This weeks short story has kindly been given to the site by Andrew Darlington. The story looks at a situation a lot of us who are interested in science fiction and speculative fiction will have wondered about: what happens when apex predators meet?
That’s all there is.
An eye in the Martian regolith.
An eye which, from my POV – my point of view, is in a place where an eye has no right to be. In the hard-blast radiation-sterile Mars grit. It stares back. Taking it all in. If it had ears it would be listening. But so far as can be ascertained, it has none.
‘You better run, while you still have chance’ says Donald Testdata. A one-sided dialogue that continues in his head. ‘We once had a planetful of beasties, and we chomped our way through the lot of them. Until there’s none left. Not a one.’
It would be a kindness to stomp on it now. Kill it dead, and save its species from all the pain to come. That would be the humane thing to do. He pauses his boot above it. Poised. One swift crushing now will end it all. Do it. Do it. Instead, he hesitates, and crouches down. Looks into that single eye. ‘You better run, pal. You better squirm or wriggle, or whatever is your preferred method of locomotion, and get the hell out to whatever niche cave-system you crawled out of. Because you’re going to regret you ever crossed our path. You know what…? we’re not a nice species to know.’
As he talks, it levitates upwards. Gritty dust falling away as it hovers, provoking an inward shudder. There’s something forbidding and inscrutable about that single eye. Something venomous, a gimlet of incandescent ice. But there’s more to it than just an eye. It’s become a maggot. With jaws full of vicious pointed teeth. And the single eye. No – less a maggot, more a slug, as thick as your wrist. Or maybe first thought, best thought, a wriggling vile maggot of pale undulating segments. But edible. Slice away the teeth, and the eye. Surely no-one would eat the eye? But wait. Keep it onside. Given the correct soya seasoning, it would provide a specialty side-dish. We’ve eaten worse. In the long crawl up from hunter-gatherer we’ve eaten far worse. Everything that crawls, hops, swims, flies, runs, doesn’t run, buzzes, ticks, chirrups… and its eggs, its milt, its offal-intestines, brain and eyes. Oh yes, we’ve gorged on the lot. There’s nothing we’ve not gobbled.
He looks back guiltily, over his shoulder towards the base. A menu of some five-hundred assorted humans, fed by a continuous automated freighter-shuttle looping back to Earth. Too many people. He’d come to Mars to escape crowds, and grabs at any excuse to sojourn into the valley-systems beyond on various geological pretexts.
‘Go, for the sake of your health, and my mental health. We’re mean no-good low-down go-getter apes with an insatiable appetite for juicy treats like you. We’ve treated the solar system as an All-You-Can-Eat banquet. We’ve eaten our way through it. We leave nothing, nader, zilch. Nothing. Now we eat what we grow from the stem-cells of extinct beings. So they tell us. Not that it matters. We eat programmed genetic material that’s been textured this way or that, into some-such facsimile flavour, or another. Someone once told me that the original stem-cell wasn’t even animal, but human. Its source is open to debate. It’s not important. Nothing died to produce it.’
‘We ate until there was nothing left to eat, then belched out crewed projectiles into space hunting more. Even now we got expeditions clomping around on the ice-crusts of Europa and Callisto, sniffing out the next square meal. So you one-eyed maggot-brains are a cinch for the ravenous connoisseur. Braised. Flambéed. In a cheese sauce. On a skewer. Diced. Kentucky Fried Martian Maggot in a crispy batter…’
But wait, there’s a threadlike strand of something shiny extending from its mouth. A breathing apparatus? Like his own enviro-shell, it can’t be natural. That’s been precision-crafted. But the maggot doesn’t have limbs. Unless they’re retractable? Telescopic limbs that project out from its body when required, and get safely stowed away after use?
It moves. Swimming through the air. He follows it. Donald Testdata explains as he walks. ‘Organisms eat. That’s what they do. It’s not as though they have any choice. It’s not as though they can decide to stop. They’re built around a digestive tract. There’s an orifice-in. A nutrient-extracting stomach-sac. And a waste orifice-out. The rest, the nervous system, sensory organs, neural network, cerebellum, consciousness, culture, are add-ons. Afterthoughts for the main function, which is to eat. That’s what all organisms do. They have no choice. They eat, or die.’
As he walks there’s a sudden shock of disorientation. As though he’s about to expand. To fly apart in all directions at once. As if every atom of his body is repelling every other atom, so that he’s on the verge of inflating, while rushing off irresistibly into speeding fragments. Also, it’s like he’s been kneed in the gut. The mix of feelings coalescing into a sensation of moving from here, to there. Of passing through a shimmery lens, or portal. Stepping through a shadow, or a reflection. As though the planet has inhaled him into it, then exhaled him out the other side.
With gruntfulls of fear he looks around, eyes wide with shocked wonderment. It’s still the Valles Marineris alright. How could it not be? He recognises its geology. But it’s not as he’s ever seen it before. Mars had a brief million-year window of viral life, with micro-organisms swishing about and spluttering around in its shallow water-lakes and sudden torrents. But that was a long billion-years gone. Everyone knows that. Except that this alternate Mars is swarming with maggot-things. If he’d said billions of them he’d not be wrong. For as far as he can see, and as high as he can see, they are swirling in their myriad formations. Locusts. But much worse than locusts. A sandstorm of them, except that every sand-grain of it is equipped with vicious predator-teeth and a single eye. For the first time he begins to suspect he’s getting into something more than he can handle.
He turns back. Of course, the portal has winked into nothingness. No way home. So he just stands, rooted stock-still, and watches it all. Some beings are thread-fine and wriggle through the tenuous air a thousand-deep, like shoals of oceanic fish, others are man-size and cruise through the swarm cutting a solo path, some have gauzy insect-wings although the thin air hardly gives them an advantage, others display an apparently arbitrary number of spindly limbs. Two, three, five or six of them. He gets to reasoning that, like ants, they are a single species, but subdivided down into specialised sub-species, all involved in separate aspects of their collective project. Some are thinkers and doers, while others are fodder. Because, chillingly, they are also, among their furious diverse activities, devouring each other. Every now and then, without warning or distress, they simply gape and swallow. The man-size alpha-maggots chewing a graze-furrow through the thread-size swarms of lesser fishtailing maggots without a moment’s pause.
‘What the hell am I getting myself into? How do I get home?’ He’s always had a pretty low opinion of humanity, but suddenly he’s starting to appreciate its company. He follows his maggot down, for want of alternative. Is the air a little denser here, a little richer? Maybe not. It’s not a path. They don’t need a path. But as he descends he sees their city. Or what passes for their city. A formation of coiled tubes extending across the valley-floor forever in every direction. Dull-coloured, some shaded slightly more puke-green, others unhealthy yellow, or in cross-plies of ochre.
‘This is what I intuit. They could have ripped me to pieces in a second. They’re certainly hungry enough. The fact that they haven’t, and that they’re showing me this, indicates they’ve other plans for me. There are moments when everything changes. My finding the eye in the regolith was one. If, first instinct, best instinct, I’d crushed it with the sole of my boot into a gloopy green smudge, none of this would have happened. But no, I had to take pity on it. That was my big mistake. Maybe my leniency earned their respect, and they’re repaying that gesture? Or maybe it’s something more sinister?
Inside the tube-city there’s an exhibition, with a visual commentary that plays within his head. As aeons pass, and their Mars had become increasingly inhospitable and arid, and they’d eaten everything there was left to eat, they’d modified and used the only other surviving Martian life-form – a kind of vast air-whale, to host their legions and navigate across space to their equivalent ‘Earth’, which they’d found to be a larder stacked high with food galore. There’s something that resembles a trumpet-beaked anteater. A snake-like caterpillar on millipede legs. Another like a giant manta-ray. And there’s a hairy bent-over anthropoid. An Australopithecus or Cro-Magnon. This must be the evolutionary stage their ‘Earth’ had reached when their billions got there. There’s also jumbled impressions of their Venus too. Not sure, but perhaps their version of the solar system is different there too, and once harboured edible beings. Until they’d consumed all there is to eat on all three worlds.
‘Our two species now face a similar predicament. We humans now eat by texturing protein-substitute from stem-cells. These maggots open portals in space-time to check out parallel worlds. Now they’ve found ours. As a result, the apex predators of two parallel evolutions have been brought violently into confrontation. Now we’re in for the biggest food-fight of all time. Who will out-eat who? Which species will devour the other to extermination?’
As he watches, they begin punching multiple portals in the sky, a hundred, a thousand. And they’re swarming through in their billions. For every billion surging through, the mauve Martian sky is filled with billions more. An endless stream of them pouring through to inundate our solar system.
Donald Testdata sits down on a convenient rock. The original single maggot-eye stares back at him. Taking it all in. If it had ears it would be listening. Maybe it is listening.
We hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as we did.
Andrew Darlington is a published writer who, when not writing short stories like this one, has interviewed many people from the worlds of Literature, SF-Fantasy, Art and Rock-Music for a variety of publications. You can visit Andrew’s blog here. You can also follow Andy on Twitter here.
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