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Living Fossil - by Bruce Cook

 
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 20, 2015 12:03 pm    Post subject: Living Fossil - by Bruce Cook Reply with quote

___________________________Living Fossil

___________________________by Bruce Cook

________

As the scientists made their way across the rocky terrain towards the sight of the excavation, they tried to hide their own worried expressions from each other.

Despite the reassuring presence of their starship, resting on the desert floor just a few hundred meters away, each of the scientist felt a disturbing uneasiness, a fear which had no focus. Perhaps it was the appearance of the country around them; this lifeless landscape, this bleak and broken terrain. As far as the eye could see there was nothing but the cold, hard bedrock of this alien world's stony foundation.

The rocky ground made walking difficult — especially for the spindly four-legged scientists with their thin bluish-green bodies and their cyclopean three-lens eyes. They hobbled across the fragmented stones in a perpetual state of near-disaster, grabbing at each other for support, waving their long arms for balance, bumping into each other. They looked like a small herd of drunken spiders. The Technician and the Geologist were having the greatest difficulty. They were carrying the heavy box that held the equipment which would be used at the excavation sight.

Trailing a few meters behind the group of scientists was the Archaeologist. She teetered over the rocky obstacle course without help from the others. She was an outcast in this small, star-traveling microsociety of science specialists. She had criticized their philosophies too often and too vocally, and now they shunned her company.

As the band of scientists neared the sight of the excavation, they were greeted by the Paleontologist, standing near the raw wound in the cliff that marked the spot where the bones of the ancient animal had been unearthed. The Paleontologist was leaning casually against the cliff, his two upper arms folded, his two lower arms hanging loosely by his side. But the other scientists could tell how excited he was by the way his eating tendrils writhed at the corners of his mouth. The lids which covered each of his three eye-lenses were blinking more rapidly than usual, and his greenish-blue skin had an unnaturally high luster.

The Technician and the Geologist placed the box down next to the Paleontologist and began taking out the equipment. As the other scientists gathered around the Paleontologist, the Archaeologist stood at the outskirts of the group, straining to see over their shoulders. None of the others made a place for her.

"Well, well," the Paleontologist said jovially. "The skeptics are finally here to be silenced."

"We're not skeptics," the Team Leader said soothingly. "We just want to see your evidence before we're convinced. You're not the first Paleontologist to make a claim of this kind — and all your predecessors have been wrong. In one-hundred and fifty years of space exploration, we've never discovered another intelligent race in the galaxy. And no paleontologist nor archaeologist has uncovered evidence that such a race ever existed in the past."

"That's why I'm here," the Historian spoke up for the first time. He was by far the oldest member of the group, his elongated head was covered in the loose furrows that denoted advanced age. Privately the other scientists had joked that there was more geography on that ancient head than on the surface of most planets.

The old Historian made a few adjustments on his hand-held recording device, then he focused his three-eyed gaze on the group. "If this is the first evidence of intelligent life other than our own species, I'm here to document it. This could settle the old science-versus-religion debate once and for all."

"And it's about time, too," the Paleontologist said with sudden anger. "The Gankeagoron religion has held back scientific development for decades."

"As you've so often told us," the Historian said wryly. "Do you want to make a recorded statement on the subject before you present what you've found?" He aimed his recording device at the Paleontologist.

"Good idea," the indignant scientist replied. He drew himself up taller by repositioning his four spindly legs closer together, and he straightened both sets of shoulders. Future history books would include the video recording of this moment, and the vain Paleontologist wanted to look his best. He centered his trinocular eye on the audio-video device and began addressing the unseen audience.

"Let me begin by saying that the Gankeagoron religion has many enduring traits, and I do not wish to demean the millions of loyal followers who practice this ancient faith. However, the Gankeagoron religion does have one rather unfortunate characteristic. According to this religion's Holy Book, all intelligent creatures who establish a technological civilization will eventually destroy themselves in war. In other words, technology-equals-war-equals-extinction. This unfortunate aspect of the Gankeagoron religion has resulted in a great deal of anti-scientific sentiment."

Above the heads the other scientist, the Paleontologist saw the steadfast gaze of the Archaeologist, watching from her position of exile at the back of the group. He wondered if the Archaeologist would openly object to this attack on her religion. But no — she remained silent. The two scientist just stared at each other for a moment, then the Paleontologist continued speaking.

"Even though I dislike having to attack anyone's religious beliefs, such thinking must be set straight once and for all. If we can prove that a civilized race once lived on this planet and did not destroy itself in warfare, the keystone of the Gankeagoron religion will be in serious doubt."

"And you claim to have found proof that an intelligent life form once lived on this planet?" the Historian said, guiding the Paleontologist's remarks.

"Yes. The fossil we're about to excavate may very well put this debate permanently to rest. The deep-range images we've taken of the fossil inside this rock — " he patted the stone facing at his side, " — indicate the presence of several highly sophisticated artifacts."

"What kind of artifacts?" said the Historian.

"I can't be sure. But after we excavate the fossil and the artifacts we'll be able to examine them first hand. The important point is that if this life form was in possession of technologically sophisticated tools, then it must have been a member of an advanced civilization. And if that civilization didn't destroy itself by warfare, then the Holy Book is . . . well, it's very much mistaken," he concluded with undisguised sarcasm.

"But what if this life form was destroyed by war," the Historian said.

The Paleontologist made a quick sound of amusement. "Then perhaps our own race is doomed, too."

"Very interesting," The Historian said lightly. "How soon can we learn our fate."

"Very soon, indeed." He was watching the Technician making final adjustments on the equipment. "All we have to do is set the disintegration tool properly so that it won't harm the fossil when it clears away the sedimentary rock which encases the fossilized material."

"The what?" said the Historian.

"Sedimentary rock," he said with undisguised impatience. "It's the rock which forms from the tiny particles of sand, silt, and mud that settle to the bottom of a river, lake, or ocean. Layer after layer of this material builds up and eventually hardens. An animal or a plant can become embedded in the sediment while the material is still soft, and when the sediment hardens it forms a kind of mold around the organic material."

The Historian looked around at the arid landscape. He waved his left-lower arm to indicate the landscape in general. "So you're saying that a river once ran through this area?"

"Perhaps. Or perhaps it was once the floor of an ocean. Erosion and isostatic adjustment cause the terrain to move up and down. Plate tectonics cause land masses to move back and forth on the planet, which means that ocean bottoms are sometimes pushed up into mountain tops." He gestured towards the excavation with both his right arms. The fossil I found has been brought to the edge of this cliff by erosion, and — "

The Paleontologist suddenly noticed the impatient looks of the other scientists. They were bored with his lecture. "I'll go into detail about this later," he said hastily. Then he gestured at the Archaeologist at the back of the group. "Or perhaps my learned colleague would like to expound on the subject."

The Historian swung the recording device around to point it at the Archaeologist. The rest of the group turned to face her, acknowledging her presence for the first time. The barely concealed hostility in their faces seemed to be intensified by the hostility of the desert around her, and the Archaeologist felt an urge to shrink back from the group.

"Do you want to make a statement?" the Historian said.

"No. No, just get on with it," she replied nervously. But they continued to stare at her, and finally she turned and stumbled away from them. Keeping her back to the group, she sat down on a smoothly eroded rock a few meters away. She heard footsteps behind her, and then the Team Leader sat down next to her. She wasn't surprised that he had followed her. It was his job to see that the group functioned as a team.

"You can't let his remarks effect you this way. In spite of our personal difference, we've all got to do our jobs."

"I know. I just wish he would stop distorting the doctrine of the Gankeagoron religion. He insists on twisting it all up. The Holy Book does not say that all technological civilizations inevitably destroy themselves in war. It just warns us that the knowledge and power which accompany civilization can be dangerous things. It's not a defeatist philosophy, the way he describes it it's a a cautionary one, that's all."

"Yes, yes, you've told me this before," the Team Leader said impatiently. "Nevertheless, you've got to stop being so sensitive to his criticism."

"It isn't really him," the Archaeologist blurted out suddenly. "There's . . . there's something else on my mind." She instantly regretted the remark, by it was too late now.

"What do you mean? What's wrong?"

She looked around at the stony terrain. "It's . . . this place. There's something about it." She shook her long, smooth head. "Can't you feel it?"

"No, I can't," the Team Leader said sharply. "You're being unprofessional and overly emotional."

"There's something about this place that disturbs me beyond all reason. I keep thinking about how much this planet resembles the Holy Book's description of the Punishment the way our world will look if we don't learn to curb our war-like ways. The Holy Book's description is very vivid — "

"I've read it," the Team Leader said uneasily. He didn't share the archaeologists religious beliefs, but he knew that his race had been brought to the brink of extinction by war in recent history. The subject made him nervous.

The Archaeologist was still staring at the desert. "A world without water, without life. A world of sharp edges and unyielding surfaces. From horizon to horizon it screams hatred for life — "

"Silence!" the Team Leader said, using his Command Voice. The Archaeologist's psycho-training overrode her fear, and she became silent. "You're letting your religious beliefs steal your ability to think like a scientist. You've been on a dozen worlds as bleak and lifeless as this one."

"I know," the Archaeologist said softly, glancing back at the others as they prepared to dig out the fossil. "But it isn't just an emotional reaction. I have . . . other reasons for feeling this way. Reasons that are more scientific."

"Such as?"

The Archaeologist hesitated for a moment, then she said, "Remember those circular regions of obsidian we observed on the planet's surface when we approached from space?" She leaned closer to the Team Leader and spoke in a barely audible whisper. "Tell me the truth. Did you honestly agree with the Geologist's explanation of the obsidian regions?"

"He said they were volcanic extrusions. Of course I agree. What else could they be?"

"But there were no visible calderas," the Archaeologist whispered urgently. "Just thousands of flat circular regions made of that black, glassy rock!"

"Exactly what are you suggesting?" the Team Leader said impatiently.

The Archaeologist glanced nervously at the others. Most of them were still watching the Technician make his final adjustments on the disintegration device. The Geologist was off to one side, studying the rocks in the side of the cliff. The Paleontologist was making speeches to the Historian's recording device.

"Perhaps I'd better not say anything just yet," the Archaeologist finally replied.

The Team Leader scowled at her and shook his elongated head slowly. "If you have a theory to put forth, feel free to do so whenever you're ready. I'll see to it that you get a fair hearing. But I suggest you get control of your emotions. You can't go on acting like some paranoid religious fanatic. It's destroying your professional reputation."

The Archaeologist pressed her eating-tendrils together firmly in forced silence, and she simply nodded at the Team Leader.

"Now," the Team Leader continued, "let's take a look at the Paleontologist's new find. And it better be good after all the fuss he's made over it."

The group had backed away from the excavation. The Technician had put the disintegration tool on its tripod and aimed it at the place on the cliff where the fossil was protruding. The Paleontologist nodded at the Technician to activate the device. A wide, barely-visible beam of energy bathed the excavated portion of the cliff. The beam only affected the sedimentary rock which encased the fossil; it had no effect on the fossil material itself. The ancient sedimentary rock began to dissolve into fine dust and slide down the side of the cliff. The grains were so small and smooth that they flowed along the ground like a viscous liquid and washed over the feet of the watching group. Most of them ignored it, but the old Historian bleated with alarm and scrambled up onto a nearby rock to get out of the flow. The others were amused by the performance for a moment . . . but then the sight of the slowly emerging fossil captured their attention completely.

As the rock swirled away from the fossil, the pieces of the skeleton slide gently to the ground amidst the dust. The Technician switched off the disintegration tool, and the last of the dust flowed away from the fossilized skeleton. The group of scientist crowded in for a closer look.

"Amazing!" the Paleontologist exclaimed. "Look how complete the skeleton is. Apparently the creature was bipedal. And it only had two arms. But the hands appear to have been extremely articulate."

A number of artifacts lay near the fossilized bones. "These tools are fascinating," said the Technician. "What can they be?" He was examining a long, narrow object. One end was broad and flattened, the other end was a long cylinder with a round opening. The middle part of the object bore the remnants of complex mechanical parts. "It's encrusted with fossilized material, but there's no trace of rust. I think this is some kind of ceramic substance."

The Team Leader was peering curiously at the skull, which was laying amidst the loose bones. "Those two openings in the front of the skull is that where the creature's eyes were located?"

"Possibly," said the Paleontologist. "But if they were, the creature's vision was binocular, not trinocular like ours. Its depth perception was limited to the horizontal plane."

The Technician reached down gently and touched a network of perfectly geometric lines along the skull. "Incredible. These look like micro??circuits affixed to the bone. The creature might have had a communications device implanted beneath its skin. Or perhaps it augmented its own mental functions by interfacing its brain with a built-in computer."

"Wonderful!" exclaimed the Paleontologist. "That alone proves the creature was a member of a highly advanced culture. It was probably a scientist or an engineer."

The Technician gently turned the skull over to see the other side. As he did, a ragged hole at the temple came into view. There was another hole at the base of the skull in back. The Technician turned a puzzled look towards the others in the group. No one spoke.

Suddenly the Archaeologist pushed her way roughly into the group and leaned down to examine the skull. She stared at the two holes for a long moment, then she looked over at the long narrow artifact that lay nearby. She stared at the other artifacts that were scattered on the sandy desert floor. She picked one of them up and turned it slowly, then she laid it back down, her hand trembling as she did so.

"This was no scientist," she said quietly. "No engineer, either."

"How can you be so certain?" the Paleontologist said angrily.

"Because I'm an archaeologist, you fool!" she hissed at him. Everyone in the group was shocked by her sudden savagery. "I've spent my entire life puzzling out the functions of ancient artifacts."

She straightened up and swung her gaze across each member of the group studying there faces. "None of you understand, do you? The evidence is right in front of you, but you're so determined to make it fit your favorite theories that you're blind to the truth."

The Paleontologist snorted with disgust. "The truth. So you're the only one who can see the truth, eh? Alright, tell us. What do you see that we're so blindly ignoring?"

The Archaeologist picked up the long object and held it front of the Technician. "Look carefully. Look at it as a Technician. But don't think of this as a tool. Think of this as a weapon. Understand? Now, tell me what is it?"

The Technician's puzzled expression was suddenly transformed by revelation. "It's a projectile weapon! This hole in the end is where the projectile comes out."

The Archaeologist laid the rifle to the ground. "Exactly. And it's made of ceramic material because metal can be detected more easily by long range sensors."

"What are saying?" the Paleontologist said in a ragged voice.

The Archaeologist ignored him. She picked up one of the smaller artifacts and held it up to the Technician. "Again, look closely. The whole mechanism has been fused into a lump of stone, but you can still make out some of the parts. This projection might have been a safety pin. And this could be a handle that releases after the object is thrown. Remember to think weapon."

"A hand-bomb!" the Technician exclaimed.

"Right." She put the grenade down, then she squatted next to the fossilized skull. "I think you're right about the implanted circuits; they were part of a built-in communications device, or a computer, or both." She lifted the skull slowly and held it so that the group could all see the two holes. "But this was no scientist. This . . . was a soldier. And these artifacts were the soldier's weapons." She stood up and waved one arm to indicate the lifeless land around them. "And this was the soldier's battlefield. There may be millions of skeletons like this one buried in the ground beneath our feet."

"You're insane," the Paleontologist said. "You're trying to distort the evidence so that it will support your precious Holy Book's prophecy of doom."

"This has nothing to do with my religion," the Archaeologist said evenly. "The issue here is personal bias. You're the one who's distorting the facts to fit your own theory." She gestured towards the Historian, standing nearby with his recording device trained on the group. "If the race that lived on this planet destroyed itself in warfare, you'll miss out on your big chance to debunk the Gankeagoron religion. Isn't it enough that you'll be the first scientist to prove the existence of intelligent life forms other than our own.?"

The Paleontologist was livid with anger. In a shrill voice he said, "Just because we found the remains of one soldier, you want to turn this whole planet into a shrine to your misbegotten religion!"

"We've found more than the remains of one soldier," the Archaeologist replied. "Much more. Remember those circular regions of obsidian we observed from space? Those could be the impact points of high-yield atomic weapons. This planet is covered with them." She turned to the Geologist. "Go on, tell them. Tell them you don't really believe that the regions of black glass are caused by volcanic extrusions."

The Geologist fidgeted and squirmed. "I . . . can't be sure until I . . . examine those regions more closely."

The Archaeologist surveyed the faces of the other scientists. They all looked frightened as frightened as she was. Finally she spoke. "This is exactly what the Holy Book is warning us about . . . the danger of becoming too proud of ourselves . . . so proud that we can't even admit when we're wrong." She walked over to the Paleontologist and gazed intently at him for a long moment.

"You're determined to make a big discovery that will shake up the Gankeagoron religion. Well congratulations, I think this will do it. And you wanted to accomplish something unique in your profession. Congratulations there, too. You've done something which any paleontologist would be proud of. You've just proved that your entire species is a . . . living fossil."

She turned from the stunned group and headed back towards the starship. Behind her she heard the other scientist begin to argue heatedly with each other. As she stumbled across the rocky ground, the voices of the group faded until the only sound she could hear was the wind as it blew across the ancient battlefield.

_________________
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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?


Last edited by Bud Brewster on Sun Mar 10, 2019 4:02 pm; edited 4 times in total
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Custer
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 26, 2015 1:37 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I can imagine that as a story in, perhaps, Galaxy in its prime, with a suitable illustration or two by Emsh perhaps, or Jack Gaughan. I think it works pretty well - as hardened sf readers we are liable to suspect that the aliens have landed on a far-future, arid Terra, but nothing is heavily driven home along those lines.

A little polish wouldn't hurt, of course; sometimes a bit more punctuation, if things run together, and there's the sight/site thing right at the start. Illustrations would have helped me to work out what to make of "cyclopean three-lens eyes"... one big eye with separate lenses wouldn't be too good at depth perception, surely? I imagine these aliens as more like grasshoppers than spiders, who tend to be more rounded.

Calling the hand "articulate" surprised me; while that does mean "jointed," we more usually use it in connection with speech. Would it be possible to work in "articulated" instead? The name of the aliens' religion seems a little clumsy, considering that it gets used so often; I'd be tempted to go for a shorter version.

The Archaeologist is our most sympathetic character, of course, and the voice of common sense. But why does she talk, at the end, of your species... and I don't entirely follow the "living fossil" bit, though it chimes in nicely with the fossil they have uncovered. The species is unchanging? Or has the religion, from centuries before, stopped the species from improving its way of life? Is there an argument for her saying "You've just proved that our entire species is... a dead end."?

I'm just making minor quibbles here - I did wonder about having one character called The Paleontologist, but it seems the best choice, to make "fossil expert" fit in with The Archaeologist, The Geologist, and the Historian. According to Wikipedia, as my old dictionary doesn't include such things, Paleontology "is the scientific study of life existent prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch roughly 11,700 years before present. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology)." Their description does seem a bit Earth-specific, and I'm on your side there.

Anyway, a nicely atmospheric science fiction tale.
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 26, 2015 5:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I'm not surprised that this story needs a lot of work, because I wrote it back in the early 1990s for one of the college classes required for my teaching degree, and haven't read it since -- not even a quick reading before posting it here! Smile

If I'm not a better writer now than back then, after twenty years experience, I should be ashamed of myself! Shocked

I'm sure I'll enjoy addressing the problems you pointed out, and if I think I've improved it significantly, I'll post the new version here as a reply.

I really appreciate the time and effort you put into your analysis of the story. I've never had the opportunity to work with another writer whose opinions I respect as much as yours, so this will be a real treat!

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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?


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orzel-w
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 26, 2015 5:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

As for illustrations, Bruce is quite capable of creating his own. (I prefer his drawings over the "Photoshopped" composites.) I'm surprised he isn't a professional illustrator and that we haven't seen his work on the covers of magazines and paperbacks.

By the way, Bruce, are you left-handed? Very Happy

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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Wed Aug 26, 2015 5:40 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

orzel-w wrote:
By the way, Bruce, are you left-handed? Very Happy

No, but Bud is.

Just kiddin'. Very Happy

Hey, thanks for the kind words, Wayne!

The main reason I haven't become a professional artist is just plain laziness, but there are other reasons I can use as excuses too -- like the fact that I've always been way too slow to finish a painting or drawing for the time frame necessary for professional work.

If a piece isn't just right, I can't be satisfied with it -- and it takes me a long time to get it just right.

And then there's the "enthusiasm factor". If I'm creating a picture of something I chose to do (a pretty girl or an original alien design), I get very excited about the work and go at it like crazy. But on occasions when -- for example -- I was commissioned to do a portrait, my heart just wasn't in it.

And finally, I differ from most artist in that I feel absolutely no need to sell my work to feel "successful". One of my oldest friends, Jim Peavy (whose work is in a gallery here on ASF), has done lots of professional work, such as his Wonder magazine covers, and he's always been eager to sell his originals for the right price. The money he made was (in part) his personal measure of success.

I'd rather keep mine. Very Happy They look too good on my walls.





Until the last decade or so the technology just didn't exist that allowed an artist to print a high-quality full-sized painting and frame it. So, selling a piece meant having to settle for an inferior copy.

That's much less true now -- and the display of artwork on a good computer monitor can be as good as the original.

In fact, it can be even better it the artist makes improvements in the original -- like this early oil painting (on the left) I did in the 1970s. Lack of experience caused me to make it way too dark, and there are other serious problems in the way it was rendered.

But with a computer I made this improved version on the right a few years ago. Very Happy



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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?


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Custer
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PostPosted: Thu Aug 27, 2015 8:22 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

That's quite an array of art - and the lighting on that oil painting is great. I see you have your avatar-picture up on the wall.

Have you ever explored the Deviant Art community? It covers all types of art and photography, not just the naughty bits. If you had your own page there, with a gallery of your artwork, you might be able to tempt a few people to visit the forum here... Smile

Re-reading and polishing one's old works is often a good idea... I caught a missing word in one of my tales when I was posting it here, anyway!
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 10, 2019 3:42 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

________________________________

I took your advice (finally!) and started a gallery on DeviantArt!

https://www.deviantart.com/budbrewster/gallery/

Let me know if you're able to view it. I'm brand new at this and might not have the settings right to allow the public to see it.

I included two versions of our logo and a link to All Sci-Fi, along with an invitation to visit.

Thanks for the great idea, Custer! Very Happy

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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 10, 2019 4:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Custer wrote:
Illustrations would have helped me to work out what to make of "cyclopean three-lens eyes"... one big eye with separate lenses wouldn't be too good at depth perception, surely? I imagine these aliens as more like grasshoppers than spiders, who tend to be more rounded.

When I posted this story on the Science Fiction Message Board today I picked a drawing I did years ago of a spindly alien and stuck a third eye in the middle of the other two, but it's not really an example of "cyclopean three-lens eyes", so I changed it to "three strange eyes" on Science Fiction Message Board and left it "cyclopean three-lens eye" on ASF because you'd mentioned it in you previous posts. Very Happy

Then I put the illustration at the top of the story here, despite the fact that the eyes don't match the story. I'll probably modify the drawing to correct the discrepancy. The drawing isn't really they way I described or imagine the aliens, but it looks kinda nice.

You pointed out some much-needed changes I need to make in the story, and I'll do those eventually. Thanks.

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