At first he wasn’t sure what it was, but something made him stop; something stayed his hand.
Mere moments ago James had been walking barefoot through his small apartment when a dark shape at the base of his dining room wall caught his attention. Taking a few steps closer and squinting at the blot, he had jumped back as the reptilian part of his brain signalled: Spider!
Instantly he could feel his heart pumping harder and his mind raced trying to think of the next course of action. Quick; grab something to whack it with, was his instinctual response to spiders, honed from years living back on earth. So, quicker than he could be sure he had even planned it, he had sourced a weapon and found himself standing over the tiny creature with his left shoe in hand.
This was when the hesitation had set in. When he had been looming over the spider and the rational part of his mind was able to take over his actions. He stared at it, staying his hand and the spider’s imminent execution.
The spider didn’t move. It just stayed in its spot.
James had never been a fan of spiders, but likewise he wasn’t a fan of killing them. Back on earth he would have justified the odd arachnid squishing with some comment about them being in his home, or in an unnatural environment. But here it was different.
After all this was neither of their natural habitats. Mars was foreign to both spider and man alike.
This was what had given James pause.
The presence of the spider here meant something. This spider was here for some reason. A reason that James had to admit he didn’t know, but its mere presence suggested a purpose. Space flight was still quite a regulated affair, and the old regulations about contamination were enforced with an irrational zeal. No living thing would make it from earth to mars without being sanctioned by one of the governing bodies of the colonisation effort; of this you could be sure.
So the spider was either brought here intentionally, or more likely it was grown here. Part of the urban ecosystem that was present all around them; food chains strung together by man in a strange reversal of fate.
Throughout history humans had, over thousands of years, imposed their own environments on nature, creating vast tracts of land in their own image. On earth they had been called anthromes, the man-made equivalent of the biomes that had naturally spaned the globe for millions of years. But while these areas had been created for human use, as it has often been said, life found a way. Animals couldn’t be held back, and filled the newly created biological niches in these human worlds; plants too grew in every crack, forcing their existence into seemingly hospitable concrete and asphalt.
Man could not hold back nature.
And so whatever audacious species had managed to encroach into human cities back home had since then proven themselves as an indispensable part of our cities. The past few thousand years had been an audition of sorts, so that while we may have sidelined nature on one planet, now we were rewarding those tenacious species who had proved resilient with a new home on mars.
From the sparrows that flittered around the wide stony boulevards outside, to the slater beetles James occasionally saw in the parks undergrowth, or under a pile of rotting vegetation, even the stray cats that had so confused James upon his arrival; everything on mars had a purpose.
Thus the inevitable conclusion was that someone, somewhere on mars, was breeding spiders. And it seemed bad sport to squash it just because it gave him the heebie-jeebies.
Standing awkwardly at attention, his right hand still gripping the rubber soul of his shoe, James sighed. Risking a glance away from the creature he surveyed his kitchen for something to contain the spider. An upturned scotch glass caught his attention, drying on the metal bench. A quick look back at the spider confirmed it was still just sitting there, perhaps hoping it hadn’t been seen, perhaps not really understanding the situation at all; James wasn’t quite sure how a spiders conscious worked, or if they even possessed something which could be labelled thusly. Either way, he figured he should be quick, just in case any plans for escape coalesced in the arachnid’s brain.
With some fleeting footsteps he covered the few meters to the kitchen, swiped up the glass, and returned to the scene of excitement. The spider had moved slightly, but it hadn’t escaped. James furrowed his brow at this change; clearly the spider was aware he was being watched. Holding the glass upside down in front of his chest and slowly crouched to the floor, James tried his best not to make any sudden movements that could be misconstrued as aggressive.
Then in one swift motion he plunged the glass down over the spider, and with a startlingly loud clink the creature was encircled within a transparent prison.
James turned, grabbed a piece of paper off the coffee table and slid it under the glass, being careful to let the spindly legs of the spider get out of the way first. Then he gingerly picked up the makeshift enclosure, flipped it upside down, and carried it over to his dining table. Placing it gently on the wooden surface he sat on the opposite chair and peered into the glass.
The spider was clinging to the paper ‘roof’ of its new home, its long legs covering about half of the diameter of the glass. Looking at it closely for the first time James was surprised to find that it was a rather beautiful looking creature; once you got over the general creepiness of course.
He didn’t know much about spiders, but there was something different about this one. Instead of the usual pattern of spider he was used to seeing back on earth, this one’s legs seemed to fall into two groups splayed out on either side of its body, rather than spreading out in all directions evenly like an asterisk. It also seemed generally flatter, and with a broader body. In his head James always conjured an image of a tarantula as the archetypical arachnid, but this eight legged creature before him seemed to follow a different overall design.
The colouring was likewise distinctive; a deep dark orange like the Martian soil it no doubt lived in, with umber markings almost like the dappled pattern of a jaguar.
Propping his phone up on the table surface he took a photo and made a mental note to research the spider’s provenance later that night.
The resulting image of the spider was slightly distorted through the curved glass. James looked at it, the caged animal, and then peered out his window. His apartment didn’t afford any views of the city beyond the small arcade dug into the side of a mesa that he lived in, but he knew just around the corner the similar illusion of freedom would be presented, though on a much grander scale.
This deception was the grand open city of Lowell itself. Seemingly spread across the barren red surface, walking around its wide boulevards you would be mistaken from thinking you were walking through the open air of Mars. This freedom however is an illusion caused by the great tenting material that stretched across the Martian city, keeping everything within it alive and flourishing on the hostile surface of mars.
It was only barely noticeable when you looked directly at the sun and a strange spectrum of light circled the dull white disc; like the sheen of a massive soap bubble. If you strained really hard you could even make out the slight grid-like pattern of the aerogel support structures hundreds of meters overhead.
He had seen these support structures up close when he had arrived at Lowell and taken an orientation tour. They had circled the great city and had the massive supports pointed out to them. In regard to shape and structure they appeared just like any other truss system back on earth, with members forming intricate triangular patterns and stretching out in a series of interconnected beams. These all met up in groups of three, forming a series of hexagons that rose up and out of sight so that they were essentially inside a massive honeycomb shaped cage covered in a transparent shell. But what really caught the eye was the material of the supports.
They were aerogel beams, a material that was complicated enough that James struggled to understand many of the words used to describe it. Whatever it was, it possessed strength in exceedance of anything people had been using back on earth, and came with the added bonus of being extremely light and partially transparent. Looking up close at the structural members you would be forgiven for thinking that they had been made of a form of clouded glass which shone ever so slightly against the dull Martian sun.
All this worked together to hold in the earthly atmosphere that tried constantly to explode into the thin pressure of the Martian air, while offering an almost unimpeded view of the Martian outback. The most advanced bubble ever made by humans.
James stared back across the table.
A spider trapped in a glass by a man trapped in a bubble.
Thinking about the bubble that he now called home James was reminded of something from his youth. He had been an avid reader of nature books, and could recall with surprising vividness an image of a spider trapped in a bubble.
He focused for a minute, bringing his entire mind to bear on the memory and teasing out exactly where it came from.
He could remember the basics: that a species of spider lived underwater, trapping bubbles of air in a web cast out like a net. The spiders would apparently live in there, and go out on forays hunting under the water, he remembered this being fascinating to him, but also adding to the long list of reasons he had for not swimming in natural bodies of water.
With the adrenalin that had accompanied the spiders discovery now leaving his system, and his innate curiosity beginning to override any fight or flight responses, James grabbed his tablet and ordered it to show him information on underwater spiders.
“Do you mean spider crabs, or diving bell spiders?” the synthetic voice enquired, with a similar query appearing as text on the screen.
Diving Bell Spiders; that’s it!
He was excited now as his mind started connecting the dots with his ancient memories, and bringing forth a clearer picture. He let his tablet know what to show him.
There was a bevy of information available, scientific articles, documentaries, amateur video content, blog posts, and a collection of lists from the internet (top ten weirdest insects, 8 things you didn’t know about spiders, etcetera).
Instead of delving into any of the specific information, he focused instead on the images themselves, as that was what had first sparked his train of thought.
On the tablets screen a litany of spiders in bubbles spread out before him
The bubbles were just as he remembered. Glossy irregular blobs kept in place by a series of shiny silken threads. The resemblance to his own bubble home was striking, and James could see why it had been able to dredge up these memories up from almost three decades hence.
The spiders themselves however didn’t resemble his current prisoner at all.
“These spiders aren’t you buddy” he decided to address the creature that had spurred on recent events.
However having just said it, a different and wholly uncanny resemblance started forming in James’ mind.
A few of the photos showed the spiders disembarking from the bubbles to explore the watery environment surrounding them. An almost metallic sheen covered their abdomens which James correctly identified as being an air bubble, trapped against the spider’s body due to thousands of tiny hairs on its skin.
He looked at the photo of one particular spider and the realisation came to him.
That little fellow was an explorer, a pioneer in a new and strange frontier; just like the people James lived with on mars. It lived in a bubble of its own world, teleported in increments from one plane to another; just as humans had brought the resources they required to the red planet over the span of decades. The spiders even had their own equivalent of the walker suits people employed to walk on the surface, in the form of their bubble encased behinds.
He knew it didn’t really make any sense, but for a brief moment James empathised with the animals. He felt a connection, strange though it was.
Spiders living in bubbles: exploring an environment deadly to them.
Humans living in bubbles: exploring a planet deadly to them.
“bubble shot” (CC BY 2.0) by rhett maxwell
The spider had left its roof now and was sitting awkwardly at the rear of the glass squishing itself into the corner. James frowned at this. He looked again at the dappled pattern, wondering whether the animal was in distress because it was so conspicuously suspended in a clear enclosure.
Thinking it over he figured it probably didn’t factor much into the animals thinking, having previously been happy lying on his light grey concrete floor. But nevertheless James had made his decision.
“Let’s get you home” he said, picking up the glass from the table.
Despite his newfound bond with arachnid kind, James kept an irrationally tight hold of the scotch glasses paper covering. New appreciation for spiders he may have, but that didn’t include any jaunts under his sleeve, up his arm, and into his nightmares.
As he exited the apartment and began walking down the narrow flight of stairs to the arcades floor, he nodded at the Korean family who lived underneath him.
“Nothing to see here folks, just saying goodbye to a friend” he called over his shoulder, knowing that only the youngest of their children spoke any English, but smiling inside at the odd conversation they would no doubt be having later on.
Even though he was now outside of his home and walking down the twenty odd meter wide arcade that made up his local neighbourhood, he still wasn’t in the outdoors section of Lowell.
Try though they might, the terraformers from earth were still working towards the sometimes contrary nature of turning mars into a human friendly planet. James had read extensively about the efforts to both make a more breathable atmosphere, but simultaneously pump it full of carbon dioxide to thicken it and protect them all from the DNA destroying solar radiation that bathed the planet.
This was yet another of the strange twists of fate compared to our species time on earth; there we were trying to curb our accidental increase of greenhouse gas emissions, here we were desperately working to increase them.
But try though they might, they had only been able to increase Mars’ concentration of greenhouse gases by 1.5% so far, which though it did lower the radiation reaching the ground slightly, still left a lot to be desired (especially if you weren’t fond of a little cancer). As a result, his neighbourhood had been sunk deep into the cliffside of one of Lowell’s few mesas; large rock formations that had formed in Mars ancient volcanic age, and looked somewhat like tall thin mountains with their peaks lopped off. His neighbourhood, designated Lowell-Green-5 in a fit of unimaginative Martian bureaucracy, was referred to by its denizens as Flattop due to the striking regularity of its mesa’s plateau. The arcade was set at an orthogonal angle to the suns passage through the sky, and faced north, so that no direct sunlight ever entered into the living spaces directly, but enough reflected light gave them a reasonably bright place to wander.
This was all an effort to decrease the radiation that each Martian faced every day, and now that James has reached the terminator line that demarcated this protected area from the rest of the ‘outside’ he couldn’t help but imagine a slight change in his bodies sensations. Noting in particular, nothing that he could explain exactly, and perhaps even something completely in his head, either way James felt a little different when he delved out of the protected zones and under the butterscotch sky of the fourth rock from the sun.
The thought of constant radiation permeating his very being had always stuck hard in the back of James’ mind. During his first few months on mars he had kept a constant eye on the dosimeter that recorded his daily exposure, checking his watch every few minutes and watching the green line dance up and down on the screen like a disturbingly regular stock market; crashing at night when the sun retreated over the nearby Hesperian Hills, and rebounding the next day as its rays peaked over the plateau opposite.
At present the sun was almost directly overhead, its solar radiation pouring down through the partial protection of Lowell’s tent, and presumably through both James and his spider cargo. Looking down at the little animal he held in his grasp, he was able to push these thoughts aside.
“You’re still kicking hey fella?” he asked rhetorically, the spider responded with taciturn acceptance.
Across from the entrance to his neighbourhood there was a large park. Say what you will about the generally utilitarian Martian architecture, at least there was an abundance of green space throughout the city. When you lived in an almost closed system, any way of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen that didn’t involve a net loss in energy was a welcome addition.
James entered the park, following one of the running trails that were frequented by the natives, before he found a secluded little clearing that appeared suitably out of sight.
Lifting the paper form the top of the cup he flung the animal from the glass, feeling a pang of regret when he noticed it flying uncontrollably through the air, and landing unceremoniously in a heap at the base of the tree. Try though his rational mind did to accept these creatures as an integral part of his life on mars, the reptilian part of his brain still help some sway over his actions.
For a few seconds the spider just lay there, and James wondered if he had inadvertently killed it, but in a staccato fashion it started moving, scurrying a few centimetres to the left, realigning itself awkwardly with the line of the trunk, and then springing up the dark grey bark.
He followed its path as best he could, but it soon curved at an angle taking it in a spiral up the trunk, and ultimately out of sight.
For a while he just stood there, basking in the dappled light of the pseudo-forest, all worries of solar radiation left far behind.
The world around him seemed static, bar the rustle of leaves and swaying of tree branches, there wasn’t much to show the carefully engineered biosphere that surrounded him. But there was life here, you just had to look for it, you had to alter your perceptions, your expectations of what constitutes life.
The obvious answer was the tree, the plants, the living background converting sunlight into energy all around him. But James had always looked past these forms of life, because they were essentially inanimate. The kingdom of plants existed in a different timeframe than ours, with changes only showing up if you sped up the camera over days, or weeks; their presence wasn’t driven into your visual cotex as something actively struggling for survival. Again the odd remnants of evolutions hand guiding our subconscious. Trees and plants generally weren’t threats, so they simply became a part of the scenery; the backdrop for animals to perform in front of.
James crouched down, trying to look at his surrounding with new eyes, much as he had his departed spider friend, when buzz on his wrist and message on his glasses announced that it was time to eat.
Suddenly realising how hungry he was, James let out a small sigh at a moment in time lost, and started making his way back home.
Leaving the small forest James felt a new awareness of his surroundings, of how he much his existence paralleled that of the other life that had been dragged from its home by Homo sapiens and forced to find a new niche to live in. Or any life throughout time, as populations have moved, become isolated, and adapted to their new reality. Natural selection choosing who would survive, and whose genes would be erased from the book of life. He saw all this around him, and his place within it.
He wasn’t a human surrounded by life; he was a part of it. People liked to say that you weren’t stuck in traffic; you were traffic. So to James was now thinking of himself as a part of the martian ecosystem people were endevoring to create here.
Looking around the vast city of Lowell he could see a layer of activity resolving in front of him as he had hoped to find in the forest. All it took was a bit of effort, a little spurring on of ones attention, and suddenly it all came to life.
By Dirk Ingo Franke (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
High up above Flattop’s caprock a flock of birds glided in the sky, weeling into the wind, and constantly changing course as they drove a meandering path west toward the slowly setting sun. As their bodies realigned he could see their black underbellies contrast against their white feathered backs. Smaller birds still, likely sparrows, flittered closer to the ground, jumping from here to there, never staying still long enough for James to get any bearing on their intention; were they playing, hunting, fighting? He couldn’t tell. but whatever they were doing, they were doing it with more than sufficient vigour.
A flutter of white in his peripheral vision caught his attention; a butterfly or moth lackadaisically floating along from the forests edge to a small crop of dandelion growing out of a crack in the concrete. The red planets weak gravity caused havoc with the animals flight, causing each flutter of its wings to propel it in great leaping gusts until it was finally able to spread itself across the bright yellow flower of the plant, and go about its pollinating business.
As James’ gaze had been slowly moving from those far and on high, to that near and down low, he noted that the animals he had been watching were likewise diminishing in scale, until the last bit of life he observed was nothing more than a line of black ants, circling around his feet, and off into some unknown destination.