I sat up late last night outside with Dan and some of the children. There’s a hill above the orchard that they use to grow fuel wood, but it’s just been harvested so there’s a great view of the sky.
Myrmeoids don’t go in for artificial lighting, much, except for hospitals and so forth, because they can get by pretty well in the dark by sensing air movements with their antennae. They also can’t see stars clearly, but I can, and the stars here are fantastic. Tonight was a good viewing night—only a few wispy clouds, and the larger moon was not in the sky. The smaller moon was, but showed only a half, low down on the horizon to the north, behind the trees. The smaller moon is an amazing thing, by the way. It’s tilted 90 degrees from the plane of the ecliptic.
On our world or theirs, most heavenly bodies appear to move from east to west, because the world itself is spinning underneath them. We’re moving, not them. The moon and the planets move differently, moving against the background of stars, because they are moving, and their real movement plus the world’s spin produces their apparent movement. Our moon appears to move across the sky more slowly than the sun because the real movement of the moon is a west to east orbit around Earth. It is the movement of the moon that gives it multiple phases, as it shows different faces of itself to the sun over the course of four weeks. Their larger moon works much the same way and looks much like ours—close enough that you might miss the difference if you weren’t paying attention.
Their smaller moon is different. Because it orbits around the poles, not around the equator, its apparent movement east to west is unaffected by its real movement. For ten and a half days it rises with the sun and sets with it and so is usually invisible in the sun’s glare. Then, it rounds the North Pole and rises at sunset to sit on the northern horizon all night as a half-moon. The next night it rises at sunset again, but climbs further into the sky, visibly rounder. For seven days it tracks across the sky every night on a slight diagonal, reaching full as it passes over the tropics, riding high in the southern half of the sky, then finally disappearing beyond the southern horizon as it wanes toward half. Fourteen days later, it pops back up in the north. Tides around here must be wild.
Anyway, last night the moonlight was minimal, and close to the top of the sky was a very bright, topaz-colored star. I could have resolved it into a disc if I’d had my binoculars with me, I’ve done it before, but I’d left them in the house. It’s the next planet out from Ant-World, a gas giant almost as large as Jupiter, and somewhat closer to us that Jupiter is to you. Next to it are three less bright stars, the largest of its five inner moons. Two of them are visibly green.
I’m looking at extraterrestrial life. The fact that I look at extra-terrestrial life while in the company of large, intelligent arthropods makes it no less fantastic. You get used to a situation, you even get used to living on another planet, but somehow seeing a green star gets me every time. That’s why I got into this line of work to begin with, you know? Those green stars.
They’re ice worlds. It’s the ice, stained green by algae, that I see. They must be slow, cold worlds, with so little light coming from the sun. Their plants can’t be able to trap much energy, so food chains must be short, metabolisms slow. We know both of them support algae within the shelter of a thin layer of snow. During relatively warm weather, the snow and sea ice subliminate slowly into the atmosphere, raising the humidity slightly. When the air shifts from cold to frigid, the extra water vapor snows back out. Over time, algal cells freeze into the sea ice and are eventually eaten by tunneling worms. The first few meters of water are also green with phytoplankton, which is eaten by tiny floating animals, including larval ice worms. The top predators are jellyfish, on either world. Probably there is nothing on either world we would call intelligent, but after sending a couple of probes we have decided to give them their privacy. The Myrmeoids have never visited the other planets of their system, not even their own moons, nor have they wanted to. Perhaps because so many of them can fly they are content with the sky nature has given them?
Then again, they can’t see these worlds. They know they are there; they have instruments that can measure light and etch the images on to metal plates they can touch. They can even measure the gas composition of other planets’ atmospheres. They knew without us saying so that the two green stars are living worlds. Aside from the color of the ice, both moons have atmospheres that contain free oxygen and water vapor, neither of which persist without the agency of life. But perhaps if you can’t see a world hanging there, day in and day out, you can’t form the emotional desire to visit it? And surely our human desire to visit the stars began with a desire to touch the moon, originally conceived, perhaps, as nothing more than a silver shield hung in the sky?
Dan and the others could not form images of the night sky, but they could see the light of the sky, like a meaningless splatter of crystal. They could smell and hear the night. One of the kids is named Ka’te, which makes it very difficult not to think of her as female. She is seven years old, which means about the same thing for them as for us, and she is Dan’s protégé. A mentor is a child’s one special adult, the closest thing they have to a parent in this communal society. Unlike parentage, it’s non-transferable; if a mentor dies, the child will never be able to feel quite the same way about anyone again. As Dan and I talked, Ka’te kept touching him with her antennae, reassuring herself of his presence by scent and touch. I guess Dan figured she needed extra attention. When our conversation hit a lull he turned and licked her all over, like a mother cat washes a kitten.