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The Lorelei Signal


The Evolutionary Alice

Written by Rachel Rodman / Artwork by Marge Simon

“Who are YOU?” the Caterpillar asked Alice. And well he might ask, for the two of them had last shared an ancestor eight hundred million years ago, and there was a great deal to catch up on.


So Alice explained herself. And she did it very prettily, as she might have done at school, hands folded in the recitation. To the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle little mammal,” she recited the story of bones (five hundred million years ago) and hair (two hundred million years ago). And she was just about to begin a verse about lactation—which she thought was rather good—when the Caterpillar silenced her with a faceful of smoke, Puff! Puff! Puff! shaped into many colored rings.


As Alice left off, coughing, the Caterpillar launched haughtily into a new subject: embryonic development. And he maintained that, as an arthropod—and, more particularly, as a protostome—he was fundamentally superior, since the first opening to his digestive tract, as an embryo, had been his mouth.                                                                                                               


“Proto,” he explained coldly, meant “first.” And “stome” meant “mouth.”


Alice, faltering, was forced to confess that, like other creatures with bones, she was a deuterostome. That is: second-mouth. So, as an embryo, the first opening in her digestive tract had not been the mouth, but instead something more vulgar.


“Who ARE you?” asked the Caterpillar. This time, though, it was no longer a question, but instead a sneer.


But, just as Alice was becoming quite flustered—and possibly a little angry, too—she caught sight of a familiar streak of white, and, when she turned her head, there he was again. “White Rabbit! White Rabbit!” Alice called. For, after her unpleasant conversation with the Caterpillar, she felt an even warmer connection with the Rabbit. Not only were they both deuterostomes (and mammals, too), but their ancestors—curiouser and curiouser—had split ways only ninety million years ago, in the mid-Cretaceous, and so they were practically cousins.


“Wait! Wait!” Alice cried. Down the forest path, she pursued the Rabbit, intent upon his bobbing ears and elegant waistcoat. But, in her hurry, she caught her foot on something hard and strange, and she went sprawling.


As she retook her footing, a little dazed, she turned and locked eyes with the curious object—the animal, actually—with whom she had collided.


It was not a mammal. But it was, at least, a deuterostome, and a tetrapod, too—a four-legged creature—descended, like her, from a not-quite-fish, whose ancestors had emerged from the sea.


A Turtle.


“Pardon me,” Alice said to the Turtle—or, as she now saw, more precisely, a Mock Turtle, who stood, in fact, at the edge of the path, at the bank of a lake of mock turtle soup, and whose shell was still dripping with broth and boiled vegetables.


But anyway, Alice explained, amid curtsies, she had to be going.


The Turtle, for its part, did not seem in the least moved by any of this: no more emotionally invested in her departure than he had been in her arrival.


Well, Alice thought: That was reptiles for you.


Away and up the path she hurried, calling after the Rabbit. But she had lost all trace of him.


Up ahead, worse luck, she came to a fork in the way. It was a juncture that reminded her of a branch point in the Tree of Life, a place where two species diverged from a common ancestor.


…And she had no idea which path to take.


But then Alice had a mad thought. Perhaps, she thought, the most sensible thing, just now, would be to model her own behavior after that of a biological population, engaged in a blind act of evolution.


So Alice selected a direction at random—the left. Then, eyes closed, she proceeded stumblingly, trying, as she went, to think as little as possible about where she might be going—an evolving population certainly wouldn’t.


After a few paces, sensing the path had widened, Alice opened her eyes, and…No White Rabbit.


Instead, she found herself in a grove, which contained a long table, set for tea. From a chair at the head of a table, a hare—a March Hare—bounded up, bright eyed. Then, in an eager voice, while his paws trembled a little, he asked: Was Alice, by any chance, a bilaterian?


It was a spectacularly foolish question. And Alice couldn’t help herself: She laughed very rudely. Because of course she was a bilaterian. Wouldn’t that—she thought—have been perfectly evident to anyone? Didn’t she have bilateral symmetry? Didn’t her left side mirror her right? And, anyway, the vast majority of animals were bilaterians. In fact: only quite distantly related—and oddly patterned creatures: things like jellyfish—weren’t.


But, as Alice laughed, the March Hare retained such an earnest and expectant expression that at last Alice began to regret her impertinence.


“Yes,” she said finally.


Oh, my! The March Hare was delighted to hear that! Because today, he said—like every day—he and his friends would be celebrating the 800 millionth Birthday of the Urbilaterian, the last common ancestor of all of the bilaterians! Would Alice like to join the celebration?


To be perfectly honest, Alice would rather have not. But she hesitated, just a moment, and, in that moment, the March Hare took her arm, and suddenly Alice found herself whirling about the table, faster and faster, while the March Hare sang, “A Very Merry Urbilaterian Birthday to You!” And: “A Very Merry Urbilaterian Birthday to all of Us!”


As they whirled, Alice perceived this was a very small party. In fact, there seemed to be only one other celebrant: a dormouse, which was seated in a chair at the far end. At first, the creature seemed to be deeply asleep. But as the Hare, pulling Alice, sped past, he gave the rodent’s chair a little whack. At that jolt, the Dormouse’s eyelids fluttered, and it began, wheezily, to sing: “Twinkle, twinkle, little bat…”


Then, startlingly, at the cue of that, a bat—a Bat!—ascended out of the Dormouse’s tea cup, and up into the air, to begin its own circuit of the table.


“Flying mouse! Flying mouse!” cried the March Hare.


To Alice, this was all spectacularly upsetting. For, of course, in an evolutionary sense,“flying mouse” was a complete fallacy. In fact, bats were not even particularly closely related to mice; instead, they were more closely related to carnivores: creatures like cats.


“But—!” she interjected, as she bobbed behind the Hare. “But—!”


“Flying mouse!” the March Hare continued, too loudly to permit any interruption.


To Alice, there was little that was so irksome—next, of course, to taxonomic errors—as not being listened to. But then…


“A Cheshire Cat!” cried Alice. For there was a cat—just such a cat—on the far side of the grove. And this cat seemed to be floating—an airborne condition that was entirely at odds with what Alice knew of mammals, with, again, just the bats excepted.


“Mr. Cat!” Alice cried. And, with a furious little shrug (which had not very much, it must be said, in common with a curtsy), she shook herself free from the March Hare’s paw and

went racing after.


As Alice continued up the path—the strains of “A Very Merry Urbilaterian Birthday to You!” becoming ever fainter—the Cat turned suddenly and asked, “Do you play croquet?”


Alice did, of course. And indeed—yes!—when Alice looked ahead, to where the Cat was pointing, she saw a wide field, set with a great quantity of wickets, as if for a tournament. But it was, assuredly, the maddest form of croquet that Alice had ever seen. Instead of mallets—flamingos. And, instead of balls—hedgehogs.


But, to Alice, the most unsettling part of this game was the players themselves. Which, though alive, seemed, all the same, to be…


Playing cards.


And while Alice, dumbfounded, tried to make sense of that—Where, if anywhere, did these creatures even belong on the Tree of Life? (And the prospect, frankly, that they might not even belong to the Tree of Life was by far the most distressing idea Alice had encountered all day)—one of the flamingos lurched toward her.


It was, like all birds, a cousin of the Mock Turtle. But, as the flamingo set itself between her hands, as if determined to serve as her mallet, Alice immediately decided she liked this bird even less than she had liked the Mock Turtle.


At least the Mock Turtle had not been presumptuous.


By then, a hedgehog was nudging her foot, as if equally determined to be her ball. Alice looked over at the Cat, in the hope he might have a word with it (cats, after all, together with bats, were the cousins of hedgehogs, and might be expected—mightn’t they?—to take a little responsibility for them.) But the Cat had disappeared.


Still, why not play? Ordinarily, Alice was very good at games. But as soon as she decided to, she discovered that, as eager as the animals had been to play with her, they did not wish to help her play well. The first took great delight in going limp whenever Alice raised it; the other, giggling, would always unroll exactly when she wished to strike it.


All in all, both were a good deal sillier and more spitefully uncooperative than Alice generally preferred her birds, mammals, or croquet equipment to be.                                      


And just when Alice was beginning to become quite frustrated, she felt a tap on her shoulder, and she turned to find…


“Mr. Cat!” she cried.


Smiling, the Cat pointed to a conspicuously regal card, who stood a short distance down the field, surrounded by courtiers.


The Queen of Hearts.


“I suspect you won’t like her,” said the Cat.


“Why not?” Alice asked.


But the Cat only smiled. So Alice—trying, but failing, to set aside her flamingo—edged closer. And listened. And found, to her distress, the Queen was discoursing, very wrongheadedly and bombastically, on a topic that was very close to Alice’s heart—the origin of species.


Every species, the Queen was explaining, with a sneering gravity, had been created separately, and by a Supreme Intelligence. All in one day.


“I told you wouldn’t like her,” said the Cat.


The Cat was perfectly correct; Alice did not.


Now, Alice pushed her flamingo away very forcefully (perhaps even a little rudely), until it lurched away from her with a squawk of absolute indignation.


Good riddance.


With her own—and far greater—indignation, Alice began to push her way through the Queen’s entourage: a medley of 7s, 8s, and 9s, who were staring at the Queen with rapt expressions. But whether they were too frightened of the Queen to dispute her account, or were simply dreadfully stupid, Alice couldn’t be sure.


She also didn’t care.


“Your Majesty!” Alice cried, once at the front. Then, with a small curtsy, she launched into a new verse, called “Descent with Modification.”


For just a moment, the Queen simply stared, as if too astonished to speak. But soon her color changed, becoming apoplectically purple. Then, extending a trembling finger, she bellowed, “Off with her head!”


“Run,” the Cat suggested. So Alice did.                                                                                                                                              


Across the green she fled, through the hedgehogs and flamingos. When she turned her head, she could see a phalanx of card soldiers some distance behind, Jacks and 10s at the fore, each carrying a menacing scythe.


At the far end of the course, the way was blocked by a wall of rose bushes, which were very oddly colored: red paint, splashed over white petals.


But there was nowhere else to go. And no time to think. So Alice plunged into the bushes. As she fought her way through, she was torn by thorns. And smeared by paint. And brought up short, suddenly, by a vision—


The ancestor, 1.5 billion years dead, that linked her with these roses. A faceless, one-celled creature, magnified, here, many millions of times. An ancestor, spherical and translucent, that had arisen before the invention of limbs. Or eyes. Or heads.


(“Off with her head!” came the shouts from behind.)


“Plant-Animal Matriarch,” Alice whispered. “I—”


At that moment, though, there was a terrible lurch, and the ground gave out beneath her. And Alice found herself falling—falling, falling, falling—together with a great quantity of roses.


“Cousins!” she screamed, as the flowers swarmed around her. “Oh, distant cousins!”


Then, with a start, Alice woke up. And she found, to her astonishment, that she was seated in a meadow, against a familiar tree—the very tree she had fallen asleep beside. Had it been only a short time before? And there was her sister, just a few feet away, still reading aloud from On the Origin of Species.


“Oh, sister!” Alice exclaimed, hopping up from the ground. “I feel as if I’ve been away for millions of years!”


Her sister laughed. Under normal circumstances, Alice would have found that very irritating. But, at that particular moment, in the joy of being safe—with her head, still, attached to her neck!—it all felt warm and reassuring and right, and Alice was glad of it.


“Let’s go home,” she entreated.


So away they went together, arm in arm, talking animatedly, into the warmth of the summer afternoon. And when, down the path, the trees thinned, and they sighted the house, at the bottom of the hill, Alice broke into a run, pulling her sister, still laughing, along behind. For there, in the doorway, stood their last common ancestor—still very much alive—a woman whom they both simply called “Mother.”

This story was originally published in Analog Jan/Fen 2020

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Rachel Rodman’s work has appeared in Fireside, Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and many other publications.

Her latest collection, Art is Fleeting, was published by Shanti Arts Press. More at

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