It is sometimes too easy to forget, too easy to pass over your humble beginnings, too easy to believe that your current position at the top is based on true worth, and was always destined to be.
We could not see the Dogs either when we first arrived on Mars. Numerous unmanned, robotic expeditions had visited the red planet previously and nothing among their findings had given us cause to believe it was anything other than a dead world. Such thriving, energetic life forms were, when they appeared, rather a big surprise.
A nasty one, too, since they killed all the members of the first two expeditions.
As a starting point the Old Martians used the most promising form of life they had ever encountered – their own – and then endeavoured to improve it in every respect.
These were a race that had mastered the arts of space travel well before humanity had left the trees. To our eyes, their science seemed limited only by the borders of their imagination. For millennia already they had been experimenting on their own bodies, their own genetic code, improving themselves, adapting, generation after generation, to the progressively harsher conditions on their home planet. Why they didn’t opt to leave it and settle on a more favourable world – like our own – is hard for us to understand. But they seem to have retained a quasi-mystical attachment to Mars as a sanctuary, a sacred place that they could not leave for any great length of time and with the fate of which they could not meddle too deeply. They chose to die instead.
But, clearly, they did not want everything they knew, everything they were, to die with them. In their quest not to abandon their beloved world on its path to become an arid, barren husk, they had taken their bodies as far as they could while still remaining themselves, and were barely managing to survive in the near-airless landscape of Mars. It was time to find themselves successors, and what better way to do that than to create them?
But Earth at the time was at the apex of one of its periodic fits of prosperity. As is typical of us in such periods, we were arrogant enough to believe that nothing should be allowed to stand in our way. And, more importantly, we had the spare cash to fund a third mission.
This time we went properly prepared. The twelve men and women of the Third Mars Expedition we were probably the best trained and armed people in our history up to that point – this was before Richard E. Sains and his ilk, obviously. The most advanced weaponry Earth science could muster had been put at their disposal. Their vessel, left in orbit, had all kind of esoteric armaments at the ready and their landing barge was a proper floating fortress. Furthermore, in the months prior to their arrival, twelve attack satellites had positioned themselves around the red planet, ready to blast any possible threat from above and into oblivion.
Eleven of them died within seconds of landing.
The twelfth, by then a pathetic, sobbing wreck of a human being, was called Maria Yelena Rossini. She was nothing special.
But her genetic code was the key that unlocked the secrets of Mars.
To their “Dogs” they gave their general body plan, that of a fat, muscular worm or caterpillar, bent in the middle around a pinching break, an organic hinge. This hinge, the folding and unfolding of which was usually their preferred mode of locomotion, they made in their creations a powerful spring, capable of vibrating thousands of times a second, endlessly recycling its own energy. It was to be the source of the dog’s incredible speed.
The head they also modified extensively, for a start halving the number of mandibles, which in a natural Martian would surround the sensory and feeding apparatus like a crown of eight nightmarish thorns. The four they left were comparatively stouter and shorter, infinitely sharper and far more powerful. They were to enable the Dog to dig its way trough rock, if necessary, but also to operate the most intricate machinery.
They followed the same principles when they had to design limbs for their creatures. None of these two sets of four arachnidan pedipalps with which they were themselves encumbered: their pets and successors would be proper quadrupeds, their legs moving in harmony with the central body hinge, able to add to its speed while maintaining a grip on all kinds of surfaces, to prevent the Dog from going airborne at even the extreme velocities.
To power this fantastic biological machinery, they borrowed tricks from dozens of life forms they had encountered in their trips across the galaxy, giving the Dogs an unprecedented ability to use and stock energy from all kind of sources. They didn’t want to create the perfect race, only for it to find itself as doomed as they were. No, the Dogs of Mars were created never to die. The only way to be free from the merciless grasp of evolution was to be perfect from the start.