With little transition, the Martian sky faded from the soft pink of rose quartz to a hard-angled obsidian night, its many facets twinkling and glistening as the stars sprang into view. Only a faint blue glow along the horizon indicated where the sun had set just moments ago.
Mark Woods turned away from his rover’s windshield, a durable composite material that made up most of the cab. The rover, an airtight vehicle on tall, knobby treads, contained a small laboratory and even smaller living quarters. It lacked most of the amenities of life midway through the twenty-first century, such as an exercise room with virtual-reality scenery; the rover’s limited space could accommodate nothing more than the basic weight-training machine necessary to maintain one’s muscle mass in the low gravity of Mars.
The rover felt like his home, though, after almost two decades of exploring the Red Planet in search of extraterrestrial life. That search had proven futile, despite his microscopic inspection of many thousands of samples of iron oxide dust. Mars was basically a giant rust ball. In a universe under intelligent management, the planet would have been hauled off to the nearest intergalactic junkyard long ago.
Even so, when Woods thought about Earth, he usually didn’t miss anything but the sunsets.
He surveyed the sparse contents of the kitchen cupboard on one side of the rover’s tiny aisle, deciding what to have for dinner. The rover had no cooking facilities; each of the prepackaged meals on the shelf had a warming element at the base, which would activate when the plastic overwrap was removed. A bowl of beans and rice would do. He had just taken it out of the cupboard when an incoming message beep sounded. Setting the bowl back down, he touched a screen on the other side of the aisle.
“Big news, Mark.” On the screen, Pat Carey, his boss, ran a hand through her close-cropped gray hair in a familiar habitual gesture. She managed the project from her office in California, regularly sending messages to the rover through Mars’ network of communication satellites. At present, messages from Earth took about fifteen minutes to arrive; the time varied depending on the planets’ relative positions.
“They’ve finally done it,” Carey went on, with a grin spreading across her usually calm face. “Authorized the Europa mission, after years of preliminary studies. And you’ve certainly earned your place on the team.”
As she went on to praise the work he had done on Mars and to wish him well on the new mission, Woods didn’t hear much more of the message. One word had captured all his attention: Europa. The little moon orbiting Jupiter long had been his dream. When he began his career as an exobiologist, that field of study had been in its infancy. He had spent several years working in a laboratory in Antarctica examining meteorites for evidence of alien microbes. Nothing ever had been found, and humanity still believed itself alone in the universe.
If extraterrestrial life could be found anywhere in the solar system, it would be on Europa. Probes had verified that an ocean existed under the icy surface. For years, there had been talk of sending a crew of explorers to drill through the thick ice and collect samples of the water for analysis, but nothing had ever come of it. Although Woods had known in an abstract way that he would likely be chosen for such a mission because of his experience and seniority, that prospect hadn’t seemed fully real to him until now. Excitement washed over him in a sudden rush that left him shaking. He put one hand on the cool, smooth wall of the aisle to steady himself.
The rover was silent again, though he couldn’t remember the message coming to an end. After a few minutes he would listen to it again and put together a reply, to the extent he could manage something coherent. But for now, he walked back along the aisle to the rover’s cab and looked out upon the starry horizon once more, thinking only of what might lie beyond it.
Everybody on Mars drank Splotz Beer.
That was both the literal truth and the premise behind the most wildly successful advertising campaign of all time. After her father’s death in 2015, a beer conglomerate heiress decided to buy an aerospace company that had fallen on hard times since the end of the Cold War. When she used its resources to mount the first private Mars expedition, most people thought she’d had a few too many—until they saw how much more brew Splotz sold under the slogan ‘The Official Beer of Mars.’ The company dominated the beer industry by 2030, and it was still the unquestioned leader two decades later.
“And they’re not kidding about it being the official beer of Mars,” Tadeo Hioki observed, as the six members of the Europa mission walked through the bustling central concourse of the Splotz compound. Officially named New Milwaukee, the sprawling settlement inside a natural cavern had almost immediately acquired the nickname Suds City. The young engineer gestured toward the brightly lit storefronts on the right and went on to say, “See all these restaurants? Their lease agreement doesn’t allow them to sell anything alcoholic except Splotz products. It’s a total monopoly.”
“Interplanetary law hasn’t yet reached the point where companies need to be concerned about extraterrestrial antitrust violations,” Lindsey Parrish put in. The mission commander was a tall, dark-complexioned woman with the gaunt, sinewy look of a space veteran. Her long strides and alert eyes gave the impression of an alpha wolf leading the pack.
“I’m not complaining. After all, none of this would be here if it hadn’t been for Splotz,” Hioki replied with a shrug. With his angular face, wide-set eyes, shoulder-length black hair, and long-limbed figure that didn’t quite conform to ordinary human ideas of proportion, he looked like an anime character straight out of a video game. His parents had brought him to Mars as a teenager, and there was speculation that the low gravity might have affected his growth; but that wasn’t known for sure because he had been the only child in the settlement.
The restaurants that lined one side of the concourse served a variety of ethnic foods such as might be found in any Earth city, except that they all featured the common theme of beer. Across from the restaurants, a large sign in multiple languages marked the corridor leading to the brewery and greenhouses. Splotz grew its own barley and hops in hydroponics trays, right next to a small but functional brewery. New Milwaukee always had a strong smell of beer. That hadn’t been a detriment to tourism, however; there was a decade-long waiting list of people eager to plonk down their life savings for a vacation on Mars.
“If everyone likes German food, I’d suggest the Biergarten.” Rita Mastroianni pointed out a crowded restaurant from which blasted the unmistakable sound of the Beer Barrel Polka. After six years on Mars, the mission’s doctor and counselor knew her way around Suds City with easy familiarity. Her blonde hair was liberally streaked with gray, which was true of many of the settlement’s residents. The exorbitant cost of hair dye and other imports had made vanity fall by the wayside.
“Sounds good to me,” Mark Woods agreed. Although he usually preferred quieter restaurants, the Biergarten served a good hearty vegetable soup and crusty rye rolls; and tonight’s featured entrée of white asparagus and potatoes was quite popular. All food on Mars was grown within the settlement and was vegan, in light of the obvious difficulties of transporting livestock from one planet to another. Rumor had it that Splotz had recently rejected a lease application from a company that wanted to sell lab-grown meat, on the ground that it was incompatible with the Martian settlers’ culture. Whether or not that was true, the advertisements for Martian tourism described the settlement as featuring the best vegan food in the solar system.
The other mission specialist, Peter Marchenko, had spent two decades in the Arctic Circle studying marine life under the ice. The big, fair-haired Ukrainian regarded the line of restaurants with a trace of disappointment. “Splotz wouldn’t happen to sell any vodka, would it?”
Ruth Olsavsky, an astronaut with nine years of experience on the Earth-Mars route, shook her head vigorously before he had even finished speaking. Dark curls bounced around her colorfully tattooed shoulders, which featured images of dragons and other mythical creatures.
“On Mars, you’d better get used to drinking beer.”
The little boy ran through the office, not watching where he was going, his gaze fixed on the bright sunlit mass of late-afternoon clouds shining like great red cliffs in the sky. He ignored the more mundane view of Baltimore’s streets in December 2003, gridlocked with both rush hour and holiday shopping traffic, and the crowded parking lot six stories below the window.
He could hear his parents behind him, speaking with a large dark-haired man who wore bright shiny eyeglasses. Their words made no sense to him. He knew only that he didn’t like his mother’s strained tone and her quick, broken speech, trailing off abruptly to sobs. Her voice sounded to him like the gusting wind just before a thunderstorm, when the first drops of cold rain came pattering on fallen leaves.
Looking out the window at the bright red clouds, he touched the rocks in his pocket for reassurance. They sparkled in the sunlight, too. He always picked the brightest pebbles from the landscaping beds in his front yard when he went outside to play. Sometimes he gave an especially pretty pebble to his mother, as she stood watching him with her gray thunderstorm eyes. But no matter what he gave her, it never seemed to put any sunlight into her voice or face.
The man with the shiny eyeglasses was speaking now, his voice flowing smoothly like the stream in the woods behind the boy’s house. The stream had tiny fish darting around the rocks and insects skittering across the surface. On the coldest days it froze and was quiet. If only the shiny-glasses man would be quiet, too. He just kept on talking, and fragments of his speech registered in the boy’s mind without any meaning attached to them.
“Classic autism… residential programs available…”
The red cliffs in the sky reminded the boy of his favorite video, a nature documentary about cliff-nesting birds. He wished that he could fly away to those shining cliffs and soar in the open blue sky above them. Everything would look tiny from up there, like the view from this high window, but even smaller and farther away.
Holding his arms straight out from his sides, he pretended that the sleeves of his gray jacket were his outstretched wings. They would have feathers shading from soft gray down on his chest to brilliant white at the tips. He imagined that the air blowing from the register under the window was a strong wind carrying him away from the rocky shore and over a vast unexplored ocean, launching him aloft into the unknown.
Mark Woods woke from a dream of flying. The rhythmic sound of his wingbeats as he soared over blood-red cliffs and a dark ocean faded into the mechanical hum of New Milwaukee’s ventilation system and the darkness of his hotel room. This dream had been with him since his childhood, half a century ago. Although it always had felt like there was some deep prophetic meaning within it, he knew that was unlikely. Mars had plenty of red cliffs, true enough; but the Red Planet certainly didn’t have anything that resembled oceans or birds.
He glanced at the clock on the nightstand, which read four-twenty a.m. in cool blue numbers. The planet’s rotation was close enough to the length of an Earth day that the Martian settlers also used a twenty-four-hour clock, with each second slightly longer. While insomnia usually didn’t bother Woods, the Europa exploration voyage was scheduled to depart this morning. The others who would be traveling with him probably weren’t getting much sleep either.
The pillow still held the scent of Amethyst’s perfume, although he knew she had been gone for hours. She always let herself out very quietly after he fell asleep. Amethyst wasn’t her real name; it was Amy or Amelia or something like that, an ordinary name that never stuck in his mind. He pictured her as a bright sparkling gemstone, with its complex facets matching her dramatic blue-violet eyes and the permanent eye shadow she’d had tattooed around them before her departure from Earth.
Giving up on sleep, at least for now, Woods walked across the room and pulled the draperies back from the window. Stars twinkled above a dark rocky plain, along with one of Mars’ two small moons. This wasn’t a real window, he knew. The hotel’s rooms had been built several meters underground, for extra protection from the solar radiation that the planet’s thin atmosphere did little to filter. The faux window installed in every room displayed a realistic image for the tourists’ benefit, however. It showed the stars that would have been visible in the window’s actual direction, and it brightened at dawn to portray a daytime landscape. His usual preference had been to sleep in his rover and get the real view, with occasional nights at the hotel when he had time off from work.
There would be no more of either; he had parked the rover for the last time. As with other places he had left behind, he thought little about it and had more interest in the adventures yet to come. He paced back toward the bed and eventually sat down on its edge. The floral scent of Amethyst’s perfume reminded him of when he had ordered it for her last year. She had selected it from an online catalog. He didn’t know much about perfumes, but he had thought the deep purple glass of the bottle suited her. Over the past few years, he had bought clothing and jewelry for her as well, imported at a ridiculous cost. He made a good salary and didn’t have much else on which to spend it.
Amethyst was a maintenance engineer by day, wearing plain coveralls and a tool belt. In the evenings, she often could be found strolling through Suds City’s concourse in fashionable clothes that showed her tall slender figure to advantage. Sometimes she wore the clothes and jewelry Woods had bought for her; but by now, he had seen her in other pricey outfits enough to know that he wasn’t the only man contributing to the Amethyst Fashion Fund. She couldn’t possibly have bought that many imported luxury items on her own salary, although she was fairly well paid. Apparently she kept her day job to make her extracurricular activities less obvious, so that she wouldn’t get packed off to Earth for violating the settlement’s morals code.
Discovering what she was had been a disappointment, of course. But in retrospect, he supposed it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. After all, he might have expected the oldest profession would find its way to Mars, just like everywhere else humans had settled. And now that he was about to leave the planet, it was for the best that he didn’t have a serious girlfriend here. Still, on this last night, he had given her an expensive bracelet of diamonds and amethysts to remember him by, and she had tearfully declared how very much she would miss him. As with the view of the night sky from the hotel room’s window, he could at least pretend it had been real.
Protest banners, rippling in a stiff wind, filled the large screen on the dining room wall. The camera angle panned out to show thousands of chanting marchers on a rainy day in Washington DC, with the Lincoln Memorial in the background, as a female announcer with a Midwestern accent spoke. “Here’s number nine in our New Year’s Eve countdown of the top news stories of 2053—the controversial case of Buttercup the chimpanzee.”
Mastroianni carried her bowl of hot apple cinnamon oatmeal to the table. Pushing an unruly strand of gray-streaked hair away from her face, the doctor sat to the right of Tadeo Hioki, who was drinking his usual green tea and looked like he could use something stronger to wake him up; he’d been busy installing a software patch for the navigation system. Two months out of Mars, the crew of the exploration ship Embolden had settled into a comfortable routine of watching the news together while they ate breakfast. As with all spaceships of this era, the living quarters rotated at a constant speed to produce artificial gravity by way of centripetal force, thus allowing everyone to walk around normally.
The announcer’s voice continued, “The United States Supreme Court decided the case of Buttercup, a genetically enhanced chimpanzee in Texas who learned to read and write at a third-grade level. Animal rights lawyers from the Interspecies Justice Foundation filed legal papers on Buttercup’s behalf arguing that she was a sentient being entitled to all the rights of an American citizen. The high court rejected that argument, ruling that Buttercup had no rights because animals are property, even if they can read.” An image of the famous chimp holding a colorful illustrated storybook appeared briefly on the screen before the announcer went on to number eight, a political scandal involving dark-money donors’ use of nanobots to temporarily reanimate a senator who inconveniently dropped dead hours before a major vote on corporate tax legislation.
Ruth Olsavsky laughed as she sat next to Woods, her tray loaded with ham and eggs on a biscuit, a chocolate donut, and a cup of strong coffee. She had made her disdain for the Martian vegan diet abundantly clear on many occasions, declaring that she had no intention of wasting away to a twig. Before setting out for Mars from the lunar shipyard where final assembly had taken place, she had made sure, as the ship’s executive officer, that the provisions included an ample stash of junk food.
“Civil rights for apes? Ridiculous.” Putting her tray down with a clatter, Olsavsky tore open a packet of sugar and began stirring it into her coffee.
“Yeah, that’s about as silly as it gets.” Hioki made loud hooting ape noises and mimed scratching himself before going on to say, with a chuckle, “They can’t even talk.”
Woods got to his feet, leaving his last bite of toast uneaten. It was his turn to clear the table and clean up in the galley today, and everyone assumed that he was about to get started on that task. Olsavsky had given out a detailed schedule of chores when the ship left Mars, announcing that they’d better be done promptly or else. Hioki, who had just finished eating a granola bar, tossed the wrapper on Woods’ tray.
A deep frown creased Woods’ brow above his dark gray eyes as he glanced from Hioki to Olsavsky and back again. Finally leaving his gaze somewhere between them, he asked, as if addressing both at once, “What difference does that make?”
Hioki responded with a look of confusion, glancing toward the wrapper as if wondering what might be wrong with it.
“Whether the chimp can talk,” Woods clarified.
“Well, it’s just an ape, after all,” Olsavsky said, without bothering to elaborate further. She took a gulp of her coffee and went back to watching the news.
Hioki, who had a tendency to get nervous whenever any conflict arose, raised his hands in a placating motion. “Hey, it’s no big deal to me, one way or the other. Didn’t know you were an animal rights activist.”
Picking up his tray, Woods replied shortly, “I’m not.”
As Woods left the table, several baffled looks followed him. He hadn’t been known for expressing strong political opinions, either aboard the ship or during his two decades on Mars. Hioki finally shrugged and began a conversation with Mastroianni about news story number seven, the tragic destruction of the artificial island colony Atlantis Reimagined in the Caribbean, which had the misfortune of being directly in the path of Hurricane Hildegarde.
Three pale blue speckled eggs filled a bird’s nest on the wall calendar in the classroom. Their smooth ovals contrasted with the long, straight twigs that formed the circle of the nest—a symmetrical pattern like the letters and numbers, March 2005, at the top of the page. Lines and circles formed the month’s name, making a cozy nest in which the year could be kept safe. The number two curved inward, almost matching the five on the other side. The pair of zeros in the middle looked like birds’ eggs neatly lined up together—not empty nothingness, but a future waiting to hatch.
“Look at me, Mark.”
The teacher took a firm hold of the boy’s chin and turned his face away from the wall, forcing him to look into her eyes. Her name was Ms. Jablonski, and she had blue eyes with little gray flecks, like the eggs on the calendar. At first he’d been afraid to look into people’s eyes when he came to the school. Their eyes had felt like a threat: too close, too demanding. But then he’d had the idea of pretending they were just eggs. There wasn’t anything scary about eggs or the tiny birds they hatched into, soft and helpless in their parents’ care, before their wings grew stronger and they learned to fly.
He was a fledgling himself. When his parents had left him at the school, he’d thought that it would be only for a short time and that they would come back for him. Many nights, waking before dawn in his strange new bed, he had listened for his mother’s footsteps. But now that more than a year had passed, he felt that his parents’ home was no longer his, just as a fledgling would not return to the nest after taking its first flight.
“Count the blocks,” said Ms. Jablonski, letting go of his chin. He could understand most of what was said to him now, although it was still very difficult to make the sounds himself. The plastic blocks on the table, in their bright primary colors, had become a daily struggle for him.
“One,” he began, the sound harsh and awkward to his ears. It would be so much easier to use written words and numerals. The symbols made sense to him now, their lines and curves fitting precisely together, rich with meaning. But he wasn’t sure Ms. Jablonski would like it if she knew that he could read. She might get angry and take the calendar away, just as the rocks he once kept in his pocket had been taken away on his first day at the school.
He picked up a yellow block and counted “two.” The block had an uneven seam that felt rough under his fingertips, and small imperfections pitted its surface. But from across the room, it always looked smooth. Things looked different when they weren’t seen from the same place. And people were the same way, full of little details that didn’t come clear at first glance.
Sometimes they never came clear, as he had realized when the calendar on the classroom wall still showed February’s snow-dusted evergreens. One of the teachers, Mr. Dalrymple, had picked up a teddy bear from a classroom shelf. Mr. Dalrymple had pale skin, freckles, and a prominent nose; Mark liked him because he looked like a bird. The bear was short and fluffy, with a striped bowtie. After putting the bear in a wicker basket, Mr. Dalrymple had left the room. Ms. Jablonski had then taken the bear out of the basket and moved it to a blue plastic box, closing the lid on it.
“Where will Mr. Dalrymple look for the bear?” she had asked.
The word “look” was one that Mark had heard many times, when he’d been told to look at a teacher. He knew it meant turning his head to see the teacher’s speckled-egg eyes. The bear had eyes made of little black dots on white plastic. The dots moved around under a clear plastic bubble when someone picked up the bear, but they weren’t scary like real eyes. If Mr. Dalrymple wanted to see the bear’s eyes, he would have to open the box.
When Mark had pointed to the box, however, Ms. Jablonski had shaken her head in a slow, precise motion. “No, he doesn’t know that I moved the bear, so he’ll look for it in the basket.”
Mr. Dalrymple hadn’t done anything with the bear when he came back into the classroom, but had a conversation with Ms. Jablonski instead. Mark hadn’t understood much of it, other than the word “failed,” which he knew meant that something hadn’t worked right.
The question was what hadn’t worked; the pictures it had made in his mind hadn’t been what Ms. Jablonski had meant. And that was when Mark had realized it was impossible to know exactly what someone else meant. Even if two people were in the same place when they looked at something, like a teddy bear or a block, they still might not see it the same way or use the same words when they talked about it.
After he finished counting the blocks, he glanced once more at the March calendar with the birds’ eggs. He hadn’t yet been taught how to say the number zero, and he wondered if that would help anyone to understand how he felt about the nest he had left and the future for which he was still waiting. Maybe they could imagine the numeral as he saw it, filled with the soaring curve of the sky. Or maybe it would just be another word-picture that failed.
From orbit, Europa gleamed pure white like a flawless pearl. That illusion was broken, as Woods knew it would be, when the landing craft descended to the crevasse-scarred surface. Jupiter loomed above the eerily close and flat horizon, creating the far more uncomfortable illusion that the great planet might come crashing down at any moment.
Olsavsky, piloting the small craft, kept up a running commentary on the explorers’ duties as she landed neatly on a smooth strip of ice beside a deep crevasse. Only someone who knew her well—or who had spent the past several months with her in the close quarters of an exploration ship—could have detected an undertone of nervous chatter in her usual mother-hen scolding. She maintained her control well, as always; but even she couldn’t be unaffected by the possibility of being the first to discover extraterrestrial life.
“No time for sightseeing. Don’t forget we’re on a tight schedule. Radiation levels this close to Jupiter are too high for any dawdling, as you’ve been told. We’re going to drill through the ice at the bottom of the crevasse, get our ocean-water samples, and return to the ship right away. No delays, no distractions, no drama—just get the job done. We can make our inspiring speeches for the history books later.”
Two large robots with the appearance and solidity of heavy construction equipment, rolling on studded treads like snow tires, emerged from the craft’s rear hatch and trundled toward the crevasse. The robots had been assembled under sterile conditions and thoroughly irradiated while in the cargo area to ensure that no microbes from the ship would contaminate either the surface or the ocean. The explorers in the landing party—Woods, Olsavsky, and the marine biologist Peter Marchenko—watched through the thick visors of their environment suits as one of the robots secured itself to the ice with metal spikes. Olsavsky checked the alignment, gave a brief nod as she confirmed it was good, and then attached the cables that would lower the second robot into Europa’s depths.
Extending toward the ocean below, the crevasse slashed a dark, jagged path through the shining ice. Its edges were firm enough for the landing party to approach without fear of collapse. Unlike their counterparts in the crumbling glaciers of Earth’s polar regions, the crevasses of Europa had been formed by tidal pressures below, not by temperature changes above. The tiny pip that was the sun had just dropped below the icy horizon with no appreciable change to either Europa’s eternally frigid temperature or its bright surface, still gleaming with reflected light from Jupiter.
A depth indicator on the anchor robot displayed the progress of the second robot’s descent. It maintained a steady speed at first, and then the numbers moved more gradually and came to a stop. A drill icon blinked on, occupying the upper right corner of the screen. The descent began again, at a noticeably slower pace. Then the drill switched itself off, and several other icons glowed along the top of the screen.
“We’re through the ice,” Olsavsky announced, her gloved fingers moving rapidly over a control panel beside a second and larger screen, which was still dark. She was still speaking in her usual businesslike tone, but her hands started to shake. “Activating camera.”
Several pale pink spots now gleamed on the larger screen. When Olsavsky touched a button to zoom in on the nearest of them, it disappeared from view as something passed in front of it, blocking the camera’s line of sight.
“Activating lighting array,” the executive officer continued, her tone still crisply professional. Woods could hear the effort that went into keeping it that way. Then Olsavsky pressed another control, and the screen sprang to life—with life.
Deep blue oval leaves grew in pairs along thick flexible stems like seaweed, an unbroken forest of them in every direction as the camera slowly rotated. Pink trumpet-shaped flowers with fringed edges peeped through the leaves, evidently the source of the luminescent glow that had appeared earlier. As Woods watched, a small brown wormlike creature drifted into one of the flowers, which immediately snapped shut on it.
“Carnivorous,” observed Marchenko, whose huge grin could easily be seen through his visor as he held up both hands toward his companions. “Just like a Venus’ flytrap. Fantastic!”
“Woo-hoo!” was all Olsavsky could manage to say in return, as she smacked his hands in a high-five. Then, recovering a little of her self-control, she stepped back from the console and gestured for Marchenko to take her place. ”And we can go ahead and take samples of it—just look how much is growing here! There’s certainly no reason to avoid this area as environmentally sensitive. How’d you like to do the honors? Time you started earning your pay.”
The explorers all had trained on a simulator before their arrival, and Marchenko took over the controls without any hesitation or awkwardness. The large display screen showed a rectangular self-propelled collector unit detaching from the main bulk of the robot. It advanced about a meter into the seaweed before a door slid open along the top of the unit, allowing water to flow into the container inside. Extending a robotic arm that ended in a gripping tool, Marchenko began filling the container with seaweed samples.
Within minutes, the collector unit, full of seaweed, had reattached itself to the main robot. Woods took his turn at the control panel to collect more samples with another identical unit. His hands shook even more than Olsavsky’s had done earlier, and he almost couldn’t manage to get the robotic arm extended. Just like the simulator or playing a video game, he reminded himself, and his hands steadied.
As he maneuvered the arm toward a stalk that had two pink flowers, he noticed that some of the leaves were missing or half-eaten. What had been grazing on the seaweed? Woods got hold of the stalk and started pulling it toward the container. Something moved at the top of the screen, in the open space where the stalk had been. Just as Woods adjusted the camera to focus on that area, a long tentacle striped in several shades of purple reached out of the forest of dark blue leaves, touching the robotic arm as if to investigate what it might be.
“Careful, don’t scare it away with any quick moves,” Marchenko said, leaning over the console. The warning wasn’t needed; as soon as the purple tentacle had appeared on the screen, Woods had let his hands go slack on the controls while he stared in fascination.
The creature emerged from the seaweed thicket and moved toward the sample container, which was still mostly empty. Tentacles at the base of its head were arranged in three pairs like an insect’s legs. A seventh, unpaired tentacle in front, which was the one touching the robotic arm, was longer and thinner than the others. The head’s most prominent feature was a wide beak. It had no eyes. Thin slits along the sides appeared to be gills.
“It looks like a cephalopod,” Marchenko noted. “Greek for ‘head and feet.’ That’s the scientific category for a squid, octopus, or similar marine mollusk. Cephalopods, though, have highly developed eyes, unlike this species.”
“I wonder if we could give it a nudge,” Olsavsky cut across Marchenko’s biology lecture with a more practical thought, “to get it into…”
Her voice trailed off as the creature, moving entirely of its own volition, swam into the open sample container. With a squeal of glee, Olsavsky abruptly pushed Woods’ hands out of the way and jabbed a button to close the container’s door. “Can you believe our luck!”
The mechanical arm retracted, and the sample collection unit locked itself back into place on the robot. As soon as everything was secure, Olsavsky entered more commands on the console, activating the machinery to hoist the robot up from the ocean.
“Hey, wait a minute, it might…” Woods fumbled for words. The numbers on the depth indicator moved smoothly, marking swift upward progress. After getting his thoughts more in order, Woods tried again. “We don’t know if this species is sentient. If it is, we wouldn’t want to make first contact by abducting one of Europa’s citizens. Shouldn’t we observe it for a while before doing anything more?”
“Sentient? It’s a squid.” Olsavsky laughed, not even looking up from the console.
“Brain this big,” Marchenko chimed in, holding his thumb and forefinger close to each other. The heavy gloves of his environment suit left only a tiny space between them, magnifying the effect of the gesture. “Just because it showed some curiosity doesn’t mean it has real intelligence. The robot hasn’t detected anything that would indicate the presence of a sentient species—machinery, technology, structures, tools, you know a sentience checklist is part of the programming. Anyway, the sample collector wasn’t designed to be a holding pen for observation of marine animals because nobody knew what we might find. That’s for the next mission, setting up a permanent base under the ice with the proper equipment.”
“But then we should release it,” Woods persisted, “because we can’t observe it properly. Studying this species can wait for the next mission, too.”
This time, Olsavsky turned halfway around, looking at Woods in her peripheral vision while keeping most of her attention on the display. “I think you’ve been reading too much sci-fi, Mark. There’s not much chance of a little squid like that being sentient; Peter just said so, and he’s the expert on marine animals. We hadn’t planned to find anything like that, but since it happened to wander into the container, there’s no reason not to take advantage of our good luck. Besides, we don’t have time to stand here debating the issue. Dangerously high radiation levels, remember? It’s urgent that we return to the ship immediately, and the ship has to leave as soon as we’re safely aboard.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to observe it after we’re back aboard the ship.” Marchenko was almost dancing with excitement despite the weight and bulk of his protective suit. “We should be able to keep our samples alive; it’ll be just like feeding fish in a tank. The squid—well, it’s not really a squid, but we can call it that for now—eats the seaweed, and the seaweed eats the worms, so we can keep that ecosystem going easily enough. We’ll start by feeding the seaweed something that has the same nutritional content as the worms, and we can run tests to determine whether anything more might be needed.”
“Right, let’s give the carnivorous seaweed some kibble!” Olsavsky laughed again, her tone now close to hysterical giggling, as the robot’s gray metal roof came into view. Eagerly focusing on its emergence from the crevasse, both Olsavsky and Marchenko looked as if they had forgotten there was anything else in the universe.
Woods stood in the landing craft’s shadow, where the ice looked dull gray instead of gleaming silver-white in Jupiter’s light, as both robots loaded themselves into the cargo area. He felt as if he ought to say more, but he had no idea how to go about it. By now, the thrill of finding extraterrestrial life had driven most of his ability to process language out of his head. An occasional word danced for an instant in his thoughts, only to vanish just as quickly.
Then a vivid image appeared in place of the words—a stalk of the alien seaweed with three pairs of leaves, vertically arranged as if growing upward, and another leaf at the tip. This seventh leaf was about half the size of the other leaves. Although the image lacked color, it was sharply detailed in a way that didn’t seem to involve sight. An intricate pattern of veins and ridges decorated each of the leaves, unlike the seaweed he’d seen through the camera, which had looked smooth and featureless. He felt a wave rushing toward him, and then something touched him in the middle of his forehead.
At first he didn’t remember what the sound meant. Ice surrounded him, and confusion. Then the images began to recede, and he identified Olsavsky’s voice crackling through the headset of his environment suit. She was standing in the open airlock door, looking at him with concern. Woods shook his head, trying to clear away what remained of the strange images. Of course nothing had touched him—how could it, when he was wearing his suit? He must have gotten space-happy. Turning away from the crevasse’s dark depths, he stepped into the airlock with the other explorers.
The red rubber kickball raised puffs of dust when it came rolling toward home plate on a hot, dry afternoon in early September, 2009. Every time one of the kids in the P.E. class made contact with the ball, the squishy sound of a gym shoe connecting with the underinflated sphere reminded Mark of dropping a trash bag into a plastic can. Now that he was nine years old, he had been assigned regular chores in the cafeteria and other places, while spending less time in the classroom. Life skills, the school called it.
Mark’s position as the catcher gave him a close-up view of all the dust swirling around the scuffed white surface of home plate. He wondered why people called the field a diamond when it wasn’t sparkly at all. It was just a boring old square, not at all interesting like the chemical structure of diamonds and other crystals. He was glad when the game was over, though he hadn’t paid enough attention to the score to know whether his side had won.
Walking back toward the red-brick buildings with the other kids, he noticed a woman standing near one of the doors. Her curly auburn hair shone much more brightly in the afternoon sun than the leaves of the neatly trimmed hedges, just starting to change to their fall colors. At first Mark thought the woman was someone’s mother, stopping by the school at the end of a workday. Parents came to visit, sometimes—though his parents didn’t, much.
A big diamond on the woman’s left hand caught the sunlight even more than her hair did. Her fingernails sparkled too, with some kind of shiny polish. When Mark glanced up at her face, he saw that she was looking directly at him with greenish-brown eyes and smiling. He dropped his gaze, focusing instead on a thin, dry leaf that had fallen halfway across the concrete.
“I’m Kristin Phillips, the new student teacher,” she said.
Spoken while a group of kids walked by, her first name sounded like Krystal to him. Although Mark could speak fairly well now, he often had a hard time processing other people’s speech, especially when background noise got in the way. He imagined a Phillips screwdriver decorated with tiny crystals all over the handle. The janitor had shown him the difference between common and Phillips screwdrivers one day last month when he’d been helping with a few chores, which included stacking small bags of diatomaceous earth.
The new teacher’s sparkly nail polish had little reddish-brown dots in it, like the freckles on her arms.
“Did you know diatoms are microorganisms that die and turn into dry powdery crystals?” Mark looked up again at the teacher’s face, which was dotted with freckles too. He waited expectantly for her to reply; but instead, the freckles on her forehead slid downward into the furrowed lines of a frown. Then he noticed that the principal was standing not far behind her.
The principal, Dr. Ghorbanifar, was an elderly woman who always wore dark headscarves, under which a stray wisp of silver hair might occasionally be seen. She favored plain, old-fashioned dresses, also in dark colors, under which she wore orthopedic stockings. Her heavy shoes clunked whenever she took a step, giving the children ample warning of her approach on the hard floors of the school’s hallways. Tiny spectacles perched above her hooked nose, framing eyes as black as ripe olives.
“What do we say when someone greets us?” The principal spoke in a dry, reedy voice that sounded like stalks of grass rubbing together on a windy day.
Mark fumbled in his thoughts for the script that went along with this prompting. He had been drilled on it often enough; but other things always distracted him, such as diatoms and that crystal-covered screwdriver, still sparkling at the edge of his consciousness. The words of the script slowly came to him.
“Hello, Ms. Phillips. My name is Mark Woods. I am pleased to meet you.”
The principal inclined her head slightly and said “Good boy,” before she turned to walk away with the new teacher. Her big shoes went clunk, clunk, along the side of the building that was in shadow. She was still talking, but not to Mark.
“You’ll find that the children sometimes chatter randomly like that. When they do, you’ll need to redirect them to engage in appropriate conversation instead.”
The building’s shade took all the sparkle out of the retreating figure of Ms. Phillips as she nodded in response to the principal’s words. A gust caught the fallen leaf and sent it careening along the sidewalk in the other direction. Mark still stood in the hot sunlight outside the door.
He repeated, “My name is Mark Woods,” softly enough so that he could not have been heard by anyone passing by. In his mind, his name formed an image of a large rock in the woods behind his parents’ house. A deep crack along one side of the rock looked much like a checkmark in the weak light of the midwinter sun. He always pictured the trees as having bare, icy branches, without a leaf anywhere to block the slanting sunlight that fell on the mark, but gave little warmth.
Mark knew abstractly that the trees had leaves in other seasons, like the hedges and small ornamental trees on the school’s grounds; but the only time his parents ever brought him to visit was once a year at Christmas. The woods behind their house sometimes had been filled with snowdrifts during his visits. Other years the ground had been damp and the sky an unbroken gray, while a chilly wind had whistled through the mossy logs and the heaps of rotting leaves. He could no longer remember what it felt like to walk in the shade of the trees’ canopy on a summer day.
An extremely thick window, several times the strength of bulletproof, separated the exobiology laboratory from the curving corridor that led to it. The engineers who designed the ship hadn’t really expected any rampaging aliens to break out of the equally robust observation tank, but they hadn’t taken any chances either.
Back in their regular clothes after a thorough decontamination process, the two mission specialists stood in the corridor discussing their preliminary findings with the commander. Parrish already had received a briefing on the Europa landing and had seen the video images showing the discovery of extraterrestrial life, but this was the first chance she’d had to see it close up—or as close as anyone could get without putting on a sterile bio-suit.
“Thousands of microbial species in just the first seawater sample alone.” As Woods spoke, he gestured expansively toward the tank behind the window, where the alien seaweed with its large trumpet-shaped flowers nearly hid the striped tentacles of the little creature that had come along with them. His gray eyes sparkled with excitement in a clean-shaven face. Both he and Marchenko had sacrificed their beards in honor of the occasion; they’d decided at the outset of the mission that they would do so if they found life on Europa, much like athletes vowing to shave if they won the championship.
“The most exciting discovery so far,” Marchenko said, “is that life on Europa is based on DNA, in patterns different from what you’d find on Earth, but close enough that we might call them our cousins. As to the, ah, squidlike creature in particular, an initial examination of its DNA shows a chromosomal structure consistent with asexual reproduction. To a high degree of certainty, this species is made up of parthenogenetic females—that is to say, there are no males among them.”
Mastroianni tilted her head to one side, trying to get a better view of the tank’s small inhabitant. Not much could be seen at present—only the long central tentacle, which extended past the seaweed to press against the tank’s clear, smooth wall, almost as if the creature might somehow be listening to the conversation.
“Do they reproduce by budding, I wonder, or do they lay eggs that don’t require fertilization? It would be amazing if we could see that happen!” For once, Mastroianni left her long hair alone when it fell forward across her face, which glowed with the same rapt focus shown by her fellow explorers.
“I still think we shouldn’t have taken the creature without knowing more about this species,” Woods put in, dampening everyone’s gleeful mood. As if he’d just become aware of his hands again, he dropped them stiffly to his sides. Marchenko cast a sour look in his direction.
“Your objection has been noted.” Parrish fixed her dark eyes on Woods and spoke in an authoritative tone that made plain she had no intention of allowing any further conversation on this topic. Everyone knew the complaint could have no practical effect anyway; the ship was already on the way back to Earth, with Olsavsky piloting at top speed away from the dangerous high-radiation area near Jupiter.
Keeping his hands motionless at his sides, Woods remained quiet for a few seconds while he gathered his thoughts. Then he turned away from Parrish and glanced toward Marchenko. “Since we left Europa, has anyone noticed—I don’t really know what to call it, intrusive mental images? Seaweed stalks, waves, ice, anything like that?”
Looking bemused by the sudden question, Marchenko shook his head—as did Mastroianni, who then pushed her hair back as usual. Parrish, a known skeptic, frowned as if she thought the question too silly to be worth answering. The silence stretched out, broken unexpectedly by Hioki, who had been standing next to the wall opposite the window.
“I thought, maybe…”
Parrish’s frown deepened as she turned its full force on the young engineer. Hioki responded by staring down at his feet and scuffing his long, narrow shoes on the drab industrial carpet.
“Nothing—must’ve imagined it. Never mind.”
To his evident relief, the commander said nothing directly to him, instead turning toward Woods again and addressing the entire group.
“We can expect our mission to go down in history as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time, and ourselves to be remembered as famous explorers—that is, provided we don’t have to contend with any embarrassing tabloid scandals upon our return to Earth. I don’t even want to think about the damage a ridiculous story about psychic messages from an alien squid, or whatever, might do to our professional reputations. So, if any of you imagined something that doesn’t make scientific sense, you’d better just keep it to yourself.”
Before Woods or anyone else could dispute the matter further, Mastroianni broke the tension by speaking in a calm, matter-of-fact tone. “After the excitement and the long hours, I wouldn’t be surprised if we all started imagining things. Sleep deprivation can do that, you know. Mark, you’ve been awake for how many hours straight? It’s time you—and all of us—got some rest. The lab will still have plenty of microbes to study when you wake up.”
Although the doctor spoke pleasantly, there was no doubt she was giving an order. Considering how long everyone had gone without sleep, it couldn’t reasonably be disputed anyway. They’d all been functioning on coffee and excitement for the better part of two days. Hioki, leaning against the wall with his head still down, looked very close to dozing off where he stood. Marchenko yawned hugely, punctuating the end of the discussion. The group obediently adjourned, leaving the corridor empty and the laboratory under observation only by its cameras and automatic monitoring devices.
Coffee cups, energy bar wrappers, and other debris from the crew’s long hours littered the narrow countertops of the galley. It wasn’t Woods’ scheduled day to clean up, so he ignored the mess while rummaging in the depths of a cabinet for some herbal tea. Honey vanilla chamomile, yes, just the thing to help him get to sleep. Otherwise he’d likely find himself counting extraterrestrial microbes for hours, rather than sheep; or maybe his mind would keep on replaying that image of a seaweed stalk with a tiny leaf at the tip. Where had that image come from?
The quiet, constant hum of the ship’s air-circulation system formed a soothing backdrop to his pondering. Had his mind created the strange visions because of excitement and lack of sleep? He had to admit this was the most logical explanation. Even if an alien creature had tried to communicate with him, Woods couldn’t imagine how he could say anything meaningful in reply. He was a scientist, and a good one; but as far as he knew, telepathy wasn’t among his talents. And if those precise, detailed patterns on the seaweed leaves were the equivalent of a written language, it might take a team of linguists several years to work out their meaning.
The distinctive patterns on each leaf reminded him of traditional Chinese calligraphy, with curving strokes of different length and thickness. Unlike calligraphy, the symbols in the leaf-patterns were not separately drawn, nor were they arranged in evenly spaced lines of text. Instead they flowed smoothly together, branching from the base like the veins on a real leaf. They bore some resemblance to cursive writing, which was fast becoming a lost art in an age of videos and electronic text. Woods never had mastered cursive beyond signing his name. As he pictured the leaves, they came into sharp focus in his thoughts, each stroke of the tracery delineated; his visual memory always had been excellent.
A wave broke around him, insistent and forceful. He felt a touch on the forehead as before. Ice completed the series of images—a smooth, formless expanse stretching into the unknown. As the strange sensations faded, Woods heard something like a soft footstep, right next to him. It wasn’t a human footstep. Panic overtook him, and he leaped backward in reflex, stumbling toward the door.
Then he realized that what he’d heard was just the unopened single-serving tea packet falling out of his hand. Yes, there it was on the floor, nothing but harmless chamomile tea. He was alone in the galley; he hadn’t really been touched. As his breathing and heart rate slowly returned to normal, Woods tried once more to convince himself that excitement and sleep deprivation had been playing tricks with his mind. But this convenient explanation couldn’t get past the fact that the images had been repeated in the same order. If he’d been hallucinating, he surely wouldn’t have done it with such precision.
Memories half a century old began welling up inside him. These mysterious images made him feel like a small boy again, with his teachers putting him through one repetitive exercise after another. Even when he understood the meaning, his words often had come out wrong in conversation anyway. How could he possibly communicate in an extraterrestrial language, when just learning his native speech had been so much of a challenge for him?
An elderly woman’s voice, high and reedy, echoed in his thoughts as if mocking his ineptitude. “What do we say when someone greets us?”
Woods let out his breath in a frustrated sigh. There was a detailed first-contact protocol for communicating with a species believed to be sentient; had it been followed, the explorers would have left a cable in place between Europa’s surface and the ocean, with video and audio transmission equipment attached. They’d have taken only seawater samples for analysis, leaving the inhabitants of Europa unmolested. A team back on Earth would’ve gotten the job of conversing with the aliens. Woods certainly never would have found himself tasked with saying “we come in peace” through telepathic projections of leaf-vein calligraphy.
The other images in the series had been much simpler, though. If they represented a greeting, then the more detailed image with the tiny leaf on top could be the creature’s name. He had no way of knowing whether the individuals of this species had names; but if they did, the images would fit the syntax of a personal introduction. Touching someone on the forehead might be a friendly gesture like a handshake. And the ice of Europa, to those who inhabited the ocean beneath it, would be the boundary of the known world.
I touch you, unknown one.
Just a wild guess, Woods told himself. He never had studied linguistics, and he certainly wasn’t qualified to interpret symbols in an extraterrestrial language. Still, it felt right to him on an instinctive level he couldn’t have explained. And if he had gotten it right, then the response was obvious: he should introduce himself in turn, putting his name first in the sequence of images.
In as much detail as he could muster, he brought to mind the picture that always had represented his name in his thoughts—a large rock with a mark on the side, in a midwinter woods of leafless trees. No, that wouldn’t work; seasons and trees would have no meaning to a species that had never known either. Instead, he put three leafless seaweed stalks next to the mark. Then he repeated the images of a wave, a touch, and the seven-leaved stalk that ended in a leaf much smaller than the others.
Mark Woods greets Tiny Leaf.
Sitting in three neat rows of desks, the middle school students did their best to look attentive and ignore a furiously buzzing fly on the window. The classroom was otherwise quiet on this sunny spring morning, except for the distant sounds of highway traffic and the squeaky new shoes of the boy walking forward to present his science report. Mark was tall for an eleven-year-old, with the promise of a broad, muscular adult frame. His sandy hair bristled in a military-style buzz cut, which was the usual fate that befell male students seen fidgeting with their hair.
Unfolding a large three-panel cardboard display on the presentation table at the front of the classroom, Mark kept his gaze focused on the audience. Maintaining eye contact and typical body language always counted for much of the grade; this was part of the school’s behavioral program for autism treatment. Having been a resident student for more than seven years, Mark had very little idea of how other people went about their lives beyond the school’s walls. All he knew was that the teachers were quick to point out his faults whenever he did something that other people wouldn’t do.
Carefully printed black lettering at the top of the center panel gave the report’s title: Extremophiles of Hydrothermal Vents, by Mark Woods, April 2011. Pictures of various types of bacteria, worms, and other organisms had been glued all over the display. A dark plume bubbled up from the bottom of the page, cut from black construction paper and representing the mineral-rich water flowing from a thermal vent in the ocean’s sunless depths.
“Good morning everyone, I hope you’ll enjoy my report on creatures that live where nothing else could survive!” As he began to speak, Mark went through the usual mental checklist as he’d been taught: smile, keep looking at his classmates, and put enthusiasm into his voice. The last item wasn’t hard to do because he really did find thermal vents and their inhabitants absolutely fascinating. But he also had to be careful not to get so enthusiastic that his body language would look wrong to his teacher, Mr. Rafferty, a rotund older man whose deep-set brown eyes always kept close watch on the students from behind thick bifocals.
“Extremophile means that they love extreme conditions,” Mark went on. “Thermal vents are scalding-hot geysers on the ocean floor. Because there’s no sunlight that far down, plants can’t grow. Bacteria live on the chemicals in the vent water, worms eat the bacteria, and other creatures eat the worms.”
Mark described in more detail the tube worms and other creatures shown on his display. He occasionally glanced toward the teacher, who sat quietly at his desk taking notes. That was a good sign, because if Mr. Rafferty didn’t like anything in a student’s presentation he wouldn’t wait until afterward to say so. A high grade on this report would earn Mark enough points to get the new set of Legos he’d been coveting in the school’s rewards store. But if he messed up, he’d get nothing but another lecture on why his behavior was all wrong.
“And that’s what you would find living around thermal vents,” Mark concluded, making sure to smile again. “Does anyone have a question?”
One hand was promptly raised. Thomas, who sat in the middle row and had a round, amiable face, began typing a question on his iPad. Although Thomas also had been at the school for many years, he had never learned to speak fluently and could say only a few words, with great difficulty. He used a text-to-speech app when he wanted to say something.
“Do other planets have thermal vents?”
A few students shifted uncomfortably at their desks. Thomas was a Star Wars enthusiast who just couldn’t keep space travel and Jedi Knights out of his conversations, no matter how often or how loudly the teachers scolded him to stay on topic. Because his classmates all had gotten similar rebukes at one time or another, the sound of Thomas’ electronically generated voice mentioning other planets left them sure of what was coming.
“That’s a very good question, Thomas.” Putting even more enthusiasm into his voice, Mark tried to dispel the tension he felt building in the room. “If another planet or moon has liquid oceans and a hot core, then it also would have thermal vents because the same physical processes would cause them to form. Someday, scientists will explore other worlds, and maybe they’ll find creatures like these when they do.”
As he spoke the last sentence, Mark imagined himself as a researcher studying a hydrothermal vent on a distant world. He visualized a cloud of magnified microbes surrounding him, with their crystalline membranes shimmering in all colors of the rainbow, lit from above by artificial light and from beneath by a volcanic crimson glow. They felt so close, so real, he could just reach out his fingers and touch them…
“Hands!” Mr. Rafferty barked.
The rainbow-bright cloud of imaginary microbes vanished, leaving Mark standing in front of the classroom with his hands outstretched. He’d been flapping his hands without being aware of it, which he did sometimes when he felt happy and excited. That always meant losing behavior points because it didn’t look normal. And he’d been told many times that if he didn’t look normal, then other people would think he was weird, and they wouldn’t want to be around him.
Mark dropped his hands to his sides. “Any more questions?”
His classmates had nothing more to say, which was usually what happened when a teacher corrected a student’s behavior. Now that they’d lost their focus on the topic, they wanted to be done with it. Mark stumbled through his prepared closing remarks and went back to his seat.
The fly on the window was quiet now—just a tiny, motionless dot clinging to the double-paned glass. Sunlight beat down from the hot, cloudless sky. Highway noise still rose and fell, the indistinct sounds blending into a rhythm of purposeful activity as ordinary people went about their business, somewhere out of sight and even farther out of reach.
In hindsight, inviting a telepathic alien creature to have a friendly chat inside his head might not have been Woods’ most prudent option. No doubt he would have been more sensible if he hadn’t been massively sleep-deprived; but instead of thinking through the logical consequences as a scientist ought to do, he had impulsively returned what he believed to be words of greeting, even though he had no idea what he was going to do next.
The glare from the overhead lights assailed Woods’ half-closed eyes. A sour smell of unwashed coffee cups and rancid soymilk wafted from the galley’s countertops. Realizing that he had started to pace in tight circles, Woods stopped himself just in time to avoid crushing the tea packet he’d dropped on the floor. A lifetime of ingrained habit then prompted him to glance over his shoulder; he was still alone, that was good, there was nobody around who might think he was acting weird.
Except maybe the alien creature—whose reply to his greeting arrived a second later, shining brightly in his mind. First the name-image, Tiny Leaf, and then a wave breaking as before. The next image was recognizable as Woods’ own name, but it had been changed. Instead of a checkmark with three leafless vertical stalks of seaweed, it was a row of four stalks. The stalk on the right had a broken piece dangling from the top, so that it resembled an inverted checkmark.
Had he somehow described himself as broken, without meaning to do so? Maybe this reply meant the creature had decided he was too strange, too impulsive, or worse. Maybe it didn’t want anything more to do with him. That was what humans often did when they thought someone was abnormal, broken, damaged—why should an alien react any differently?
For a moment, Woods found himself pondering the secondary meaning of “mark” as a stain or scar, before his thoughts came back to the practical facts. He had no way of knowing what connotations his name might have in Tiny Leaf’s language, and there was nothing he could do about it anyway. That being so, he returned the image, acknowledging it as his name. Then, for lack of other useful vocabulary, he followed it with the wave and the seven-leaved stalk: Mark Woods speaks to Tiny Leaf.
In the quiet that followed, Woods became aware of his breathing, a ragged counterpoint to the precise background hum of the ventilation system’s fans. His eyelids felt too heavy to keep open. He looked down at the carpet to avoid the bright glint of chrome from the brewing machine, which reflected colors and shapes that made no sense to his overtired brain. None of what was happening made sense. Maybe he’d dreamed it all—just fallen asleep on his feet while standing in the galley.
The thought was swept away by an avalanche of seaweed stalks, with varying numbers of leaves and different symbols in the calligraphy along the veins. Leafless stalks appeared in several forms—straight stalks, bent stalks, the broken one that looked like an inverted checkmark, another stalk that was broken in the middle with the pieces side-by-side, and an arrangement that looked like a seven-pointed asterisk.
Flowers snapped shut, chunks of ice collided, and he felt the sinuous passage of something that resembled an eel. A smooth sheet of ice stretched away in all directions, similar to the one he’d assumed meant the unknown; but this time, a stylized crack spread across the ice, in the same pattern as the leafless stalk broken in the middle. The crack continued into the distance, with no apparent end, leaving Woods with the unsettling impression of a rip in the fabric of the universe.
A strong feeling of wrongness and confusion persisted even after the images faded. Woods returned a single image: the smooth, unbroken ice that he guessed might represent things unknown. He hoped that it could also convey his lack of understanding—sorry, the ignorant stranger from outside the known world hasn’t got a clue how to speak your language.
The response, when it came, was equally brief. Woods felt a sensation like a clasping of hands, except that his feet sensed it as well. It was a soft touch, as if intended as gentle reassurance. Perhaps he was being too fanciful, imagining that Tiny Leaf meant to offer him comfort—why should she want to, after all, when he was one of her captors? But without any other ideas, he figured it was as good an explanation as any.
After a few minutes passed, making clear that the conversation—such as it was—had ended, Woods picked up the chamomile tea packet and started it brewing. He fumbled with the machine, bleary-eyed and lacking coordination. Regardless of whether the images had been real or hallucinated, there was no doubt he needed sleep, and plenty of it. Maybe he could make better sense of things tomorrow.
In the moment between sleep and waking, Woods flew on powerful wings through the luminous seascape of Europa, with an endless seaweed forest superimposed on the ocean of his recurring dream. Then reality took shape around him, consisting of his bunk and pillow; he’d mostly thrown off the sheets in his sleep. The ceiling tiles glowed dimly on their moonlight setting. Usually they brightened automatically to daylight intensity as ship’s morning arrived, but he had overridden the default setting to catch up on the sleep he’d missed. It was just past noon.
“This is real,” Woods said out loud, sitting up in his bunk. His thoughts filled with vivid images of alien life—the seaweed samples in the lab, along with all those new species of microbes waiting for him to study them, wow! And a small purple creature with seven tentacles, who might or might not have introduced herself as Tiny Leaf while communicating with him by way of a telepathic link…
Well, maybe not everything he had seen was real. He skirted cautiously around the alien images in his memories, avoiding the detailed clarity of visual recall that appeared to trigger the link—if indeed it existed. Although making first contact with an extraterrestrial species was a fascinating idea in the abstract, it felt a lot scarier up close and personal. He wasn’t about to jump into any further conversations, assuming that was what they had been, until he’d gotten all the possible scenarios and their consequences sorted.
As a scientist, he knew he needed to rule out alternate explanations, such as the possibility that the images were nothing but hallucinations caused by sleep deprivation and excitement. If so, he wasn’t likely to see any more of them; lack of sleep had never given him hallucinations before, and certainly he couldn’t expect to have such an exciting adventure again. He could test this hypothesis by recalling the images in vivid detail; if nothing happened, then they probably weren’t real.
But what if something did happen? If more images appeared, how would he know whether he was hallucinating or whether it was a real conversation? Was there any objective way to measure the existence of telepathy and prove it one way or the other? Without such proof, he couldn’t say anything to his shipmates about it—they’d surely assume it was all in his head.
He gave the question more thought in the shower, where the repetitive sound of running water helped to calm and focus his thoughts. If he had a better understanding of Tiny Leaf’s language, he could ask her to do something physical that would demonstrate her ability to take instructions from him, such as swimming in circles or clapping her tentacles together. But he couldn’t reasonably expect to get anywhere near that level of proficiency soon; and what if he inadvertently offended her with something he said? There might be nonverbal content, similar to voice tone and body language, in the timing of the images and how they were presented. Lots of potential pitfalls in that.
When he started thinking about a creepy sci-fi flick he’d once seen, where an alien took over the crew’s minds and made them crash on a planet of giant bloodsucking slugs, Woods got out of the shower. Maybe he’d feel better and think more clearly after eating breakfast. At the very least, it might distract him from remembering bad movies.
The main corridor loomed long and straight, though he knew that was an illusion. In fact, it curved gently upward in both directions like the inside of a big hamster wheel, constantly rotating. The centripetal force matched Earth’s gravity and felt normal to Woods by now, although getting used to it had taken some time after all the years he’d spent in the lower gravity of Mars. Perception was a tricky thing, even when you knew exactly what was going on.
He had almost reached the dining area when Hioki stepped out of another hallway. Evidently the young engineer had just finished showering too, as his thick black hair was damp and hadn’t been styled into its usual spiky anime-character look. Hioki still had a tired, puffy-eyed face, and his shirt was misbuttoned.
“Hey, Woods.” Glancing over his shoulder at the otherwise empty corridor, Hioki spoke in a low tone. “You sleep okay? Didn’t see any more of that weird seaweed stuff you were talking about yesterday, right?”
“Right,” Woods echoed, speaking by rote before he’d had time to fully process the question. Then he wasn’t sure what else he ought to say. That usually meant the most prudent course of action was to keep quiet, so he did.
“Good. That’s good.” Hioki’s voice rose nervously, despite his efforts to keep it low. Hair fell into his eyes without the forgotten styling gel, and he pushed it away with the back of his hand. He was already starting to walk away before he finished speaking. “Because that stuff’s not real.”
A large brown suitcase stood next to the open door of the dormitory room, bulging with things that hadn’t been on the original list. When he’d started packing, Mark had expected to go home as usual for Christmas vacation, just as he’d done in past years. But then Dr. Ghorbanifar—the principal herself!—had come to his room and told him to pack everything; he wouldn’t be returning to the school.
“Why?” The unexplained announcement left him in such fear that he could speak only that one word. Where would he go? And what could he have done that was so wrong the school would put him out? He always got high marks in his classwork, and months had gone by since the last time he had lost behavior points for looking weird. He had even been allowed to grow his hair again because he’d stopped fidgeting with it.
Dr. Ghorbanifar kept her gaze fixed on him, a piercing dark-eyed stare that left him feeling like a bug in a researcher’s collection. Her reedy, accented voice filled the room. “Your parents will tell you more when they arrive. They are on the way. Pack now.” And off she’d gone again, her ankle-length black dress swishing in counterpoint to the thumping of her orthopedic shoes on the hard floor.
After he’d finished packing, Mark stood in the middle of the room, unsure of what he should do next. Would his parents come up to the room as they’d done before? Or should he wait in the lobby, now that it wasn’t his room anymore? He realized that he had started pacing from one side of the room to the other, and he quickly made himself stop before anyone could walk by and see him. Especially his parents. If they saw him doing something weird, they might send him to another school that was much worse. Someplace where he wouldn’t have any real classes or any chance to become a scientist.
Maybe that was going to happen anyway. Mark had heard plenty from his teachers about the horrible fate that awaited anyone who didn’t learn how to behave in society, how lucky the students were because the school was teaching them what they needed to know, and why they shouldn’t take their good fortune for granted—there was such a long waiting list for new students. Maybe he hadn’t learned enough about how to behave, and now he was being put out to make room for someone else. Maybe his parents had decided he wasn’t worth the cost of keeping him at the school. But what had he done that was so awful?
His toes twitched inside his shoes, now that he had stopped pacing. That was okay because nobody could see his toes in there. Even if one of his toenails dug into the next toe and made it bleed, which happened sometimes, he didn’t worry about that because it couldn’t be seen and the dark uniform socks hid the blood. Doing something weird wasn’t so bad if there was a way to hide it.
More footsteps echoed along the hallway, coming toward his room. Two people—had his parents arrived? He took a step toward the door, but then stopped to think about it. Would he look too anxious if he hurried out of the room? Maybe his parents would see that as abnormal. Better not to risk it. And he should rehearse a few greeting phrases in his mind, quickly, or else he might end up being able to say only one word again…
“Mark, it’s so wonderful to see you!” His mother breezed into the room, her steps lighter and quicker than he ever remembered them being. She carried a red coat over her arm and wore a tailored gray suit, which matched the dark gray of her eyes. Today her eyes crinkled with cheerful lines at the corners, and she didn’t have her usual deep furrows between the brows. She certainly didn’t look like she was angry with him about anything, so why had he been told he wasn’t coming back to the school?
Seeking more clues, Mark glanced toward his father, just now entering the room a few steps behind his mother. Under his father’s balding scalp, the brows also looked smoother than usual; and his father spoke gruffly, as though he couldn’t quite keep his voice under control. “Son, we’re both so very proud of you. So glad.”
“It’s such amazing, wonderful news,” his mother burbled. “Dr. Ghorbanifar is a brilliant woman, a true miracle worker. She says you have completely recovered from autism because of your behavioral therapy, and now you can go to a regular high school like everyone else. And after that, college.”
She went on talking, but Mark couldn’t understand any more of it because his thoughts had turned into such a jumble. College, to learn how to be a scientist? Could he really? Although his mother’s lips were still moving, his brain couldn’t make sense of the input. The next thing he heard was his own voice saying, “Wonderful—so glad!”
Although this didn’t happen as often as when he’d been younger, sometimes Mark still found himself repeating words when there was a glitch in his speech processing. The way to hide it was to smile, make eye contact, look as normal as possible, and say something else that made sense.
He decided he’d better hug his mother too, although her strong floral perfume always made him feel nauseous when he got that close. It was worth it today; he couldn’t risk her seeing anything that might make her change her mind.
“Mom, I love you!” Putting as much enthusiasm into his voice as he could manage, Mark gave his mother a big smile and looked into her eyes before hugging her—he had to reach down for the hug, now that he’d grown so much taller. He spoke quickly, before the perfume had time to affect him much. “I’m so glad to be going home!”
Woods had been sitting in the dining hall for a few minutes, mostly just looking at his hot oatmeal rather than eating it, when Mastroianni walked in from the galley carrying a lunch tray with soup and salad. She put the tray down on the table directly across from Woods and gave him a pleasant smile. He noticed that today she’d pinned back her long hair with a silver and turquoise clasp in a Southwestern style. No doubt it was a souvenir of long-ago travels; the Martian colonists generally favored simple, no-frills clothing like his own plain microfiber shirt and slacks.
“How are you today—well rested, I hope?”
“Yes, thanks,” Woods answered by rote. He touched his clean-shaven chin, which still felt odd after so many years with a beard. When he’d shaved today, he had given himself a small nick—which he hadn’t noticed right away—while preoccupied with thoughts of alien telepathy.
Perhaps Mastroianni could shed some light on whether it was real? And even if she couldn’t, Woods expected that as the ship’s doctor and counselor she would at least have enough respect for confidentiality not to gossip about him. He went on speaking before he could overthink it and change his mind. “I was just wondering about telepathy. Whether there’s any way to test for it.”
“This has to do with the images you mentioned yesterday?” Mastroianni left a forkful of reconstituted lettuce and cucumber hanging in the air while she considered the question. She finally shook her head. “Nothing that would amount to definite proof. I can think of a few possible tests—looking for chemical changes in the water of the tank, measuring changes in your brainwaves and those of the squid-creature when you see the images, and scanning for electrical signals. The hard part would be interpreting the data. We have no idea what’s normal for this species, so how would we recognize evidence of telepathy if we saw it? Maybe if we knew more about the species, or if the creature had some way of communicating to others… and if you don’t mind my asking, have you seen any more of those images since you woke up today?”
Although her tone hadn’t changed significantly on the last sentence, and she continued eating her salad like this was just an ordinary lunch, Woods could hear the shift into counselor mode. Well, he shouldn’t have expected anything else. Truth be told, if their positions had been reversed, there wasn’t much chance he would have taken alien telepathy seriously.
“No. You’re probably right that I just imagined them because of my lack of sleep.” He looked down into his empty cereal bowl, without any recollection of when he had finished eating. There was no need to mention—at least not yet—either his guess about detailed recollection triggering the telepathic link or his avoidance of it after he woke up. “But I want to know for sure. If the creature is sentient, we shouldn’t be treating her like an animal.”
“Even if we somehow could find proof of telepathy, that likely wouldn’t settle the animal question,” Mastroianni pointed out. “I had a great-aunt who firmly believed that her cats could converse telepathically with her. Ability to communicate is not necessarily the same as being a sentient person. When a dog brings its owner a stick, the dog is clearly communicating that it wants to play fetch, but it’s an animal regardless of how well it can communicate such things.”
Woods turned that over in his mind, concluding that it was indeed more complicated than he had thought at first. “If I had enough images and understood more of their context, I could sketch the images and ask the linguists to look at them. Maybe they could figure out whether there’s anything similar to a human language. But they’d need more images to have enough data to analyze.”
“How about keeping a journal? You can sketch the images and write notes about what you think they might mean. If you see any new ones, then you can add them. And if not, well,” Mastroianni smiled again, “you’ll have a good start to a sci-fi novel when we get back to Earth. All of us will be celebrities for a while, and I expect the publishing companies will be eager to print whatever we write.”
He returned the cheerful smile as he got up to take his empty bowl to the galley, though being a celebrity was the farthest thing from his mind. Having a research lab with a tank full of alien microbes, however, was beyond awesome, and he was eager to get back to work. This was what he’d been waiting for his entire life, after all! He could give more thought to the mysterious images and the benefits of journaling after his workday was over. Maybe then he’d have a clearer idea of how to proceed.
A fire crackled cheerily on a wide brick hearth, sparks rising and popping as a log settled farther down into the pile. Snowy hills and bare, icy branches gleamed in the moonlight outside a tall window with heavy crimson draperies drawn back. A hardwood floor, a colorful patterned rug beside the fireplace, a sofa and chairs upholstered in soft brown leather, and books neatly shelved in long rows along two walls gave the library a welcoming impression of old-fashioned solidity and comfort.
Impression was, of course, the operative word for the ship’s all-purpose recreation and relaxation area. Its current appearance as a library, as with all its other uses, was a carefully constructed illusion. The ceiling and walls consisted of flat-screen panels that displayed realistic 3-D images. The floor and furnishings, all made of synthetic materials, could be swapped for other décor in minutes by the maintenance robots. Scents and sounds added to the ambience. At present the room smelled like chestnuts roasting over an open fire, which had become popular since an ambitious reforestation program in the 2030s had planted blight-resistant chestnut trees across thousands of acres in the northern United States.
Sitting in one of the chairs with his attention focused intently on the glowing screen of his tablet, Woods didn’t even notice the distant sleigh bells and whinnying in the soundtrack of the Jingle Bells program. Earlier in the evening he had downloaded from the ship’s actual library (all on the computer, of course) several books and articles about linguistics and cultural anthropology. After he’d spent the day in the lab studying extraterrestrial microbes, all of this new material left him perilously close to information overload. Even so, he felt that he needed to read it. By now he had concluded that if he didn’t make the effort to investigate the possible existence of alien telepathy, it was unlikely anyone else would.
That resolve, however, was only the beginning; he still needed to work out a logical plan for how to proceed. From his library reading this evening, Woods had determined that his first task was to find a common frame of reference. But what might he have in common with a small marine creature that had been born (hatched? budded?) under kilometers of ice, sensing her surroundings in large part through touch? Or perhaps her species had other senses unknown to humans, which would further complicate matters. There wasn’t much he could assume was constant.
“Mathematics,” Woods said out loud to himself, looking up from his tablet at the flames dancing merrily on the hearth. A shower of sparks flew up and subsided. When a strong gust rattled the tall pane behind the draperies, the sound was so realistic that for a moment, he imagined he felt the room shaking. That was how life worked—once you understood what people expected, it wasn’t hard to show it to them. Life was all about finding common frames of reference.
Once upon a time, humans had learned to count by using their fingers. Maybe an alien species would do arithmetic by counting on their tentacles? Or they might teach their young to count chunks of ice, much as he had been taught to count blocks as a small boy. However they might go about it, arithmetic was one thing that couldn’t change. Two plus two always made four, regardless of where in the solar system you happened to be.
Needing a new folder on his tablet to document his efforts, Woods created one, with some feelings of reluctance. Lab notes were familiar territory, but he had never kept a personal journal. Everything he’d written on Mars had been shared fully with his manager and others on the project. It felt very strange to begin a journal with notes that he did not plan to share, at least not immediately. Science was a transparent process of searching for truth, without secrets. Or at least, that was what he had always thought it should be.
But science—as well as life generally—didn’t always match up with expectations. Woods sat in his comfortable chair for another hour composing a narrative description of the alien images he had seen. The fire had burned low on the virtual hearth and the program had restarted with a fresh pile of logs before he picked up a stylus to begin sketching. If the telepathic link had been real, then he expected clear visual recall would trigger it again. He closed his eyes, bringing to mind in as much detail as possible the image of a seaweed stalk with six paired leaves and a seventh tiny leaf at the tip.
The high school football field’s bleachers bustled with activity as late-arriving spectators found seats after the opening kickoff. Down on the field, the players lined up. Mark got into his position—outside linebacker, his first game as a starting player. And very likely his last, too; he was just filling in for a concussed teammate and couldn’t expect to become a first-team player in his junior year. Not when he had never stepped onto a football field until high school, while all the other boys had played on pee-wee teams long before. That gap was too wide to close, no matter how much he lifted weights and studied football strategy.
A camera flashed in the stands. Probably his dad, who came to every football game without fail, even though Mark was lucky if he got to play a few minutes at the end of a game. His parents had hung framed photos all over the house—Mark playing football, Mark standing in front of the high school with his books, Mark smiling for the camera at the neighborhood Fourth of July picnic. He wondered if that was supposed to make up for all the years when he hadn’t been part of their lives.
The first play was a run, stopped for no gain. Second down was much the same, with the opposing team gaining only a yard. Now they would have to throw. The quarterback looked for open receivers on third down and evidently couldn’t find any. He sprinted to his left, still looking for somewhere to throw as Mark took an intercept course. Then he saw Mark coming and backpedaled. Bad move. Mark put on an extra burst of speed and tackled him five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Dust flew up as both players hit the hard ground; the field wasn’t in the best shape this year, with bare spots in the weedy grass. Mark didn’t care about that—he got up grinning with a helmet full of dust, as cameras flashed and cheers erupted all around. Life was good.
Well, sometimes life was good. Other times, not so much.
The quarterback spat into the dust and then glared at him. “Wipe that stupid grin off your face, retard. We all know your last school was an institution.”
Mark had heard several versions of this insult since he started high school; there wasn’t much that could stay secret among the rumor mills of suburbia. At first he hadn’t known how to deal with it, but then he figured out that it was just dominance behavior—not really any different from the apes and wolves he’d read about in biology books. So he worked on showing a dominant attitude, using trash-talk videos on YouTube as his model and practicing his delivery in the mirror.
The actual words didn’t matter much, he had concluded; it was all about having the right tone and delivery. Mark quickly sorted through his mental inventory of rude comebacks and picked one that seemed to fit reasonably well.
“Your mama’s so ugly, she hatched under a rock. Maybe you saw her down there while you were eating dirt.”
Smirk, swagger, chuckle. Then ignore the angry quarterback and saunter off the field as the punt return team comes on. Keep up a confident stride—it’s all under control, nothing hard about it, really. Just like acting. In the off-season Mark’s extracurricular activity was drama, not so much because he enjoyed it but because he saw it as a survival skill.
He’d gotten a lot of compliments on his acting ability last year…
“Woo hoo, great punt return!” His teammates’ whooping and gleeful chatter brought Mark back to awareness of the moment. Standing on the sideline, he’d been so caught up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed what was happening on the field. That was okay—he could fake it, same as always. Just smile and put plenty of enthusiasm into his voice, and nobody would ever know that his mind had wandered.
“Yeah!” Mark promptly joined in the cheering, even before he looked to see where the ball had been spotted. “Awesome return!”
“Hello,” said Tiny Leaf, her voice low and pleasant, a rich contralto that harmonized beautifully with the distant jingling of sleigh bells in the library program’s soundtrack.
But no, that couldn’t be right. Tiny Leaf was an extraterrestrial marine creature and therefore was highly unlikely to be speaking English, whether telepathically or in any other way. Putting down his stylus, Woods rubbed his tired eyes. It had gotten late in ship’s night while he sat reading about linguistics and cultural anthropology. No doubt he was still feeling the effects of his recent sleep deprivation.
What in fact had happened? He had picked up the stylus, while visualizing the seven-leaved stalk of seaweed-like vegetation that he guessed was a name-image. Then he had felt a wave—yes, that was it, an ocean wave breaking over him. No different from the wave-feeling that he had interpreted as a greeting before, except that this time his subconscious mind evidently had translated that perception into speech, without any intent on his part.
Because his primary mode of thought was in pictures, Woods always had internally translated his mental images to and from words. Whenever he’d learned a word as a child, he had associated it with a familiar image, such as the cracked rock and bare trees that represented his own name. That wouldn’t explain hearing Tiny Leaf speak to him, though—he’d never literally heard voices before now.
Alien conversation, or hallucinations and lack of sleep? He still lacked enough information to draw a conclusion one way or another. Just as with any research project, he would have to proceed on a working assumption while further investigating the facts. Assuming without deciding that this was a real conversation, Woods returned the wave-image, subvocalizing “Hello,” as he did so.
He hesitated, unsure of how to go on. When he’d thought about it earlier, he had decided to use numbers to communicate. It seemed a logical guess that an alien species might count on their tentacles, just as humans counted with fingers. But now he was having second thoughts. There hadn’t been any tentacles in the images he had seen. What if Tiny Leaf’s culture had a taboo against mentioning body parts? Maybe he should try something else instead, such as counting blocks of ice, so as not to be rude by mistake.
While he sat dithering, another image came into his thoughts—an upright stalk of seaweed, with one leaf toward the bottom, on the right. This faded away, to be replaced by another stalk that had two leaves, on opposite sides. The next image added a third leaf, also on the right.
That sequence would have been easy enough to translate even without spoken words. Evidently, he and Tiny Leaf both had decided to test each other’s ability to count. Logs crackled in the library’s faux fireplace, and Woods felt his face relax into a big grin even before he heard Tiny Leaf’s pleasant voice again, saying slowly, “One, two, three.”
Continuing the sequence, he filled in more leaves along the stalk—four, five, six. With three leaves on each side of the stalk, there was no remaining space to add more on either side. Woods found himself wondering what the seven-leaved stalk with a smaller leaf on top might mean—was it also a number? And what about the intricate patterns of veining that looked like calligraphy? So far, the sequence had included only simple leaf-images with rudimentary branching veins, all alike.
Those questions weren’t answered by what he saw next—a leafless upright stalk. Unlike the previous images, it did not fade when another stalk appeared to its left, with one leaf toward the bottom as before. This second stalk was then replaced with another that had two leaves. “Seven, eight, nine,” the spoken words continued, after a few seconds had passed.
“Base seven, right to left,” Woods noted in his tablet. That wasn’t surprising; after all, Tiny Leaf’s species had seven tentacles, not ten fingers. Holding the image clearly in his thoughts, he imagined adding two more leaves to the second stalk—that made ten, eleven—and then began counting backwards, taking away leaves in reverse order until he got down to a single stalk with one leaf.
The familiar image of smooth, unbroken ice that he had taken to mean something unknown appeared. Several seconds went by as he wondered why it was there. Surely there wasn’t anything in his counting that would have caused confusion. Maybe it somehow came next in the sequence? “Zero,” declared Tiny Leaf, confirming his last thought.
Wait, that was zero? How could that be—was it both a number and a metaphor? And why was the translation taking longer each time? Woods filed away these observations on his tablet for later pondering, as he didn’t have much insight into them at present. He decided to see what would happen with a negative number. Negative one—following the same pattern, that would be ice to the right of a stalk with one leaf.
Tiny Leaf returned the plain ice-image, followed by the broken-stalk inverted checkmark that Woods had seen before when he’d tried to introduce himself. The stalk with one leaf came next. “Zero minus one,” she informed him, the English narration lagging even farther behind the images. That lag was starting to make him feel uncomfortable—almost like he was a small boy again, struggling to fit spoken words together into something that made sense, even as they kept coming at him too fast to process.
A broken-stalk image with two horizontal pieces of equal size appeared, to be replaced by a broken-stalk checkmark and a stalk with one leaf to its left. Although the two horizontal pieces resembled an equals sign, they weren’t completely separate but instead were connected on the right side by a short vertical length of torn stalk with jagged edges. “Equals negative one,” he heard, the words slower and farther apart.
Woods dutifully noted all of that on his tablet, but this conversation—if indeed it was one, and not just a string of bizarre hallucinations—had started to feel like it wasn’t as much fun anymore. Instead of a fascinating puzzle for him to solve, it brought to mind all those painful old frustrations about not being able to communicate easily. He wasn’t a linguist, or even particularly good at speaking in his own language—why had he tried to do this?
Maybe it will get better, he tried to tell himself. After all, most things did, if he worked on them enough. The not-fun feeling definitely wasn’t improved, though, when he realized that by choosing three leafless stalks and a checkmark to represent his name yesterday, he had introduced himself not as Mark Woods but as Negative 21.
Going through his mail at the start of the workday, Woods skimmed the fan-letter summary prepared by an administrative assistant on Earth: this week he had received 80,236 messages from well-wishing admirers. They’d all been sent a canned video in which he thanked them for their kind words, attached to the agency’s form letter explaining that time and bandwidth didn’t allow for personal replies.
The crew members had recorded these videos several times during the mission, updating them as needed. Although a few letters had come in earlier, the fan-mail deluge hadn’t truly hit until the discovery of extraterrestrial life was announced. Mastroianni definitely had been right when she said they would all be celebrities. Woods still couldn’t wrap his mind around the concept, after working for so many years in relative obscurity on Mars. He was just grateful that the agency had been taking care of the situation efficiently.
Next up in his inbox was a video message from his cousin Carole, who lived in Delaware and hadn’t corresponded with him since their college years. He remembered her as thin and athletic, with straight mousy-brown hair. The screen image showed plump cheeks and a well-coiffed head of bright red curls. He surely never would have recognized her if they had happened to meet at random.
“I wouldn’t have bothered you, knowing that you’re so busy,” Carole began apologetically, in a soft voice that still had a familiar cadence, “but it’s about your mother. She hasn’t been doing well since your father passed away a few years ago. After losing interest in her usual activities, she mostly just stayed at home watching TV, and last summer she was diagnosed with cancer. Although it’s a kind that usually can be treated, she hasn’t responded well to the medication. I’m beginning to think she has simply lost her will to live.”
Taking a deep breath and looking down as if reluctant to continue, Carole went on, “I know she hasn’t told you. Don’t take it personally—that’s just the way she is. Can’t deal with anything that has to do with disability or weakness, but stays in denial and pretends that the problem doesn’t exist. Well, of course you know that. Anyway, please don’t tell her I sent you this message, but just go and visit her when you get back to Earth. I realize you don’t often talk with her, but it’s time to show some understanding and to let go of that old grudge. She never meant you any harm, Mark, and she’s really very proud of you—always watching the news reports on your mission, with a big beaming smile.”
After a few more words that sounded like they were meant to be reassuring but didn’t at all have that effect, the message ended. Woods sat there staring at the bright screen without really seeing it. His mind seethed with anger and turmoil, which he pictured vividly as a hydrothermal vent spewing high-pressure boiling water into the depths of a dark ocean. That image was one he had constructed all too often as a boy learning to put words to his feelings—abandoned, unwanted, cast aside, an entire unseen ecosystem far from the rest of the world.
Why had he always been the one expected to show more understanding?
A wave-touch intruded upon his thoughts: Tiny Leaf’s signal to start a conversation. Just what he didn’t need right now, the telepathic equivalent of an alien phone ringing. Especially when he had no idea how to tell her to shut up and go away. Something like a Decline button would come in very handy right now; but other than basic arithmetic that consisted mainly of counting seaweed stalks and leaves, he was pretty much clueless. Deciphering alien languages wasn’t supposed to be his job anyway.
The image of a thermal vent, still bubbling furiously away in the background of his thoughts, shifted into a more distant perspective. He could still feel the difference in the water temperature and the disturbance in the currents, but now he floated far above. It took him several seconds to realize that this would have been Tiny Leaf’s perspective in the sunless ocean of Europa. Then she spoke into his mind in a calm tone that seemed weirdly misplaced: “Not equal.”
Number-images and others he couldn’t identify came next. “Six minus five. Three plus fourteen.” Something like an eel slithered by, twisting into a shape that resembled a sine curve. Woods waited for a spoken translation of that image, but none was forthcoming. His thoughts subsided into an irritated silence.
“Tiny Leaf, I have no idea what you’re saying. Less than none,” Woods declared out loud, his words sinking pointlessly into the empty room and the well-insulated bulkheads. He added an image in Tiny Leaf’s own language to underscore his frustration: ice, a broken-checkmark seaweed stalk, and another stalk with one leaf. Zero minus one.
The reply was immediate—another set of images in the weird ice-and-seaweed arithmetic, representing zero plus one. Woods fully expected to hear Tiny Leaf’s virtual voice saying just that. When the translation came, however, it unexpectedly took on a more complex sentence structure while still maintaining the gentle tone.
“You understand a little.”
To be continued…