Sunday 10 June 2012

Eater of Worlds

I really don’t see,” said the science reporter, “why you don’t give out the news to the world.”

The exobiologist raised a thick white eyebrow. “Perhaps,” he said mildly, “it’s because you don’t have all the facts.”

“The facts?” It was the reporter’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “I’d have said the facts are clear enough, and momentous enough, to share with the world. In fact, it will probably be the biggest news since the dawn of the Space Age itself. The implications are staggering.”

“Yes,” the exobiologist agreed, drily. “Staggering is the word. You don’t know just how staggering.”

The reporter glanced away from the white-bearded scientist. Through the office window, he could see the distant gantries and towering silver tanks of the spaceport. The tiny form of a shuttlecraft crawled skywards atop a puff of pale yellow fire.

“Life elsewhere in the Universe?” he said, still watching the shuttlecraft. “The rumours I’ve heard – very strong rumours, from very reliable sources – say that life’s been discovered not just on one planet, but on many. This means we’re so far from alone that we’re hardly more than one of a multitude. So it’s natural to wonder why you aren’t giving out the news to the public at large. Is it because of religion? Are you afraid of offending the religious establishment?”

The exobiologist laughed. “If only our problems were so trivial.” He leaned back in his chair and stared at the reporter. “I take it that you decided to confirm the rumour before going public? I mean, that’s why you asked for this interview, didn’t you?”

“Our magazine,” the reporter said stiffly, “has never published anything on the basis of unverified rumours or innuendo. That is not in our corporate ethos.”

“Really?” The scientist smiled sceptically. “Anyway, the impression I got was that you were threatening to go public unless we gave you an interview. That’s why you’re here now – because your magazine was saying something tantamount to blackmail.”

The reporter didn’t say anything.

“We could have, of course, refused to say anything,” the exobiologist continued, “and no doubt you’d have published some completely garbled version. But we couldn’t take the risk of someone drawing conclusions which might be even more alarming than the facts. After all, the facts are bad enough.”

“How can they be so bad that they need to be suppressed?” the reporter asked. “Things are so bad already that this kind of news would be a beacon of hope. In the midst of war, climate change, resurgent disease and creeping famine...” He stopped, embarrassed. “What I mean to say is, anything that might show us hope would be an improvement, wouldn’t it?”

“If it would be something that showed hope, you might be correct.” The scientist shook his head. “But we aren’t convinced that what we’ve discovered gives us any reason for hope. Quite the obverse, actually. As I said, the facts are bad enough.”

“But you’re going to tell me the facts, aren’t you?” the reporter asked. “You aren’t going to lie about them?”

“Lie?” The scientist laughed again, so shortly that it was little more than a bark. “No, I can assure you that what I’m going to tell you is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“And I can publish?” the reporter persisted. “You won’t try to stop us from publishing? Because we’ll fight you if you try to do that.”

“Oh, no,” the exobiologist replied, looking slightly bored. “There’s no need for me to do that. After listening to what I’ve got to say, I think you’ll agree that it’s better this news is kept from the general public.”

That’s for me to decide, the reporter thought, but looked attentively at the white-bearded scientist. “Well?”

The older man pursed his lips in thought. “Your sources,” he began, “are right in that we’ve discovered life elsewhere on other planets. And it’s true that we’ve discovered life on many other planets – in fact, almost every planet we’ve discovered that conceivably might have life has had life. But...”

“Yes?” the reporter prompted, when the pause seemed to have lasted an inordinate length of time. “But?”

“But, we didn’t discover hundreds of different types of life forms. Except for viruses and equivalents, we’ve found only one.”

“One?” The reporter stared at the older man. “I don’t understand.”

“Oh, you will,” the scientist responded cheerfully. “You will.”


The first time we found them (the exobiologist said) it was on a moon in the Giese system. At the time we didn’t realise what we’d found, and even had trouble identifying them as alive. They looked more like mineral formations than anything else – thousands of rust-red tubes, packed side by side from horizon to horizon, their hollow ends pointing up at the sky. It was only when the probes detected unmistakable signs of metabolism in the tubes that we realised they were alive.

One of the probes cut away a sample for analysis. Since we hadn’t anticipated something like this, the material had to be examined by the fairly limited on board mini-laboratory, and it told us little enough – just enough to confirm that it was part of a living organism, and that it was primarily composed of fairly complex proteins. You know, like all other life as we know it.

We were excited, of course. Very excited – it would be the first life we’d encountered outside Earth, except for bacteria. Yes, we were excited, but realised a lot more study needed to be done before we could even begin to speculate on what they might be. We were still designing a probe tailored to intensively studying them when we had another find.

This was on a high-gravity planet orbiting the star they’ve named Diana the Huntress. It’s just about the opposite direction to Giese, and nobody had anticipated finding life there at all. What a planet that is, where the rocks are flattened from the pull of gravity, and the atmosphere is a shell of gas thick as jelly. And yet even in that murky brown wasteland, we found life.

It was a rough-crusted brownish slime, coating the rocks and flowing sluggishly from place to place. For the brief time the probe lasted, it watched patches of the slime crawl with agonising slowness across the rocks, leaving cracked, crumbling stone in its wake. The tentative conclusion we’ve made is that these slime patches leach the rock of minerals in order to sustain themselves. We might have obtained a little more information about them had the probe lasted longer.

What happened was that the slime ate the probe. It was not mobile – under that gravity it would have been difficult to have designed it to be – and its wealth of metals and composites must have made it irresistible. The slime patches began gathering around it from almost the instant of its landing, and they soon started to dissolve away the support struts. The onboard computer was a fairly sophisticated model – it began sending back signals which, had it been alive, we would have described as pain or distress. We had to shut it down at the end, when it began to scream electronically.

But we did get a bit of information about the slime before it ate the probe; the stuff was undoubtedly alive, and it was composed of complex proteins.

Under the environmental conditions found in that planet, you’ll understand, the presence of life was incredibly unlikely. We could accept that it existed – after all, we’d encountered it – but we couldn’t think of any way in which it might have evolved on that planet, under those gravitational circumstances. But there it was.

After a lot of brainstorming, we weren’t any closer to arriving at an explanation. We began trying to design a probe of materials the slime might not be able to dissolve away; the information we had was so limited we actually knew almost nothing of the beasties’ actual abilities. But before we could even arrive at a consensus on which materials to try, another report came in from another planet – and then another, and another.

Suddenly, like mushrooms springing up overnight, life was being discovered everywhere. Sometimes it was on almost airless worldlets, lichen-like films clinging to rocks and in crevices. In other cases, we found immense leathery masses at the bottom of oceans of water, reaching for the surface with tentacles tipped with knobs. And on other planets we found the remains of life – planets so desolate that they were, biologically, as extinct as the life they had once borne. We found fossils – but we found more recent remains, desiccated corpses, skeletons, and the like. We hardly had time to catalogue them all – they were so many of them, so many worlds, that we never even suspected for a long time that there was something very odd about them indeed.

One thing we did notice. These creatures – wherever they were, whatever form they took – they were the dominant life form on their worlds. They were so dominant, in fact, that in many cases there was no other life at all, even when there should have been many others. And sometimes they appeared in such circumstances that but for the fact of their existence, one would never have believed those worlds might have had life. It was very strange.

It was the genetic material that finally tipped us off. Amazingly – considering the incredible variety of life forms from all the different planets we were coming across – the basic genetic material was the same. Even the extinct forms – creatures so long extinct that we only found tiny fragments of their bodies, a scale or tuft of hair, a frond or piece of tentacle – they all had the same genetic basis. We resisted the conclusion as long as we could, until certain observations meant that we could resist it no longer. The various and completely different creatures weren’t completely different after all – they were the same organism. The rust-red tubes, the creeping brown slime, the blimp-like titans floating in the atmosphere of gas giants – they were all the same.

And that could mean only one thing – that there is something in this galaxy, a biological force one might call it, that is spreading itself from planet to planet, from system to system. We even found out how they did it. On a small moon in one of the furthest systems our probes reached, there were great filamentous growths of the things, which bore club-shaped pods at the ends of long, delicate, hairlike stalks. At intervals these pods would explode, sending out billions of spores at terrific velocity. Most of those tiny spores – about the size of bacteria – fell back, but a fairly substantial number managed to make their way out of the atmosphere.

And then we began to understand what was happening. This biological force – whatever we choose to call it – its imperative, its only goal, as it were, is to propagate itself. The spores we saw would drift through space, and inevitably a few of them would find their way to something – a planet or meteoroid, a comet or a piece of drifting junk. And sooner or later one spore out of several billion would reach an environment where it could survive – either directly, or by hitching a ride on a comet or meteor which would crash on to a larger celestial body. If even one spore found its way to a usable environment, that spore would start the whole process over again.

Of course, the process is both extremely slow and intensely wasteful, but there’s all the time in the universe to spare – and the spores we collected are immensely tough, able to withstand vacuum and cosmic radiation almost indefinitely.

And who is to say that the spores are the only way to propagate from world to world? They can work in low gravity, but there are other strategies – much more complicated strategies, but as effective in the long term – that can be adopted to climb out of the gravity wells of bigger worlds.

We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of all the adaptations that these creatures have made to themselves over the aeons of galactic time. We do know that they are almost unimaginably adaptable. They’ve managed to populate just about any environment that could support life – and they’ve changed their physical form to fit that environment. Their imperative to propagate impels them, and the immense plasticity of their genetic code allows them to do just that. They are reproductive strategists without parallel, and they could easily switch from one means to another if it would suit their purpose.

And we realised one other thing. Any world this biological force touches, it takes over completely. It sucks everything out of that environment, leaving only a dry husk of a dead world. Water bodies go dry, forests turn to barren wastes, all to fuel the onward march of this biological force, its effort to evolve some means of propagating itself further and further onward. Nothing matters to it but its march across the galaxy. Nothing has been able to withstand its progress, eating worlds and spitting out the remains.

Of course it will have had its failures – but it will not have failed for want of trying. When one way leads to a blind alley, it will try another, and another, until it succeeds or the stars burn out. What it will never do, what it cannot do, is give up.

And once the galaxy is conquered, its quest will inevitably turn towards crossing the gulfs of intergalactic space – if it hasn’t already.

After all, who knows how old it is, or how long it has been since it started its blind journey of conquest? It could have arisen in the first few billion years of the Universe. It could last as long as space and time.

And there’s nothing we can do about it.


Now,” said the exobiologist, “do you see why we chose to keep the information from the public?”

“Less than ever,” the science reporter responded. “Why don’t you understand – this is the perfect story to get the people of the world to unite.”

“Is that so?” the scientist murmured. “You really think so?”

“Of course I do,” the journalist said. “It’s even better than I thought. Think of Earth as it is now, with nations and peoples at each others’ throats, itching for an excuse for war, while ripping the heart out of the planet. And think how they could be brought together against this threat from outside, this alien force. We could call it the Eater of Worlds, and show how petty human quarrels are compared to it. We could use it rescue us from ourselves!”

“So you really don’t understand, do you?” the exobiologist asked. “You haven’t thought this through to the logical conclusion.”

“What conclusion?” the reporter frowned. “What are you talking about?”

“You want to unite the peoples of the world,” the scientist said. “You think it will bring them together – but against what, precisely?”

“Why, against the threat of the arrival of these spores,” the reporter said. “You told me yourself that this life force, as you called it, consumes anything it touches. The only way we can save ourselves from it is to unite, and make plans so we can successfully resist it when it comes.”

The scientist smiled again. “What makes you think,” he asked sweetly, “that it isn’t here already?”

The journalist stared. “Explain.”

“I thought I did,” the scientist said, leaning forward, “I told you that this biological force would do anything to propagate itself, go to virtually any lengths, even at the cost of destroying the world it inhabited. I told you that it was infinitely adaptable, that it could fit itself to any environment. Remember, too, that we found it in every direction we looked, inhabiting every world it could possibly inhabit. And then think of what I told you about the fact that high-gravity worlds require much more complicated escape strategies than pods shooting spores into the upper atmosphere. Escape strategies, one might say, which would require hundreds of millions of years to come to fruition, and many, many, wrong turns and blind alleys. But, as I said, the biological force has time.”

The reporter was silent.

“And think of Mars, that dead world right next door, which once had flowing water and everything else that might have fostered life, and has nothing now.”

The reporter was still silent. Gathering up his voice recorder and notes, he rose to go.

“Just how do you think people will react,” the exobiologist asked, “when they discover that they, and just about every other living thing on this earth, are merely a means for a biological force to spread itself across the galaxy? Their lives and loves, all of human culture, religion, and interaction, their hopes and aspirations – all just a...a by-product of an ancient organism’s efforts to reproduce. How do you think they’d react to that information?  

“Also, don’t forget – it’s already succeeded. Humans have reached the stars...

“Are you still planning to publish?” the scientist called after the reporter, who was at the door. “Do you think the world is ready for this news – or ever will be?”

The reporter looked back over his shoulder, his face drained of all expression.

“Well?” persisted the exobiologist.

The reporter did not reply.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2012


  1. Well written Bill! Now I'm off, to read something that makes me feel a bit less like the slime we come from, and perhaps to look at the stars, with hunger....

  2. I really like this one.

    I mean, it's a little disturbing that it feels reasonable to assume it's accurate, actually.

    And that might not be pure cynicism talking. Living things MIGHT be programmed to reproduce, expand to the limits of their environments, and then to keep reproducing and expanding.

    Successful expansion would eventually mean that they'd reach the limits of their current environment's resources and then have to either go elsewhere or choke.

    Despite all of the intellectual and spiritual dimensions we like to imagine we have, that initial imperative might be it.

    Like Wallace said, slime.

    Horny slime, but slime.


Full comment moderation is enabled on this site, which means that your comment will only be visible after the blog administrator (in other words, yours truly) approves it. The purpose of this is not to censor dissenting viewpoints; in fact, such viewpoints are welcome, though it may lead to challenges to provide sources and/or acerbic replies (I do not tolerate stupidity).

The purpose of this moderation is to eliminate spam, of which this blog attracts an inordinate amount. Spammers, be warned: it takes me less time to delete your garbage than it takes for you to post it.