Author : Gray Blix, Featured Writer [ bio ]
It’s a 20 degree C heat wave near the Martian equator as Commander Vlad says, “Follow me,” and clumsily leads his exploratory party into a cave.
Exobiologist Bertie imagines that their bulky gray pressure suits and dark colored lenses would frighten the natives, if there were any.
They flip up lenses and activate helmet lights to find they’ve already inadvertently crushed a possible lifeform that looks like a mat of red lichen as they carelessly walked through it. Beyond, something reflects their lights, a pool of liquid, surrounded by the colony of lichen.
The crew uses laser rays to clean their boots of lichen and clear a narrow path to the water.
“This reminds me of something,” says Bertie.
She takes samples of lichen and liquid back to the landing module and places them in a vacuum chamber. She can’t match the lichen to any Earth organism, but the liquid is water, full of microbes that appear to be rod-shaped bacteria. She tentatively names them “Bacillus maris” and jokingly dubs the other lifeform “looklichen.” The looklichen ingest the water and apparently find B. maris nutritional, since the red colony grows.
In another chamber, she places water samples containing B. maris next to white mice. Can the microbes survive in an atmosphere whose pressure and oxygen are at Earth levels? When the mice ingest the water, they show no ill effects, and the B. maris seems to be a source of nutrition. Future colonization counts on the availability of subsurface water, but it would be a bonus if that water were of nutritional value.
A few hours after Commander Vlad enthusiastically reports Bertie’s initial results, the chamber where looklichen were feeding on B. maris is nearly devoid of the former, the liquid having apparently expanded into their space, leaving just a thin red line of looklichen surrounding the water.
Bertie wonders aloud, “Is this part of the B. maris life cycle, or a symbiotic relationship gone bad?”
Everyone’s attention turns to the chamber with mice who drank Mars water. The rodents are seemingly fine, which the flight surgeon attributes to their “stronger mammalian immune system.”
“Plus,” he says, “there’s ten times more Earth bacterial cells than mammalian cells in mice and human bodies, so we’ve got our own microbes fighting for us.”
Bertie knows otherwise. She’s been trying to kill another sample of the stuff, throwing every antibiotic onboard at it, as well as extreme temperatures and doses of chemicals and radiation. Anything short of incineration doesn’t phase B. maris, which reactivates unharmed when it finds itself back in liquid water. Humans and their bacteria would just be food conveniently packaged in water bags to it.
An alarm goes off, signaling that B. maris spores have been detected in the air supply. This panics the crew, which scrambles into their pressure suits to breathe bottled air.
A few hours later, the mice are gone, replaced by a puddle of liquid full of B. maris. This time, a camera recorded the whole process. Mouse bodies appeared normal one minute and then liquefied moments later.
“Another B. maris-host relationship that turned FAST,” Bertie says. “This is familiar, something I’ve seen or read,” she adds.
“For God’s sake what?” says the annoyed flight surgeon, speaking for the rest of the equally annoyed and frightened crew.
A few hours later, Commander Vlad collapses. Bertie is closest, and when she looks into his face mask, she sees nothing but liquid sloshing around.
“I remember what this reminds me of!”
Her crewmates are ready to strangle her.
“It’s ‘War of the Worlds,’ but we’re the Martians.”