Icarus leant against the window of his bridge, looking out onto his ring world, when he sent off a message asking Atlas to join him in his spacecraft. As he waited, he tried to distract himself from his thoughts. He pushed himself away from the window and walked over to the middle of the bridge. He grabbed a small object from his pocket, then threw it out in front of him. It expanded and turned into a full-sized trampoline. He jumped up onto it and started bouncing.
Moments later, Atlas teleported into his room. Icarus greeted him with a wave as he continued to bounce. “I want to talk about Trillion, we need to stop her.”
Atlas’s head moved up and down as he tracked Icarus. “Can you stop the jumping?” He said, with a twinge of annoyance in his voice.
Icarus took three large jumps, leaping higher into the air on the final jump. As he reached the top of his arc, he touched the very top of the spacecraft, leaving a sticker on the roof. It was a small black sticker with a red question mark in the centre.
As he fell towards the ground, he stuck his hand forward as if willing the trampoline towards him. The trampoline responded – it was sucked towards him, shrinking in the process. He landed with a superhero-like thud. “Where is the love?” he said.
Atlas looked confused. “What?”
“For the Dottiens. Where is the love? They’re just animals.”
“I don’t understand you sometimes, Icarus. What are you talking about?”
“Okay, so I understand the Dottiens now. I understand their language.”
“What? You understand them? Lead with that. How? Tell me.”
“That’s not the important part. The important part is that Trillion is planning on destroying the Dottiens. And I think we need to stop her.”
“Well they did trap her on their world. It’s okay for her to be a little upset.”
Icarus was flustered. He felt like he wasn’t getting his point across. “Atlas, this is important. They were just responding to her initial miscommunication. If she decides to destroy the Dottiens, she could do it.”
“Icarus, I agree. But please tell me how you can understand the Dottiens.”
Icarus took a deep breath. “They are basically a single organism. Not a colony like bees or ants. But an organism like slime mould.”
“That’s the best analogy to an Earth-based animal I can find. It’s what would have happened if slime mould had evolved to be the dominant organism on our home world.”
Atlas processed those thoughts.
“Slime mould are these incredibly smart yet tiny organisms,” continued Icarus. “They can complete complex puzzles and mazes. Multiple groups of them have even been known to join up and act as though they were a single big organism.”
“That doesn’t explain how they trapped Trillion here, though,” Atlas pointed out.
“Yeah it does. The slime mould was simply responding to its environment. It had learnt that fast-travelling objects are a danger to it. So just like any other asteroid, it stopped Trillion’s spaceship from potentially hitting it.”
He knew what Atlas was going to ask next and answered the question before he had the chance. “I know you’re about to ask why it tried to communicate with us. I have a theory. From what I can see, it’s simply following a routine of automated steps. And it’s receiving mixed signals. On the one hand it knows we pose a danger to it if we’re not on the moon.”
“You mean free-floating in space?”
“Exactly, Atlas. And on the other hand, we’re communicating to it (or at least attempting to) as if we were another organism in its swarm.”
“So is it intelligent?”
“Well … Yes, kind of. But not like us. It mostly responds to its environment. That’s why it hasn’t gotten bored of us. It’s just an organism of pure stimulus response.”
Icarus pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and threw it into the air. It unfolded into a screen. He saw Atlas not so subtly roll his eyes.
“Have a look at this.” Icarus pointed at the screen.
On the screen he played a video of a Dottien heading back to the planet. Its skin was bubbly and slightly transparent. As it approached the planet, a large tentacle reached out from the planet and the two connected, then merged into one another. Within a matter of seconds it looked like the tentacle had absorbed the Dottien.
“See here,” Icarus explained, “they can act as one organism or many. I think they evolved from something similar to slime mould on Earth. We’re the apex of what a monkey can turn into. It’s the apex of what slime mould can become.”
“So do you know how it moves in space?”
Icarus shook his head. “That is still a mystery. Anyway, back to why we need to stop Trillion from destroying them.”
“Wait. Not yet,” Atlas said. “First, I want to understand how you’ve managed to speak with them.”
“Oh, right. I’ve developed a theory. Lex is testing it right now.”
Icarus didn’t quite know how to explain it. He slowed his playback speed. To Atlas it simply looked like he was standing oddly still for a few moments, but for Icarus it was a good five minutes as he thought about how best to explain what the alien was like.
Icarus returned his playback speed to normal. “If I say imagine a tree, Atlas, what do you picture in your head?”
“I don’t know. I imagine a standard tree with green leaves and a trunk. Why?”
“When I picture a tree, I think of an old peach tree I used to climb when I was a little child. I think about the taste of those peaches on that tree. They were so good.”
“Icarus, you’re losing me. What does this have to do with anything?”
“It’s to show how inaccurate human language is,” Icarus said. “Human language compresses information so much. No matter how hard I try I would never be able to describe the image I have in my head to you in great detail – short of showing you the tree.”
“So you’re saying they describe things in detail when communicating?”
“It’s more than that,” Icarus said. “To the Dottiens, there isn’t a concept for ‘tree’ – there’s only the exact object they want to describe.”
“So our language limits how detailed it can be? And are you saying that, because the Dottiens communicate with colours and textures, they have a better ability to describe things than us?” Atlas asked.
Icarus used his little playback speed trick again. He really wanted to explain this next part well. It was hard enough for him to understand the concept; explaining it to someone else felt so much harder. He thought about using a computer hard drive analogy. He believed the Dottiens’ communication system was so good it was like copying and pasting things exactly from one hard drive to another. But he wasn’t sure the analogy was clear enough.
He scratched his head, forgetting his speed had slowed down. He realised Atlas saw his hand flash instantly. He returned his speed to normal and went with his original description. “As an organism that can be both singular and multiple, it needs to be very good at communicating. And it evolved to be very exceptional at communicating. The Dottien wouldn’t just describe the tree. It would describe the tree exactly as it remembered it. The exact number of leaves. The way the sunlight hit it. Even how many stars and clouds were in the sky that day.”
“Are you saying it will describe things in so much detail that any of the other Dottiens could relive that same experience if they wanted to?”
“Yes, exactly,” Icarus said with excitement. Atlas had described it better than he had.
“Oh, I get it, Icarus. So that’s why the way it communicates keeps changing. Because as the stars and orbits change, so too does the information it’s trying to communicate back to us.”
Icarus was impressed. “I can’t believe you understood all that. I thought I was going to struggle.”
“Can you use your knowledge of them to control them?” Atlas asked.
“Maybe, I’m going to test that next. But I need to tell you what Trillion’s is doing first,” Icarus said. “She’s sending two different armies here. And according to her Lex, she plans on destroying the Dottiens.”
“Two armies?” Atlas asked in shock.
Icarus could see Atlas wasn’t expecting that. “Did you not know she has an army headed this way?”
“I know that. But two? She’s only sending one.”
Icarus shook his head. He pulled up a holographic map of the system. It showed the star in the centre, two planets and a moon. He enlarged the size of the moon and pointed at the map. “See, Trillion is here.” He zoomed out on the map. The moon and planet completely disappeared, the star shrinking to a tiny dot. He highlighted two different regions of space. “I’ve been using the sensors in the system, loading the position of stars into my algorithm to speak with the Dottiens.”
He pointed to those two regions of space. “Trillion has an army headed from here and here. And this one is almost here.”
“Icarus,” Atlas said, not quite believing what he was looking at. “That second one isn’t Trillion.”