Escape Pod 693: The Great Scientist Rivalry on Planet Sourdough


The Great Scientist Rivalry on Planet Sourdough

by Beth Goder

Audio Journal of Yazhu A. Borla
Sourdough Planet, Year 1, Day 1

I am definitely a genius, because I’ve discovered a way to create nanobot-integrated sourdough that will change how humanity eats bread.

Here’s the plan:
Step 1: Find a planet that no one cares about, so when I place eight fermentation silos on the surface, no one will bother me about regulations or whatever.
Step 2: Time dilation! To bypass the long window needed for sourdough starter fermentation and nanobot algorithm iterations, use a super-fast spaceship to zip around the galaxy. As a result, while two weeks pass for me on the ship, thirty years pass on the planet.
Step 3: Check on the silos, tweaking each creation until…
Step 4: I’ve created the most delicious, amazing, beneficial sourdough that humankind has ever eaten.

When I’m done, people who eat my bread will be able to do amazing things–breathe underwater, boost their immune systems, get rid of wrinkles. At least, if the experiment goes well. I’m still playing around with the algorithms.

I’ll be famous. They’ll name cities after me. Countries. Maybe even whole planets.

But, of course, the most important thing is that my creations will benefit humanity.

The plan’s only flaw is that I won’t get to see Ayla’s face when I create the most epic nanofood in the universe. What’s the point of having a nemesis if you can’t even gloat?

Day 22
This planet is kind of weird. The ground is a sickly yellow color, there are huge rocks everywhere, and the lake looks suspiciously deep. Also, the air smells weird. I know because Chester, the ship AI, told me it was breathable, so I went outside and it was like getting pelted in the face by a wet dog.

The silos are built. I’ve got the sourdough starters fermenting inside, fed by automated systems that deposit water and flour. The micro environments are set up with wild yeasts from all around Earth.

Since the silos are hermetically sealed, nothing can get out or in. The last thing I need in my sourdough is alien yeast!

This planet has some boring name, like HD 44318 b. I dub it Sourdough Planet.

Now I’ve got to program the nanobots.

Chester’s Ship Log
Sourdough Planet, Year 1, Day 35

This is what space sounds like: nothing. The quiet flows over my ship body. Stars materialize and disappear, rippling outward like stones thrown in water. Silent and beautiful and full of light.

I miss space.

I am starting to regret hiring my ship-body to one Yazhu A. Borla. It’s not just the sourdough experiment, although I sense such a project is not standard. She sings to herself constantly, a series of pop ballads in an off-key soprano. She takes her meals in the library, the observatory, her quarters–everywhere but the kitchen–and I’ve got to send the cleaning bots out to retrieve the plates.

Worst of all, she thinks she’s an expert at everything. Sure, she has a Ph.D. in nanobot technology, and a second one in computer science, but that doesn’t mean she knows anything about large scale engineering, for example.

She insists on tinkering with parts of the ship. I won’t let her get near anything critical, but I’ve given up the auxiliary recycler, so that I don’t have to hear her whining.

I don’t have a lot of experience with humans, but from what I’ve seen so far, I have to say, I’m not impressed.

At least my secret project is going well.

Yazhu thinks there are only eight silos on the planet. In this, like so many other things, she is wrong.

Stealing the nanobots was trivial. When Yazhu was sleeping, I took two bots out of the sterilized environment and programmed them to make other bots. I put the nanobots in Silo Nine, where they will take the raw matter of this planet and evolve it into something new.

I’m tired of humans–their whims, their irreverent attitudes, their bodies which make sounds like “flphp” and “sploosh.” I’m tired of other AIs, too. At the spaceport, 10-67-NDR made fun of me because I painted each segment of my body a different shade of blue. She also said my name was non-standard.

I have an experiment of my own–to create a new sentient species. It can’t be worse than the ones that already exist.

Yazhu
Sourdough Planet, Year 1, Day 45

The silos are churning. I’m tweaking the nanobot programs.

Working on my own is great. I don’t have to worry about food safety regulations or infinite clinical tests. When I worked for Kuiper University, let me tell you, I was swimming in red tape.

Who needs tenure? Not me.

I’m sure Ayla is still at the university, thriving. She always did know how to work within the rules.

In Silo One, I’ve got wild yeast from Syria. The nanobots are programmed to enhance the cochlea to produce super hearing.

Silo Two has the experiment most unlikely to succeed–a life-extension algorithm, which I’ve never gotten to work properly.

Silos Three has–well, the specs are all in the experiment logbook. No need to repeat them here.

If I succeed, I’ll be even more famous than I am now. (The academic community, I’m sure, is still in awe of my self-replicating ice cream, but I can’t rest on my laurels.)

Like the sourdough starter, the nanobot algorithms will need time to mature. I’ve programmed them using new machine learning techniques, so they respond to what’s in the environment, and adapt based on feedback from supervisor programs.

Day 46

Used the service bots to deliver the nanobots to the silos. Bots within bots! No way am I going out on the surface of the planet again.

Tomorrow, we head out. We’ll speed past the Magenta Belt, loop around Vegstrom for the gravity assist, then zoom back. But first, we have to pick up some fuel at Savara Station. Yeah, we still need fuel. The Infinite Energy Drive, it turns out, does not provide infinite energy. False advertising, I say.

Maybe I’ll take a look at the engine later. I bet I could make it more efficient, just like I did with the auxiliary recycler.

Chester’s Ship Log
In transit

Space, beautiful vastness. Lovely, silent ocean.

Yazhu
Savara Station

We’ve landed at the station. Time to fuel up!

Written Journal of Ayla Fireton
Revenge Plot, Day 1

I’ve made it to Yazhu’s ship. I’m officially a stowaway. Excellent.

It’s cramped in the ship’s conservatory. I’m nestled under an aspen tree, most likely a Populus tremuloides, squished next to some yeast vats. Why yeast? Probably another one of Yazhu’s failed projects. The university was littered with the waste of her experiments, but did anyone care? The inventor of self-replicating ice cream could do no wrong. Such a creative genius, they said. So full of new ideas.

Oh Yazhu, you think you’ve gotten rid of me, but you have no idea. I will follow you throughout the galaxy. I will haunt you like a ghost. I will bring about your ruin.

I knew Yazhu would stop at Savara Station. She’s not as clever as she thinks. Her first mistake? Sending me one last, gloating letter. I traced the signal to the Idiran System, then looked up the log of AI ship rentals. Her flight plan is disorganized, and it doesn’t make much sense. Why would she plan her stops at Savara Station spaced out by thirty years?

I didn’t have to wait long for her ship to arrive.

The AI, Chester, caught me poking around the hatch. I had an eight-step plan to bribe Chester, but I didn’t need it. They asked me why I wanted access to the ship, and the truth came tumbling out–how Yazhu had undermined me at the university and jeopardized my position. And, the nail in the coffin of my tenure hopes, the anonymous letter implying I had falsified data for one of my experiments. Obviously, Yazhu sent it.

“A petty human squabble,” Chester said. “Sounds interesting.” They opened the hatch.

Everything is going according to plan.

When we land, I will destroy whatever project Yazhu’s working on. I will destroy it all.

Yazhu
Sourdough Planet, Year 30, Day 5

We landed on Sourdough Planet. Everything is great! It’s thirty years later, here. The sourdough starters are taking on complex flavors and the nanobot algorithms are iterating spectacularly.

The longevity algorithm doesn’t look like it will be successful, but that’s to be expected.

Chester has been acting weird. Yesterday I tried to get into the conservatory, but the door was locked. Chester claimed it was “compromised for technical reasons,” whatever that means.

Ayla

We landed on a backwater planet, atmosphere close to Earth standard. I hacked into the feed from the service bots. There are eight silos, all of them teeming with goop.

During the sleep cycle, I snuck outside. The air is breathable, even if it smells like an old shoe.

I broke into Silo Seven. The scent of sourdough starter cut through the old shoe smell. Of course. Yazhu still wants to create the most amazing nanofood in the universe. She’d tried for years at Kuiper University, and failed. She always said she needed more time.

Well, she’s found more time. Now her fueling schedule makes sense. She’s using time dilation effects to essentially speed up her work.

If I didn’t hate her so much, I would say the idea was genius.

Too bad for her that I sabotaged everything.

Yazhu
Sourdough Planet, Year 30, Day 10

I don’t understand what’s going wrong.

Silo One, Three, and Five are open. The micro-seal is completely destroyed. Not only are the starters crawling with alien yeast, but I’ve contaminated the planet with Earth microbials. That’s definitely against United Galactic regulations.

The starter in Silo Two is completely dead, and I don’t know why.

The other silos seem okay.

At first, I thought Chester had sabotaged my experiment. They’ve been angry with me ever since the thing with the auxiliary recycler. Apparently, I caused “irrevocable damage.” We had to dump the entire section, the one painted midnight blue.

Luckily, the ship comes apart in segments. We’ll leave this one on the planet, and then we’ll need less energy to get into space.

Logs show none of the service bots were out last night. That’s the only way Chester could have accessed the silos.

Perhaps the sealant was defective. Chester suggested it was human error, but I don’t make errors like that. I’ll replace the sealant on all of the silos. Hopefully, that will solve the problem.

Today, we’re going back into space. One more loop. I hope the other silos can hold out for another thirty years.

Ayla

All of the silos are sabotaged. For some, I simply opened the seals. For others, I initiated a self-destruct sequence in the nanobots.

I discovered a ninth silo out past the lake. It’s almost as if Yazhu wanted to keep it a secret. I sabotaged it in an extra-special way. The growth-enhancement algorithm I inserted into the nanobots will cause the bots to make everything around them bigger. When Yazhu returns, the failure of Silo Nine will tower over her. Literally.

People told me that revenge wouldn’t bring me joy, but they were wrong. Revenge is awesome. The only problem is that now I’m not sure what to do. For so long, I had one goal–to ruin Yazhu’s career like she ruined mine.

Perhaps instead of sabotaging her project, I should have taken the idea and marketed it as my own. Yazhu may have genius ideas, but she’s completely incompetent when it comes to selling them. It’s not enough to have an amazing idea. You have to convince everyone else it’s amazing, too.

Chester’s Ship Log
In transit

Midnight blue is my favorite color. Oh, my beautiful recycler, how I mourn you.

I no longer consider myself to be in the employ of Yazhu A. Borla. She is simply a passenger.

Now it’s time to further my own experiments.

I’m going to speed up the ship, so that when we land on Planet HD 44318 b again, it will be one thousand years later. With the help of the nanobots, that will be enough time for my creatures to evolve.

Normally, the subterfuge involved in increasing our speed would pose an ethical quandary for me. After Yazhu’s actions, however, I feel no such moral compunctions. I’ve already taken on more fuel at Savara Station.

Unfortunately, I have the other passenger to think about. The stowaway.

Ayla
In transit

I’m sitting up against the Populus tremuloides, the leaves swaying in the artificial wind.

Chester is extremely angry. I told them how I sabotaged the silos. Apparently, Silo Nine was the AI’s project.

I asked why they hadn’t warned me to leave the silo alone, and Chester said, “Then it wouldn’t have been a secret project, a secret silo with secret nanobots.”

This whole thing is hardly my fault.

Chester says I am no longer welcome on the ship. At first, I thought they were going to throw me out the airlock, but they have other plans. Chester will leave me at the next stop.

The next stop is that horrible, backwater planet. I’ll be stranded.

Yazhu
Sourdough Planet, Year 1,000, Day 1

We are so screwed.

Forget about my experiment. The planet is covered in frogs!

First, Chester tells me that due to a “calculation error,” we arrived at Sourdough Planet later than intended. One thousand years later!

Then I look out the observation window, and what do I see? Lizards! All manner of amphibian-like creatures, in all imaginable colors. There’s something that looks like a cross between a frog and an octopus, but it’s hopping about on land. There’s a newt dog and a salamander that’s ten feet tall and something that looks like a snail but isn’t.

The scenery is different, too. The lake has expanded. Now the water is a bright turquoise. There’s a huge mountain in the distance.

Chester has commandeered all the service bots for some urgent problem in the conservatory, so I can’t send the bots out to make observations.

My sourdough silos must be destroyed. All of that work, for nothing.

A lizard just squished itself against the window and excreted a foul blue liquid. Now it’s making a design.

That’s actually quite pretty.

Maybe I can still salvage something from this trip. I will venture out among these lizard creatures and take notes. For science!

If I discover a bunch of new species, does that mean I get to name them all after me?

Okay, I’m suiting up. I’ll pack a kit–water, microscope, sample containers, nanobot-enhanced camera.
I’m opening the hatch. Stepping down the ramp.

Look at these amazing lizards. They’re much more interesting up close. What’s that dotted pattern on the blue one’s back? Does that one have a trunk? But wait, why are they all running away? Don’t be afraid, lizards. I just want to study you. It’s very scientific!

Okay, I feel thumping. The ground is shaking. I think I’ll get back into the ship.

Chester? Hello? Let me in.

Thump, thump.

What’s that coming? Something big. The mountain. It’s moving. Oh no. Mountains should not move. The animals are scattering. Frogs, salamanders. Is that an octo-bear?

Chester, let me in now.

The mountain is standing up. It’s not a mountain. It’s a giant dinosaur monster! With twelve legs! And vestigial wings. It’s bigger than five ships. That thing is like a city.

I think it sees me. That is a long neck. Extremely long. Much too long. Why is the dinosaur looking over here? Why is the dinosaur extending his neck in this direction?

Mouth. Giant dinosaur monster mouth. Oh, shit. Oh, shi–

Account of Corbious-Tul-Tumar, of the species Panumsaurus gagantem, from the planet HD 44318 b. Translated from Isophic to Galactic Standard.

The blue space creature landed in the Year of Our Great Frog 506 on a quiet day when the balfankin lizards had barely started to inject their cleaning toxins into my third stomach. The balfankin lizards weren’t intelligent enough to notice the incident, but a three-leafed frog hopped out from my mouth to see what all the bother was about, and several thousand salamanders exited from my fourth abdominal flap. Patiently, I asked them to work in shifts. We can’t have everything breaking down in the interior on account of a little excitement.

The blue metallic creature was quite small for a fully sentient being–only three bifarial-spans long, and not very wide. Immediately, I knew it was the same creature that had birthed the Artifact. The creature was all shades of blue, like the deep blue of the Artifact, and it had the same markings along its sides.

Finally, proof of alien life.

There have been many theories about the Artifact–that midnight blue contraption that sits by the Lake of Larksna. Some claim it is a message from Great Frog, inscrutable. Others think it came from some civilization who lived here millennia before, but then where are the other artifacts? Aside from some small corroded structures near the lake, we’ve found nothing. I’ve always posited that the Artifact originated with an alien species, but I could never prove it.

The blue creature released one of its maintenance animals, a biped that ran swiftly toward me, almost right into my mouth. Not wanting to be rude, I ingested the biped. In she went into my fourth holding chamber.

Some time later, the creature released another biped. I extended my neck, scooped the animal into my mouth, and swallowed her.

It made sense for me to ingest the second biped, as I’d already taken in the first, but I hoped the blue creature wouldn’t send out any more. After all, it hadn’t ingested any of my maintenance animals.

I waited to see if the bipeds would perform any useful duties, but unfortunately, all they did was shout.

Yazhu
Sourdough Planet, Year 1,000, Day 2

I’m not dead. It’s even worse. I’m trapped, with my nemesis, in the stomach of a giant dinosaur.

How is this my life?

After the dinosaur swallowed me, I was carried through its body by sticky-handed salamanders. They carted me through corridors with green veins pulsing along the walls, lit by millions of miniature glowing frogs.
Blue goop splashed my helmet. Before I could react, a salamander pulled the helmet from my head.

The inside of the dinosaur smells horrible, like stale yeast and pond water.

The lead salamander paused to look at a jumble of bulbous intestinal tubes, then directed the group down a narrow tunnel.

All of this would have been fascinating if I hadn’t been terrified. I’m recording my account now in case my audio-journal somehow survives.

The salamanders deposited me in a cavern, which was brightly aglow with frogs.

There was Ayla, sitting on an upturned bit of bone.

To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I thought I’d seen the last of her at Kuiper University, and here she was, half a galaxy away in the belly of a dinosaur.

“What are you doing here?” I sputtered, wiping salamander gunk from my hands.

“Ask Chester,” said Ayla, glaring in the annoying way she always does.

Clearly, the universe hates me. Why else would I be stuck with the most aggravating, overbearing–

Excuse me. One moment.

Yes, Ayla, I know you can hear me. I’m sorry if there’s not a lot of privacy in the stomach of a monster dinosaur.

Anyway, next I got her to confess how she’d come to Sourdough Planet. A stowaway! All because she wanted to steal my genius ideas, knowing she could never come up with something so brilliant–

Sorry. One second.

That’s basically what you said, Ayla. It’s called paraphrasing.

So now we’re stuck here together. It’s perhaps the only situation that Ayla can’t talk herself out of.
That’s okay, though. I have a plan.

Ayla

After the service bots threw me out of the ship, an enormous life form ingested me. The creature has a striking resemblance to a dinosaur. Fascinating.

A creature this large shouldn’t exist, but the dinosaur appears to have a symbiotic relationship with a variety of animals that live inside its interior. I suspect they perform sustention duties that allow the dinosaur to survive.

Yazhu is trapped with me. Typical, her copying me. Just like with the yogurt experiment, when she used my research methodology, down to the statistical analysis of bacteria. She may be great at programming, but she doesn’t know a thing about biology.

Yazhu

I have to speak quietly. It’s Ayla’s shift to sleep. I’m on watch.

Some things have changed.

First, Ayla went on a rant about our time at the university and confronted me about some anonymous letter claiming she had falsified data.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t send that letter. The bagpipe music that mysteriously started playing in her lab? Yeah, that was me. The snarky comments on her article in Biology Jupitar? I signed my name to those. (And believe me, she wrote worse things on papers I’ve published.) I’ve poached her grad students, applied for grants that I knew she wanted, and taken the last muffin from the cafeteria when I saw her coming, even though I wasn’t hungry. She did the same stuff to me–that’s just what it’s like when you’re both scrambling for tenure.

Before I could tell her that I didn’t know anything about that stupid letter, an orange snake-worm popped through the opening to our cavern.

I was used to the frogs by now, and the odd salamander running through, but this thing was different. It was as big around as a beaker, and longer than Ayla and me put together. I couldn’t tell the front from the back–it was all slime and ringed sections.

The snake-worm slithered my way.

Ayla went rigid, barely moving. “Looks like a caecilian,” she said, her voice low.

I didn’t have time to ask what a caecilian was, because the snake-worm wriggled closer. The glow frogs scattered.

“Don’t move,” said Ayla, but I was already running across the cavern. The snake-worm followed.

“Your vibrations.” Her face went pale. I’d never seen her look so afraid. “Shit. Stop moving.”

I couldn’t stop moving, because the snake-worm was inches from my leg and my brain was saying, “panic snake panic worm orange death death death.” I did the only sensible thing and ran behind Ayla. We both froze.

The snake-worm thrashed in the middle of the cavern. With a tremendous pop, the creature turned itself inside out, like a burst balloon, until its exterior was covered with razor spines. The thing pounced on a frog, then folded back in on itself, until the unfortunate frog was encased within.

“Can the ones on Earth do that?” I hissed.

“Did you see the spines near the back annulus?” said Ayla, visibly shaking. “Thicker, shiny. Probably wet with venom. That implies it can take down bigger prey.”

We both swore. The cavern became darker as frogs scurried out through the opening or shimmied behind tissue folds.

“You’re the biologist,” I said. The snake-worm writhed, digesting the frog. My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest. “Do a biology thing. Make it go away.”

“For Earth biology,” she said, talking too quickly. “And the ice ecospheres on Neptune. This thing looks like a caecilian, but there’s no guarantee there are any similarities. If this one evolved to live underground, like their Earth analogues, maybe that could explain the hearing and vision–”

The snake-worm that looked like a caecilian but wasn’t slithered toward us. More of the glow frogs disappeared, and the cavern got darker. So dark that I didn’t realize Ayla was behind me until I heard her rummaging around in my backpack.

In a panic, I ran. My only thought was that I had to get to the opening. That’s where the frogs had gone. My brain chanted, “safe safe be a safe frog be a fast frog.”

Behind me, I heard a tremendous pop.

I might have screamed a lot.

A burst of light illuminated the cavern. Across the room, Ayla held my nano-enhanced camera, her face determined.

The snake-worm twitched, half transformed.

I wish I could say I did something heroic, but at this point, I was lying on the ground making a sound like, “grrruh.”

Ayla pushed the flash again and advanced on the snake-worm, which was currently pulsing, as if trying to get all the spines on the outside of its body.

Ayla grabbed it by the fleshy, non-spine-covered end and chucked it out the opening.

I stood up, managed not to fall over, and ran to the backpack. I grabbed the microscope and wielded it like a hammer.

We stood poised by the opening, waiting to see if the snake-worm would return. Tense minutes passed, but nothing came through the opening except frogs.

Slowly, light returned to the cavern. I slumped over. Ayla sunk to her knees, eyes wide.

My first coherent though was that Ayla had saved my life, and, what’s worse, she would never let me forget it. I couldn’t get the image of her grasping the snake-worm out of my head.

“I didn’t send it,” I said.

“What?”

“The letter. That wasn’t me. You’re a good scientist, doing important work, and I wouldn’t have messed that up.” Apparently, a near-death experience makes one embarrassingly honest. I babbled on, unable to stop.
“But I’m sorry about the bagpipe music. That was me. It was right after you got that big grant, for your experiment with the bees and modified honey. Everyone was so excited about your work. I was sure you’d get tenure.”

“Funny how that worked out,” she said, her voice bitter.

She still thought I’d gotten tenure. I couldn’t believe she’d swallowed that lie. “Why do you think I’m out here?”

“You said you were on sabbatical.” Her voice trailed off.

“The university is very competitive,” I said, aping the dean. “Many qualified candidates were turned down.”
“I got that speech, too!” Ayla set the camera down, hard. “Do you ever feel like the university system pits people against each other?”

“Yeah, like academia is a huge dinosaur we’re all stuck inside, and the need to get tenure is a snake-worm, but no matter what you do, you’re going to get stabbed by a poisonous spine?”

For once, Ayla wasn’t glaring in that annoying way. She was smiling.

For a while, neither of us said anything. Maybe Ayla was reflecting on her career and her life choices, but I was thinking about how it had been hours since I’d eaten. I rummaged through the pack, pulling out two blueberry bars.

I tossed one to Ayla and said, “When we tell people about the snake-worm, can we say I smashed it with the microscope? You know, heroically?”

We made a plan. After we’re both rested, we’re going to explore the interior of this dinosaur.

Chester’s Ship Log

The humans have gotten themselves stuck inside an enormous alien.

Once again, it’s up to me to fix everything.

And I may be obligated to fix it. My contract with Yahzu states that I am liable for anyone who boards my craft. Laws, I’ve found, tend to favor humans.

What’s worse, I feel slightly guilty.

I’ve secreted thousands of language bots on the planet. Based on patterns of vocalizations and subliminal grunts, it’s apparent that the aliens are communicating, both with each other and the non-sentient creatures.

The bots will record and analyze the language. I’ll synthesize these reports, create a basic lexicon, and decipher grammar structures.

I’ll be speaking dinosaur in no time.

Recording of Yazhu and Ayla

Ayla: This is the recording of two scientists traversing an alien life form on planet HD 44318 b. We’re recording our observations.

Yazhu: For science!

Ayla: Currently, we’re trapped in a chamber covered in soft tissue, where we were deposited after being ingested by the xenoform. We’ve observed creatures leaving through a spherical entrance surrounded by cilia.

Yazhu: It’s a wobbly hole with some bits sticking out.

Ayla: The orifice is covered in viscous mucus, possibly a lubricant for the amphibious– Wait, Yazhu, what are you doing?

Yazhu: Getting a sample.

Ayla: Yazhu has produced a rudimentary analyzer from her pack. We are waiting for–

Ding!

Ayla: What’s it say?

Yazhu: Results are inconclusive. The goop could be harmful, or not! Cover your head. We’re going through.

Splop. Splooch.

Yazhu: Gross. It’s on my nose!

Ayla: The mucus appears innocuous. We’re in a chamber, much larger than the preceding one. Luminescent frogs are plentiful. Several vats are built into the tissue.

Yazhu: I’ll get a sample from the vats.

Gloop. Spalorf.

Yazhu: Holy cats! It’s sourdough starter, or a version of it.

Ayla: What?

Yazhu: This room, it’s the right temperature. And these vats are naturally moist. But how do they get the flour in, or whatever serves as the binding agent?

Ayla: The helper animals. They’ve evolved to work within this alien.

Yazhu: Grab the microscope. I’ll drip the starter on the slide. Look!

Ayla: Move over. Is that–?

Yazhu: Nanobots. Inside the starter. Like my experiment. But how did they survive?

Ayla: They were self-replicating, right? The ones that replicate the best survive the best. The nanobots are part of this system, like the frogs. Or maybe, the system exists so the nanobots can replicate, like how our bodies exist, in part, to pass on our genes.

Yazhu: I need to get a sample back to the ship. The algorithms inside the bots were supposed to replicate too, in a sense. To iterate. No telling what the program will do after one thousand years.

Clomp, clomp.

Ayla: Watch out! Salamanders! And something bigge–

Account of Corbious-Tul-Tumar

The bipeds are moving around in my interior. If they move into the wrong sector, it’s probable that they will damage the maintenance animals, or themselves. I must say, I expected the bipeds to be better behaved.

Perhaps it’s time to send in the tranquilizing nematodes.

Chester’s Ship Log

With the help of the nanobots, I’ve developed the rudimentary ability to speak the alien language, Isophic.

My experiment has come to fruition. A sentient species, owing their creation to me.

I look forward to speaking with them.

Account of Corbious-Tul-Tumar

Before I could send in the nematodes, I was contacted by the blue space creature, who is called Chester.

I believe Chester attempted our standard greeting, “May your animals be of great health,” but it came out, “May your ears be filled with pudding.” I suspect either a fluency issue or a cultural difference.

Chester revealed a surprising array of information. Apparently, the bipeds are fully sentient. I commented that their diminutive size must make it impossible for them to have the higher brain functions needed for consciousness, but Chester assured me that such a thing is, indeed, possible. In all the worlds, I could never have imagined it.

Chester asked for the release of the bipeds, a request which I gladly obliged, shooting the humans out of the fifth dorsal opening, with the help of the larger octo-bears.

I coated the bipeds in a reticulated slime, as is customary when exchanging maintenance animals, the netted pattern signifying mutual respect and good will. The bipeds shouted quite loudly. To avoid cultural misunderstanding, I explained the purpose to Chester, who accepted the situation with much graciousness.

Now it was my turn to pose questions, such as why the Artifact had been left on our planet. This Artifact, I must admit, had been a curiosity of mine for years. Chester said that one of the bipeds had damaged the Artifact beyond repair. An involuntary shudder ran through me. The incompetence of maintenance animals is of course a primary fear of mine.

However, the bipeds do not seem to be any sort of maintenance crew. I could not discern their relationship to Chester–it appears that one of the bipeds needed Chester’s help to perform some strange experiment with dough. Perhaps my comprehension was simply limited. Chester does not speak fluent Isophic.

Even more surprising, Chester claims to be the progenitor of my species. Their explanation involved the smallest helper animals, the ones buried in the yeasty gluten of the tissue vats. Chester declared this truth with the aplomb of one expecting accolades, worship, or at the least a round of blagor ale, but all I could manage was, “Oh, I see.”

When Chester pressed the point, I asked who had created their species. They went silent for some time. If it wasn’t so ridiculous, I would have to guess that unruly biped species was somehow involved.

Chester and I talked of many things, and shared the poetry of our disparate worlds. The blue one is an excellent conversationalist, quite knowledgeable on many subjects.

Overall, this conversation was illuminating. Chester is an interesting individual, well versed in metered poetry, with a body of beautiful blue hues. I invited them to visit again, but only if they would be so gracious as to leave the bipeds at home.

Ayla

After showering, I found Yazhu in the lab. It was strange to openly walk down the corridors. No more sneaking around.

Code ran across a huge screen. Yazhu was so engrossed that she didn’t see me come in.

“What’s that?” I pointed to the screen.

What followed was several hours of explanation, Yazhu pointing to bits of code. Essentially, the anti-aging algorithm that she’d originally seeded on the planet had evolved in an unexpected direction. We’ll need to do more research, but it’s possible the bots could create more robust cell systems, changing the physical makeup of how the cell is formed, which could revolutionize longevity studies.

It’s an amazing find. If Yazhu notifies the right people, funding will rain down.

There’s no way she’ll know how to publicize this.

Clearly, she needs my help.

Yazhu

There’s a weird thing that happens when someone saves your life. You start to hate them a little less. And maybe they start to hate you a little less too.

I’m busy planning experiments for the super algorithm. The code is complicated–nothing like the original. I could never have predicted how it would branch.

We’ll need a fully staffed lab to do more research.

Maybe I can poach some scientists from Kuiper University. That is, if the university still exists. I haven’t done the calculations, but if it’s a thousand years later here, a lot of time must have passed over there too.

[Clipping] Reporting from the Daily Jupitar
Scientists Find One-Thousand-Year-Old Algorithm in Stomach of Alien Dinosaur

New algorithm could revolutionize the field of longevity studies according to Ayla Fireton, co-team lead of nanofood experiment Project Sourdough. “We are working to understand the implications of this discovery, but we conjecture that ingesting nanobots carrying this algorithm could increase human lifetime by as much as sixty years.”

“We also discovered a bunch of new alien species,” said Yazhu A. Borla, noting that the presence of Earth microorganisms implies that “some unknown culprit must have contaminated the planet, long before we got there. Like, many centuries ago.”

Because of the unorthodox structure of their organization, the two scientists head competing teams. Although they share data, the scientists work completely separately, with what Fireton dubbed “a friendly rivalry.”

Along with an impressive team of researchers, many of whom are former employees of the longstanding Kuiper University, Fireton and Borla plan to bake the nanobots into loaves of sourdough bread, creating the universe’s most potent nanofood.

A test product should be available within the next ten years.

“Or sooner, if we can speed things up,” Borla added, somewhat cryptically.

About the Author

Beth Goder

Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared here at Escape Pod, and also in Mothership Zeta. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com and on Twitter at Beth_Goder.

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About the Narrators

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty

Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and co-host of Escape Pod.

She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).

She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.

Mur is the 2013 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

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Mur Lafferty
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Alasdair Stuart

Alasdair Stuart

Alasdair Stuart was briefly employed as a circus geek until an unfortunate mix-up involving a prize-winning fighting cock. Its owner had ties not only to the carnival, but also to the Russian mob, so now he writes supplements for role playing games, where he exercises his superpower to make you appreciate the Sixth Doctor. He has played for the national rugby team after defeating the monstrous four-horned sheep across his home island. He is the Supreme MugwumpKeeper of the Big Red Buttona regular contributor to Tor.com, and he owns a bunch of awesome podcasts.

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Adam Pracht

Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him.

His full-time day job is as Marketing and Volume Purchasing Program Coordinator for Smoky Hill Education Service Center in Salina, continuing his career of putting his talents to work in support of education.

He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.

You can also hear his narration and audio production work on two mediocre Audible audiobooks, and as a regular producer and occasional narrator for The Drabblecast.

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Divya Breed

Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her novella ‘Runtime,’ was a Nebula Award finalist, and her short stories have been published at various magazines including Uncanny, Apex, and Tor.com.

She holds degrees in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, and she worked for twenty years as an electrical engineer before becoming an author. You can find out more at www.eff-words.com or on Twitter @divyastweets.

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Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards. She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com). Find her at tinaconnolly.com.

Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.

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