The Dragon and the Martian

When we have the power to create synthetic organisms, do we revive the demons of the dying Earth, or do we spawn new forms of life to seed a barren Mars?

by Becky Ferreira
Mar 16 2015, 2:25pm

Art by ​Patrick Savile.

Science fiction allows us to tinker in laboratory worlds without risk. It's a tool we can all use, whether we are writers, readers, armchair speculators, or, in the case of Becky Ferreira, regular Motherboard contributors. We welcome journalists exploring the long-term repercussions of their own beats—their imaginations can give vital emotional context to the technologies that will shape our world. 

—The Editors

Lokesh wanted to make a dragon, but the dragon didn't want to be made.

"I hate dragons like Darwin hated barnacles," he complained after his 200th failed iteration—a real milestone. Most synthetic organisms went to the lab after about 30.

"Maybe you should move on from cryptid syns anyway," Max suggested. Lokesh had made his name engineering fantasy creatures like griffins, thunderbirds, and unicorns, which sold to upscale customers in the Global Cloisters. It depressed Max to see such talent wasted on curiosities.

"Move on from cryptids, and do what?" he growled. "Make mini-elephants or glow-cats? Please."

"It's just...kind of a niche market," Max replied, avoiding eye contact.

"Says the one designing aliens," Lokesh scoffed. "At least I'm creating life for a living world, not some barren death trap."

"Debatable." As if to lend weight to the point, a distant lockdown siren launched into its banshee song. More riots in the camps.

Lokesh rolled his eyes. "The universe always has your back," he sighed, swiveling his chair to face his latest monstrosity. "But let it be known that even a dying world beats a dead one."

"On the contrary," Max said. He reached for his bottle of Merry-Go. "Dead is better than dying. One step closer to rebirth."

Why does he say such things out loud? Lokesh scrolled through the latest batch of bugs. Rebirth? Not on Mars, brother. That planet's pussy isn't going to squeeze out a civilization, no matter how hard your cult worships it. Just look at what it did to your precious prophet.

His labmate was right about the dragon, though. He had to make it work in the next run, because 200 was beyond embarrassing. Reputation had carried him so far, but SynWare wouldn't bankroll fruitless dragon simulations forever. Especially not after the unicorn debacle. Amateurs. He shook his head, as if to rattle the memory loose. If they'd stuck to my model, nobody would have been gored.

Hello, Micromegas martis. The simulated microbe seemed agonizingly peaceful to Max, slumbering in its binary womb. The ommatidium sequencing was still glitching, but that was no show-stopper. Mike didn't need perfect vision. Not like you're going to have to dodge predators on Mars. Max gingerly tracked his fingertips across the screen, admiring the arched stylets, the radiation-resistant cuticle, the segmented wholeness.

He fumbled around in his desk for more Merry-Go. May as well finish the bottle. After all, today was special: Mike was ready to be born. Once the transfer went through, the first draft would be bioprinted within the week. The turnaround time was quick with the Micromegas series because it was already so well established, with applications ranging from waste disposal to pharmaceuticals.

Max was the first to modify the syn for manufactured astrobio, at the urging of his advisor Ryoko Arden, creator of the Xanthoria martis lichen. Commonly known as Triple-M—as in, Martian miracle moss—Arden's X. martis had proven a total dynamo at colonizing Mars. The lichen barfed out greenhouse gases like a champ, fanning across the base at Kasei Valles.

For Max, this was just more evidence of Ryoko's prophetic gifts. As she had so fervently preached, Mars was a world on the brink of cosmic baptism. Triple-M was merely the first drop on its brow.

He pictured his microbe's descendents frolicking in the Martian wilds, feasting on lichen runoff and soaking in the mid-sol Sun. Imagining their microscale adventures, he laughed out loud.

Nothing creepier than a cubemate who maniacally laughs at random intervals. Lokesh knew that happiness wasn't a zero-sum game, but it felt as if Max's overwhelming chilled-outed-ness was exerting some kind of tidal force on his own psychological equilibrium.

Or maybe he was just especially irritable because his dragon was a goddamn clusterfuck. The simulation was a tangle of algorithmic kinks, flea-bitten by geneware bugs. He had been closer to the archetype at the beginning of the project, months ago, when the whole thing had been scaffolded with astraightforward Quetzalcoatlus mockup. Lokesh had retooled the base model into a much meatier frame using the New Gene Alphabet—but not at the expense of flight. He even got it to express a streamlined snout, a process well-established by dinosaur simulations.

The bosses were impressed with that draft. It was only his 14th.

After that, the ridge genes for feathers gave him some trouble. They were too deeply embedded to be wholesale axed—the entire sequence would collapse. Lokesh began having nightmares about a feathered doofus creature lighting itself on fire with its own breath. Synner Behind Psycho Unicorn Unveils Idiot Dragon, the headlines would read. Career kryptonite.

Fortunately, he discovered that iridescent melanosomes could be neatly threaded into the sequence, expressing a layer of jade and quicksilver feathers. Cosmetic analysis suggested this would actually accent the dragon's scales, not distract from them. It would be a beautiful and terrifying animal.

"Sometimes limitations turn out to be gifts," Max had said at the time, his brain clearly pulverized into oblivion by Merry-Go.

Lokesh reflexively flinched as Max burst out laughing again, childlike in his joy. I must make this dragon work, if only to sic it on him.

Boss Kulik, head of SynWare sales, stared at Micromegas martis through the scope. From what Max had heard, Kulik oversaw all SynWare transactions over a billion. She was also rumored to be behind the buyout of LOLcorp, a company with a monstrously cute line of synthetic pets, all elf cats and toy otters. He wondered why she wanted to personally inspect a microbial syn worth only fifty million, especially since SynWare had already brokered its sale to Red Eden in a pre-empt.

She adjusted the focus, "Is this the final draft?"

"Yes," he said. "Another sample set is already aboard Kasei 7. They're launching it this week."

"I heard," she said, keeping her gaze squarely on the lens. Max nodded awkwardly.

After a long pause, Kulik pushed back her chair and began gathering her notes.

"Nice work with this order," she said. "I take it this is for contained trials only?"

"Yes," Max replied. "Mike—uh, Micromegas martis—won't be released into 'the wild' until they're sure it will optimize the Triple-M." He smiled.

"Ryoko's handiwork is evident here," she said, slinging a slim messenger bag over her shoulder. "I knew her too. Shame what happened. Wasn't like her."

"No," he agreed, blandly.

After she left, Max popped more Merry-Go, and slumped down in front of the microscope. He watched all the little Mikes, swimming in their dish world, oblivious to the grandeur of their destiny. None were sluggish; none despondent. None questioned their will to live.

So why did she? Ryoko, leader of the exodus, the Red Eden evangelical. No sooner had she delivered the Triple-M to the new frontier than she delivered herself to death. Max remembered the infamous report from the Kasei 6 crew. They could only look on in horror as she removed her helmet, smiling into the Martian sunrise as the blood boiled in her veins.

"You will do better," Max told the Mikes. "You can't opt out."

"We are way over budget on this abomination," said Kulik. "Auction it now or we cut it loose."

Lokesh was taken aback. "You want to dump a dragon on some nobody bidder?" he stammered, incredulous. "Give me more time and you'll be licensing blueprints to every syn zoo in the world! I even solved the Bombardier quotient. It can breathe fire now!"

"And your unicorns can impale teenage girls," Kulik said, stonefaced. "Yes, there is a big market for cryptids in the Cloisters, no question. But your latest run of killer syns is bleeding us. The lawsuits outweigh the proceeds, and given that there's now such a thing as a feral unicorn problem, weIl, I doubt we've seen the last—or even the worst—of the legal trouble."

"It won't be like that this time," Lokesh said. "I can write in safety parameters. We can make buyers sign waivers."

"Cut it loose, or quit SynWare," Kulik repeated. "If you decide to stay, take it down a notch with your next project. Make a nonviolent cryptid for a change. Like a jackalope. Or a Pokemon."

A vein throbbed ominously on Lokesh's forehead. "My syns aren't local mascots or childish fads," he said slowly, with a hint of growl. "Legend bequeathed us these monsters, and I am making them real. They will return balance back to the world, as our ancestors intended. Do you not appreciate the magnitude of this work?" He felt like a primordial god as he uttered the words, approaching her now with purposeful steps. Kulik stayed put, expression static.

"You SynWare cretins wouldn't know genius if it burned your fucking faces off," he snarled, "and I hope my dragon does."

"You're done," said Kulik, with palpable relief. "On behalf of the council, I'm initiating your termination, on the grounds of threatening an executive. With dragonfire."

Lokesh blinked and stepped back, as if waking up from a daydream. As Kulik pushed by him, he turned to face the fourth dragon bioprint, still a juvenile, imprisoned in its sterile pen. Six hundred pounds of scales and claws cowered under his gaze.

"Kasei 7, Timer."








Ten thousand Mikes blithely sauntered around their petri paddocks.

The dragon could breathe fire all right. Lokesh had grafted sequencing from the Bombardier beetle, an insect capable of ejecting scalding jets of peroxide out of its ass, into its palate. The stream was ignited by a heat-sensitive spark wheel implanted into the dragon's incisors post-print, and its mouth and snout were protected by a flame-retardant layer of biomesh. It was a truly ingenious design. Even Kulik must have recognized that.

"Booster K."


"Booster M."


"This is Flight, we are go for launch."

"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six…"

Ten thousand Mikes, bumping into each other like inner tubes at a water park.

In the end, Lokesh had failed to account for the most important variable: how the dragon felt about being a dragon. It was just an animal. It didn't roar with terrifying majesty, like the monsters of legend. Just the opposite. The dragon was afraid of its powers.

It hated the smell, the taste, and the alien heat of the flames. The handlers had removed the spark wheel and chemically muted the Bombardier reflex, but the memory of its incendiary breath still haunted the beast. It whimpered in the corner as Lokesh entered its cage.

"...five, four, three, two, one…"

"Kasei 7, we have liftoff."

Ten thousand Mikes, poised to pollinate a planet.

Lokesh had wanted to make a dragon. But the dragon desperately didn't want to be made. He approached the trembling beast with gentle steps, and cradled its beautiful head in his arms. The look in its amber eyes was devastatingly childlike. It barely resisted when Lokesh slit its throat with the spark wheel, and it held his gaze long after the scarlet river had ebbed to a trickle.

Max was right, he thought. Dead is better than dying. It's one step closer to rebirth. And Lokesh resolved to thank his labmate for helping him see the light.

Max invited Lokesh to crash in his bunker until he was assigned to a new settlement. His disgraced colleague had lost his onsite suite with the job; he would have ended up in the camps otherwise.

Lokesh sat on the spare cot, surveying Max's windowless home. "I don't want to be a pusher," said Max. He offered the bottle of Merry-Go. "I just find this really helps."

Lokesh scowled, but accepted anyway. "Never tried it," he said, as he shook two pills out into his palm. He swallowed them without water. "I heard about the launch," he continued. "You really think a bunch of designer beasties can terraform that hellscape?"

Max laughed. "I don't know. I hope so."

Lokesh began to laugh too. It was the first time Max had ever seen him smile, let alone vocalize something resembling joy. "You know, I never got it," he said, "the whole Red Eden cult."

"I know," Max smiled. "You aren't that subtle about it."

"No, I guess I'm not," he admitted.

"I mean, you literally call it a cult," said Max, giggling.

"It literally is a cult," Lokesh replied. "And now it's a suicide cult too, since Arden couldn't hack it."

Max swallowed. "I've come to terms with what she did."

"It was doomed to fail," Lokesh continued, oblivious. "Even if you seed life there, it won't be enough to sustain humanity. You need gravity, a magnetosphere, real pressure. An atmosphere just isn't a cure-all."

"It's not," Max said. "But you're assuming humans are a part of the plan."

"Now I really don't get it."

Max offered the bottle again, and Lokesh gratefully accepted. "Ryoko used to preach that the Red Eden would be far superior to the biblical Eden, because it was engineered by humans, not by some distant, punishing God." He shook his head, and looked to Lokesh. "I guess in the end, she decided it was the same thing."

Lokesh shrugged. "I could have told you that."

"I wouldn't have listened," said Max. "Besides, I'm still a believer. Just because humans won't get a second chance doesn't mean life shouldn't have one. Maybe in a billion years, the Mikes will have evolved into something better."

"With those flimsy SynWare proteins?" Lokesh snorted. "Not likely."

"Humor me."

"All right," he conceded. "I guess it could happen."

"And what about your portfolio?" Max prodded. "Was there a grander meaning to making amaroks and unicorns and dragons, or are you just a huge fantasy nerd?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Lokesh sneered. "See, unlike you, I accepted our impending extinction long ago. All I wanted to do was deliver an anaesthetic."

"This is the anaesthetic," said Max, shaking the Merry-Go bottle. "Dragons are mythical hell beasts."

"Don't be a rube," Lokesh scolded. "Nobody wants to go out this way. Quarantines. Lockdowns. Ration plans. A slow, boring apocalypse. Even the dinosaurs had it better."

"Short and sweet," agreed Max. "And not self-inflicted."

"Precisely," said Lokesh, standing. "I wanted to give people—to give myself—a taste of that Old World awe. To trigger our ancestral memory of magic, monstrous and beautiful, before we all wilt away from air pox, or lottery culls, or Merry-Go ODs."

"Kind of like how your life is supposed to flash before your eyes when you die," Max said, dreamily.

The slash was quick, but neat. And deep.

"Exactly like that," Lokesh said. "Short and sweet. And not self-inflicted."

Max grasped his throat with both hands. He looked confused, and then forlorn, and then dead. Much easier to kill than the dragon.

The Dragon Maker finished the Merry-Go and began raiding the bunker for supplies, vaguely aware of the sorrowful chorus of sirens in the distance. Elsewhere in the universe, a herd of wild unicorns grazed on the harvest of an old landfill, and ten thousand tiny pilgrims peacefully slumbered in a shooting star.

This dispatch is a part of Terraform, our new online home for future fiction.