Friday, October 22, 2010

The Unicorn

The last unicorn died on March 5th, 2001, found between the teeth of a yarder in a primal forest in Bulgaria, which had been flying cut timber into a truck bound for sawmill.

Four notable university professors were called in to examine the carcass, tangled as it was from becoming caught in the machinery, and the consensus was clear: it was most definitely and decidedly a unicorn. Why, look, they said, pointing to its silver pelt, its diamond hooves, and its spiralled horn, what else could it be? And what's more, they said, it was most assuredly the last unicorn. That much was undeniable. It was the only unicorn that anyone had ever seen, and it would be the last.

The public outcry was enormous. Bulgaria was the ancestral home of the unicorn, and where would one find a unicorn but in the last lush and primeval forests to grow there? They were sacred animals, written into the book of God, abandoned by Noah, forced to flee to the ocean, yet now, so clearly illustrated, they had returned to land! Drawn only to light and goodness, the unicorn could purify sickness and come back from the dead; it was magical and wise, not to say anything of all the power of a cup made from its horn.

The fact remained, however: there had only ever been one unicorn, and now it was dead.

Over the world, the excitement regarding the unicorn slowly died down, and life returned to normal. A small sculpture of the lone unicorn was placed by a road near the forest, and drew a few tourists.

In time, however, some people began to wonder. If that one animal, that one divine animal of hallowed glades and whispered forest pathways, had managed to spear itself on a wire running through the trees, could there be more? Suppose that in fading Amazon cloud forests, in Congo jungle, in the melting Arctic, there were more? How many more? What was it they had always heard about the unexamined life? They pulled on their coats, murmured I'll-be-back-soons to friends and lovers, stepped out their front doors. They had to check.

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This is a short and mostly blatant and badly-written short story about unicorns. I wrote it pretty late a couple of nights ago. This is probably about all you need to know.

From a Paper Presented...

From paper presented at the Annual Galactic Social & Anthropological Conference, Sept. 12, 4105-CE

The planet is an oddity among most spacefaring races, a small curiosity circling a star nestled between the horns of Capricorn. It was encountered first by a scouting fleet from the Baron d Baron system, who studied it from the atmosphere: noting that it was little more then a tribal planet, nowhere near approaching the age of space exploration, but that something interesting seemed to be occurring all the same.

The planet is larger then most, and more tempermental. Two oceans bleed through a single huge continent, and there are precious few forests to divide the nourishing desert that covers it. This desert is the home of the people, and they take to it with hoes and spears, with plow and with feedbag. The goat-like animals they raise follow them amidst the rocks and bones, picking at sweet grass planted in the footsteps of the tribe that came before. The People rarely starve or become lost, because day and night, they follow the Pattern.

It is thought that the Pattern emerged from cairns and trail ducks: a way to indicate to strangers where fresh water or cropland lay. Now, though, it is marked by complex patterns of rocks: points of goat skulls and long trails through the sand, which eventually lead to another node of rocks and another choice of trails. Always, it is the Pattern that tells them which one to take.

The rock patterns themselves appear extraordinarily complex, but are in reality, after some practice, little more then symbolic representations of what lays ahead, with instructions on which route to go under which conditions (rainfall, degree of hunger, smokesigns from another tribe). When faced with these simple directions, it is hard even for the People to imagine the pattern as a network- but that's really what it is, what makes it so rare: it's a pandemic machine, iteration upon iteration of social trails, a cosmic yes-no. The Pattern is appended whenever necessary- when a new watering hole is found, a few stones here and there write another step into the ground, and the pattern is made that much more complex.

The People have no written language of note, yet they appear to understand the pattern instinctively. While the duty of reading the rocks often falls to a single well-trained man or woman, even children grasp it intuitively.

When dealing with The People, it's hard to avoid the word “computer.” Well, why should we? It is not “wrong” to call it what it is, it does not “reduce the sentient and intelligent citizens of the planet to the level of mere cogs in a machine,” as some of my more vocal critics have put it. The Pattern is a series of inputs and outputs designed to process and manipulate data. Isn't it best to call it what it is, acknowledging that the People have designed a working data processor in their stone age?

To go on, we must first define the characteristics of true computers.
-They are complex machines.
-They input and refine data.
-They are programmable.

That the Pattern is complex goes without saying. It refines data as well: various elements depend on the weather or time of year, and use this to select the path that will be of most benefit to the tribes. And the Pattern, arguably, can be programmed. A section of land, approximately one thousand by three hundred miles bordering the southern ocean has been tentatively identified as a solar calculator, and has operated in its current configuration for approximately 30 years. It seems to be calculating the distance between the planet and its moon, based on easily observable measurements.

This is of particular interest to us. There is no conceivable scenario in which this would be useful for the People. Additionally, the calculations, although simple, seem to be nothing that the People (with their apparent non-interest in mathematics) could or would work out individually. The fact of the matter becomes apparent: the Pattern is performing specific, complex tasks that the People have no interest in. If the People aren't running the show there, who is? Some very interesting new theories suggest that the vast majority of the Pattern which (which, as far as we could determine prior, served no real purpose) is, in fact, of sufficient complexity to have become be pseudointelligent. I propose, then, that, yes, the pattern can be programmed- it already has been.

Moving on. It has been discussed that there must be ways of editting the pattern. Hypothetically, it could be done. The nodes themselves are not terribly complex, and a simulator could be developed which would display what we could create by moving the nodes. Here, however, the biological component of the mechanism works against us: if the People realize that huge somethings from space are rearranging their lives' work, they will lose faith in it and abandon the Pattern. The People have no idea of our existence, and by interfering, we will do just that- ruin it.

I will have to veer into philosophy for a moment. There are miles and miles, in fact, most of the Pattern, without any obvious purpose. As sentient, social beings, we can hardly not think of what could be gained from talking with a planet-sized mind. The fact, however, remains: we cannot interact with it. At the very least, of sufficient attention is drawn to this solitary planet, then perhaps in the future it will be feasible to map the entire surface of the planet via satellite, and simulate the movement of the people on its surface, effectively creating a Pattern that can be edited on our own terms. (My bias as a sociologist is that this will be a very poor substitute for the real thing. But technology continues to improve every day, and I may yet be proven wrong.)

A detailed initial survey of the planet showed a number of constructed buildings, or at least remains of buildings, that are most definitely not completable with the People's current levels of technology. In the first few years that the planet was known to science, it was suspected that the People's pattern-building instincts stemmed in some way from the prior culture: a culture so great, with such fervor, that when it went out, it not only left its ruins on the planet, but left its technological instincts imprinted on the People's minds so strongly that even today, they still follow rock lines in the dust.

We now know that is not true.

In fact, materials recovered from these ruins and analyzed has revealed pages upon pages of information on the lives of the Planet's prior empire. These details are fantastic, beautiful, and mostly trivial. Of the People as we know them, only a few paragraphs are devoted- but what we can recover from then is that the People far surpass in age this once-prosperous empire, going back at least to its roots and further.

To offer some scale, the empire fell at least ten thousand years ago.

Even the denizens of the prior empire were prone to speculating on the motivations of their nomadic brethren. “Far be it from me to know what causes the goat-farmers and grass-growers to move endlessly in their slow spirals, who will not stop for chat nor food nor threat of arms…” read the memoirs of an anonymous scholar. “But having watched them for many years, move past the far edges of Sacred Land, I can safely say that they are possessed of a knowledge granted to them by right of some unknown angel, a knowledge we cannot understand and have no reason to want to.”

Having spent the majority of the last ten years of his life studying the People and their Pattern, the author puts forth another theory: that instead of extradimensional knowledge or half-remembered urges, the existence of the Pattern is an evolutionary fluke: an unrepeatable, useless, and extraordinary fluke in the fabric of life. “Deus ex machina”, if you will.

Given the nature of the anomaly, I believe that is the best name we can give to it.