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art by Melissa Mead

The Last Seed

Ken Liu was a programmer before he became a lawyer, and he still drafts contracts like he writes code. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Asimov's, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Lightspeed, among other places. He lives with his family in Massachusetts.

This is Ken's second appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

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."
Nothing came back but static, louder than even the most powerful solar flares.
It was night. She scrutinized the land below for any light. There was none. The missiles and bombs had done a very good job. They had been so carefully engineered, far more so than this old station.
She had stared in disbelief as the first missiles struck, and the coastline from Boston to Miami disappeared in a series of silent puffs, so innocuous looking, like rising soufflés. Elsewhere on the planet, the same scene repeated. Billions of lives: madmen, mothers, millionaires, migrant workers. Poof.
She could not stop from imagining, again and again, the final moments of her parents, her friends, her lovers.
There was enough food and air on the station to support her for another year. If she was careful, she could probably stretch it out to two years. But there would be no more shipments. This was her tomb.
"Please, can anyone hear me? Please." Her voice was dull, monotonous. The words sounded strange to her ears from so much repetition. Sometimes they seemed to her no different from the static.
It was now hard to pick out the tiny, receding space station from the background of the spinning Earth below. "Goodbye," she whispered.
Linda carefully manipulated her suit thrusters until she was facing Virgo. She aimed at the bright glow of Spica, and then turned south by west a few degrees. There was 61 Virginis.
Some scientists believed that life on Earth began elsewhere. They thought that spores or scraps of organic matter came to us, riding on meteors, asteroids, bits of rock thrown into space. These seeded the primordial soup of ancient Earth. From such humble beginnings, the tree of life flourished and evolved. This was the theory of panspermia.
But why couldn't life from Earth also seed other worlds?
The thrusters would run out of propellant in less than twenty minutes. Would she even reach escape velocity? Coasting along on momentum, it would take thousands, millions of years to get to 61 Virginis, if she got there at all.
She pushed the doubts away. The chances of getting there were infinitesimal, but no smaller than the chance of life having arisen in this universe at all.
Her suit only held enough air for another ten hours or so. But instead of thinking about that moment when she would take her last breath, she chose to think about the moment of her arrival.
The gravity of the new planet would grab her and pull her down to its surface. There would be a warm sea, and clouds, mist, and rain. Her suit would split open, and inside would be a treasure trove of complex proteins, fragments of desiccated organic compounds, the remains of her body and all the microbes she carried with her.
Now seeded, the molecules would begin to self-organize and replicate, flowering into ever more intricate, complex forms. In another hundred million years, might there not be purple jungles where the leaves were pentagons and the birds had four wings? Might there not be domed cities built by creatures who considered themselves people?
She would not be lost.
"Dad, I'm finally going," she said.
She set the thrusters to maximum and rushed towards the stars.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 26th, 2011

Author Comments

The germ for this story was planted after the announcement of the retirement of the space shuttle program. But I remain hopeful that we'll get off this rock, and that the final gesture Linda makes in this story will remain fiction.

- Ken Liu
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