"Life, uh, finds a way..."
Dr. Ian Malcolm
Hand in hand with her twin sons, almost indistinguishable despite belonging to opposite sexes, the woman climbs the hill, once again fulfilling the tradition she had instituted since her offspring had acquired autonomy in terms of locomotion. Once at the top, the mother kneels, inhales, and exhales with her eyes closed, and urges the children to do the same.
“Isn’t it beautiful, my dears?” she asks, at the sight of the verdant valley stretching out before her and her children, home not only to that family but also to countless species of chirping birds in cacophonous symphony, and mammals of various sizes roaming about wildly.
Two years had passed since the autonomous spacecraft Primi Agminis had landed on Martian soil. But before passing through Mars’ atmosphere, it had remained in orbit around the red planet for six months, launching a series of satellites to relay communications and monitor weather conditions. No less important, the devices strategically placed around the planet had been coupled with mirrors of titanic proportions that would reflect the sun’s light onto the polar caps, melting the ice and creating a greenhouse effect, the very first step towards a successful terraforming that would turn Mars into a planet able to welcome the first human colonists.
Once on the surface, out of the chromed womb of the Primi Agminis came an army of androids who dedicated themselves, impervious to fatigue and discouragement, to the installation of mastodontic mononuclear power generators and no less imposing oxygen processors. The Domus, the main module that would serve as habitat for the members of the expedition already in transit, was the last structure to be erected. It had been designed to accommodate in comfort the fifteen crew members of the Tereshkova spacecraft, which had departed from Cape MacLaren in Saint Paul, while the Primi Agminis was still in geostationary orbit over the Martian equatorial plane.
In addition to individual rooms, dining, and common areas, the Domus was equipped with eight laboratories, two greenhouses, livestock quarters, and aquaculture nurseries. After acclimatization of the first settlers, it would be possible to increase the Domus’ capacity with the material stored inside the Primi Agminis and thus give a dignified welcome to the new space pilgrims.
Solomon Wurtz, a geologist by training, had not taken long to get used to his new life on the red planet. Unmarried and with no direct descendants by temperament and by choice, the son of a father he never knew and a loving mother now deceased, the only family he had left was his twin sister, Elizabeth, with whom he had cut off all contact shortly after she married a populist politician who had instilled her with ideals that opposed the most basic human decency, which would have filled his mother with shame had she still been alive.
“Yes, Dr. Wurtz?”
“Bring the rover. Today we are going to visit our Sphinx of Cydonia.”
Solomon could not be accused of being antisocial, or even unsociable, but there was no denying the fact that although he planned to bond more with his companions after landing, the geologist spent most of his time collecting rocks and soil samples outside the Domus and analyzing them in his laboratory, always in the company of Isaac, the android that had been reprogrammed to be his assistant, named after the writer who had postulated the Three Laws of Robotics. The Sphinx Solomon was referring to was a curious rock formation resembling a human face, or at least a humanoid one, that had been detected by satellites twenty kilometers west of the Domus in the Cydonia region, halfway between the Arandas and Bamberg craters.
They got in the rover, man and machine, and headed west, expecting to be back before dinner time. The probability that the Sphinx had been carved by beings gifted with intelligence was very remote. Solomon believed it was a phenomenon of pareidolia, but he could not rule out any hypothesis at that time. He had given the matter a lot of thought over the past few days: if the Sphinx turned out to be a natural formation, he would feel somewhat disappointed. If the evidence pointed to some kind of intelligent design, the disappointment would give way in equal doses to awe and terror, even though the scanners had not found signs of life, let alone life capable of posing a serious threat to human presence on Mars. He was prepared to face and accept both possibilities. Nothing had prepared him, however, for what happened next.
“Dr. Wurtz!” said Isaac, pointing to the sky.
The rover skidded across the sand as soon as Solomon stepped on the brake, raising a cloud of red dust. A meteorite ripped through the sky like a chariot out of the Bhagavad Gita, and both the droid and the man turned their heads back to watch it speeding eastward. Without hesitation, and even though they were less than a kilometer from the Sphinx, Solomon stepped on the rover’s gas and took off in the direction of the Domus.
The few droids that had escaped the destruction caused by the meteorite were divided into putting out the numerous fires and searching for survivors in the partial debris of the habitat. In the distance, the Primi Agminis and the Tereshkova appeared relatively intact.
“Have you found anyone?” Solomon asked one of the droids in despair.
“If you mean survivors, Dr. Wurtz, the answer is no. Two units are currently collecting the corpses and digging the graves. I can see that you are upset... Allow me to take you to the infirmary and administer you a sedative...”
Solomon pushed the droid violently, shouting that he was okay, and ordered him to join the other units in damage control operations.
In the years following the tragedy, Solomon had become accustomed to living in the most complete solitude ever experienced by a human being in all of human history. His mourning was brief. He had not formed strong friendships with his fellow travelers during the preparatory phase, preferring to focus on the details of the mission and reserving the development of interpersonal relationships for when they were definitively installed on Mars, with the due exception of half a dozen fleeting sexual encounters with Amélie, the French biologist, during the second phase of the trip, after the ship’s onboard computer had deactivated the hibernacles and awakened the astronauts from their artificial, dreamless sleep. His priority now was to survive.
Both the Tereshkova and the Primi Agminis had suffered irreversible damage to their ion thrusters, contrary to what he had initially thought, and their chances of ever flying again were minimal. Solomon would sooner grow wings than that. Fortunately, the damage to the mononuclear power generators and oxygen processors was so minor that they were repaired the same day and had been running ever since, stately and mastodontic, lulling Solomon to sleep with their omnipresent rumble.
With the material stored in the Primi Agminis that had escaped destruction, the Domus had been restored and, apart from some minor differences, had kept the original design. The greenhouses, nurseries, and animal housing had escaped the meteorite impact unscathed, so the geologist would not die of starvation. None of the satellites orbiting the planet had been hit, and apparently, all were operating in perfect condition.
However, Solomon had not yet been able to contact the Control Center in Saint Paul. Every day — in the morning when he woke up, and at night before he went to bed — Solomon sat at the communications console, activated the answerable, and tried in vain to get a communication from his increasingly distant home planet.
The tasks that previously would have been carried out by fifteen individuals and a few dozen androids now fell almost entirely on Solomon's shoulders. The lack of regular maintenance meant that, at an almost daily rate, the androids were succumbing, one by one, to breakdowns progressively more severe.
The artificial intelligence chip that integrated the positronic brain of all the AND-5511 model androids allowed them not only to learn but even to develop something very similar to a personality. In Isaac’s case, due to his close and prolonged association with Dr. Wurtz, it could be said that he was becoming a mechanical version of the hapless geologist. Without Solomon having to instruct him, Isaac had learned to repair himself and to scavenge parts from his fallen "comrades".
Gradually, Isaac became primarily responsible for the daily chores that had previously occupied Solomon from dawn to dusk. This gave the geologist enough time to prepare detailed reports on the terraforming progress of the planet, now more green than red. He sent them every night, via answerable, without fail and with no way of knowing if anyone on the third planet from the sun was receiving them and failing, for some reason, to acknowledge its reception.
Solomon dreamed of his mother and sister for months on end as the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, tore through the firmament many miles above the Domus. But it wasn’t really a dream. It was a childhood memory that kept coming back to him in his sleep, except that, in it, they were all grown up and she was pregnant with twins.
In the dream, his mother took him and Elizabeth by the hand to the top of the hill near the house where they grew up, and knelt, breathing in and out with narrowed eyes, inviting them to do the same.
“Isn’t it beautiful, my dears?” their mother asked, at the sight of the lush landscape stretching out before them.
”What do you think happened on planet Earth that might have caused the communications breakdown, Dr. Wurtz?” Isaac asked from time to time when they sat by the console in the evening.
Solomon came up with a new theory on each occasion.
“It is possible that the Earth was hit by a meteorite, just like 65 million years ago, and mankind became extinct, as the dinosaurs did...”
“Perhaps a super-advanced AI has decided to rebel against its creators, and a war is currently being waged between machines and humans...”
“Maybe transgenic mushrooms have acquired intelligence and enslaved humanity...”
Nuclear holocaust... Climate change... Zombie apocalypse... Global pandemic... The Second Coming of Christ... Extraterrestrial invasion... Global system collapse... The birth of the Antichrist... Space-time rift... The Final Judgment... Dinosaur cloning... Supervolcanoes...
In short, no good thing.
The appearance of plant and animal micro-organisms had been the first — and most dramatic — sign of the transformation of the Martian atmosphere. Isaac seemed as or more excited about the discovery than Solomon. The feeling of loneliness and abandonment did not have the same effect on the android’s personality, impervious as it was to such states of mind, so he retained the enthusiasm and joy that Solomon had lost.
Attempts to communicate with the planet Earth, as well as the emission of reports through the answerable, continued to be part of the routine of the sole inhabitant of the Domus, despite the silence and indifference with which they were received. Solomon was convinced that something very serious must have happened in the Old World to explain the contempt to which he was being held. He refused to believe that an expedition of this magnitude, with so much public and private investment, would simply be forgotten. He feared that the sarcastic answers he gave Isaac when he asked his opinion about what had happened were not mere exercises in black humor. One of them would be the correct answer, there was just no way of knowing which one.
It was inconceivable that there wasn’t a single soul, out of the ten billion souls who inhabited the Earth, who was the least bit interested in following the progress of the activities of the greatest human colonization effort in history. Someone, somewhere, would be thrilled to learn that the former red planet had first turned green, and was now as or bluer as mankind’s first home. That the animals released by Solomon on the surface of Mars had made it their home, reproducing exponentially, and that they had long ago ceased to be fed by Solomon or Isaac, finding sufficient food in the verdant flora that covered the ground in all directions, as far as the eye could see. That the water flowed freely over the hills and the fishponds inside the Domus were empty, unlike the hundreds of lakes, where fish populations thrived visibly, and that the Sphinx of Cydonia, whose origin had not been definitively established, lay, enigmatically, a few leagues underwater in a young ocean. That it was possible to walk on the planet Mars without the aid of oxygen tanks, breathing pure air, of an intoxicating purity, and that the imposing oxygen processors, having fulfilled their function, had become silent, monolithic monuments, testimony to human resilience and will. And that on top of the Domus fluttered a tricolor flag, inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s famous trilogy: the left strip crimson, symbolizing the era when the planet was known by the epithet "red," the middle one green, indicative of the intermediate stage of the terraforming process, and the right one blue, reflecting the final transformation of Mars into New Earth.
“Radiations coming from the mononuclear generators, Dr. Wurtz?” suggested Isaac, looking at Solomon's naked body.
“Could it also have something to do with New Earth’s gravitational field?” proposed the geologist, peering over his shoulder to look at his buttocks in the mirror.
“Cosmic radiation?” retorted the android.
Supposedly the planet’s magnetic field offered enough protection so that they were not a threat. Perhaps it was an unforeseen side effect of the creation of a new atmosphere by artificial methods, Solomon conjectured, with his hands on his hips.
More than ironic, it was almost poetic. Man lands on Mars. Man transforms Mars. Mars transforms Man. The changes in Solomon’s body had manifested very gradually as if they were natural, as natural as those that occur with the ordinary aging process that all human beings are bound to undergo.
However, as Solomon was a dedicated and attentive scientist, the first sign of change, or rather mutation, did not go unnoticed, and he began to document it in detail, at first amazed as a man of science and later, as a man, horrified. Dr. Solomon Wurtz had been accustomed to an impeccably shaven face since his youth, but he noticed that not only had his face become smoother and more tapered but that he no longer had any hair. He compared himself in the mirror with a photograph of himself as a teenager and could hardly see any difference. He then put the razor away in the storage room, never to look at it again.
The next changes were more obvious, not so much for their dramatic quality, but more for the close surveillance Solomon was subjecting them to. Although this was no longer necessary because of the abundance of food around him, frugality remained part of his diet. Add to this the fact that his exercise regime had not been neglected since he had landed on Mars, his hips should not have widened so drastically, nor should his glutes have accumulated so much adiposity, much less his pecs have given way to what could not be called anything but "breasts".
Simultaneously, and in an inverse proportion, and no, it's not just an optical illusion, Isaac, the measuring tape doesn’t lie, his genital organ, within the average in terms of length, was decreasing in size from day to day. In the final stage of the mutation, the penis retracted to the point where only part of the glans was discernible below the pubis, followed by an exaggerated enlargement of the urethra until it looked much more like a vulva, something Solomon hadn’t looked at since he set foot in the New World.
The icing on the cake: after a sleepless night due to a terrible migraine associated with unbearable stomach cramps, Solomon Wurtz, a forty-year-old geologist, woke up in the middle of the morning and announced to Isaac that his menarche had occurred.
“Oh my God, I’ve become my sister!” said Solomon, letting out a forced laugh. “Now all I have to do is change my name to Elizabeth and marry a Nazi...”
“I’ll keep calling you Dr. Wurtz if you don’t mind,” Isaac said, looking at Solomon’s naked body reflected in the mirror. “And I’m sorry to inform you, Dr. Wurtz,” added the android, “but there are no Nazis on New Earth.”
Solomon sighed at the prospect of having to confront his sister’s face for the rest of his life whenever he looked in the mirror.
Solomon feared that he was becoming indifferent to the wonders that the lush landscapes of New Earth presented him with daily. Was he forgetting how a human being was expected to behave, having been deprived of life in society for so long? Watching Isaac, an android, perform his chores while humming the melody of a mid-century pop song or clapping his hands in delight at the birth of a wild calf only served to heighten his dread. The discovery that a carnivorous plant was New Earth’s apex predator, whose had a predilection for the wild pigs that roamed the southernmost colossal cratered region, should have made the scientist in him that much more excited. Nevertheless, he dictated the discovery to the rover’s onboard computer, without bothering to mention it in the usual report he sent, via answerable, to a planet that was no longer his.
The strangeness of looking in the mirror and seeing his twin sister’s face and body had, for lack of a better term, lost its shock value. He had adapted his suit according to his new physical constitution and learned to cope logistically and emotionally with his menstrual cycle, but in his heart of hearts, he didn’t feel all that different. He was a man in a woman’s body in a world where that didn’t matter in the same way that the position of the stars at the moment of birth of a bipedal primate of the genus Homo had no relevance. Even Isaac, at first more intrigued by the situation than Solomon himself, seemed to have given up on finding an explanation. Hence, when Solomon stopped having his period with the same regularity that of a Swiss watch, neither man nor machine attributed much significance to the occurrence. Just as it had appeared, it had disappeared, they concluded. When the geologist’s abdomen began to swell, both agreed that the most likely hypothesis was that Solomon had been infected by some parasite or other microorganism. Nothing that couldn’t be solved with some antibiotics.
Only when, in addition to his abdomen, which not only had not deflated but had swollen even more, Solomon’s breasts enlarged to the point of causing him lower back pain, did the two of them had to accept that good old Dr. Wurtz, a forty-seven-year-old geologist, was going to be a mother.
After consulting the Cyberpedia, Isaac found a parallel between Dr. Wurtz’s pregnancy and the reproduction by parthenogenesis of a particular type of saurian, the Komodo dragons.
“Females of this species of giant lizard can generate offspring in captivity without the aid of a male by duplicating chromosomes and without cell division. Although the sex-determination system is not the same — ZW in dragons, XY in humans — it is possible that something similar happened to you.”
As for the sex change that preceded the parthenogenesis, although relatively common in some species of reptiles and fish, Isaac had found no records of spontaneous occurrences of such a phenomenon in humans.
With his hands on his kidneys, swollen feet, and deep dark circles under his eyes, Solomon let out a laugh as he crawled toward the bed.
“I remember this old movie,” Solomon said, interspersing his sentence with groans of pain as he lay down. “At one point, one of the characters played, I believe, by an actor named Jeff Goldblum, says something like... What does he say...? Life finds a way... Or something like that...”
“You want me to look up that movie on Cyberpedia and put it on the main screen, Dr. Wurtz?”
“Yes, sure, why not? I could use a little distraction...”
“I don’t know what to call them,” Solomon said after giving birth.
“May I make a suggestion, Dr. Wurtz?” Isaac intervened, in his role as midwife and nurse on duty.
After about two hundred and seventy days of gestation, the twins were born: Alpha the boy and Beta the girl. Looking at those two angelic faces, Solomon couldn’t help but remember Elizabeth, wondering if she too would have had twins like him, far away in the Old World, if reproduction had been part of her life’s plans.
“I’m scared, Isaac, I’m scared I won’t be a good father... a good mother... to them.... I’ve never been so scared in my life...”
“Don’t worry, Dr. Wurtz, I’ll help you. I’ll be your Nazi.”
Hand in hand with his twin sons, almost indistinguishable despite belonging to opposite sexes, Solomon climbed the hill, fulfilling the tradition he had instituted the previous year, in the company of his offspring, on the anniversary of the landing of the Tereshkova ship. When he reached the top, he knelt, inhaled, and exhaled with his eyes closed, and urged Alpha and Beta to do the same.
“Isn’t it beautiful, my dears?” he asked, at the sight of the verdant valley stretching out before him and his children, home not only to his family, but also to countless species of chirping birds in symphonic cacophony, and mammals of various sizes roaming about wildly.
“Is Earth like this too, Mom?” asked Beta.
“Is it like New Earth, Mom?” asked Alpha.
“No, it isn’t. It was like that once, a long time ago. One of the problems on Earth was that there were too many people. Here it’s just the three of us, but...”
“And Isaac!” protested Beta and Alpha, in unison.
“And Isaac, of course,” Solomon corrected himself, smiling proudly. “There are only the four of us here, but on Earth, there were millions and millions of people. The world became too small and the resources too scarce to sustain so many people. The Earth changed. The green disappeared, the sky was no longer blue, the oceans became black. Famine, war, disease, and death were no longer just future threats, but real and present dangers in the daily lives of ninety-eight percent of humanity.”
“Is that why you came here?” asked Alpha.
“Are there still people on Earth?” asked Beta.
“I don’t think there are,” said Alpha.
“We don’t know that, my dear. That is why you and your sister have to be prepared in case the Control Center tries to contact us.”
“Today is my turn to play with the ansible,” said Beta, jumping up and down and sticking her tongue out to her brother.
Solomon would never again climb the hill in the company of his children, embarking on the final journey into the eternal void in the comfort of his bed at dawn, flanked by Beta, Alpha, and Isaac, a few hours after they had marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of their arrival on New Earth.
The next day, Isaac removed Solomon’s empty shell from inside the Domus and buried it with the rest of the Tereshkova’s crew. Upon returning to the habitat, Alpha and Beta surrounded him, jumping up and down, talking at the same time, dragging the old android near the communications console.
Through the answerable, a male voice, monotone and relentless, repeated, as if on a loop, the same message: the Saint Paul Control Center was trying to reach Dr. Solomon Wurtz. They had received his reports. The war between humans and Cyberiads was over. The space program had been reactivated and the Savitskaya rescue ship would take off from Cape MacLaren as soon as weather conditions permitted.