A race of water dwellers with some elements of advanced culture

Image from Steve Bowers

The Pipers are an aquatic xenosophont life-form found on Scunatra II, a bathypelagic world beyond the Aquila Rift, 3101 ly from Sol, discovered by Keterist explorers in 8091 AT.

A Piper's bodyplan can be compared to a rounded barrel with vertical ribs, somewhat reminiscent of agave cactus. They are between 90 and 120 centimetres tall for the females and 150 and 210 centimetres for the males. The Pipers have no optical sense, instead relying on active and passive sonar for their primary awareness with a strong 'olfactory' sense backing it up. Their sense of touch on their main bodies is quite poor, however. They have tentacles that are 150% of their body length which come in even numbers from 6 to 10, depending on heritage. These tentacles are quite sensitive and flexible, but relatively weak, each being capable of lifting approximately 4.5 kilograms at most but able to maintain a grip against 45-70 kilograms of force (proportionately more for the males).

Pipers have a hard, chitin-like shell for most of their lives. All Pipers molt periodically as they grow until they reach their mature size, and this is one of the primary danger-times for immature Pipers as their stinger-cells (described below) are also disabled by nature in this time. Females continue to molt approximately once per their home-planet's year, based on when they first became fully mature. It is not uncommon that elderly females are unable to regrow their chitin in the full density and/or coverage that younger females and males are capable of.

Pipers have pneumatocysts covering their main bodies, much like the 'stinging cells' that exist on terran jellyfish's tentacles. These pneumatocysts inject a strong inflammatory and carcinogenic agent in the target. As these pneumatocysts are unable to pierce Piper chitin, the Pipers themselves are mostly immune to the effects. A sting in a tentacle is quite painful, however, but not life threatening. (Obviously, Pipers don't hug.)

To achieve locomotion, Pipers use a jet effect much like jellyfish or squid. They are capable of maintaining a pace of two kilometres per hour effectively indefinitely, assuming sufficient passing feedstock. Males have flexible chitin mouth parts which are capable of significant flexibility and strength. They are able to severely bruise a human arm thrust into the opening, if not break major bones, and would be able to prevent all but the strongest unaugmented humans from removing their arms from such a grip. Females have the same mouth parts, but have additional struts of flexible gristle-like flesh crossing the opening just inside. These are effectively additional vocal chords, capable of producing a wide array of sounds including deep, tremulous piping notes that can be heard for tens of kilometres through the hulls of survey craft. These sounds are the origin of the Piper's common name.

There is an extreme sexual dimorphism between the males and females of the species. The body plan is very similar between the two, except for the males being significantly larger. However, the males are sub-sentient, approximating the intelligence of a slow chimpanzee or genius canine. The females are fully sentient, if quite alien in perspective from a human viewpoint.

Piper society is arranged in 'clutches', consisting of one female and 7 males on average. Clutches cannot have two females, but the number of males may be as high as 10, or no males at all due to injury, death, etc. Each clutch is birthed from one female, and instinctively cluster together, males defending the female. Immature clutches are fully formed, if between 6 inches and one foot tall. The females at this size are roughly as intelligent as their males. As they grow (which occurs over a period of approximately 10 local years, or 15.76 terran standard years) the females' intellect grows proportional to their size.

Females choose their names semi-instinctively when they achieve self-sentience. They choose a chord structure which they haven't heard very much of as their name. Due to their very flexible vocal capabilities (from 5 to 75,000 hertz, from 1 to 100 decibels at full growth, several dozen notes available simultaneously due to number of gristle 'reeds' and harmonics), they choose a full chord. Each male will instinctively choose a single note of that chord as their 'name', even if only their cohorts and their female will ever address them directly. The female takes the dominant 'root' note of the chord as her name inside the clutch.

Thus, a given clutch may respond to the 'name' of "G flat minor 7th supra A sharp". In this clutch, the female would be addressed by the males as G flat, and each male being addressed by each other and the female via the other notes of the chord.

Piper language requires sophisticated sonic synthesizers to replicate - there is no way any other known single sophont race can directly reproduce the language. There is specific meaning based on the tonal separation of each note, as well as emotional overtones available based on the note that the chord is based off of. Vibrato and length of tone are used as additional emphasis on the various 'words'. Note that each word is a full chord structure. In a literal translation, most Piper names are uncommon words in the language, as the females choose chord structures which are not commonly heard as they mature.

Piper reproduction happens during the 'soft times' for the female. During this time, her male clutch members become much more aggressive, knowing instinctively that their female is much more vulnerable at this point. However, reproduction is via a sting from another clutch's males. That is, for a female to generate an offspring, another clutches' males must break through her clutch and sting her repeatedly. The sting toxin is also effectively the male's sperm, transferring genetic code to the female along with chemicals which stimulate the birth bud process. A 'impregnated' female stinger will not grow back her chitin for approximately 3 months, during which time her 'children' bud and eventually break free.

Note that a female's sting does not contain this reproductive genetic information, but can instead be used to cause another female to fission, each piece retaining the memories and skills of the whole. Thus, the most skilled females occasionally are split, much to the dismay and confusion of their males.

Piper Technology

Piper technology has taken a radically different path than human technology, primarily due to the wild differences in their environments. Pipers do not have much mechanical skill and practically no electrical skill, but are capable of forging simple tools or weapons such as the 'ramming spear', the most common weapon apart from their natural stinging cells.

To forge a ramming spear a female Piper directs her males in chipping out a mold for a spear in as tough a stone formation as they can find. Next, a framework is built above the trough containing a large, shaped quartz crystal. Metal ore (often obtained from polymetallic nodules, which are common on the sea-floor of this world) is placed in and overlapping the trough. When everything is properly configured, the Pipers swim above the crystal and begin a specific chord, depending on the crystal in use. When the note reaches the exact tone that the crystal resonates to, there is a piezoelectric effect (much the reverse of a quartz action watch) which generates a large electric charge. This electric charge is directed via the careful position of the framework into the metal ores, which melt under the assault.

Impurities boil off under the electrically derived heat, while the Pipers swim up-current to prevent their becoming cooked in the heat released. After the object eventually cools, it is inspected by a master crafter, and if necessary the whole process is repeated again.

Pipers have also learned animal husbandry, as they 'herd' and 'corral' various undersea lifeforms, including the prior head of the food chain, a creature that is approximately as long as a mature male Piper but much thinner, the top coming to a very sharp, very tough chitin point. These creatures' (called 'rammers') tentacles are treated as a delicacy, as are the various condiments made from their stinging cells.

The general sentience level of the Piper species is roughly comparable to a baseline human, and an increasing number of individuals have been introduced into mainstream Terragen civilisation. Some have found positions in water-filled space vessels and habitats, as communications specialists, underwater technicians, entertainers, and so forth. Pipers are highly adaptable and can fulfil a wide range of underwater roles in one manner or another.

  • First Contact  - Text by Steve Bowers
    Strategies and policies for contact with alien life forms (xenobiota) and Xenosophonts (intelligent alien life).
  • 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 John B

Initially published on 01 June 2002.