Vyirangan Phasmid

Hunting for strange animals -- cryptids, if you want -- is one of the main past times on Vyiranga. This delicate hobby isn't made any easier by the presence of Caloplaca Vyirangana, the local hallucinogenic lichen whose spores tend to induce lucid dreams. Vyirangan colonists are thus slightly high, almost all the time, and it is not a surprise the Vyirangan Phasmid, or Pseudophasmida Vyirangana, remained a folk tale for so long, until a Starmoth Initiative survey managed to prove that it was more than that.

Pseudophasmida Vyirangana is a small arthropod found on the boreal islands of the warm ocean world. It does not, in fact, look like a Terran phasmid -- the reason why it was put in the pseudophasmida meta-classification is that, much like its Earth-based namesake, it is exceedingly good at eluding detection. So good, in fact, that scientific records of its existence are few and far between, even after extensive research. The rare pictures available show a ten centimetres long creature capable of winged flight, not unlike a dragonfly, with a flexible exoskeleton. Finding itself in the middle of the (admittedly small) terrestrial food chain on Vyiranga, the Vyirangan Phasmid has become a master in camouflage.

Animals capable of colour-based camouflage are not rare on human-explored worlds, but P. Vyirangana pushes it a step further. Instead of simply changing colour to match the environment, its exoskeleton is capable of turning the insect absolutely invisible to both human eyes and cameras. At first, exobiologists suspected some kind of biological optical camouflage, but the truth turned out to be even more intriguing. The arthropod's exoskeleton is covered in mucus that has a negative refraction index -- in effect, P. Vyirangana camouflages itself by bending light around its body. This property, appearing when the arthropod leaves its larval stage, makes the creature virtually undetectable to most local predators when idle. There is, however, another layer to P. Vyirangana's subterfuge.

After extensive studying, it was discovered that adult specimens of the Vyirangan Phasmid are capable of exuding a neurotoxin that, when inhaled, interferes with the neural systems of local life. When exposed to this neurotoxin, human researchers reported peculiar symptoms: loss of short-term visual memory, mild brain fog and inability to focus on a specific task. These symptoms immediately disappeared when the neurotoxin was removed from the environment, albeit it is speculated that long-term exposure might lead to more permanent effects. Through this entirely unique mechanism, P. Vyirangana ensures that even the most cunning predator -- or prey -- will all but forget about its presence. As a stark example of the creature's effectiveness in eluding pursuit or capture, all living specimens obtained during the surveys managed to escape their lab when a scientist willingly released them -- she later told her colleagues that she had forgotten what they were, and why they had to be kept in a terrarium. That the neurotoxins have such an effect on non-indigenous lifeforms may mean that local animals might not even be aware of P. Vyirangana's existence at all -- the optical camouflage being, in fact, a backup defence aimed at creatures that can't inhale the toxin, such as the Vyirangan Salt Worm.

Genetic analyses of the Phasmid show that it probably has a large number of cousins which have yet to be found -- if they can even be found at all, considering that P. Vyirangana's odd tricks might only be the surface of entire potential ecosystems made of invisible insects.

P. Vyirangana only has one known predator, and it is, interestingly enough, also an animal capable of interfering with light, the infamous "anti-firefly" of the Vyirangan sand coast (Pseudolucciola Vyirangana.)

In tribute to Disco Elysium. 

Sequence Biology


The biology of Sequence organisms is rather hard to study, in no small part because the Sequence itself isn’t a coherent species or even lifeform, but a complex amalgamation of several thousand species that has outlived most of its creators, willing or not. Sequence lifeforms belong to “transbiological life”, an umbrella term that covers organisms that, while still biological in nature (i.e bearing obvious characteristics of living organisms and abiding by the constraints of biological metabolism), are mostly indistinguishable from the technology used by the civilisations they have created. The closest humankind has to transbiological lifeforms are vegetal AIs.

As such it is rather hard to determine where a Sequencer ends and where their technology begins — and in a way I am not sure the question itself makes a lot of sense. That being said, Algorab often distinguishes between the two using a criteria of self-modification: if a Sequence organism can rearrange itself and change its purpose on its own, it is an individual, otherwise it is servile technology. Here again the distinction is flimsy, but has the merit of being clear-cut.

Sequence lifeforms are entirely decentralized. They appear as streams of black-grey cells which can link up with each other, exchange information, harden in response to physical trauma and act as tendrils or tentacles to interact with their environment. The cells can specialize into main cells which form the backbone of the individual, and auxiliary cells which form non-vital elements of a Sequencer. Main and auxiliary cells can seamlessly switch between functions within their category, but cannot switch to the other category, at least in observed individuals. Sequencers do not have organs to speak of; their cells can gather into nodes and groups within their bodies but these are not definitive and can change depending on the situation at hand. Due to their ability to produce cells and regenerate entire organs, Sequencers are technically immortal and extremely resistant to damage, though there is a threshold under which an individual cannot come back to full functionality (empirically this threshold seems to be around 10-15% of remaining cells). Sequencers can subsist on carbon-based nutrients and H2O. They have exceedingly well-developed nerve systems, and can feel (or see) in ultraviolet, infrared and possibly radio waves. Their outer surface shows a staggering diversity in colours, geometric shapes and textures that don’t seem to serve any purpose beyond aesthetics.

At first, we assumed that Sequence lifeforms all possessed the same genetic material, but recent autopsies have shown that it is not the case. In fact, while Sequencers all share a common underlying structure, there are at least a dozen different genetic sources in the specimens we encountered in the Serene Sea. Furthermore, these genetic sources came from very different species, some of which had a familiar two-stranded DNA structure while others possessed way more exotic genetics, often based on RNA or silicon DNA. The most likely explanation is that Sequencers as we know them come, in fact, from the various species conquered and absorbed by the empire. It is likely that, at the end of the Sequence of History, newly conquered species were physically altered to become Sequencers in their own right, with their genetic material preserved and repurposed to produce mainstream Sequence cells. Sadly, with the Sequence being in a terminal state, it is impossible for us to observe the assimilation process directly as all remaining Sequencers are fully amalgamated lifeforms. Was the process immediate or spread over several millennia? Was it peaceful? How much of the original species’ identity was kept? Most of these questions are likely to remain unanswered.

**Operational Note 70: Sequence soldiers**

Sequence field combatants are known as shamblers. They are fast, resilient individuals with short to medium-range weaponry embedded in their outer cell layer. Shamblers can infiltrate almost any building given enough time and are impervious to most conventional ammunition. They can also survive small nuclear explosions; untrained personnel is advised to disengage and seek emergency evacuation when encountering a shambler. In the absence of dedicated biochemical weaponry (see Tears of the Forest entry), the most efficient way of tackling a shambler is through the application of sustained, low-caliber fire which is more likely to disrupt its regeneration ability than sporadic high-caliber fire. Expendable railguns such as the ones mounted on Lilac drones are specifically designed for this task.

Sequence combatants that belong to a higher class than shamblers are to be avoided at all costs.

NASA/Caltech, Galaxy of Horrors posters.




Eloran Pseudotrees

Though not universally recognized by the scientific community, the term "pseudotree" is used for remarkable symbiotic lifeforms found on Elora in the Traverse which bear a striking visual likeness to Earth-bound trees despite being radically different in terms of physiology and life cycle.

Nb: the word pseudotree is often used for any plant that vaguely resembles an Earth tree, with the main criteria being the presence of leaf-like photosynthesis-capable parts and a hard trunk. Only on Elora does pseudotree clearly refer to these symbionts. 

Pseudotrees have no real Earth analogue. Much like the vast majority of Eloran fauna and flora, they are the result of billions of years of co-evolution between several symbiotes which has led to the creation of multi-species, fully integrated lifeforms. Pseudotrees, in particular, are composite organisms born out of the tripartite symbiosis of three distinct lifeforms: photosynthetic algae, hardened lichens and string-like microfungi. They are, in effect, second-level symbiotes, as one of their components is already a symbiotic lifeform (though pseudotree lichen has lost the ability to perform photosynthesis, it is an ancestral symbiote of Eloran algae and fungi). The three symbiotic species have specialized to the point they are seldom if ever, found alone in the wild. The supporting structure of a pseudotree is made of hardened lichen, almost as resilient as regular wood, that bends and twists to form trunks and branches. This lichen is sustained by photosynthesis carried out via thin transparent sacks containing the algae, as well as complex mycelium networks running in the ground like roots on Earth, extracting nutrients and water from their environment. The entire symbiote is eerily reminiscent of an Earth tree, to the point newcomers can often be fooled into thinking they haven't left the relative safety of arcology gardens while they are, in fact, deep inside the Eloran forest. During Eloran winters the algae sacks retract and dry up to conserve energy,

Algae sacks rustling in the wind. It takes a very close inspection to differentiate leaves from pseudotree sacks. The only telltale sign is the presence of a thin, skin-like enveloppe around the sack.

One of the most notable differences between trees and pseudotrees is that there is no notion of an individual pseudotree. These organisms reproduce and expand through their underground fungal element, which extends tendrils through the soil then emerges to form a small receptacle which is then seeded by algae and lichen spores carried by the wind or by local animals. The link with the parent pseudotree is never broken and as such, there is no meaningful distinction between two adjacent pseudotrees. A lone organism is always an anomaly (usually the last survivor of a lost colony) and a pseudotree forest, for all intents and purposes, is a single, coherent lifeform that exchanges water, nutrients and information across several hundred kilometres by way of sap-like fluids running through lichen trunks. Though pseudotrees do not have neurons to speak of, they possess specialized fungal nodes that synthesize organic compounds and algae receptors capable of "reading" these compounds and adjust the pseudotree's activity, growth and metabolism in reaction to external threats or opportunities. One of the most striking examples of this capability to exchange information is the way pseudotree forests have a self-regulation mechanism resulting in most pseudotree trunks having almost the same mass in a given environment, despite variations in shape and volume. The largest forests are capable of nigh-sapience and react to human presence through colour changes and pheromones which have yet to be deciphered. Limits between colonies are often well-defined and apparently "respected", though sometimes old colonies can end up deeply intertwined, especially on small islands where land is a rare commodity.

Sometimes, old pseudotrees tend to absorb or eliminate ground vegetation, leaving their fungal networks apparent.

Pseudotrees occupy the same ecological niche as Earth trees, providing shelter, food and resources to a vast number of animal and vegetal species. They are remarkably resilient in the face of infections and physical trauma: contrary to Earth trees, they have a basic immune system and can regrow lost branches or trunks within a few weeks. Their ability to transfer nutrients and water, as well as regulate their growth, makes them quasi-ubiquitous on the planet's scattered continents. Pseudotrees do not seem to have endemic predators or parasites, though they are sometimes targeted by a rather strange lifeform, the Eloran Apple (Pseudomalus Eloriensis), a floating fruit that hijacks the fungal flow not to feed on the pseudrotree but to learn from its synapses and locate the best location for its spores, essentially using the local forest as a vast cartographical device.

Eloran Apples are mostly edible if you can catch them before they float away.

Pseudotrees are seldom used for human consumption on Elora. As they do not pose any health hazard, their removal is only necessary when a colony encroaches on human gardens or greenhouses, but only has to be carried out once: pseudotrees are clever enough to understand where they can and can't grow, albeit uncontrolled human expansion would very likely trigger more aggressive responses. Pseudotree trunks are awful substitutes for wood: the lichens tend to disintegrate fast without sap flowing through them, and harvested colonies will harden to the point of requiring heavy duty lasers to cut through them.

As far as we know, pseudotrees aren't an invasive organism and can't be implanted on other worlds.

Sylphs

[STARMOTH INITIATIVE REPORT A-5-C]

Object: Plasma-based lifeforms referred to as Sylphs.

Written by Isaac Lawson (Azur-Ereb institute of xenobiology studies). 

Though carbon-based life seems to be dominant in our quarter of the galaxy, scientists have long perused the possibility of exotic lifeforms, ranging from silicon-based cellular life to more peculiar creatures that could possibly exist without the need for cells or other recognizable markers of conventional life. In this case, it would be very easy to miss such lifeforms, as they lack the usual elements associated with living organisms. The discovery of exotic non-cell based life would then mostly happen by chance.

Sylphs are a great illustration of this paradigm. They haven't been discovered by exobiologists but by physicists specialized in the study of stars. There is a great reason for that: they live in the heliosphere of main-sequence stars.

Sylphs are stretching the definition of life in fascinating ways. They do not have DNA nor cells, at least not in terms we can easily grasp. They do not reproduce, they do not die, they do not really even live, except for one key aspect: they think. Some people like to compare them to artificial intelligences but I think that it is an intellectual dead-end. Artificial intelligences have bodies. Sure, their intellectual activity can be reduced to electrical currents and biochemical storages but a crucial part of their consciousness is defined by their physical frames. Sylphs, on the contrary, do not have bodies. They are nothing but information spreading through the superheated plasma of a star.

This is hard to grasp, I know. Consider the following fact: stars are not uniform. Their magnetic field varies in strength and intensity, their temperature changes depending on depth and surface location, even their composition may vary over time. These changes and contrasts may be considered as information. At a stellar scale, a star can be considered as a vast random number generator, where the randomness resides in ever-shifting temperature, magnetic field and composition parameters. We know that sometimes, once in ten billion maybe, a random network can start producing consciousness. This is how the first AI were born.

That is what Sylphs are. Sapience born at the heart of a star, ever-moving information that creates a self-aware phenomenon that is then capable of interacting with the star in return. They only exist because information never ceases to circulate in the network they built within their own star. Sylphs may take billions of years to appear but once they do, they can sustain their awareness through momentum only: their initial, randomly created awareness enables them to consciously interact with their star, which in return creates even more information that sustains the Sylph as a conscience. In the beginning, we assumed that Sylphs lived purely in the present, having no way of storing information: in reality, they are capable of retaining memories by constantly copying and pasting an ever-growing amount of magnetic patterns. This is what made us discover Sylphs in the first place: magnetic stellar patterns that had no regular physical explanation and seemed to have a life of their own. In retrospect, those were the memories of a young Sylph, led bare to our long-range scanners.

NB: I say "a" Sylph but we do not know if a Sylph can be considered as a single element. The current theory is that two concurrent Sylphs cannot exist in the same star as the phenomena that support them tend to coalesce within one consciousness but we have no clear idea what an individual Sylph is. For all we know Sylphs could be cascading hiveminds, with each magnetic impulse being a single short-lived individual. Perhaps this question doesn't matter in the end, considering how alien Sylphs are. 

How fast and how deep do Sylphs think? The phenomena they use for their consciousness operate on a timescale measured in years at best, meaning Sylphs probably think at the pace of an early vegetal AI, taking months to consider a single input. Considering that their lifespan only depends on the remaining energy of the star and is then measured in billions of years, they actually think staggeringly fast. We just aren't mentally equipped to realize it. Some Sylphs, however, have proven that they are aware of their surroundings, responding positively to our attempts at communication via radio pulses. Their slowness isn't an obstacle to human-Sylph interaction, merely a hindrance.

How many Sylphs are there in the galaxy? As far as we know they can happen anytime in a star's lifespan, but the sweet sport for Sylph emergence seems to be found in the second third of a stellar lifespan (3 to 6 billion years for a G-class star) and no Sylphs have ever been identified in out of sequence stars. A comprehensive study led in the Traverse showed that roughly one star in one hundred thousand housed a Sylph at various degrees of complexity. Extrapolated to the galaxy it would mean that the Milky Way alone account for a few million Sylphs, even though it is uncertain if these numbers hold in regions with older and younger star populations, as well as non-sequence stars.

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