“Species,” by Jason Dias, is the First Place winning story in the science fiction category for the Tenth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusives, you can read Dias’ winning entry.
by Jason Dias
Organisms sharing a classification, separated from similar organisms by one or more of the following: their distinct physical characteristics; distinct genetic characteristics; their inability to viably interbreed.
“One B, One A.”
“One B, One A, comcheck. This is One B, One A please respond.”
Merlin sighed to himself. This day had been coming for a long time now. His counterpart on Earth had sounded unwell for the last few checks. John. John Baptiste. Not the most pleasant of people, but you took what you could get. John had been Merlin’s radio partner for a dozen years, maybe more. Conversations across the void took a long time; not much personal was shared. But still, he’d seemed like a friend.
“One B signing off,” said Merlin into empty space. He was a man who looked like his name. Names were destiny, in a way. He was tall and thin through the shoulders, with spindly legs and spidery arms and fingers. He had veiny hands that were dexterous when not too swollen. A round belly, suitable to a man of his advanced years, and a long white beard that he kept tied up with whatever was available – at the moment a hank of wool. There was precious little colorful hair in the colony.
He listened briefly, perfunctionarily, to the other stations, systematically picked out for investigation. They all gave the same dull tone that signified “no signal detected”. A hundred years of listening to stars, scanning for some sign that humans were not alone in the universe, and for nothing. The eerie silence persisted, only eerier now.
He sighed again and dragged himself up off his seat. Even at one third Earth gravity, he was starting to feel heavy. He hadn’t felt a full gee since he left Earth orbit. How long ago now? Many years. Enough years for this sere, dusty place to become home. But he wasn’t heavy, not really, only weary. Deeply weary.
“Any word from the mothership?” asked Fyodor.
“It’s over,” he said back. Fyodor knew what that meant.
Merlin sat down to supper. Nothing an Earther would have recognized. There was a kind of modified corn that thrived on the unfiltered sunlight of Martian day and tolerated the dead cold. No meat on the plate, but a blackish, frothy microbial sludge that was tastier than it looked. It grew naturally in the right conditions, a simulation of that ancient Martian atmosphere.
Fyodor lifted his flagon – a heavy metal thing with smaller interior volume than one might think – and poured out some of his wine. It fell about as quickly as one would expect but the splash was much more significant. It would stain even the ceramic floor tiles black even should Merlin scrub for hours, but he agreed with the sentiment. And that was all the sentiment he would ever hear from Fyodor.
“Will you tell Jaye?” said Merlin. “I’ve not the heart right now. In fact, I really don’t have the heart for supper, either. I might turn in for the rest of the cycle.”
Fyodor nodded curtly, returned his attention to his blackish, mottled corn. The kernels grew in irregular clusters, some as large as grapes and some as small as peas. There was no correlation between size and color. Some of the kernels had other kernels growing out of them, or locked up inside. They made lousy popcorn.
The next cycle, Merlin woke to find Jaye standing next to his hammock. Her eyes were disconcerting, the sludgy black and green of people born to this world rather than imported from One-A. Her skin, a carrier for the harmless microbial life of Mars, looked like blue cheese, except her skin was darker than white cheese and the veins and mottles were black. The microbes got into everything here, everything that lived and reproduced. So far there were no recorded harmful effects. That the microbial life could even interact with something so alien as a human was deemed remarkable by folks who knew about such things.
“Good morning, Jaye,” he said through his disconcertment. “It isn’t morning,” she said back.
“Remember when we talked about allegory and metaphor?” “These things are important to humans,” she said flatly. “You are a human.”
“If so, I am evidently the human. You are extinct.”
He rubbed his head. In this way, too, she was like the others born here. Their passions were too deep for easy expression, so they seemed remote and pedantic. The microbes again? A developmental wrinkle due to the microgravity? Something else? Unknown, and unknown, and unknown. Their parents loved them as he loved Jaye, the only living reminder of Joselyn. Joselyn hadn’t survived the Starving Times. So many had not.
“Extinct is a loaded word, my dear. And frankly, I don’t feel extinct. Not yet.”
“You are extinct. Not enough of you remain to be genetically viable. You will die, perhaps leaving behind a few more offspring who will be like me and not like you. And no more will come from the other planet. You will be replaced by us.”
He sighed. It seemed he sighed more than he spoke any more. “Doubtless you are right, Jaye. But you are us, more than you can see right now. Ever and always have the old yielded the world to the young, and today is no different.”
She cocked her head as though listening to sounds he could not hear. “You will broadcast once more,” she said after a long, loaded pause. “We agree the funeral has meaning. You will lead the mourning with your words. You will cast your grief into the void, and our grief will follow.” And then she turned on her heel and left in that shimmering, scuttling stride common to those born to this place. A few of the first people, the Landers, had mastered this means of locomotion.
Merlin had not. He walked out in the old way, inefficient and ultimately a bit hard on the hips, a perverse combination of too much stress and not enough stress.
Breakfast: more black, microbial sludge, with a dark bread that was one of the better foods made here, and a black microbial beer. Fyodor was not around, probably out trying to coax more life out of the last of the sheep, or tending to the thriving rat or cockroach colonies. The roaches did not even required human support; they lived out there in the austere Martian landscape. Humans used to say only cockroaches would outlast them, fearing nuclear winter, but it wasn’t Winter that had done for them. They had all died of endless Summer.
Selene popped her head in, dark skin even blacker from fingertips to elbows. Working with the sludge stained a person. “When’s the funeral?” she said.
It took Merlin a minute to realize she meant it literally – she often looked at his face and asked where the funeral was. He couldn’t help having a sad face, and in truth he frequently was sad. They had not had a funeral in a few years, but every one of them still felt shockingly fresh to him. Like they all had just concluded yesterday. Somehow the pains of yesterday had been easier to forget back on Earth, when there had been many yesterdays fewer. Mars seemed jammed full of yesterdays, crowding all the corners, stacked up high on the meager furniture, jammed into all the doorways.
“I don’t know,” he said at last. “I’d only just decided to do one.”
Selene knew him well enough to know he meant Jaye had decided for him. It was sort of a running joke. She told him to do something, he acted like it was his own idea, she pretended not to notice he was being facetious, he pretended not to notice she hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t easy to love a Trueborn but he did the best he could, playing into her intellect and away from her seeming deficits.
“Make it tonight? I want to hear it.”
“I’ll do my best then,” he said, ultimately non-committal. Suddenly he wanted a smoke, an urge he hadn’t felt in a generation. “Your hair is going grey. At the temples. Wings, we used to call it. Back… On the mothership.” He was going to say home, had to choke it back with the tears.
“Maybe I’ll just shave it off,” she said, turning to go. In her way she made the homespun, undyed wool look good, like that was what runway models would be wearing right now on Earth. At a hundred and eleven she looked a stately sixty, an absurdity of anachronism. Her hair was tight and kinky, never growing out more than an inch from her scalp. Perhaps the secret to youth was to be found somewhere in slow-growing hair.
“Don’t,” he said. “It’s distinguished. It has Earth in it.” It has human in it, he meant to say.
“Yeah, maybe.” And then she, like Jaye, was gone. Back to work.
Back to work. He had his own work to do. Mostly replacing vacuum tubes, which were more reliable than microchips over much of Mars. Anything close to the surface was hardened to withstand radiation, impact, vacuum, and dust. Anything too complex for tubes dwelt well below the surface where the humans kept most of their atmosphere.
At the end of a few hours, his hips hurt and his knuckles hurt. Low gravity did nothing for arthritis, though Mars was otherwise kind to the elderly. At one-hundred twenty, he supposed he was elderly by any standard in the universe – then he recalled that theirs was the only known standard left. He plugged in one new vacuum tube, placing the dead tube in his pocket, and wandered back to the radio lab.
He cracked open the case to look at the works. Vacuum tubes were simple and could often be repaired by even a novice technician. With the right equipment, at any rate. This one, though, seemed to have a major structural failure. He could solder it, rehab it, but it would just fail again in a week or a month. No more than thirty cycles.
“You are extinct,” he told the vacuum tube. “I’m afraid you are slated for recycling. Can’t waste good metal with our refining resources so crude. No offspring for you. And eventually every vacuum tube must fail. We can’t get more from Alpha, and
we can’t make more here, not from scratch. Extinct, I say.” He broke it down to its component parts with the quick expertise of a century of practice, dropped those elements into various containers for reuse or smelting. At some point Jaye came in and watched him with those sludgy eyes, in so many ways her mother’s eyes. He didn’t know if she’d heard his soliloquy for the dead tube or not. She would never say.
“Tomorrow is your birthday,” he said. “Birthdays are celebrated by humans.”
“You are a human,” he said, tired. “In any event, I am a human, and I wish to celebrate your birthday.”
“The calculations are complex and ultimately of limited value. Counting transits exemplifies nothing. But your affection is noted. You would count sixty Earth orbits.”
“Yes, sixty. Sixty used to be old. In my day it was old. Now I am twice that and scarcely old. I don’t even qualify for a discount at the Chinese buffet. How long might you live?”
“We have not considered that question with any seriousness. There are too many variables. We prefer to think in population terms; in those terms our existence is tenuous but becoming more secure with each transit. Individually, though, a lack of native infectious agents in a population apparently free of such agents seems likely to greatly magnify the potential lifespan, and the data seem to bear out this likelihood.
Additionally, as the heart need not work against so much gravity, even a frail heart might not be overtaxed as the body begins to reach its natural limits, perhaps accounting for the general increase in expected lifespan. This matches the data on human longevity well enough: men tend to predecease women in the general population due to coronary failure, but tend to outlive women in this heart-friendly environment.”
He smiled, mostly to himself. She would never admit she had noticed. “Perhaps I will help you count more transits and you can keep collecting that data. Every year is another year lived.”
That head-tilt again. She would never say he prattled or let nonsense escape his face, accuse him of sentimentality or condescension, but her every movement was rife with these accusations. No matter. He loved her because he had to. If it were not hard, it would not be worth doing. “Sixty-two point two,” she said, referring to the time in the cycle most of the Earthers reserved for eating and conversation.
“Sixty would be more poetic, don’t you think?”
“I never did comprehend poetry. But have it your way.”
Have it your way, Father, he heard. But she never said that. Some of the others acknowledged their relationships to their parents. Others were completely silent, never gave any sign they knew their parent was in the room. Jaye walked this middle path between contact and separation.
Her first word had been part of a sentence. Like most of her contemporaries, she had never babbled, never said a word until she had integrated enough of language to proceed competently. “It is no longer necessary that you should clothe me in this fashion.” Those had been her first words. Fifty-eight years ago, almost to the day.
“Thank you for indulging my sentimentality,” he said, and turned back to his work.
“We think your sentiments have value,” she said, surprising him. “We do not always understand them, but we wish to. Just as you wish to understand ours.”
He stared at her a moment, mouth open and gasping for words as a landed fish gasps for water. She was gone again, his thirty second daughter he called her sometimes. Once he told her that to her face and she inquired as to who the previous thirty-one daughters were. Perhaps they were on Alpha? He thought she understood the joke, was just willfully ignoring the meaning, but you could never be sure with the True.
In a sudden fit of pique, he kicked over a bucket of solenoids. They scattered far and wide and he lost his balance, cracking his head on a table on the way down. Thirty- two feet per second per second became more like fourteen but, unless you fell a long way, that hardly mattered. Over a five foot fall from erect to supine you’d hardly know the difference. Luckily it wasn’t a solid contact; that might have cracked open his skull given the ravages of microgravity on human bone. Just a bump for him, and a reminder of Newton’s third law of thermodynamics.
Sixty was approaching. He cleaned up the blood on his head first, concerned about those harmless microbes found everywhere underground here. There was no way to keep them out and really no way to measure their activity in the body, not with their crude technology. He supposed then that he ate enough of them that it was silly to worry at this juncture. Then he picked up scattered solenoids. Seemed like everything bounced on Mars, even water. They were far and wide. And by the time he was done, it was just past sixty. Jaye would doubtless note his human imperfection (you are human, he told her in his head) but it was close enough for government work.
Merlin sat at the console, put the headphones on, tuned into Home frequency. By habit, he said, “One B, One A. Come in, One A.” He waited ten minutes. The distance was close to minimum right now. At maximum it could be a half-hour wait or even worse to get a response back. But of course there would be no response back.
It was well past sixty-two now. He supposed he might have waited on purpose. Jaye always got her way, as only-children always had. He started.
“This is One B speaking. Long ago, we decided we would refer to the Solar System as One, and Earth as Alpha: the first place to harbor humans. Mars became B, with plans to have a C and a D and use up the alphabet. That might happen one day, but for now One B is alone.
“Mars is the only place to hold human life now. Or intelligent life of any sort that we know of. It seems an absurd conclusion but is likewise somewhat inescapable. Absence of evidence really is sometimes evidence of absence.
“Until yesterday at this time, or thereabouts, there were two species of humans in the universe. Today there is one. We will likely continue to call ourselves homo sapiens. Why not? No-one else is using the name. The only thing that really separated us from our Alpha ancestors was geography. Just as a Bonobo is a Chimapanzee but for a river that divides the populations and prevents interbreeding, so the vast gulf of space between us makes us us and you you.
“Many times in Human history have we shared a planet with other species of humans. Denisovians, Neanderthals, the Flores people, all human but all bounded off from us by geography. When that geography changed, the boundaries between us changed: one species emerged, and we have the genetic inheritance to prove it.
“Some will say at this time there remain two species of humans: the Alphas, or Landers, or Earthers, the ones who left that glistening pebble for this dry and dusty one; and those we gave birth to. The ones who were born here, they are so different from us in so many ways. We struggle to live together. Not for peace between us, as none lift a hand against the other, no, but for the together part. We seem so far apart even when we are talking together. So much distance, a void perhaps greater than the ever-changing space between Earth and Mars.
“But we can touch one another. We could breed if we wanted, except that they are our offspring and we are their parents. There is no physical distance and no substantive biological difference. Their children will be like them and not like us, but they will be like us. They, the Trueborn Children of Mars, they are just like us. They are us. We are humans.
“Children always think they are unlike their parents. But then they live long enough to regret that they are exactly like their parents, as their parents learned in their own time. They will replace us soon as the old die and new young are born, in the normal progression of life. But we will never die because they are us. I will die as you died, as Joselyn died, but we, we will not die. Not so long as we love our children. There is no reason to suppose the Neanderthals did not love their children, or the Denisovians their children, or the Flores. Sapiens love their children too, the old and the new Sapiens. And the Trues who are replacing us, they must also love their children.
“Perhaps there will be a One C or a One D in the system, maybe more. But for now, we are alone. Alone with ourselves, alone with each other.
“And maybe together.
“May God have mercy on our souls.
“One B signing off.”
He clicked off the headset, not even checking the other frequencies. That would haunt him later and he knew it, like a poor man who missed buying his lottery tickets one day. Was that the day he would have won? Of course not. Winning was never in the cards. The odds were not improved substantively by buying a ticket. Nevertheless, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow he would rescan the coordinates he had missed, hoping and hoping.
Jaye was waiting for him in his cell, standing by his hammock again. She often stood by his hammock. He looked into her sludgy eyes and she uncharacteristically looked back into his. He was so stunned when she hugged him that it took a full minute to hold her in return.
“What?” he started to say, but this was outside his experience. “I’m sorry,” she said. And then, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
There was nothing more to say. They just held each other for a time, and then she was gone.