The Skin of Aquila Cadens – Chris Panatier

The Skin of Aquila Cadens – Chris Panatier

December 2020

TRANSMISSION T+10968.0 Authenticate: M. Saenz, Research Barque Lyrae

Pod is down from the Lyrae, upright and undamaged. Aquila Cadens, population: one. Surface scans show polymorphs of calcium carbonate with intergrowths of dolomite and huntite, limestone. Visual identification of a large iron deposit near the water to the East. No apparent vegetation. No apparent life, unfortunately, but I have only surveyed megascopically. I will put soil samples under glass tomorrow, hopefully. I’ll move on to the water after that. See what swims.

Maricella dispatched the message. It wouldn’t reach home for twenty-five years. She’d be eighty-nine by then, having long since completed her mission and quit the planet. She leaned over to flip down a row of switches and caught a glimpse of herself in the pod’s display screen. The woman that reflected back had been young when she’d set out from Earth almost eleven thousand days ago. She raised an eyebrow and sighed. Half of her life spent transecting the void.

She sealed her helmet and crawled from the pod to stand on the bleached and crumbling caliche-like surface. Aquila Cadens orbited on the outer edge of Vega’s habitable zone, but the star was a big girl and could cook dirt just as well as the Sun over desert. The planet’s tilt was to the black, meaning it was something like spring at the landing site. Near the end of the mission, going outside would be impossible with the heat, especially in an environment suit.

Maricella instructed the pod to deploy the habitat, though it was more lab than living quarters—a lab-itat. She scanned the horizon as the structure unfolded. The desolate setting aside, the planet had air, water, and the basic elements needed to build life, all facts she and her team had already gleaned through a few inches of glass from light-years away. But the distance muddied the answer to the larger question. For that, they had to see for themselves. The short scan she’d done on her deceleration burn and orbital period hadn’t flagged anything. Now, standing on the surface, she was still strangely hopeful despite the subtrace odds.

The little bugs Maricella and her team had developed were an evolutionary grade of mostly free-living protozoans, genetically engineered to concentrate all of the best adaptive and proliferative characteristics. Designed to survive in a wide range of settings, a thousand varieties had been dispatched to potentially habitable planets in the hope that some might stick and jumpstart ecosystems. The Earth—the place it had become—wasn’t going to give humankind the time, the decades upon decades, needed for probes to reach planets light-years distant and then beam back their findings. Out of necessity, they’d eschewed a systematic approach, opting instead to fire a shotgun, as it were.

In the runup to launch, her team had worked tirelessly to develop the tiny animals for their brutal charge. Maricella had been consumed by the task, eschewing relationships, pushing friends and family aside in her dogged effort to develop Earth’s first world builders. There’ll be time for all that later, she’d thought. But then came the opportunity to walk upon one of the planets she’d seeded. The trade was thirty years in transit—a no-brainer. She’d leapt at it. Her team had identified eight candidate planets and then drawn lots to decide who would go where. She had gotten Aquila Cadens, a tan-blue marble of desert and sea. It came with an option at the end of the mission to visit another planet orbiting Altair, a nearby main sequence star similar to the Sun.

Four years after sending the bugs on their way, Maricella had set sail.

The bugs were chiefly mixotrophs, able to derive energy both from the consumption of other organisms and found chemicals, or through the photosynthesis of sunlight. The largest group would perform so-called ‘soft’ terraforming tasks—soil building, water and air purification, consumption of bacteria or fungal pathogens toxic to human life. A smaller subset included those that would occupy native hosts and modify them.

The decision to dispatch bugs that had the potential to permanently alter life on remote planets hadn’t come without its share of infighting. The plan was to find life and appropriate it—to enslave a microbial ecosystem in order to serve the purposes of humankind. At the very least, they would be eliminating the ability of native life to freely evolve. But if they were successful, if they actually created something new, it would mean they had eliminated what life had been—an outcome some of the scientists went so far as to term ‘microgenocide’. They’d bickered at length over the ethical considerations, but at the end of the day, the goal was to save the human race. And if it’s us versus them, well…

The whole endeavor was contingent on the panspermia hypothesis of life proliferation being correct—that life in the local area of the galaxy shared a common source. If alien genetics were governed by something other than DNA, their bugs would be impotent to carry out their charge, and any philosophical misgivings would remain academic.

The mission allowed just over one Earth-year for surveys and analysis before she had to be up and away. At that time she’d have a choice: aim for home or Altair. The Lyrae was fast, but making either destination was dependent on a lone slingshot opportunity with Vega that came in four hundred days’ time. Miss that window and she’d be the first human to die on Aquila Cadens.

With the labitat expanded and filling with atmosphere, she grabbed a collection kit from an outer compartment and headed east to where a range of rippling dunes signaled the sea’s boundary.

The distance to the shore—only about a thousand meters—felt double in her suit. She hoped it was more the gravity and heat and less the effects of age. In her head she was still thirty-four. At the foot of a large dune, she stopped to catch her breath and hydrate, then took the ascent deliberately, pacing herself to make it up in one steady go.

From north to south, the sea was red. Maricella coughed out a laugh, felt her eyes tearing at the sight. Ignoring her exhaustion, she strode down the face of the dune, falling onto her rear and sliding to the bottom. She dusted herself off and took account.

From orbit it had looked no different than the iron-rich dirt covering huge swaths of ground back home. But she’d been wrong. It was an algal bloom; a red tide. The result, no doubt, of the modified dinoflagellates they’d sent down years before. She trotted to where the gentle surf softened the ground. The bloom meant that the water was packed with phosphorus and nitrogen. So much so that the protists were overeating. Spread out before her was undeniable proof that Earth-based lifeforms could flourish in alien waters. That alone was groundbreaking; fodder for a hundred peer-reviewed papers.

But the floating burgundy cloud was also something else. A telltale sign that the sea was devoid of other DNA-based lifeforms. The algal protists were endosymbionts, programmed to enter the cells of a host plant or animal, graft on the code Maricella and her colleagues had selected, and replicate with the newly revised genome. All in order to incite species diversification and proliferation. The goal had been to create Earth-like analogs in both flora and fauna, riding on the backs of native species. Evolution fired out of a cannon. The fact their symbionts had coagulated into a giant flotilla of algae meant they’d found no hosts.

Maricella stepped into the water until it came to her knees. Viscous, it resisted her movements, so plentiful had her protists become. She couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t just the satisfaction that they’d successfully seeded another planet. Their tiny bugs had survived a journey of twenty-five light-years and were thriving, robust. She felt a mother’s pride.

She filled several columns with the fecund water and headed back to the labitat. Buoyed by the discovery of her flourishing creation, she floated over the dune and the scorched white caliche.

All night she analyzed the eukaryotes under the scope. It brought another discovery, that not just one species, but several dozen distinct classifications had survived and adapted to Aquila Cadens’ brackish water and cloying air. She spoke her findings aloud just to hear a real human voice, lavishing encouragement and praise upon them as she catalogued, even going so far as to name the various subtypes. Desmarella, Rhoda, Aurelia, Gyro, Dino.

TRANSMISSION T+10968.37 Authenticate: M. Saenz, Research Barque Lyrae

Happy to report with congratulations to all involved that our little ones are thriving. To date I have counted seventy-nine classifications overall, sixty-one eukaryotes in the local water and eighteen prokaryotes/archaea in ground fissures. No native life identified thus far. All details and data in the upload. I’ll be continuing my exploration and analysis moving forward, with periodic check-ins.

Over the coming weeks, Maricella explored tirelessly, consumed by the chance of discovery. Her compulsion, she supposed, wasn’t so different from a gold prospector’s impulse to keep shoveling. Each new turn of dirt, like each new sample, brought with it a rush of possibilities, the chance to cry Eureka!

Every morning she set out in a different direction, stretching the radius of her known world. To the East, the sea. To the North, South, and West, blanched ground veined with cracks that seemed mantle deep. She took samples at varying intervals and depths, plotting the locations so any patterns might later be sussed. Aquila’s giant moon was a constant companion, moving ever so slowly through the sky, following along like a milky eyeball. The pod’s drones flew sorties out over hundreds of kilometers without noting anything different from what Maricella had seen on foot. Aside from the life they’d sown, there was nothing.

The bugs, though, had done their jobs. Those meant for the soil, a category of archaic diazotrophs, had propagated at around one meter deep, fixing nitrogenous compounds into ammonia, erecting a tentative microbial ecosystem. The waters teemed, swollen and virile, prepared to build new life upon old. But Aquila Cadens was inviolably barren. The rush of discovery from her first day faded, only to be replaced by tooth-clenching frustration. Repeated findings showed the planet and its new denizens in stasis. A holding pattern. Purgatory, in evolutionary terms.

Halfway through the mission, the days became warmer, which meant less time in the field and more in the labitat. When not conducting new analyses or re-running old samples, Maricella allowed her mind to unfold on how life could explode if given but a nudge. The planet was loaded with the necessary elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur. Even a modest population of multicellular natives would have allowed her brood to work wonders. She could accept her lot—that a decades-long endeavor would ultimately be fruitless—that had been part of the risk. But her heart ached for the beings they’d created, set forth on winds of scientific optimism, only to end up languishing on the surface of an otherwise dead planet. So much potential wasted.

With the hot season setting in, she could only bear to be outside the labitat in the early mornings and at starset. One evening, as Vega fell in the East, Maricella suited up and headed to the shore where she paced the water’s edge. She sang songs. Lullabies she might have sung to a child, perhaps, but now to an audience of countless members. Her red tide. The children of Aquila Cadens.

This became routine. A way to commune with the living that wasn’t a recorded transmission twenty-five years stale. Some evenings she carried her melodies into the sea and drifted among the swimmers, gazing skyward as the stars kindled. Together, they devised their own constellations. Something they could share, unique to them and no one else. The Warbler, Saloon Dragon, Sea Fox, Dalmatian Cat… She spoke to them about her life and how, even knowing the outcome, she would do it all over again.

Back in the labitat, Maricella ad-libbed. She ran off-book experiments in the hope of triggering uplift changes in her dutiful spawn, but their fundamental natures were hardwired. The bugs were piggy backers. Absent something to latch onto, they weren’t going to elevate. And that was that.

TRANSMISSION T+10968.246 Authenticate: M. Saenz, Research Barque Lyrae

One hundred and fifty-four days remaining and there is nothing more to be done. Findings are archived and uploaded. Everything we needed was here, except for the ladder. I will await sling shot and advise of my decision to return home or carry forward to Altair at that time.

Maricella speaks to the bugs, the different varietals. Sings to them. Feels they will understand if she chooses her words carefully, intones her voice sincerely. Carries them about the labitat so they may enjoy changing views and exposures. Her evening floats drag on for hours, so as to be closer to them for longer. She shares secrets. Confesses to them her regret. Whispers apologies. Arrives back at the labitat, her suit’s oxygen supply further into the red each night.

One evening, she spills through the pod’s hatch euphoric with hypoxia, gathers up the vials for Desmarella, Dino, and Aurelia. Drunkenly, she sways to a song with no name, no melody, rearranges colonies about the lab, perceives the tumble of glassware. Cuts her finger on a petri dish.

The next day, Maricella wakes. Oxygenated, rested. Notes that sobriety brings no relief from the anxiety of coming separation. Abandonment. She pushes up from the floor. On the lab bench is a small tree, red and glistening.

Her little dribble of blood, full of living things. Already co-opted by Desmarella, who has built a delicate bronchus trunk spiked with tiny bronchiole branches. Alveolar buds would surely be visible were Maricella to place a cutting between glass. Given so little to work with, the bugs flex their potential. Let us show you, they say. Oh, what you could have become, she answers.

Later, silent, she packs her scopes and labware. Places sample columns and vials into cryo for transport, heart crumbling for those she must leave.

In the days leading up to departure, she prepares the pod, clears dust and debris from intakes. The heat, a combination of seasonal change and proximity to the star, is almost unbearable in the suit. She retreats inside, stinking, sweat pooled in every fold, the fingertips of her gloves.

She brings the reactor on-line. Follows protocols. Checklists and calibrations. T-minus fourteen hours.

Night falls to cool relief. She calms, dresses for her swim. The red tide greets her, a bath of her progeny. It is the last evening—she has not concealed the truth. They understand, hold no grudge. And this makes the idea of leaving them unbearable. She wishes them capable of resentment. Hatred at her desertion. Instead, they speak of understanding. Maricella cries until her eyes run dry.

An oxygen alarm pings. She considers letting it go. Even now, the dune is a formidable obstacle for what air she has left. Dying there with her ‘zoa, supported on a bed of their flagellae, their tiny hands…she could think of worse deaths. Still, the mission, the future of humankind. She sits upright on the foot of a shoal, her bottom half submerged. Looks to the dune, imagines the ship on the other side, the void, Altair and the Earth beyond that. It is time.

Dawn comes and Maricella is in the water again, murmuring apologies and lamentations. Her mind replays the ethical debates of decades before. Thoughts drift to the cellular phenomenon of apoptosis, where sick cells, such as those with cancerous changes, undergo programmed death so as not to pass on the mutation. And how tumors result when some cells, for whatever reason, refuse to die. She leaves the water and marches back to the pod.

For the first time in four hundred days, she assumes her seat at the controls, brings up the trajectory display. An image of the planet moves in an arc at the end of Vega’s invisible tether and two paths emerge. One to a rock in the habitable zone of Altair, and another, to Earth. The countdown begins in her ears, quietly, like a secret. Less than a minute to go. She does not strap in.

As the seconds expire, she considers the blue veins snaking over the bones at the backs of her hands. Forty seconds. Their stark topographical relief reminds her that while her body is sixty-four, she’s only really lived for just over thirty. Twenty-five seconds. She glances at her helmet, hanging nearby. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Some cells refuse to die. One second.

The panel lights up. Alarms sound. A switch beckons from beneath its plastic guard. Maricella gazes back to the screen and watches until the display re-renders the Lyrae’s trajectory, and it swings wide of both Altair and Earth. Dotted lines flash from white to red. Apoptosis.

TRANSMISSION T+10968.400 Authenticate: M. Saenz, Research Barque Lyrae

I have chosen not to leave Aquila Cadens in order to pursue a new line of research here. This is my final transmission.

I made you. But I did not give you what you needed to do the thing I designed you to do, my children, my issue. You needed life, and so I give it to you. I give you everything. The future. I give you Aquila Cadens. Make of it what you will.

Maricella selects a panel of her most aggressive endosymbionts and places them into solutions containing her own skin cells, plasma, and cheek swabs. Bulk elements are introduced. Within hours, new structures are visible, stretching and retracting in response to stimuli, respiring. She carries two dishes from the pod, one for the sea, one for the ground.

Mother absorbs into child. She feels the bugs, her sons and daughters, her sexless archaea, drinking in the new information and carrying it into nuclei and organelles. Repurposing. She senses the sharp angle of evolutionary inflection, the moment of speciation, the refraction of static paths, now jagged and ever changing. Nature freed to run wild, each mitosis an exponential leap.

Purple veins crawl like roots through prokaryotic nurseries in caliche crevices. Decided by some combination of eukaryotic programming and terroir, saplings sprout without rain, fleshy pink with thick tufts of autotrophic leaves for capturing Vega’s light. All-seeing catkins loll from branches. Elsewhere, bulbs burst skyward with petals that explode in clouds of pastel seed and spore that flow across the planet and take root wherever landed. Maricella, gloves off, reaches down. A threadlike root unspools from a crack and spirals around her fingertip. Communion. She feels the cool depths that the archaea enjoy.

Years pass. Maricella grows old within a failing pod that can no longer clean the air or recycle waste. Outside, she is surrounded by the nascent world her children make. She almost abandoned them once. She would not do it now. She prepares aliquots of Desmarella, Gyro, Dino, Aurelia, Rhoda, and others. Introduces them via nasal mist. Children absorb into mother.

Her body given over, they draft their plans upon her substrate. Endosymbionts take to her cells, slicing in and occupying, editing. They weave and sew filaments of neural tissue into harmony with their primitive structures. Sentience shared, their plans are heard, repeated and circular, aspiring upward. Rung by rung they ascend. Maricella’s genome evolves even as she lives. Bound together with her offspring, they become the next thing.

Eureka.

Her mind expands into a network of square kilometers below the planet’s surface, aware of all each stripling perceives. Helmetless and fluid, Maricella leaves the pod for good, and is absorbed into the living superstructure that crawls to the horizon. The air, once acrid, is sweet and honeysuckle.

Her children bow and stretch, actualize. They feel pleasure and fulfillment of purpose. She feels it with them. They are a consciousness, the implanted code of primordial lifeforms towering from the human scaffolding upon which they build. A new organism is set on a course of its own making, freelancing within the dictates of the planet’s offerings. Maricella’s body spills into the network her bugs have created, consumed as raw material; the individual gutters to equilibrium.

The red tide recedes.

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