Jason Metz was sorry they’d all be dead before they were successful but that’s how the cookie of environmental science crumbled. Or maybe not. Maybe some of the crackpot longevity studies back on Earth would turn up something and they could all get a hundred-year refill and live to see a nice little patch of cool green, thriving and happy on the blistering surface of Venus.
Coffee steamed lazily in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the ports looking out on the hazy upper Venusian atmosphere. The commissary of NASA’s Venus Stratosphere Observer was full to capacity, which meant five or six people on a given shift, all trusting their lives to an assortment of silvery balloons, cables and ultra-light construction. Jason was not the type to obsess over death but it was a hard thing not to think about as they floated high above the pit of hell, visible in all its boiling, acid-laced glory through the windows in the deck.
“Find any monsters yet?”
Jason looked up from the chaos beneath his feet to find Marcie Rothwell parking a sandwich and coffee on the other side of the tiny composite table. Quarters were way too cramped for the formality of “Mind if I sit here?” Jason missed such formalities.
“How many times do I have to tell you,” he said, moving his lunch to make space on the table. “We’re making monsters, not hunting them.”
“They’ll need horns and pitchforks to make it down there,” she said with an oddly mirthless smile that crinkled the little crow’s feet just starting to show up at the corners of her cool gray eyes. Short ash blonde hair framed a lean face that had spent a lot of time on orbit. If anybody was born to look down from the heavens and study alien worlds it was Planetary Environmental Specialist Marcella Rothwell.
“We haven’t quite figured out how to engineer heat-resistant demons,” said Jason, “so adaptable armor will have to do and since we’re only working on bacteria I don’t see how pitchforks would be helpful.”
“Ah,” said Marcie, picking up the spongy little sandwich, the finest cuisine NASA had to offer. “So you don’t want to seed the planet. You want to infect it.”
“We figure, since it already has a fever, why not? We sure can’t hurt anything.”
Jason held his breath, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake. There was a bare-knuckle political fight in progress over treaties and protocols making early stage terraforming all but impossible on Mars. No native life had been found so far and any terrestrial microbes carefully exposed to Martian conditions quickly died but the momentum was still with the preservationists.
Venus was a different story. Surface conditions were so stunningly horrible that nobody believed anything could live there but the divide between pro-development and pro-preservation was deep and wide. Jason and Marcie were not on the same side.
“We may never know,” said Marcie. “If humans can engineer something that can withstand Venusian conditions why can’t nature?”
“As far as I know nature doesn’t have intelligent, self-replicating nanotechnology,” said Jason. “Dr. Jordan’s concept is a kind of intelligent design with OCD. We make the bacteria as hardy as possible then protect it with an intelligent armor that monitors environmental conditions and the health and development of the organisms. Over time the bacteria are exposed to harsher conditions and given a chance to adapt. Eventually, we hope, they’ll fully adapt to the natural environment.”
“Nothing organic could adapt to Venusian temperatures,” said Marcie.
“Which is why we built the bacteria one molecule at a time using specialized materials wherever possible. Surveys show that all the materials necessary for the organisms to ingest, metabolize and use for reproduction are present on the surface.”
“So you’re talking about self-replicating robots, not self-reproducing life, right?” said Marcie.
“No,” said Jason. Ms. Rothwell had argued this case many times before. Her favorite venue was on holo programs that specialized in pounding complex science into irrefutable slogans. “The nucleus remains entirely organic. Think of the rest of it as a collection of reproducible prosthetic components. They make various functions possible but they don’t change the organism’s identity any more than an artificial liver changes the identity of a human being. Look, even Jordan knows it’s a long shot but results in the lab have been promising. He convinced the trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, they coughed up funding and convinced a couple of senators who in turn convinced NASA to make room for us aboard your lovely blimp of science. So here we are.” His voice trailed as he looked down into the miles of deadly atmosphere below. “Yeah.”
“What are the wee beasties supposed to do down there?” asked Marcie.
“Survive,” said Jason. “That’ll be success. If they survive and mutate that will be dancing-in-the-street success. If that happens we can make a case for designing an environment around them.”
“You mean like a tropical vacation spot for the super-rich?” She was joking, of course.
“Hardly,” said Jason. “A really outrageous, wild-eyed optimistic scenario would be regional cool zones in the four to five-hundred-degree Fahrenheit range. We may be able to build human-rated habitats for such conditions. Maybe future engineers will figure out ways to reduce the air pressure. Or maybe we can make good use of the existing conditions. Maybe we can engineer organisms to seek and ingest specific materials. We could harvest minerals and chemicals instead of digging them up. Or rather our great grandkids could. No overnight success in this field.”
“Seems like an awful lot of trouble for such a long shot,” said Marcie. “Why come all the way to Venus for something that probably can’t work?”
“It’s the only place we’re allowed to try,” said Jason sourly.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “I have convictions but no power.”
Influence is power, and you know it, thought Jason. Marcie was one of the walls they’d had to blast through to get a spot on the blimp. Dr. Jordan had some pretty elegant words for her but they stayed back on Earth with him. Jason’s mission was to get along and get all the cooperation he could manage.
The abyss churned beneath his feet.
Half a year later…
Jason sipped his coffee as he waited for Jordan’s response to his last comment. The communication delay between Venus and Earth was about six minutes. Plenty of time to think, anticipate, consider.
A lot had happened over the last six months. The first attempt to land the organisms on target was a catastrophe. If Jason didn’t know the organism’s limitations he might have concerns about biological contamination. He’d had his hands full convincing Rothwell not to demand he be sent packing.
The second landing was a different story. Everything worked. The microscopic army landed, survived and got busy chewing up the semi-molten rock and turning it into more microbes. So far he had identified three adaptive variations among the natives. It would be years before they were ready to test full exposure to the natural environment but they had definitely achieved dancing-in-the-street status.
Even Marcie Rothwell couldn’t help dancing right along with him. Now she joked about buying up Venusian real estate to build resorts for the super-rich. Not that her actual convictions had changed. She was still opposed. She just couldn’t bring herself to rain on Jason’s tireless work and well-earned success.
No. Dr. Jordan and Jason Metz had a bigger problem than philosophical resistance from the opposing camp.
Jason braced himself as the little tinkly tone announced the arrival of Jordan’s next message.
“It’s no good, Jason,” said Jordan. “The new administration is making cuts across the board. It’s the last nail for Martian terraforming. The only reason they don’t cancel the entire Venus observation program is that it would cost more to bring everybody back than to just let the thing run. You know what you have to do.”
He knew, all right. Get all the data he could over the next twenty-four hours then uncork the gas to sterilize the surface habitats. What started out as seeds to make the desert bloom now became a potential plague. He thought about popping the lids on the habitats and letting the wee beasties take their chances but that would probably kill them faster than the ethylene oxide.
“I’m sorry they pulled the rug out,” said Marcie as Jason prepared to board the shuttle. “It was a rotten thing to do. But I can’t say I’m sorry about the microbes. We have no business interfering with nature. Watching and learning is enough.”
Jason had reams of replies to such reasoning but he was tired. He wanted solid ground beneath his feet, traffic in the street outside his window and a good seat at a ball game. No doubt Jordan would have a new plan by the time he landed but for now he’d had all the biology he could stand.
Well, almost all…
“You ever get to Philadelphia?” he asked.
“No,” said Marcie. “But I’ve always wanted to see the Liberty Bell.”
“Look me up,” said Jason as he climbed through the hatch. “The Liberty Bell takes five minutes, tops. Then we can catch a Phillies game. Or, if you really want to see some alien life come around New Years’.”
“What are you talking about?” This time there was plenty of mirth in her smile.
“You’ll see,” he answered as he disappeared into the ship’s interior. “Just come!”
“You are quiet and pensive,” Master Observer Galk remarked to his young assistant. “The projection was accurate, was it not?”
The cloaked observation platform floated high above the north pole of the sun. All human activity throughout the solar system was monitored, carefully cataloged and reported back to the home world. The study had been going on for generations.
“Of course the projection was accurate,” answered Observer’s Apprentice Nen. “The projections are never wrong.”
“But you had hopes in this case,” pressed Galk. “You hoped they would ‘beat the odds,’ as some of them say, did you not?”
“I hoped they would not waste the opportunity to ensure their own survival. That they should come so close, then simply decide not to… It’s vexing.”
“Yes, it is,” agreed Galk. He was not a sympathetic being but Nen’s frustration with humanity’s indecisive efforts at planetary expansion was understandable. The observation team had identified an extra-solar asteroid speeding toward a collision with Earth. There was plenty of time to develop habitats on the two nearby neighbors and evacuate a large portion of the population but only if efforts were pursued with purpose and coherence.
“Their engineered micro-organism has potential that even they don’t suspect,” continued Galk. “But waste and vacillation are elements of their profile, as we have seen. Their end is inevitable. Their nature allows for no other outcome.”
“Their nature, or ours?”
Here it was, the confrontation Galk sought to provoke. One of the tasks of a master was to teach his apprentices. The unpleasant lessons were often the most essential.
“Go on,” he prodded. “What about our nature?”
“Isn’t it obvious, Master? We could warn them.”
“Nen,” said Galk, doing his best to assume a fatherly posture. “You know the directive and you understand the purpose behind it. We have no business interfering with nature. Watching and learning is enough.”
“Exactly my point, Master,” replied Nen. “We are social beings by nature. We survive and advance through cooperation based on sympathy as well as enlightened self-interest. Refusing to warn them is a violation, not merely of our own nature as a species but also of Nature itself.”
“You certainly recognize the inevitable chaos that would result if we applied such an ethic,” countered Galk.
“Have we evolved to value neatness as the supreme virtue?” rejoined Nen. “Consider that which we find so vexing in the humans. What you characterize as wastefulness and vacillation I would call simple timidity. They cannot bring themselves to risk the consequences of bold engagement of their native capacities. They retreat from their true nature because they are afraid of it. It will cost them dearly.”
“What has any of that to do with us?” Galk asked smoothly. “You indict us, yet their end would be exactly the same if chance and probability had not brought us here. You… you castigate us for failing to supply that which you yourself acknowledge they lack. How can you hold us responsible for their fate?”
“Because we are here, Master Galk. And I do not hold us responsible. I haven’t the authority.”
“They watch their microbes,” said Nen as he gazed into his holo-void to watch a silvery craft blast out of its orbit around the smooth, white globe of Venus. “We watch them. God watches us. He will not hold us guiltless.”
“Really, Nen.” Galk could not suppress a sneer. “Your superstition is your own affair. It has no place in the solid world, where sound judgement and beneficial outcomes can only arise from clear thinking.”
“Like the benefits of a world smashed to atoms and the needless extinction of a brother species? Such clear thinking perplexes me, Master Galk.”
“Maybe your God will save them!” jeered Galk, lacking any real answer to Nen’s challenge. But such a display was unseemly and he regretted it. Nen was a good man, after all, and deserved better.
“Besides,” he continued, adopting a conciliatory tone, “we are not masters of our own fate. We carry out the will of the Collective. It is all we can do.”
“It is all that timid men can do,” replied Nen, who was not above retaliating for Galk’s effrontery. But he, too, was a civilized being and could not sustain such ragged-edged animus for long.
“Maybe I should have applied to the philosopher’s consortium,” he said with a self-deprecating sigh.
“No,” said Galk. “You’re a first-rate observer, Nen. A long, illustrious career awaits you. Carry on.”
After Galk left the deck Nen reviewed the remainder of the day’s schedule. It was time to make a final sweep of the crash site for the first attempted landing of the microbes.
The yellow cast of the acid-laden clouds lay upon the hellish landscape roasting in the clarity of the lower atmosphere. Nen had never seen such a horrible place. As the wreckage of the lander came into focus he wondered how any thinking being could hold out hope…
Thin streaks of green radiated from the shallow impact crater. It was a miracle.
Nen sat back, feeling small and privileged at the same time. It was humbling to realize that men had the freedom to deny their own nature but God did not.
He would interfere to His heart’s content.