By Lee Beavington | February, 2012
Every cell is formed by the division of another cell. Except the first.
–revised Cell Theory.
Fifteen billion years. Barry found it hard to fathom. Trailblazer's were usually exact in their work. They couldn't afford to be otherwise. If that timestamp proved accurate, the planet before them dated further back than any age estimate of the universe itself. Its ancient sun would burn out in another 20,000 years.
The Astral Surveyor, having just passed through the wormhole horizon a few hours prior, would soon take them in visual range. The Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams had designated the planet 2184 ZB178. He hoped to coin the common name at some point during the mission. It would be one helluva way to cap a long career in the Space Science Academy.
"Initiating atmospheric entry sequence," Ellen said, sounding as dispassioned as the computer cross-checking their trajectory.
Subtle wrinkles and glimpses of grey in her curly hair revealed her age, and Barry's as well, for he was her senior. Sarah, nearly half his age, stood glued to the viewport, an unmistakable gleam in her eyes. Fresh out of the Space Science Academy, excited at her first taste of real exploration. In a way, he envied her youthful optimism, yet to fade as a result of experience.
Barry suited up and braced himself. The transition from the upper to lower atmosphere went by in a yellowish blur. Sarah sat transfixed, no less enthusiastic at this development. To Barry, however, this was old hat. Ellen maintained her poise as they went down, eyes peeled to the console. A minute later, their jolting descent came to an abrupt halt.
Barry gave her a round of applause. "Good show!"
Ellen acknowledged his comment with a slight nod.
They set down a kilometer from the shoreline--SSA regulations were sometimes reactionary, but mostly, like this procedure, they were preventative.
Barry unhitched himself and got to his feet, feeling a little disconcerted at his flexibility. These new, quintuple-layered suits felt lighter than his summer attire. Comfortable enough to sleep in. But he found something reassuring about the traditionally bulky spacesuits. Going out onto the surface of a foreign planet in this thing felt like jumping into freezing water wearing only a pair of underwear.
Barry checked the fabric for imperfections. Ellen was ready; Sarah wasn't long behind. She looked more at ease than he felt. So much for comfort coming with age.
The two women motioned Barry to the fore. Sarah had explained to him since this was his last mission, she would gladly grant him such honours. Ellen, on the other hand, merely followed another SSA regulation: the most experienced starnaut always took the first step.
"One small step for Barry..." he started to say over the suit's com. Then he hit the two-point-four Earth standard gravity.
"...one giant fall for mankind," Sarah finished. "Are you okay?"
"I've only bruised my ego--that is, if I had one to bruise."
He pushed himself off his knees, taking more effort than he wanted to admit. Ellen followed his lead with a far more graceful entrance, then turned to help Sarah off the ship. Retirement suddenly felt obligatory. But it didn't take long to remind himself why he was here.
None of them spoke. There were no words for such an experience. Like the first humans looking back on Earth from outer space...what could they possibly say?
Everything seemed at peace, as though a refined equilibrium had settled over the planet. A light breeze ruffled his suit, failing to upset the barren layout of the land. He was reminded of the mudflats along the California coast. Except here, there was no pickleweed, no crabs, no anything. The terrain looked undisturbed, smoothed over. The few rocks present, none larger than his fist, lacked even the dullest of edges. Wisps of pale yellow cloud drifted overhead in the nearly colourless sky, far too scattered and listless to hold the prospect of rain. He couldn't spot ZB178's satellites; two other planets in the heavens substituted as moons, both gas giants with diameters stretching further than Jupiter's. To the east, the dying sun hung low in the sky, blazing orange.
He didn't let disappoint strike. His SSA training, as it should, erased the wonder of standing on another world. He boiled the visual details down to a fine point: a firm, bare surface, surprisingly flat, with--he couldn't help but sigh--no indication of plant or animal life.
He led Ellen and Sarah prudently around the Astral Surveyor, taking small penguin steps. Barry felt his spine arching, forcing him to hunch over as he tottered forward. His interest now lay solely with the vast oceanic regions rolling out of sight. On the opposite side, he could see mountains rising up, looking more like low-lying hills. Taking into account the gravitational pressure they were under, these could probably match the grandeur of the Himalayas.
"We'll need a point of reference," he said, breaking the silence. "Let's call those hills south."
At his words, Ellen broke out of her own reverie and brought out the newworld probe. She dropped down to her knees--by choice--and with some difficulty managed to stick it into the uncooperative ground.
Sarah was still in a trance. "Amazing," she breathed.
Barry chuckled, following her gaze. But it wasn't the planet surface she described. A series of what looked to be standing stones jutted out of the ground. Sinuous, smooth and grey, the dozen or so thin structures resembled single-trunked eucalyptus trees.
"The probe's done," Ellen announced. She retrieved the device and stepped back onto the ship. Sarah didn't move at first, still beaming. Eventually, she reluctantly followed Barry inside.
"What do you make of those?"
"No idea. But we'll certainly investigate them further. How are you enjoying your first mission?"
Sarah opened her mouth and closed it again. "Just amazing," she said.
"We need to get you a thesaurus."
When they were all seated, Ellen started the separation process. He would've offered to help, but she would probably end up spending more time telling him the proper procedure than it would take for her to do it herself. For safety's sake, they would take two-thirds of the Astral Surveyor with them, leaving behind the smallest third--which, by happy coincidence, housed Barry's quarters.
The Astral Surveyor had all the comforts of a luxury cruiser. Even though this was a biological research vessel, fully-equipped with a biolab, viewscopes, and quarantine cubes, it reminded him more of a tourist cruiser. Each of them had their own quarters, and all the primary systems were made in triplicate, meaning the Astral Surveyor had the capability to separate into three fully functional subcrafts.
It didn't take Ellen long to secure the latches and complete the separation. Then she focussed with single-minded tenacity on flying them closer to the shoreline. In the interim, Sarah's swollen eyes led her back to the viewport, while Barry reviewed the probe's assay analysis aloud.
"The surface temperature is over fifty Celsius. The forecast holds sunshine for our four-week stay, with zero percent chance of precipitation. The atmospheric readings reveal few surprises: major constituents of nitrogen, helium, and hydrogen, and faint traces of sulphur and...oxygen."
Hmm. With less than one percent of that oh-so precious gas, it was bound to make evolution of life difficult. Of course, that reading didn't discount the possibility of higher O2levels having existed at some point in the past.
Ellen set them down a few hundred meters from the coast. For all they knew, this was low tide, and the heightened ocean could rise up right over their ship. Hence the buffer.
"Oh my goodness!" Sarah suddenly exclaimed from her vigilant post at the viewport.
Ellen was changing suits. Barry looked back.
"What is it?" he asked.
"The ocean. It suddenly turned...green."
He got up.
"But it's not that way any longer," she hastily added.
Indeed, Barry couldn't see any green. He looked sideways at Sarah.
"Don't stare at me like that, Barry. You think I'm seeing things?"
He did believe her, but there was no longer any evidence of what she had seen.
"What do your wizened years tell you to do?"
"To get the down there as fast as these antiquated bones of mine will carry me."
Standing on the stony shore, the three starnauts remained several meters from the ocean's edge. Until these organisms' secrets were revealed (Ellen was quick to remind him) they were to assume this species posed a threat to human health--and them to it. Thus Barry peered at the yellow-green surface from afar.
The reflective glare from the sun followed his gaze. This must be some kind of organic matter. Viscous, almost gelatinous. A nondescript grey.
Sarah began jotting notes into her digital logbook. Ellen pulled a teleimager from her belt and attached the twin cylinders to her mask.
"Little bacteriums," she commented.
"Don't you mean bacteria?"
"I shouldn't say little," she went on, ignoring Barry's query. "Even though there are millions of them. Oval-shaped. But they aren't small. Definitely not microscopic. Yet they almost look single-celled. Bundled so close together, it's difficult to tell."
Barry thought back to the radiating green Sarah had seen, thinking of the bioluminescence of blue-green algae back on Earth, and how those little dinoflagellates dazzled like living lanterns in the night sea. That bright glow was very conspicuous. It would surely, under normal circumstances, attract predators. Maybe there were no predators present for that to matter. Or maybe these organisms wanted to be detected. That's exactly how the three of them had responded, going down to the shore in a hurry. But what purpose did that serve?
"Dinoflagellates," Sarah suggested.
Ellen nodded. "Very similar, yes."
Barry refrained from commenting. Great minds do think alike. Instead, he carried their shared idea further.
"Do you think that glow you saw earlier might be some kind of bloom? You know, like a red tide? There are marine coastal species of phytoplankton on Earth that gather this way in order to reproduce. I forget the name--"
"Thanks, Sarah--those dinoflagellates are tiny plant-like cells. They create red tides through massive multiplication, disrupting other species, and also pose a significant risk to human health."
"That's right," Sarah confirmed. "From neurotoxins accumulating in bivalves such as clams, mussels and oysters."
"This is our first day here," Ellen reminded them. "We don't want to make any bold comparisons. The red tide on Earth is regulated by a completely different set of biological and environmental conditions." Ellen handed the imager to Sarah, who readily placed it above the nose of her mask.
"It's been a long journey," Ellen explained, "and past time for me to return to the ship. Be sure you two come back together."
Even this discovery couldn't affect her routine. There was something to be admired in that, even if Barry couldn't see it.
Sarah occupied herself with her precious logbook. Barry, on the other hand, reverted to a skill from his student days to help him overcome obstacles. None, he confessed, were quite this daunting. Whenever his physics instructor gave a particularly thorny question, one to which nobody could work a solution, Barry attacked it from every angle but the obvious. He went home and looked outside the problem, examining the periphery, and other factors indirectly influencing the fundamental variables.
There was no beach. No sand, no driftwood, no pleasant breeze. The hard, rocky ground of the shoreline merely tilted down at an angle just below horizontal until it reached and subsequently slid under those organisms. That didn't offer him much insight. But there was one peculiarity.
A channel, maybe a third of a meter in width, ran up and over the incline. Only a few centimetres deep.
"This little canal is interesting."
Sarah cocked her head. "Sorry?"
"This channel in the ground, running south from the ocean--if you can call it that."
"How far does it go?"
"Good question." He followed it for a ways, until it rose smoothly back to surface level. "Maybe thirty meters."
The grooved furrow did not follow the lower contours of the terrain as a river should, its straight path often taking it right over the highest elevation.
Back on the shoreline with Sarah, he looked to the tiny organisms for answers. A sudden impulse to wade into those depths took him. To submerge his body, and examine them up close.
He quickly dispelled the thought. He must be getting tired. Moving through a liquid of any substantial density, even if his suit were featherweight, would be next to impossible on this planet.
"Time to go," he declared.
Sarah fiddled with her logbook.
"Just a minute. Let me get this thought down."
He let her finish. She lowered the logbook to her side and, after a moment, took a step towards the living ocean.
"The ship's this way," he stated in a flat tone. She knew better than to take such a risk.
Sarah stopped, staring outward. Then she turned and followed him away from the shore.
"Everything all right?" he asked.
"Everything is amaz--"
But had she felt something similar to him? A longing to swim amidst the green tide? He almost inquired, but decided against it. She'd probably think him a crazy old kook. More so than she already did.
She ended up helping him get back to the ship. It took him a minute to find his sleeping bunk--or rather, to remember that his was on the other third of the Astral Surveyor--and thus collapsed onto Sarah's unoccupied bunk instead. His mind spiralled with thoughts of the impossible. Discovery of the new and unfamiliar had that affect on the human-centered psyche.
He woke four and a half hours later. A deep black filled the viewport. Faint stars were visible overhead. Barry peered into the dark, hoping to see that majestic glow Sarah had described. However, the ocean remained unseen. So instead, he sat down in Ellen's coveted pilot's chair next to Sarah.
"Sorry. These old bones of mine needed a good rest. You should've woken me."
"It's okay," she said. "I don't think I can sleep anyway."
"You tend to avoid sleep, don't you?"
"It gets in the way of things that need to be done."
"And what are you doing now?"
She sighed. "Nothing much at all." He looked over her shoulder at the console.
Provisional name: 2184 ZB178
Class/type: terrestrial planet, weak magnetic field
Equatorial diameter: ~ 20 000 kilometers
Sidereal period: ~ 550 days
Perihelion/Aphelion: 1.31 AU
Rotation Period: 0 days, 19 hours, 45 minutes
Satellites: four known
Topography: over 90% of surface oceanic
Barry had read this before. Many times. He integrated the information as follows: ZB178 was about two-and-a-half times the size of Earth, with an orbit similar to Mars; a rocky planet, with very little land surface area, and a twenty-hour day. He skipped to the final data entry.
Life forms present: Algae-like organism. Olive-coloured. Present in all water basins. Depth and range of distribution unknown. Further study highly recommended*.
That was it. They were here to fill in the rest of that "further study". He didn't recall seeing that asterisk before and clicked it with his finger. A new window popped open.
In accordance with the SSA Statutes, no sample of the "algee" was taken.
Algee? This trailblazer had a sense of humour.
The discovery of the wormhole array had single-handedly created the trailblazing profession. However, it took decades to determine its safety and stability. The first probes put through the horizon--just outside the orbit of Pluto, in a region known as the Kuiper Belt--were never heard from again. Maybe they were destroyed. But if they weren't, where were the probes transmitting from? The signals might very well take thousands of years to receive. So they sent a dozen more probes through the array. Each had slightly variant navigation instructions. But all were programmed to return, if they could.
All twelve came back, appearing as though out of nowhere, fully operational, with images of a dozen different solar systems.
Intergalactic exploration exploded. Sending a trailblazer first became a cost-saving measure. For one-tenth the expense of a fully equipped ship and crew, these scouts recorded every piece of data they could gather. Their report ultimately determined if further exploration would take place. Of them all, ZB178 looked the most promising.
The presence of life guaranteed approval, regardless of the other requisites, including safety. Hence Barry found himself here, studying the trailblazer's report. Before all this kafuffle, the experts agreed that a stable wormhole was only a theorized solution to Einstein's relativistic equation for gravity. Now, they only agreed on one point: whatever, or whomever, had created this impossible anomaly--for it certainly wasn't a natural phenomenon--needed to be found.
"How about Noachia?"
Sarah yawned, and looked at him quizzically. "Huh?"
"The planet name. I think that should be it."
"What is that? One of the Greek gods?"
"No...all of the mythological deities have been taken. It's an allusion to Noah. You can name a planet after bloodthirsty, ravaging gods, but anything religious is taboo."
"I suppose it's appropriate, what with the lack of land. But..."
"It doesn't have that zing to it."
"Zing? Don't get scientific on me."
"I have something better."
"Really? Spill the beans."
"I didn't say I have it now."
Barry laughed. "You'll be the end of me yet, Sarah. I bet Ellen prefers the technical designation."
Most of the time, Ellen was barely human. They were a bit like old friends; they knew how each other would react, without the need for small talk. Although he didn't know her at all outside the Space Science Academy. Apparently Ellen had a spouse back on Earth, which was more than he could claim. Sarah and him got along like brother and sister. Admittedly, a much older brother.
"We know why I'm here. What about you, Barry? What first brought you out to the stars?"
"I don't know if I can honestly answer that." He was happy to leave it there. But Sarah just sat there staring at him. "Oh, all right. I do remember one incident early on. One that stuck with me."
"My eldest brother, Jeff, took me down to the beach. We were just kids. Jeff and I spent the day skipping stones, playing in the sand, turning over rocks to find crabs. I guess that's where my interest in science started, there on the seashore. We stayed right into the summer evening. I remember his hand being on my shoulder as we watched the sun set over the waves.
"Of course, he only took me there because our Mom ordered him to. We never went again, as far as I can remember. But I never forgot that day." He paused, debating whether or not to go any further. He had never really talked about this to anyone before. What the hell.
"Jeff died when I was thirty. I was on my way to Titan at the time."
He felt Sarah's hand on his arm.
"The life of an explorer isn't an easy one, Barry. How did your family take it?"
"By the time I returned, the funeral was a buried memory and my relatives were reluctant to talk to me about it. I became sort've an outsider then. The thing is, I didn't return early. I stayed with the mission until it was done. That's what you're supposed to do, isn't it?"
"It's in our training."
Barry leaned back in the chair. "It's the life I chose."
"No--it's the life we chose. Now, I better get some rest." Sarah got up, but turned back at the threshold.
"Archeya," she proclaimed.
"Archeya? It's definitely old-sounding."
"I thought you'd like it," she said with a grin, and went to her quarters.
Sarah's logbook sat on the console. He picked it up.
She was definitely recording too much. A common error among green explorers, noting every trivial detail. Although the exobiologists at home would doubtless be ecstatic over Sarah's explicit descriptions. In truth, it didn't add up to anything concrete. To Barry, all one needed was the pertinent information. That usually didn't reveal itself until the end of the mission.
One item caught his interest: The bacteria appear to be single-celled. They are clearly separate entities. However, it is possible that each bacterium may be synergetic with those surrounding it, like a colony of choanocytes becoming a multicellular unit.
Hmm. On Earth, multicellular life didn't appear until over 700 million years ago. That meant for more than three billion years, Earth was inhabited solely by single-celled microbes. But with fifteen billion years, didn't Archeya have time enough for evolution well beyond multicellularism?
The next few hours droned by, Barry trying to glean some useful information from the ship's biological database. At one point, he searched for "bioluminescence".
Light produced by an organism via a chemical or physical reaction, usually as an expression of circadian rhythmicity. Light emission spectrum falling between 474 and 476 nanometers in wavelength, with an action potential extruding hydrogen ions into outer pockets of the vascular membrane. Leading theories suggest a complex method of maximizing exposure to light, thus providing an adaptive advantage for photosynthesis.
Barry wondered. Photosynthesis was a biosphere's metabolic foundation. In a sense, it provided the basis for all life, synthesizing carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water using light as an energy source, while releasing oxygen as a byproduct. Those carbohydrates were eaten by other organisms, and that oxygen breathed by animals. Without photosynthesis, one could argue complex life on Earth never would've evolved.
Did the algee carry out something similar to the photosynthesis process? Was it related to the reason the algee were the only organisms on Archeya?
He let out a hearty laugh. If you can answer that, Barry, you'd be done here.
He went to the viewport. With the day cycle here shorter than Earth's, the sun was already cresting the grey horizon. Its rays spread colour over the land, ascending into the atmosphere. Black shifted to a surreal green, slowly fading to brilliant teal until the orange ball of flame once again dominated the sky. For the first time in weeks, he felt a stabbing symptom of the chronic disease carried by all starnauts: homesickness.
"Better not let Sarah see you staring out the viewport like that."
Eyes hypnotized by the display, Barry blinked.
"You missed an amazing sunrise, Ellen. I'm starting to sound like her too, aren't I?"
"I'll take my watch. You get some sleep."
He almost relented, but at the last moment saw the gleam in her eye.
"I can't sleep. I have a feeling neither of us feel like sleeping any longer."
Ellen licked her lips. He knew the scientist in her couldn't resist.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" she announced, as though she had planned this all along. "Let's suit up."
Before they went to the shore, Ellen went to check on Sarah.
"Where are you going?" he had asked.
"Just making sure she's all right." She evidently had a maternal instinct.
The four moons had shifted position in the sky, having no effect on the mysterious sea. The algee remained abundant, flat, and still. On the sandless beach, Barry showed Ellen the channel running inland.
"What do you make of it?"
"At a right angle from the source, digging along the surface as the crow flies. It almost looks artificial."
"I don't know," he said. "Indigenous animals have done far stranger things on Earth, things that might seem supernatural until they're understood by science."
"You think this was made by an animal of some kind?"
"Maybe something went into that ocean of algee. Or something came out of it."
Ellen ruminated. "If that's the case, it didn't get very far. You head east, Barry. And keep the com open."
They split up. Barry, weighed down further by an imager and atmo-probe, questioned Ellen's diversion from precaution. He quickly understood that wasn't the case.
"0841 Earth standard time. Do you read?"
"Loud and clear."
It was the same transmission from Ellen every sixty seconds. Except when a discovery interrupted them. But the only thing either of them found was more channels. All immaculately straight lines, all roughly perpendicular to the algee, sprouting from the shore an average of every twenty meters. He didn't bother trying to get a dialogue going, because when Ellen was in research mode, it would be a one-way conversation.
The coastline intermittently swerved in and then outward again. He had trouble believing the algee, so placid and docile, was there at all. Yet that organism covered the entire surface, from the shore to the far reaches of the imager's vision, which would've gone even further if not for the planet's natural curvature.
The repressive gravity started getting on his nerves more than Ellen. The unchanging scenery certainly didn't help clear his encroaching boredom. He returned with weighted steps to the starting point, where he found Sarah sitting with her logbook. Ellen arrived soon after.
"I'm going to see if I can find any evidence of these fossilized rivulets further inland, and then do some digging around those unusual structures."
Sarah watched her leave, and then turned to Barry.
"This ocean is thriving with life. You would think dozens of species would be a given. If not on the land, then somewhere out there."
"A reasonable hypothesis, though I'm beginning to think this isn't an ocean at all, but a gathering of algee. Of course, thousands upon thousands of species evolved on Earth before one of them figured out land was an opportunity to be knocked. Here, we have only one."
After an hour, he called Ellen on the com.
"Found anything?" he asked.
"Negative," was the entirety of her reply.
The whole afternoon turned out to be a negative. By sunset only Sarah had something to show for the day's work--more in-depth, ineffectual notes. Some part of Barry longed to get inside the ship's stabilized pressure, and shed a few hundred pounds.
"They're turning green!"
Startled, Barry spun to look at Sarah. Her facemask glowed.
The algee had started to shimmer.
"Turn on the recorder," he ordered.
"Done," Sarah replied.
At first he could see very little colour change. Just a fuzzy luminescence. Over the next dozen seconds it became clear that something more was going on.
Sarah was right. For half a minute the algee quivered, their vibrations becoming more and more intense. And then, in complete symmetry, they lit into a vibrant green.
The entire ocean glowed. One big writhing mass of green, incomprehensibly bright.
"What could possibly be so..."
"...amazing?" Sarah finished for him with a grin. "Looks like those worn eyes of yours haven't seen everything."
Barry smiled back. But his mind was elsewhere, churning over this dramatic display of life. Trying to accept the startling image.
He had the atmo-probe ready, holding it near the surface. Doing his best to ignore the algee, he watched readings. The letter "O" had turned red. The oxygen levels were falling: 0.5 to 0.4%.
"My god. They're removing the O2 from the atmosphere."
The percentage kept declining. A minute later, it levelled out at 0.1%. He lowered the probe. Sure enough, the algee were slowing, their greenish glow dimming.
"Believe me now?" Sarah whispered.
"This green tide was definitely longer than the first," she remarked.
Barry had a sudden thought. "What time did they do this yesterday?"
Sarah responded like clockwork. "Just after 1600 hours."
"And the time now?"
"Coming onto 1430."
That didn't help.
If the green tide were following a time-related pattern, he needed more information to plot a graph in his mind, as well as factor in the shorter day cycles. Oxygen had some significance. How were the algee obtaining the oxygen, and what were they doing with it? Did a 0.5% O2level stimulate them to go into this state? What was bringing up those levels in the first place?
The algee had lost all their radiance now, throwing Sarah and him into twilight.
"There's still something missing."
"What's that, Barry?"
"Huh? Oh, nothing. I just think there's something we're not seeing that's fundamental to understanding the solution."
"The solution to what?"
"The algee. Archeya. Evolution. I really don't know."
"Well, we've got twenty-six more days to find out."
The following morning, Barry slept in.
"Starting without me?"
Sarah answered him on the com. "We thought about waking you. But you look so peaceful when you're sleeping."
Several minutes and several dozen laboured steps later, he found the two women on the shore, staring out at the unchanged algee. Sarah was holding her digital logbook. But it wasn't open. Barry trekked to her side. They exchanged a knowing glance.
"What do you think?" he asked her.
"I think," said Sarah, "that we need a sample."
Barry smiled. "Who ever said great minds don't think alike?"
They had spent two twenty-hour days on this world. Decisions such as this, according to SSA regulations, were now left to their own discretion. With Sarah on his side, Ellen got outvoted. He turned towards the solitary woman.
Ellen, however, was prepared for him. She held a specimen cylinder in her hands, and a smirk hidden on her face. It appeared he didn't have her figured out after all.
"Just let me know what you discover about these little guys," she said, handing Barry the canister.
Then Ellen turned on her heels and, armed with a trowel and other excavation equipment, headed out onto the plains. No, he had definitely not figured her out.
Barry carefully stepped to the edge of the shoreline. Using the attachment, he scooped two liters of algee. They didn't respond. He put the attachment with the algee back into the cylinder. No reaction. Nothing.
"It seems they're happy to be coming with us."
"Let me see," Sarah said.
He held up the cylinder. They both peered through the metallic plastic.
"Not unlike bacilli," she commented.
"Yes. Although these are more oval- than rod-shaped."
"I don't see any conspicuous protrusions, such as flagella. How big are they?"
"Since we can make out their shape without a viewscope, they're definitely larger than the average cell. Maybe ten millimetres."
He stared at the immobile organisms. What made them tick?
"Come on, Barry," Sarah implored.
"Ah, the impetuousness of youth," he teased. "All right, all right. Here, since you just can't wait to pick them apart, you can carry this."
He gave her the cylinder, which she in turn nearly dropped. The small container looked to be no more than a few pounds. But of course here it weighed more than ten kilos. Perhaps Sarah had been a little too anxious. That led to mistakes. He didn't tell her that. He was certain she'd learn for herself.
Back at the ship, they went through the double, hermetically sealed doors of the biolab, keeping their suits on. The lab stretched right to the back of the ship--it was the primary reason for this vessel. The unused steel surfaces had a sheen to them, reflecting the bright lights overhead, while the sterilized, state-of-the-art equipment awaited a specimen to study.
Now they had one.
Sarah set up one of the viewscopes. Barry was content to watch her work; it gave him a quiet pleasure watching others perform their duties, especially when they did them well. Sarah quickly adjusted the scope's resolution. With a dropper she put a thin pool of water onto a glass slide, and held it out towards him, waiting expectantly. Sarah was happy doing the familiar. The unfamiliar, however, she left to Barry. A smart one, she was.
Before getting her an algee sample, he secured the specimen cylinder into a quarantine cube. More like something Ellen would do. But there would be no contamination on his watch. The three-layered cube--reinforced steel, aluminum, and metalloplastic--set aside that possibility.
He used a pair of vacuum tweezers to lift an algee onto a petri dish. Then he shut the cube and transferred the individual algee--once more, he noted the lack of reaction--to the viewscope slide. Sarah placed a coverslip on top, and was on her way to place it under the viewscope when she let out a horrible screech.
Barry saw her drop the slide. The glass shattered, the lone algee twisting and turning on the floor like a dug up earthworm, glowing green.
"It changed so fast..." Sarah tried to explain, holding her trembling hands together.
Barry quickly cleaned and sterilized the mess. This wasn't like Sarah. As a microbiologist, she dealt with deadly bacteria all the time. Why lose her nerve over this?
"Is anything the matter, Sarah?" She didn't reply. "Are you all right?"
"I think so."
He tried to see her expression through the facemask.
"I'm sorry. I don't know why I screamed. There's something about the algee that I find...disconcerting."
"What do you mean?"
"Don't worry, I'll be fine. Let's continue here."
Barry prepared another sample. Again, the algee reacted to being placed on the slide. This time, he quickly pushed it under the viewscope and put his eyes over the two lenses. Finally, he would see the heart of this creature.
"Well?" Sarah prompted.
"I have to wait for it to stop quivering. Here, I'll put the image up on the monitor."
And there it was. A ten millimeter organism blown up on the meter-sized screen. The algee's shape slowly came into focus as it stilled and dimmed, revealing a smooth membrane as its exterior, covered in small porous openings much like those possessed by human cells.
"There's more than one membrane," Barry said, using the viewscope's pointer. "I see at least two."
"Maybe three," Sarah answered. "The outer resembles a plasma membrane, the second a plant cell wall--those are usually arranged the other way around. The innermost membrane doesn't look like anything I've seen before."
"I'm not sure it's a membrane. It does surround the perimeter, but...it's not thin enough. Okay, it finally stopped. Now we can see the cell components. See those small granules just inside the inner membrane? It looks like they're using cyclosis to get around."
Hundreds of tiny organelles circled the cell, like microscopic cars on a racetrack.
"Chloroplasts?" Sarah theorized.
"That's as good a guess as any, I suppose." Chloroplasts were the organelle responsible for photosynthesis, and were usually green. "But these are more compact. And dense, like ribosomes."
"Whatever they are, they're sure keeping busy."
Barry shook his head. "We've overlooked the most important feature. It's just like me to get lost in the details. This algee is about the size of my pinky fingernail. And it's a single cell."
Sarah's eyes widened, as if seeing the algee for the first time. Then she shook her head. "It's too big."
"So is an unfertilized ostrich egg."
"That's cheating. It won't grow into anything. A fertilized egg, on the other hand, will become a billion-celled bird."
She suddenly looked lost to Barry. And somehow, very frail. Starnauts sometimes started to act strange, especially those on long voyages and lacking experience. Space sickness some called it. But it had nothing to do with space, and everything to do with being surrounded by the unfamiliar. He couldn't lose her now, just when things were getting interesting. He needed her to be part of the team.
"I'm going to set up the stereoscope so we can see several interacting together. Can you go over the factors that limit cell size for me?"
"Yes, it'll help me think." And help you keep focused.
She paused, her mind working, moving back to the familiar.
"A cell's surface-to-volume ratio is vital. With the expansion of the cell, its membrane surface area to volume of cytoplasm decreases. Thus the larger a cell is, the harder it becomes for it to balance water and other resources between itself and the outside environment. So it requires a lot more work to obtain nutrients and get rid of wastes by diffusion. Most cells aren't larger than one hundred micrometers; many are only one or two in diameter."
"But what advantages are there for large cell size?"
"There are none," she said matter-of-factly. "Smallness in the cell world means efficiency."
"But there has to be some advantage." He saw the thrill in her eyes, trying to make the unknown known. He needed to keep her going. "What about a larger storage area?"
"No, that just means a cell needs to do more work to maintain the same relative amount of material for storage. Yet...one could hypothesize that a large cell size would allow for fluids and signals to be conducted more easily, without obstruction by the nucleus and other cell components. And maybe to help compartmentalize functions. But that's usually where multicellularism comes in."
Barry thought it over. "Maybe this is one discovery that'll put another scientific prejudice aside. Okay, the stereoscope is ready."
He transferred the image. Six algee now quivered and glowed on the monitor.
"The three membranes," Sarah said, "they look like they're lining up."
Barry watched as the outer two walls of the algee shifted, so that their pores overlapped. Then the third membrane broke apart. The fragmented pieces were the same organelles from before--small, granulated, and compact. Some of them quickly moved through the pores from one algee to the next. Any gaps in that third pseudo-membrane were quickly filled from the innermost part of the cell.
"Fascinating. Those channels are like plasmodesmata," Barry noted. "Connecting the algee to one another."
"Yes, and those components moving among the algee remind me of neurotransmitters. They could be signals, coordinating the algee, allowing many of them to work together towards a single purpose--"
Ellen came onto the com.
"You better come look at this," she said, sounding ominous.
"What is it? Found a terrestrial life form?" For that, Barry could forgive the interruption.
"Not exactly," she replied. Ellen's voice sounded strange. Excited. "But maybe evidence of one."
"Okay, I'll be right there." He turned to Sarah, feeling confident now that he could leave her in the biolab. He had bigger things to ponder than cellular structure. "Can you continue on here while I go see what Ellen's unearthed?"
"Sure thing." She didn't even look his way, occupied with her work. Good.
He went towards the doors.
"Wait a second," Sarah called after him. "Come look at this. The algee--it's dividing."
Barry started walking back.
"Hurry! It's almost done."
Almost done? What was she talking about?
He peered up at the magnified image. Right she was: the cell was just finishing what looked like mitosis. One algee had become two. In under thirty seconds.
Astounding. This was one remarkable little bacterium.
"What's the fastest generation time for a cell on Earth?"
"E. coli," Sarah answered, "can divide in eighteen minutes in a nutrient-rich culture. But I wouldn't call this petri dish a rich culture."
"It does have water."
"Wrong. It did have water. They've used it all up."
"Thirty seconds. That's fifteen billion years of evolution for you."
"We both know evolution doesn't operate that way. But maybe this algee is the closest anything's ever got."
Beyond the single-celled issue, there was a much bigger picture to consider. Were these algee the result of an extraordinarily long evolutionary process? All life started out as a single organism, the joining of two amino acids in a gelatinous sea. From there, over innumerable generations of parent organisms passing on their genes, this mother organism diversified into several new forms. Eventually the oceans and continents are teeming with countless different species, each tailored to its own ecological niche. Some use the sun and water to make food, others feed on these providers, while others still prey on them from higher up in the food chain. The balance between plant and animal, predator and prey, was very fine.
Barry brooded over the question that underlined the algee. If you waited several billion years, or in this planet's case, more than fifteen billion, did everything go back to how it began? Instead of countless species, did it all return to a single life form? Were these algee the ultimate end of evolution?
Ultimate or not, they would soon be as extinct as Archeya's dying sun. There was no adaptation to escape that fate....
Outside the ship, on his way to find Ellen, Sarah reached him over the com. "Barry, they start glowing and quivering every time I add water. By the time they finish, the water's gone. Those six algee are now thirty. They've stopped dividing, yet they still use up any water I give them. The algee don't increase in size, either. It's like they're not actually utilizing the water for themselves anymore."
"Thanks for the update," he said, annoyed at losing his train of thought. Although it gave him a sudden insight. What was in water? Oxygen. That could easily be a critical resource. And from what Sarah had said, it sounded as though the algee weren't simply using it; they were removing it. Whenever the amount of oxygen rose to the minimum level required for life, the algee eliminated the gas before anything else could obtain it.
Ruthless competitors. Is that what these algee were? So efficient at eliminating competition that nothing else could survive here?
Humans had done this as well, until we learned to co-exist with our planet's biodiversity. The algee didn't have those worries. One cell, no matter how well-adapted, couldn't possess sentience. Therefore these algee had no qualms about causing mass extinction. He wondered if they were an engineered bacteria, a biological weapon so powerful it could destroy all life--except for itself. He shivered at the thought. This algee had had a long time to engineer itself through mutation and natural selection.
A memory tried to surface from the well of his mind. No, the algee wasn't a weapon. Something else. Something he'd read, or someone had mentioned to him in passing. Another expedition like this one. A report. Saying something about--
"What do you make of this?"
He had found Ellen near those odd structures resembling eucalyptus trees, or the upper half of bishop's heads from a chessboard. His previous musings were immediately forgotten. She held an object in her hands, obviously yielded from her excavation. It looked like silver, although it was nearly transparent.
"My God, Ellen. What have you dug up?"
"This was ten meters below the surface," she explained, handing it to him, answering the one question that didn't matter.
The object was exceptionally light-weight, about as long as his forearm. One side tapered to a smooth and unblemished, rounded point. The other end looked the same, except about halfway down there was a clean break in its shape. He had expected her to discover a fossil, not an alien artifact.
"It isn't rusted at all," he said. "Not even here, where it has been severed. You do realize this could be an object of unimaginable power. After all, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
"Clarke's Third Law?"
"You know your history. This might be the first time that Law can be tested."
"Or," Ellen replied nonchalantly, "it could just be a vase."
She was precisely correct. They might never figure out what this was, let alone how it worked. But one thing was certain: it was entirely artificial. Could an intelligent being have created this? The idea was hard to fathom. But he couldn't put it aside.
"Do you think this object's maker--the Archeyans, if you will--were advanced enough to stabilize, or even create, the wormhole array?"
"We can't answer that yet."
"Until we find evidence proving otherwise," Barry said, "I think the answer has to be yes. Why else would the array be so close to Archeya?"
"You mean ZB178. Let's see what else we can find."
Over the next few days, Barry acted as a relay station between Ellen and Sarah. The three of them worked well together, efficiently, sleeping only because they knew it was needed. His earlier idea tugged at his brain. What had he been thinking about? He couldn't remember. Oh well, he would just have to work it out again.
Ellen continued with her archaeological dig. She found two more objects in the same area, guiding a geoprobe remotely to excavate them to the surface. These were larger, about two square meters. They looked identical, like simple rectangular containers with rounded corners.
"Would make a nice bathtub," Barry remarked.
He also helped her with the surface penetrating radar. The reflected signals gave them a global profile of what lay under the ground. The bishop's heads were actually the top of a massive framework of architecture, the foundations of artificial construction. He excitedly proclaimed them the ruins of an ancient metropolis. The find was extraordinary. Intelligent life had been here.
"During its time, this alien civilization must've been far more advanced than we can ever imagine. Yet, at the same time, these Archeyans may have been beaten by the algee in the evolutionary race."
Ellen didn't want to jump to any conclusions.
Meanwhile, Sarah had a much smaller focus. She had an algee positioned in the electron transmission microscope, down to the last nanometer.
He asked her how it was going.
"What can I say," she said. "This is the most fascinating work I've ever done."
"Fascinating? Your latest synonym for amazing?"
She beamed. This was why she was here. This was why she had come.
"Let me tell you the three most interesting discoveries I've made," she continued, intent on her objective, determined to get results. "The first involves how the algee quiver about so violently. Remember those small, ribosome-like organelles? When the algee starts to glow, these begin to bounce around inside the cell, like a pinball machine. That's what causes them to vibrate. Don't shake your head. I don't believe it either. But that's what happens."
"I'll take your word for it. What else have you found?"
"The algee are definitely multi-nucleated. I've seen anywhere from ten to fifty nuclei in any particular cell. That's how they divide so fast--they're prepared for it. The nuclear material is ready to be put into a new cell, with new nuclei being formed all the time. Potentially, a few algee could become thousands in a matter of minutes."
"Sarah, I'm being serious. Or can't you tell?"
"You don't make it easy. Now look at this. The ECM is in a vacuum, and the electron beam isn't very healthy for any biological sample. Not to mention that a specimen has to be completely dehydrated before it can be viewed. That's more than enough to kill any cell on Earth. Yet, hours later when I removed the slide, the algee was still alive."
"Resilient little buggers, aren't they?"
"To say the least."
"I assume you're taking the proper precautions?"
"Oh, Barry. When it comes to safety, I'm just your average Ellen. I think I can handle a single cell."
"There's a ruined civilization out there that might disagree."
Sarah didn't say anything.
"What about the green tide? Have you figured out the functionality of that phosphorescence?"
"I have no idea how the glow works. Must be a redox reaction of some sort. Why it sheds such a bright colour is still a mystery to me. But that does remind me...."
He looked at Sarah, thought he could see concern etched behind her facemask.
"Yes?" he persisted.
"I've been working on a theory to explain how the algee use oxygen. I think they convert two O2's into an O4 molecule. I'm not sure if they're adding an electron to each O4 ion to make it neutral. But something masks the oxygen as being oxygen. Maybe there's no other life here, because the algee hide all the O2."
"No oxygen...no photosynthesis...no simple sugars...no food."
"That's a frightening thought." Barry considered it for a moment. "But there's a problem. How do the algee use oxygen if they convert it all to this unusable form? Or do they use it at all?"
"I think they do. They just reverse the reaction. But only they know how."
Sarah looked up at the monitor, almost transfixed. This was her new viewport.
"You're doing good work, Sarah. I'm going to head outside. Keep me posted."
Barry often went to the shore to be alone and think. Well, maybe he wasn't alone out here, but the billion or so little guys keeping him company kept quiet enough. He tried to catch them when they "activated" themselves, forming another green tide. The oxygen levels never rose more than half a percent, and never fell under a tenth. Could the algee actually be creating their own energy source, and controlling it as well? Like a virus or a parasite that didn't need a host to survive. Unless you considered a planet a host. A disconcerting thought.
Carefully cataloguing all his findings, he did his best to integrate them with Sarah and Ellen's, trying to link the data, connect it into one whole. Eventually, his growing fatigue and the failing light forced him to resign. Cursing the planet's short day length didn't help.
On the seventh day of their stay on Archeya, Barry woke to an empty ship.
He had taken the dreaded middle watch, and his second shift of sleep was, unsurprisingly enough, far from restful. He kept waking, then falling back into a deep slumber filled with dreams of Earth's oceans. Each time he dreamt felt like days, time stretching as far as the ocean waves.
Sarah and Ellen were both outside. A week had past since they had arrived, which meant they would be relocating the Astral Surveyor to another part of the planet in a few hours, covering ground in a new area.
He gulped down a nutribar, splashed some water over his face, and went to the biolab. The sterilized steel surfaces gently glowed, the night lights still on. Barry turned on the main lights, wanting to observe the quivering mechanism for himself. He opened up the quarantine cube--
That was strange. This cube was empty. Sarah must've moved them. But to where?
It was Ellen on the com. Her voice was tight, as though she were struggling to keep it controlled.
"What's going on?"
There was a pause before her reply. "It's Sarah."
He knew something had gone terribly wrong.
"Ellen, what's happened? Where is Sarah?"
"She's here, on the shore."
"Is she all right?"
"No, Barry, she's not. I...need your help."
He found Ellen crouching next to Sarah's prone body. One of her hands was half-raised, like a mother reaching for a child that was beyond aid. But Ellen's SSA training kept her fingers from reaching Sarah's shoulder.
Then Barry saw the helmet next to Sarah's body. Sarah was dead.
The emotional weight dropped him to one knee. Archeya's gravity seemed heavier, pushing him down, down, down. Sarah was dead. Dead. He fought against it, forcing himself to rise, to bottle his emotion.
"What happened?" he finally asked.
"I found her like this," Ellen somberly explained. "I haven't moved her," she quickly added, as though that were important now.
"And her helmet?"
"I haven't touched that either."
He felt anger rising in his belly. How could she be so calm? "Why didn't you try to put it back on?"
She didn't answer him, because she didn't have to.
The lower half of Sarah's suit was practically eaten away, revealing her slender legs underneath. And her face...her face had shrunk beyond recognition. Skin on bone, with little separating the two. Mercifully, her eyelids were closed. There was probably nothing behind them.
"She said she wanted to see the algee in their natural environment. That was the last thing she told me."
Barry sat next to Ellen. "You think she went into there?" he said, turning to stare out at the sea of algee. Silent, still, almost lifeless. Some part of him thought he was still in a dream.
"I think she waded in, panicked, took off her helmet, and collapsed here on the shore," Ellen said in one breath.
"Why would Sarah do that?"
He looked at Ellen, and realized she had had much longer than him to think this through.
"She's withered away," Ellen went on. "Gaunt, emaciated. Her blood is gone."
"Yes," Barry said, getting his mind on track. "The oxygen carrier in the blood. The algee could be responsible for denaturing its structure, or putting in an inhibitor onto the heme binding site." Those cutthroat competitors. They had eliminated his protege. His colleague. His friend. Barry couldn't hold it in.
"Duty, protocol. How does any of that matter now? There's a young woman beneath that suit. And she's dead, Ellen. Do you realize that? Of course you do. I'm sorry. It's just, I can't pretend any longer that I'm not feeling anything. She loved her life. She loved being in space. I'm the one who pushed for her to be on this mission. Sarah's father asked me to look out for her, for Christ's sake. I failed him. I failed her. Maybe she was too eager, too green with inexperience. She shouldn't have come...."
"Barry, she knew exactly what she was getting into."
Only when she spoke did he realize Ellen had placed her hand on his shoulder. Barry put his hand overtop hers, and they remained that way for a long moment. He couldn't deny what Ellen said. Just a few days ago, Sarah herself had told him this was the life she had chosen.
He saw Sarah's logbook sitting on the shore. "Oh, God," he exclaimed.
"What is it?"
He had just remembered that first day, the inexplicable feeling he had to submerge himself in the algee's depths.
"A week ago, standing in this very same spot, I had this urge. I can't explain it, Ellen, but I wanted to swim in that green tide. I think Sarah might've felt it as well. But I didn't say anything."
Ellen faced him. He couldn't make out her expression through the facemask.
"I felt it too," she stated simply.
"Yes, just once. I remember it. You know why I retired to the ship so early that first day? It was for that very reason. Don't try to blame yourself for this."
Barry decided something right then and there. He may have failed Sarah, but he wouldn't let the mission fail.
"Let's get her back to the ship."
It was nearly impossible to haul Sarah's body back. But Barry refused to do it any other way. He lifted, dragged, pulled, stopped...and then started again. Sarah didn't feel real to him. Light somehow, soulless. When they finally had her aboard, Barry sat with Ellen on the bridge, exhausted.
"We have to go," she told him.
"I'm not leaving."
"No, Ellen." He took a deep breath. "I'm staying on here. You can go, of course. You have to take Sarah back to Earth. Leave the third of the Astral Surveyor, the section with the biolab, here with me. Pack everything else and go."
"There's a proven danger on this world. I can't allow it."
"Nothing has been proven, Ellen. As much as it pains me to say it, Sarah may have taken her own life. This is my last mission. I'll take full responsibility for my actions. That's what I've always done."
"Right now, I don't give a damn about responsibility." He was startled by her vehemence. "I care about you."
Barry didn't know how to respond.
"If you stay here, you could end up the same way Sarah did."
He understood then, and was touched by Ellen's concern. But it still wouldn't stop him.
"This mission is all I care about. Sarah's dead, it's sunk in now. But I won't abandon the mission. I can't."
Ellen was quiet for a minute.
"This planet holds a secret," she said softly. "I want to solve it as much as you." Then her voice became firm. "We'll stay another day. No more. Then we go home."
Even though they were leaving tomorrow, Barry helped Ellen make all the preparations. Yet he still found time to retrieve another sample of algee. She didn't object to his assistance. She didn't say much of anything, except when he provoked a response by insisting he continue the mission on his own. But Ellen was adamant in her position, and eventually Barry realized how ridiculous he was acting. Because he would never leave Ellen alone here.
Afterward, they were both worn out. Ellen retired to her quarters, perhaps hoping to sleep away some of the emotional demons that must be lurking inside her head. They had certainly found their way into Barry's mind, appearing the moment he saw Sarah lying on the shore. The demons taunted him, digging at his guilty conscience with their claws.
"Don't you go wandering into that algee. And that's an order," Ellen had told him.
No. He could do exactly what he wanted right here.
The sun had started to set, twilight settling over the world. Yet sleep wasn't possible for him now. He had work to do, and his mind refused to shut down. If his time was limited, there was nothing to do but make the best of it. He was ready, in a manner of speaking, to get his hands dirty.
Within the confines of the biolab, Barry organized a series of petri dishes along the steel counter. He was determined to test the algee's resilience. He wanted to break through it. Perhaps his motives were sinister, some form of unconscious vengeance; at this point, he cared little for scientific objectivity. What they had done to Sarah justified it. He would get to the truth of the algee's origins any way he could.
For the first test he went up and down the pH scale, from sodium hydroxide to hydrochloric acid. The base solutions seemed to shy away from the algee, while the acids were actually consumed.
"That probably did you more good than harm," he quipped.
He spent ten minutes scrubbing the countertop with acetone, and put the petri dishes into the autoclave, before beginning the next test. Filling four test tubes partway with algee, he placed them inside the centrifuge, equidistant from one another so as to properly balance the machine. He set the timer for three hours, and let it work its way up to one hundred thousand revolutions per minute.
Moving on, he placed a petri dish with a new sample onto a cold plate. Positioning it under the stereoscope so he could watch the algee respond on the monitor, he lowered the temperature. When he passed the freezing point of water the algee started doing their vibrating dance, the organelles resembling ribosomes bouncing around the inside of the cells just as Sarah had described. But they weren't glowing. As it got colder, the algee suddenly shrank down to half their size, pulling in both outer membranes. When he raised the temperature, the algee became turgid again, seemingly unaffected.
They appeared to freeze, but did not die. Well, Barry thought, how hot do you like it?
After another acetone and autoclave sterilization, he prepared a converse sample for the incinerator. As he transferred the algee, he couldn't help but wonder if they somehow sensed what he was about to do to them. He let the temperature rise slowly, a few degrees every minute, starting at three hundred Kelvin. It passed three hundred-fifty, and then the boiling point of water. Only well beyond four hundred did the cell structure begin to fall apart, denaturing into a disorderly mess of subcomponents.
He came to a rather obvious conclusion: there was no easy way to kill these little buggers.
Barry kept working through the dark hours of Archeya's night. The experiment he took the most pleasure in involved the use of a mortar and pestle. It felt more involving on his part. Primitive equipment, perhaps, but by putting a few dozen algee into the bottom of the mortar dish, he was then able to crush them thoroughly with the pestle. He got some satisfaction manually squashing them. The pulpy product Barry put into the spectrograph's chemilyzer.
While waiting for the results to be printed, he came across his most startling discovery.
The centrifuge had finished spinning. He promptly retrieved the four test tubes, thinking he would now be better able to analyze the algee's particular constituents. As he stared at the suspension of fractionated cells, split into a dozen or so layers of sedimentation, he thought he saw movement.
A minute later he had the contents spread on a petri dish, and observed them on the monitor.
Definite movement. But how? And was it random?
No, they were restructuring themselves. These algee weren't dead.
Maybe he shouldn't be surprised. Maybe anything that had dozens of epochs to adapt would become fierce ecological competitors. Maybe when evolution took place over eons, something like this was to be expected.
He watched in fascination as the algee organized their fractured elements. Within a matter of minutes, they had part of their cell membrane rebuilt.
Maybe it was foolish to try and understand them. Cells were the closest living things to being immortal. When they divided, they made exact duplicates of themselves, carrying the same DNA. But the algee...they had attained true immortality.
Barry had a sudden impulse to see them glow. He needed to see that miraculous display of life. He quickly added some water to the petri dish, helping them reform. Soon there were three complete cells, shining bright and green on the monitor. Then the vibrations started, leaving him mesmerized. But this wasn't enough.
His own thoughts strayed from him, replaced by a yearning to see the green tide of Archeya's oceans. To see the algee outside the ship.
Some part of Barry knew exactly what was happening to him. What had happened to Sarah. Yet he didn't fight it. He wanted to experience what she had experienced, relive her final moments. But he wouldn't let Sarah's fate be his own. He would stop before the end.
He almost left the biolab without going through decontamination. A warning alarm sounded, and the doors wouldn't open. So he stood under the sterilizing shower, letting his suit be purified, thinking of the billions upon billions of identical life forms that were waiting for him. There was no hurry.
The orange sun crept over the flat horizon, the encroaching dawn sending an illusion of colours through the atmosphere. But he didn't notice. Walking slowly and steadily over the barren flats, his only interest lay in the phosphorescence. That supernatural glow. Halfway there, he could see the ocean becoming alive again, the green tide returning. It seemed much brighter than before--
Ellen's voice took him off guard. He had forgotten she was here, thought he was alone. Except for the algee. He couldn't make himself answer, knew she wouldn't understand.
"Do you read me, Barry? Please respond." He could hear the concern in her voice, turning to fear. Why didn't he answer her? He opened his mouth, then shut it. No, he needed to keep going. She must be able to hear his breathing. Long gasps for air. He walked on.
At the coast, he stopped dead.
A river had formed from the ocean's edge. A living river. The algee, like a mass of tiny, writhing worms, were forging their own channel up the incline. They glowed and vibrated more intensely than he had ever seen them. The newly-formed river also appeared to be gaining speed, as though the closer the algee got to their destination, the more attracted--eager?--they became.
His mind began to shift back, the scientist in him taking over. He couldn't keep silent any longer.
"Ellen, you aren't going to believe this."
"Barry? Thank God. Where are you?"
"I'm on the shore--"
"Jesus, Barry. What the hell are you doing out there?"
"Listen, Ellen. The algee is on the move. They've come onto the land."
"What are you talking about?"
"Remember those channels all along the shoreline? The algee created them. They're creating a new one right now."
She didn't reply.
"You have to return to the ship, Barry. Immediately."
"In a minute. Oh my god. The algee...they've lifted themselves off the ground...."
"What!?" she said in a very unEllen-like voice.
Barry couldn't believe his unblinking eyes. The algee had raised themselves above the laws of gravity. They were in more or less a straight line. The first twenty meters remained on the land, perhaps leveraging the rest into the air. That explained why the channels always had an abrupt end. But there was nothing his educated brain could put forth to account for the algee's levitation. There would be no more testing of hypotheses, not when the odds were billions against one.
"Is everything okay down there?"
"As a scientist, I can't fathom this, Ellen." A thought occurred to him. "Do you know what this means? Maybe Sarah didn't kill herself. Maybe the algee came to her."
"That may be. But where are they headed?" she asked. It was a rather innocent question, but it didn't sink in.
"Yes," Ellen said. "If the algee have left the shoreline, where is it they are going?"
He paused, just an instant, before replying.
"The little bastards. Are you coming to eliminate us?"
The growing river of algee, leading unmistakably to the Astral Surveyor, didn't respond. Barry wasn't going to stay and chat.
"I'm making my way back," he announced.
"Glad to hear it. Do you need me to help you?"
"Are you sure?"
"All right. I'm going to get the other third of the ship. We're leaving."
This time, Barry didn't argue.
He wanted to sprint back to the Astral Surveyor. But he quickly realized, after his initial adrenaline rush faded, how tired he actually was. He hadn't slept for what felt like an eternity. Fatigue seized his muscles. His body wanted to shut down. He needed to pace himself. The algee might have a way to defy Archeya's gravity, but his weighted legs certainly didn't. He kept glancing over his shoulder, more often than he should.
His toe hit a crevice and he fell onto his hands. Barry felt his left knee scrape over the surface. God, had he cut it open? He hastily ran his fingers over the area in question. Fortunately, the thin suit was tougher than he gave it credit for. However, when he got to his feet, he found his knee didn't want to bend.
"How's it going?" Ellen inquired.
"Slower than I'd like. These old bones of mine need a good rest."
His knee still worked, though he had to drag his right leg a little. It helped when he talked, made him forget the pain in his limbs.
"I'm thinking of modifying Clarke's Law," he said to Ellen.
"Any sufficiently advanced life form is indistinguishable from magic. Maybe I'll call it Barry's Third Law."
"I like the sound of that," Ellen said. "What's Barry's First Law?"
"Never abandon a mission."
"Hmm. And the second?"
He had to pause for a moment to catch his breath, panting from exertion.
"Under extenuating circumstances, the First Law can--no, must--be broken."
"I think this qualifies. Have you reached the ship yet?"
"And the algee?"
He turned back before shutting the hatch. "I think they want to hitch a ride. But I've got enough time to get the ship going before their little thumbs reach me."
"Okay. There's no time to reconnect the ships. We'll have to do it on the other side of the wormhole horizon. We'll dock together at Pluto's refilling station."
Barry locked the hatch and initiated an emergency takeoff. As the propulsion system started up, he strapped himself in, and--after a moment's thought--ejected the quarantine cubes from the ship. Even though the advancing algee were still a minute or two away, he nevertheless breathed a sigh of relief when the ship thrust off the ground.
I'd like to see you follow me now, he thought to himself amidst the roar of the engines, the as-yet unnamed planet falling further from view with each passing second.
As soon as he cleared the exosphere Ellen appeared on the com.
"Just checking in, Barry. All systems go?"
"Definitely a go."
He almost drifted off right then and there. But he needed to attend to something else before sleep. The cryogenic pod was just outside Sarah's quarters. Barry sat beside it.
Leaning against the pod, his arms stretched across its width, he thought of the first time he had seen Sarah. Those eager blue eyes so full of wonder. He recalled her enthusiasm during the SSA training sessions, and how they were at ease with one another right off, exchanging friendly banter from the very beginning.
That fresh young face opened something in him. Something that had been closed off for too long: passion. Passion for his work, for science, for discovery. She had given him that gift, and he returned the favour by getting her killed.
"I'll get you home, Sarah."
Leaving the ship on autonav, he went into Sarah's quarters and crashed on the bunk. It felt as though his eyes barely had time to close when a voice lured him awake.
"Barry, come in."
He sat up, head drooping, and glanced sideways at the clock. "Would you mind putting more than ten minutes between your status check-ins?"
Noncommittal, Ellen said, "I'll try."
She sent a transmission every hour on the hour. He groggily replied to each. After the fifth he got annoyed.
"Look, Ellen, I'm fine. Just be warned that my next reply will be an automated response: 1700 and all's well!"
"We've reached the array."
That got him up. Deep down this was something Barry wished he could sleep through. The wormhole made him nervous. Just a bit.
"Preparing for horizon entry," he announced from the bridge.
As he approached the wormhole, swirling eddies of time mixing with currents of space, the stars began to disappear one by one. Going into a vacuum solution certainly got the stomach butterflies fluttering. He doubted humankind would ever understand this phenomenon they so eagerly exploited. If they couldn't understand the algee, a single-celled organism, how could they expect to understand the stabilization of a cosmic anomaly?
Something clicked in Barry's brain. The final piece to put the puzzle together. His inspiration came, as he had taught himself so very long ago, from the outside.
Outside the algee, outside Archeya, outside the wormhole.
He remembered now with perfect clarity reading a paper in the Journal of Exoplanetology, written by a trailblazer who had visited another solar system. It described an unusual planet with a thick atmosphere. Human observations were limited to off-world viewing, though the author had made note of one particular detail: periodically, the surrounding atmosphere glowed green from an unknown source. A probe sent to the surface had taken pictures of continents barren as deserts without sand, and vast oceans swelling with countless unidentifiable organisms.
But he knew what they were. Algee.
With that bit of knowledge, he began to wonder which planet could claim origin of the algee. But he realized that question didn't matter. What mattered was that two planets--and who knew how many others--were dominated by this same versatile organism. Such an example of parallel evolution was unheard of; he could effectively discard the idea. Because the algee had arrived from outside Archeya.
They had migrated.
"See you on the other side," Ellen said.
He didn't offer her his theory. He could hear Ellen's condescending tone, telling him it was preposterous. Yet he couldn't shake the idea. The implications of being right were literally on a planet-sized scale.
Somewhere in the universe the algee had evolved. Like plants with seeds, spores or fruit, or animals that swim across channels or fly over continents, they must have their own method of dispersal. But instead of spreading from pond to pond, forest to forest, habitat to habitat, the algee had found a way to go from planet to planet. Just like the human race, they were no longer limited to their home world, travelling to other solar systems. How? The answer was simple. He had almost done it himself.
The mountain of evidence--both circumstantial and otherwise--rose to a point. He could almost see the peak, just needed to clear away a few clouding facts. The alien container Ellen found on Archeya, the presence of another planet with algee, the proximity of both planets to separate ends of the wormhole array. No matter how implausible, it was the only explanation that let all the puzzle pieces lock together to form a whole.
They were sampled. That's how the algee colonized and then terraformed other planets.
That green glow. The algee wanted to be seen. Most animals kept out of sight. To hide from predators, and stay alive. Or from prey, and then make a meal out of them. But the algee was letting its presence be known. Not a warning colour, like red on a venomous snake, but a friendly, non-threatening green. Of course, the idea that they had adapted to colonize planets was ridiculous. Initially, it must've evolved for a separate function entirely, perhaps to be consumed by predators and then deposited by local dispersion elsewhere. Or maybe the algee glowed to attract their prey. Because everything was prey to them, a competitor, something to be eliminated.
Barry felt sure planetary colonization was happening. The super-adaptive algee had clearly shown an extreme mobility for their size. Once taken to another world, they spread throughout the oceans, stole the atmosphere's oxygen, depleted the water basins, out-competed every native species, and obliterated an entire bionetwork. Survival of the fittest on a galactic scale.
The magnitude of this mission suddenly hit him. The algee had almost used his ship as a dispersal mechanism.
"Ellen, do you read me?"
There was only static.
"Ellen, this is Barry. Please respond."
She still didn't answer. He realized then that she had already entered the wormhole, skipping forward hundreds of light years on the process. A moment later, he followed.
Jumping transversely through space felt strange more than anything else, like he was plunging downward in an elevator. Then it changed direction. Left...right...up...until he seemed to be moving in every direction at once. A spellbinding display of shifting colours met his vision, going through every shade of the rainbow and beyond, and then there was no colour at all. Everything blended to black. He shut his eyes, could feel his body inversing.
But it was all in his mind. Before he knew it, he appeared in the Kuiper Belt, not far from Pluto.
Slightly nauseous, he did his best to go swiftly through all the requisite diagnostics. Ellen would demand he do so before talking to him. His eyes were still readjusting, making it seem as though a pale light surrounded him.
An indicator light began to flash. The ship's O2 reserves were at sixty percent. The readings plummeted as he watched. Fifty, forty, thirty.... Did he have a hull breach on his hands, or just an instrument problem?
Then his vision cleared. That pale light turned out to be bright and green.
Barry turned in his chair. A river of algee snaked across the floor of the bridge towards him. He didn't move, but simply watched the algee spread and multiply. Divide and conquer. His disbelief slowly left him, replaced by a steady resolve of what his new mission objectives must be.
"Ellen, they're inside the oxygen tanks."
"Oh God, Barry. Can you contain it?"
"Not possible. They're everywhere. My air's depleted."
"Then you'll have to eject. I'll pick you up."
"No, Ellen. It's too late for that. This ship is contaminated. I don't want to contaminate yours."
"What are you saying, Barry?"
"I'm saying goodbye. From the tests I did, there's only one sure way to kill the algee. I'm assuming ten million Kelvin will be hot enough."
He waited for Ellen's response. She knew there could be no other way.
"Your company has been a pleasure."
Despite his situation, he smiled at his co-worker, composed until the very end.
"Can I ask a favour?"
"Make sure the planet is officially named Archeya. It was Sarah's idea."
"Archeya it is."
He switched off the com. "I'm sorry, Sarah."
The algee were quivering about his ankles. Barry transferred all the data from his ship to Ellen's. Then he composed a message for Sarah's father, erased what he wrote, made it two words, and sent it off, knowing forgiveness was too much ask.
Altering the ship's course, he locked on the autonav. Even at this distance, the glare from the sun forced him to shield his eyes. It reminded him of that day on the beach with Jeff. His brother and him together, staring at the sunset.