A blind fish story

Millimeter for millimeter, the cosmic ray neutron shielding power of iron outperforms lead by a factor of five. And Carl Newman’s Remote Sensing suite had found the mother of all mother lodes in the largest asteroid belt ever seen by man; free for the taking. And, as if that were not enough, low orbit magneto-metric mapping of the system’s only habitable planet suggested it too contained vast underground deposits of the metal.

(This story first appeared in the anthology Alien Dimensions; Space Fiction Short Story Anthology Series #23; Edited by Neil A. Hogan, 2022)

Confirmation would require deploying manned teams with ground penetrating radar. But that would have to wait, given the second momentous discovery: He had noticed the signature of diamond-encased ringwoodite all along the ring of fire of the planet’s major ocean. Since that implied that those volcanoes were direct channels for upwelling from the mantle transition zone, he directed the orbital multispectral remote sensing campaign to scan the volcanic islands for calcium graphenide and calcium polyacetylide.

It was a gamble; and it paid off. The exotic Calcium-Carbon compounds, that polymerize above 20 Giga Pascals, increase in conductivity by a factor of ten million, and then remain stable all the way up to atmospheric pressure, were embedded everywhere within the lava that constituted the islands.

A solar system with immense riches of iron ore in its asteroid belt and with a planet containing a vast reservoir of the Calcium Carbide needed for desulfurization and deoxidation of steel… that was as good as winning the lottery. More than that, the natural hyperbaric polymer forms of the Calcium Carbide, with their metallic conductivity, were an exact fit to the requirements of the Moore and Dane’s 2155 patent for the ultrafast-induction-furnace steel manufacturing method. It was more like winning the lottery ten times over.

Newman had the ship drop radio markers at the land sites with the strongest magnetic readings, for future GPR exploration, and concentrated the efforts on the Calcium Carbide harvesting. Within a month, his ISC crew had assembled ten ore tankers to transport the mineral by sea from the ring of fire islands to their central base in the nearby continent where the electromagnetic catapult for slinging the payloads to orbit had just been finished.

Doctor Carl Newman paced the tiled floor of the High School principal’s office with the easy stride of a man that had just made his life’s fortune. The thought crossed his mind that, were he on Earth, that life would be more like life in prison. But he dismissed it immediately: By the time anyone on Earth found out that the Independent Settler Conglomerate had carved out for itself this nice little chunk of the G-star survey, it would be too late to do anything about it.

The discovery of this planetary system made every risk he had taken and every law they had broken all worth it. And then, would they even care? In the end all that matters are the market forces; and he had just ensured ISC cornered the market on space-grade steel.

The lottery twenty times over was probably a better estimate. When the rest of the ISC ships arrived, they would throw him the party of a lifetime. Logically, objectively, he should be smiling ear to ear. But there was an uneasiness in the back of Newman’s mind that he could not quite define.

Somehow it was connected to the placid demeanor of the school’s principal. Yet, that too should have counted as a plus in the lottery. The natives offered no resistance to their invasion.

It was not as if they could have done much. The planet’s civilization was spread across the world as low density, mostly agrarian, communes. The few industrialized cities realized immediately that the chemically propelled weapons they tried to improvise could not come close to inflicting the damage the steel-clad flyers of the invading force could.

There were protests, yes. But even they were mild; and some even bizarre. On the same day, across the entire world, the coastal rancher communities, who raised and provided the cattle for all the farms around them, drove all their pregnant livestock off the cliffs into the sea. The rest of the cattle followed them instinctively to the same death. That had been a week into the invasion. Two months had passed since then with no further incident. The leaders of the various communities used that time to learn the invaders’ language in order to negotiate for the welfare of their people.

Paoa Ika, the principal and Biology teacher of the High School in one of the industrialized centers was one of those leaders. Newman found her attractive enough. Given the close match of the planet’s composition, and its sun, to Earth’s, it was to be expected that the natives would be humanoid. Lt. Wilkins would confirm it, once he was done with his DNA assessment of the planet’s species, later that afternoon. But Newman was not expecting any surprises.

Their eyes were larger and rounder. Their foreheads sloped slightly back, so that the prominent bridge of the nose cast a straight line from nose tip to brow. And they were all on the slender, smallish end of the human spectrum. The more time he spent with the principal, the more he was taken by her elfin charm. He had thought more than once about inviting her to dinner at the ISC base’s executive dining hall. But not having seen her take a lunch break the whole week, he had no idea what she would like. Anyway, she was smiling.

“What is so fascinating?” He asked.

“I have been reading about your home planet’s Mexican cavefish: a bottom-feeder with no eyes, that readily hybridizes with the seeing surface-dwelling fish also found in the rivers and streams of the same locale.”

Newman glanced at the stack of Journal articles open on the screen before her. He had not put any restrictions on the Life Sciences libraries she could use to build her understanding of their new masters. It was no surprise that she chose Biology but it was not Newman’s forte. So, he just raised his eyebrows.

“Have you ever wondered why they are interfertile?”

He pondered for a second if there was any particular reason for her interest in inter species fertility; but he just shook his head.

“The two species not only differ in physiology; they differ in behavior.” She was glad to explain. “When the surface fish look for food at the bottom of a stream they scan vertically. And they instinctively flee from perturbation of the water surface, because it could be a predator. The blind version, the cavefish, scan the bottom at 45 degrees, scooping food from the debris down there with their shovel-like mouth. And they are drawn to perturbations of the water surface. It’s called Vibration Attraction Behavior: useful because debris falling from the top of the cave brings with it food and minerals.” She looked up and finished with a smile: “You see, there are no predators in a cave.”

Newman followed the explanation, trying honestly to appear interested. She accepted that and continued. “The differences in physiology are also striking: Yes, as you would expect, the blind, dark-dwelling version has no coloration. But the key is the absence of eyes. Without them, the size, shape, and organization of the craniofacial bones, particularly around the eye socket, make all the difference. That is what allows them to have those larger shovel jaws, with more maxillary teeth.

“And, to operate in that darkness, the blind fish have larger and more of the superficial neuromasts and cranial neuromasts than the surface species.” She finished.

“Truly fascinating.” Newman felt he should comment.

“Yes! But have you ever wondered how you get from A to B?”

For a moment Newman chided himself for listening only with half a mind, and then he remembered how she started the conversation. “You mean, how they can mate…” he cleared his throat involuntarily “…with each other and have viable offspring?”

“Well, yes. The answer is that you can indeed get from A to B.” Newman nodded to get her to continue. She smiled brightly again. “Your scientists call the answer: Sonic hedgehog – or Shh – gene hyperactivity.” A chuckle interrupted her explanation as she recalled how the name apparently came from a video game character.

She went on. “The eye lens cells of the cavefish embryo are preprogrammed to die, triggered by Shh. In early development, the lens starts forming as in the surface fish but then, before differentiation starts, the cells die which causes the retina to die, which leads to a different brain structure – no need for a conventional visual cortex, you know – which allows a different craniofacial structure that then accommodates the larger jaws.

“Then, the same Shh overexpression leads to a larger number of taste buds on the external surface of the lower jaw and sides of both jaws – for better feeding from the bottom in the dark. And if you are wondering why it also grows extra superficial neuromasts in the now eyeless orbits… Those mediate the Vibration Attraction Behavior which the different brain structure manages.”

She was utterly pleased with the way she had captured and summarized the essentials of all those articles. ‘Truly, a born teacher,’ Newman thought.

“You have to admit,” she continued in a more cautious tone, “that this really sounds like an If-Then loop in a computer program; actually, nested If-Then loops.”

Newman divined what the change in tone meant. Just as their physical sciences were about a century behind Earth’s, their social sciences were probably just as underdeveloped. He had not bothered to research their various societies’ belief systems. If they believed their world to have been created recently, the power of evolution and natural selection working over billions of years would be unknown to them.

For a moment, he pondered how to broach a subject that might well be heretical. And then he almost burst out laughing at the thought that his subconscious had suddenly developed scruples. “You do know,” he began, “that the universe is over 14 billion years old.”

Paoa Ika giggled, and somehow that set him a bit at ease. “I know, I know,” she said; I read something somewhere about a microwave background of the universe; and some sort of expansion. Which explains why your scientists seem to think this evolution – as you call it – is the culmination of a long long train of incremental changes that eventually guarantee every species’ survival.

“I get it. So, what do you think, how long did it take? How long did it take for the cave dwelling blind fish to diverge from the surface ones? Hundreds of thousands of years? If so, you would expect it would take a similar long train of changes to restore sight to them.”

Her eyebrows raised as she gave him a chance to nod. Newman just shrugged. “Well,” she brought up another set of articles to the screen. “According to the papers, if you transplant an embryonic eye from a surface fish into a cavefish embryo, the eye develops and functions normally. And then, if you suppress the Shh overexpression, that now-seeing fish grows up to look like, and behave exactly like, a conventional surface fish. 

“You see, what we have here is quite a bargain: two fish for the price of one. Two complete computer programs that can lead to two physiologically and behaviorally different creatures, in the same package.

“Your scientists have noticed the mechanism. They call it pleiotropy: the ability of one gene to enhance or suppress two or more seemingly unrelated phenotypic traits at the same time. We just call them DNA subroutines; with built-in switches.”

At that point Newman didn’t know what to say. So, he was thankful for the rap at the door. It was Wilkins. They adjourned to a nearby office.

Wilkins began his report. “We have cataloged the whole planet’s flora and fauna for colonization viability, and for dangerous lifeforms. The DNA evidence shows two evolutionary histories. One is very much like Earth’s. Which is why the aliens breathe the same air and drink the same water as us, making their world perfect for colonization. The other evolutionary line is different, but it appears to be limited to fauna, and that to particular ones.”

“Go on.”

“The evidence was found in the winter storage food bins and in smoked meats. Also, in the gut of the local wolves.”

“You think that was the cattle that they got rid of?”

“If they were, they must have been closer to reptiles or amphibians than mammals. But in the video record of the event, they look like musk oxen.”

“What’s bothering you?”

“That other genetic line had some… unusual features. There are only vestiges of the DNA in a kind of local fish, but the computer reconstructions suggest gills that could incorporate a metallo-porphyrin membrane, highly selective for Oxygen/Nitrogen separation. It makes no sense. Why would you need such a thing for breathing under water? The ratio of Nitrogen to Oxygen in water is barely a factor of 1.5. Now, in air, with four times as much N2 as O2, maybe there’d be an advantage to having purer Oxygen.”

“Maybe the planet’s ancient oceans were Nitrogen rich in the distant past,” Newman shrugged.

“Ok, how about this one: There is a gene in the related reptilian line for an extraordinary DNA repair enzyme. Only thing that comes close in the human body is in the cells of the lining of the stomach that get replaced every 5 days. But this is an order of magnitude faster.”

“And this bothers you because?”

“Repair enzymes are designed to recognize structural DNA errors due to improperly paired nucleotides. Their job is to cut out the wrong ones and put in the right ones. But, still, replication errors are bound to happen. There has to be a built-in control mechanism, a feedback loop, that only lets replication take place above a certain damage threshold.”

Newman was getting lost and Wilkins realized it. “Look, stomach lining cells need to replicate that often because the stomach acid environment is, well, corrosive. But if our liver cells replicated that fast, that often, given the chance of replication error, we would all die of liver cancer.

“We looked for the enzyme in tree frogs, fish, shellfish. And it is there; the mutation has propagated along that evolutionary tree. But the surprise is that the replication error threshold gets lower the more advanced the organism. I had Gregor run the simulations in the ship supercomputer. At that rate, by the time you get to the complexity equivalent to a human being, it would be guaranteed to be a self-defeating mutation, fatal in infancy. The whole planet’s population would have been wiped out by cancer.”

“Well,” Newman opened his arms wide, “do you see any reptilian humanoids around here anywhere?”

“No,” Wilkins had to admit. “We did find fractions of a similar gene in the humanoid population. I would have thought it was junk DNA if I hadn’t seen Gregor’s simulation.”

“Ok…?” Newman was starting to get irritated at the way Wilkins kept hedging his replies.

“We don’t know their replication error rate.” Wilkins finally said it. “Gregor just assumed the typical values of Earth species.”

Newman just jutted his face forward.

“Look: What if the error rate were lower?” Wilkins went on: “What if it were much lower? With that repair efficiency in all their organs, in principle, they could live forever.”

Newman stepped back and exhaled a long breath. “The fountain of youth…” His mind stopped listening to Wilkins’ subsequent comments. He was busy strategizing how to control this discovery and how to spend what now amounted to winning the lottery a hundred times over. Of course, they might need to experiment on the populace. ‘A shame,’ he mused, as he thought of the principal.

“Dr. Newman!” The voice of the military force’s local commander blurted out from the communicator on the scientist’s uniform. “We have a problem. Look at channels 5 and 7.”

Newman and Wilkins ran back into the principal’s office to face the monitors on the wall. She already had them tuned to those channels. One was a view from the low-orbit comm-satellite constellation. The other was a video feed from a rotary wing flyer approaching the scene.

Everywhere along the volcanic ring of fire, gigantic creatures were rising out of the sea, and making their way to the lava fields. In physical proportions, they resembled long-necked Komodo dragons; but they were easily 15 meters long. A folded carapace that covered their neck and length of the spine was proving impervious to the machine gun fire from the first flyer. Even the larger munitions from the gunship that followed it were glancing right off.

“What are they doing?” Newman jumped toward the screen, clicked on the zoom button furiously. “No.”

“Yes… Sir,” the local commander replied over the comm line. “They appear to be eating the Calcium-Carbon polymer mineral veins right out of the lava.”

“Stop them!”

“Sir, our weapon’s fire is proving ineffective. And they are ignoring us. The last helo that got too close got swatted out of the sky by one of those tails. I recommend we wait for reinforcements. The rest of the ISC group is entering the solar system. They should be in orbit within the hour.”

“Alright, commander. Go on protective detail. Make sure all our ore tankers make it to the continental shore. And initiate payload deployment of that mineral to the Orbital base.”

“Yes, Sir –” As if on cue, one of the giant lizards, gorged on Calcium Carbide, turned around and threw itself back into the sea, swimming in a straight line toward the last retreating tanker. “Crap!”

A hundred meters out, the lizard went underwater, to resurface just next to the tanker. It arched its huge long neck, thick as a tree trunk, toward the ship; its head enshrouded in a billowing cloud.

The captain’s panicked calls for help were all but drowned out by the loud crunching noise coming from the giant creature’s jaws. And then it opened its mouth.

A jet of yellow flame spurted out and swept down across the midsection of the tanker, incinerating whatever supplies and people were on that part of the deck, and deforming the side of the ship’s outer plating all the way down to the water line. The beast sunk its head under water again, and again brought it back up steaming, ready to fire again. After the second blast, the softening of the metal and understructure was enough to collapse the hull at that point.

As that tanker started to sink, the other giant lizards followed suit.

“What the hell?”

“Acetylene.” Newman could hardly believe his eyes. “Calcium carbide and water; they are making acetylene.”

“How are they igniting it?” The military commander was frantically rerouting his flyers, trying to distract the lizards.

“Felsic lava is over 60% quartz,” the principal, standing behind them, answered calmly. “And quartz is piezoelectric.”

A scowl flashed across Newman’s face.

“Reinforcements!” The military commander cried exultant. And Newman managed and angry grin.

A dozen transorbital fighters plunged down through the clouds. Their first barrage of missiles forced the lizards to back off. And then they went on the chase, supplementing their missiles with high power microwave beams.

“Take that, you bitches!” The voice of ISC supreme military commander, Tierson, came through the communication link.

The lizard retaliation fire was ineffective.

“Our re-entry shields can withstand 3000 C,” the supreme commander gloated.

Under the repeated bombardment, the lizards dove deep, beyond reach of microwave beams and missiles. “We’ll get them,” Tierson announced confidently. “We’ve got demolition charges coming. In the meantime, get the rest of those ships to shore.” His fighters started circling around the ships in a defensive formation, while his command ship wove between them dropping sonobuoys onto the surface. “Activate sonar network.”

For one minute there was no echo, no activity; and then there was a flurry of pings, all rising toward the surface… and beyond. As the giant creatures broke into the air, their carapaces unfolded into wings with a span as wide as the length of their bodies. They started chasing the orbital fighters.

The conflict turned into a classic dogfight, with one side literally biting at their enemy. One fighter was smashed against a tanker. Another had its missile pods sheared off. Supreme commander Tierson recovered his wits in time to take over full command of the rest. They swung out and came back with all guns and beams blazing.

Within seconds the dragons started diving through the formation of fighters, placing their enemies across from each other, rendering the high-power microwave beam batteries useless. The fighters could not risk frying each other. But they still had their guided missiles; and those had no problem finding their giant targets.

“Keep it up,” Tierson rallied his forces. “They will tire eventually and then we’ll have them.” He swept his command ship down after the largest dragon. The creature did a barrel roll, dove toward the water, skimmed across its surface with its jaws wide open, and then beat its wings so hard that the wingtip vortices rocked the pursuing ship.

It rose straight up, almost to the clouds and then flipped over, down into an accelerated dive, on a collision course with its pursuer. Its outstretched neck suddenly sprouted what looked like a set of gills, flayed wide open on both sides. And, thirty meters before contact, its maw opened to spout a bright blue flame that punched clean through the supreme commander’s ship.

The sudden shocked silence in the principal’s office was broken by her voice: “With 99.5% pure oxygen, an acetylene flame gets to about 3500 of your C.”

“Mayday, mayday.” The local commander tried to reorganize the remaining flyers and fighters. All the dragons were already spouting blue flames. “Retreat, I repeat, retreat. Everybody back to orbit.”

Newman approached the principal with clenched fists and fire in his eyes. “How?”

She did not retreat. “In your planet you call it the mammalian diving response. Plunged into freezing water, the mammalian spleen goes into overdrive, pushing out red blood cells as fast as it can, while peripheral vasoconstriction pulls all the blood away from the skin and limbs inwards, to protect vital internal organs.

“It puts our cattle, as you call them, into a sort of hibernation, slowing the mother’s metabolism long enough for the change in the pre-natal environment to trigger the alternate DNA subroutine in the unborn.”

“You –” Newman finished his expletive with his fist, across her face, throwing her onto the desk.

Rolling off, she propped herself up and clung to its edge. On the floor, by her feet, Newman saw a translucent broken bowl, tumbling noiselessly along. But it was not a bowl. It was half a face; or the skin of half a face; like a cellophane mask, sliding across the floor.

She looked up and glared at him. One half of her face was covered in white fuzz, the other was shedding the rest of its cellophane-like skin. Stepping beyond his reach, she ripped her blouse off. By the time that motion was completed, all her skin had molted off, to be replaced by a white puffy layer that kept growing in complexity and color right before their eyes. Within the minute, it was a taloned hand that finished shredding off the skirt that no longer could contain long sinewy legs. In ten more seconds, her plumage was fully formed.

Eyes that had been slightly bigger than human were now even larger, with irises ringed by a golden filigree, and pupils that dilated and contracted suddenly, as she turned her eagle-like face from one human to the other. Not a bird, not a dinosaur; she was something in between. Tightly matted yellow and green contour feathers delineated her supple frame, while reds, browns, and iridescent blacks, flowed from the crest at her head down her shoulders and arms to the small of her back. A bluish fringe that sprouted at her waist, grew in progressively longer plumes to form a covert that tapered, then cascaded, to the tip of a tail that was as long as her body.

Her voice acquired a musical timbre, as beautiful as her figure was frightening. “In my case, Dr. Newman, it is starvation of more than a week, and the associated stress hormones, that trigger the second subroutine.”

Newman and Wilkins staggered back and reached for their uniform microphones in unison. “Commander, we need transport to orbital base, now.”

“We’re escorting remaining assets to orbit,” came the reply. “Assuming the dragons stay in this area, we will be able to pick you up within ten minutes.”

Newman kept eyeing the hand and foot talons of the creature that had once been principal Paoa Ika as it paced across the office windows that faced the sea; its beak all the more intimidating because, somehow, he could discern a smile on it. He and Wilkins started making their way to the office door, very slowly.

“Dr. Newman,” the local commander’s voice crackled again from the communication units. “Those radio beacons you had us drop on potential underground iron deposits… Sir, the GPS says they are moving.”

The principal picked up the wall screens’ remote control from the floor and tossed it to Newman. He cycled through the channels, back to the view from the satellite constellation over the land masses. Large metal domes were rising through the soil, out of fields and mountain tops and beaches. “Sir, those look like–”

“Ships.” Newman finished, the room reeling before his eyes. He regained his composure long enough to say, “Commander, issue code red scrub command; all assets.

“All databases, all navigation logs? Sir, we’ll lose everything.”

“All assets! We cannot draw them a map to Earth.” Newman finished grimly, steeling himself for whatever the monster was about to do to him.

“There was no need to do that,” she said, almost sweetly. “We already know the way.”

Newman paled, and his face snapped toward the computer on the desk where she had been reading. But there were no references there beside Life Sciences articles. He exhaled the breath he had been holding and looked back at her.

“Oh, you didn’t have to tell me.” She explained, “we’ve been there before. Last time was about 1000 of your years ago. Our emergency landing site was in the native continent of that curious fish I was telling you about.”

She walked over to the desk and perched herself on it, rearranging her feathers about her. “We thought the natives rather blood thirsty. I mean, toward their neighbors. They didn’t dare bother us. We reminded them of someone they called Quetzalcoatl.

“The other continents bore evidence of similarly violent populations. So, we decided to wait for our rescue party on a tiny volcanic island in one of your large oceans. The natives called it Te Pito o Te Henua, the navel of the world. And they welcomed us. The simplicity of their lifestyle also impressed us, and so we adopted many of its features. That’s why we chose to preserve their DNA in ours. We figured someday, when they reached out to the stars, we could return the favor.”

Newman didn’t know what to say. The local commander had landed a small shuttle on the field outside the High School. And Wilkins was already running across the field. Newman cleared his throat.

“You can go,” the principal said.

As he rounded the door, she added: “We had hoped that by the time the rest of you got out here, you would have left your violent genes behind. Maybe we should do something about that.”

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