Sunday, December 30, 2012

Second Hand Inheritance

 (Author's Note: This is a little post-Mayan Doomsday fun based on a National Geographic Channel special entitled "Evacuate Earth." Certain aspects of the show have been changed just for fun and because the show's assumptions were stupid.)  

Out of all the crew and passengers aboard the United Earth Ship Pathfinder it was the captain herself who precisely expressed the unspoken thoughts of everyone as it entered orbit around the fourth planet in the Tau Ceti star system.

“Oh my God,” she said while viewing the world that by default had become the new home for the small remnant of humanity left alive, “we actually made it.” History excused Captain Elizabeth Lin Dunn for her less than profound statement for the sheer fact that since the old Christian calendar year of 2042 the human race had been facing near certain extinction.

The nightmare began when several swarms of house-sized meteors crashed into various locations on the Earth. Most impacted in remote regions causing no deaths or destruction but the few exceptions were enough to send science teams in all the old nations scrambling for answers. Needless to say after eighteen months of scanning the skies the results they found condemned the entire human race. The various governments, paralyzed and dumbfounded by the sheer enormity of what they found, tried to keep the information classified but after several suicides by prominent astronomers’ word finally leaked out forcing an official announcement.

By mutual agreement, the leaders of the major countries went on both radio and television to jointly announce that in one-hundred and twenty years a rogue neutron star of approximately three solar masses would pass through the solar system. The gravitational disruption was certain to throw every planet in the Solar System into wild new orbits, if not destroy them outright.

At first, the general population across the planet refused to believe the news. Some thought it a first world ploy to scam the undeveloped nations for their resources. Many suspicious types in the richer countries thought it was a conspiracy to establish a one-world government. While the national governments went silent with indecision and the majority of the world’s population refused to believe how dire the situation several teams of scientists and engineers scrambled to come up with some means to deny the oncoming interstellar rogue a complete victory.

Within a year the scientists and engineers purposed the Horizon Project, a plan to build an interstellar ark to take some of humanity and as many other terrestrial lifeforms as possible to another world. Despite their sincere efforts, the members that came up with the project were laughed at and ridiculed from every quarter.  For two years humanity tried to forget about the strange swarm of meteors of 2042 but like the myths of gods becoming angry over human petulance the universe would not allow the arrogance of the naked primates to stand for long.

In 2045, several observatories and soon after that scores of amateur astronomers detected a swarm of six large comets beyond Saturn headed for the inner solar system. By sheer chance Jupiter was in the proper orbital position to take the hits by four of the comets with one impacting its giant moon Europa destroying it and creating a new, massive ring system. The sixth comet, far enough away from the rest was thrown off its intended course, continued into the inner solar system, and back out into the darkness. After that scare, everyone was far more receptive to the Horizon Project.

Horizon drew heavily on an idea first developed back in the 1960’s on a spaceship design that used nuclear bombs like a putt-putt motor to propel itself thru space. A hypothetical spaceship would expel a nuclear device behind it; have it exploded at some safe distance away, with the blast hitting a pusher plate on the ship. The idea was very workable but Cold War tensions at that time ultimately killed the any chance at seeing giant space ships cruising the solar system in the twentieth century. As the project died, a famous scientist at the time remarked that if you upscale the design such a ship could reach a significant percentage of the speed of light.

For the desperate early days of the Horizon Project after the comet scare it was found that even working with test data from the 1960’s much practical engineering research still needed to be done. For that reason, it was decided to build a smaller ship before the giant ark. The smaller ship would still be equipped with everything needed to restart humanity but its main purpose would be to allow enough practical knowledge to be build the main vessel.

Fifty years after the decision was made the Pathfinder left the solar system for Tau Ceti with the main ark still under construction. Our destination was actually discovered in 2012 but at the time, there were huge questions as to whether it was even a rocky, terrestrial type planet. Further observations from space-based telescopes in the mid-2020’s refined our knowledge until it was certain an earth-type planet with a oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere and an average planetary temperature that would allow water to exist in a liquid form. The exoplanet team for the Horizon Project knew of other possible candidates but uncertainties about them made Tau Ceti Four the best bet for a desperate species.

While the Pathfinder itself was a seven kilometer long ship with the humans living in a rotating sphere six hundred meters in diameter which recreated a very earth-like environment. For two-hundred fifteen years we traveled the immense distance to our new home hoping for the best. It was a tough go for the first ten years, major issues with untried systems kept the crew struggling to prevent total disaster. At least our efforts prevented the Ark from having similar calamities when it finally launched fifteen years before the neutron star arrived.

After all the celebrations the over six-thousand people aboard the Pathfinder looked down on the planet, they traveled so far to make home and were greatly disappointed. After two centuries of living comfortably in an artificial habitat, to them Tau Ceti Four was a cold and desolate place with nothing but bleak, windblown continents and oceans empty of life except for single cell plants and animals.

The population of Pathfinder was so disillusioned that barely a Earth year after arrival there was open talk of just staying onboard and building factories on the largest of Tau Ceti Four’s two moons and constructing a whole series of habitats similar to the twenty-four kilometer long Ark carrying the greater mass of surviving humans and terrestrial plants and animals. Along with synthetic reality helmets with millions of recorded hours of Earth’s lost wildernesses and cities to experience and explore in a total sensory immersion people could live out their years in peace and security.    

That was eleven Earth years ago and for the most part everyone is just waiting for the arrival of the Ark in thirty-three years before making any decision. My parents, Nadir and Lydia Chopra, were part of the dissenting group, mainly anyone in the life sciences divisions, wanting a chance to shape Tau Ceti Four into a real planetary home for humanity.

This group of a little over a thousand people picked a spot near the equator on one of Tau Ceti Four’s continents to establish New Jericho. My parents named me Aaron and I was sixteen when they and my three younger siblings set foot on the surface of the planet our group had unofficially named “Haven.”  I immediately hated the place just for the simple fact that my parents had taken me away for my friends and activities that could only be done on the ship. To make matters worse, life for the first few years was very hard as the group built the town and the basic infrastructure to support a proto-civilization.

My father was killed barely a year later during the building of the aqueduct that would supply fresh water to the town. I had hoped my mother would chose to return to Pathfinder but his death only made her more determined to stay. When the basic framework for New Jericho, including a wall surrounding the entire town, was completed, the settlers began their real job trying to adapt Haven to imported terrestrial life like grasses and trees.

As the years passed my mother’s insane devotion to Haven slowly began to rub off on my siblings and me. Since they were younger, it was easier for my brother and two sisters to adapt but it took meeting my future wife, Ruth Campbell, before I became committed to life on our glorified mudball. Following my parents footsteps I became a botanist with a secondary degree in fresh water ecosystems. Our progress in seeding any terrestrial life on Haven was exceedingly slow, and where it took root every one of us “grounders”, as the people still living on the ship liked to call us, took a very parental attitude in its care and further development. That is why I received a call in the middle of one of Haven’s long nights.

“Hey Aaron,” the voice of my boss Akemi Satou said from my communicator.“Got some very bad news, just received a data burst from the relay station out in Apple Valley, looks like there was a huge seismic event. At first light, I need you to take one of the buggies over there and find out how bad things are.”

“Yeah no problem Akemi,” I said wiping the sleep from my eyes while glancing over at my sleeping wife and baby son. We’re three Haven weeks from a scheduled visit anyway so I’ll load up and go ahead and do the full inspection.”

“Good man,” Akemi said, “if the situation turns out to be a total disaster call me on the comm and we will bring the entire seeding team out there to help pick up the pieces.”

After hanging up on Akemi I laid back down in bed and felt a huge wave of disappointment wash over me. My mom had led the team that did the first several waves preparation and actual seeding of Apple Valley making it one of our few huge successes. Ringed by ancient, weathered mountains the valley itself was protected from that region’s harsh spring and fall winds and with the dependable Apple River running down the middle the valley was always well watered. In the springtime, the valley was covered with grass and wildflowers and even had a collection of healthy young oak and pine trees.

The idea of most if not all of that destroyed was more than enough to prevent me from sleeping so after kissing my small family goodbye I left our small cottage and began walking over to the science buildings. Within an hour, I had a buggy loaded up with both camping supplies and test equipment in case the damage to Apple Valley was minor. Driving through the town’s main gate and watching its walls disappear behind me I had to laugh at the silliness of us humans. With absolutely no Haven lifeforms bigger than an amoeba-like animal, we still felt insecure enough to enclose New Jericho inside high security walls. To me it seemed a huge and stupid waste of resources and time but even now with the town council making plans to expand the perimeter to provide more living and working space its sort of amazing we humans were intelligent enough to escape or doomed home solar system. At least we Grounders could easily expand, those living on the Pathfinder and the Ark had to live within tightly confined boundaries inside their closed system habitats. 

After a three-hour night drive, I arrived at the mountains surrounding Apple Valley and made camp on one of the highest plateaus that would give me a near total view of the area after sunrise. As I more or less planned, I arrived at my location with four hours left to Haven’s fifteen terrestrial hour night. Both Haven’s moons were below the horizon leaving the stars an unobstructed stage to show off all their glory. I quickly spotted the wounded Sol and like every human being left alive, the final images of Earth being torn apart by the passing neutron star were burned into my soul.

Both Pathfinder and the Ark were already well out of the solar system but an array of satellites beamed the final pictures to both ships. They were mind numbingly depressing in their scope and were only surpassed by the knowledge nearly two billion people were left alive on the planet at that time in various deep shelters choosing to ride it out to the very end. The end result was the shattered Earth forming a new asteroid belt around the sun as the neutron star passed back out into deep space.

Almost as if on cue, Pathfinder sailed above the horizon bringing me back to the present. The brightest object in the sky I aimed my binoculars on it to see the new, giant photovoltaic solar sails being deployed to increase the ship’s available power. It was common knowledge for both us Grounders and for the Spacers still living on the ship that a schism was developing between the two groups. Such a split went against every promise made on the long voyage to Tau Ceti. During those long and lonely years, we all assured each other that this was Humanity’s chance to be something more than a bunch of squabbling monkeys. That night on the plateau, I drifted off to sleep saying a prayer to an uncaring universe hoping that something would prevent what seemed inevitable.

(Final author's notes: First, this is the end of part one, and yes whether you like it or not there will really be a part two since its almost done and I have a clear idea where I want to take it, unlike a few other stinky pieces I have more or less abandoned. Second, the nuclear pulse drive used on both the fictional Pathfinder and the Ark was actually developed in the 1960's and was called Project Orion. Third, the show had the destination for the fictional survivors as Barnard's Star. In reality it's a freaking low mass red dwarf whose "Goldilocks zone" is to damn close for any real chance for there to be a planet we could hope to live. Adding to the real estate issues, red dwarfs tend to have massive flares, and Barnard had a huge one back in 1998, that would cook any human refuge colony without a nice supply of one-billion sunblock. Okay, nuff said.) 



Windsmoke. said...

Great stuff, bring on pt 2.

jadedj said...

Gimme part two...NOW!

lime said...

anxious for part 2. i have to agree with your premise that no matter where we may escape to we can't escape human nature.

Pixel Peeper said...

I'm fascinated by all the detail you come up with - great story telling!

Anxiously waiting for Part 2 as well.

Rose L said...

Have you thought of creating a fiction book of your short stories?

Akelamalu said...

Well I for one can't wait for Part 2!!

Red Nomad OZ said...

Several kinds of scare factor - and you still leave us wanting more!! Bring it on!!!

Happy New Year!!

Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

What Red says!

Commander Zaius said...

Windsmoke, JadedJ, and Lime: Hopefully I can part two out by Saturday.

Pixel: Most of the detail came from the NatGeo special. That particular scenario freaked me out.

Rose L: A few times but I have still have a lot of practise I need to do before I am ready. On the other hand I have read a few self-published Kindle books that make me look like Hemingway.

Akelamalu: As usual the end of the holidays and the return to normal life has slowed things down.

Red Nomad and Doc: Yeah, a neutron star is a very final and unescapeable type of Doomsday.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Good job! You had me from the get-go, when you said some of the show's assumptions were stupid.

Rose L said...

Waiting for the rest. LOVE the last line on this!!!

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