To Be Taught, If Fortunate Page 1

Please Read This


If you read nothing else we’ve sent home, please at least read this. I ask knowing full well that this request is antithetical to what I believe in my heart of hearts. Our mission reports contain our science, and the science is by far the most important thing here. My crew and I are a secondary concern. Tertiary, even.

But all the same, we do have a lot riding on someone picking this up.

You don’t have to rush. This file will have taken fourteen years to reach Earth, and assuming that we have the good luck of someone reading it right away and replying straight after, it’d take that file another fourteen years. So, while we can’t wait around forever, the urgency – like so many things in space travel – is relative.

You could, I suppose, skip right to the end. You wouldn’t be the first person to do such a thing, and honestly, that’s where the bit that affects us most will be laid out. And maybe, if you already know who we are and what we’re about – if you’re someone who sent us here, perhaps – you can do that and still understand. But even if that’s the case, I do think the why of what we need from you is important. I’m biased, of course, and doubly so: Not only is this account about me and my crew, but we’re scientists. We live and breathe why.

It’s been fifty years since we left Earth, and I don’t know whose eyes or ears this message has reached. I know how much a world can change within the bookends of a lifetime. Causes shift and memories blur. I also don’t know how much you personally know of the universe beyond our home planet. Perhaps you’re one of the knowledgeable sorts I’ve already mentioned, who can rattle off spaceflight history better than even I can and who shares the same goals as me. Or perhaps you’re someone who lives outside my bubble. Perhaps this is all new to you. When I use words like ‘exoplanet’ or ‘red dwarf’, do you know what I mean? This is not a test, and I absolutely do not judge if terms such as these mean nothing to you. On the contrary, I want to speak to you as much as I want to speak to my peers – maybe even more so. If I ask what I’m asking only of people who agree with me at the outset, with whom I already share a dream and a language, then there’s no point in asking at all.

For this reason, I’ll do my best to speak to expert and novice both. I likewise feel it important to start from the beginning, so that the context of our situation is clear. I doubt what I write will be objective. I will almost certainly contradict myself.

I do promise that I’ll tell the truth.

My name is Ariadne O’Neill, and I’m the flight engineer aboard the OCA spacecraft Merian. My crewmates are mission specialists Elena Quesada-Cruz, Jack Vo, and Chikondi Daka. We’re part of the Lawki program, a broad ecological survey of exoplanets – that is, planets that do not orbit our sun – known or suspected to harbour life. Our mission (Lawki 6) is focused on the four habitable worlds in orbit around the red dwarf star Zhenyi (BA-921): the icy moon Aecor, and the terrestrial planets Mirabilis, Opera, and Votum. I’m currently stationed on the surface of the last on that list.

I was born in Cascadia on July 13, 2081. On that day, it had been fifty-five years, eight months, and nine days since a human being had been in space. I was the two-hundred-and-fourth person to go back, and part of the sixth extrasolar crew. I’m writing to you in the hope that we will not be the last.


(and Earth)

I never knew an Earth that was unaware of life elsewhere. The Cetus probe scooped up bacteria-laden samples from Europa’s geysers twenty-nine years before my birth; the first rover photographs of fossil arthropods on Mars arrived while my parents were still in trade school. I don’t know what it was like in those lonely years before, when our view of Earth’s place in the universe was one of a solitary haven, an oasis in a galactic desert. In some ways, I wish I did. I wish I could’ve been there the day the first positive results were radioed back from Cetus. I wish I could tell you what it was like to be in one of the old mission controls or research labs or newsrooms, learning in real time with the rest of the planet that our small worldview had been magnificently blown apart. But by the start of my life, just three decades later, extraterrestrial life was common knowledge, something every kid took for granted. Humans are nothing if not adaptable.

Another wish: that I could tell you I always wanted to be an astronaut. That’d be a much better story, wouldn’t it? Some of my colleagues could (and can) claim that. An entire life set in motion by the sight of Saturn’s rings through a sidewalk telescope, or a furious sense of purpose imbued the instant they saw those first fuzzy images of a cloud-flecked blue-green exoplanet. I can claim none of those inspirations as my own. I was four when the Tarter space telescope photos came back, and I do actually remember being shown them. My mother lifted me onto her lap in front of her tablet. Her voice was hushed with wonder, and she held me tight.

‘Look, honey,’ she said. ‘That’s a planet from around a different star. It’s got air and oceans just like we have.’

What I said next is lost to time and the fluff of memory, but what I do recall clearly is utter nonchalance. The picture was boring, and while the factoid that came with it was new and somewhat interesting, I was four. New and somewhat interesting applied to about ninety percent of my day, in everything from the development of a scab, to a cartoon I’d never seen, to an unexpected flavour of juice at lunch. It’s difficult to assign value to discovery when you haven’t sorted out the parameters of reality yet. As such, the significance of the first photographic confirmation of a habitable exoplanet was lost on me. I suppose every childhood is one of blind assumptions.

My parents had an apartment on the twelfth floor of a complex overlooking the Fraser river. That sounds nicer than it was. Urban crush was all I knew, and the closest access I had to nature were the hydroponic planters on our boxy balcony, where my father grew the vegetables we ate for dinner. A hydroponic planter is a far cry from the real outdoors, but it’s an ecosystem all the same. I would sit out there for hours in the hot city air, fascinated by the insects that had been likewise drawn to green and growing things. They were a small miracle, those bugs – tiny, wondrous monsters, completely incongruous with the concrete blocks that surrounded us, miniature beasts that appeared like magic and belonged in places far wilder than my father’s bell pepper crop. There were beetles and bees, spiders and caterpillars. I watched them flit and rappel from leaf to leaf. I let them crawl on my palm. I marvelled at how something so small had found its way to a location that seemed impossibly high up even for me, the unfathomable giant sharing their space. They had their own dramas, their own goals. They did not need me, like a dog or a goldfish might. It was that independence, that complete separation from the human realm, that I loved about them most.

Some insects are born twice, in a sense. First, an egg is laid. Eggs are the given path for most species on Earth, and among larger animals who reproduce this way, this is a simple affair. The egg hatches, an infant emerges – a duck, let’s say – and its form is not terribly different than that of its parents. A baby duck is still recognisably a duck. It will get bigger and more hormonal and lose its endearing fluff, but it swims and waddles and pecks. For insects, the process is more complicated. Let’s take the moth as an example. A larva emerges from the egg; we know this as a caterpillar. This creature has legs, organs, a mouth – everything a living critter needs. It’s perfectly adapted for its current business, which is eating everything in sight and trying to stay hidden from predators. It walks and eats and walks and eats and walks and eats, until one day, it stops. It finds a branch or a leaf. It wraps itself in a protective net of protein. And then, improbably: it dissolves. The caterpillar disintegrates into organic goo, leaving only a few scant essentials intact. In a matter of weeks, the goo recombines, creating another form entirely. Once the creature’s body is remade, a second hatching occurs, one that reveals a creature so different from its previous state that if you hadn’t witnessed the stage of metamorphosis, you’d make the entirely reasonable assumption that caterpillar and moth were two different species.