by Mike Jack Stoumbos
For months, the hardest part of the experiment had been reminding myself that I had time.
Not the trudging up the hills and 1.4 gravity while the spongy soil slowly gave way. Not the isolation, and certainly not the technology. I’d been left with ample survival and research supplies, including a 3D printer with miles of compatible dead vegetation to reconstitute.
No, the biggest hardship of a solo study on planet G-84127 was waiting and watching day after day, without throwing in the towel out of impatience.
That is until my time here ran out. A terse digital message informed me a scout ship had reentered the system, and I had less than one standard day, the human-centric 24 hours, before the fleet gave orders to harvest.
So, that morning, I hurried into my workboots, saving time by bypassing the environmental suit, trusting the many scans that ruled out toxins, carcinogens, or even airborne bacteria on G-84127. The single-celled organisms were amusingly too large and dense to get into the air or our lungs.
The macroflora, with their thick cell walls and long-winded reproductive cycles, had drawn survey teams here in the first place. They were what kept me on-site for extended study and inevitably what would bring the fleet back to harvest. Samples pulled from dead specimens littered my lab, which sunk a little deeper and tilted a little steeper each day, despite the exterior supports.
The lean was extreme enough that I’d ditched the tables and set the expensive equipment on the floor weeks ago. State-of-the-science devices, used to observe teeny, tiny life, now collecting dust as I stepped over them toward the door.
The only really high-tech piece I still used was the 3D printer, which had finished yet another post topped with a sign, made entirely from local vegetation.
My newest sign split into eight prongs, like blunted tines on an aggressive fork, and was scheduled for Site F. There was no audience to complain to about the long walk. The sign, despite being made of lightweight reconstituted vegetation, was taller than me and a huge burden in high gravity. It had already slid to the wall since being printed, courtesy of the tilted lab.
Outside, the semi-elastic ground had smoothed itself, erasing my former footprints. The southeast corner looked a few centimeters lower. The whole thing might have been swallowed if not propped up by two of the snakelike trees that wrapped around the corners and held it in place.
I nodded to those curving pillars as if they could see me. In their own way, maybe they could.
The snake trees weren’t the biggest flora here, but they were the most fascinating. On a planet with exactly zero complex fauna, you take what you can get from the most interesting trees. They lined all paths from the exterior door, in rows, almost as if I had planted them.
With each step, I was torn between pausing to examine any minute changes and pressing forward to my objective. Today, the latter won out.
I touched several with my free hand while I went, like high-fiving a reception line. When you’re by yourself on a distant planet, you find companionship anywhere, enough to make you question your sanity and doubt your senses. I had been resistant to calling the patterns in the snake trees’ branches deliberate, but even in the early days, I saw one that ended in a slab with five protrusions and called it a hand; even today, I gave it a slow wave as I passed by.
Not that the tree waved back. They moved too slowly to even sway in the minimal breeze, but they did grow and shift fast enough for me to observe when very, very patient and very, very still.
“An inch an hour,” I muttered to myself. Glacial speed, the kind that made you want to punch anyone who said, “Like watching paint dry.” But with the right time lapse recording, set to the right frame rate, those trees practically danced. I bet that’s how they perceived themselves.
The sign dragging behind me, hooked under one elbow, was not nearly as thick or tall as a real snake tree, but the basic shape of the prongs seemed a close facsimile on a smaller scale. I hoped they agreed. Each belabored step trudging up and down each hill was motivated by that hope.
I had been planting signs on the crests of hills, where snake trees didn’t grow on their own, but where signs could clearly be seen—that is before a forest started growing around my lab and pathways.
I’d labeled the three closest hills Sites A, B, and C, and more letters continued as the hill spiral grew further outward.
Today, I passed B on my way to F—an encouraging sight, even if I didn’t stop and stare.
Site B stood as the first observable success in communication. My 3D printing had been clunkier then, just geometric shapes mounted on posts and stuck into the ground. But the surrounding snake trees imitated those shapes. It had taken more than 10 standard days for them to mirror, slowly moving, bending, splitting when they needed to.
However, imitation was not yet intelligence. “Trees see, tree do,” while fascinating, did not hold a fleet of harvesters.
“Imitation, recognition, application, synthesis,” I reminded myself. If they only imitated, the shape game would remain an amusing anecdote while the powers-that-be reaped a planet deemed devoid of complex intelligent life.
Maybe if we had given G-84127 a convenient pet name, maybe if we had mis-classified snake trees as animals instead of plants, maybe if we had petitioned a preservation society sooner. Not new thoughts, not helpful. Putting pressure on Site F was hardly helpful, but it felt like my last hope—correction: the trees’ last hope. I’d just be assigned to another planet; they’d be harvested to extinction.
At Site A, a convenient, nearby cluster, I had tried to get them to imitate my movements, but I clearly moved too fast. At Site C, I tried lights; D, sounds. E sank, literally, into the dirt before imitation had occurred, much less understanding. And F… I’d shove another sign into hill F, but I knew there wouldn’t be enough time for them to respond before the go order.
I was sure by now that they responded, certain of the imitation, but no more than I would be of a Venus fly trap’s intelligence. And the responses were so slow. The snake trees on this heavy sponge of a planet went way beyond even the Ents of Lord of the Rings, who made it seem like a few lost minutes to communicate a sentence was a long time. Amateurs.
I wondered if I’d miss my trees’ sounds, the muted groaning and shifting. It was like nothing ever fell down on this planet, just sank or slowly stretched. Even now, I wondered if the trees could even perceive my footsteps, or if those went by too fast, like me watching for individual beats of a hummingbird’s wings. To know something exists but not quite be able to perceive it or interact with it…
Site F had a steeper incline, and I used my eight-pronged sign as a walking staff, fighting against the sinking earth. I grunted and panted my way to the top of the hill, where five more printed signs already stood in place. I’d started the pattern of increasing prongs with one, then another one, then two, three, and five. The start of the Fibonacci sequence, to be followed by eight. With enough time, I would have added thirteen.
I saw my earlier signs first, before cresting the hill to see the trees themselves, lined up in a row to copy what I’d put in place.
But I didn’t get a chance to install the next number in the sequence.
Instead, I fell to my knees, letting the eight-pronged sign drop with a dull thud.
The trees, for once, had beaten me to it. Standing proudly on the other side of the hill their prongs numbered one, one, two, three, five—but didn’t stop there.
The next tree had split into eight bold branches. Its neighbor had begun to unfurl thirteen. And another, only a meter high, had the tiniest buds haloing out from its upper stump. I had to get closer to count them, so I scrambled to my feet and gleefully numbered them all the way up to twenty-one.
Intelligence! Beyond mere imitation, they showed understanding of a pattern, application, and synthesis. Number sense, mathematical acumen.
For the first time, I knew for certain I wasn’t truly alone on this planet. The weight of the sign left behind me, I ran down the hill toward my lab, to call the fleet. That conversation would take minutes but change the fate of this planet. The ongoing conversation with the snake trees would last years.
I had time.
Mike Jack Stoumbos is an author and educator, living with his wife and their parrot in Richmond, VA. He is best known as a 1st-place winner of the Writers of the Future contest and for his space opera novel series This Fine Crew. His short fiction appears in collections from Zombies Need Brains, WordFire Press, and Inkd Pub, among others, and he is the lead anthology editor of WonderBird Press.
As a licensed and experienced teacher of both English composition and mathematics, I have spent years exploring the academic side of communication and knowledge transfer–but I can only explore so many what-ifs with my human students. “Frame Rate” gave me an opportunity to question the nature of intelligent communication with beings whose differing perceptions would make most interaction impossible or at least unnoticeable. In this story, I used a truncated rendition of the stages of learning (imitation, recognition, application, synthesis) and applied them to communication.