Soft Ones, The

Soft Ones
Image from Keith Wigdor

I saw something come sliding across the brownish-white ice towards me. At first I couldn't shake away the image of a big water-balloon some child had thrown in my direction; it moved and wobbled in a way that was definitely liquid, and it was somewhat translucent. As it got closer, I saw that it actually consisted of a big central balloon - on which it slid like a terragen penguin on its stomach - surrounded by six pod-like balloons, which it apparently used to speed up its rather slow glide. It didn't seem to notice me until it was very close, and then it slowly glided to a halt and just stood there for a minute. Then, without warning, it began to jump up and down like an insane rubber ball.
   — Rees Mithra Yan, Third Perseus Expedition, Imperial Institute of Xenology



The Soft Ones are, next to the Muuh, the oldest known species encountered by the terragens. Just like the Muuh they are based on a cold biochemistry, something that has likely contributed to the longevity of the species. They were first encountered by Metasoft scouts in 8294, and later both the Solar Dominion and Sophic League have opened contact with them. They live on a number of scattered planets in the counterspinward Perseus Arm, apparently a conservative remnant of a more dynamic species. It is now known that the Soft Ones were infact raised to sentience by the Muuh, derived from a provolved indigenous cold chemistry biota.

Biology and Background

The ancestral Soft Ones evolved on a cold world somewhere in the Perseus Arm, with great oceans of ammonia solved in water. Due to complex interactions between geothermal heating, solar insolation and orbital eccentricity the amount of liquid and solid water vary a great deal giving rise to slowly varying environments and biochemistries. At some times much of the water is frozen, and there are stratified seas of organic brine, at other times all of the hydrosphere is liquid and the concentrations drop.
Life on this planet never developed the cell membrane as on most other worlds, and instead based itself on gels and networks of macromolecules. The counterpart to a cell is a fractally branching ball of "proteins" (instead of amino acids this biochemistry uses various fatty acids) where different active groups control what substances move into and out from the structure. Changes in salt or nutrient concentration or even freezing seldom hurt such networks; most lifeforms on this world can stand being frozen solid for a long time. On the other hand, this form of life has a very slow biochemistry compared to most other lifeforms.

The Soft Ones are descended from hunters who hunted on the huge brine-covered ice plains of their planet when it was coldest. They slid along the slippery surfaces on their smooth bellies, propelled by their pod-like extremities. It is unlikely that they would have developed higher sentience without the assistance of the Muuch. Soft Ones have a central balloon-like body around a meter in diameter, surrounded by six pod-like arms/legs which usually extend at least 80 centimetres. Despite their low and round shapes, they are quite massive; adults often have a mass of more than 1000 kilograms.

A Soft One is covered by a very flexible and resilient skin, which protects its gelatinous interior. It completely lacks any internal or external skeleton, and instead of muscles it has specialized gels linked to the skin which contract and expand. A rip through the skin can be quite deadly, as the gel inside quickly pours out. To counter this, the interior is divided into flexible compartments not unlike the juice compartments of a citrus fruit.

The skin of the pods is more flexible than the rest, and also functions as a kind of simple hands. Soft Ones are able to control their shape by extending or withdrawing parts of the skin so well they can manipulate objects like a rather clumsy human. On the other hand, they can also get as many opposable thumbs they wish if they need them by changing pod shape.

Soft Ones traditionally feed on smaller prey which they silently glide towards, subdue by gliding on top of, and then carefully crush using ice pieces. They then scoop the remains into mouth-orifices located on the undersides of the pods, where the food is digested and the wastes finally expelled as the liquid that helps them to glide. The Soft Ones still enjoy hunting today, although artificial food is commonplace.

Soft Ones see through light-sensitive spots arranged in irregular patterns on the skin of the pods. While individually these spots are not as versatile as eyes, the number of them gives an effect roughly equal to a 360 degree compound eye that is surprisingly light-sensitive (Soft Ones become very uncomfortable in strong light). They have an excellent sense of touch, temperature and vibration located in their bellies and near the ends of their pods; a listening Soft One stands completely still and holds all its pods to the ice beneath. Soft Ones talk by vibrating and jumping to cause ice-vibrations, a sight most humans and other Terragens find quite absurd.

Soft Ones, like practically all higher life forms on their homeworld, reproduce by buds. Due to the loose structure of their cells, genetic material is exchanged between individual Soft Ones or sometimes even with other species by close contact; after being "infected" with genetic material one or more pods will begin to loose its strength and grow secondary pods. After a while these simply drop off as independent, if smaller, Soft Ones. For a while they remain with their parent and are taught the basics, and later are entered into the schools of the community. Teaching is often done by giving them artificial memories and new skills, making childhood very short.

Psychology

Soft Ones have a peculiar gelatinous brain, able to reorganize itself even after some rather severe scrambling (a must for a semi-liquid lifeform). Lower centers are distributed throughout their bodies, often in several copies. Higher parts of the nervous system form diffuse nexi between different organs and "nerves", fibrous parts of the gel which transmit signals using chemicals changing conformation. If hurt or disconnected, the brain will quickly (for a Soft One) develop new connections and links, often restoring practically all information and intelligence. Memories are stored in pockets containing special macromolecules which modern Soft Ones are able to analyze and store, an important ritual in their society.

Their psychology is rather fluid, and individuals often change personalities and preferences over their lifetimes even without outside influence. This is regarded as quite natural, and individuals who don't change are usually seen as disturbed in some way; one common method to help them is simply to scramble their brains somewhat. This is traditionally done by friends, who subject the patient to a rather severe pushing, although today soft medicine has developed drugs which make the liquefaction of the personality less traumatic.

Over their long history the Soft Ones have studied their own psychology to a great extent, and they seems to have understood it to their own satisfaction. They are able to store memories and some skills from dead individuals for posterity, they are able to manipulate their own brains into developing desirable traits using therapy, medication or surgery and they have essentially tried out every reasonable mental pattern and recorded its uses and drawbacks. Important memories, skills and personalities can be stored in chemical form, and inserted if needed. Many Soft Ones have personal libraries of useful mental traits, many based on "classic personalities". To completely change mood or personality depending on situation is quite common for Soft Ones involved in important work, and regarded as completely natural.

Soft Ones are quite slow thinkers like most low-temperature beings and this has shaped their relations to other species to a large extent. Other species are too quick and changeable for their taste; making quick deductions and acting on them without realizing that such rash actions will only entail even more speed. The Soft Ones see the universe as an immense flow, where wise being first carefully observes the patterns and then aligns with them, not the other way around.

Each individual is just a tiny streamline in this whole flow, and important only in relation to the whole. To retain an unchangeable identity is foolish and neurotic, its better to fit in with the flow. They have very little fear of death or loosing their identity, since such events are rather unimportant. If someone thinks a great thought or discover something, it should be shared with everyone else so that it can become part of the flow; the brilliant mind of the discoverer might be worth preserving for future generations, but that is as far as hero worship goes. Most Soft Ones are quite convinced that there is very little to add to the accumulated wisdom of the ages.

History

Unlike the warm-chemistry Terragens and original Black Acropolis builders, which seemed to be in a hurry to provolve any native species they encounter or encountered, the Muuh took their time, raising the Soft Ones to sophonce over many millions of years.

After the first contact, some 30 to 40 million years ago (precise dates and estimates vary), the Soft Ones were developed to presapience. Almost ten million years passed before the Muuh visited again, and raised them to the level of what could be considered (by analogy with terragen prehistory) nomadic packs of hunter/gatherers. These slowly developed one or more technological cultures over a very long time, probably several millions of years. It was during this time that they were again contacted by a Muuh Provolvement ship. The oldest indigenous recorded history dates from this time, 8.3 million years in the past. Following several millions of years of careful supervision and guidance they slowly were accommodated to advanced technology, and finally were able to construct subrelativistic spaceflight (this is the slowest transit from a pre-technological state to spaceflight known, and it seems to have been very smooth and uneventful, possibly due to careful Muuh supervision).

The Soft Ones spread across space in huge multigeneration starships built from enormous cylinders of ice. They made contact with several other xenosophont races, and seems to have gradually explored a large region of the Perseus Arm in their typical slow and methodical way, often using second hand technology, including HIE121CZE, Muuhist, and other. Under the influence of these new experiences the old culture gradually split into different new cultures which gradually began to diverge more and more.

During this period the Soft Ones "terraformed" several planets and seems to have essentially turned them into images of their homeworld. The Soft Ones responsible for this seems to have been a more conservative faction than the others, who experimented with new forms of existence inspired by alien species. The conservatives wanted to live lives according to the flow of the universe, and that would imply living on ammonia-water planets. These conservatives also saw to that all the different worlds they lived on had detailed copies of all the knowledge and history of the species, just to make sure that the mind of the species would be as safe as the mind of the individual.

At the same time several divergent offshoots became important in the interstellar community in various ways. At least one group are known to have undergone complex biological re-design and became some kind of artists-administrators involved with their main benefactor species somewhere in the counterspinward Perseus Arm. It is widely believed this group were responsible for the provolution of the species known as the Auld Limners.

Another group developed into a militant and ambitious empire, eventually causing a break with their previous allies. A third group seems to have left this region of the galaxy in a great exodus some 3.2 million years ago. If Soft One history is to be believed the other xenos they had been in contact with vanished or destroyed themselves a long time ago, for unknown reasons. Terragen xenopaleontologists speculate that they might have encountered the Dawn Hunters, the Amalgamation or some similar advanced threat, or just undergone a collective singularity. Today only the stable planet- dwellers remain, and those in the vicinity have quietly accepted the presence of the terragens.

Relations with Other Species

Although young in relation to their provolvers the Muuh, the Soft Ones are ancient in relation to any Terragen clade, or indeed any other known xenosphont civilization. Their old age and inscrutability have lent them an air of wisdom among many of the younger species, and especially the Sophic League considers them to be highly spiritual. Metasoft respects their autonomy but has little interest in the "slow ammonia bags", instead concentrating on shipping diplomats, scholars and tourists to their world. The Solar Dominion is actively trying to discover what they know about the Amalgamation, and have relocated a number of mobile research institutes to the Soft One worlds.

The Soft Ones on the other hand eagerly buy information. They see themselves as the archivists and historians of the coalition with the terragens, recording all important information in their great libraries. These underground constructs filled with ion-recorded metal needles and computer archives record history at least 5 million years back, describing several species now thought to be extinct and describing several remote regions of space. They are the best source of information about the Perseus Arm and some xenosophonts further out, including their many philosophies and sciences. Many scholars want to explore these treasures of knowledge, but dealing with the slow and often unpredictable Soft Ones requires a great deal of patience.

Most worlds dominated by the Soft Ones have a single spaceport where visitors live. There are no real limitations of where visitors may move on planet, but there are few provisions made for tourism or exploration by aliens. Most aliens find the Soft Ones hard to deal with.

Society

Today the Soft Ones have an old and very static culture. They have explored their own minds to the limit (which in itself is no mean feat, no other species has ever succeeded), studied many other species and experienced a longer recorded history than anybody else. Their culture has not changed in structure or character for at least four million years, despite the upheavals in the galaxy around them.

Soft Ones live in communities of around 500 individuals forming small towns of peculiarly twisted buildings (not unlike earthly seashells, connected by a network of sloping ramps and glideries). Each town is run by a council of a few Soft Ones who have proven their merit in some way, but usually the rather rigid society runs itself according to custom. Each town is independent from all other towns. To a human it would give the impression of a conservative hamlet, where everybody knows everybody and everything is done as it always has.

On a planetary scale the towns keep in touch using a rugged communications network, but most of the time they do not interact much. The only exception is the irregular pilgrimages, where the inhabitants begin to move from place to place. At first just a few individuals move from one town to another, driven by a need for change. This makes other individuals begin to move, and gradually millions of people shift from one city to another, reforming society. After a while everything returns to normal.
If necessary the various towns coordinate their actions into a planetary "town meeting". This is very rare, and has seldom occurred after the War. This town meeting is the only one able to authorize the use of weapons or violence. The Soft Ones have a simple but stable society and do not want to change it.

Culture

The libraries have an important function among Soft Ones. They store all kinds of information, and especially the mental macromolecules used to change personality and memories. In immense arrays capsules containing famous personalities, important emotions or great insights are stored. Through a nanotechnological process these capsules can be replicated, and used to change an individual. This has developed into a kind of art among the Soft Ones, where psychologists and artists try to create new mental states that are recorded (but many feel this art has long since passed its apex, today most interesting states have been discovered). Memories are often enjoyed, and a Soft One that has experienced something interesting is often recorded.

Beside mental arts, the Soft Ones are meticulous in storing and recording everything due to their own imperfect memories. This in turn have forced them to develop elaborate indexing schemes to deal with archives several million years old. Studying and dealing with old archives is a popular pastime, and sometimes interesting discoveries are done. Especially popular are attempts to find correlated or beautiful patterns in ancient and new information, showing the patterns of the flow.

Technology

The Soft Ones left today have never been fond of technology, unlike like most other species with interstellar capabilities. The civilization that reached the stars was technophilic, but even with Muuh help it still took millennia to develop even simple machines. The conservatives who terraformed new planets simply regarded it as planet-forming as a tool to use and then put away, and today most Soft Ones agree. Technological or scientific development among the Soft Ones has been practically zero for a long time.

The technological level of an ordinary town is amazingly low; roughly on the level of early Industrial Age Old Earth. People glide along the streets, large transports are moved on sleds drawn by animals (flat, flounder-like beings) and buildings are sparsely lit by electric lamps. This doesn't mean the Soft Ones are technologically underdeveloped, but just that they don't use advanced technology very much. In the libraries and town centers powerful computers are placed, medical personnel have access to nanotechnology and records with detailed descriptions of advanced science are easily available. Less obvious are the hidden bases where weapons and starships are stowed away.

Most of the technology owned by the Soft Ones is based on the designs of other species; the result of aeons of trading, observation and sometimes downright theft. If they would one day choose to apply all their knowledge, they could easily become a very technologically advanced species, but they have chosen not to develop it in order to follow the flow.

The Epp

Only one Soft One culture has changed significantly in response to contact with the Terragen Sphere; this culture, which has adopted the name 'Epp' in human speech, is a cultural hybrid incorporating many aspects of low temperature Human tweak politics, philosophy and behaviour. Much more volatile than other Soft Ones Cultures, this grouping has been involved in a number of extreme incidents within the neighbouring volume of the sephirotic Perseus Princes, culminating in the Epp War.

 
Articles
  • First Contact  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Strategies and policies for contact with alien life forms (xenobiota) and Xenosophonts (intelligent alien life).
  • Pluton Volume, The (and the Epp War)  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Wealthy region in the Perseus Arm, with a large xenosophont population; site of the conflict between the Epp and their Methanoid allies, and the Perseus Princes (with the aid of the System of Response).
  • Xenobiont  - Text by M. Alan Kazlev
    Generic term for alien (non-terragen) lifeform. May be animal-like, plant-like, protistan, exotic chemistry, or any other possibility. Does not have to be sophont. In fact just as on Earth, very few alien species ever evolve any measure of cognitive intelligence.
 
Related Topics
 
Development Notes
Text by Anders Sandberg with additions by M. Alan Kazlev and Steve Bowers

Initially published on 21 February 2001.