art by Melissa Mead
The Last Seed
by Ken Liu
When Linda was in kindergarten, telescopes and probes produced the first fuzzy images of distant planets orbiting faraway stars.
She drew pictures of these planets with bold lines and vibrant colors. She drew herself walking under three red suns in a pink spacesuit. She drew domed cities under ringed moons. She drew purple jungles where the leaves were pentagons and the birds had four wings.
She drew a spaceship with herself looking out the window. Behind the ship she drew a bright red flame.
"Not like that!" Her father, who had worked on the space shuttle, laughed. "You won't get to the stars on chemical rockets. We don't have the technology to fly you there yet, but maybe you'll invent it."
She drew herself floating among the stars, naming the planets.
"Happy World, Iceball, Big Bubble...."
"You're going to leave us behind and go live on one of these planets?" her father teased.
"You can come and visit," she said, very serious.
When she was ten her father gave her a telescope. They set it up in the backyard, and together they looked for the stars known to have their own planets: Gliese 581, 55 Cancri, Upsilon Andromedae....
"What if I get lost in space?" Linda asked. "How would I find my way to other worlds?"
Her father considered this, and instead of explaining that the bigger problem was that no one seemed interested in funding the research that would get us off this rock, he just pointed her at the constellation Virgo, a promise unsullied by doubt.
"See that really brilliant star? That's Spica, one of the brightest stars we can see. From it, go south by west a little. That's 61 Virginis. Twenty-seven point eight light years away, it has some of the first extrasolar planets ever discovered. Steer by Spica, and you won't get lost."
In college Linda was the only Aero-Astro major in her class. People were absorbed with the problems of this world: how to feed the poor, how to make money, how to drive just as much without paying more.
There was no future in space, governments and corporations agreed. Exploration was put on hold. Only one space station in low Earth orbit was kept running, more out of inertia than hope.
It was such a pale shadow of her dream. Still, Linda wanted to be there.
Now, in the space station, she drifted a few hundred kilometers above the darkness that was the Eastern Seaboard.
"Is anyone there?" she said into the microphone. "Please. Please answer if you can hear me."