Nathan's Laserium: Acorn

"So this thing travels millions of miles, for like, millions of years, and we bring it right back where it started."

"Yes, well, if it was going to sprout roots and grow, I think it would have by now."

"Yeah, but damn. I'd be pissed." Jordan leaned in for a closer look.

They were looking at Matt's pictures of the Acorn. The Space Seed. The Wooden Sputnik. It wasn't any of those things, exactly, and it was all of them. An astonishing find by Curiosity. Important enough that a mission, unmanned of course, and piggybacked on the larger Orion mission to investigate the brine water, had been sent to retrieve it. Four years and change later, NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory were starting to release their findings. And even better, inviting some science writers to come take a look.

"Did you get to touch it?"

"Of course not," said Matt. "And even if they'd've let me, you think I want radioactive space DNA all over me?"

Jordan smiled. "Never stopped you before."

Matt punched Jordan in the stomach, playfully. Then he kissed him.

"Jordan. One of the geneticists I talked to, from Israel? She says she can help us."

 

 

Everyone on Earth should buy a lottery ticket. Although that would be silly since we can't all win. Still, we kind of all won already. When we speak of astronomical odds, we don't even come close to this. Do you know how unlikely it is that Curiosity would find the Acorn? Let's think about that. First, whatever asteroid or meteor that hit the Earth back in the Carboniferous had to launch the acorn up into space without killing it or burning it or mutating it with cosmic rays or whatever. Then it had to navigate vacuum for untold eons. Maybe it hitched a ride with a comet? Some extinct alien civilization gave it a lift? Who knows. Drifting aimlessly until one day it got caught in Mars' gravity well. Maybe it orbited between Phobos and Deimos for 30,000 years. Eventually it would have had to fall to the surface, again unharmed, and sit patiently on the red rock in a place where it was protected from the War God's furious sandstorms. For the entire time when Neanderthals were our planet's most technologically advanced species, the Acorn rested. Until finally our little robot rover ran it over.

 

Matt wanted it more than Jordan did. Which is to say, Matt wanted it and Jordan didn't. They fought about it, sometimes, over the years. Their fights weren't dramatic. There were no histrionics or slammed doors. Hardly even any raised voices, let alone shouting. Jordan's eyes bored into Matt, while Matt sat there, silent, having no idea what to say or how. The wordsmith, so good at explaining scientific concepts to his readers, completely unable to articulate his feelings and desires. It wasn't the silent treatment. It was helplessness. On his better days Jordan recognized this and made an effort to bridge the gulf. And sometimes he just walked out the door. Maybe he'd come home later, or the next day. Once he stayed away for a week. Matt didn't eat for a lot of that week, and he also didn't text. When Jordan finally returned, he didn't say anything about where he'd been, but he did say he was finally ready.

On one condition- the child had to be both of theirs.

 

The Acorn is no alien. Genetic testing has determined it is definitely Terrestrial in origin. Of that much we're sure. We've never seen its exact match in the fossil record, though during my tour of JPL Dr. Ha'ivri told me her team were fairly certain it was a member of the Order Voltziales, which we all remember from kindergarten was a group of plants from the Carboniferous that were ancestral to conifers. Which is why I say the Acorn should be called the Pinecone. My hashtag on Twitter never really gained any traction but now that I've seen it with my own eyes I kind of want to resurrect it. It's so big! Like, the Carboniferous frog people probably used them as Halloween pumpkins. #frankencone Tell your friends.

 

There was no need to meet in a sterile lab or doctor's office for this stage of the process, so Dr. Majmudar invited them to meet in the University's Arboretum. They sat at a picnic table in the Ancient Forest, an area festooned with cycads and ferns, a mini-biome in which dinosaurs would feel at home. Dr. Majmudar sat with her wife, Dr. Ha'ivri, facing Matt and Jordan, and Amy, who was Matt's sister and was to be their surrogate mother. It was a gorgeous late summer day and the mood around the table was comfortable and relaxed as they engaged in polite small talk.

Eventually Dr. Majmudar got around to discussing the procedure. "It's easy enough to explain, but with all things fertility-related, it's a bit trickier to do. It's a new technology, and it's not perfected yet."

"You've had some success, though, right?" Jordan asked.

Dr. Majmudar nodded. "Privately, yes, a few. We don't talk about it to the media, to protect the parents and the children. Not everyone agrees with, well, as we all know."

Nods all around. She continued. "So. We take your skin cells. You won't even miss them. Then we coax them to transform into embryonic stem cells. From there, we just have to convince them to become primordial germ cells. Finally, the primordial germ cell can then be turned into an egg. The biggest issue we have to watch out for is that we don't wind up with two Y chromosomes."

Jordan said, "Sounds hard. And really really expensive." The easy joke.

Dr. Majumdar didn't laugh. "Yes," she said.

 

I admit it was disappointing to find out it was from Earth. A little bit. I was crushed, actually. Maybe you were too. In my imagination, I made up all sorts of scenarios to explain the Acorn. The last life left on Mars! Or the first. Some strange artifact left by a starfaring culture, an invitation to join them if we proved smart enough to find the thing in its hiding spot, open it, and decode its secrets. Maybe it was intelligent, in some weird way not even sci-fi writers ever thought of. What if it was a weapon? Alas, it's an acorn. Pinecone. Tree thing. Not an alien.

 

Matt was on the living room floor, curled up and crying. Jordan had never seen him like that before. He turned on the light.

"Turn it off."

"I came as soon as I got your text."

"I didn't ask you to."

"You didn't have to." The text had said 'Amy called. She lost the baby.'

Jordan sat down behind Matt, and wrapped his arms around him. Sitting spoon rather than sitting shiva. Matt's back racked in sobs. Jordan whispered in Matt's ear.

"It's ok."

"Fuck!" Jordan screamed.

"I love you."

"Goddammit!"

"Shh."

Matt screamed wordlessly, and he cried for a very long time. Jordan held him tight.

 

Occam's Razor says that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Which also tends to be the boringest one. Yes, 'boringest'. Because 'boringest' is less boring than 'most boring'. But still boring! Boring boring boring!  "The Acorn was likely ejected into space by an asteroid impact, whereupon it eventually landed on Mars." "This phylogenetic tree is the most parsimonious, and so we conclude that..." ugh. I'm not interested in razors and parsimony. Give me dreams and wonder and whimsy.

Allow me a flight of fancy, to choose a particularly apt cliche. OK, so. We know there's been several mass extinctions. Obviously any mass extinction is bad, but some are worse than others. The Permian-Triassic extinction wiped out 95% of all species on Earth. The one we're in right now, that we are causing? Hopefully not that bad, but that remains to be seen. Anyway. Mass extinctions. There's been a few.

Stay with me. You know about Lodgepole pines, right? Their pinecones only open up after a fire. Now think about all the trillions of trees that have ever been. Literally trillions. One of evolution's most common reproductive strategies is called r-selection. Make way too many babies (or even just sperm/eggs) in the hope that at least some of them will actually survive.

What if the Acorn represents the ultimate Lodgepole? The hailmaryest Hail Mary in evolution's history? r-selection on a cosmic scale? Seeds evolved to survive a cataclysmic asteroid impact. Maybe there are other Acorns out there, billions of them, wandering space for millions of years. To seek out new ecological niches, to boldly go where no plant . . . I know. Silly. Unlikely. Preposterous even. But what if? Why not? Life survived every mass extinction so far. Life hasn't lost yet. Life finds a way.

The lesson of the Acorn is simple, even trite, but no less true:

Life always wins.

 

After a while, Matt slept. Eventually there were no more tears. He just felt numb. He spent most days sitting at home, not writing, not working. Jordan gave him space. One day the magazine with his article on the Acorn in it came in the mail, and Jordan read it.

"I liked your article."

"Thanks."

"But, like, was it all a lie?"

"What?"

"Just a bunch of lies or do you believe any of it?"

"Writing is a lie. We make shit up. That's the whole point. What are you talking about?"

"Not science writers, dumbass. And not even any writers, really. You lie to tell the truth, isn't that the quote?"

"Jordan. STFU. Seriously. I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I'm saying we should try again. Dumbass."

 

- Nathan Waddell