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The Message

A ship in deep space. A mysterious warning. And a choice that will change everything.

By Sarah McCarry
From the September 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: to write an expository essay analyzing structure and author’s craft in a work of fiction

Lexile: 950L (pairing)
Other Key Skills: setting, text structure, character

Oma used to say that time is like a river. It flows in one direction, but sometimes it likes to wander. Oma was the one who told me about Albert Einstein and his theories of space-time. Einstein was a scientist who lived 400 years ago, and he was the first person to prove how complicated time could be. He was one of Oma’s heroes—and he’s one of mine too.

When Oma got sick last year, I found it impossible to imagine living in a world without her. I knew she couldn’t live forever—not even my Oma was that strong—but understanding something in your head is different than accepting it in your heart.

After Oma died, I realized: If time is like a river, maybe I could sail back up that river. And if I could do that, maybe I could see her again. I just needed to figure out how.

My grandmother was a pioneer on the Vida, a spaceship that left Earth 90 years ago. Only, she wasn’t my Oma then. She was 22 years old and the best astrobiologist in the world. On top of that, she climbed mountains, could fix an engine in her sleep, and spoke four languages.

All the pioneers were brilliant like my Oma. They had to be. They were the future of our new world.

The Vida was headed for Rubin 23V, the closest habitable planet to Earth. None of the pioneers expected to see Rubin 23V, of course; they knew how long the journey would take. They’d chosen to go into space—and to die in space—to give their grandchildren a chance at a better future.

And now that future had arrived. Tomorrow, the Vida would set down on Rubin 23V. We’d been waiting for this moment our entire lives. Our first glimpse of our new home. Our first breath of nonrecycled air. Our first steps in real gravity.

I was reading one of Einstein’s old papers on my holo when Rio showed up at my bunk pod.

“Why aren’t you packing?” Rio asked. “You know you have to finish before the Celebration tonight.”

Rio is the golden child of the Vida. Everyone loves him. He’s first in our class, he’s a third-gen rep on the ship’s council, and he makes everyone he talks to feel important. He’s even good at sports.

If he weren’t my best friend, I would hate him.

“I don’t have much to pack. All my books are on here.” I waved the holo at him.    

“Look, I know you’d rather stay in your room and read about time travel than go to some fancy dinner. But ‘the Landing Day Celebration marks the end of one journey and the beginning of another. All colonists are required to attend,’” he recited. “Don’t you read the morning bulletins? You read everything else.”

“You sound like my parents.”

His expression turned serious. “You know they just want what’s best for you, Astra,” he said.

You mean they just want what’s best for the ship, I thought.

My parents were a big deal on the Vida. My mom managed the ship’s food supply, and my dad was in charge of hab pod maintenance. People put their survival in my parents’ hands. Then there was me. I could never remember my chores or where I was supposed to be—even when my dad posted the ship’s schedule in my bunk pod. I knew they loved me, but I think all three of us wondered whether I’d snuck onto the ship from another planet.

“Astra marches to the beat of her own drum,” Oma once said to my dad. That was the time I was making dinner but got so wrapped up in reading I forgot the reheater was on and our protein caught fire. Food is our most precious resource on the ship. Wasting it is one of the worst things you can do. 

“I know,” my dad had said with a sigh. “Astra, I just wish you’d tune in to our frequency once in a while.”

The only time I felt like myself was when I was in the ag module with Oma. The ag module was where we kept the seedlings that would become our food crops on Rubin 23V. Oma had designed the module as well as the seedlings, which were a hardy grain called teff.

The best part of the ag module was the flower garden. Oma had used real soil from Earth. I used to love running my fingers through the dense, loamy dirt, catching a whiff of a planet I’d never see. I’d spend hours and hours there, talking with Oma about Einstein and time travel while she tended to her plants.

But after she died, I just couldn’t bring myself to go to the ag module anymore. 

“Anyway, I brought you this,” Rio said, interrupting my thoughts. He tossed a small object onto my bunk.

“What is it?”

“It’s yours,” he said. “I found it on the floor of my pod. You must have dropped it.”

I picked it up. It was about the size of my palm and made of a lightweight synthetic that was cracked and scuffed. I could tell from the thumbscreen that it was some kind of holo drive.

“This isn’t mine,” I said.

“Your name is on it,” Rio said.

I turned the drive over. ASTRA was etched in jagged letters.

“Where did you get this?”

“I told you, I found it in my pod this morning.”

“But—” I stopped. I could tell Rio didn’t believe me.

“Some of us are playing soccer on the rec deck,” he said, changing the subject. “Wanna come?”

One of my favorite things about Rio is that even though he’s known me my entire life, he still asks me whether I want to play soccer. He’s a true optimist.

“I have to pack, remember?”    

After Rio left, I examined the holo drive. As my fingers brushed the thumbscreen, a projection shimmered to life in front of me. The image was fuzzy, but I could make out a woman’s face. Her eyes were red-rimmed and haunted, and her cheeks were hollow. Her hair was dirty, and there was an ugly scratch on her cheek. She wore a rumpled regulation jumpsuit. Wrapped around her neck was a midnight-blue scarf embroidered with silver thread.

There was something familiar about her. “Oma?” I whispered.

But this woman wasn’t my grandmother. This woman’s eyes were blue, not green like Oma’s. And although I couldn’t make out the background very well, I could tell it wasn’t the Vida. It looked like old pictures I’d seen of Earth, except that the sky was a smeary green and the ground was rocky and barren. There was an orange flicker on the horizon that might have been fire.

“Astra, you are the colony’s only hope,” the woman said, her voice desperate. “You must destroy the ag module before the Vida lands tomorrow. Oma’s teff is contaminated. Everyone will die—”

The image dissolved. 

“Wait, start over,” Rio said on the rec deck, where I’d found him warming up for soccer. “This mystery lady said what?”

Rio had on the ancient jersey he always wore to play. It had belonged to his great-grandfather.

“I think the message is damaged, but just watch this,” I said.

He was silent as the message played. The silver threads in the woman’s blue scarf caught the light.

“Astra,” he said when the image cut out, “this woman is telling you to destroy our food supply!”

 “What if she’s right? The botany team could design a new strain of teff within a few months,” I argued. “We’d just have to get by on regulation proteins for a while.”

Rio threw up his hands. “Look, I know you’re smarter than everyone on this ship—”

“You do?” I said, startled. “I am?” 

“—but you have no idea who this person is or where this message came from. It could be from terrorists. It could be a joke.”

“It could be true,” I said.

“I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation.”

“Rio, she knows me. She knows I called my grandmother Oma.”

“Why send a message to you and not to a council member?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Astra, promise me you will forget this whole thing.”

“But—”

“Astra.”   

Rio was right. Destroying the ag module was crazy. What if I damaged the ship? What if the botany team couldn’t make more teff and I doomed us all to starvation? Plus, the teff was Oma’s creation. Destroying it would be like destroying the last piece I had of her.

“Not everyone is going to understand you,” Oma had said to me once, stroking my hair with her weathered hands as if I were one of her plants. “What matters is that you understand yourself.”

I didn’t know why, but I was sure the woman in the message was telling the truth. If there was ever a moment I would have liked to travel back up the river of time and ask Oma for advice, this was it. 

“You look lovely, Astra,” my mom said a few hours later. I’d traded my regulation jumpsuit for my favorite dress coveralls and my sparkly blue earrings. My parents wore their best coveralls too, their medals pinned to their chests.

“You nervous about tomorrow, kiddo?” my dad asked.

“A little,” I said.

“So am I,” my mom admitted. “I think it’s normal. We’ve waited our whole lives for this moment.”

We walked through the maze of sleek hallways that were as familiar to me as my own skin. Colonists in their finery bustled past us as delicious smells of saffron and curry wafted through the air. Tonight, we wouldn’t be eating regulation proteins and dehydrated veg. For the Landing Day Celebration, the council was serving real food.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my coveralls. Was I really going to endanger all these people?

Tonight would be my only chance. With everyone at the Celebration, it would be easy to get into the ag module undetected.

“I forgot something in my bunk pod,” I blurted. “I’ll meet you at the Celebration, okay?”

My mom gave me a slightly annoyed but affectionate look. “Sure. Try not to be late, honey.”

“This will just take a minute,” I promised, dashing away before they could say anything else. I rounded a corner, ducked into a doorway, and checked to make sure no one had seen me. The hallway was deserted.    

The ag module was exactly as I remembered it, except that Oma wasn’t there. Long hydroponic containers held rows of Oma’s seedlings. Along one wall ran her Earth garden. The marigolds were blooming. I turned away from them, tears welling up in my eyes.

I opened a safety locker. In its shiny silver door, I caught the glint of my earrings. Rio had given them to me for my birthday—blue to match the color of my eyes. Oma had told me blue was the color of the sky back on Earth too.

Oma had also told me about biohazard security. The absolute we’re-all-going-to-die last-resort system that would kill everything in the module—including me, if I wasn’t careful.

I found a hazsuit in the locker and struggled into it. It had been folded up for so many years that the creases in the stiff white material were permanent.

“I’m so sorry,” I whispered to Oma’s flowers. Trembling, I keyed into the control terminal the codes Oma had told me never, ever to use unless I absolutely had to.

Immediately, an alarm screamed an outraged protest. A wave of fire crashed through the room. The hazsuit protected my body, but it couldn’t stop my fear. I buried my head in my arms, unable to watch the destruction of everything Oma had worked so hard for.

The next 15 seconds lasted 15 years. And then it was over. The vacuum fans came on with a roar, and the fire winked out with a disappointed snarl, leaving only the charred remains of Oma’s seedlings.

Behind me the doors hissed open, revealing dozens of colonists. Rio and my parents stared at me. My mom’s face was white with shock. People were screaming, their voices a featureless buzz.

And then I fainted.

When I woke up, I was locked in my bunk pod, wondering what would happen to me. We don’t have a prison on the Vida. But we do have an airlock. Would I be ejected into space?

After a few hours, a keycard beeped in the lock. The door slid open and Rio poked his head in.

“Come with me,” he said.

“What’s going on?”

“Just come,” he said, tugging me toward the ag module.

Everyone was there: the botany team, the council, my parents. Mom stepped forward and took my hands. Her face was pale. I couldn’t tell if she was furious or terrified.

“Astra,” she said. “Thank you.”

Thank you?

“Rio told us you figured out something was wrong with the seedlings,” explained one of the botanists. “There was just enough plant material left to run tests.”

“The seedlings were infected by a parasite so tiny no one noticed,” my dad said. “But it’s lethal—”

“—and highly spreadable,” my mom added. “If we’d planted these seedlings, it would have wiped out all plant life on Rubin 23V.  And eventually, us.”

I blinked back tears, trying to take it all in. Whoever the woman in the message was, she’d been right.

“Astra, you saved us,” Rio said.    

That night, our last on the Vida, my mom gave me a present. “I planned to give this to you on Landing Day, but I want you to have it now,” she said.

I peeled away the wrapping—and gasped. A familiar wave of midnight-blue fabric spilled across my hands, embroidered with Einstein’s equations in silver thread. 

“Where did you get this?” I asked in amazement.

“I made it,” my mom said, her eyes shining. “I know how much you love Einstein.”

Now I understood who the woman in the message was.

I wrapped the scarf around my neck and thought of Oma in her garden, of what she’d say to me if only I could tell her what I’d done. And then I realized: Maybe someday I could.

This story was originally published in the September 2019 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building

1. PREPARING TO READ

2. READING AND DISCUSSING (30 minutes)

4. SKILL BUILDING AND WRITING

Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

At the end of the story, Astra figures out who the woman in the message is. Write down who the woman is. Then make a list of at least three clues the author gives throughout the story.

For Advanced Readers

Imagine you are Astra 10 years from now. Write a journal entry about a day in your life on Rubin 23V.

CUSTOMIZED PERFORMANCE TASKS
For Creative Writers

Write a scene in which Astra travels back in time and talks with Oma. Tell the story from Astra’s point of view.

For Scientists

Research habitable planets beyond our solar system and how close humans are to being able to colonize another planet. Give a presentation of your research. Include visuals.

Literature Connection: Texts about space exploration and colonization

Welcome to Mars: Making a Home on the Red Planet 
by Buzz Aldrin and Marianne J. Dyson (nonfiction)

The Martian Chronicles 
by Ray Bradbury (sci-fi short stories)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 
by Douglas Adams (sci-fi novel)