Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
Experiment of Life
Let me tell you about two girls and a boy who I will call Anna, Brian, and Claire. Anna, Brian, and Claire were high school seniors in AP Biology. It was a difficult course. They had almost as much regular homework as the other classes, but in addition spent most of the year working on an enormous project that took up half of their grade. It was assigned in late November, and didn't look very interesting at all.
Anna stared at the assignment sheet. "So," she asked, "Gas or terrestrial?"
"Why not liquid?" Claire asked.
"It's not an option."
"Well then...terrestrial's probably easier."
"What size? You think a foot diameter is enough?"
They went down the list of things they had to decide, mostly choosing at random, always picking an option whenever it looked distinctly easier than the alternatives. They met at Brian's house that night to begin constructing the habitat, since he had most of the materials. It took them several days to finish building it. Finally they suspended it in a tank and sealed it off so nothing could get out, not before Claire painted pretty pictures all around the inside for the benefit of any organisms that might appear. At the corners they positioned cameras that would record everything that happened inside. It was the first of December.
Though they were quite careful during construction, somewhere or other they miscalculated and ended up with a hot, ugly molten mass. "This won't work," Anna complained. "We're just not going to get any life on here. We just aren't."
"Be patient," said Brian. "We've got six months. These things change a lot over six months."
Each day they went through the video they got, fast-forwarding it for the sake of time, stopping every once in a while to zoom in so much that everything appeared billions of times their real size. They even wrote a computer program to track changes. It was exactly like watching paint dry, except they were actually watching rock solidify. By the time they came back from winter break on January 3 rd , it actually looked like a respectable planet.
Anna was not satisfied. "Great. Now we've got a chunk of rock with puddles."
"The puddles are supposed to be important," Claire reminded them. "The teacher said it works best if there are puddles."
Around January 17 th , a number of odd structures appeared at the bottom of one of the puddles. They were truly tiny; after the computer noticed them, the students had to zoom in a trillion times before they could see the strange little dots, bright with computer-induced false color. "Organisms!" Brian yelled. "We're not going to fail the class! We're not going to fail the class!"
But to their frustration, nothing much else happened for months. Oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose, and the dots spread over the bottom of the puddles. They also got a little bigger. That was it. Finally, in mid-April, the dots began clumping together to form smooth masses that could be seen even when magnified only a few billion times. The masses got larger and began taking interesting shapes. There were circular ones, longish ones, irregular ones. Sometime around May 20 th , they got far more complicated. Some organisms now had shells and appendages. They could move around quite fast, at least in comparison to the dots that the students had been stuck with for so long. Others were stationary, but long, thin, and flexible. Anna, Brian, and Claire took turns frantically writing down every detail they could about the creatures. The more detail they had, the higher grade they would get.
Now things sped up. On May 25 th , Claire noted that some organisms were beginning to move onto the dry chunks on the rock. The organisms became ever more complicated and strangely shaped. On May 28 th , creatures that could live both in the water and on land appeared. On May 31 st , Anna scribbled "Things that defy gravity! Flat bits that can flap up and down--I think that's what keeps them up. Flapping things are transparent" in the group notebook.
But on June 2 nd , something odd happened to the rock. Volcanoes on one part of it and water freezing on another part combined to suddenly kill the vast majority of everything they'd been writing about. Anna wasn't happy. "How are we going to get a good grade if we keep killing off everything we have?"
"Anna, a mass extinction is required ," Brian pointed out.
"ONE is required. This is the fifth time! And it's way worse than we were supposed to ever do."
"Well, it was out of our control anyway."
Luckily, the organisms bounced back soon enough, and they got big. Sure, the stationary ones had been big for a while, but now they had fast-moving ones, very vicious and impressive-looking when blown up. Brian drew some thirty pictures of them. They dominated the rock for a while, and he got quite attached to them. Then a blob of Claire's decorative paint broke off and fell onto the rock. It stirred up a dust cloud that covered everything. The cloud only lasted for a moment, but Brian's favorite organisms all disappeared. It was June 10 th .
But life is not easily discouraged. New organisms soon appeared, almost as big as the ones before. Early in the morning of Saturday, June 13 th , Brian, who couldn't sleep, quickly checked the videos that had been taped during the night. He noticed that around an hour earlier, a new species had shown up. They had a prominent bulge at the end, similar to most of the other big organisms, but the bulge was much bigger in comparison to the rest of the body than in any other life form. And they traveled with two appendages on the ground, not four as with the others. He watched the tapes a little, then shut them off and went to have breakfast.
Soon Anna and Claire came to help put together their display for next week's "Habitat Fair". They'd done many mini-presentations and worksheets on their project throughout the year, but next week was the big one, the time when all their hard work would condense into a single precious point value. They kept the video from the rock running, in the hope that something else would happen that was worth putting onto the display.
The computer beeped. Quickly, Brian rewound the tape and played it in slow motion. He grinned. "That species that only puts two appendages on the ground--they're using fire!"
That was a good one. Anna added it to the list of things they'd mention. Then they went back to work.
Times were bad. People had talked and talked about overpopulation for ages, but it had never been a really urgent, fix-this-NOW-or-else issue--until now. Very suddenly, the room just ran out. Earth had been utterly stripped of its resources. War, famine, disease, all the expected issues followed. Some governments tried to simply have every other person "relocated to an area with better opportunities", as they put it, though everyone knew the area they had in mind was heaven. This might have worked if said governments still had any power left. They didn't.
The seemingly obvious solution was to dump a good chunk of Earth's load on Mars. But while the Moon had been partly colonized and found incapable of taking a significant number of people on board, after all this time, no human had ever set foot on Mars. Little obstacles kept popping up, obstacles that simply wouldn't go away--until now. A group of scientists, working in Antarctica of all places because it was the only peaceful land left, had finally built a ship that really would take humans to Mars. It was to be tested by Captain Smot Stryer and 100 others, some trained, some not.
Of course there were naysayers, as always, but they were completely irrational. Some of them even claimed that new evidence suggested that Mars was painted on the inside of a giant tank with the Earth trapped inside--Stryer never figured out how they even came up with that one. He'd asked one of the "tank theorists" what the sun was supposed to be, and he said it was the one area on the tank that hadn't been painted, first to give them enough light to live on, second so strange beings could look through it at them. The guy was quite serious about the strange beings. Apparently he'd calculated that "their hour is our million years", or something along those lines. Stryer gave up on further inquiry at this point. It was all too insane for him.
He was just now about to prove the naysayers wrong. The ship was approaching Mars, and they would land soon. Normally only a few people on the ship were awake, but everyone had been taken out of suspended animation for this moment. They were celebrating, laughing and shouting like they never had before.
Stryer didn't join in. He was watching the meters carefully, and they worried him. They were still not slowing down. That wasn't right--the computer should have begun to prepare for landing by now. He pushed some buttons to make the ship slow manually. It still wouldn't.
This was a problem. Stryer pushed the buttons harder, then tried some other buttons, then called the other trained astronauts over for help, but the piloting system simply wouldn't respond. Neither would the backup. By this time, it didn't take a trained captain to realize that there was a problem. Mars was right below them and they were plummeting helplessly toward it. Panic began, screams and prayers rang out. They crashed...and barely slowed down.
This is truly insane, thought Stryer, as the ship began to drill into the surface of Mars. The radio that linked them to the scientists in Antactica wasn't working either. Not only are we going to die, we're going to die by being buried alive, as opposed to crashing quickly and easily. I hope those smirking tank theorists on Earth get a laugh out of this.
The computer beeped again. Brian quickly rewound the video to the correct instant and played it in slow motion. The computer zoomed in to the bottom of the habitat, where a small projectile was flying away from the rock. It followed the projectile up and rightwards, where it smashed into the side of the tank and disappeared from the cameras' views.
Anna jumped up in panic. "Did it get out? Can you tell if it got out?"
"No, I can't tell..." Brian muttered, horrified.
"Come on! I don't want to go down in history as one of the idiot high-schoolers who started a viral pandemic!"
"I'll get some disinfectant. I'm sure we can control this..."
Plastic shields drew over the ship's windows automatically, as the computer warned that it was dangerously bright outside. Stryer was furious. "Bright?! We're miles below the surface of Mars! What's wrong with this thing?" But suddenly the ship accelerated in a completely new direction, one that felt like "down". It fell and fell, and after a while it stopped.
The window covers wouldn't open, and the computer wouldn't tell them a thing about wherever they were now. "You know those tank theorists? Maybe we went through the side and now we're on the table," someone joked. Stryer could have killed her for that.
Their position didn't seem immediately dangerous, so the astronauts decided to go back into suspended animation and wait for someone to come rescue them. There was nothing else they could do.
Brian sprayed disinfectant all over the tank and the table around it. "Anything that comes out within a week will die for sure. We're safe."
Stryer woke up to a slow, sharp beeping noise. It was the ship alarm. He ducked out of his suspension compartment and looked around. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except...the ship clock. According to it, they'd been stuck here for 10326 years! Unbidden, the tank theorist's words returned to him. "Their hour is our million years..."
Stryer shuddered and kept looking for the reason for the beep, but couldn't find it. No one else was awake; in a possible emergency, the ship only alerted the captain, and it was his call whether to awake the others. He did so.
As people began to stumble out of their compartments, each gasping in shock at the sight of the ship clock, something hot and liquid hit Stryer on the head. He shrieked in pain and fell. The others looked up and gasped in horror. The ceiling was melting! Large steaming drops of it plummeted toward them. They dived back into their suspension compartments, hoping that they would protect them. But the compartment walls began to melt even as they ducked in. Helpless screams and prayers filled the air. The ship rocked and shuddered--and the entire structure collapsed.
They didn't know it, but they were the last 101 people to die.
While the students were distracted by the possible escape of dangerous new germs, the computer had noticed something else, and was beeping accordingly. Finally Claire went over and played that part of the video in slow motion. The trio gasped in unison. Bright pulsing red dots, visible even to the naked eye, had appeared on the habitat surface. Waves of red and purple emanated from the dots. New dots appeared, many of them. For an instant, the whole rock shone brightly, swirling with colored light. Then it all disappeared, leaving--nothing.
Brian dived for the computer, zooming in on the rock. Anna and Claire bent toward the unpainted circle on the tank and peered in. Brian whispered, "There's nothing left. Nothing. Not even those little dots we started with."
"The teacher was just talking about this last week," Anna remembered suddenly. "He said that if we're really lucky, we'll get organisms that are really smart for their size. They might be so smart that they destroy themselves and the environment around them."
"That doesn't sound smart to me," said Claire.
Brian shook his head. "We've been running this for six months, and they showed up like four hours ago, and already they've ruined everything!"
"No, they haven't," said Anna, suddenly cheerful. "Now we're going to get good grade for sure !"
Time passed; the Habitat Fair came and went. Just as Anna had said, the teacher was very impressed by their habitat's self-destruction, and awarded them all an A+. That night, they celebrated their good fortune at Brian's house. Then they opened the tank and took everything apart. "We're done! After all that hard work, it's finally over!" Anna shouted gleefully.
And that was all.