ROLLI AND CURVE
“Do poachers know when they are killing intelligent life?” Dr. Jan Dobbs’ necklace translated aloud as she silently tapped the tip of her tongue to the roof of her mouth in code.
Commander Paul Benevidez’ eyes glanced at Jan’s cleavage and then toured her skintight black dress. He refilled her wine goblet. “Poachers don’t care what they kill, and people don’t care what they buy. But I’ll take your word that Oculars are smart.”
Jan read Paul’s lips, the tips ending in a feminine curl that accented his low-cut beard and chiseled jaw. She looked into his brown eyes, quick and shiny under bushy eyebrows. She smirked and tapped back, “It’s a common prejudice almost all humans have toward life forms that lack limbs and digits. Of course, Oculars do not build computers or travel to the stars. But I can tell you that Rolli and Curve are two of the most observant and empathic creatures I’ve ever met.”
Jan’s nicknames for the creatures amused Paul as he looked at the two Oculars sitting in a clear acrylic case next to him. Each roughly one half meter in diameter, these round creatures with one huge eye could roll in any direction, the eye smoothly gliding across the circumference, and then if threatened, flatten to the thickness of cardboard.
Paul looked back at Jan with his usual mixture of attraction and awe. Lacking speech and hearing from birth, she’d earned PhD’s in biology and non-verbal communication, and had shown the research foundation that Oculars possess advanced communication skills.
Paul smiled. “Has the foundation accepted your assessment of Ocular intelligence?”
Jan shook her head and tapped, “They don’t know Rolli and Curve like I do — yet.”
Paul’s eyes traced Jan’s short blonde hair as it curved down the side of her head and around her ear. His gaze continued down to the soft peninsula of her chin.
“He likes you,” Rolli communicated to Jan through a rapid series of twitches. Using the Oculars’ normal method of communicating via skin undulation and twitching, Jan and the Oculars had built a working alphabet together over the last two years in the compound’s lab.
“He can’t take his eyes off you,” Curve twitched.
“What did the Oculars say?” Paul asked.
“They asked what the wine tastes like.”
“Well, tell them it has a fine bouquet with a pleasant aftertaste. What’s that shawl one of them is wearing?”
Jan reached into the case and removed a metallic garment from Rolli.
“My symphonic vest,” Jan tapped. “It reproduces a musical work with enhanced vibration, letting the wearer feel the music. Rattles the ribs like crazy during Mahler’s Eighth. Oculars love it. Want to give it a try?”
Paul stretched his arm across the table and rested his fingertips on Jan’s knuckles. “How about giving us a try, Jan?”
Jan recoiled, nervously casting her eyes down.
“He wants you,” Rolli twitched.
“I don’t know how to respond to him, Rolli,” Jan twitched back. “I don’t have that kind of experience. Do you think he thinks I’m attractive?”
Curve twitched. “Jan, we’re naked. You’re the one dressed to communicate something different from your normal lab coat. Do you feel attractive?”
Paul stood up and smiled. “Well, if you three are going to chat, I’m going to get another bottle of wine.”
As Paul walked into the lab’s kitchenette, Jan twitched, “How can I know what’s in someone’s heart?” Jan had gone out with Paul one time in Los Angeles before landing this research assignment on Haven, one months’ jump from Earth. She hadn’t dated anyone much before Paul. Her intellect and awkwardness scared off most men, even assuming they were comfortable with her lack of hearing and speech. She liked Paul but wasn’t sure of his intentions.
Rolli twitched in reply. “Why not try joining as we do, Jan?” Rolli and Curve magically blended into a single large globe with two eyes. The globe twitched, “You could try performing sexual intercourse with him.”
Paul came back to the table and saw the Oculars combined as one. “Hey, I knew they could flatten, but whoa!”
Jan composed herself and tapped, “They usually join only in private. They must be very comfortable around you. A small stoma opens along the outside of one individual, and the other slips inside. They can share each other’s thoughts and sensations.”
Paul laughed. “Well, that should come in handy at the hearing. Captain Lautner says he’s counting on their testimony to identify the poachers and keep the compound from being shut down. Tell me, how do those big eyes work again?”
Jan slid easily into academic mode. “Normal retinas are outpocketings of the brain split off during embryonic development. Oculars have taken this a step further. Their retinas contain a cortex that stores visual images in minute detail. Oculars remember everything they have ever seen. They will report and I will translate.”
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“And why just the one eye? Does that occur on Earth?”
Jan shook her head. “Cyclopia, or the condition where the eye orbit fails to separate, occasionally occurs in individual embryos as a defect, but if born alive, they don’t live long. In Oculars one eye seems to be an adaptation to their physical form, giving them instant 360 degree vision. They can change direction like a pinball.”
Paul looked closely at the creatures, and Jan reached out for his hand. “I’m glad the foundation brought you out from Earth, Paul. We need you–”
Suddenly the lights went out and the room went pitch black. One of the wine goblets shattered followed by a gun blast. Paul pulled Jan under the table.
Force field’s cut, Paul thought. Only someone with high clearance can do that.
Paul planted his hand firmly on the small of Jan’s back, commanding her to stay. Then he crawled away.
Bullets riddled the room with automatic fire. A moment later came a second barrage.
“Paul! Paul!” Jan tapped wildly with her tongue.
Paul returned to Jan’s side under the table.
The door to the lab slowly opened and a hooded figure entered the room. A flashlight attached to a rifle barrel, the intruder blasted the acrylic case. His own firearm drawn, Paul slid to one side and squeezed off a round. In a single movement, the intruder shrieked, grabbed its leg, and dropped to the floor. It yanked the hood off its head and gasped for air. The intruder fired another barrage then hobbled outside.
As Paul and Jan slowly rose from under the table, a security crew was arriving and the lights came back on.
“Curve! Rolli!” Jan tapped, seeing the demolished case.
“They’re here,” Paul said, gently sliding the Oculars out from under his khaki shirt. He placed the creatures on the table. “Your vest gave me the idea.”
The Oculars inflated and began twitching. Jan tapped, “Oculars have acute black and white vision in near total darkness. They say the intruder had a high forehead and thin hair. Four nose hairs protruded from the right nostril. Thirty-three freckles clustered on the right cheek. There was beard stubble along the right jaw line, two hairs appearing to be in-grown. A bean sprout was stuck between the first and second bicuspids. There was a very wide space between the two front incisors–” Jan stopped translating and gasped. “Michaelson!!”
“Wow!” Paul said, looking at the Oculars. Then after a pause, he asked, “Who’s Michaelson?”
“He supervises the supply warehouse. Rolli and Curve say he was one of the poachers during the last raid.”
Paul nodded. “Do you have another case?”
Jan nodded and led the Oculars down a hallway.
A deep voice boomed as Captain Lautner, head of compound security, came through the front door, his smile exposing a wall of yellow teeth. “Paul, you and Jan ok?”
Paul snapped to. “Aye, sir. The intruder was Michaelson. I winged him–”
“We’ve already apprehended Michaelson. He didn’t get far. We’ve actually been suspecting him for a long time.”
Jan re-entered the lab. “The Oculars are ok.”
Lautner nodded. “I don’t think there will be any more trouble. I am posting a team outside the lab tonight. You will be safe. Carry on.”
Paul’s mouth pursed. “He should have done that before.”
“You know him?” Jan tapped.
“I served under him briefly on a ship patrolling the Golden Gate vortex. Scuttlebutt is that Lautner was siphoning money off the ship’s books. Another officer who was involved snitched and was discharged. Lautner was assigned to this planet. The brass swept it all under a rug.”
They set to work picking up the lab, then Paul sat on a couch and secured his pistol. Jan rolled the Oculars in their new case back into the lab and curled up with Paul on the couch.
“Rolli and Curve wanted to be out here with us,” Jan tapped.
Paul smiled. “So tomorrow’s the hearing.”
Jan nodded. “The board of directors will finally see just how smart these creatures are.” She took a deep breath and shivered. “I get tongue-tied in front of people — literally. If they ask questions, well, I don’t think on my feet as fast as you do.”
Paul ran his fingers through her hair. She ran her fingers up and down his forearm.
Rolli twitched to Jan, “Sometimes we wish we had fingers.”
In the corner of a security area, Michaelson rubbed his dressed leg and said to Lautner, “You said you wanted the creatures killed.”
Lautner blew a waft of cigarette smoke at Michaelson. “Last week, before Benevidez arrived. You’re lucky he didn’t blow your brains out. Keep your mouth shut. You will be jailed and I will get you out in a few weeks.”
“What if the Oculars saw us together during the last raid? What if they identify you?”
“Wales?” Lautner looked over at Albert Wales, thin and wiry, bent over a table. A bright light was shining down on an Ocular that Wales was dissecting.
Wales said, “Astonishing. The eye contains a structure resembling brain tissue. These creatures must have enormous visual memory. How close were you to Michaelson during the raid?”
Lautner said, “Within a couple of meters.”
Wales looked up from the dissecting tray. “Well, we don’t know if Dobbs has studied their sense of distance, but you could claim they mistook your position due to reduced depth perception. However, I would not underestimate their intelligence.”
“I only need to cast doubt, not measure their I.Q.,” Lautner said, lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag. “Plan A.”
“And if that doesn’t work?” Michaelson needled.
The next day a security team accompanied Jan, Paul and the Oculars on the winding path from Jan’s lab to the board of directors meeting room, passing gardens growing in a controlled Earth-like climate under the compound’s dome. They passed fruit trees, vegetables, spices, and herbs, and squinted as the planet’s sun filled the gardens with morning light that bounced off beds of daisies, marigolds, and carnations. Curve and Rolli especially enjoyed a roll through this artificial world that was alien to them, though they would eventually need to return to their case that mimicked Haven’s lighter atmosphere.
“These two never run out of tricks,” Paul observed as the Oculars jumped over a broken, jagged section of path.
Jan laughed and tapped, “They have the elasticity to jump several feet.”
When the group reached the meeting room, Jan set the Oculars in their case up on a table and addressed the research foundation’s ten member board.
“As you all know the compound has been attacked by poachers over the last few weeks. They take plant and animal specimens and sell them on Earth as exotica. Although Haven’s conditions are close to Earth’s, the stolen animals usually die without proper care. Two individuals of Haven’s most intelligent life form, Oculars, were roaming in an area thought to be safe when a raid occurred last week. The Oculars spotted one of the poachers and can describe him and the raid in detail.”
Paul looked across the room at Michaelson, handcuffed and sitting next to a guard holding an automatic rifle. Michaelson smirked at Paul when their eyes met. Then Paul looked at Captain Lautner, smugly listening with arms folded.
The Oculars twitched rapidly as they recounted all they had seen during the raid. Jan tapped her tongue rapidly trying to keep up. She noticed the board of directors sitting up and listening intently.
Finally Jan tapped, “I will now ask the Oculars to point out the poacher.”
Rolli and Curve twitched. Jan pointed across the room at Michaelson. Then the Oculars twitched again. Jan frowned and gasped. Her eyes opened wide and she nervously pointed at Lautner. The board gasped.
Paul looked at Lautner and snarled.
The board’s chairwoman, Margaret Fritz, rose from her seat. “Do you mean to say, Dr. Dobbs, that Captain Lautner is poaching?”
Speechless, Jan looked frantically around the room, her tongue frozen.
Lautner rose. “May I explain, Madam Chairwoman?”
The chairwoman nodded and Lautner came forward carrying a measuring stick. He stood next to Jan. “I was outside that night looking for the poachers. But I was far away from Michaelson.”
Jan took a deep breath and tapped weakly, “The Oculars say you were next to him, talking to him.”
Lautner corrected her in his deep bass. “I was yelling instructions to my security force, Dr. Dobbs. Please ask the Oculars to judge the distance to the main double doors we all came through. They may use this standard measure for scale. I will verify their estimate with a laser.”
As Lautner produced a laser sensor from his pocket and took a reading, Jan twitched with the Oculars.
Jan looked back at the board and tapped, “Oculars have the ability to join as one for a short time, combining their senses and experiences. These two Oculars were joined when they went out for a stroll that night. They have agreed to join in front of us now.”
Rolli and Curve joined into one globe and the board gasped again.
Lautner’s jaw dropped.
Jan tapped, “They estimate seventeen meters, three centimeters to the double doors.” She peered at Lautner’s laser display. “That matches your laser, Captain Lautner.”
Paul smiled at Jan.
Fritz said, “Commander Benevidez, please take Captain Lautner into custody. Captain Lautner, I am shocked–”
Lautner drew his pistol. “Stay put, Benevidez,” he admonished as Paul rose and started to draw his gun.
“Ok, Wales,” Lautner said. Albert Wales, the guard sitting next to Michaelson, rose and joined Lautner. With Wales holding the automatic rifle and Lautner attaching a silencer to his pistol, the two moved backwards toward the double doors.
Lautner said, “Sorry for what must happen next. And sorry, Michaelson, but when the poachers detonate their plastics, you can’t conveniently be outside with us.”
“Lautner!” Michaelson screamed.
Lautner and Wales slipped out the doors, Lautner shooting the sensor embedded in the wall before the doors closed. Paul rushed the doors. They were shut solid.
“Michaelson, how do I open the doors?” Paul yelled.
Fidgeting with his handcuffs, Michaelson said, “We’re locked in. Last night he rigged the doors to open only by sensor.”
Paul banged the doors with his fist. “What about the guards outside?”
Michaelson shook his head. “Right now he’s ordering all guards to search for intruders somewhere in the compound to make it look like an attack. We only have seconds.”
“Maybe the doors still open from the outside,” Paul reasoned. “Jan, the bottom of the doors have a wide clearance–”
Jan nodded and twitched to Rolli and Curve. She lifted them out of the glass case and they rolled over to Paul.
Paul said to Jan, “They just need to jump up enough to trigger the sensor.”
Jan twitched and Rolli and Curve both deflated. Paul slid them underneath the doors. A moment later the doors opened.
“Everyone out now!” Paul yelled.
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The room emptied and they ran as fast as they could out under the dome. The meeting room exploded blowing the double doors apart. As debris landed around them, Paul saw people running and screaming. The security team members stood around in a daze, their stunned looks telling Paul that they were not involved with Lautner. Paul handed off Michaelson to one of the guards, and then spied Lautner and Wales hurrying down the path toward the edge of the dome.
“Lautner spotted us,” Paul said to Jan. “He’ll try to hijack one of the jump ships.”
Jan tapped, “Rolli and Curve say they can slow them down.”
As Paul cut through the gardens, Rolli and Curve joined and shot down the path like a rocket sled.
Wales turned and saw the Ocular globe approaching. As he took aim with his machine gun, Rolli and Curve suddenly split and rolled in opposite directions. Wales’ rounds missed but Paul’s hit Wales in the chest and Wales fell backwards into a mulch pile.
Lautner was working the security pad on the dome’s airlock. He fired a shot at Paul and, as Paul ducked, passed through the airlock to the outside. When Paul reached the airlock the entrance would not open. Jan and the Oculars caught up with him.
“Lautner’s reset the passcode,” Paul said. “We’ll need Engineering to open the airlock.”
Lautner gave Paul and Jan a toothy yellow grin from the other side of the dome then turned toward a group of jump ships parked on a tarmac. But he had company. Dozens of Oculars were rolling around the tarmac.
“Damn, look at them all,” Paul said.
Lautner started to lumber his way through the throng, Haven’s thinner O2 slowing him down.
“If only I could get off a shot,” Paul said. “He’s a sitting duck.”
Rolli and Curve twitched to Jan and rolled up to the edge of the dome. They started twitching to the Oculars outside.
“What’s going on?” Paul asked.
Jan shrugged. “They warned me not to watch.”
Two of the Oculars on the tarmac joined into one globe, and then joined with another and another and another. Jan’s jaw dropped as the globe expanded several meters across. The globe continued to grow until it was half the size of a jump ship, nearly ten meters high. Hundreds of eyes inside the giant globe looked down at Lautner.
Lautner looked up in horror and lost his balance. He fell, hitting his face on the tarmac and spitting out a yellow tooth. The globe advanced on him and rolled over one of his feet. Lautner screamed and crawled back into the airlock, grabbing his mangled foot. The giant globe backed off and deflated, individual Oculars rolling away.
“Ok,” Paul observed, “they’re smart.”
Looking anxiously out a crack in the patched up lab window, Jan waited for Paul to return from a meeting with the board. She twitched to Rolli and Curve, “They may ask Paul to stay.”
“Would you like that, Jan?” Curve asked.
Jan hesitated to answer.
“Oh, c’mon,” Rolli twitched. “Paul loves you.”
“Agreed,” Curve twitched.
“How do you know that?” Jan twitched.
“By his heart rate, breathing, and perspiration,” Rolli replied. “We sensed them when he hid us under his shirt last night.”
“From adrenaline,” Jan twitched. “We were attacked.”
“No,” Curve twitched. “When he brushed against you, his heart and breathing relaxed. You have a calming effect on him.”
Jan quickly sat at a desk and acted like she was reading as Paul came through the door.
“So?” Jan tapped.
Paul plopped down on the couch. “So the board wants me to stay on as head of security. They also said they have declared Oculars to be of level one intelligence. Sounds like you’re getting more funding.”
Jan nodded. “It means more staff and better facilities. I’ve been dreaming of this for months. A first rate lab on a planet so similar to Earth with a life form as advanced as Oculars makes Haven a researcher’s paradise. We need you, Paul, and I want you to stay.”
Then Paul looked at Curve and Rolli in their case. Paul tugged Jan’s hand, and they knelt down in front of the Oculars.
Paul asked, “How do you twitch ‘thank you’?”
Jan made some complex twitching motions which Paul tried to imitate.
Rolli twitched, “Do you know what he’s saying, Curve?”
Curve twitched, “No, but he’s cute.”
Rolli twitched, “Maybe they’ll have children.”
“What did they say?” Paul asked.
Jan turned red and tapped, “‘Welcome’.”
Food For Thought
When we see a person with a disability, do we sometimes assume — if only for a nanosecond — that person is also mentally slow before our common sense takes over? In the story Dr. Jan Dobbs is mute and deaf — could that effect the way people treat her or respond to her research?
We don’t know what extra-terrestrial intelligence may look like. Will it be considered appropriate scientific investigation to capture alien life forms? Is there a level of intelligence we will employ that will define a ‘hands off’ policy for life forms?
About the Author
James Fitzsimmons holds a BA in English from California State University, Los Angeles where he studied literature and creative writing. He works as a computer programmer and lives in Long Beach CA. James says that writing computer programs is much like writing stories, but hopes his stories have fewer bugs! James’ work has appeared in Bards and Sages Quarterly, Aoife’s Kiss, and Frostfire Worlds.
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