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From The Road to Bluehorse

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: three billion, four billion, five billion, six. Seven billion, eight billion, nine billion, ten. 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 stage 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, which made up for the contamination of the tropics, and the grain belts of North America and Eurasia turning to desert. 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 Mathilde 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 cool to honeymoon on the actual, you know, Moon, but it had also occurred to approximately 125 million Earthlings that a colony elsewhere might just be a good form of insurance.

Dr. 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 then thaw out their 1,023 frozen colonists for the job ahead.

It had been decided to send a colonization mission out first, because of the length of time they would have to wait for an exploration mission to return. But by 2260, more efficient methods had been developed, and these were employed to send an unmanned craft to Alpha Centauri at an average speed of 17,800 kilometers per second, or about 6% of light speed: the maximum was up to 13%. Three robot spacecraft were sent, in 2262, 2264 and 2267. The first of these was expected to report about 2342, its signals traveling seventeen times as fast as the unmanned craft had.

The new methods of propulsion were soon employed in another colony mission: 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 Ganymede and Callisto, the two largest moons of Jupiter. Several asteroids, including Vesta and Mathilde, went from bases to 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 vacation, 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, verily the speed of light, 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. There was no need to freeze anyone.

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

I will post another Bluehorse excerpt tomorrow: this bit is not about character development or even plot really. This one is about Clay Gilbert’s past, which happens to be (my best, most realistic) guess about our own future.

Want to read The Road to Bluehorse? It’s true that the original version is up on WordPress for free, as chapter pages (pull down from the menu at the top of the blog page), but it’s been significantly rewritten, so, in case you don’t feel like waiting for PDMI to eventually get around to publishing it, drop me an email and I will send you the whole thing as a pdf.