Building the world of The Juggernaut — Part 1

The Juggernaut is a story of first contact between humans and aliens that doesn’t go too well at all. It is also a fairly hard-science giant ‘monster’ story. Readers should be warned that this occurs in modern times, with a little bit of human and alien sex (with more detail in the latter scenes than in the former) and a whole lot of human deaths — on a scale never before seen in human history. I’ve tried not to be too gory about it all, but there may still be some emotional impact, especially as some well-known locations around the world are destroyed in some detail. Some current real-world celebrities die, though quickly and painlessly, partly in order to clear the field for my own, entirely fictional, characters. Anyone considering reading further chapters of the story should keep this in mind when making their decision.

The Aliens

The aliens in this story, which I call the Monopticons, are a species that I designed quite a few years back, and adapted a little to the needs of this story. I believe that the biological characteristics of a sentient being strongly colour its psychology, and that the more that I know about a species’ biology, evolution and native environment, the better I can predict its members behaviour in any situation without unconsciously applying human defaults which reduce the believability of the species as an alien one.

The Monopticons’ name (derived from the Latin for ‘one eye’) is in fact a bit of a misnomer. On first glance, to a human, they would appear to have a single eye, a black-seeming crystal sphere on an extensible neck, with six vesica-shaped — like two parentheses joined together: () or the — ears beneath it that can also flip up to protect and clean the eye. However, the ‘eye’ itself is actually a compound eye, though each eyelet represents not a single pixel, but a complete eye in itself, and the combination of all those eyes results in what is effectively a 360-degree lightfield camera, like a more sophisticated, evolved version of the Lytro Immerge that also looks upwards, giving them a holographic sense of their whole environment, always in focus at any range, though with a lower angular resolution than human eyes. However, the Monopticons also have other eyes — their feeding head, also on an extensible neck, has four mandibles, with an eye at each of the four corners of the mouth. These eyes are each similar to the eyelets in the larger eye that is the sensory head, though with a slightly higher angular resolution to that of human eyes, and the combination of the four eyes provides depth perception that is similar to that of the sensory head, though only over a relatively narrow field of view. Hence, when a Monopticon sees something of interest, it gets a better look by extending its feeding head and pointing that at the object of interest.

The Monopticons are omnivores, and chew soft or fibrous foods between differing parts of their four mandibles, communicate by signalling using changes in colour and luminosity of their skin and occasionally by clattering the digits of the hooves on one of their six limbs together or on another surface where the person to whom they want to speak is behind an optical obstruction. Hoof-clattering is actually a whole subset of their language, but is both much slower and much less expressive, a bit like Morse Code is to humans, and in chapter 1, is used simply as an “I’m here” announcement and a “Come in” response, or a “Hey, pay attention to me!” exclamation, and not to the degree to which it is actually capable, since the far more expressive visual channel is always available here. The natural colour of their skin is white, but since they have a circulatory pigment based on cobalt, which is pale green when oxygenated and yellow-amber when deoxygenated, it is tinted a yellow-green colour rather than our own skin’s reddish tint. This cobalt-based oxygen carrier has a lower Oxygen carrying capacity than iron-based pigments, but by pumping their blood through their bodies faster, this is easily compensated for.

I mentioned that the Monopticons had slender limbs. They come from a pretty earth-like world, a bit larger and a little less dense, though with a lower percentage of the surface covered in water, and most of their homeworld’s land area is contiguous, as opposed to most of earth’s sea area being contiguous. Given that their gravity is fairly similar to our own, just a couple of percent lower, and that their muscles are only a little stronger than ours per unit volume, the slenderness of their limbs is achieved through the fact that their muscles both push and pull, while our muscles can only pull with any effectiveness. In effect, they need only half the muscle mass that we do. ‘How do their muscles work?’ you might ask. Consider the hydraulic pistons on an excavator — since they’re rigid, the position of the piston in the cylinder determines the angle at which the joint is flexed. Monopticon muscles aren’t actually hydraulic, they’re fairly similar to our own, with bunches of nanoscopic fibres that slide back and forth with respect to one-another, moved along by nanoscopic structures which bind one set of fibres to the other and then flex, pulling the fibres past one another in one of the two possible directions, depending upon which of the two possible biochemical signals they receive. However, since the bundles of fibres are tightly bound to one-another, and are rigid, more like wood than our flesh, pushing is as effective as pulling.

Not mentioned in the story so far is the fact that the Monopticons’ world is actually a large moon of a super-jovian planet (almost a brown dwarf) that orbits in the liquid water zone of a K0IV orange sub-giant star with a luminosity twice that of our sun. The system is actually a distant binary, with a F6V bluish-white main-sequence star at 20 AU distance. It has a luminosity of six times that of our sun, but given its distance, only contributes 2% to the illumination of the Monopticons’ world. The Monopticons’ homeworld has no natural satellites of its own, but there are three other sister moons of sufficient size to be readily observed that orbit inside and outside the orbit of the Monopticons’ homeworld around its superjovian primary. All this obvious, non-geocentric astronomical activity has given the Monopticons plenty of excuse to go into space to take a look — and then venture further afield.

The Monopticons are hermaphrodites, each individual being both male and female. The male gonads are located in the core of the Monopticons’ long prehensile tongues, and the female gonads are deep within the graphene mesoshell, adjacent to the reproductive tract. Ovulation is not automatic, occurring only when environmental conditions are suitable and the Monopticon is sufficiently relaxed. Upon fertilisation, which is not a certainty even if insemination occurs while the ovum is viable, the zygote develops into a seed, with leaves and a root. To this point, the maternal energy investment is quite low, and the paternal energy investment is negligible.

If the “seed” is planted, it grows into a small tree with a large underground tuber, within which one to six infant Monopticons develop, eventually emerging as the tuber extends above the ground surface. The infant Monopticon’s first meal is the flesh of their tree, but even if for some reason the tree is not devoured, it dies nevertheless.

The cycle of tree -> Monopticon -> tree is a diploid -> haploid -> diploid cycle. The sessile diploid trees were originally the dominant form within the cycle, producing motile multi-cellular haploid gametes which would go forth and find another gamete with which to produce a new diploid tree. The motile gametes proved to be more successful than the trees that produced them, and came to dominate the species life cycle, the trees devolving from perennials to annuals. The fact that Monopticons are haploid also gives them a lower tolerance to ionising radiation, since each cell has only one copy of its genetic material (similar to DNA, but not using the bases we are familiar with), and any damage results in a total loss of the gene, whilst in a diploid or higher-ploidy organism, the extra copy or copies of each gene acts as a reserve against genetic damage.

Since Monopticons’ parental energy investment in reproduction is so low, since they are hermaphrodites and each partner in an act of copulation has an equivalent probability of conception, and since conception can only occur when environmental conditions are favourable and even then is not a certainty, the act of copulation does not have the same significance that it does for humans. Monopticons are like bonobos in this regard, and copulation is about as significant as a kiss is for humans — and there are human societies for whom kissing is a common form of greeting. Since, for Monopticons, copulation is an act equivalent to a semi-formal greeting, it can be expected to occur whenever any two Monopticons meet after a separation of more than a few hours, and at least once per day even when no separation occurs. This also has implications for the transmission of disease. Diseases pass through Monopticon populations quite quickly, and due to the relative ease of transmission, tend not to become as aggressive and harmful as some human STIs in populations where the levels of promiscuity is relatively low.

Monopticons’ predecessor species were r-strategists, producing lots of offspring, most of which would die before reproducing, and having a short lifecycle. However, as the species became more intelligent, they shifted to a K-strategy, with fewer offspring and longer lives. Monopticon maternal parents began tending and defending the trees which arose from the seeds they planted, and the trees produced fewer but more-developed offspring.

Monopticons currently practise birth control by simply recycling the seeds they bear. Since each requires relatively little energy investment, it is not nearly as traumatic to them as abortion is to a human woman, though since the urge to plant and tend their seeds does still exist, some are allowed to be planted on the starship so as to preserve the mental health of the crew.

Once the infant Monopticons are born from their parental tree, they are capable of independent survival immediately. If they bond with another Monopticon, usually their biological parent, but potentially another, unrelated Monopticon, their chance of surviving to adulthood is far greater than if they are left to fend for themselves.

The Starship

For the alien starship, the only thing that would work story-wise was an Alcubierre drive. The story would still work without it, but since I want the adolescent Monopticons to see the results of their misdeeds while they’re still fresh, and for… other reasons…, a supralight starship, not a sublight sleeper or generation ship would be necessary. An Alcubierre drive is the closest we’re going to get to something that will really work other than perhaps travel via wormhole, but a wormhole has its own impracticalities. This ship is still a sort of generation ship, since it is on an extended mission of exploration, and the crew are allowed to reproduce in order to provide a sense of biological continuity and their offspring are trained to become crew members, and their mission has taken place over quite a long period of time before this point, over twenty of their years. However, while I haven’t said so in the story so far, they’ll be headed straight back home to share the news about the first sentient alien species they’ve encountered and decide what to do about it as an entire species.

For the Monopticons, faster-than-light travel is a recent development, only a little more recent than the availability of general-purpose and military nanotechnology. Since the nature of their optics means that creating artificial images is far harder for them than it has been for us, it is natural that they would expect that any realistic-seeming image was in fact recorded from reality (as it must be for them) and not generated artificially. This made the misunderstanding about the nature of the movies that the adolescents saw almost inevitable, and without more patience than their younger offspring, the adult Monopticons may well have fallen into the same error before they saw a “making of” documentary for another movie.

The warpship is — or at least was — at the Monopticons’ state of the art when it departed their homeworld. Since they are no less immune than we are to the ‘look what we can do’ school of user-interface design, most of the user interfaces we see here use (by our current standards) crude CGI ‘talking’ UIs, rather than a flat, static, ‘written’ UI. These UIs are actually less efficient than a simpler display of written symbols — since ‘spoken’ language is dynamic and has speed constraints imposed by the reaction time of their illuminophores and chromatophores, whereas writing is static once written, and can convey its message as quickly as it can be seen and interpreted by the viewer’s brain — but it has the advantage that they are accessible to the illiterate. Since it was expected that the crew would be reproducing on-board to at least a minimal degree, such UIs are acceptable since they are accessible to the crew’s young, talking, but not-yet-literate offspring, and can be used to provide more basic education than text allows. However, by this time, the adolescents we see are almost fully as literate as any adult, but they haven’t yet realised that (since they have never seen anything else) the UIs they have seen are less efficient than a flat text UI. The adults have, however. Once they got over the thrill of using the new technology a couple of years into their voyage, they realised that these talking UIs are slower, consume more resources and are more prone to error and breakdown than a text-based UI. The ship will probably be a bit different before it departs on its next mission…

The Automaton

This was a bit harder, since I’m a biologist by my education, and a computer programmer as a hobby-become-career. To figure this one out, I enlisted the help of the Stack Exchange network, not just Worldbuilding, but other sites too. I started with How large a bioengineered mobile lifeform could exist on Earth?, and from there, based on Karmic Slingshot’s answer, concluded that getting rid of limbs altogether might be best — and to consider atomic power. It wasn’t a long step to go from there to ‘snake’ and then ‘hoop snake’ or ‘ouroboros’. How big could it get, I wondered, and asked on Engineering Stack Exchange, How to calculate the maximum size of a torus constructed in a given material. Having not settled on construction materials, though having some pretty strong metals in mind, the answer seemed to be ‘pretty darned big’. To settle that question, I asked on Worldbuilding about Materials for a nanofabricated giant monster. I didn’t get many answers — I should have tagged it [science-based] rather than [hard-science] now I think about it — and the answers didn’t really give me good answers directly, but possiblySerious’s answer, JordiVilaplana’s comment about Tungsten alloys, and even Nathan’s now self-deleted answer about tank armour got me thinking in the right direction. Googling got me to Wikipedia’s Newton’s approximation of impact depth, and from there it became apparent that the densest armour possible would be best. I'd have liked an Osmium-Iridium alloy, those being the two densest elements on the periodic table, but it didn’t appear that the world has enough of those two metals for the vast quantities that the Snakebot of Doom would require, at least not available on — or under — Antarctica. An Uranium-Tungsten based alloy seemed more available, and of course since Uranium 235 is fissile, the nanites would have to stick to U-238, aka depleted Uranium. Since Uranium is pyrophoric in air when finely divided, I stuck on a hard boron-carbide coating, already in use in modern tank armour, and — as a bonus for the environmentally-conscious alien adolescents — it is also a neutron absorber, consuming many of the neutrons released from the snakebot’s six fusion reactors and the Uranium in its armour.

So, with that in mind, I asked on Worldbuilding about Weapons for a civilisation-destroying giant robot, and from the answers I got, settled on providing it with a variety of railguns. Considering that while the human movies the adolescent Monopticons saw were entertainment, they completely misunderstood them to be documentaries, and were taking the business of arming their creation quite seriously, which eliminates the possibility of any weapon that is extremely powerful, but only effective at short range, other than the fact that this thing can just roll over things to destroy them.

Considering that the snakebot of doom would be built beneath the Antarctic ice-cap, and would involve a lot of waste heat, I asked on Worldbuilding about Detection and response to building a giant robot under the Antarctic ice-cap. The answers I got were that discovering it was unlikely in the ten years I projected it would take to build, and any response would likely be too little too late.

By this time, I was thinking about how the plot might run, and so asked on Worldbuilding about Defeating the Snakebot of Doom. The answer I got from March Ho surprised me, but given that I was planning a fairly hard-science story, I couldn’t just ignore it: the snakebot I (and the adolescent Monopticons by extension) had designed was so big, heavy and dense that it would sink into the bedrock like a big lead sinker placed on top of a bowlful of jelly. Obviously I hadn’t done my homework properly, and while I’ve considered ground pressure for other projects, I had forgotten to do so here. I made up a quick Excel workbook and put in the formulas, then played with the numbers until I got something that would make sense. I had to trim down the ridiculous hundred-metre-thick armour to a ‘mere’ fourteen metres (though that’s still quite enough for most purposes when you’re talking about W-U alloy), slim the thing down and changed the maraging steel core to a light but strong magnesium alloy with a density lower than water. The ground pressures I came up with were still quite high, but given that the thing’s whole purpose is to flatten human buildings, including underground installations, a high ground pressure is good, and its size and strength is such that even on the softest ground it’s just going to sink until it hits bedrock and then effectively ‘swim’ to firmer ground.

So, with the newly designed automaton, I asked on Worldbuilding about Defeating the revised Snakebot of Doom. I didn’t really like some of the answers I got, even some of the more popular ones, like the one that suggested dropping liquid oxygen on the SoD, since the thing would be sealed tight, and you’d have to blast enough of the armour off to even expose the flammable internals, by which time you’d have defeated it anyway if you could manage that. There were other impractically anachronistic answers that would only work at some time in the future, and the bulk of this story is set in 2017. The suggestions about nuclear mines wasn’t too bad except that the snakebot’s spies would see them, so kiss that idea goodbye. Lots of respondents seemed to instinctively and mistakenly assume that big=stupid. Given what I had specified, an acceptable answer came to me, and I posted it as an answer to my own question (it didn’t get too many upvotes, answers to one’s own questions on Stack Exchange sites tend not to for some reason), but if my readers don’t want to spoil the surprise, perhaps waiting until the end of the story before looking at my questions might be advisable.

Following on from that, to plan the Snakebot of Doom’s actions, I asked Worldbuilding about Sorting and categorising the world’s militaries. The second most popular answer was the only one that really answered my question, other respondents got seriously side-tracked in their answers. I also asked straight out on Worldbuilding about how the SoD might go about Reducing human military capability. Once more, the answers offered didn’t really answer the question, but they did provide some interesting points for me to consider. The strategy I finally came up with arose from phone conversations I had with a friend while on my hour-long drive home from work over several nights. I won’t discuss that here though, so my readers will need to read the story.