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Give A Man A Fish

By: Laura Sheridan

He laughed when he first saw it.

But why shouldn't the sky be blue, he told himself? It had an atmosphere like Earth's now, with air molecules diffusing light at the high-frequency blue end of the spectrum.

No birds up there, though. Not yet.

He dropped his gaze and saw a rippled landscape of rocks and sand. But before Interbond, he wouldn't have seen streams of water creeping their way along the once dried-up river beds. Nor would there have been cotton clouds above him or light currents of air blowing the shoulder-length hair off his neck.

The place was untainted by the presence of life. There was a fresh quality in the air - a piquant flavour he had never encountered before. The emptiness spread out before him like a wild furrowed blanket. He wanted to yell out at the top of his voice - a euphoric primeval cry that screamed his approval of this desolate beauty.

But added to that was his frustration. He knew it wasn't going to stay like this.

"Hey, Karl - have you seen Shanya anywhere?"

He turned round to see Debbie standing behind him, her loose shirt flapping and strands of her butterscotch hair lifting in the breeze. "Shanya?" He flickered his eyes over the monotonous landscape and gave a short laugh to fake his indifference. "Well, it's not as if there's anywhere for her to hide."

Debbie brushed the hair out of her eyes. "Do you think we should go and look for her?"

Karl turned to frown down at her. "How long's she been missing?"

"Camden says she's been gone at least two hours."

"I don't think there's any need. She's not a child - and there's nothing out there to harm her." Through half-closed eyes, he watched the sun beginning to set over the rust mountains. "I can't believe how different it looks now," he murmured, almost to himself.

As a Terrain Morphologist, the make-over appealed to him - to his artistic nature. There was a deep satisfaction in creating natural lakes, sculpting out river-routes, inclining slopes to meet the cautious fronds of the ocean and flat-topping mountains for future plateau ecosystems. With the help of the mantlers, they had transformed this area into a newborn Earth. Pity they couldn't appreciate it.

"Yeah, but how long will it take us to ruin it?"

"Don't say things like that, Debs." The pinkening sky tinted the blue in her eyes to a deep lilac. "Anyway, the conservationists won't let us. There are going to be strict rules here - maximum population density, building regulations, pollution regulations relating to transport, sewage and waste-disposal -"

"They already have rules like that on Earth," she pointed out, turning her head to keep her hair out of her eyes. "And look at the state that's in."

Karl felt the unsettling twists in his stomach start. It had taken a great deal of effort to make Mars habitable. Was it all going to be wasted? The planet was like a baby wrapped in a soft blanket - an Interbond shawl - and Karl felt protective towards it.

Interbond was the key. A compound created just twenty years ago, it was a versatile material and acted like a force-field which could be set to different densities. On Earth, it was used in many ways - as crop cover, over sports arenas and as a shield against pathogens or toxic fumes. It was also used on the Moon Complex as protection against radiation and stray meteorites.

But this was its ultimate application - as an insulating blanket for a whole planet. This type of Interbond formed delocalised electrons from a compound of oxygen, spartium, propene and carbon to make a hybrid of gas and liquid. Now that the layer was in place around Mars, it had acted in two ways - one was to shield the planet and raise the temperature, the other was to keep the increased atmosphere from drifting away.

There had once been temperatures as low as minus 120 degrees Celsius in some areas, with clouds made of ice crystals. Karl had been here - had seen it like that. Now there was an even and temperate environment. The polar ice-caps had almost melted. Gentler winds blew than the ones that had once scoured the planet. But there were still vast plains stretching into the distance that stamped their emphasis on the barrenness.

"It's getting cold," Debbie shivered. "I think we'd better get back."

The Bradbury reflected the soft dusk-light. It had been designed and built by engineers and scientists living on MPLEX. There were plenty of raw materials on the Moon - aluminium, iron, magnesium, silicon and titanium amongst them - so it made sense to use them.

They stepped through the oval doorway into the cargo bay of the ship. Basically, the Bradbury was a fifty metre diameter glass hemisphere composed of compartments fused together, with a multi-layered hull holding it all in place. The cargo bay was underneath, as was access to the ship.

For some reason Karl automatically ducked whenever he stepped in through the doorway. The hold was stacked with supplies, equipment, the spool-bug - and of course the mantlers.

The mantlers were augmented robots developed from earlier models - and there were two of them - named Otis and Dante. Otis stood two metres high and one wide and was basically a stack of rectangular containers. Dante was globe-shaped - squatter and wider - with eight arm-legs like a tin spider.

Both mantlers had an Artificial Intelligence Quotient of 140. It was not comparable directly with human IQ. It did mean, however, that they were well above average in their own sphere. They were programmed with a comprehensive knowledge of Ecology, Biology, Crop Cultivation, Physical Sciences and related topics. Their job-description included building and construction, farming, animal husbandry - and whatever task anyone asked of them. Until they were required, they waited mutely in the cargo bay.

"Do you think they ever get bored?" Debbie stopped and looked at them on the way in.

Karl wrinkled his brow. "Bored? Debbie, you're anthropomorphising."

"But they are permanently activated and they do have a high intelligence level."

"That doesn't mean they're conscious," Karl said. "Their intelligence was programmed in."

"Isn't it the same for us?" Debbie argued. "We have behaviour patterns programmed into us. They're called instincts. As for the other things; we do the programming ourselves. In other words, we learn."

"It's not the same," Karl said.

"How do you know they aren't capable of learning? You know that old saying: Give a man a fish -"

"Yeah, yeah." Karl said. "But these aren't men. Otis?"

A pleasantly hermaphroditic voice answered. "Yes Karl."

"What's the meaning of life?"

A short pause, then: "That isn't in my programming."

"See," he threw over his shoulder as he climbed up through the hatch.

The top layer of the Bradbury looked more like an apartment than a ship. The glass staircase from the cargo bay led directly up into the control room in the centre, but around the sides were personal rooms, a bathroom and even a leisure area.

A stocky man about ten years older than the rest of the crew, was standing facing the glass hull. He didn't turn round as Karl stepped up into the room. "Spooky out there, isn't it?"

"You think so?" Karl frowned, slumping himself into an easy chair.

Camden snorted a humourless laugh. "I keep expecting a clump of tumbleweed to roll past."

Strange how people could have such different views of the same thing, Karl thought. He'd be quite happy with Mars more or less as it was - perhaps supporting a small population of thousands, rather than millions. But Camden wouldn't be able to relax until he had transformed the place into a bustling system of interlinked cities. The reality would be somewhere in between the two extremes.

Karl got up, walked over to the hatch and called down. "Hey, Debs - what're you doing down there?"

A pause. "Nothing."

"You're not trying to talk to the damn mantlers again are you?"

Another pause, then her head appeared through the hatch. "Reported in to MPLEX yet?" The Moon Complex was used as a base now instead of Earth. It had a sixth of the gravity, which meant fewer launch problems and it supplied all the raw materials needed for ship-construction.

The idea of using Interbond to surround the Moon had been suggested, but the place wasn't as viable or potentially pleasant as Mars. Besides, the idea of colonisation of the Moon had brought outrages of protest from people on Earth who didn't want to look up at the night sky and see their only satellite bristling with cities.

"There's nothing to report," Camden said. "Dead as a doornail out there. I have to say, I'll be a lot happier when we've fertilised this little patch."

"Area A," Karl murmured, staring out through the hull. "Ares Vallis. Can't we come up with a better name than that - one that's not Latin?"

"We could call it New Eden," Debbie said.

"Yeah - right," Karl grunted. Trust her to come up with such a pathetic cliché.

"Looks more like Arizona," Camden grunted.

"I envy the colonists," Debbie said. "They'll be able to make this place exactly like they want it - start completely from scratch. So whatever they don't want, they don't bring. No weeds, no parasitic infestations, no predators -"

Karl handed her a cup of coffee. "I'm not much of an expert on ecology," he frowned. "But I don't think it's going to be quite as easy as all that. If you don't have predators, the place is going to be over-run. Look at what happened in Australia with the rabbits."

"But we've learnt from that," Debbie said. "They're going to import herbivores; horses, cattle, deer - animals that are slower breeders that they can cull if necessary and also use for food. It's all going to be under control."

Karl was staring down into his coffee. "Sounds great."

Camden pushed his ragged eyebrows together. "What's the matter with you?"

He looked up and shrugged. "Nothing."

Karl met Debbie's eyes and knew she was on the same thoughtline as he was. The colonists were going to take Mars and turn her from a fresh young maiden into a burnt-out, coughing old hag. And there was nothing they could do about it.

"Well, they won't be short of raw materials," Camden said. "They'll be able to make bricks and mortar from the sand as well as glass, ceramics, plastics…"

"Yeah." Debbie wrinkled her nose. "Just like home."

Camden shrugged. "Isn't that why we're here - to make Mars like Earth? Anyone'd think you didn't like the idea."

Debbie eyed him solidly. "I don't."

A grey note of discord played on his face. "Well, why the hell not?"

"Because they'll spoil it."

"Spoil it?" Camden spluttered. "What's to spoil? It's just a chunk of brown rock - like North America was before the Mayflower landed. But they weren't afraid to adapt it to suit themselves."

"And a great job they made of it," Debbie said sarcastically. "Guns, pollution, skyscrapers, choking cities bursting with people."

"Oh? And how would you have handled it?"

"I don't know," she admitted after a pause.

"Typical do-gooder," Camden scorned. "Isn't it time you stopped living in cloud-cuckoo land? People aren't very nice - it's part of human nature. Hell, when you think about it, most of nature isn't pleasant either - look at black widow spiders, vultures, lions ripping the guts out of zebras -"

"But we're supposed to know better," Debbie murmured.

"Just scratch at the surface and you'll find the beast showing through," Camden said. "We're little more than apes dressed in pants. But when I think of what humans have achieved, I think we've done pretty damn well for ourselves. So don't come to me with your pathetic ideas about not spoiling Mars. It's here to spoil - to use - to do as we bloody well want with."

Karl had kept quiet during the rising argument, but he thought a change of subject might be a good idea. "It's getting dark. What are we going to do about Shanya?"

"If she's stupid enough to go wandering off on her own, then I say leave her to it," Camden growled.

"She might be hurt," Debbie said.

"Or lost," Karl added. Compasses didn't work on Mars - there was virtually no magnetic field.

"She'll come back when she's ready," Camden muttered.

"We could send Dante to look for her," Karl suggested.

"Do you think we should?" Debbie was frowning. "What if he gets lost?"

"A mantler? It's unlikely. Dante can take care of himself."

"You said himself," she pointed out with a smile.

"Okay, I meant itself." For some reason, that irritated him.

"Why don't we just take the spool-bug?" Debbie suggested. "There's no need to use the mantlers - and we can bring Shanya back in it when we find her."

If it was up to Debbie, she'd be spoon-feeding those mantlers. "All right," he agreed with a sigh, although he welcomed the opportunity to be outside again. But a claw of apprehension was beginning to scrape at his mind.

The spool-bug was a small, hollowed out egg with a seat in each quarter facing outwards. Karl spoke to the computer and felt the spool-bug become suddenly buoyant. The vehicle skimmed out into the night with its denim sky and sprinkling of steel stars. Phobos was drifting past on its seven-hour orbit.

"There's Earth," Debbie pointed. Karl knew she was right, but from here, it looked like just one more bright star. The evening air smelled cold and clean.

"Warm enough?" Karl asked. There were no doors in the spool-bug.

"I'm okay." She shivered a little. "But I am a bit worried about Shanya."

"We'll find her," Karl said in a reassuring voice, although he didn't feel it. What was he so jumpy about? There was nothing here to be afraid of. It was just an empty, barren -

What the hell was that?

Karl leaned forward and peered into the darkness. A soft ginger glow breathed into the smoky blue of the night and in its halo crouched a dark figure. Karl felt a quickening of the pulse in his neck. "What's she doing?" he whispered.

"Only one way to find out." Debbie jumped lightly out of the spool-bug - easy because of the low Martian gravity - and ran the ten metres towards the glow.

Karl, muttering under his breath about people going off on their own, jumped out after her. He marched towards Shanya with a growl. "What's going on?"

She was crouched by a natural waterspill. As Terrain Morphologist, Karl was responsible for the preliminary sculpting, but this rivulet had bubbled naturally into what seemed to be a dry stream bed.

Shanya turned her eyes up to meet Karl's and his throat tightened. "I think we've got company," she said quietly.

"What?" Karl pushed his eyebrows together. "What are you talking about?"

"She's right," Debbie agreed. "Look at this. Some kind of bacteria."

Karl's eyes were drawn to the metre long stain of glowing gold. His first thoughts had been that it was a deposit of phosphorus. "Glowing bacteria? Is there such a thing?"

Shanya tilted her head, the dark hair waterfalling over her shoulders. Soft light picked out her cheekbones and added fireflame to her eyes. "Luciferin," she said. "The stuff that makes fireflies glow."

"But -" Karl scratched his head. "I thought we were certain there was no life on Mars."

"Were we?" Shanya asked. "What about ALH 84001?"

"Wasn't that one of the meteorites they raved about, just before the Millennium? But the evidence was only of fossil bacteria."

"Until we arrived." Shanya stood up and faced him. "Mars already has geothermal heat sources - probably acting as underground refuges for the bacteria. When we set up the Interbond layer and raised the temperature, it enabled them to surface."

"Are they dangerous?"

"Not as far as I can tell," Shanya answered with a shrug. "Could Martian organisms affect us, anyway? Disease organisms are specially adapted to their hosts - that's why humans don't get Dutch elm disease and trees don't get colds."

"What do these bacteria live on?"

"That's what I've been trying to find out. I think they're photosynthetic. It's possible that they could have been dormant for millions of years."

Karl's face slid into scepticism. "Naw - nothing can do that."

"Nothing on Earth," Shanya agreed. "But Mars is a different story."

"How do you know there aren't other outbreaks like this?"

She raised her elegantly arched eyebrows. "I don't."

Karl opened his mouth and huffed out a breath. "So, how does this affect us - our colonisation of Mars?"

"Well, it does prove that life has managed to evolve somewhere other than Earth." Debbie said. "And that has all kinds of ramifications."

"Which I'm too tired to consider right now," Shanya admitted.

Karl gave a grunt and set off towards the spool-bug. Shanya and Debbie ran to catch up with him.

"Maybe this does throw a new light on things," Debbie said.

"Why?" Karl asked, getting into the spool-bug.

"Well, morally, we shouldn't be interfering with the developing life on this planet."

Karl wished he could agree with her. "First of all," he sighed. "It's going to be billions of years before anything intelligent evolves. Secondly, it would have stayed dormant for ever if we hadn't made the place more hospitable."

"Even so," Debbie persisted. "This planet really belongs to whatever - or whoever - is going to develop out there."

Karl frowned. "Ever heard of survival of the fittest?"

"Look, this isn't our decision," Shanya said quietly. "If it was, we could just destroy the bacteria and that would be the end of it. But we have to report back to MPLEX and they'll have to decide whether to go ahead or not. It will delay things. They'll order a thorough analysis and that will include incubation periods and tissue testing."

Debbie shuddered. "They used to do that with animals," she muttered.

"And given this organism's capacity for long dormancy," Shanya continued. "Who knows how long it would take to prove there's no risk to humans?"

"If organisms adapt to their hosts," Karl began. "Then isn't it possible these might adapt to us?"

"Anything's possible," Shanya agreed.

Not anything, Karl thought, as he glanced at her.

MPLEX was in turmoil, but Karl, leaning back in a chair with a mug of black coffee warming his hands, was quietly looking up at the stars through the clear hull.

Eliminate the bacteria?

Karl tilted his head further back, resting it on the back of the chair. That was the argument he'd used against Debbie. Survival of the fittest. But now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure. If this was the first stage of a new form of life, how could they just snuff it out? On the other hand, if they allowed it to flourish, what effect would it have on humans?

But nature eliminated species all the time. It was part of the arms race she had set up. Any creature that didn't evolve adaptations, defensive measures or better predatory tactics was swept out of existence.

He huffed out a breath and brought his head forward again. Well, one way or another, Mars was going to have progeny. They would either be adopted children from Earth, or - after a lengthy gestational period - she would give birth to her own offspring.

"Any reply from MPLEX yet?"

Karl turned at the sound of Camden's voice. "No - not yet."

"Don't know what all the fuss is about," Camden grumbled. "It's only like wiping out a batch of salmonella."

Karl didn't try to argue; Camden's skull was too thick. "What are you going to do? If this colonisation doesn't go ahead, I mean?"

"Me?" Camden's pale eyebrows jumped up. "Got nothing to do with me. I'm more concerned about that bloody fool Shanya bringing contamination in here."

Karl frowned. "She's a competent bacteriologist. I'm sure -"

"You can't be sure," Camden growled, turning to look out of the window. "This is all new. We don't know anything about those bacteria. They might be deadly."

Maybe, Karl thought. But it doesn't make much difference, now. "All we can do is wait for a decision from MPLEX."

"I'll give you a decision." Camden faced him. "To hell with MPLEX and their ethical dilemmas. We should either wipe out that bacteria or get out of here right now."

"What - just when all the fun's starting?" Shanya was standing in the doorway. "Don't you realise how big this is?"

"For you, you mean," Camden growled. "It's just the kind of thing you'd enjoy. Shanya Rajesh - the bacteriologist who discovered life on Mars. For all we know, you engineered the damn things yourself, just so you'd go down in history."

"Don't be ridiculous." She walked into the room and stood by Karl's chair. "Anyway, I'm fairly sure those bacteria are harmless."

"Fairly sure?" Camden snapped. "Well that's not good enough. I say we get off this planet right now."

"You've already told us that." Shanya's tone was one of bored flatness. "You're getting tiresome."

Camden coughed an expletive, put down his half empty cup of coffee and stamped out.

"I think you've upset him," Karl observed.

"So I have." She smiled down at him and he was aware of the pulse throbbing in his neck. "How about you - are you worried?"

"A bit," he confessed. She was standing right in front of him now and he detected a faint smell of jasmine. "It's taking MPLEX a long time to respond though."

She shrugged. "Just like them."

"Just like who?"

Damn, Karl thought - trust Debbie to barge in at the wrong moment. "MPLEX," he threw at her.

"So why don't we contact them? We've been on edge for hours now, waiting to see what we're supposed to do." She walked over to the screen and tried to initiate communications. "They're not answering."

Karl got up with an impatient grunt. He strode over to the screen and edged Debbie aside. "Activate - MPLEX." She was right. "What the hell's going on?" he muttered.

"That's what I'd like to know," Camden re-entered the room. "The mantlers are gone."

"What?" Karl frowned. "Who ordered them out at this time of night?"

"That's just it," Camden said. "As far as I can make out, nobody gave them any orders."

Karl glanced at the screen again, then made a decision. "I'm going out to look for them. You two stay here and keep trying to contact MPLEX. Shanya - you're with me."

Within two minutes, they were in the spool-bug as it bobbed out into the night. "The mantlers have access to all systems," Shanya murmured as they headed in the direction of the soft glow. It looked warm and welcoming, like firelight. "It can't be a coincidence that they suddenly disappear, right after we've announced to MPLEX that we've discovered life here."

"What are you getting at?" Karl's eyes flickered sideways. The contours of her face in the dim light, reminded him of the beauty of Nefertiti.

"Did you know Debbie talks to them?"

"The mantlers?" He gave a casual shrug. "Yeah, I know - but that's Debbie."

"I'm glad you think it's amusing."

Karl gave a slight frown. "Isn't it?"

"You realise that she discusses all sorts of things with them - from literature to philosophy and ethics. What if she's putting ideas into their heads?"

"They don't have heads."

"How can you take this so lightly? Isn't it obvious what's happened? The mantlers have put two and two together and come up with a right-angled triangle. What if they're responsible for shutting off communications with MPLEX because of some misguided notion to protect those bacteria?"

Karl blew out his cheeks. "And I accused Debbie of anthropomorphising. Look, the mantlers do what they're told to do - nothing else."

She folded her arms. "So how do you explain their disappearance?"

"They've probably misinterpreted some instruction they were given and -"

Camden's voice interrupted, stabbing into the darkness of the spool-bug. "We finally got word from MPLEX. They say we have to return there immediately - they've set aside quarantine quarters for us."

"Is that all?" Karl asked.

"They'll give us more information when we get back."

Shanya leaned forward, squinting into the darkness. "You were right about the mantlers being at the bacteria site. There they are."

Karl's eyes followed hers and he saw Dante scuttling out from behind a boulder. Otis was standing in a dip in the sand.

"What are they up to?" Karl muttered, more to himself than to Shanya. He didn't say it out loud, but the mantlers looked kind of sneaky. Now who was anthropomorphising? What had Debbie said? Give a man a fish How did it go? Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish - and you feed him for a lifetime.

He jumped out of the spool-bug and strode towards the mantlers. "Dante," he bellowed. "What the hell are you doing?"

The softly-modulated voice answered. "We thought we would postulate future possible developments of the bacteria.


"Thought? You thought?"

Shanya was right behind him. "You mean you were guessing what they'd evolve into? Why?"

"We found it mentally stimulating. As the bacteria are photosynthetic, they will naturally evolve into different forms of plant life, but there is no reason why animal life should not develop from this base too."

"What does it matter?" Karl said. "We won't be here to see it."

"You won't," Dante corrected. "You are to return to MPLEX. Otis and I however, are staying here."

"How do you know that?" he frowned.

"We received instructions."


"Two hours, fourteen minutes ago."

Karl turned to Shanya. "Why would MPLEX communicate with a couple of mantlers instead of speaking to us?"

Shanya was frowning. "MPLEX says they have quarantine quarters set aside for us." Her eyes snapped onto Karl's. "Tell me Karl - if you were responsible for MPLEX - would you ever let us out? Would you risk allowing an alien bug getting back to Earth and contaminating the whole planet for the sake of four people?"

Karl's mind was buzzing around like a fly in a hot room. "I…what are you saying? That they've abandoned us?"

"No. But I can't see us ever going back home, can you? We've all been exposed to this new bacteria and none of us knows exactly what we're dealing with."

"Are you telling me we'd have to spend the rest of our lives on the moon?"

"Doesn't sound too thrilling, does it?" She lifted an eyebrow. "There is an alternative."

Karl had already guessed it. "We stay on here Mars?" He snorted out a laugh. "Debbie would love that." His eyes skimmed upwards towards the stars and he knew, without thinking about it, that he was desperate to stay too. He kept his tone deliberately casual. "I guess we could survive quite well here. We've got plenty of food to keep us going until we turn that sand into decent soil."

His heart was pounding and his head was light. The idea was intoxicating. They were scheduled to stay here for a year anyway, so they had everything set up for survival. What difference would it make to stay a little longer - a lot longer?

"Do you really think they'll let us stay?"

Karl shrugged. "What choice have they got? If we volunteer - and we survive - we'll be a testing ground for possible future colonisation. We and our descendants."

Descendants. Karl's throat tightened. So Mars was going to have offspring after all. But were they going to turn out as a cross-breed? What would they be like in a thousand years? Fifty thousand? A million?

There was just one fly in the ointment.

Shanya was watching him, as if she was worried that he was suddenly going to explode into an irrational rage. "Karl? Are you all right?"

"Yes, I -" He frowned. "Where did Otis go?"

"Otis? I don't -"

On the thin air, a scream came to his ears. Debbie's scream.

He leapt back into the spool-bug, Shanya close behind and set off back to the ship. Debbie was sobbing to them over the intercom - telling them over and over what had happened.

And he suddenly understood the logic. In the absence of clear agreement, Otis and Dante had apparently appointed themselves the moral guardians. If the human members of the party weren't quite sure what to do, the robots did. There was only person who went against the grain - who was a definite threat to the future of Mars.

And now, it was safe.

He turned and looked into Shanya's eyes. And the shock blew away from him like seeds wafted upward on the breeze. A warm breeze. A Martian breeze. The breeze of home.

And he turned his head to the sky and laughed.

About the Author

British writer, Laura Sheridan began writing seriously, a few years ago. Macmillan Publishers has shown an interest in her latest novel. She has also written dozens of short stories and has had some published, as well as winning first prize in two short story competitions. She is currently the compiling editor of a small press magazine called Pennine Ink.

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