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Old Earth had been through a lot. It had coalesced from interstellar debris, in a spin about a coalescing star, and it was good. It had passed through fire and acid rain and had somehow developed life, and it was good. Bacteria had consumed most of the carbon dioxide and belched out oxygen, destroying the environment that had created them, and they simply evolved into other forms that could breathe the oxygen and belch out carbon dioxide. Complex life had grown, had emerged from the sea, and had meanwhile diversified into vertebrates and arthropods and molluscs and jellies and echinoderms and various kinds of wormy things, and it was still fine. Giants walked the earth, and then crashed and died and were replaced by little furry and feathery things, and it was wonderful, while the trees grew so high and burst into flower.

Mice begot apes, apes learned to walk and make tools, and thus they became humans, and it was still okay. Humans began to talk and never stopped talking; they began to write and never stopped writing. They made better tools, they dug up ores and smelted metals and tamed all kinds of animals and plants. They found out about war and never stopped warring, as if they had discovered a new kind of sex.

They invented freedom and slavery. They invented love and hate. They invented war, but they invented opposition to war. They invented monarchy, but they invented democracy. They invented horror and blasphemy and lies and temptations and addictions and thoughtless destruction, but they also invented art and music and mathematics and science. They invented exploitation of resources and took short term profit at long term cost, they contaminated the air and the waters and the soil and they spread their diseases around like horrible pets, but they also began to clean up after themselves. It was a race.

In the nineteenth century, the world had started to seem full. In the twentieth, the great wars rolled back and forth across the globe, the poisons poured into the seas and the skies, but still the population grew toward complete saturation. In the twenty-first, destruction finally caught up with creation. There were just too many people with the power to make poisons and explosives: nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, weapons that only made sense on computer networks. But it was the nuclear ones that made all the difference, whether wielded by Pakistan and India or Israel and the Muslim world or Russia and England or by terrorists of this, that or the other stripe. Some renegade Russian submariner shot his missiles into New Jersey for no better reason than that British retaliatory strikes had destroyed St Petersburg. Terrorists were responsible for the destruction of Istanbul, Paris, much of Egypt, Sri Lanka and the major cities of Brazil; the ones who blew up Los Angeles were never even known. Twenty million people had perished at someone’s hand, and no one ever knew what the point was.

At some point the impetus ran out. The means did not, entirely, but somewhere around 2200, someone realized that no nuclear weapons had been used since the tit for tat terror wars that ravaged Africa between 2170 and 2180. The remnant population had already begun to pick itself up, and by 2220, their numbers were rebounding—well, from a low of under a hundred million to perhaps 125 million.

Technology was no longer very interesting to people. They had plenty of energy resources all of a sudden, enough water, just about enough arable land—well, there were corn farms now in Greenland and on Baffin Island. They were mostly over the concept of universal surveillance. Trains got better and better, but they remained trains; airplanes were all in museums. The only place where technological innovation continued was space.

The asteroids and nearer moons were mined for fancy things like iridium and platinum. Bases were built at Eros and Phobos and Vesta and Callisto and Miranda, and a working mine on Mars turned into a small colony, passing the one thousand mark in 2235. It was nice having new sources of metals, and it was always cool to go to the Moon for a honeymoon, but it had also occurred to approximately 125 million Earthlings that a colony elsewhere might just be a good idea.

Mr Albert Einstein had never been proved wrong. The speed of light was still the law, and no police were needed to enforce it. When the first colony ships headed for Alpha Centauri in 2242, under the aegis of the extremely cautious and extremely expensive Centaur project, they were expected to arrive in a hundred years (moving at a maximum of 8% of the speed of light) and thaw out their 160 frozen colonists for the job ahead.

By 2270, more efficient methods had been developed, and these were employed in the Venture project, which sent colony ships to Gliese catalog stars 581 and 667c. Leaving in 2272 and maxing out at a time-dilating 40% of the speed of light, Venture 1 planned to reach the red dwarf Gliese 581, 22 light years from Earth and orbited by at least three potentially habitable planets, in under eighty years including the lumbering acceleration and deceleration. It would only take another 22 years for signals to return from the system to inform Earth of the mission’s success. Venture 2 was sent in 2277 to Gliese 667, 26 light years away, where a triple star system included a red dwarf with a close-in and possibly habitable planet. Improvements allowed its speed to approach 50% of light speed, and with acceleration and deceleration likewise sped up, its arrival in its new neighborhood was expected around 2328, though news from there, if it came, would not come for twenty-six more years.

The next thirty years saw attention turn to cheaper, easier colonies on the bare rocks and windblown sands of the Earth’s own solar system cousins. The Mars colony was extended and given its own government. New methods began to produce something like farming on the two largest moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto. Several asteroids, including Vesta and Mathilde, gained new colonies, and Vesta’s got into the hydroponic farming business. Soon its population passed 1000; that of Mars was soon in the fifty thousand range.

But these were always tough climbs, or tough climes. In the neighborhood of Earth, nothing but Earth was anything like Earth, really. Even Mars: it received less light, had less atmosphere, and its atmosphere had less oxygen. It was missing lots of other things that had to be brought, though it had plenty of carbon and plenty of iron. Ganymede and Callisto had no air at all, and their sunlight was a tiny fraction of Earth’s. Venus and Mercury looked lovely but were in the lap of solar radiation and completely uninhabitable, even hellish. The Moon was just a nice place to honeymoon, or to train for space travel.

And then in the 2310s and 2320s, a series of innovations revolutionized space travel. Dr Einstein’s law still held, but a spaceship full of colonists could possibly, given a big enough solar battery, go from zero to nearly 300,000 km per sec in a matter of weeks. At that point, time dilation would mean that to the travelers, the clocks, including their body clocks, would hardly move. They would reach their destination, say, Gliese 667c, twenty-six years later, but to them it would seem like only a few months had passed.

And that was when the remaining governments, corporations and academies of the world began thinking about what would they would name, with their usual clumsiness of nomenclature, the Human Horizon Project.

And at some point in the past year, some computer had picked out Clay Gilbert’s statistics, his eye scores, his hand-eye coordination, something presumably about his brains, something about his body type, just 152 centimeters tall, just 60 kilograms. Cross-checked with the fact that Clay had flown shuttles for eight years, and that he had managed to certify as junior pilot for asteroid runs and moon landings, and Human Horizon just had to look into him. So they had sent a couple of medics to the shuttle launch at Bangor Interplanetary, and he had spent an afternoon satisfying them that their statistics were no exaggeration.

Then two women came to see him at work. One was Su Park, who would be his boss, a tiny intense woman of Korean extraction, and the other was Rayanne Good, who was some sort of scientist-executive, a woman not much older than Clay but with about five graduate degrees. Park watched while Good explained, in undramatic detail, just what the mission was and what they were offering him.

“If you are selected, and you choose to come,” she said, “you will never see your family again. You might never see Earth again. And there is a very real possibility that you will die. We still don’t know if the Alpha C mission has gotten there. The Venture projects might both have blown up in interstellar space for all we know. There are hundreds of risks that we’ve analyzed, and thousands we can’t analyze, or don’t even imagine. It’s also entirely possible that we will take you out to the Moon in October to train, and you’ll be assigned an alternate slot and you may not even go.”

She looked at Su Park, who gave her a look, then glared at Clay and said, “Oh, he’ll go, if he wants to. He’s the best male we’ve seen, and his numbers, frankly, he beats a lot of the girls.”

“We have a certain number of slots set aside for male SCEP pilots,” explained Good. “For, ah, demographic reasons, as you can imagine. We are establishing a colony. But as Ms Park says, your numbers are good enough even without that. Of course we’ll see during training.”

“Mr Gilbert,” said Su Park, “your favorite online game is City? Why don’t you try some of the shooters?”

Clay shifted. “I like City,” he said. “Have you played it?”

“Oh, sure,” said Park. “It’s very informative and all that. Lots of strategy. I would suggest Asteroid Pirates.”

“It’s a rather simple game,” he replied.

“Work your way up to the top level,” said Park, “and then tell me if it’s simple.” She half-smiled at Good. “It’s the best we have short of actually shooting things in space.”

“Ms Park knows,” said Good, “that this is a peaceful mission, we don’t expect to have to shoot at alien spaceships.” She gazed into his eyes a few more seconds, as if that would convince him. Then they both stood up. Good stuck out her hand. “It’s been wonderful speaking to you. We will send you much more information, of course. We can’t wait to hear that you’re joining us.”

And now, on the train to Quebec City, he finally was joining them. He sipped his coffee and gazed out the window. The Earth was flying past him, the deep pine forests and weathered mountains of the empty northwest corner of Maine and the adjoining part of Quebec. Earth had been through so much, but this spot, at least, looked like it might have eight thousand years ago.

He raised his eyebrows at a moose looking up from a stream. His past was flying from him, and his future lay in a direction perpendicular to this, up into space, then take a right and leave the Solar System.