Water Bears of Mars!

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Even with the time delay, the continuous feed from the Rover to the augmented reality goggles and dual joysticks, plus the simulator chair with its five point harness that mimicked the Rover’s movement over the rough terrain, gave Mike all the fine technical control, anxiety and nausea of a real time off-road experience on Mars. The site of the mission, the Mars Terraforming Test Region, low lying terrain near the northern water ice cap, was the perfect location for the domed habitat.
Instead of forced terraforming, liquid water trickled through lava tubes and was allowed to accumulate naturally in three craters under the dome, subliming water vapor. Mike catalogued phytoplankton, moss and algae generating oxygen then zooplankton, bacteria and hardy insects providing nitrogen from decay and animal waste. A slow natural pressurization and greenhouse effect was contained by the opaque fabric of the dome. As Mike unplugged, stepped off the simulator platform and out the door into summer in Houston, he thought; eventually, it had to be more habitable than Texas.

On the way out of the NASA complex, Mike picked up his friend Brodie at the physics lab and then Emma at middle school, stopping to pick up the makings of Taco Tuesday for dinner. While Mike made tacos, Brodie unloaded a microscope, plugged the feed into the streamer screen and put a petri dish under the lens. “What’s that?” Mike asked. Emma said, “My science fair project, tardigrades, water bears, you know.”
“Didn’t you have a stuffed toy one, back in the tweens?”
“Yes,” she said, “Brodie’s got real ones at work.” They watched a pudgy little creature, like a sausage with eight fat legs and long claws. No face, but sucking mouth parts and crinkles that suggested eyes. It swam through the liquid twisting its body like a manatee to move off in another direction. For something so small, it actually seemed to have a personality.
Brodie said, “Is your talk ready?”
“Oh yes, water bears or tardigrades, been around for billions of years. They can survive years of drought, radiation and the cold and vacuum of space by drying up into a little ball called a tun. Did I say they have eight legs?”
Brodie said, “What other creatures have eight legs?”
Mike said, “Spiders.”
“No, no, Barsoomian thoats!”
"What’s a thoat?”
“Jeez Mike, you know, all Martian life has multiple legs. Thoats have eight, the Tharks have six limbs; they use thoats like horses, remember?”
“Edgar Rice Burroughs?”
Emma said, “Yeah Dad, if water bears can survive in space, maybe they came from space, on a Martian meteorite, then evolved for a billion years.”
“But that’s fiction.”
Undaunted, Brodie replied, “Burroughs says he was given the book by his uncle, John Carter; maybe it was real and he just pretended it was fiction.”
Emma said, “It’s a conspiracy!”
“But, I’m on Mars every day, nine to five.”
Brodie said, “Not a billion years ago.”
“Well, no but that’s not even . . . ”
“Ha, it could’ve happened.”
“Yeah Dad.” After Emma went to bed, Mike asked, “What’s that got to do with work.” Brodie was supposed to be working on physics while Mike drove dune buggies on Mars.
Brodie, now peering into the microscope, said “Quantum effects on the macro scale.”
“Like quantum computers?”
“Better, cryptobiosis. If you reconstitute water bears, record it digitally and slow it way down, the tun becomes a fully formed baby bear, nothing recorded in-between, each “molt” jumps from one magnitude to the next. “
“Not a glitch?”
“No, like a photon, a photon is emitted only when a certain level of energy is input, scale up to a neuron, it doesn’t discharge until the input reaches a specific quantum, nothing in-between; and neuron tubules are known carriers of quantum effects.”
“See, the tun is a superposition, like Schrodinger’s Cat, alive and dead at the same time.”
“Doesn’t that require a sentient observer?’
“No, the integrated multiverse substitutes for sentience. Better than that, Bohm’s Implicate Order. The quantum scale is right here on the table. Water bears, like electrons, can only exist in certain specific states.
Mike said, “Are they the only life like that?”
“There are only two possibilities: yes or no; but, we haven’t even been looking for it, so every bit of evidence is undiscovered. We have to start over.”

The next day, Mike strapped into the simulator chair and booted up the goggles. The Rover started forward, responding smoothly to his joystick controls. Approaching the craters, he recorded the oxygen and nitrogen levels, air pressure, water vapor and water flow. He identified a significant threshold; the atmosphere was just about to go flood stage over the ancient depressions and spread out onto the plain between them.
As he noted the microflora and gases edging out on the flats, something caught Mike’s attention; he leaned into a sharp turn toward a spot between the three depressions where water vapor, oxygen and nitrogen were converging, layering, thickening and hugging the ground like a mirage of water. As the Rover got closer, suddenly, Mike’s simulator chair threw him on his side, ninety degrees from vertical. Alarms rang and coworkers came to the rescue but he shook them off. Something had knocked the Rover off its wheels.
A thick trunk appeared on the wall screen showing the goggles feed, a greenish pachyderm knee, then another, a third and a fourth. Mike was too close to see more but something was headed for the edge of the dome.
The whole crew now stared at the screen as the legs got far enough away to resolve into a fat eight legged creature with a broad tail, followed closely by another such creature, the second looking back at the Rover, brandishing curved tusks and emitting a silent roar as the creatures trampled over the edge of the dome and tore through its deflating fabric, millennia of instinct driving them relentlessly toward the pole of Mars.

About the Author: 
Steven C. Schneider is a lawyer based in Spokane, Washington. He writes from a lifelong love of science fiction, quantum physics, literature and comparative religion His first novel, Sweet Charlotte in the Higgs Field, is the first in a series followed by A Small Goddess and Heart String Theory.