Article
Illustration by Allan Davey
What We Saw

On a planet far from Earth, one boy makes an incredible discovery. An informational text about today’s search for extraterrestrial life completes this fascinating package.  

By Sarah McCarry
From the November 2017 Issue



Lexile: 930L (informational text)
Topic: Science,

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Think About: How do the characters feel about the search for alien life?

It was the first day of October—not that Earth months mean much on Planet Doom—and I knew my life was going to change forever. What I didn’t know was that I was about to die.

“Maybe you can come visit,” Nola said. Her breath bloomed in the cold air like white roses. Even inside the Perimeter, Planet Doom’s temperature never got much above freezing.

“Yeah,” I said. “When my parents save up enough money we can take a trip to Earth.”

We both knew that was a lie, but it was easier to pretend than to admit the truth. Nola and her parents and the entire Seager Mission were leaving tomorrow. My family was staying behind, and I was never going to see my best friend again.

Nola sighed, kicking at a chunk of ice with her antigrav boot. It went flying, striking the silvery bubble of the Perimeter in a shower of sparks. The Perimeter is a force field that keeps us colonists and Missioners safe, holding oxygen in and keeping the deadly cold out. But in that moment, the Perimeter didn’t feel like a shelter. It felt like a prison.

Like me, Nola was dressed in standard-issue outside wear: compfiber jumpsuit, mask covering the bottom half of her face to keep ice crystals from forming in her nose and throat, and a knit cap pulled tight over her puff of curly black hair. Perimeter patrol took place during the one hour of what passed for daylight on Planet Doom—not that anybody besides me bothered to patrol anymore. Beyond the Perimeter, Planet Doom’s single pale sun glittered in the distance like a cheap piece of jewelry. The sky was flushed red with hazy clouds of nitrogen. The Perimeter muffled the howling, lethal wind that sent constant whirling storms of ice particles across the frozen landscape. Outside the Perimeter you’d be dead in 30 seconds unless you wore a full survival suit.

“I wish you could just come with us,” Nola said, interrupting my gloomy thoughts as we crunched across the ice. I scanned the horizon now and then with my infrared binocs for the signs of alien life that every scientist in the Mission had long ago given up on finding. “If your parents’ store works out they could just send for you. And if it doesn’t, they can come back to Earth too.”

“I couldn’t leave my mom and dad,” I said. “I mean, even if Mission Control would let me.”

“I’m sick of the stupid Mission,” Nola muttered. She stopped, staring out across the jagged slabs of red-lit ice.

“Don’t say that.”

“Why not? The Mission failed.”

For a long minute we stared at each other. I wanted to cry, but crying out here hurts too much. Your tears freeze to your cheeks before they fall.

“I’m sorry, Yuki,” Nola said, breaking the silence. “I know how much the Mission means—meant—to you. It’s just—I’m going to miss you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m going to miss you too.”

She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Come on,” she said. “I came out here to help you with one last patrol. So let’s patrol.”

Planet Doom’s real name is KEPLER-2099-BLG-395b. And the Seager Mission didn’t start out as a failure. It started out as a way to bring people together in the face of impossible odds.

I was 5 years old when my parents left Earth. All I remember is color: the clear blue sky in summer, the pale green of my mom’s favorite tea, the dense red and gold and orange of the dahlias my dad grew. But all the kids on the Mission go to school, and we’ve all seen the pictures of the decaying planet we left behind. The overcrowded cities, the famines, the wars. Before I was born, people thought the world was ending. Maybe it was.

But then scientists discovered the Mirzakhani Effect: a way to travel through space at speeds faster than light. For almost 100 years, astronomers had been studying the stars, finding thousands of planets that might harbor life. Now, we had a way to get to them. The idea of traveling through space to look for other life forms—other beings who might even be like us—united people in a way that nothing else had.

Humans had screwed up big-time. We’d wrecked our planet and spent hundreds of years trying to wipe each other out in every way possible. We hadn’t solved poverty or hunger or hatred or cruelty. Somehow, though, we’d looked at the stars and found a way to get there. We built rockets that would take us beyond anything anyone had ever known. The Seager Mission made people feel like maybe, just maybe, our species could still do something beautiful.

That’s what we learned in history class. That’s what it felt like when we started the Mission too. Now, I’m not so sure. We’ve been to five planets in 10 years and haven’t even found one lousy bacterium, let alone another sentient lifeform to talk to. Nola’s parents, the lead Mission scientists, did their best to keep everyone’s spirits up. But by the time we got to Planet Doom, people were a lot less optimistic than they’d been at the start of the Mission. Four planet-sized failures will do that to you.

We’d been on Planet Doom for a year, tunneling beneath the ice to the pitch-black oceans under the frozen crust. Nola’s parents led teams of scientists hunting for something— anything—that suggested we weren’t alone in the universe. And just like they had on every other planet we’d landed on so far, they’d come up with nothing at all.

Which is why Mission Control decided it was time to pack up, give up, and go home.

Except that not everyone was leaving. Some of us were being left behind.

“I still don’t understand why your parents want to stay here,” Nola said. My parents aren’t scientists like Nola’s. They run the Mission’s main trading post, exchanging precious commodities like 10-year-old flimsies that still flicker with the ghosts of long outdated comic-book heroes, jars of peanut butter, and the stubby ends of pencils that haven’t yet been sharpened into dust. Basically, they run the loneliest convenience store in the universe.

“They think they’ll be needed. The mining teams are staying behind,” I said. “Plus, ag team thinks they can set up farms in another few months.”

Nola jerked her mask up higher on her face. She would never in a million light-years admit it, but she was trying not to cry too.

“I’ll be fine,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel. “This is my favorite planet out of all the ones we’ve been to.”

Nola snorted, but I could tell she was smiling now behind her mask. “Trust you to pick the coldest, most miserable place we’ve been.”

“Weirdo,” she added affectionately.

“Don’t you think it’s beautiful?”

“Maybe in the rear-view mirror,” Nola said.

Okay, so Planet Doom might not have been the watery world of OGLE-LPG-463b, where massive rivers tumbled thousands of feet into jagged canyons and two red-gold suns hung low in the pulsing crimson sky. It wasn’t KEPLER-RRB-23l, nicknamed “Foxfire,” where the science team had thought the rich, dark soil’s eerie blue glow might have been a sign of bacterial life, or Coku Tau 4b, where night never came and a salty cerulean sea lapped endlessly at continents of white sand under a crystalline sky.

Nola was right: Planet Doom was cold and dark and small and mean. But I loved the way it had looked from space, a radiant rose-gold sphere suspended in a sea of darkness. I loved the way the long cold nights made me feel cozy and safe in my family’s habitat pod. And as long as I shared Planet Doom with my family and with Nola, I loved the way it had become home.

“I like the ice,” I said.

Nola shrugged. “It’s better than the one with all the volcanoes,” she said. “That place stunk. Come on. Let’s go back. My parents invited you and your parents over for dinner.”

She turned away from the Perimeter.

And that’s when I saw it. A series of pale blue flashes in the distance. Like something out there was moving.

Or like something out there was sending a signal.

“Look!” I said, pointing. Nola whipped around. But the light was gone.

“I saw something,” I said. “A flash.”

“It was probably just an ice mirage,” Nola said.

“I know what an ice mirage looks like,” I said. “It was something else.”

“Let me see,” she said, holding out her hand. I gave her my binocs. She looked in the direction I’d pointed, holding still for a long time despite the cold, before lowering them again.

“Yuki,” she said. “There’s nothing there.”

“I saw something,” I said. “I did, Nola. It was beautiful.”

“Okay, Yuki,” she said quietly. She was looking at me with an expression I recognized—only I’d never seen it on her face before.

It was pity.

I could feel my face flushing with anger.

“We have to tell the Mission,” I said.

“Sure, Yuki,” she said. “But I’m freezing. Let’s go back inside, okay?”

Reluctantly, I followed her back to the habitat pods. But I couldn’t stop looking back over my shoulder, waiting for whatever had chosen me to show itself again.

Normally, I loved eating with Nola’s family. Her parents would tell stories about all the different techniques people used to use to look for exoplanets. They explained the Drake equation—the likelihood of making contact with other intelligent life. They told us about rogue planets floating alone and starless throughout space, or about what kinds of biomarkers we might use for life that isn’t carbon-based, like all the living creatures from Earth are.

Plus, members of the science team got better rations. My family ate the same flavored protein-and-vitamin paste three times a day. What exactly the flavor was supposed to be, none of us were sure. Scientists got protein paste molded into the shapes of real food, and the flavors were actually pretty good.

But tonight, dinner felt like a condemned prisoner’s last meal. Our parents were painfully polite. Nola kept her eyes on her food, chewing robotically.

“Could you pass the salt, please, Miriam?” my mom asked Nola’s in a forced, cheerful voice.

I couldn’t hold it in anymore. “I saw something on patrol,” I blurted. Nola stopped chewing. Her mom froze, clutching the salt pack.

Nola’s dad cleared his throat. “What’s that, Yuki?”

“I saw something,” I repeated. I knew how my voice sounded. Pleading and urgent and desperate. But they had to know. “A flashing blue light. Too regular to be natural. I think it was a signal.”

“Did you see it too?” Nola’s mom asked her.

Nola shook her head, not meeting my eyes.

“Yuki,” her dad said gently. “The Base would’ve intercepted anything that was a signal. It was just—”

“It wasn’t an ice mirage!” I yelled. “I saw something! I know you don’t believe me but it’s true!”

There was a long awkward silence. My parents exchanged glances. I knew what was coming next.

“We know how badly you want Nola and her family to stay, honey,” my mom said. “But the Mission’s over.”

“I’m not making it up to keep the Mission here.” But I could see it in their faces. They didn’t believe me. “I’m not lying,”

“Nobody says you’re lying, Yuki,” Nola’s mom said. “Now, how about dessert?” She was looking at me with the same pity Nola had out on the ice. I wanted to crawl under the table. Or scream. Or run away. But this was the last meal I’d ever have with Nola. So instead I sat up straight and smiled.

“You’re probably right,” I said. “Dessert sounds great.”

But that night I tossed and turned on my narrow cot in my tiny room. Overhead the glow-in-the-dark constellations my dad had painted for me shone a pale green. My dad had copied the summer night sky over Tokyo, the city where I’d been born. Sometimes I thought the stars were more for him than for me.

“I saw something,” I whispered into the warm darkness. “I know you’re out there.” It felt as though the darkness had gone still. As if it were listening.

I thought about how much my parents had given up to come here. How hard they’d worked to make their dream into something real. I thought about how their kindness had made me feel even worse. I thought about how my name written one way in Japanese means “happiness.” Written another way, it means “snow.” I thought about Nola’s dad, telling us old stories of the city Nola had been named after, the city that had been underwater for almost a hundred years. They had carnivals that felt like magic, he’d said. People wore feathers and sequins and strands and strands of glittering, colorful beads. Nola’s great-grandfather had played the saxophone in the streets, where people danced like tomorrow would never come.

When Nola left in the morning, the empty place in my heart would be the size and shape of her.

I sat up. The pod was silent. I pulled on my warmest long underwear, grabbed my binocs, and tiptoed out of our pod, pulling my antigrav boots on in the long hallway outside. The science pods were just a few corridors away. The thud of my boots echoed the thumping of my heart, but the long connecting units were empty. When I reached the main science pod, I stopped, my hand hovering over the latch of the survival suit tank. What I was doing was dangerous, against the rules, and extremely stupid. And I didn’t care.

The survival suit didn’t fit me well. They weren’t made for kids. I checked the oxygen levels. I’d have 20 minutes, maybe half an hour if I breathed slow. I took one last deep breath before I put on the helmet and opened the oxygen lines. The air tasted like metal and plastic.

I opened the hatch in the far wall of the main pod. The one that led to an airlock chamber. The airlock chamber that opened to the outside. I hit the release button for the final door and took my first step beyond the perimeter.

The wind knocked me sideways like a giant fist. If it wasn’t for Planet Doom’s intense gravity, I’d have gone flying. I struggled back to my feet. When the next gust hit me, I was better prepared. Despite the force of the wind, I couldn’t hear anything except the noisy hiss of my own breath. The silver bubble of the Perimeter shimmered behind me, protecting everything and everyone I knew. And for the first time I faced Planet Doom from outside its secure arc.

I’d never known there could be so many different kinds and colors of ice. Huge slabs erupted from the ground at crazy angles, as if giants had dropped a game of dominoes. Millions of tiny crystals glittered on the frozen earth like a spill of diamonds.

The sky was almost white with stars, their blazing light reflected in icy prisms of red and gold and green, and Planet Doom’s three moons hung low and heavy in the night sky. It was so beautiful I could barely breathe. I took one step forward and then another, reaching my hands toward the stars as if I could pluck them from the sky. My heart thumped in my chest. I could hear the blood moving in my ears. And I could hear the ice singing in the dark as huge chunks shifted and groaned, moving with glacial slowness under the relentless wind. I’d spent so much of the Mission behind one wall or another—the Perimeter, the rocket ships, the reinforced plastic of our habitat pods. But now only the thin membrane of the survival suit separated me from the rest of the universe.

The oxygen warning in my suit beeped an angry high-pitched bleat. Just a few more minutes, I thought. How could I go back when there was so much to see? It beeped more insistently.

Reluctantly, I turned around at last. And then I realized just how far I’d walked. The Perimeter was a tiny silver dot in the distance. I’d been out for nearly 20 minutes. There was no way I had enough oxygen to get back. I took a deep breath to calm myself—and then I realized how stupid that was. You’re wasting oxygen, I reminded myself. But fear had grabbed my heart with icy fingers. Now my breath was coming in short, panicked gasps. The oxygen warning screamed in my ears. I sank to my knees. I was running out of air. Planet Doom’s beauty was going to kill me. I wished my dad could’ve seen the stars out here. I wished I’d said goodbye.

Ahead of me, the Perimeter blurred and wavered. I’m already hallucinating, I thought. It almost looked like the Perimeter was getting bigger.

But I wasn’t hallucinating.

A silver ball was zipping toward me, skimming over the ice like a bird.

A rover.

Nola, I thought. Hurry. My vision was darkening. I knew I’d be dead in minutes.

But the rover was there in seconds. Three suited figures leaped out before it had even come to a complete stop. The comm link crackled in my suit. “Yuki, you idiot! What were you thinking?”

“I missed you, too, Nola,” I wheezed. And then I passed out.

When I came to I was flat on my back on the ice. Nola’s mom hovered over me, her expression worried. When she saw me open my eyes, relief flooded her features.

“You’re okay,” she said. “Thank goodness, Yuki. If Nola hadn’t realized . . .” She didn’t finish. Nola’s dad was checking the connection on an emergency oxygen tank they’d attached to my suit.

“If you ever do anything like that again I’ll kill you!” Nola yelled behind her. “I had to—wait, what is that?”

Nola’s mom looked up and her eyes widened. She climbed to her feet and reached for Nola’s dad. “Henry, look,” she whispered, pointing.

I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

“I told you it was beautiful,” I said.

A pale snow began to fall out of the dark velvet sky. And all around us was the sound of wings.