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Sepioteuthis sepioidea -- Photo by Tom Doeppner

Sheena 5, by Stephen Baxter

by Stephen Baxter





Sheena didn't mean it to happen.

Of course not; she knew the requirements of the mission as well as anyone, as well as Dan himself. She had her duty to NASA. She understood that.

But it felt so right.

* * *

It came after the kill.

The night was over. The sun, a fat ball of light, was already glimmering above the water surface.

The squid emerged from the grasses and corals where they had been feeding. Shoals formed in small groups and clusters, eventually combining into a community a hundred strong.

Court me. Court me.

See my weapons!

I am strong and fierce.

Stay away! Stay away! She is mine! ...

It was the ancient cephalopod language, a language of complex skin patterns, body posture, texture, words of sex and danger and food; and Sheena shoaled and sang with joy.

... But there was a shadow on the water.

The sentinels immediately adopted concealment or bluff postures, blaring lies at the approaching predator.

Sheena knew that there would be no true predators here. The shadow could only be a watching NASA machine.

The dark shape lingered close, just as a true barracuda would, before diving into the shoal, seeking to break it up.

A strong male broke free. He spread his eight arms, raised his two long tentacles, and his green binocular eyes fixed on the fake barracuda. Confusing patterns of light and shade pulsed across his hide. Look at me. I am large and fierce. I can kill you. Slowly, cautiously, the male drifted towards the barracuda, coming to within a mantle length.

At the last moment the barracuda turned, sluggishly.

But it was too late.

The male's two long tentacles whipped out, and their club-like pads of suckers pounded against the barracuda hide, sticking there. Then the male wrapped his eight strong arms around the barracuda's body, his pattern changing to an exultant uniform darkening. And he stabbed at the barracuda's skin with his beak, seeking meat.

And meat there was, what looked like fish fragments to Sheena, booty planted there by Dan.

The squid descended, lashing their tentacles around the stricken prey. Sheena joined in, cool water surging through her mantle, relishing the primordial power of this kill despite its artifice.

... That was when it happened.

* * *

As she clambered stiffly down through the airlock into the habitat, the smell of air freshener overwhelmed Maura Della.

'Ms Della, welcome to Oceanlab,' Dan Ystebo said. Ystebo, marine biologist, was fat, breathy, intense, thirtyish, with Coke-bottle glasses and a mop of unlikely red hair, a typical geek scientist type.

Maura found a seat before a bank of controls. The seat was just a canvas frame, much repaired with duct tape. The working area of this hab was a small, cramped sphere, its walls encrusted with equipment. A sonar beacon pinged softly, like a pulse.

The sense of confinement, the feel of the weight of water above her head, was overwhelming.

She leaned forward, peering into small windows. Sunlight shafted through empty grey water. She saw a school of squid, jetting through the water in complex patterns.

'Which one is Sheena 5?'

Dan pointed to a softscreen pasted over a scuffed hull section.

The streamlined, torpedo-shaped body was a rich burnt-orange, mottled black. Wing-like fins rippled elegantly alongside the body.

The Space Squid, Maura thought. The only mollusc on NASA's payroll.

'Sepioteuthis sepioidea,' Dan said. 'The Caribbean reef squid. About as long as your arm. Squid, all cephalopods in fact, belong to the phylum Mollusca. But in the squid the mollusc foot has evolved into the funnel, here, leading into the mantle, and the arms and tentacles here. The mantle cavity contains the viscera and gills. Sheena can use the water passing through her mantle cavity for jet propulsion -'

'How do you know that's her?'

Dan pointed again. 'See the swelling between the eyes, around the oesophagus?'

'That's her enhanced brain?'

'A squid's neural layout isn't like ours. Sheena has two nerve cords running like rail tracks the length of her body, studded with pairs of ganglia. The forward ganglia pair is expanded into a mass of lobes. We gen-enged Sheena and her grandmothers to -'

'To make a smart squid.'

'Ms Della, squid are smart anyway. They evolved - a long time ago, during the Jurassic - in competition with the fish. They have senses based on light, scent, taste, touch, sound - including infrasound - gravity, acceleration, perhaps even an electric sense. Sheena can control her skin patterns consciously. She can make bands, bars, circles, annuli, dots. She can even animate the display.'

'And these patterns are signals?'

'Not just the skin patterns: skin texture, body posture. There may be electric or sonic components too; we can't be sure.'

'And what do they use this marvellous signalling for?'

'We aren't sure. They don't hunt cooperatively. And they live only a couple of years, mating only once or twice.' Dan scratched his beard. 'But we've been able to isolate a number of primal linguistic components which combine in a primitive grammar. Even in unenhanced squid. But the language seems to be closed. It's about nothing but food, sex and danger. It's like the dance of the bee.'

'Unlike human languages.'

'Yes. So we opened up Sheena's language for her. In the process we were able to prove that the areas of the brain responsible for learning are the vertical and superior frontal lobes that lie above the oesophagus.'

'How did you prove that?'

Dan blinked. 'By cutting away parts of squid brains.'

Maura sighed. What great PR if that got broadcast.

They studied Sheena. Two forward-looking eyes, blue-green rimmed with orange, peered briefly into the camera.

Alien eyes. Intelligent.

Do we have the right to do this, to meddle with the destiny of other sentient creatures, to further our own goals — when we don't even understand, as Ystebo admits, what the squid use their speech for. What it is they talk about?

How does it feel, to be Sheena?

And could Sheena possibly understand that humans are planning to have her fly a rocket ship to an asteroid?

* * *

He came for her: the killer male, one tentacle torn on some loose fragment of metal.

She knew this was wrong. And yet it was irresistible.

She felt a skin pattern flush over her body, a pied mottling, speckled with white spots. Court me.

He swam closer. She could see his far side was a bright uniform silver, a message to the other males: Keep away. She is mine! As he rolled the colours tracked around his body, and she could see the tiny muscles working the pigment sacs on his hide.

And already he was holding out his hectocotylus towards her, the modified arm bearing the clutch of spermatophores at its tip.

Mission Sheena mission. Bootstrap! Mission! NASA! Dan!

But then the animal within her rose, urgent. She opened her mantle to the male.

His hectocotylus reached for her, striking swiftly, and lodged the needle-like spermatophore among the roots of her arms.

Then he withdrew. Already it was over.

And yet it was not. She could choose whether or not to embrace the spermatophore and place it in her seminal receptacle.

She knew she must not.

All around her, the squid's songs pulsed with life, ancient songs that reached back to a time before humans, before whales, before even the fish.

Her life was short: lasting one summer, two at most, a handful of matings. But the songs of light and dance made every squid aware she was part of a continuum that stretched back to those ancient seas; and that her own brief, vibrant life was as insignificant, yet as vital, as a single silver scale on the hide of a fish.

Sheena, with her human-built mind, was the first of all cephalopods to be able to understand this. And yet every squid knew it, on some level that transcended the mind.

But Sheena was no longer part of that continuum.

Even as the male receded, she felt overwhelmed with sadness, loneliness, isolation. Resentment.

She closed her arms over the spermatophore, and drew it inside her.

* * *

'I have to go into bat for you on the Hill Monday,' Maura said to Dan. 'I have to put my reputation on the line, to save this project. You're sure, absolutely sure, this is going to work?'

'Absolutely,' Dan said. He spoke with a calm conviction that made her want to believe him. 'Look, the squid are adapted to a zero gravity environment — unlike us. And Sheena can hunt in three dimensions; she will be able to navigate. If you were going to evolve a creature equipped for space travel, it would be a cephalopod. And she's much cheaper than any robotic equivalent '

'But,' Maura said heavily, 'we don't have any plans to bring her back.'

He shrugged. 'Even if we had the capability, she's too short-lived. We have plans to deal with the ethical contingencies.'

'That's bullshit.'

Dan looked uncomfortable. But he said, 'We hope the public will accept the arrival of the asteroid in Earth orbit as a memorial to her. A just price. And, Senator, every moment of her life, from the moment she was hatched, Sheena has been oriented to the goal. It's what she lives for. The mission.'

Sombrely Maura watched the squid, Sheena, as she flipped and jetted in formation with her fellows.

We have to do this, she thought. I have to force the funding through, on Monday.

If Sheena succeeded she would deliver, in five years or so, a near-Earth asteroid rich in organics and other volatiles to Earth orbit. Enough to bootstrap, at last, an expansion off the planet. Enough, perhaps, to save mankind.

And, if the gloomier State Department reports about the state of the world were at all accurate, it might be the last chance anybody would get.

But Sheena wouldn't live to see it.

The squid shoal collapsed to a tight school and jetted away, rushing out of sight.

* * *

Sheena 5 glided at the heart of the ship, where the water that passed through her mantle, over her gills, was warmest, richest. The core machinery, the assemblage of devices that maintained life here, was a black mass before her, lights winking over its surface.

She found it hard to rest, without the shoal, the mating and learning and endless dances of daylight.

Restless, she swam away from the machinery cluster. As she rose the water flowing through her mantle cooled, the rich oxygen thinning. She sensed the subtle sounds of living things: the smooth rush of fish, the bubbling murmur of the krill on which they browsed, and the hiss of the diatoms and algae which fed them. In Sheena's spacecraft, matter and energy flowed in great loops, sustained by sunlight, regulated by its central machinery as if by a beating heart.

She reached the wall of the ship. It was translucent. If she pushed at it, it pushed back. Grass algae grew on the wall, their long filaments dangling and wafting in the currents.

Beyond the membrane shone a milky, blurred sun - with, near it, a smaller crescent. That, she knew, was the Earth, all its great oceans reduced to a droplet. This craft was scooting around the sun after Earth like a fish swimming after its school.

She let the lazy, whale-like roll of the ship carry her away from the glare of the sun, and she peered into the darkness, where she could see the stars.

She had been trained to recognise many of the stars. She used this knowledge to determine her position in space far more accurately than even Dan could have, from far-off Earth.

But to Sheena the stars were more than navigation beacons. Sheena's eyes had a hundred times the number of receptors of human eyes, and she could see a hundred times as many stars.

To Sheena the universe was crowded with stars, vibrant and alive. The Galaxy was a reef of stars beckoning her to come jet along its length.

But there was only Sheena here to see it. Her sense of loss grew inexorably.

So, swimming in starlight, Sheena cradled her unhatched young, impatiently jetting clouds of ink in the rough shape of a male with bright, mindless eyes.

* * *

Maura Della was involved in all this because - in the year 2030, as the planet's resources dwindled - Earth had become a bear pit.

Take water, for instance.

Humanity was using more than all the fresh water that fell on the planet. Unbelievable. So, all over Asia and elsewhere, water wars were flaring up, and at least one nuke had been lobbed, between India and Pakistan.

America's primary international problem was the small, many-sided war that was flaring in Antarctica, now that the last continent had been 'opened up' to a feeding frenzy of resource-hungry nations — a conflict that constantly threatened to spill out to wider arenas.

And so on.

In Maura's view, all humanity's significant problems came from the world's closure, the lack of a frontier.

Maura Della had grown up believing in the importance of the frontier. Frontiers were the forcing ground for democracy and inventiveness. In a closed world, science was strangled by patent laws and other protective measures, and technological innovation was restricted to decadent entertainment systems and the machinery of war. It was a vicious circle, of course; only smartness could get humanity out of this trap of closure, but smartness was the very thing that had no opportunity to grow.

America, specifically, was going to hell in a handbasket. Long dwarfed economically by China, now threatened militarily, America had retreated, become risk-averse. The rich cowered inside vast armoured enclaves; the poor lost themselves in VR fantasy worlds; American soldiers flew over the Antarctic battle zones in armoured copters, while the Chinese swarmed over the icebound land they had taken.

And, such were the hangovers from America's dominant days, the US remained the most hated nation on Earth.

The irony was, there were all the resources you could wish for, floating around in the sky: the asteroids, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, free power from the sun. People had known about this for decades. But after seventy years of spaceflight nobody had come up with a way to get into Earth orbit that was cheap and reliable enough to make those sky mines an economic proposition.

But now this NASA back room wacko, Dan Ystebo from JPL, had come up with a way to break through the bottleneck, a Space Squid that could divert one of those flying mountains.

Maura didn't care what his own motives were; she only cared how she could use his proposals to achieve her own goals.

So when Dan invited her to JPL for the rendezvous, she accepted immediately.

* * *

Maura looked around Dan Ystebo's JPL cubicle with distaste, at the old coffee cups and fast-food wrappers amid the technical manuals and rolled-up softscreens. Dan seemed vaguely embarrassed, self-conscious; he folded his arms over his chest.

One softscreen, draped across a partition, showed a blue-green, rippling spacecraft approaching an asteroid. The asteroid was misshapen and almost black, the craters and cracks of its dusty surface picked out by unvarying sunlight.

'Tell me what I'm getting for my money here, Dan.'

He waved his plump hand. 'Near-Earth asteroid 2018JW, called Reinmuth. A ball of rock and ice half a mile across. It's a C-type.' Dan was excited, his voice clipped and wavering, a thin sweat on his brow as he tried to express himself. 'Maura, it's just as we hoped. A billion tons of water, silicates, metals, and complex organics - aminos, nitrogen bases. Even Mars isn't as rich as this, pound for pound ...'

Dan Ystebo was out of his time, Maura thought. He would surely have preferred to work here in the 1960s and '70s, when science was king, and the great probes were being planned, at outrageous expense: Viking, Voyager, Galileo. But that wasn't possible now.

JPL, initiated as a military research lab, had been taken back by the Army in 2016.

It hadn't been possible to kill off JPL's NASA heritage immediately, not while the old Voyagers still bleeped away forlornly on the rim of the Solar System, sending back data about the sun's heliopause and other such useless mysteries.

And Dan Ystebo was making the best of it, in this military installation, with his Nazi-doctored Space Squid. He would probably, Maura realised, have gen-enged her and stuck her in a box if it got him a mission to run.

She said, 'Before somebody asks me, tell me again why we have to bring this thing to Earth orbit.'

'Reinmuth's orbit is close to Earth's. But that means it doesn't line up for low-energy missions very often; the orbits are like two clocks running slightly adrift of each other. The NEOs were never as easy to reach as the space junkie types like to believe. We'd have to wait all of forty years before we could repeat Sheena's trajectory.'

'Or bring Sheena home.'

'... Yes. But that's irrelevant anyhow.'

Irrelevant. He doesn't understand, she thought. This had been the hardest point of the whole damn mission to sell, to the House and the public. If we are seen to have killed her for no purpose, we're all finished.

... And now the moment of rendezvous was here.

The firefly spark tracked across the blackened surface. The gentle impact came unspectacularly, with a silent turning of digits from negative to positive.

There was a small splash of grey dust.

And then she could see it, a green fragment of Earth embedded in the hide of the asteroid.

* * *

Beneath the translucent floor Sheena could see a grainy, grey-black ground. Dan told her it was a substance older than the oceans of Earth. And, through the curving walls of the ship, she was able to see this world's jagged horizon, barely tens of yards away.

Her world. She pulsed with pride, her chromatophores prickling.

And she knew, at last, she was ready.

Sheena laid her eggs.

They were cased in jelly sacs, hundreds of them in each tube. There was no spawning ground here, of course. So she draped the egg sacs over the knot of machinery at the heart of her miniature ocean, which had now anchored itself to the surface of Reinmuth.

Fish came to nose at the eggs. She watched until she was sure that the fish were repelled by the jelly that coated the eggs, which was its purpose.

All this was out of sight of Dan's cameras. She did not tell him what she had done. She could not leave her water habitat; yet she was able to explore.

Small firefly robots set off from the habitat, picking their way carefully over the surface of the asteroid. Each robot was laden with miniature instruments, as exquisite as coral, all beyond her understanding.

But the fireflies were under her control. She used the waldo, the glove-like device into which she could slip her long arms and so control the delicate motions of each firefly.

Soon the babies were being hatched: popping out of their dissolving eggs one by one, wriggling away, alert, active, questioning. With gentle jets of water, she coaxed them towards sea grass.

Meanwhile, she had work to do.

Sheena sent the fireflies to converge at one pole of Reinmuth. There, patiently, piece by piece, she had them assemble a small chemical factory, pipes and tanks and pumps, and a single flaring nozzle which pointed to the sky. Precious solar panels, spread over the dusty ground, provided power.

The factory began its work. Borers drew up surface regolith and the rock and ice which lay deeper within. Chemical separation processes filtered out methane ice and stored it, while other processes took water ice, melted it and passed it through electrical cells to separate it into its components, oxygen and hydrogen.

This whole process seemed remarkable to Sheena. To take rock and ice, and to transform it into other substances! But Dan told her that this was old, robust technology, practised by NASA and other humans for many times even his long lifetime.

Mining asteroids was easy. You just had to get there and do it.

Meanwhile the young were growing explosively quickly, converting half of all the food they ate to body mass. She watched the males fighting: I am large and fierce. Look at my weapons. Look at me!

Most of the young were dumb. Four were smart.

She was growing old now, and tired easily. Nevertheless she taught the smart ones how to hunt. She taught them about the reef, the many creatures that lived and died there. And she taught them language, the abstract Dan signs had given her. Soon their mantles rippled with questions. Who? Why? Where? What? How?

She did not always have answers. But she showed them the machinery that kept them alive, and taught them about the stars and sun, and the nature of the world and universe, and about humans.

At last the structure at the pole was ready for its test.

Under Sheena's control, simple valves clicked open. Gaseous methane and oxygen rushed together and burned in a stout chamber. Through robot eyes Sheena could see combustion products emerge, ice crystals that caught the sunlight, receding in perfectly straight lines. It was a fire fountain, quite beautiful.

And Sheena could feel the soft thrust of the rocket, the huge waves that pulsed slowly through the hab's water.

The methane rocket, fixed at the axis of the asteroid's spin, would push Reinmuth gradually out of its orbit and send it to intercept Earth.

Dan told her there was much celebration, within NASA. He did not say so, but Sheena understood that this was mainly because she had finished her task, before dying.

Now, she was no longer needed. Not by the humans, anyway.

The young ones seemed to understand, very quickly, that Sheena and all her young would soon exhaust the resources of this one habitat. Already there had been a number of problems with the tightly closed environment loops: unpredictable crashes and blooms in the phytoplankton population.

The young were very smart. Soon they were able to think in ways that were beyond Sheena herself.

For instance, they said, perhaps they should not simply repair this fabric shell, but extend it. Perhaps, said the young, they should even make new domes and fill them with water.

Sheena, trained only to complete her primary mission, found this a very strange thought.

But there weren't enough fish, never enough krill. The waters were stale and crowded.

This was clearly unacceptable.

So the smart young hunted down their dumb siblings, one by one, and consumed their passive bodies, until only these four, and Sheena, were left.

* * *

When the storm broke, Dan Ystebo was in his cubicle in the science rooms at JPL, in the middle of an online conference on results from Reinmuth.

Maura Della stood over him, glaring.

He touched the softscreen to close down the link. 'Senator -'

'You asshole, Ystebo. How long have you known?'

He sighed. 'Not long. A couple of weeks.'

'Did you know she was pregnant before the launch?'

'No. I swear it. If I'd known I'd have scrubbed the mission.'

'Don't you get it, Ystebo? We'd got to the point where the bleeding-heart public would have accepted Sheena's death. But this has changed everything ...'

It's over, he thought, listening to her anger and frustration.

She visibly tried to calm down. 'The thing is, Dan, we can't have that asteroid showing up in orbit with a cargo of sentient squid corpses. People would think it was monstrous.' She blinked. 'In fact, so would I.'

He closed his eyes. 'I don't suppose it's any use pointing out how stupid it is to stop now. We spent the money already. We have the installation on Reinmuth. It's working; all we have to do is wait for rendezvous. We achieved the goal, the bootstrap.'

'It doesn't matter,' she said gently, regretfully. 'People are — not rational, Dan.'

'And the future, the greater goal -'

'We're still engaged in a race between opportunity and catastrophe. We have to start again. Find some other way.'

'This was the only chance. We just lost the race.'

'I pray not,' she said heavily. 'Look - do it with decency. Let Sheena die in comfort. Then turn off the rockets.'

'And the babies?'

'We can't save those either way, can we?' she said coolly. 'I just hope they forgive us.'

'I doubt that,' Dan said.

* * *

The water which trickled through her mantle was cloudy and stank of decay. She drifted, aching arms limp, dreaming of a male with bright, mindless eyes.

But the young wouldn't let her alone.

Danger near. You die we die. They were flashing the fast, subtle signals employed by a shoal sentinel, warning of the approach of a predator.

There was no predator here, of course, save death itself.

She tried to explain it to them. Yes, they would all die - but in a great cause, so that Earth, NASA, the ocean, could live. It was a magnificent vision, worthy of the sacrifice of their lives.

Wasn't it?

But they knew nothing of Dan, of NASA, of Earth.

No. You die we die..

They were like her. But in some ways they were more like their father. Bright. Primal.

* * *

Dan Ystebo cleared his desk, ready to go work for a gen-eng biorecovery company in equatorial Africa. All he was hanging around JPL for was to watch Sheena die, and the bio-signs in the telemetry indicated that wouldn't be so long now.

Then the Deep Space Network radio telescopes would be turned away from the asteroid for the last time, and whatever followed would unfold in the dark and cold, unheard, and to hell with it.

... Here was a new image in his softscreen. A squid, flashing signs at him: Look at me. Dan. Look at me. Dan. Dan. Dan.

He couldn't believe it. 'Sheena?'

He had to wait the long seconds while his single word, translated to flashing signs, was transmitted across space.

Sheena 6.

'... Oh.' One of the young.

Dying. Water. Water dying. Fish. Squid. Danger near. Why.

She's talking about the habitat biosphere, he realised. She wants me to tell her how to repair the biosphere. 'That's not possible.'

Not. Those immense black eyes. Not. Not. Not. The squid flashed through a blizzard of body patterns, bars and stripes pulsing over her hide, her head dipping, her arms raised. I am large and fierce. I am parrotfish, seagrass, rock, coral, sand. I am no squid, no squid, no squid.

He had given Sheena 5 no sign for 'liar', but this squid, across millions of miles, bombarding him with lies, was doing its best.

But he was telling the truth.

Wasn't he? How the hell could you extend the fixed-duration closed-loop life support system in that ball of water to support more squid, to last much longer, even indefinitely?

... But it needn't stay closed-loop, he realised. The Bootstrap hab was sitting on an asteroid full of raw materials. That had been the point of the mission in the first place.

His brain started to tick at the challenge.

It would be a hell of an effort, though. And for what? His NASA pay was going to run out any day, and the soldier boys who had taken back JPL, and wanted to run nothing out of here but low-Earth-orbit milsat missions, would kick his sorry ass out of here sooner than that.

To tell the truth he was looking forward to moving to Africa. He'd live in comfort, in the Brazzaville dome, far from the arenas of the global conflict likely to come; and the work there would be all for the good, as far as he was concerned. None of the ethical ambiguities of Bootstrap.

So why are you hesitating, Ystebo? Are you growing a conscience, at last?

'I'll help you,' he said. 'What can they do, fire me?'

That wasn't translated.

The squid turned away from the camera.

Dan started to place calls.

* * *

Sheena 6 was the smartest of the young.

It was no privilege. There was much work.

She learned to use the glove-like systems that made the firefly robots clamber over the asteroid ground. The mining equipment was adapted to seek out essentials for the phytoplankton, nitrates and phosphates.

Even in the hab itself there was much to do. Dan showed her how to keep the water pure, by pumping it through charcoal filters. But the charcoal had to be replaced by asteroid material, burned in sun fire. And so on.

With time, the hab was stabilised. As long as the machines survived, so would the hab's cargo of life.

But it was too small. It had been built to sustain one squid.

So the firefly robots took apart the rocket plant at the pole and began to assemble new engines, new flows of material, sheets of asteroid-material plastic.

Soon there were four habs, linked by tunnels, one for each of Sheena's young, the smart survivors. The krill and diatoms bred happily. The greater volume required more power, so Sheena extended the sprawling solar cell arrays.

The new habs looked like living things themselves, spawning and breeding.

But already another cephalopod generation was coming: sacs of eggs clung to asteroid rock, in all the habs.

It wouldn't stop, Sheena 6 saw, more generations of young and more habs, until the asteroid was full, used up. What then? Would they turn on each other at last?

But Sheena 6 was already ageing. Such questions could wait for another generation.

In the midst of this activity, Sheena 5 grew weaker. Her young gathered around her.

Look at me, she said. Court me. Love me.

Last confused words, picked out in blurred signs on a mottled carapace, stiff attempts at posture by muscles leached of strength.

Sheena 6 hovered close to her mother. What had those darkening eyes seen? Was it really true that Sheena 5 had been hatched in an ocean without limits, an ocean where hundreds - thousands, millions - of squid hunted and fought, bred and died?

Sheena 5 drifted, purposeless, and the soft gravity of Reinmuth started to drag her down for the last time.

Sheena's young fell on her, their beaks tearing into her cooling, sour flesh.

* * *

Dan Ystebo met Maura Della once more, five years later.

He met her at the entrance to the Houston ecodome, on a sweltering August day. Dan's project in Africa had collapsed when ecoterrorists bombed the Brazzaville dome - two Americans were killed - and he'd come back to Houston, his birthplace.

He took her to his home, on the south side of downtown. It was a modern house, an armoured box with fully-equipped closed life support.

He gave her a beer.

When she took off her resp mask he was shocked; she was wasted, and her face was pitted like the surface of the Moon.

He said, 'An eco-weapon? Another WASP plague from the Chinese —'

'No.' She forced a hideous smile. 'Not the war, as it happens. Just a closed-ecology crash, a prion plague.' She drank her beer, and produced some hardcopy photographs. 'Have you seen this?'

He squinted. A blurred green sphere. A NASA reference on the back showed these were Hubble II images. 'I didn't know Hubble II was still operating.'

'It doesn't do science. We use it to watch the Chinese Moon base. But some smart guy in the State Department thought we should keep an eye on - that.'

She passed him a pack of printouts. These proved to be results from spectography and other remote sensors. If he was to believe what he saw, he was looking at a ball of water, floating in space, within which chlorophyll reactions were proceeding.

'My God,' he said. 'They survived. How the hell?'

'You showed them,' she said heavily.

'But I didn't expect this. It looks as if they transformed the whole damn asteroid.'

'That's not all. We have evidence they've travelled to some of the other rocks out there. Methane rockets, maybe.'

'I guess they forgot about us.'

'I doubt it. Look at this.'

It was a Doppler analysis of Reinmuth, the primary asteroid. It was moving. Fuzzily, he tried to interpret the numbers. 'I can't do orbital mechanics in my head. Where is this thing headed?'

'Take a guess.'

There was a silence.

He said, 'Why are you here?'

'We're going to send them a message. We'll use English, Chinese and the sign system you devised with Sheena. We want your permission to put your name on it.'

'Do I get to approve the contents?'

'No.'

'What will you say?'

'We'll be asking for forgiveness. For the way we treated Sheena.'

'Do you think that will work?'

'No,' she said. 'They're predators, like us. Only smarter. What would we do?'

'But we have to try.'

She began to collect up her material. 'Yes,' she said. 'We have to try.'

* * *

As the water world approached, swimming out of the dark, Sheena 46 prowled through the heart of transformed Reinmuth.

On every hierarchical level mind-shoals formed, merged, fragmented, combining restlessly, shimmers of group consciousness that pulsed through the million-strong cephalopod community, as sunlight glimmers on water. But the great shoals had abandoned their song-dreams of Earth, of the deep past, and sang instead of the huge deep future which lay ahead.

Sheena 46 was practical.

There was much to do, the demands of expansion endless: more colony packets to send to the ice balls around the outer planets, for instance, more studies of the greater ice worlds that seemed to orbit far from the central heat.

Nevertheless, she was intrigued. Was it possible this was Earth, of legend? The home of Dan, of NASA?

If it were so, it seemed to Sheena that it must be terribly confining to be a human, to be trapped in the skinny layer of air that clung to the Earth.

But where the squid came from scarcely mattered. Where they were going was the thing.

Reinmuth entered orbit around the water world.

The great hierarchies of mind collapsed as the cephalopods gave themselves over to a joyous riot of celebration, of talk and love and war and hunting: Court me. Court me. See my weapons! I am strong and fierce. Stay away! Stay away! She is mine! ...

* * *

Things had gone to hell with startling, dismaying speed. People died, all over the planet, in conflicts and resource crashes nobody even kept track of any more — even before the first major nuclear exchanges.

But at least Dan got to see near-Earth object Reinmuth enter Earth orbit.

It was as if his old Project Bootstrap goals had at last been fulfilled. But he knew that the great artefact up there, like a shimmering green, translucent Moon, had nothing to do with him.

At first it was a peaceful presence, up there in the orange, smoggy sky. Even beautiful. Its hide flickered with squid signs, visible from the ground, some of which Dan even recognised, dimly.

He knew what they were doing. They were calling to their cousins who might still inhabit the oceans below.

Dan knew they would fail. There were almost certainly no squid left in Earth's oceans: they had been wiped out for food, or starved or poisoned by the various plankton crashes, the red tides.

The old nations that had made up the USA briefly put aside their economic and ethnic and religious and nationalistic squabbles, and tried to respond to this threat from space. They tried to talk to it again. And then they opened one of the old silos and shot a nuke-tipped missile at it, by God.

But the nuke passed straight through the watery sphere, without leaving a scratch.

It scarcely mattered anyway. He had sources which told him the signature of the squid had been seen throughout the asteroid belt, and on the ice moons, Europa and Ganymede and Triton, and even in the Oort Cloud, the comets at the rim of the system.

Their spread was exponential, explosive.

It was ironic, he thought. We sent the squid out there to bootstrap us into an expansion into space. Now it looks as if they're doing it for themselves.

But they always were better adapted for space than we were. As if they had evolved that way. As if they were waiting for us to come along, to lift them off the planet, to give them their break.

As if that was our only purpose.

Dan wondered if they remembered his name.

The first translucent ships began to descend, returning to Earth's empty oceans.

* * *

Copyright © Stephen Baxter 2000

Reprinted with the kind permission of the author

"Sheena 5" first appeared in Analog, May 2000. Collected in Phase Space, HarperCollins (UK) Aug 2002. Reprinted in Year's Best SF #6, ed David Hartwell, Harper Eos 2001. Reprinted in Hayakawa's SF Magazine, January 2002. Winner, AnLab Award for best short story of 2000. Copyright Stephen Baxter 2000.

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