems to function. As soon as this happened, then, the neural feedback system conveyed this development to the brain, which, in return for 32’s external action that initiated this progression sequence, let him laugh.

32 laughed. “Why are we orbiting the NC4, 34?” We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Bullshit.” I repeat, we are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. Do you possess any evidence to dispute this fact? 32 stared. “Can you tell me what you saw through that window a few minutes past?” I saw an RF monitor detach itself from the Winterwolf and launch itself into the planet’s atmosphere.

“An RF monitor?!” Yes. “What the hell is an RF monitor?!” It is a device that monitors communication signals in the RF band. “And why the hell are we deploying one?!” We are to monitor alternate channels of communication amongst the inhabitants of NC4 once the Tesla coils fail under the ionizing impact of the radioactive clouds. 32’s core temperature dropped. His brain commanded him to frown and he frowned. He didn’t know what to say or do: it seemed as if 34’s new memories prevented him from picking out any logical fallacies in the constructed reality he was now firmly a part of. Yet, 32 decided to try his best. He seated 34 on the chair once more. “Listen to me carefully. Let me narrate to you a story.” No! We must reinstate a leader for the Winterwolf and inform the captain and the crew of your actions! “No! We must not!” So saying, 32 thrust the cables lying on the floor back into sockets on 34’s torso and pelvis, leaving him temporarily without access to his limbic stimulants as the semi-AI commenced a long scan to check if his systems were on track.

“Let me narrate to you a story. You must listen to the story and determine its logical consistency. Then, you must determine whether or not to help.” Before 34 could interrupt, he added, “Your conclusion in this endeavour is presupposed on your listening to the story and assimilating the information it contains and its implications.” 34 fell silent. “Good.”

“In the year 1610, the Earthborn discovered the first free-floating Earth-like planet N4C17. It was inundated with water, the entire planet, and all of it was trapped, preserved rather, beneath a thick layer of ice. Almost four centuries passed before an astronomer named Aloia Lee Gill proposed an experiment to transport genetically reprogrammed humans to N4C17 after drilling through and breaking the ice, to have them under constant observation to understand how humans evolved, how natural selection functioned, and to see if alternate evolutionary outcomes showed themselves.” Eugenics. “Yes– Wait, you don’t dispute the contents of my narration?” Yet.

Winterwolf IV

CE34 came to life. He felt great innocence, although that could have meant nothing in particular to CE34 because he wouldn’t have known the corruption of innocence. The room he was in was empty. Nothing odd about that. His memories, his knowledge signaled nothing disturbing or being as cause for concern. He looked down. His body seemed complete: part human, part metal, part plastic. He removed himself from the chair he was on and stood up, erect, and even as he did, the wires connected to him automatically disconnected and dropped to the floor. At that moment, he could feel a vibration beneath his feet, even as with a terribly loud clunk that seemed to quake the room he was in, CE34 observed through the viewing port with awe as a giant metal bird crawled into view, just simply floating there. A few seconds later, as he gaped agog, his elbows resting on the rails and him craning his neck to see as much as of the apparition as possible, the bird jerked downward and then blasted off. Its journey took it slowly out of sight of CE34, the spiral path it followed dragging it to the location of a Tesla coil.

“What are you doing?” I am looking out the window. Who are you? “My name is Doriant Fanderay.” Master Fanderay. I remember your name from… from, uh… somewhere. “Don’t push yourself. Here, come, sit down.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “You can call me Doriant.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “Fine. What’s your name?” My name is Thirty Four, Master Fanderay. “What class are you?” I’m a computational engine, Master Fanderay. “Hmm. Where are you from?” I am from the planet called Earth, Master Fanderay. “Who created you?” I was manufactured by Starlight Systems in the year 2051, Master Fanderay. “Good, good. Can you tell me where we are?” Yes, Master Fanderay. We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Yes, and how will be of help to us?” I have knowl –… I seem to have knowledge… of the planet’s geography, topology and weather, Master Fanderay.

Doriant stood up suddenly. “Where’s your mate?” Who, Master– “Where’s CE32?!” The huge man ran frantically to the door, and as soon as he was on command deck on his portion of the bay area, he picked up a communicator and yelled quick words to his captain at the other end of the line. Just as he set down the transmitter, a bustling commotion could be discerned from the lower levels, and the sights and sounds of strobes and alarms catapulted back to life. Even so, he still heard the click behind him, and a moment later, dropped dead to the floor, the control panel spattered with his blood and brains.