Searching for Life Outside the Anthill

Let’s say we have an anthill in the middle of the forest. And right next to the anthill, they’re building a ten-lane super-highway. And the question is “Would the ants be able to understand what a ten-lane super-highway is? Would the ants be able to understand the technology and the intentions of the beings building the highway next to them?”

-Michio Kaku


Ants building an anthill – Image: shutterstock

Commander Janice Nichols sat expectantly in front of the orbiter’s pilot console waiting for the initial report about Lyre’s Planet, the more “human-friendly” name for HD 85512 b. At 3.5 times the mass of Earth, it wouldn’t be ideal for human colonization, but it was smack dab in the middle of this star’s “Goldilocks’ zone,” and even casual observation told her that there were liquid oceans and land masses on this world, certainly indicating the potential for life, maybe even intelligent life.

Sixteen hours ago, the orbiter Elysium had detached from the FTL drive and main life support unit, together known as the Wayfarer. The drive was too valuable to risk close planet approach and she had left Clarence Ross in charge of their only hope for an eventual return home, along with Mitchell, and Smith. If something happened to the Elysium, Ross and Mitchell could either bring in the Excursion, Wayfarer’s back up orbiter, to attempt a rescue, or if deemed too risky, abandon them here and make the return trip home.

Eight hours ago, Elysium assumed a standard orbit around Lyre’s and after a thorough systems and orbital check, Nichols ordered planetary and environmental specialist Timmison Singh to deploy the sensor pod, extending it fifteen meters planet-side, below Elysium’s main hull, and then had him crawl down into the pod to perform the initial scan of the planet.

This was the sixteenth attempt, the sixteenth expedition to explore what they used to call “super earths” in the early part of the last century, the sixteenth effort to discover some form of extraterrestrial life, any form of life more advanced than a single cell organism.

The first fifteen had failed.

Janice sat next to Karyn Iwatani (yes, that Karyn Iwatani, the descendant of the famous video game designer) life support specialist and back up orbiter pilot, and together, they listened to Singh go through the standard checklist of instrumentation checks as he conducted the initial scan. They were completing their fourth orbit. He should call up with his preliminary report soon.

“Singh to Nichols, come in Janice.” After nearly six months in transit, three months out from Earth before going into status for the three-year FTL jump, and then three more months travel to enter this close to Lyre’s sun, things got pretty informal.

“Yeah, Singh. What have you got?”

“So far, a big fat nada. Certainly no signs of structures or roads that would indicate an intelligent civilization, but also no indications of any other form of life, at least that we can detect from orbit. Recommend launching the airborne and lander drones.”

Landing on Lyre’s was out of the question. The orbiters weren’t even designed to do so. If somehow they were stranded on the surface, it’s doubtful they could move weighing 3.6 times what they would on Earth. It’s a foregone conclusion that the Elysium would never make it back into space, and there’s no way Excursion could even come after them.

“Affirmative, Singh. Deploy drones.”

This was what Janice expected but not what she’d hoped for. This was how it went those other fifteen times the other super earths were explored. This is what Janice found at Wolf 1061c.

The Wayfarer and her crew had been through this once before, six years ago. They had been assigned to investigate Wolf 1061c, also called Wright’s Planet, a world orbiting a red drawf star just 14 light years away from Earth. Wright’s also was within its star’s Goldilocks’ zone. It also had liquid water oceans. It also had land masses. It also was potentially habitable by life, maybe even intelligent life.

Like all of the other missions, Wright’s Planet was determined to be totally devoid of life, even at the microscopic level.

Singh would take at least an hour to calculate the launch parameters for the twenty-five flying and lander probes. Once they were sent planet-ward, Elysium would return to Wayfarer and the crew would sift through the data dumps of each drone for the next several months, searching, Janice hoped not vainly, for some sign of what they’ve never found before. Life.

“Want to play a few hands of Charlotte while we wait for Singh to finish playing around down there?”

Karyn played a particularly annoying game of Charlotte, meaning that she always won. She’d been raised on the card game and attained grandmaster status when she was fourteen years old.

“Sure, why not.” Janice didn’t play to win, although she always tried her best. She played to kill time, and to try to pick up some clue from Karyn that might help her improve her game, at least a little.

An hour to set up the launch parameters turned into almost ninety minutes, then securing the pod, confirming the successful deployment of all of the drones, and then breaking orbit and returning to Wayfarer.

It was after 0230 hours ship’s time when Elysium docked with her mother ship. Singh confirmed that telemetry was being received from the probes before he, Janice, and Karyn hit the sack.


“Well crap. I guess I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Ninety-two days since the drones were launched from Elysium. Ninety-two days of going through the digital wasteland of the data they returned. Ninety-two days of basically jerking off.

“No mistake, Janice. The readings planet wide indicate the probability of any form of life at all on Lyre’s either on land or in any body of water, is pretty much zip.” Only Singh’s charm and wit enabled Janice to resist the urge to slap the bearer of bad news.

“Hey, these missions are always a long shot anyway.” Mitchell, the voice of reason. “The Corporation funds them more to placate the scientific community and to generate public interest in our brand than to actually prove life off-Earth is possible, let alone that a commercial product could be based on such life.”

“Stick to engineering, Mitchell, it’s what you’re good at. If this is a bust, let’s just go home.”

Smith and Mitchell had been married for ten years and in spite of that, they both worked together well to maintain both the sub-light and FTL systems of Wayfarer and the two orbiters. The playful banter was a part of the ship’s background by now, and most of the time, Smith’s moodiness was tolerable.

Let’s give the computers a couple of more days to crunch the numbers, just to be sure.” Ross was the mathematician and second in command of Wayfarer. At 62, he was also the oldest member of the crew, and probably the most patient, not only with the search for extraterrestrial life, but the behavior of terrestrial life aboard ship. If the crew had another name for him, it would be “Dad.”

“Ok, Ok.” Janice took another swig of her bottle of Riley’s. “Two more days. Just to be sure. I wouldn’t want to miss something. It’ll take a long time to get back here if anyone thinks there’s a reason to.

Smith started to moan but Mitchell gave her a look that shut her up. They’d find something to do in their quarters to keep them both out of the way for the next couple of days.

“I’ll keep going over the data. Want to give me a hand with collating the latest transmission, Singh”.

Sure, Clar. Nothing else to do.”

Ross and Singh left the common room and headed toward the communications bay.

“Another hand of Charlotte, Janice?” Karyn had pulled up a chair next to her.

“Headache. I’m going to finish my Riley’s and head to bed.”

“I can help with that, too.” Karyn and Janice weren’t married or mated, but just like playing Charlotte, casual intimacy was a way to pass the time.

“Not tonight, Karyn.”

Janice drained the bottle, tossed it into recycling, and headed back to her quarters. It wasn’t so much the headache as the realization of another wasted effort. Really, why did the Corporation fund this shit? There were plenty of other activities, more profitable activities, they could assign Wayfarer.

Maybe, like Mitchell said, it didn’t matter. It’s all a bunch of really expensive public relations stuff.

No life. No life at all on sixteen planets within 35 light years of Earth, the sixteen most statistically probable planets within that volume of space.

Of course, in terms of the entire galaxy, that’s a pretty small area, but with no results so far, not even a blade of grass, how much further would the Corporation go before declaring that the expense simply wasn’t worth it, even if the general masses thought looking for life outside our solar system was exciting and it kept them buying the Corporation’s useless junk?

Janice collapsed into her bunk, more mentally exhausted than anything. The Riley’s was beginning to kick in, so a dreamless sleep was mere minutes away. Good. Who needs dreams?


Qweral, Uik, and Tranitanitan were in the closest slipstream to Janice as she fell asleep. Uik manipulated the stream to include Mitchell and Smith who were in the midst of marital intimacy, Ross and Singh hovering over their displays monitoring the most recent data dump, and Karyn playing Charlotte against the computer (and winning).

“As many times as I’ve observed it, I’m always amazed they can’t perceive the slipstreams.” Qweral had a relationship to human beings that could best be understood as a person toward a pet. Uik and Tranitanitan (especially Tranitanitan) thought of them more like lab rats.

“It’s a vain attempt, it always is.” Tranitanitan was musing. “Their sensory and cognitive abilities are totally incompatible with the slipstreams, the interconnectedness of the galaxy that binds it together.”

“How ironic,” Qweral was performing the equivalent action of stroking Janice’s hair, though it was impossible to perceive this on a human level. “The slipstreams rival the number of stars in the galaxy, they, to our senses, are brighter and more massive, and they are the foundation and sustenance of our species. And yet, I can even use my highest volume to address this little one here and she cannot detect my output with any of her senses.”

“Be reasonable, Qweral.” Uik had a somewhat unnatural interest in Mitchell’s and Smith’s mating practices. “Even if their senses were capable of registering our output, their limited cognitive abilities wouldn’t recognize it as communication. They simply lack the capacity.”

“But there have been times, you have to admit it, when some humans have perceived us.” Qweral knew the issue of communication with the humans was never all or nothing. “There have been those times recorded in their ancient myths, when they believed they spoke to beings called ‘angels’ and ‘demons’.”

“Yes, in half-realized dreams, hallucinations of the mentally unstable, or those using dangerous pharmaceuticals.” Tranitanitan objected to the idea that humans could be trained to “hear” their species let alone be guided into perceiving the slipsteams.

“But there have been others, sometimes called prophets or seers, humans with gifted insights who thought they spoke with those outside their realm.”

“Qweral, please allow reason to guide your thinking.” Mitchell and Smith had concluded their activities for the present and were drifting off to sleep, so Uik paid more attention to the discussion.

“We have been detected by those few humans from time to time, but all too rarely, and always as something we are not. We’ve been called messengers of an ultimate creator or servants of absolute evil, but not the dwellers of the slipstreams that we are, the very life they’ve been attempting to locate.”

“It is as I’ve always said.” Tranitanitan was in a preachy mood. “The humans are not designed to detect us, so their efforts to locate life other than their own is futile.”

“So is ours, it would seem, or at least our ability to communicate with that life.” This above all else, Qweral and Janice had in common.

Inspired by Judah Gabriel Himango’s blogpost
A simulated universe suggests a divine engineer


2 thoughts on “Searching for Life Outside the Anthill

  1. Hey! I really enjoyed this bit of sci-fi, James. A good read with a bit of real science theory behind the short story. Great work!

    I think you gave a believable example of one possible explanation of Fermi’s Pardox: that life does exist, but like ants next to the highway, we lack the capacity to understand life outside our little circle. And “slipstreams” rings a bell in my Star Trek fanboy mind. 🙂

    All packaged up nicely in an enjoyable read. Nice work, James.


    • Thanks, Judah. Yeah, “slipstreams” was the first thing that popped into my head, borrowed from one or more episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. If I actually intended to publish this as more than a blog post, I’d probably clean up the terminology. I tend to write more character-driven stories since I don’t have a strong background in physics or anything similar.

      I did, on the other hand, give Toru Iwatani and descendent in the 22nd century and invented a new card game (I was tempted to call it “Fizzbin,” but the name’s been taken).


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