Almost a century after Keres Triplets asteroid impact and subsequent nuclear exchange almost ended all human life on Earth, a strange artifact is discovered on one of the moons of Saturn. Who should be sent to the outer reaches of the solar system to initiate the first contact with an alien culture? Dr. Varsaad Volhard, an evolutionary-socio-historian, is chosen to help the world understand the alien civilization that left an artifact some thirty thousand years ago, before humans even learned to farm, at the time when other human species still walked the earth. While Vars prepares for the mission, her father, Dr. Matteo Volhard, discovers nanobots among the microplastics he studies. The bots are everywhere and seem to have been created to bond with human cyber implants. Why? Matteo is made to keep his discovery a secret…as well as his and his daughter’s true origins. Both were donated to a Human DNA Vault as babies. Matteo was raised as a Seed before leaving with his young daughter to study ecology around the world. Who knows what? Who is in control? How does one communicate with non-human intelligence? People seem to die in gruesome ways as their cyberhumatics go haywire on Earth and on Luna and Mars colonies. Is Earth under attack or is it all just a cosmic misunderstanding? Vars needs to use all she knows to solve the mystery of the ancient civilization on Mimas, as her dad battles the alien nanobots at home.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I wanted to explore the implications of being the first sentient and technology-driven civilization in a galaxy. Timing and luck might have more to do with dominance than almost any other factor: the right position in a galactic arm; habitable distance from a home star; good initial conditions for the right type of life emergence on the planet. All that and more is necessary for success. This book is an exploration and extrapolation of the meaning of "Goldilocks Zone" on a universal scale with all the frightening implications.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Dr. Varsaad (Vars) Volhard is an evolutionary-socio-historian. Her name means “fresh seed” in Afrikaans. I like to make my main characters outside of the mainstream of science fictional heroes. Vars is a female. Her heritage is very mirky. She is smart but is made part of the team of "hard" scientists — physicists, engineers, biochemists — to determine the meaning of an alien artifact discovered on the moon of Saturn — Mimas. Vars has to fight to be heard. I relate to that, and I think others would too.
“The exton controls are not responding!” Marc shouted into his exoskeleton spacesuit helmet.
His exoskeleton was the heavy-duty dirt-and-boulder-mover type. Move a ton with exton. Right now, Marc was really just an intelligent bulldozer with life support. But the suit had disconnected from his D-tats, the personal computing device tattoos embedded in his lower arms and jaw, and his directional controls were busted. Now his exoskeleton acted with a mind of its own, moving him away from the construction site and out into the open Martian landscape. He needed to get back to the Malfy–an affectionate acronym for Martians Live Free, a city-sized habitat being built for the next wave of planetary immigrants.
“Marc?” his SB responded from the inside Malfy’s operational center. “What’s on the fritz this time?” Every contractor working outside was in constant communication with a personally assigned safety buddy. “I can’t seem to toss the controls over to my side.” In an emergency, Marc’s SB could take over the controls of his exton and bring him in, even if he was unconscious.
“I’ve got nothing!” Marc was more irritated than scared. This was his second equipment failure in as many months, and their group of union builders had reported three more to the management since the start of the project about two hundred days ago. It was always the same MO: at the end of a shift, the movement controls failed to respond to their operators’ commands, taking the builders out into the desert; and yet, after the rescue when the equipment was checked out, the engineers found nothing wrong with the extons. The first time it happened to Marc, he was even accused of faking the failure to get extra time off for hazardous conditions. As if construction work on Mars wasn’t dangerous in and of itself. Fortunately, Marc’s supervisor made everyone carry extra oxygen and a spare battery pack after the first few incidents. Just in case. Inconvenient for sure, but it was better than being stuck out of breath without a heater among the Martian dunes in minus 125 degrees Celsius.
“Send someone out to get me,” Marc said. “It’s an official request.”
“Are you sure, Marc? You know if they don’t find anything again—”
“I’m telling you, I’ve got nothing. Everything is dead on my side.”
“Yeah, mine too,” Marc’s SB agreed. “I’ll get Greg out there. But he won’t be happy. He just got his exton off and you’ll be cutting into his three days off period.”
“Tell him that I’d go if it was him out here. And tell him to hurry up about it.” The earliest he could expect Greg to arrive would be at least an hour, probably more–it took time get these darn things on.
Marc felt funky. His D-tats itched like crazy, probably from all of the energy pushed through them to try to reconnect with his exton. And now his comm was down, too. As soon as he’d gotten over the rim of the crater, he’d lost touch with his SB.
It was lonely out here in the Martian landscape with no one to talk to and all the human structures obscured from view. Marc could only look ahead–his suit didn’t allow him to turn his head–and before him stretched miles and miles of nothing but rust sand and red rocks underneath a yellow sky. Someday this would be paradise, but Marc didn’t expect to live that long. Still, it was decent pay, and the benefits were great. And, most importantly, all the construction workers were to be awarded a family subdivision inside the new MLF. Marc looked forward to moving his wife and a new kid he’d never seen out here from Luna Colony. Kids should run around on the surface of a real planet, his mother always said. In a few years, Marc would make his mother’s dream a reality right here, on this dusty red rock. And when he did, he would be able to tell his kids that he built this place with his own hands. He would point to a boulder and say, “See that rock? Your daddy placed that rock.” It was a satisfying thought…if only the equipment worked right.
Illustration: Exton on Mars
He tried to will his suit to obey. Heat erupted around his jaw and down his neck. It took him by surprise–not an emotion he was used to. The off-world building crews went through years of training, and part of that training involved controlling one’s thoughts. Spend too much attention on extraneous thoughts and emotions–like surprise and worry–and space got you. Cognition was a limited resource.
This fact about human nature was drilled into Marc, not just during training but from an early age. All Luna Colony children learned to focus and control their attention. Those who couldn’t didn’t make it to adulthood. It was different there now, in those modern Luna Live Free habitats–Elfys. But when Marc was young…
“Ahhh!” The scream seemed to rip itself out of Marc’s throat without his conscious control. Pain twisted his arms inside his suit. He felt himself hyperventilating. Something was seriously wrong with him, not just with his exton. The horror of that realization hit him hard as the exoskeleton kept marching him inexorably farther from the base. He smelled cooked meat. It took all his willpower not to think where the smell was coming from. The life support systems should have noted his elevated heart rate and responded.
Illustration: Exton malfunction
Since his D-tats weren’t working, Marc tried to blink commands directly into the suit. He drilled down several menus and selected a painkiller injection. He needed to get himself under control. Rescue was still at least thirty minutes away.
Sweat trickled into his eyes. It was difficult to see now. He felt cold and yet heat burned his arms, neck, and jaw. His teeth felt out of alignment. There was a constant buzzing in his left ear, different in tone and structure from the one in his right. But at least it was something he could focus on. He poured himself into the strange, asymmetric tinnitus. Bzzz, bzzz, swish, bzzz, bzzz, swish…
“I found him unresponsive.”
Greg sat in front of a board of inquiry. Marc’s death was the first among the Martian chapter of the Off-World Builders Union this year. Given that Mars was deemed a relatively low-risk environment, the death had attracted extra scrutiny from both the union leaders and the insurance representatives for the Martians Live Free project.
“Are you saying Builder Mark Kelly’s communications were out? Or was he unconscious when you found him?”
“At first it wasn’t clear, sir,” Greg testified. “The exoskeleton continued to walk into the desert and wouldn’t stop until I caught up with it and patched into it directly.”
“So the comm was completely out?”
“Yes, sir. I wasn’t able to control the exton from a distance, and Marc lost his communication a while before that.” Greg wiped the sweat from his forehead. He hated answering stupid questions. Everyone already knew what had happened. Marc’s D-tats had fried from some bad connection to his equipment. Shit happens. Get over it. Move on.
The interrogation went on for another hour, but at some point, even the insurance representative recognized that Greg had nothing more to add to the report he’d filed with the union. The conclusion was that this was a freak accident caused by improperly implanted personal computing device tattoos a decade earlier. The Luna Colony medical board was granted jurisdiction over the case.
“Sentient life’s colonization of the Earth is fractal. Even within a single ecosystem, there are many species that possess intelligence and self-awareness. But only one species becomes dominant.”
Professor Volhard took a theatrical pause here. Everyone in the audience knew where she was going with this, but it never hurt to add drama to a presentation.
“Obviously I am talking about humans. We are not the only intelligent, self-aware species on our planet–but we got lucky. We were blessed with favorable initial conditions, and our dominance was almost guaranteed. Lack of luck tends to permanently retard progress. Dinosaurs’ loss is our win.”
There were a few chuckles from the audience, but no big laughs. Varsaad Volhard sighed inwardly and moved on. She never knew how the lay audience would react, but this was all part of doing the book-selling lecture circuit.
Vars was tall and skinny with short, unruly, dark red hair and glasses to match. She looked a bit like a stick insect in her black pants and black sweater. For the tour, she was trying to dress more interestingly than normal–per instructions from her publisher–and so had added the bright orange scarf that her publisher sent in the mail. The instructions that came with the scarf told her to wear matching orange shoes, but Vars didn’t own any orange shoes, so matching black was as good as it got.
She hadn’t failed to notice that the cover of her book–Luck & Lock on Life & Love: The Human History of Conquest of Resources on Earth, Luna, and Beyond–had the same color orange titles as the scarf. Her agent or someone in the office was obviously trying. Vars made a mental note to figure out who that was and thank them.
Illustration: Vars Book Cover
Vars talked for a while without paying attention to what she said–that was a gift that came with giving the same talk for the hundredth time. Fortunately, she was almost at the end of her book tour. Two more lectures and she would be done. She could go back to teaching and research–get her life back. This nomadic lifestyle wasn’t for her. But before she got out of there tonight, Vars still had one more surprise argument for these people: a defense of space exploration.
She looked into the dark void in front of her. The stage lights made the hundred people in the theater disappear from view–a plus for a shy researcher. And she was a true believer in the “what you can’t see can’t hurt you” principle. Not only had she opted out of vision-correction treatments, she regularly taught without her glasses, leaving all but the front row of her classroom a Monet-like blur. The trick worked well to relieve her agoraphobic anxiety.
“So, what are the prerequisites of space travel?” she asked.
There were a few shout-outs from up in the gallery–the cheap seats usually occupied by students. “Civilization.” “Faster-than-light travel.” “Aliens.” They were on the right track, even if their sources were limited to science fiction movies. But Vars was an evolutionary socio-historian, and that meant she was trained to look both into the future and the past. She liked to think that her ideas about possible human future scenarios were well informed by historical precedents and intelligent extrapolations of cultural trends–meaning she wasn’t just talking science fiction here.
“Let’s start with something simple,” she said. “Time.” Time was never simple, but people always assumed it was. Everyone had experience with time, so everyone felt like they were experts on the subject. “Humans have a relatively long lifespan for a mammal. And we have the longest childhood of all animals.” Well, that was true now. Neanderthal kids had enjoyed a longer childhood, but Vars didn’t want to complicate things further. “Not only are we able to learn a lot before we plunge into adulthood,” Vars continued, “we also have the time to use that knowledge. I’m sure we would all like to live even longer, but nature has ensured that we live long enough to transfer wisdom from one generation to the next, so our species can build on that, expanding our collective grasp of how the universe works. Each generation stands on the shoulders of all those that came before. Without a sufficiently long lifespan to learn and apply that collective mastery, space travel would just not be possible.”
Vars tried to peer into the audience to check that they were still with her.
“So why not elephants or whales, you might ask. Both species live a long time and spend a significant proportion of that life as children.” Vars didn’t wait for answers. “Unfortunately, neither were lucky enough to evolve hands. Even the elephant’s prehensile trunk can’t compare with the nimbleness of human fingers. And whales have the additional disadvantage of living in an underwater environment. These are significant handicaps to developing space travel. So again, humans got lucky. We evolved to live on land, and we have the right appendages to be able to tinker with objects in our environment. To bend it to our will.”
“Language!” someone screamed out of the dark.
Vars smiled. Language came up over and over again at each of her lectures. “Yes, language,” she said into the darkened auditorium. “It’s been said that language is the ultimate tool of mankind. Its greatest invention.” There were sounds of agreement from the audience. “But are we the only species on Earth to possess language? Sure, human languages are incredibly sophisticated and versatile, far more so than those of any other species we have encountered to date. But until a few decades ago, we didn’t even believe that there were nonhuman languages here on our planet. Now, of course, we know better. Dolphins, elephants, and even some birds have been observed using rudimentary languages unique to their species.”
Vars stopped to listen to the audience. There were murmurings of assent, but also a few mutterings of rejection. The idea of animals inventing languages was very new still, but it was no longer controversial among her colleagues. Of course, politics was always way behind science. If humans were to widely acknowledge that dolphins communicated via language, then we might also have to recognize them as having some legal form of “personhood”–and that just wasn’t tenable in the current political climate.
The dissent told Vars what proportion of the audience held human-centric views. It was about forty percent or so, judging by the noise. That was about average for this part of the country. In places like Berkeley, California, only one or two people in the audience dared to express such backward opinions loudly enough to be heard on stage. Most dissenters kept quiet, she knew. People were herd mammals, after all, and needed to be surrounded by others with similar views. That was how social echo chambers worked in the age of mass e-media.
“Language,” she said, “particularly written language, is essential to passing information from one generation and one community to the next. Written language saved us from having to invent things over and over again–”
“Oral traditions!” someone yelled.
“Oral traditions are fantastic for capturing and communicating culture,” Vars replied. “But they are lousy for transmitting technical information. There is no oral tradition of calculus.” There was a murmuring of agreement. Good. “And before someone brings up apprenticeship, let me just say that I’m a believer in learning while being embedded in a community of practice. We see such educational approaches in species other than our own. Chimps routinely teach their offspring how to fish for termites with specially made twigs. Birds teach their chicks how to hunt and which foods are good and where they can be located. Cerrado, a species of monkey from South America, use giant hammer rocks to break tough palm nuts over carefully selected anvil boulders. It takes years for the youngsters to learn how to select just the right hammers and anvils and to perfect the technique for bashing open the nuts. So yes, apprenticeship works–but it has its limits. We are the only species on Earth to develop other intentional ways of passing on knowledge. Without written information, we wouldn’t be in the process of colonizing Mars, or mining the asteroids, or having permanent bases on the moon.”
Vars gave the audience a few seconds to absorb this. She wasn’t done having fun with them yet. “But before written and oral language traditions, before the apprenticeship form of passing knowledge from generation to generation, there was another way. Nature’s way. Evolution’s way.”
She stopped, giving her listeners a moment or two to guess the answer. Some nights, the audience got it almost immediately; other nights, there wasn’t a clue in the house. Tonight, there was only silence.
“Evolution couldn’t wait for humans to invent language. Survival depended on passing some information down the chain of generations.” Well? Still nothing? “I’m talking about instincts, of course. Our drive to mate, to reproduce, to protect our children. Our will to survive against all odds. We’ve all experienced, or will experience, these instinctual needs. It’s in our DNA, so to speak. But that’s not the only hard-coded knowledge that we pass along to our offspring.
“I will focus on humans here, because that’s what I wrote my book about. Which reminds me: I will be signing copies in the lobby right after the end of the lecture. I’m required to say this by my publisher.” There were a few chuckles. Good. Vars hated dull groups. It was hard to speak without feedback. “Agoraphobia and claustrophobia, fear of dark places and of heights, ophidiophobia and arachnophobia, instinctual disgust of bodily fluids–blood, urine, pus, feces–all of these are innate for us humans. We are born to avoid tight places and grand expanses. We naturally avoid snakes and spiders even if we’ve never seen or heard of them before. But we have also learned to overcome these fears. We had to if we were going to go into space. Our spaceships are extremely cramped, and they float in vast expanses of space. Astronauts are forced to recycle their bodily fluids and to no longer be afraid of extreme heights and absolute darkness. Although I may never overcome my fear of snakes and spiders…” She shivered dramatically and earned a few more laughs. “And perhaps, one day, we will meet other explorers out there. And we might have more innate fears to shed.”
Vars talked for another quarter hour about the importance of different sensory apparatuses and the need for access to easily extracted raw resources, but it was getting late, and she could feel that the energy had drained from her audience. She was tired, too. She needed to catch a redeye tonight and try to squeeze in a few more hours of sleep before another lecture tomorrow.
Before she was even aware of it, there was hearty applause, and then it was time for smiling, handshaking, and book signing. She’d come to learn that the only people who still bought paper books were the ones who attended these book tour lectures. She was grateful to all of them, and yet she couldn’t wait to get out of there.
“Dr. Volhard?” The voice was a nice soft baritone. “May I have a moment of your time after you’ve finished autographing?”
Vars raised her head, a fake smile plastered on her face, and tried to identify the speaker. There were still half a dozen people waiting, each clutching a copy of her book. But none of those was the speaker. So she went back to signing, and soon enough, like magic, it was done. She rubbed her wrist, which had started to cramp up, and slid the contents of the table–brochures, pens, and leftover business cards–into her bag. She would deal with sorting it all out later.
“Coffee?” the baritone asked again. “I know you take it with sugar and milk. But I wasn’t sure of the proportions.”
Vars looked up again. A tall, slightly graying man in rimless glasses with a slight yellow tint was standing in front of her, holding a recyclable coffee cup. He was dressed in jeans, a dress shirt with no tie, and a wool jacket–easy elegance, her literary agent would call it. She tried to do something similar for these lectures–approachable, smart, and interesting were her original goals. But at this point in the lecture tour, all she could hope for was clean, awake, and present. Dressing in all black helped.
Illustration: Vars signs books
“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Do you have a book for me to sign?”
“That would have been lovely,” the man said, “but I bought an e-version of your book.”
“I can sign your data pad,” Vars offered. She still didn’t take the coffee from his extended hand. And she wasn’t planning to.
“What a lovely idea.” He smiled. “Do you mind if we talk a bit? I know you’re tired–”
“And I have a plane to catch.” Vars spoke more harshly than she’d meant to; the man did buy her book, after all.
She tried to go around him, but he wouldn’t budge. She looked past him for a security guard at the door. Shouldn’t someone be getting everyone out of here? Perhaps escorting her to a taxi? She was getting annoyed and a bit alarmed.
“My name is Ian Rust,” the man said.
“Dr. Vars Volhard.”
“Of course.” He smiled again.
“I really do have to go, Mr. Rust,” Vars insisted. She tried to push past the man, her suitcase ready to roll behind her.
“The thing is, Dr. Volhard, we really need your expertise as soon as possible,” Rust said.
“Sir, I’m an evolutionary socio-historian. My direct expertise is rarely required on an emergency basis. Contact my university office, and I’m sure I would be able to fit you in during one of my ample office hours after I get back.”
“Ah, but there are exceptions,” he said. “We’ve read everything that you’ve published–”
“Everything. And you have a unique set of expertise that my team at Earth Planetary Space Agency urgently requires.” He pulled out his EPSA credentials. “Our car is waiting outside, Dr. Volhard. Won’t you please follow me? Do you mind if I call you Vars?”
“Sure,” Vars said automatically.
“Then please call me Ian.” He handed the coffee to her.
EPSA was the umbrella agency that had taken over for NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), ASA (Australian Space Agency), and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency). So it wasn’t entirely “planetary”–China and Russia still ran their own space exploration programs–but it was the largest and best-funded agency, and it was the one that was actively pushing the Mars colonization program and comprehensive exploration of the solar system.
Vars had always dreamed of working for EPSA, even as a girl. But somehow, somewhere along the way, her academic career had veered into anthropology, and then evolution, and then…well, here she was. The evo devo diva of anthropology.
And now she was riding down the dark, empty streets in the back seat of a black driverless car, with Dr. Ian Rust, head of the exobiology research team at EPSA, sitting by her side.
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