They Are Here by Erin Bow
An original story by the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award winner for young people's literature — text
They have 37 days of food left.
They do not know, and will never know, precisely what has happened back on Earth. They are aware that things have been troubled for some time. They have monitored the confusing flurry of transmissions — the tearful final one that said "forgive us."
It takes time for the news to sink in: contact with the mother planet has ceased, leaving a solar system full of not quite self-sufficient colonies on their own.
But they are not one of the colonies; they are a small scientific expedition of 18 humans and an artificial intelligence. The crucial distinction: they are not equipped to grow their own food.
They are here, and they think they are alone.
Their mission is to drill through the 10-mile-thick ice crust of the sixth moon of Jupiter, which they call Europa, to reach the ocean beneath. Though they have spread out across the solar system, humans have found no life they did not bring with them. But Europa might be different. Europa has liquid water. They think there might be life, here.
Though, one of them jokes, not for much longer.
They are here, and they think they are alone.
They have 30 days of food left.
For a week they have worked the problem. They can create edible carbohydrates from water, carbon dioxide and electricity, but they lack the lipids, the micronutrients. The hope of rescue.
The commander tips her head up to look out the overhead viewscreen. It is not a window — they are vulnerable to the high radiation environment — but the "view" of the "sky" fulfils some psychological need. The big moons they call Ganymede and Io are both out, and a couple of the smaller moons too. A sky full of crescent phases. She thinks: as if a bio-hazard sign exploded.
They have 27 days of food left.
The commander shakes her head, and her grey braid moves in the low gravity, rippling like a tentacle in a gentle current. Some of them had begun noticing things like that.
She outlines the state of their mission. They have been drilling for six months, and are close to the ocean. Yet, she does not think they will have time to reach it, unless they speed the drill.
She asks for opinions.
For a while they fall into the science, the way they would have before. There are risks to going faster. How likely is a sudden breach, a deadly eruption of pressurized water?
Does it matter?
They still have transmitters. If they could sample the ocean directly — if they could finish the mission — they could still get the data out. Some of the colonies will survive, surely, something of Earth. The knowledge will survive them.
They decide to speed the drill.
They have 19 days of food left.
One of the exo-life specialists is growing excited; she's been analyzing impurities in the ice, how the chemical traces grow more complex as the drill goes deeper. She's been afraid to use the word "biosignature" until now. She uses it now.
Overhead the moons swim by, and one limb of Jupiter rises, swelling orange and beautiful.
They have 15 days of food left.
They speed the drill again. It makes the floor hum, but not unpleasantly. One of them remembers trains.
Some of the colonies will survive, surely, something of Earth. The knowledge will survive them.
The exo-life specialist gives a presentation about the chirality in the amino acids she has found. Life, she says. The rest of them are skeptical, but as they ask questions she begins to weep: she is sure, she is sure.
They have 10 days of food left.
They have not rationed. There is no point, no reason to stretch things out. Still, they cannot help counting the packages.
The oceanographer, to distract himself from that number, tells them the numbers they already know. That Earth's ocean reaches six miles deep. That the ocean below them might reach a hundred. The seismologist reports that the ocean is close. The exo-life specialist dreams of amoebas. The oceanographer dreams of something larger.
Around them ice flexes and creaks with huge tides.
They have three days of food left.
Little ice quakes rattle the habitat as the drill presses deeper.
The artificial intelligence requests that a hibernation mode be developed, so that it will not need to endure alone, and the systems engineer, its best friend, cries with shame because he did not think of this earlier.
The head rigger and several others work together to move the viewscreen from the ceiling to the floor, and link it to the sonar images they are beginning to obtain.
Static and phantoms eddy across it, and they each spend time alone watching it, fulfilling some psychological need.
They have no food left, and they are hungry.
They come in twos and threes to watch viewscreen. Sometimes they whisper. The sonar images are grey on white, and those that watch do not trust what they are seeing. They think it is something that moves like the commander's braid.
They have no food left, but the hunger is gone now.
They have all gathered, around the viewscreen as if around a table. They have stopped whispering; they only watch. The ice grows thin. The ice grows thinner. The artificial intelligence turns on the transmitters so that they may fulfil their mission: send news to the survivors of the solar system of what they have found, under the ice.
We gather. We have brought the lipids, the micronutrients. We have brought the hope.
The drill breaks through. They are here, and they are not alone.
About Erin Bow
Erin Bow is the author of Stand on the Sky, the 2019 Governor General's Literary Award-winning middle grade novel about a girl who defies traditions in her nomadic community and learns to train eagles.
- How writing Stand on the Sky brought Erin Bow's family closer and won a Governor General's Literary Award
They are Here is Bow's contribution to that series.