Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Rolling Darwin's Dice"

This poem is spillover from the March 17, 2020 bonus fishbowl. It was inspired by discussions on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal with [personal profile] kengr, [personal profile] curiosity, [personal profile] zeeth_kyrah, [personal profile] siliconshaman, rhodielady_47, and Anonymous. It also fills the "Dice" square in my 3-1-20 card for the Food Fest Bingo. This poem has been sponsored by a pool with [personal profile] fuzzyred, [personal profile] technoshaman, and [personal profile] mama_kestrel. It belongs to the Berettaflies thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes reference to historic and current extinctions, struggling in college, yelling and swearing, spilled food, jail, because Nabal made tiny venomous dinosaurs, complete with graphic descriptions of dino mayhem, and reference to animal fighting in the form of Dino Derby, ethics of reaching out to supervillains, and other challenges. Please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"Rolling Darwin's Dice"

[Monday, January 26, 2015]

On Monday evening, Wayne
went over to Stylet's place so
they could chat about college stuff.

Stylet brought out a snack platter
of diced cheese and meat to share.
It had cheddar and gouda cheeses,
ham and beef, red and green grapes.

One of the nice things about living in
a vacation area was that you could
get all kinds of food delivered there.

Stylet had also brewed a pot of
fruity green tea to keep them alert.

Everything else, they cleared off
the dining room table to make room
for the pile of papers that Stylet had.

"So how is the special project going?"
Wayne asked as he took a seat.

"So far, so good," Stylet said with
a grin. He fanned out the papers,
showing names. "All six participants
turned in their work on time, and
that's a quarter of the class in
Science Fiction for Scientists."

The more advanced students had
gotten so bored that Professor Cuvier
tapped Stylet to do a special project.

Stylet had challenged his classmates
to write about the "Big Five" extinctions,
imagining for each that a different set
of creatures had survived and died out
compared to those in their own world.

Then Professor Robin from Fine Arts
had found out, and arranged a deal
for art students to team up and
illustrate the new timelines.

"These look amazing,"
Wayne said. Some of
the students had scribbled
concept sketches of creatures,
and all of them had included
a tree of life that displayed
their extinctions and survivals.
"They're all so different!"

"That's the thing about
evolution," Stylet said.
"Sometimes it gives
strong reasons for why
things live or die, but in
a lot of them it's just
rolling Darwin's dice."

Wayne laughed. "Yeah,
I saw where you said they
had to justify survival of
things that 'should' have
died out. Have they?"

"I've only read the first so far,
but here, look at what Florent did,"
said Stylet. "In our world, bryozoans
got hammered, but in his, they used
their colonial nature to adapt zooids
with specialized attacks or defenses
in response to the new hazards --
almost like social insects here."

"Like tiny fortresses," Wayne said.
"Wait, is this one moving around?"

"Yeah, several genera colonized
the beaches and one developed
some species that could move
their colony at need," Stylet said.

"So then the conodonts latched onto
the rich food source, sawing into
the colonies with those hellish teeth,"
Wayne said, turning a page. Then
he laughed. "Cryptotaxis bunyanii,
for Paul Bunyan, I presume."

"Yep," Stylet said. "The graptolites
turned into parasites, most riding on
an animal host and scattering larvae
all the way until they killed it. But
one genus used neoteny, with larvae
preying on bivalves -- so effectively
that it wiped out the bivalves, and
their parasites soon followed."

"And these trilobites could breathe
either water or air?" Wayne said.
"That must come in handy in
the anoxic environment then."

"My art students are going
to go nuts over this," Stylet said.
"Once I grade these for how well
they matched the assignment,
they go to Professor Couvier
for scientific accuracy and
literary merit, and the art group
gets a copy for illustration."

"It'll be exciting to see how
that turns out," Wayne said.
"How much are they doing?"

"One larger color picture of
the dominant creature, then
three smaller ones either in
color or in black-and-white
for other important creatures,"
Stylet said. "Like the writers,
the artists can include more
if they want extra-extra credit."

"You said they're paired,
right?" Wayne asked.

"Yeah, each artist got
assigned a certain writer,"
Stylet said. "They can do
other writers too, though,
if they want more credit."

"Who did Florent get?"
Wayne wondered.

"Iridescia," said Stylet.
"She lives up to the name;
she has peacock eyes and hair.
Her minor is biology and she
does gorgeous nature art, so
this will be something to see."

"Sounds like it," Wayne said.
"So how is Callan doing?"

"He's ... struggling," Stylet said.
"I haven't gotten to his paper yet,
but Callan picked up a minor in
Environmental Studies to go with
Bioethics, and I'm afraid that
the science is kicking his ass."

"Not his best subject area, huh?"
Wayne said with sympathy.

"No, but he's determined to find
something other than news to write,"
Stylet said. "I talked him into taking
Science Fiction for Scientists with me,
in hopes he'd have a little fun, but so far
he's still too shellshocked to unwind."

"And he's taking extra credit?"
Wayne said. "That's not helping."

"It might," Stylet said. "Callan thought
it would be good to get as far away from
the present as possible. The Ordovician
is far. I'll just have to see what he did
when I get to his assignment."

"I still think it's a great project,"
Wayne said, helping himself
to more cheese and some grapes.
"If you get people thinking about
extinctions, maybe then they'll care
more about the ones we're causing."

"That's the idea," Stylet said. "Let's see,
the next paper is from Florent's girlfriend --"

Then Stylet's smartphone shrilled a demand.

He answered it, listened briefly, and shrieked,
"WHAT the FUCK were you THINKING?!"

Wayne jolted hard enough to send
his napkinful of cheese cubes flying.

He crawled around picking them up
while Stylet paced around the house,
ranting loudly into his smartphone.

"No!" Stylet snapped. "No, I will not
come bail you out. It sounds like you're
in jail for a damned good reason."

Wayne carried the dusty cheese
out to the porch, where he put it into
the vermicomposting bin, then topped it
with a big scoop of damp sawdust
to keep pests from smelling it.

When Wayne went back inside,
Stylet was still yelling into his phone.

"What if they'd gotten out, huh?"
said Stylet. "What if a hurricane had
knocked down the walls of your lab like
the Spectrum did to mine? Because
I know all about unintended escapes,
Nabal, and they suck for everyone!"

He was so wound up that his hair
was sparking, and that wasn't good.

Of course, somebody making
whatever-it-was that Stylet had
just compared to berettaflies
couldn't be good, either.

Stylet slowly wound down,
muttering at whomever was
on the other end of the phone.

Finally he said, "I'll think about it.
No promises!" and hung up.

Stylet stalked into the bathroom.
Soon Wayne heard water running.

Stylet came out, wiping his hands
on the seat of his pants. "Well,
that's a complete clusterfuck,"
he grumbled as he sat down.

"Do you want to talk about it,
or do you want me to bug off?"
Wayne offered, tilting a hand.

"Don't go," Stylet said quietly.
"I probably shouldn't be alone
right now, but Valor's Widow and
Carissa planned to run errands
all evening so we could work."

"Okay," Wayne said. "I'm listening.
What got you in such a lather?"

Stylet sighed. "This guy I know,
well, used to work with, got himself
arrested for making monsters."

"Not good, but not unfamiliar,"
Wayne said. "Supervillains do that,
and we deal with it. What kind
of monsters did he make?"

"Avian dinosaurs, actually,
though he had to patch a bit
with frog DNA," said Stylet.

"You like prehistoric pets too,"
Wayne said as he pointed at
the juvenile Anomalocaris
swimming in a tank.

"Yeah, I love these guys,"
Stylet admitted. "They're like
sea monkeys for supervillains."

He brought out a carton of baitfish
from the refrigerator and dropped
a few of them into the tank.

The Anomalocaris darted
forward and slashed with
its curved, spiked mouthparts
that reduced the fish to shreds.

Then it swam leisurely around
the tank, sucking up the bits.

"Just how terrifying are we
talking about, here?" Wayne said.

"T-rexes would have run from
these things, if they had existed in
the same timeframe," Stylet said grimly.
"Ever see a grizzly bear chased by
a swarm of pissed-off honeybees?
Only in this case, the bees could
actually eat the goddamn bear."

"Jeeeeezus Christ," Wayne said.
"That's absolutely terrifying."

"Yeah well, that's why they're named
Oculudentavis microdirus," said Stylet.

"Tiny, terrifying eye-tooth bird,"
Wayne translated, then shuddered.
"Stylet, your friends are freaky."

"He's not my friend anymore,"
Stylet said. "Not after this shit."

Then he blanched. "Oh, fuck."

"What's wrong?" Wayne said.
"You do not look very good."

"I think I just realized why
he made these damn things,"
Stylet said. "Dino Derby."

"Dino ... Derby?" Wayne said.
"I know what a derby is, but
what about the dino part?"

"Think dogfighting, but with
dinosaurs," Stylet said, jabbing
at his phone. "Nabal? DO NOT
pit your tiny terrors against a T-rex.
There is no way that ends well."

Wayne had seen pictures of
dinosaurs that people had
whipped up for a cape fight,
plus other prehistoric beasts.

V'you actually had a channel
dedicated to supervillains who
monologued about their "dinosaurs"
that were something else altogether.

Wayne's favorite was the dimetrodon.

Stylet hung up and turned back to Wayne.
"Picture a venomous, candy-colored,
thumb-sized, flying piranha," he said
with a glare. "Imagine it shrieking
'rawr, rawr' at mosquito pitch."

"Venomous?" Wayne said,
his eyes widening in alarm.

"The huge eye sockets contain
tear glands modified to produce
venom full of toxic salts," Stylet said.
"They can shoot it out of their eyes
much like horned toads do. It also
drains into their mouths, where it joins
saliva so strong that it liquefies flesh."

"Why would they need that kind of --
of arsenal?" Wayne wondered.

"They have a long, thin snout that's
great for eating insects but less useful for
anything bigger," Stylet said. "The venom
slows or kills big prey, and the saliva melts
enough tissue for them pull off chunks."

"Yeesh," Wayne said with a shudder.
"That would be an unpleasant surprise."

"They don't hide, though," Stylet said.
"They have warning coloration similar to
several species of poison arrow frogs,
as frog DNA was used to patch holes
in the salvaged dinosaur DNA. Patterns
include hot pink scribbles on black, pink
with blue polka dot limbs, candy stripes,
and even stripes and polka dots."

"So what do they actually look like?"
Wayne asked him. "Got pictures?"

"As if the description isn't bad enough,
check this out," Stylet said. He called up
a file on his smartphone and passed
the device to Wayne. "Scroll to see
the rest of the photographs."

Wayne looked at the pictures.
Then he sighed and shook
his head. "We're gonna need
a new illustration for the poster."

"Ironically, my art students would be
all over that," Stylet said, chuckling.
"I should pass this to Iridescia."

The University of Utah had issued
a whole series of posters about
what the Humanities department
could do for scientists ... illustrated
with famous scientific mistakes.

"If she likes nature art as much
as you say, then she'll probably
get a kick out of it," Wayne said.
"Who knows, Utah might buy it.
Science can teach you how
to make a venomous swarm.
Humanities can teach you
how to divide and conquer."

Stylet typed rapidly on
his phone. "Sent," he said.

"You know," Wayne said slowly,
"You could invite Nabal
to come to Loyola."

"No fucking way,"
Stylet snapped. "Why
should I help him? He
doesn't deserve it."

"Stylet, if someone had
reached out to you sooner,
then we might not have
venomous butterflies
all over Louisiana,"
Wayne said gently.

"Okay, you got me
there," Stylet admitted.

"Besides, Loyola already has
great Bioethics programming, and
they want to provide a way back
for mad scientists," Wayne said.
"I bet they'd jump on the chance."

"They might, but what about
Nabal?" said Stylet. "I'm not
sure he's ready for this." He
sighed. "I wasn't, at that age."

Wayne patted him on the shoulder.
"Yeah, but you are now, and part of that
is because you've had people telling you
that you do deserve to get some help."

"I still don't know what I'd do with
Nabal if I had him here," Stylet said.

"Don't worry about that now,"
Wayne said. "Wait and talk with
Carissa and Valor's Widow when
they come home. They can give
you ideas what to do next -- maybe
reach out to Nabal's support crew,
whatever he's got for one."

"Not a bad idea," Stylet said,
making another note on his phone.

"Okay, that's enough talk about
other people's problems," Wayne said.
"Those papers won't grade themselves,
and I want to talk about the ethics of
extinction and de-extinction."

Stylet looked at the sad remains
of their snack tray, which had been
reduced to a few stray meat cubes and
the skeletons of the grape clusters.

"If we're going to talk about the risks
of rolling Darwin's dice, then I say
this calls for pizza," Stylet declared.
"You want mushroom and spinach,
onions, peppers, and tomatoes,
or the many-meat medley?"

"Get one onion-pepper and
one meat medley," Wayne said.
"I do construction work and
you have superpowers, so
it's not gonna go to waste."

"Especially not with the hellshrimp
looking for another handout,"
Stylet said with a laugh.

Wayne looked at the tank.

The Anomalocaris was
snuffling over the sandy floor
in search of something to eat.

"Yeah, that thing is like
a garbage disposal with fins,"
Wayne said. "It's cute, though."

Stylet ordered the pizza, then
snuggled up beside Wayne.
"I guess sometimes we do
all right with Darwin's dice."

* * *


Of course, once the pizza arrives, Stylet starts singing ...

This poem is long, so its character and content notes appear elsewhere.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, safety, science, science fiction, weblit, writing
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