Protocell 3: Dormancy

Check out the first chapter of the upcoming novel,
‘Protocell 3: Dormancy,’ due to be published in 2021.


ONE

All endings have a beginning.

An extinction was about to take place. Based on all calculations and predictive analyses of all involved, the extermination was almost guaranteed to go on as scheduled.

The extinction was to occur on a rocky planet covered in waters of blue, one that was placed third from a medium-sized hydrogen-helium ball located somewhere near the middle of its galaxy. The exact time and date of this extinction were unknown factors to almost all life forms that existed in the temporal realm of three-dimensional space, except for one in particular whose knowledge was beyond most concepts of knowing.

This life form of deep origins had survived over the eons here on this rocky planet, in many ways, shapes and forms. It existed at the edge of reality before time even began. So versatile was this life form that it is possible, even plausible, that it had made its presence known on astronomical bodies other than this lonely water-covered planet.

But, this is the kind of theoretical riddle that rises to a level of speculation that is only answered with the science of myths instead of the myths of science. For this planet, this rocky little soul, had nurtured this first of life forms for so long, it had made their children its own. What went on somewhere else was unknown. Which should not come as much of a surprise. After all, much that went on here on this small sapphire of a gem was unknown and undiscovered as well. Including, but not limited to this first of all life forms.

Perhaps the best way to categorize this life form was to refer to it as a ‘protocell’. Which makes sense, as it truly was the cellular life that preceded all other cellular life. Its genetic components, what made it what it was, the nuances about what it did and what it did not (or more accurately, what ‘they’ did and what ‘they’ did not), is a story for another time. Their story is both simple and complex, which is to say that it is a composition of all including its opposites, like yin and yang occupying the same territory.

Suffice it to say, the protocell was necessarily the life form that proceeded all others. In one form of genetic code or another, the protocell’s signature existed in all others, even today. Even in the species that was slated for annihilation.

The existence of this earliest and most powerful life form could be called a miracle, depending on what aspect of the dimensional continuum one favored. Obviously, something or somethings, somebody or somebodies got the whole thing going. Was mathematics the great Creator? And if so, what created mathematics? Or who? Deep time without measurement could not exist, or could it?

These questions, unanswerable though they might seem, existed in all realms. Perhaps their existence were what catalyzed life to begin with, propelling what appeared as inorganic to organic. Although, life possibly could exist without these questions. Or, perhaps both existed simultaneously.

Mathematics itself could verify this, as it was possible to add one whole object with finite parameters to another whole object with finite parameters. Which of course would logically conclude, there were now two whole objects with finite parameters. And yet, between the numerals one and two lived an infinity of incremental decimals. Both existed simultaneously, the finite and the infinite, like yin and yang occupying the same territory. Would it be so strange then, that life had a beginning but also never came from anywhere?

Koans and riddles aside, a planet consisting of compressed elements came together and spun around a molten ball that regurgitated mostly hydrogen and helium. This molten ball, like similar molten balls of composition, was key in perpetuating the process that led to entities such as the protocell and the doomed species. The process was known as ‘life’. Both this molten ball and ‘life’ required energy. Which had to come from somewhere, and in a sense required an exchange from other energy sources that was not always friendly in nature.

This was where death came from, which really wasn’t as bad as it sounded. It simply was the price for existence. All creation, by being created, destroyed something else. The destruction, depending on the circumstances, usually benefited either the creation or continued existence of another. Energy would be converted and utilized, and a new template would be created. It happened on the micro, terrestrial, macro and universal levels at every microsecond. It was a balance of sorts, one that contained both entropy and creation. For something to be truly balanced, it needed the element of imbalance in greater or lesser degrees. Else, that would simply be yang without the balance of yin to temper it.

So, death and life needed each other. Light needed the darkness. Order needed chaos. The dead were both dead and alive simultaneously, feeding life with the energy that once created only changed and was never destroyed. These principles, as well as many others, had been etched into the first element onward and spelled into the genetic code that originated with the protocell. It was bestowed as an inheritance upon every species that descended from that very first of life forms. Very few things were concrete in this world of yes and not-yes. But that one thing was. The protocell knew this from their beginning, and had never forgotten.

At some point, when the belching innards of the nascent planet turned water vapor into tumultuous rains that drowned the mountains of fire, this first of all life forms branched out in physiology to become three distinct subspecies. This mutative evolution enabled each of them to migrate to niches more suitable to the changing climate, which in part they were responsible for. It was a kind of cyclical dance, but one that created life and death, over and over. A blood sacrifice of sorts, one that raised the dead and transformed the night into day, back into night again. Symbiosis and sacrifice, alliances to annihilate and annihilations to conceive a new era, all over again.

Besides becoming the masters of creation and destruction, for the protocell this genetic differential had an additional benefit. One not only for them, but for every life form that descended from their bosom. For in fact, every life form did descend from this most versatile of species. An unlimited amount of configurations were enabled from this process.

Perhaps this concept seems too unbelievable, or too incredulous a proposition. But consider that even in its most simplified state, reducing the protocell to basic numerals such as 1, 2, and 3, through cellular division of mitosis and various adaptations you could create multiple configurations of each. One could arrive with a combination such as 33213231, or even something infinitely larger. In other words, a microbe down the road a bit could result in an elephant.

So, that is the brief history of how one life became many. It had to be able to adapt, and to change. One explosion bursting at the seams, and the collective biome teemed with the benefit conferred upon them from the brilliance of their ancestors. Change was inevitable, and so it came to be.

Not surprisingly in the world of yes and not-yes, all this flurry of activity existed concurrently with a great paradox. For at other times, most times in fact, many members of the three protocell subspecies remained in a kind of stasis, residing in various niches to maintain their equilibrium. This ability to maintain a semblance of identity in the face of cataclysmic change, furtive genetic exchanges, volatile upheavals of organic and inorganic was essential if one was to maintain an identity. One’s very existence depended on the stability of a life form to be able to hold its own against threats of violence and chaos. This was true for the elephant. This was true of the doomed species. It would go to follow all this, that it was true for the protocell as well.

As the progenitor of life, the protocell retained this stabilization of identity. If they had not, no species would have ever been able to be an individual species for long, as it was written into the code of life that for one to be alive, one had to be distinct from other life forms while simultaneously being knit into the intricate web of life. Yin and yang, once again occupying the same territory. Yes and not-yes all over again.

So, to survive in a world that killed to live but yet lived by alliances, the protocell in their three distinct forms sought niches and refuges. Like a hidden observer behind a wall conducting an experiment of massive proportions, they watched and waited. But unlike the aforementioned observer, they were not passive participants. How could they be, when they were the ones who had been architects in the great design of creation? At some given time, they always acted. This is how they knew that an extinction order had been proscribed.

One of these refuges for the protocell was a lake, one that might not seem terribly significant at first in size or appearance, but was vital nonetheless. This lake reached so deep beyond the surface it bled into the rocky terrain to form a kind of aquifer. You could truly say, if you were so inclined, that what one saw in the lake was only ‘skin-deep’, and that its true character lay far below the sheen of its outer layer. You could say that, and you would be correct in more ways than one.

In this world of yes and not-yes, as well as yin and yang occupying the same territory, this simple little lake fit right in. Deep in its recesses existed a primordial layer of sediment, hearkening back to the days when the rocky planet was almost as much a ball of fire as the star that powered it today. Solidified elements of sulfur, zircon, and iron overlay much of the silicate clay that comprised its bottom.

Just above these artifacts of prehistory existed a layer of brackish water. It was a relatively thin layer, but enough that it still retained a vestige of the ancient oceans that first drowned the planet before cycles of climate change, ice ages and global cooling rearranged the puzzle so only here and there, its imprint remained in small places like this little lake that seemed otherwise unimportant. Above the layer of brackish water, the lake was like many that existed in this region, spawned from the dregs of glaciers long ago, and fed by precipitation in the form of abundant rain and in the winters, abundant snow. Because of this, especially in its littoral sections, the lake seemed average and ordinary, at least most of the time. But it most definitely was not.

This chimera of a lake resided within an ecosystem predominated by trees that collectively could be called ‘woods’, based on the local vernacular. Both ecosystems, that of the lake and the woods, thrived in their own way. They accomplished this feat, despite the fact that not so far in the distance, a terraforming of mass proportions executed by the doomed species had mowed down much of their friends, neighbors and cousins.

In the wake of their carcasses, edifices of iron alloy and stone monuments dotted with myriads of silica eyes that stole the sun were erected. This was called in local vernacular a ‘city’. On occasion, the bones of the woods were used to make smaller temples and the blood of lakes, rivers and aquifers were drained to flow through veins and arteries of copper and iron, all to feed the appetites of the species that now had an extinction warrant over its collective head.

Somehow, in the midst of all this, the woods here by the lake had mostly been spared. Mind you, ‘spared’ was a relative term. The forest, pristine as it might seem, was not a primeval one and the word ‘virgin’ was not quite relevant. At some point in time, the forest had been felled in paper cut fashion, in other words, a little bit here and a little bit there until the biome thinned out and each of the arboreal members were hacked away from each other little by little, held together by only the tether of a tendon or two.

Luckily, winds blew seeds in from here and there, and the forest once more was restored in as a deciduous entity here by the lake. The forest of steel-girded towers comprising the ‘city’ loomed at a distance, but so far the encroachment was not quite here yet. A kind of resilience and tenacity resided here, in this most ordinary looking domains. Symbiosis, death and survival: the essential elements of life all were here.

Now, how was this interlude about a lake and the deciduous trees that hid its shores relevant to an extinction of a species that seemingly had nothing to do with them? Well, maybe everything. In fact, given the destruction wrought by this doomed species upon this and every other ecosystem, would it be possible their extermination would be if anything, a kind of collective sigh of relief that the bully finally had been put in his place for good? Thrown in a dark cell seventeen stories below the surface and with the key tossed away forever, good riddance, don’t let the door hit you on your way down?

Or perhaps, the lake was irrelevant. A lake was just a lake, after all. A tree, just a tree. Just a grain or two of sand that resided in a desert that stretched for kilometers over miles. Of course, every element was essential to a biome to survive. But it also wasn’t.

But like the many paradoxes and contradictions, perhaps the lake had everything to do with the looming extinction of a species. In this case, perhaps the lake was the key, the source code that would overwrite the algorithm that proclaimed a death warrant. Or, as the doomed species might say, the lake was a closed box which once was opened would unleash the demons of superstitions and primordial elements that would envelop them all. You just never knew for sure with these things.

Actually, this whole extinction scenario had all happened before, major ones and minor ones, wholesale wipeouts and cataclysmic levelings to teach the errant species a lesson or two in good manners. It occurred with other species that had been erased from existence, save for a genetic echo here or there. Alternatively, whole populaces had been reduced to the bare number needed to sustain the life of the species. Their habitats would be limited as other species received their former territory as a kind of war booty. The atmosphere and climate would even conspire in this order of balance by global warming, or in many cases global cooling.

Even the mighty cyanobacteria, the giant superpower who single-handedly altered the planet’s atmosphere from hydrogen to oxygen and destroyed most of the life that came before its terraforming knew this. Nearly eradicated in the face of ice ages, even they could not forever hold dominion over the planet they conquered.

Some cyanobacteria resided here in the lake. Tempered by the collective memory of their near destruction, they lived in homeostatic fashion with their other neighbors, which included some species of phytoplankton and even a smattering or two of red algae. There were aquatic species such as perch and bass, amphibian life forms such as frogs and toads. Reptiles such as turtles and newts and salamanders slouched and skipped their way into the fray.

From time to time, crickets were here, as well as dragonflies and butterflies in bloom. In the forest that surrounded the lake, microbes besides the protocell regurgitated the decomposition of flora and fauna. Larger animals called mammals pranced here and there, such as deer and occasionally the bobcat who had taken up permanent residence here, and little brown bats who served as a barometer of circadian rhythms and temperatures. Even a black bear or two was known to dip in and out of the edges of the woods, like a child playing peekaboo. The sounds, their scents mixing and wafting up and down with the convection of wind currents and dipping and rising with the sun and seasons, all provided a banquet of life that seemed so satisfying and varied, it would seem the most unlikely source for an extinction in the making. That is, if an abundance of life somehow was armor for what waited at the transformative end.

The lake and its surrounding woods was also now home to a pair of bald eagles, a newly mated couple who had found the haven of undisturbed life in the midst of the chaos. Far up in the boughs of trees stripped of leaves, the pair were just beginning their nesting life together. This was fine, for their life together was fated to be a long one based on the genetic code written into their very cells. The calls of the raptors echoed and bounced and ricocheted all throughout the terrain, swooping and soaring through the wind and the trees above almost all life forms, but not quite all. Compared to them, in the silence of winter falling, the chorus of all the other fauna were but a whisper.

Observing all of this was a member of the doomed species. The individual could be described in several ways. From the vantage point of the protocell, most of the ways that would comprehensively describe the individual came from traits that had branched far from the ways of this first life form. It was obvious that the individual was multicellular, for instance. So, the best generic way to describe this individual that represented the species with the death sentence would be through the language of biological gender, an attribute that came about once procreation involved the splitting and merging of chromosomal genetic codes. The individual was biologically female, and her species that of a kind of nearly hairless primate self-identified as ‘Homo sapiens’, which translated into a lofty description that meant ‘wise ones’. Over time, her species had developed an intricacy of neural wirings in their cerebral cortex that rivaled that of the molecular web and vibrations that linked the three subspecies of the protocell.

The female sat on the lake, not on the lake itself but in a contraption that had been made by her and other nearly hairless primates such as herself that she bonded with. It was a ‘wooden canoe’, one that had gotten smaller over the years as she had grown to full size and it had grown not at all.

Today, she was alone, but she had not always been that way. She watched the eagles, and they watched her. Next to her were instruments which normally accompanied her on these trips. But tonight she only watched, her expression intense and intent as the last light finished casting shadows to hide any emotion she betrayed. Sunset had just fallen, and nighttime would soon be here.

In watching the eagles, did she know the edict that had been written, condemning her species to extinction? Did she know that the manner of execution would befit a species who arrogantly named themselves the ‘wise ones’ when they never even knew who their elders were? Or cared?

In a way, it did not matter. But it also was of utmost importance that this female, if not her at least one member of her species, heard the warnings and took heed. A small chance of redemption for her species existed, and perhaps a stay of execution would be issued. Or it would not, and a species at large would be food for all that remained in its demise. Order and entropy could coexist in the same choice, regardless of the fate of one species.

The oldest species in the world watched and waited for the doomed species to decide its fate. Time was always on the side of the protocell, and it always would be. The limitation of time only belonged to the condemned. The time for wisdom, as far as this species was concerned, was now. For the oldest, time was eternal.

The female eagle screamed the day’s last prophecy, her voice reverberating and echoing all throughout the trees and deep into the lake. Night was ready to rule on its throne, and the darkness had awakened.

All endings have a beginning.

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