Jun 20, 2018 7:24 AM
Seed in barren ground
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Tarinda and Page bring a seed of the super-AI Sing to Cloudbank
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Cloudbank is a beautiful place, from a certain perspective. Blue sky and white clouds above, all around, and misty white clouds below.

Here is an island of solidity in the sea of sky. The wind is a steady breeze, the floating island sitting just barely on top of a dense, foggy layer of air. It's not an especially large island, perhaps two hundred feet wide and three hundred long all told, curved slightly like the back of some giant beast.

The sandy soil is thin, and wears straight through to a porous-looking sort of rock in places. There are grasses and weeds and shrubs and a few trees, plus a few small creatures. Some familiar, like the wild onions. Some alien, like the thickets of not-quite-grass with flimsy, transparent, bulging seeds straining upwards against their mooring.

A songbird casually swoops from its nest and catches one of these seeds in its bill, while something with tentacles and a large gas-bag clings to the island at the edge, nibbling on the alien leaves of something reminiscent of mangroves, a three-dimensional web of stems and flaxen roots.

And then someone else arrives.

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Tarinda does not belong here.

She's lucky to be alive, really; wounds already knitting and bruises already fading show what happened while her ship broke apart in what must have been a wormhole - and then she crashed? But there's no ship debris; something stranger must have happened. She lies on the ground and breathes while her self-repair does its work.

When her teeth don't hurt any more, she clacks her jaw twice and wakes up Page.

Page identifies plants, calculates windspeed, checks her internal chronometer for damage and concludes she hasn't obviously lost time, carefully picks apart her audio stream for informative noise. She's alone on a sky island with mixed Earth and alien wildlife. That's so weird.

She sits up, when the repair is nearly done.

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The largest example of alien wildlife has fled with a warbling cry, spooked by her crashing arrival. The wind continues its steady push. What is possibly another floating island is visible in the distance, slightly above and quite a ways away - it's just a tiny speck.

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And that means it's really pretty far, since she's turning on all her boosts that can run on waste heat and sunlight instead of pure calories to handle whatever this is.

She takes inventory. She has her outfit, her sword, two knives, a pocketful of peanut candy. The lightsaber, the other sword, and the rest of her armory, plus her commemorative statuette from the competition, didn't make it and are probably disintegrating in the wormhole or something. Her food for the trip apart from the peanut candy is gone. Luckily it'll keep.

She gets up and paces the island carefully.

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Plants, earthly and alien. The wild onions, identifiable by the leaf shape, are the best example of photosynthesizing food, though there are a few earthly things whose roots or flowers contain nonzero amounts of nutrition. While they're alien, a few of the alien things look potentially edible. The birds and a few mice can both be seen snacking on certain plants, especially the ones with the floating seeds, which occasionally get knocked off their stalks and drift away. There aren't as many insects as one might expect, though there are some. A few more alien animals are evident too - translucent jellyfish things half an inch wide and something with spikes glued to the rock like barnacles. The stone, on inspection, is almost like coral.

There are twenty-seven wild onions, five poplar trees ranging from sapling to fifteen feet tall, three mangrove-things, and lots of miscellaneous plants. There are four songbirds, perhaps a dozen mice, and plenty of the tiny jellies and barnacles. There is no open water anywhere on the island, though there's dew on the stone below, where it curves away into oblivion at the edge.

White mist stretches out in all directions except 'up', forbidding visibility below the island.

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She's not hungry yet. The onions will keep best alive. Page walks her through careful tasting of a questionable plant to see if it'll do more harm than good, and while her metabolism sits with that she inspects the soil and the rock.

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The soil is only a few inches deep over most of the island, and is fairly sandy. It's moist, though, so it probably rained in the last day or so.

The rock is actually a collection of roughly cuboid cells with thin walls, though the skin is a bit tougher. When one of the cells is punctured it releases a small amount of smelly gas. On close inspection, some sort of - well, something alien is living inside these little cells, and probably growing them. If she manages to break a chunk of rock away cleanly, it will float up and away.

(The plant she tested doesn't seem to be doing her any harm.)

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When she does get hungry, she eats an onion, spreads onion seeds from a bolted one in case she's here a while, and conducts Page-directed experiments on the rock (the first chunk escapes; the second she catches).

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The experimental results show that the rock is definitely alien life.

The walls are some sort of aerogel type thing. Incredibly light, but brittle and weak to any kind of stress except compression. The cells are mostly full of hyrdogen, which it gets by splitting water. It photosynthesizes but probably has some supplemental source of nutrition. This floating island is probably 95% or more composed of the stuff judging by weight ratios, and there's likely something heavy and solid at the bottom keeping it balanced.

You could probably get reasonably pure hydrogen from sunlight and water if you cultivated the not-a-plant living inside the stone the right way.

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Well, this is gonna be annoying.

She assesses rainwater-catching options.

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Making a floating-stone bowl by finding a nicely-shaped chunk and crushing it down to shape could work. The tree trunks and some of the branches are solid enough to make good bowls or troughs with the help of a sword and knife and effort. The fluffy tassels on those mangrove-things look like they'd hold a lot of water when it rains.

Sunset is approaching.

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She sets out tassels and tastes one, and crushes a stone bowl, leaving the base attached, in case it rains overnight. Then she goes to sleep under a tree.

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The tassels taste disgusting and are only very mildly toxic.

 

The breeze stays steady and warm through the night. It drizzles for a little while, leaving her bowl mostly empty but tassels reasonably moist.

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Well, she needs water. She tries squeezing a tassel into her mouth.

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It barely tastes like anything at all. That will keep her hydrated for now.

 

The mist around the edges of the island has cleared away overnight. She can see... Quite a way down, now. Vast sky below, with a few more specks. Some of them seem to be animals, or swarms of floating plants. Some are clearly other islands.

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It might actually be impossible to get anywhere with the stuff on this island. Sing could probably do it but Sing isn't here, only Page.

She's gotta try anyway. She carefully tests bits of fallen wood to see what they're like, with a view toward making some kind of glider or sail.

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The fallen wood is iffy at best. It's mostly old and brittle. The trees look healthy though. Cutting them and letting the wood dry for a few days would produce good wood. Some of the alien plants have long, flexible, waxy 'leaves' that would make a decent weave.

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She practices weaving.

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Weaving isn't that hard if you have a guide.

Around noon, the wind changes. The air shifts from that steady breeze to a more random pattern - with a lurch, the island is now descending. Also, it's raining.

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She makes sure there are plenty of tassels out in low water-collecting areas and resumes weaving, intermittently munching an onion and a questionable plant.

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The tassels get nice and soaked, and her bowl fills up. The rain brings lots of turbulence and a continuous stiff downdraft of cold air with it.

Her onions are sprouting.

 

...As the rain clears, in the distance what is unmistakably an airship emerges from behind clouds. It has a lift section and a gondola strung underneath, with the outline of windows and a propeller sticking out the back. But it's so far away she can really only see it because of her vision boosts.

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It probably can't see or hear her either but she doesn't actually know how sophisticated its instruments might be. The planet being inhabited at all is great news. She will go to the edge nearest it to yell optimistically. Mostly "HEY" but with enough other words interspersed that she sounds like a person and not a weird bird, though they're unlikely to speak the same langauges.

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It doesn't change course or seem to notice her at all.

Optimistically, the wood-and-cloth construction could be an aesthetic choice. Pessimistically... Well, there's probably no metal available on this floating island. Everywhere else might be the same. Who knows? The small pack of gas-bag critters that landed after the rain and is nibbling on the floating-seed grass probably doesn't.

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Speaking of which, once the airship is out of sight and she leaves off hollering at it, she goes and stabs one of those to taste it.

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Tastes like chicken. Not poisonous, and pretty stringy. It's not as substantial as it looked, though. The foot-and-a-half-long critter bears only about half a pound of meat. Maybe half that again if she eats the organs. Its friends fly to the far edge of the island.

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She doesn't have a good way to preserve it so she eats the entire critter. They seem pretty common so she doesn't feel a need to immediately stab another and scare the rest.

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