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"The Goldilocks Principle" by Sharni Wilson



An infant's preference to attend to events that are neither too simple nor too complex according to their current representation of the world(1)


Talia watched the planet’s surface roll by, searching for clues under the cloud cover. She spotted some unusual red cloud formations, underlit with a darker green hue that reminded her of pohutukawa trees, and she couldn’t stop looking at them. Pohutukawa bloomed at Christmas time in New Zealand—Christmas meant summer rain, mud everywhere, beaches, slathering on sunblock, the inevitable family tensions spilling over into squabbles.

Dan hadn’t emerged yet, even though his alarm would have sounded at the same time hers did, more than an hour ago. Bloody Dan.

Maybe this planet was just right for the colonization project: the most ambitious the S’rocket Lab had ever embarked on. All the drones sent out to gather audiovisuals and samples had confirmed the findings of liquid water, breathable atmosphere, and no sentient life. Nothing found moving, crawling or flying—no heat sigs identified as showing animal characteristics. It was a planet of vegetation, a surprising amount of which tested fit for human consumption: perhaps because there’d been no animal life to munch on the plants, the plants hadn’t needed to evolve the kind of defence mechanisms favoured by plants on Earth.

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(1)Kidd, Celeste; Piantadosi, Steven T.; Aslin, Richard N. (23 May 2012). "The Goldilocks Effect: Human Infants Allocate Attention to Visual Sequences That Are Neither Too Simple Nor Too Complex"

Defence mechanisms… Talia sighed. She didn’t really “get” Dan, even though they’d been through basic training together. He wasn’t bad-looking at all, but any attempt at conversation was like pulling teeth. When she’d seen the flight roster for this round, she’d rolled her eyes, knowing she probably wouldn’t be getting laid for the duration. And the outrigger ships were big, but they weren’t that big. Her finger beat a restless staccato on the porthole.

Anyway, they were finally here, orbiting the first of the prospective worlds in the solar system they’d been assigned to review. Even with the outrigger’s brand-new slipstream drive it was a long way from the main galaxy hub station.

Maybe this was the one. If it was, she’d get her cut of the rich bounty for such worlds, and the settlers might even name a mountain range or a continent after her. But in the unlikely event that there was any form of indigenous sentient life, they’d beat a hasty retreat, as Ethics required, and send in the diplomats instead.

‘Keen to get down there?’

Her head jerked in surprise at the loud interruption. Dan pushed himself off the wall to join her at the porthole. She noticed his chin was freshly shaved.

‘It’s been so long since we were on land.’ She grinned, although as usual he was avoiding eye contact. ‘Not sure I remember what that feels like.’

‘It’ll feel different down there, in point eight grav,’ he pointed out. ‘Lighter than old Earth.’

You’re oddly chatty this morning, she thought, and gave a slight sniff, but couldn’t detect the presence of fresh alcohol molecules. ‘You worried about it?’ she prodded.

He grunted, and they gazed down at the curve of Gliese 581c’s atmosphere, sharing a familiar silence. She couldn’t decide whether he was a natural loner, a natural arsehole, or simply didn’t like her. Either way, there was zero camaraderie.

‘Yeah, nah.’ She stretched her arms out over her head, fingertips brushing the wall, and caught Dan’s side eye. ‘Let’s go.’

There was no need to filter the atmosphere for breathability, but as a precaution they put on their full-body suits with rudimentary personal fields.

Penetrating the atmosphere in the new anti-grav capsule was a much more soothing experience than the old pods had been. Talia buzzed with exhilaration as the gravity began to kick in within the unit: they had plenty of time to look around like gawking tourists at the sweeping red vistas under the clouds. There was the mountain, which dominated their planned landing spot. There was the foamy edge of the sea, with kelpy strands washing around in it. Dan looked even blanker than usual as he stared out the window. Talia wished she had someone to share the moment with.

The AI brought them in to land with an almost imperceptible bump on the irregular surface of the rocks at the foot of the mountain. Under the capsule the rocks shifted; there was a single loud cracking sound, and then silence.

Dan pressed the hatch button without waiting for her re-check and go-ahead as per protocol. Plonker. They were on edge, but that was exactly when it was important to stick to what they knew. Not that she’d report him for such a piddling infraction.

The hatch hissed open, and the wind howled in. With the wind came a surreal, irrational feeling of danger. It was like Makara Beach on the southwest coast of the North Island, how the wind blasted you away, rocks and scree, and the wildness. This was a big planet, she reminded herself, and atmospheric conditions were liable to change. Red dust seemed to fling itself at them from every direction. In her mouth was a taste like acrid lemon. Funny, the drones hadn’t picked up any ambient lemon flavour... She mentally shrugged. There was only so much testing they could do.

Their sensors continued to feedback the readings they’d been expecting: all levels normal, nothing flagged. Talia swivelled slowly, trying to tally up what she was seeing with the info dumps from the drones. Rocks, vegetation, and more rocks, interspersed with areas of fine red dust. The long vistas were blocked out by dust floating and hanging in the air, but out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of something moving. Something tiny and gleaming, like a little Christmas tree bauble—when she turned to look at it more closely, it was gone. Her anxiety kicked up another couple of notches.

Dan was striding away up the slope of scree towards the mountain.

‘Hey!’ she shouted.

He didn’t turn or give any sign he’d heard. Swearing under her breath, she scrambled after him. Her feeling of dread was worse than ever. Get out, get out fast, get out now, it told her.

‘Tali, look at that.’ He pointed to a large rock, which didn’t look much different to the others.

‘What am I looking at?’

‘See that stuff under there? It’s one of the food sources the drones found. I’m gonna try some.’

‘Not till we check…’

Dan was already scooping up some of the mossy substance from under the rock in his gloved hand. ‘Come on. The risk is negligible. My personal AI just all but confirmed it.’

Talia watched with disbelief as he opened his mouth piece, put it in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed, grinning. He’s a fricking loose cannon, she thought.

‘Think about it: I’m the first guy to ever—’ He staggered, clutching her arm and grasping his throat.

‘You all right?’ Idiot. She groped for her medsac.

He straightened up, grinning even wider. ‘Relax. Just messin’ with ya.’

Picked a fine time to grow a personality. ‘Dan, this isn’t the time’—and that was when she saw it—a small beaky figure, darting along the rocks, with a blaze of red and white on its tiny head. ‘Dan, what the hell is that?’

‘What?’ He looked blank again, and turned in a slow circle.

It was gone. Talia fought down rising paranoia. ‘Dan, I’m getting the feeling—’ She stopped herself. ‘Does your mouth taste like lemon?’

‘All I can taste now is that kack I just ate. Why?’

There it was again, scuttling along the rocks. ‘Kiwi Santa!’ she shouted. Dan swivelled towards it and managed to trip over his own feet, but it vanished in an instant.

‘What the actual fuck,’ Dan said slowly, as he got up and brushed himself off. It had been unmistakable: a kiwi bird in a Santa hat. ‘You saw that too?’

‘Let’s not jump to conclusions,’ Talia said. Had Dan seen exactly what she’d seen? Obviously, it wasn’t a native bird. Could some environmental factor be the cause of a hallucination, which she had then suggested to Dan? Was this the defensive mechanism of a previously undetected species, one that the drones hadn’t picked up? Dread rippled through her belly again. ‘Dan, I really think we should get outta here.’ What am I saying? They’d come so far, they weren’t about to run off at the first sign of trouble, not without running all the diagnostics. They had to make a full report.

Without warning, the flying motes of dust seemed to brake, stutter and hang in the air motionless, as Talia’s perception of time changed dramatically. She was immediately attentive, passive, expectant. She met Dan’s eyes, and for the first time she grasped the crushing weight of his insecurity, which directed most of his actions—he was exhausted from trying to show the world the man he should be, full of confidence, brave, smart, strong, which meant hiding anything that didn’t fit that picture, and under that lay anger that she hadn’t appreciated his efforts—but that didn’t matter. The important thing was… What was it? In pliant wonder, she reached out for any threads of sense, as the meaning she made of her life was stripped away from her like a well-worn T-shirt. Actually, the most important thing was… Was…

She knew then, that it was Christmas morning.

Christmas morning in Wellington. Fairy lights on a well-worn plastic tree. Waking up early to find a pillowcase down the end of the bed stuffed with presents. Fights and inevitable tears as the kids raced around, high on sugar. In the familiar scene, she now sensed an unseen force standing by, watching as a parent would, with something like an indulgent shrug.

I wanted a bike, she pleaded with the force. A pink one, with pedals, a bell and a basket on the front. The force followed that thought down a rabbit hole, from her early aptitude for bike-fixing and then mods, to her years of engineering training, and then in excruciating detail through the plans of the capsule and the outrigger ship she knew so well. The slipstream drive. Helpless, she looked at Dan and saw his blink reflex stretch out to infinity.

Then as the dust zoomed back into an indistinguishable blur, she felt a jolt of agony through her skull and staggered, bracing herself hands on knees.

The dread hit with renewed ferocity. It was so awful and visceral that she cringed with her whole body. Her dad was so angry; he’d pushed her out the front door and locked it. Locked all the doors, closed all the windows, but she could still hear her mum screaming “Christmas is cancelled!” from inside. Get away. Run.

Talia grabbed Dan’s arm, pulling him and then shoving his unresisting form down the slope. She skidded down the scree after him, past caring about details. They jostled each other at the door in their mad rush, and as the hatch whipped closed and the capsule began to lift, she could breathe again. Was this something too complex to comprehend—something their minds couldn’t handle in its raw state?

It had to be some kind of sentience. Sentience, or an improbable mass hallucination induced by some unknown environmental factor, or both. It seemed safe to assume that they could write this world off and move on to the next. She licked her lips and tasted lemon. She’d do a full analysis, including toxicology.

‘Merry Christmas, Tali,’ Dan mumbled, very close to her ear, and she realized he was cuddling her from behind.

Talia waited at least a full minute, feeling oddly comforted, before she pushed him away and gave him a light punch in the arm.



Sharni Wilson is an Aotearoa New Zealand writer and a literary translator from the Japanese. Her work has appeared on the Reading Room and Ash Tales, among others. She can be found at sharniwilson.com.

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