Dean stared at his hands through the plastic of the facemask, the now-empty syringe in the turmeric-colored dirt beside him, discarded, and he wondered with awe and terror what might become of him. A breeze rustled the black star-shaped leaves of the tree he sat under, and it sent a shiver up his spine. This planet was laughing at him. He was sure of it.
The solution had been in his DNA all along. DNA, they’d explained to him, was like the alphabet, and with a few simple rules you could write the unique biography of everyone who’s ever lived. And while each story has a similar structure—say, a beginning, a middle, and an end—they can turn out differently; rags-to-riches and downward spirals, comedies and tragedies and deathbed redemptions. DNA was no different. A short alphabet and a few simple rules—activate this gene, deactivate that one—and you could tell whatever kind of story you wanted.
When a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, its DNA doesn’t change, just the expression of genes. If we’d taken care of the planet we’d been given, maybe we’d have time to terraform the earthlike worlds around all those twinkling stars. But we’re out of time, and so it’s not the planets that will change.
The breeze felt nice, at least. The second planet from Delta¹ Canis Minoris was dry and hot, and something in the air had an anesthetic quality that made Dean’s skin tingle. He huddled beneath the alien tree and waited for the genetic modifiers to do their work. In a matter of hours, he’d been told, he’d secrete a sticky film through his pores and slip into a coma. Then, when he awoke in six to ten weeks, he’d emerge from his exoplacental sheath as a new and optimally adapted version of himself, able to live and breath and survive on this new world.
He pulled off his facemask and lay naked on the ground, breathing the sour air. A strange creature, large and instinctually repulsive, was standing on a nearby rocky outcropping, its eyestalks watching him intently. A predator waiting to eat him? No, he thought. There was something knowing in those bright, hungry eyes. Perhaps it was a look of pity. Could it be, wondered Dean, this was a fellow colonist who landed months before him? Was this to be his fate?
The creature awkwardly crab-walked away. Dean didn’t want to be a butterfly.