Deepa Sankaranarayanan did not know many things.
At the age of six, Deepa was puttering around the big old barn, drawing patterns in the dirt floor with a stick, and staying out of the way of the others, as she’d been told to do. The hulking steel generator in the far corner began clanging and rattling, as it occasionally did. She knew that when that happened, her father would take the big wrench and bang it on the side until the machine settled back into its comforting hum.
Deepa wandered over to the work-bench and found the wrench, which was almost as tall as she was. She couldn’t lift it. Putting her tiny hands on her tiny hips, she pondered the problem for a moment, then grabbed a screwdriver from the bench instead, approached the generator cautiously (because she knew she’d get in trouble if anyone saw what she was doing), and unscrewed the control access panel on the side.
The knobs and toggle switches seemed to be at the proper settings, but the little digital display, which she had to wipe off with the edge of her shirtsleeve because it was covered with so much greasy dust, showed that the generator was running far too hot. So, without considering that what she was doing was probably really wrong, she found the screws to remove the control panel itself, and having pulled that off, prodded the exposed wires and circuit boards underneath. She quickly saw that one of relays had corroded and was throwing off sparks.
Deepa found an identical part on the workbench, carefully adjusted some of the wiring to divert power from the faulty relay, and made the necessary fixes. While she was in there, she realized that a couple tweaks would make the quantum-fusion reaction run six percent more efficiently. She made the adjustments and set about replacing everything she had removed.
As she was screwing the access panel back on, her father entered the barn. “Deepa!” he yelled, “I told you to stay away from that generator!”
“Sorry, papa,” she murmured, eyes downcast, “it’s just that it was making noises and…”
Deepa ran out of the barn. Her father lifted the big wrench and gave the generator a solid whack for good measure. He shook his head in frustration, and yelled after her, “Don’t you know to stay away from dangerous things!”
Deepa did not know to stay away. And neither she nor her father knew that, had Deepa not repaired the generator when she did, the resulting meltdown would have eradicated all life in a five hundred kilometer radius.
At the age of nine, Deepa was helping her oldest brother tend the sheep in the far pasture when she asked, “Why is it that so many of our sheep get sick?”
“That’s just the way it is,” said her brother Ramesh. “We lose about ten percent of our flock each year. That’s about normal for a farm this size. Don’t worry about it.”
Deepa did worry about it, because she did not know that there shouldn’t have been anything she could do. The sheep had evolved over thousands of years to thrive in the pastures of New New Zealand. But there were microbial remnants left over from before the planet had been terraformed that the Empire’s best xenobiologists had been unable to vaccinate against.
Deepa looked down at the lamb she held in her arms, whom she had secretly named Sarabi (because she did know that she wasn’t supposed to name the sheep). She stroked its fluffy wool, and decided that she didn’t like the idea that it had a one in ten chance of dying.
In the weeks that followed Deepa and Sarabi were inseparable. While her family imagined that she had simply grown too attached to a lamb, Deepa took every moment away from prying eyes to sneak into the clinic room, where she analyzed Sarabi's blood beneath the microscope, studied its genome, and ran electromagnetic resonance scans on it with a makeshift scanner that she’d cobbled together from items Deepa found in the barn.
Deepa had never focused on a single problem for so long, but after about three months she had developed a gene therapy, using the DNA of a native tree fungus, to immunize the entire flock. By the age of nine Deepa had learned not to tell anyone what she’d accomplished, so she just snuck down to the pens when no one was looking and treated all of the sheep.
Deepa did not know that this was deeply strange behavior for a nine-year-old girl who had never had formal schooling. She also did not know that her cure set the flock of sheep on an evolutionary course which would result in their descendants becoming the dominant life form on New New Zealand about 1.7 million years in the future.
At the age of eleven, Deepa convinced her father to allow her to attend the provincial school, thirty kilometers away, two days a week.
Professor Hamster, as he demanded to be called, was a squat, balding, permanently irate man who was constantly scratching the back of his hands, and had at one time dreamed of being a respected professor in one of the high universities back on Earth, or at least somewhere in the Imperial central star system.
The Professor sized up the tiny, timid farm-girl with enormous brown eyes.
“Can you read?”
“Do you know math?”
“OK, go sit in the back.” The Professor didn’t understand what these farmers were thinking, sending their kids to his school so late in life. His earlier dreams dashed, he now fantasized about discovering a singular genius in his classroom, whose talent he could cultivate, and then ride his coattails all the way back to the Imperial seat of power. And while Professor Hamster fully appreciated his own brilliance, he had almost completely lost hope of discovering that magical individual in his tenure on New New Zealand.
That day's class was a history lesson. “And that,” Professor Hamster said, concluding his lecture of the day, “is how we concluded that the only intelligent life in the vast universe is humanity. Despite high expectations in the first thousand years of exploration, the Empire did not identify a singular sentient species on any of the planets it discovered. The nonexistence of intelligent alien life is now undisputed.”
The professor had said something that didn’t make much sense to Deepa. Whenever people landed on a new world, they looked for things like cities and agriculture and monuments, which would be signs of an intelligent species. But, wasn’t it possible that an intelligent alien civilization might not build cities and monuments, or engage in agriculture? Or, was it possible that intelligent life existed, but it simply had not evolved to that state of societal organization yet?
Deepa wanted to explore these ideas with her teacher, though at the same time she had begun to intuit that there were certain topics that it was best she stay silent on. So, she tentatively half-raised her hand.
“Are there any questions?” Professor Hamster asked in a rote sort of way, as there were never any questions. Scanning the room, he thought that the new girl looked like she might have something to ask, but he was tired and didn’t want to deal with it, so he ignored her. “Class dismissed,” he said.
And thus, Deepa added yet another item to the list of things that she did not know. She didn’t mind, though, as Deepa Sankaranaryanan was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the things in her mind were probably not of much interest to anyone.
© 2020 Ryan Kriger