Gaia and the Cuttlefish
Let us imagine...
You are standing on a rocky beach backed by dense forest. Mountains rise on the horizon across the waves. Gaia approaches you and points to a spot a ways up the coast. “That is the site of the Space Needle, little one,” she says.
“Ah, so this must be the past, long before Seattle was built?” you suggest.
“No, little one, this is millions of years after that city and the species that built it destroyed themselves,” Gaia replies sadly. “On this timeline, humans never succeeded in spreading Life to other worlds. But something is about to happen here that may lead back in the direction of the stars.”
Suddenly, the water in front of you parts to reveal the glass dome of a peculiar wheeled vehicle, which rolls up onto the beach. Peering through the glass, you're amazed to see a being with W-shaped pupils in its eyes and ten short tentacles reaching ahead of its bulbous body, two of them gripping levers that clearly control the strange craft.
“My new intelligent sparks are the distant descendants of what you knew as cuttlefish,” Gaia explains. “For the first forty-two thousand years of their existence as civilized creatures, they never rose above the ocean waves. But now, their curiosity has gotten the better of them.” The vehicle rolls past you toward the forest. “They have chosen to travel into a realm utterly hostile to cuttlefish life, a realm where they cannot breathe without a technological cocoon, simply so they can know My diversity better,” Gaia continues.
The Sun, which was shining above you, suddenly accelerates downward toward the distant mountains. Night falls, then moments later the Sun rises again above the forest behind you, arcs across the sky, and sets again. Time continues to accelerate until years are passing in instants, then the Sun suddenly slows to a halt at midday.
Now another vehicle emerges, this time floating up from the deeps some distance from shore. It bears a striking resemblance to a seaplane, and indeed, it roars to life and soon takes to the air. “Traveling over land in wheeled conveyances quickly grew tiresome for creatures accustomed to complete freedom of three-dimensional motion,” Gaia explains. “The amphibious airplane has made it far easier for the cuttlefish to explore the heartlands of vast continents.
“But there's a problem,” she adds as the scene shifts around you. Now you're standing next to a landing strip cut into the middle of the forest, but the airplane approaching it is weaving erratically from side to side, finally careening disastrously into the trees.
“Cuttlefish eyes, with their strange W-shaped pupils adapted for seeing underwater, simply can't see clearly in air,” Gaia explains, still standing next to you. “But look here!” Suddenly you're back on the beach, standing before a large array of brick kilns containing crucibles full of molten glass, manipulated by what appear to be cuttlefish wearing transparent spacesuits. “Cuttlefish lensmakers are rising to the challenge,” Gaia says with a proud gesture, “developing their art rapidly in an environment where high heat is enormously easier to achieve than it ever was underwater. Soon they will begin stamping out eyeglasses that bring the fuzzy visions of the world of land and air into sharp focus. Of course this simple technology is a great boon to the work of cuttlefish ecologists and paleontologists trying to piece together the Great Story of Life on land and in the sky. But it also has an enormously significant unexpected outcome, one that may change the fate of the galaxy itself.”
Now you're back at that forest airstrip, with a seaplane sitting neatly at the end of the runway. It's night, and a cuttlefish pilot wearing a spacesuit—no, you suppose you should call it an airsuit—pauses in some maintenance task to look up at the sky. The suit includes oddly-shaped glass lenses mounted over the pilot's eyes. “Imagine, little one,” Gaia says, “that when you looked up at night, all you could see was blackness and a fuzzy white patch for the Moon. This cuttlefish is now seeing something different, for the first time in cuttlefish history!” You follow the pilot's gaze up to see the bright points of planets and stars and the soft wash of the Milky Way arching overhead. “She has half a mind to jump in her airplane and try to fly it high enough to reach one of those mysterious objects,” Gaia says. “Instead, she will dedicate the rest of her life to convincing her fellow cuttlefish to look up at the heavens.”
There is a brilliant flash, and suddenly you're standing at the base of a building that looks very like the Space Needle. You and Gaia are standing, seemingly unseen, amid a crowd of cuttlefish standing on their tentacles that extends into the distance in several directions, while in another direction a huge saucer-shaped spacecraft rests on a launchpad. At the base of the resurrected Space Needle is a stage with several finely-dressed cuttlefish standing on it—and you realize that most of them, and many of the cuttlefish in the crowd as well, are wearing only partial coverings, leaving their gills exposed to the air!
“I will translate for you,” says Gaia as one cuttlefish slithers up to the front of the stage and complex patterns of color and texture begin to flow over its flanks, also visible on several huge video screens as cuttlefish camera operators train their lenses on the speaker. “This is a cuttlefish philosopher well versed in what cuttlefish archaeologists have learned of humanity over the past several centuries,” Gaia explains. “He's asserting that history could have gone no other way. 'Humans,' he says, 'never had a real reason to want to live anywhere other than Earth. They never even adapted themselves to life underwater as some of us have adapted ourselves to life in the air.'” The speaker takes a deep breath through his mouth, his body clearly inflating as his dormant gills flutter prettily in the breeze.
“'And besides,'” Gaia continues the translation, “'there is no air of the kind we Earthlings can breathe on any other world in the Solar System—but there is water, water everywhere! Oceans of it lurk beneath the surfaces of Ceres and Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, Enceladus and perhaps Titan and even Pluto! Yes, these oceans are all locked away under thick layers of ice and sometimes stone—but cuttlefish drilling technology is up to the challenge, and curious cuttlefish eyes will soon verify our robots' findings and encounter in person something human eyes never saw—the native life of the ocean of Europa!'”
The crowd cheers wildly—or at least you assume that's the meaning of the exuberant washes of green and yellow spreading over their skins—as with a deep thrumming sound, the flying saucer lifts slowly from its launchpad, accelerates, and arrows away into the heavens. And you are left wondering—is the philosopher right about the difference between humans and cuttlefish? Does the likely lack of dissolved oxygen in the oceans of these other worlds prove him wrong? Or could some humans on another timeline simply be so motivated to explore space and spread Life that they would brave the endless airless wastes and prove that Gaia needs no cuttlefish to attend her Great Birthing?