Life on Mars - but not as we know it

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The Independent Online
ALH 84001 to Mars. ALH 84001 to Mars. Sitreport number 153. Greetings, Commander. I think we may have been rumbled. You remember that relatively complex organism that I mentioned in the appendix to my last report only 10,000 Earth cycles ago? Well it's come on a bit since then and, to be frank, has made my predictions about how the mammoth and giant sloth would between them inherit the Earth, look slightly off.

I regret this, as you can imagine, since I and the rest of the crew had put in a great deal of time and effort trying to establish friendly relations with creatures that are now - to be honest - extinct. We abducted them, probed them, planted subliminal messages in their minds, and were getting on fabulously. Another million cycles and we could have been organising mixed marriages. Mammoth would have walked tusk in cillius with Martian. All to no avail; a couple of degrees of warming, a tiny retreat of the polar icecaps, and all that's left is a pile of bones and tusks. It makes you want to spit.

So what about this new phenomenon? What's it like, and what does it know? First the good news. It thinks that the probe is a meteorite, accidentally dislodged from the surface of our planet by an asteroid, and that the crew are fossils. Some of the younger members are a bit narked by this, but most of us can see the funny side.

The other great error made by this being is its belief that we are, and I quote, "primitive single-cell organisms, not unlike bacteria or viruses". As if there were some great virtue in being ungainly and over-engineered! Which is paradoxical since this animal spends much of its time trying to make things smaller and less complicated - mini-this and space-saving that ("the new chip that fits more information than ever before") - but cannot see the terrific advantages to being monocellular oneself.

So, while they're terrifically excited at the possibility of life on our planet (I know, given our billion-cycle seniority, the irony sometimes gets to me too), they think that (a) we're not up to much and (b) we're dead. It protects us for the time being, but is a little dispiriting. By the way, we are officially "hyperthermophiles". I must admit, I'd always had my doubts about you! (Only joking.)

The next question, I suppose, is whether we should now shift our focus to this organism, make friends with it and cultivate it - or stick to helping our single-cell relatives down here to enjoy a better life. There are some viruses and bacteria on Earth - good fellows, if a little naive - who could do with our help. And as the mammoth, Neanderthal and dinosaur experiences suggest, our track record in picking winners on this planet is not exactly impressive. I sometimes wonder whether we're not bad luck.

Prudentially I have been in touch recently with a number of bacilli, and have tried to use them to make initial contact, but with very poor results. One episode in a place called Egypt, 3,000 cycles ago, simply led to the extinction of all first-born and the incorporation of the incident in some strange religion. A second try got called "the Black Death", suggesting a lack of enthusiasm for the process. I have to confess that Ebola wasn't much more welcome. You sometimes feel like yelling out loud, "What's your problem! We're just trying to be friendly!" But being monocellular hasn't left room for much of a voice.

An amusing aspect of an otherwise dismal picture is the amount of effort expended by the animal on entirely fictional meetings with beings from other planets: beings who always seem to bear an uncanny physical relationship to an organism which must surely be one of the most bizarre and unlikely in the universe. I've been contemplating getting the crew together in the shape of a humanoid, abducting some porky housewife from Birmingham, levitating her, giving her a good seeing to, and then setting her free to tell the tale; but the Alpha Centauri have got the copyright on that one, blast them.

I am sorry that this communique should be so negative. Still, it was great to hear about the successes of the missions to Uranus and Neptune. Personally, I always thought that we were more likely to find really intelligent life there - they're so much quieter.

Please give my love to my husbands, and tell them that I look forward to returning home, and spending a vacation on a luxury blob of carbonate, just floating down a canal.