The Story

Written by Peter Watts

We open on the R/V Gadfly: an inner-system light transport en route to Mars. It's a lot smaller than the cargo ships that usually run the Martian Loop. Those things are behemoths: mountains of mass weighed down with colonists and equipment and replacement biologicals for the nascent Martian ecosystem. Gadfly isn't big enough for any of that. She's basically a frigate, small, light on her feet, fast. Her Pennypacker Drive runs rings around the lumbering ion and hydrogen-spitters of the cargo fleet. She can make the Mars run in a couple of weeks if the angles are right, no need to dick around with fuzzy orbits or Hohmann transfers.

The angles aren't right this time around, but Gadfly is in too much of a hurry to wait for the stars to align. Her cargo has to get where it's going yesterday.

That cargo is— wait for it— a load of lungfish. Gadfly's crew are not entirely certain why speed is of such essence. They're not even certain why Mars needs lungfish in the first place; that species has never been on that planet's biodiversity roster before.

At least the cargo doesn't require much in the way of special treatment. They don't even compete with the crew for hibernaculum space. Lungfish are natural space travelers, go into torpor all on their own. No need to choke their own cells with hydrogen sulfide, just to cut their metabolic requirements by ninety percent; no need to wake up with watering eyes in a capsule that smells like a Shriner convention overdosed on baked beans and laxatives. (H2S is a miracle of modern space travel, but it literally smells like ass). Torpor comes naturally to ol' Protopterus; just dry 'em out and watch them secrete their cocoons, watch them curl up and shut down and sleep away the long trip to Mars easy as you please.

They're stacked around the command deck like a bunch of boxed baked brie as the curtain rises. The crew is tucked in and at dreamless peace. The ship is running herself, cabin lights dimmed, faint telltales sparkling on a dozen control surfaces, the silence broken only by the occasional gurgle of hydraulics as some bit of plumbing makes sure that it's still in working order. Everything is humming along just tickety-boo, right up until the point at which a micrometeorite with an insanely unlikely trajectory takes out Gadfly's drive and cascade array.

 

*

 

They stumble from their coffins like flatulent vampires, klaxons blaring, emergency lights strobing the command deck crimson:

  1. Paul Pott: Flight officer and nominal pilot.
  2. S. Poppet: perpetually-underemployed lungfish expert, en route to (or so he thinks) a low-status technical position on the Martian colony of Bowieville.
  3. Elspeth Isis Fiscourt: incoming governor of Bowieville, and the only one who actually knows what the story is with these stupid lungfish.

Pott checks ship's systems, uncovers good news and bad. The good news: autorepair mechanisms have sealed the hull breach, so nobody's going to suffocate for the time being. The bad: the H2S tanks were holed and vented into space; affiliated systems were damaged and are offline. Nobody's going back into hibernation for the rest of the trip. Even worse, the damage to the hibe system caused a short-circuit which resulted in the jettison of Gadfly's photon sail; the main drive is out, they're running on inertia and maneuvering thrusters, and Mars is now weeks, rather than days away.

Fiscort is reproachful and disbelieving: surely there are backup systems?

Sure there were, Pott replies. Until your guys ripped them out to make room for all these lungfish.

So.

Four people, eight weeks. Oxygen's gonna be tight, but there's no shortage of power for the lights and the Gadfly's reserve stocks of cyanobacteria can be booted up to full photosynthesis before the oxygen reserves run out. Worst-case, they could bleed some water from the radiation jacket, electrolyze it for extra O2. They'll be short of shielding by the time they reach Phobos, but better to be riddled with (treatable) tumors on arrival than to suffocate en route. Now, food—

Food's going to be a problem. Not enough to last four people for two months, not nearly. Unless someone volunteers to take a walk outside, take one for the team—?

Didn't think so.

Wait a sec, Pott pipes up. We can eat the lungfish.

No we can't, Fiscort says.

Sure we can, Poppet chimes in. They metabolize their own muscles while aestivating, so they're super low in fat. We could cook 'em right in the cocoon; the mucus would seal in all the juices—

The lungfish are off the table, Fiscort says, more emphatically.

—'course when they're in there they can't offload urea so they store it in their tissues. Meat would probably taste like piss. If only we had some milk protein, we could soak it to cut the taste— that's what they do to shark meat—

We are not eating the lungfish.

Okay, Pott says. Why not, exactly? Because we're actually dying here, and I really don't see—

Fiscort sighs.

Time to come clean.

 

*

 

You know all those illusory artefacts we've been seeing on Mars ever since we started looking up the place? Lowell's canals, the Face on Cydonia? That sasquatch Curiosity glimpsed back in the teens?

Bullshit, all of it. Pareidolia. A bias wired deep in pattern-matching wetware of the fusiform gyrus, an anthropocentric tendency to see anthropoid things even when they aren't there.

And, conversely, a tendency to not notice nonanthropoid things even when they are.

It took a deep-learning algo scanning from a hi-rez low orbit to see the signs: faint weathered contours carved into mesas and plains, all but invisible beneath drifts of ancient sand. Subtle variations in the thickness of polar ice cap, as if parts of the substrate beneath were just a fraction of a degree warmer than they should be. Similar shapes, elongate shapes. Easy to dismiss at first as random coincidence until too much data piled up, until the regressions and the principle components started saying No, really, the chances are less than one in a thousand, one in ten thousand, one in a million.

By now the evidence is unassailable: something left billboards all over Mars, great geological signposts saying look at me. We would have noticed them a lot sooner if Me had resembled Bigfoot or Elvis Presley, like any self-respecting Martian artifact is supposed to. Instead, Me was some kind of eel-like shape with arms or tentacles or something where its pectoral fins should be.

You could find these subtle weathered topographies all over the planet, when you knew what to look for. But wherever you found them, they were arrayed so their snouts aimed, compass-like, to a common point in the northern hemisphere: a spot deep in the ancient desiccated seabed of Vastitas Borealis.

There's a structure buried there beneath the sediments, a sprawling flattened pyramidal thing that makes the Great Pyramid of Cheops look like a paper cup. We can't get inside, but its outsides— near the parts we think are entrances— are festooned with images of what appear to be earthly lungfish. More specifically, a species of lungfish that looks today pretty much the same way it did a few hundred million years ago, back when this artifact was built. A species, moreover, with a genome very much larger than any lungfish has any real need for.

A flurry of intense research back on Earth has revealed a previously-undetected pattern in all those extra base pairs, but its meaning remains opaque. We cannot bring the mountain to the lungfish. The lungfish, therefore, are coming to the mountain. We think they hold the key to whatever's inside the Borealis structure. We think they may even be the key that gets us inside.

These lungfish could unlock the greatest discovery in the entire history of the human race. You can see why we can't just eat them, no matter how low in fat they may be.

 

*

 

There. It's out. Fiscort's revelations constitute a major security lapse, but it's not as though she had any choice under the circumstances. And if her superiors, after the dust has settled, conclude that this moment of sharing constitutes an unacceptable breach— well, Gadfly's crew can always meet with an unfortunate accident on the way back to Earth. No harm done.

There's still the not-inconsequential matter of getting to Mars, though. Not even Fiscort is especially keen on the idea of nobly starving to death while a bunch of torpid fish sail serenely into Phobos Station on autopilot. So she points out, as delicately as possible, that the crew themselves are edible. She's never bothered herself with the details of Gadfly's command structure, but if there aren't any protocols in place for this kind of thing she suggests drawing straws. She would gladly participate in such a lottery herself, if only her own role in this ongoing first-contact scenario weren't so very vital.

This is not a proposition which goes down well with the others. They wonder how practiced Fiscort might be at things like, say, driving the ship, or interplanetary navigation. This goes on for a few stanzas, until Poppet points out that technically you can have your meat and eat it too: you don't necessarily have to kill someone in order to eat them.

There are no vital organs in the legs, for example. And the more of yourself you eat, the less of you there is to feed. So autophagy not only meets your nutritional needs in the short term; it reduces them over the long.

The only real question is when to start cutting.

Fiscort resurrects the drawing-straws idea— this time to decide who gets carved first— but the others are having none of it. If anyone is doing this, they're all doing it. It's not as though one or two legs are going to be enough anyway. So they work out some rules, to ensure that both pain and protein are equitably distributed:

  1. Everyone only eats themselves. "You chews what you lose".
  2. Everyone cuts at the same time: nobody gets off scott free.
  3. The sooner the better. They may not be especially hungry at the moment— they may even have a week of freeze-dried emergency rations on hand to stave off the inevitable— but basic math says they'll have to chow down on themselves sooner or later. Do it later, and your doomed leg just sits there in the meantime sucking up vital nutrients like a big boney lamprey. Do it now and you cut your metabolic costs right out of the gate, and increase your chances of making it to Mars alive.

So the engineer retrieves the surgical laser from the med kit. The pilot cleans out space in the freezer. The lungfish torp blissfully away on all sides, oblivious to the sacrifices being made in their honor.

Pants come off. Legs stretch out. Seatbelts buckle down.

The laser hums to life.

Someone grumbles that the Lungfish Gods better have left something really fucking important in that pyramid.

 

*

 

Fiscort proves to be right: Gadfly's lungfish gets the colonists in the front door. Some cryptic mechanism in the alien structure twitches as those oversized pizza boxes approach within a certain distance; the pyramid stirs, the stone rolls away.

There is an antechamber inside, a kind of meeting place. The pyramid will allow them no further, but that's okay; after a while the Greeter appears, sluggish from her long sleep, wiping mucous from her eyes. She is desiccated, still half-mummified, a shriveled eel lurching into view along a kind of canal in the bedrock. Something that isn't quite water seeps from the walls of that trench, fills it halfway, hydrates the alien as though she were a sponge.

There's a breathable atmosphere in this room, but the Human delegation doesn't feel safe enough to abandon their pressure-suits just yet. There's too much risk: trace gases, alien pathogens, pressure seals that might spring an unexpected leak three hundred million years after the warranty ran out. These are cautious people, smart people. They are not the idiots from Prometheus.

Which is a shame— because after some inconclusive back-and-forth waving of fins and arms, the alien turns tail and slithers back into the depths of her domain. As first-contact scenarios go, this was one extended cock-tease.

Similar scenarios play out a few more times— with similarly unsatisfying results— until someone wonders if maybe the space suits are getting in the way. The alien is naked, after all. The environment she has provided is benign to humans. Maybe spacesuits are an, an insult somehow: perceived as shield and armor when an open hand is called for.

It's a risk, but a worthy one. Poppet is selected to Volunteer— not only is he the lowest-ranking person on-site, but it was his idea. He limps grudgingly into the chamber on his brand new artificial leg, and fumbles out of his suit.

That does the trick. The Greeter— fully recovered now, huge and sinuous as an anaconda— surges from her canal, fintacles extended in what appears to be a classic we-come-in-peace appendage-shake. The technician extends his hand in turn.

The Greeter stabs him in the palm.

He yelps and recoils, but the alien barely seems to notice. She's stabbed him with a fin spine; now she puts it in her mouth and licks it clean. She adopts a brief Rodin pose— Hmmmm. Interesting— before diving back into her channel and disappearing.

The message appears on the anteroom wall an hour later:

Take Your Leader To Me.

The Greeter does not return to the anteroom. There is no further communication.

Fiscort presents herself as colony Governor, the highest ranking Leader on the planet; the Greeter remains unimpressed and absent.

Go any further up the ladder, you gotta start bringing in politicians from Earth. That's expensive and time-consuming. Still, this isn't some dick-ass union dispute; this is First Contact.

But by now the Military is agitating for a more forceful approach. We're not dealing with an army here, they argue. This is just one decrepit fish in a cave. If there ever was an alien fleet, it vanished into the void three hundred million years ago. Why all this timid tapping at the front door, when a tactical nuke would give us our own way in?

But there are reasons for caution. The alien's buddies may have vamoosed back in the Devonian, but how far did they go? For all we know they're still in the neighborhood— chilling in the Asteroid Belt, maybe— ready to come in with guns blazing the moment they get a distress signal. For that matter, after three hundred million years they could have circumvented the galaxy twenty times without ever breaking the Bergen municipal speed limit. They could be back on our doorstep any time.

So everyone agrees to stick a pin in the B&E option for the time being, and bring in the Earthlings instead. Diplomats, politicians, CEOs all try their hand at saying hello.

Nothing.

 

*

 

The Greeter has made a small error in translation: while we understood the subject of her message to be leader, a word closer to the intended meaning might be owner. The translation error, in turn, results from a category error.

Quite simply, the Greeter does not believe these warm porous things can possibly be sapient.

She knows— as would any mere fingerling— that only amphibious creatures develop true intelligence. She knows, based on the Poppet's DNA, that these upright aliens do not qualify; yet they are clearly using tools and advanced technology. It follows that they must merely be bits of organic technology themselves, a sort of talking pet. Smart but nonconscious. Their amphibious owners have yet to arrive.

The Greeter is patient. She has already waited out aeons. She can afford to wait a little longer. In the meantime, she has no intention of opening diplomatic relations with hedge clippers and vacuum cleaners.

Do the Earthlings figure this out? Is it just a stab in the dark, does someone remember that it took the presence of lungfish to open the first door so maybe some lungfish-related key is required to unlock the next? Perhaps several ideas are considered and discarded— animatronic lungfish puppets, professional contortionists in rubber suits— until, by whatever straightforward or circuitous logic, someone gets the bright idea of spiking our DNA with that of the marbled lungfish. Of becoming part lungfish, in the hope that whatever magical technology hums behind these stone walls will allow such flesh to pass.

Again it's a risk; again an acceptable one, especially if borne (again) by the noncoms and the untenured. No one really knows what all those billions of extra base pairs are doing in the lungfish genome, but the best guess is that it's some kind of database— a genetic Library of Alexandria, planted by this ancient alien species in times past. The point is that it's noncoding. Inert. It shouldn't cause any trouble if, say, some of it were retrovirally inserted into Human cells. Hell, most of our DNA is junk anyway.

Maybe that's even the whole point of the exercise. Maybe the aliens want us to answer a skill-testing question before they really open up to us. Maybe the right answer— biologically, diplomatically, symbolically— is to mix our code with theirs.

That's the rationale, anyway. It's half right. Yes, the extra DNA in the marbled lungfish comprises a huge database; but if the humans knew anything about the philosophical mindset of the Late Sleepers, they might have taken a better guess at the kind of data lurking in there. The Sleepers value Amphibianism, the ability to exist naturally in two different environments. And yet, that dual citizenship is only the first step on an evolutionary path that the Sleepers built upon and forged for themselves, once they had the requisite wisdom and technology.

For certainly, if it's good to be able to embrace two environments, how much better to be able to live in three or four? A hundred? The inevitable endpoint of dualism is polyism: the ability to adapt to myriad environments on the fly. Much of this can be accomplished through extranuclear RNA editing (of the sort common among earthly cephalopods ); but it doesn't hurt to have a wide range of templates on hand to edit. The Lungfish Library consists of code for building a whole range of species. In fact it throws the very concept of species on its head, containing as it does so many plug-and-play mix-and-match parts. It contains the genetic code to build whole organisms; it contains the code to build useful add-ons; it contains code for combining the two approaches. This is the Late Sleepers' gift to their spiritual brethren; a Swiss-Army-Knife of adaptability, shrink-wrapped and ready to go once the creatures who contain it learn to unlock the power of their own genes.

Of course, you can't have limbs and lungs sprouting willy-nilly before the host body is ready. So all those useful genes are dormant, thanks to judiciously-placed stop codons and bypasses that keep them from expressing in situ.

It's really too bad the humans don't understand this. If they did, they'd know to include those control elements in the chunks they ported to their own bodies.

 

*

 

It kind of works, at first. They pump Poppet full of alien DNA and— while the Greeter remains mysteriously offstage— certain doors of the pyramid do open for him afterward. Of course, no one wants to rely on a bitter perpetual post-doc for access to the Secrets of the Ages; so Fiscort demands a shot. The Generals barge to the front of the line. A black-market for DNA mainliners takes off amongst those dungeon-crawlers and schemers who see the alien pyramid as their ticket to quick riches.

By the time anyone notices that Poppet's leg is growing back, everyone and their dog has been inoculated. Even then, the finding is treated with more excitement than trepidation: not just access to the Wonders of the Ancients, but tissue regeneration too! Bonus!

 

*

 

Elspeth Fiscort knows something's wrong when she wakes up and can see, even though she hasn't opened her eyes. She knows something's really wrong when she realizes that whatever she's seeing through is located about ten centimeters above her stomach.

She opens the eyes in her head and looks back at the stalked eye sprouting from her navel. (Perhaps this would be a good time for a brief Aria on the interconnected themes of Vertigo and Double Vision.)

In terms of what ends up on stage, it might be best to steer clear of explicitly portraying the ensuing chaos; we are, after all, talking about the stillbirth of Martian civilization. There are food shortages, for one thing; it takes a lot of energy to grow new body parts, even if you start cutting them off the moment they sprout. Suddenly all those alphas who pushed their way to the front of the line are eating five times as much as they should be. And because they outrank everyone else in the colony, none of their minions can order them to diet.

What those minions can do is riot.

So the Grand Martian Experiment collapses in a seething cauldron of infighting and mutation. Carefully-maintained ecological balances teeter on unstable equilibria and drop off cliffs; fold catastrophes cascade across the landscape. Some lucky few make it off-planet before the quarantine comes down; others discover that the alien genes awakened in their flesh have given them new— or rather, very old— abilities to withstand the rigors of the Martian environment, a kind of bioforming that fits the organism to the world instead of forcing the reverse. Still others sprout monstrous protuberances that might possibly be of some use on worlds half a galaxy away.

Most, of course, simply die gasping for breath.

Freaks and chimeras penetrate ever-further into the pyramid; the same genes that twisted them into strange shapes also unlock doors to deeper levels. None of the Transformed are thinking much about the plunder of alien tech by now; they only want to find the Greeter. It's Sleeper technology, after all, that turned them into these things; if there is any way to reverse these metamorphoses, surely the Greeter will know what it is.

 

*

 

There's a reason the Greeter has been scarce of late: since that moment of first contact she has spent a little more time analyzing the hedge-clipper genome. The things she has discovered are nothing short of horrific.

She missed it at first; the horror spawned only recently, in evolutionary terms. But these warm ones— it seems that of all the animal species currently extant on Mars, these warm ones are metabolically able to consume only two. They can eat each other. They can eat lungfish. Everything else is poison to them.

Moreover, the mutations that impose these dietary constraints appear to have been deliberately introduced. The Warm Ones have intentionally designed themselves for obligate cannibalism, and for the eating of sapient beings.

They devour souls. They can do no other.

Words cannot begin to convey the depravity of any species that would do such a thing to themselves. The Greeter cannot wrap her fins around it at all. These soulless, porous cannibals are an obscenity.

And they are invading her home.

She hides as long as she can, but she is one and they are many. Perhaps the crippled, half-functional genes they hijacked— gifts offered during more innocent times, in a naive and misguided spirit of siblinghood— are enough to overwhelm the pyramid's defenses. Perhaps the generals have their way at last, and open her lair with a nuclear can opener. By whatever means, the hedge-clippers find their way to her deepest crypt, the most secure point in the whole structure: the place she slept away the ages. She is cornered. There is nowhere else to run.

They flail all manner of misshapen limbs. They gibber at her: Help us. Fix us. Restore us.

Even if she could, she would not. These are monsters. They are a plague.

They fall on her and tear her to shreds.

After all, she's one of the few things left to eat on this dirtball.

 

*

 

"Fish To Mars" opened with a prehistoric prologue in which the Late Sleepers sing their hopes and dreams in the Devonian swamps of Old Earth. It's ending closes the circle with an epilogue, set millennia hence, in which the Sleepers return to check upon what they have wrought.

They haven't changed much. They optimized their own genomes a billion years ago, and their heavy investment in RNA editing has left them insusceptible to conventional evolutionary processes anyway. They are, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from the sentinel they left sleeping those thousands of centuries past. Their fleet has circled the galaxy many times— perhaps not within the Bergen speed limit, but not that much faster in cosmological terms— and returns now to check in on one of its myriad Greeters, on the genetic legacy they left baking one planet further in.

Think of a swarm of asteroids, thousands strong, each with spin and propulsion and vast subterranean ecosystems sufficient to keep life thriving in the vast dark wastes between stars. It's as if half a planet, broken into pieces, was on an endless tour of the Milky Way. Just passing through.

They find life on Mars: a strange chimeric ecosystem, an uneasy mix of Sleeper genes and others. They find the remnants of a terraforming project gone to seed, an atmosphere still tenuous but far richer than it used to be. Blankets of blue-green foliage, recently vascularized, shroud the landscape. Things that eat dirt and lichen and each other shuffle and burrow and—even now— occasionally look up at the stars.

The Sleepers find the ruins of the Greeter's pyramid, laid open like a shattered geode. They find her last words, recorded just before her crypt was breached.

They put it all together.

They ignore the asymmetrical things floundering in their wake, their sad prostrations and the plaintive mewling sounds that wheeze from their respiratory tracts: Help us. Restore us. There is nothing they can do here. All they can do is to keep it from happening somewhere else.

They rise into orbit. The fleet falls sadly sunward, toward Earth.

They'll just have to nuke the place from orbit.

It's the only way to be sure.