Clay Gilbert stood through the whole ceremony. It wasn’t terribly long, and it wasn’t intentionally moving, but he was wiping a tear by the time it was over and his father’s ashes were scattered to the steely sea. He turned from the funeral dock, turned and faced the headland.
A hand grasped his. “Hey Clay,” said his older sister, Marie, “going to be okay?”
“I think so,” said Clay.
Another hand took his other hand. He looked down: Yvette, Marie’s kid, gave him a quick smile and then looked up meaningfully at the top of the broken mountain. “Is that an old castle there?” she asked. “Was there a castle up there when you were little?”
“No,” said Clay, “it’s just a lookout tower. It’s pretty ruined.” He looked up to the rounded stony peak overlooking the harbor and remembered looking down from there as a child, maybe Yvette’s age, with his mom and dad. Dad would of course have made his lookout tower joke: Do you know why it’s called a lookout tower? Because if it falls on you, they yell, “Look out! Tower!” Every time. And gosh darn it, Clay was wiping a few more tears away.
“Clay,” said Marie.
“I know. I am too. Listen, Clay.” He turned and looked into her eyes: blue into blue. She was six years older than him, and they were the only surviving children of Peter Gilbert and Annelise Amande. Annelise, who died in an accident with their younger sister Gina ten years ago. Peter, who died of cancer, leaving behind the woman with whom he had tried to start a new family twelve years ago. Now, it was Clay and Marie, and Marie’s husband John, and Yvette.
And the girl Clay was supposed to be dating, years ago, was it years now? They were together just long enough for Dad to get the idea that she ought to be penciled into the family. Clay could remember her face. Her name: a W name. Wendy. That was it. Her kiss, not that it was anything amazing. Her talk, her incessant talk of nothing. Her odd indifferent half smile when he actually got to talk. How bad a girlfriend had she been? Bad enough to put him off girlfriends.
Marie was saying something and Clay hurried to focus. “Just us,” she was saying. “We need to rely on each other. You promise me you’ll be with us for the holidays? Clay? Promise?”
“I promise,” said Clay.
“Uncle Clay?” asked Yvette, and he looked gravely down upon her, expecting her to demand that he super promise. “Did you grow up in the lookout tower?”
“Ah, no,” he said, “we were in Rockport when I grew up. Mom was a teacher.”
“It was a nice ceremony, wasn’t it?” said Marie’s husband John, joining the conversation on the dock after an obligatory chat with the priestess. “Very moving.”
“Can’t argue with the weather,” said Clay.
“No, never any reason to do that anyway,” said Dad’s cousin What’s His Name from Halifax. A few of the other hardly-known relatives laughed in the next conversation over, while Clay and Marie and Yvette and John gazed off over the harbor. It really was a beautiful day: as people liked to say, days like this were why you lived in Maine, as if there weren’t days like this in Halifax or Scotland or Iceland or Greenland or New Zealand or the Ross Peninsula. Perhaps not so much in Iceland or Greenland. It rained a lot there.
“I’m serious,” said Marie. “Be with us for Christmas. It’ll mean a lot to me. You, all by yourself.” She held his eyes a moment and added, “We need to stick together, we’re all we got.”
“I know,” said Clay.
“You gonna be okay? From here?”
“Yes! Yes, Marie, I’m gonna be okay. You?”
“I’m not worried about me, Clay.”
“Marie,” said Clay. “It was great seeing you. Have a safe trip. You staying in town tonight?”
“Yes, we thought we’d head back in the morning. And you?”
“I’m heading back on the evening train,” said Clay. “I think I’ll walk around the old burg for a little first, then catch my ride. Marie.” He gave her a hug, then grabbed Yvette in a hug that lifted her off the ground with a squeal. He put her down again, gave Marie one more kiss and said, “See you. Promise.”
He walked away from the dock and across the field next to it. The wooden ships still floated in the nearer harbor to the left of the dock, just as they had when Clay was a child, but this field, had it not once been a parking lot? Now it was a lovely garden. That must be regarded as an improvement, as must most things about Life on Earth that had changed since Clay was a boy, and still, he could not help think, it seemed like they were in the midst of cleaning the place up to close it down. “The world has moved on,” as King had written in days of yore: perhaps the Dark Tower was inspired by that ruined lookout tower on the headland. Dad had liked to say that the place was going down the tubes, going to the dogs, circling the drain, but he had been wrong about that, in that way that he was always wrong. He had chosen an opinion and he had stuck to it through thin and thick and regardless of evidence to the contrary. The world was not going to dogs or down tubes: in many ways, everything was getting slowly better, the healing, the slow healing of the past hundred years, that had gone on all Dad’s life, was still measurably going on.
But Clay could not shake the feeling that they were making the corpse presentable for the funeral. Perhaps that was too strong, perhaps it was suggested by the circumstances, but there was something to it. Maybe it was the lovely park where there had been a factory or a superstore or a busy parking lot. Was it an improvement? Sure. Was it a sign of rebirth? Maybe. Was it a sign of humanity’s resurgence? Not so much.
He crossed the street and walked up the next street and slowed down outside a café, where he had eaten a fine lunch today and would shortly have a fine dinner before walking to the station and heading back to Bangor. He pulled out his phone and looked at it, punched the screen, waited for an answer, and then said, “Yes, Su Park? It’s Clay. Clay Gilbert. Yes, I’m signing on. Yep. I’m sure. I’m sure I’m sure. I’m going.”
That was the night of 21 July 2333. Clay took the train back to Bangor and found he already had messages from Ms Su Park, lead pilot for the so-called Human Horizon Expedition, and from an aide to the expedition’s overall director, Dr Henri Georges. They welcomed his acceptance and looked forward to his coming on board. There were forms to fill out and a few more medical tests to be done by Clay’s doctor (in addition to the many Clay had already submitted to when he had been induced to apply last spring) and lots of files to read. The Ghost 201 single crew explorer pod was a two-generation leap in the design of one-person utility spacecraft, and even if the simulator program they sent him was just a pale imitation of the real thing, it was a very exciting and difficult
pale imitation. He had time to study, fortunately: he wasn’t expected to report for training till October, and the launch date was set as March 2334.
So Clay went back to work and worked his tail off. He did his best not to imagine that the freight shuttles he was flying for a living were Ghost 201s. It was difficult to really confuse the two, as he switched from flying the real, clunky, rugged, slow shuttles by day to simulating the mythical, tiny, delicate and zippy explorer pods by night.
The explorer pod, the Ghost: he knew what he wanted to call it. It was a space fighter. He had seen Star Wars, and the Second Foundation series from the 22nd Century, and played Destiny: Star all through his tween-hood. The Ghost looked plain from the outside, a grey-black lozenge two meters long, but it blew away anything science fiction writers or gamers had ever imagined.
Clay held onto his job as long as he could manage to. He found it surprisingly easy not to tell anyone that he was on the Human Horizon Expedition, and he didn’t even let the cat out of the bag when he gave his ten day notice. Somehow the fact that he was five centimeters shorter than the shortest person at work seemed to help. Everyone thought him the quiet sort, so no one pressed him on his plans. When he finally quit, it was only because he had to fly to Quebec for the hop to the Moon to start training on 12 October. His last day of work was, literally, the eleventh: he took two shuttle trips to take foodstuffs up for the ships that supplied the asteroid miners, and bring their ore down.
The second trip up, he had his old timey music on the headphones. It was a grand mix of his favorites, nothing from even the current century, but as he took off, with the Moon full and just above the horizon, orange as an actual orange, that one song came on: guitar or something, sounding half like a chime and half like a chain saw. And then the ghostly, angelic-demonic backing vocals, and then the diction-averse male lead singer, and those lyrics struggling to be read through the haze of his voice:“Heard that red moon talking, red moon, talk to me.” Clay, who had felt nothing very much for a long time, felt something, and he kept feeling it, kept hitting replay time and time again. “Gimme, gimme shelter, oh yeah” (something). He never was sure what the something was. But he was sure it was important.
“Gimme shelter” was playing in Clay’s head the whole time he was helping unload the shuttle and load it up again. He switched over to Vivaldi for the trip back down. Then he went home, took a shower, went to bed, got up in the morning and headed for the station for the trip to Quebec.
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, 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.
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 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. Three 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 the two largest moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto. 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 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 the enterprise they would name, with their usual clumsiness of nomenclature, the Human Horizon Project.
The new propulsion systems involved three major innovations: first, the drive systems themselves were much more efficient than even those of the Venture missions had been; second, they were powered without a matter propellant by use of virtual ions, with the energy collected by highly efficient solar receivers and stored by highly efficient and compact batteries; and third, for the purposes of the one-person spacecraft which would revolutionize interstellar exploration, both the thrust and the batteries were made especially, almost unimaginably compact.
These had been tested around the Solar System, where the increased acceleration and efficiency were nice but not quite revolutionary. Then, inevitably, they were tested on the much vaster distances between the Sun and nearby stars. For a photon of light, the trip to Pluto would take under six hours; the trip to Alpha Centauri would take over four years. For a Ghost 200, the original prototype “single crew explorer pod,” the trip to Pluto might occupy twelve hours; the trip to Alpha C would take, in Earth calendar time, a little over four years. Time dilation would make that seem like weeks to the crew of the spacecraft. The round trip would be nine years, but would seem more like a few months to the crews, including exploration.
And so, in 2321, a small expedition, much smaller than Venture or Centaur, was sent to Alpha C. They were a pair of Ghost 200s and a slightly larger ship with a crew of six, and when they took off, hardly anyone seemed to notice. When they returned, in the summer of 2330, there were parades and speeches and science units in schools, and there was a detectable up-tick in Humanity’s interest in space exploration. Woohoo! We have sent men (actually both Ghost pilots were women) to another star and they have returned with pictures and samples! The crews were briefly in the news, but did not make a huge impression on most people, including Clay Gilbert, whose job, while it involved space, was actually quite blue collar. Anyway, no one particularly tried to make heroes out of them. The two Ghost pilots and most of the crew of the larger ship went straight to work on the much more ambitious Human Horizon mission, which aimed much farther than Alpha C.
And there was a tiny negative bit of news: the Centaur mission, due at Alpha C any time now, had not arrived yet. Having set off eighty years ago, their humongous colony ship had been lapped by two Ghosts and an explorer craft with a total crew of eight.
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. He was a very, very little guy. 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. Good towered over them both—physically. Park watched Clay with an eagle eye 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 have tested the propulsion: it wasn’t dramatically announced, but the first thing the Human Horizon project did, a few years back, was send three small spacecraft to Alpha Centauri just to look. As far as we know, that is the only successful interstellar mission ever. The Centaur Project wasn’t there yet.”
“I remember,” said Clay. “I was paying attention. The first manned mission to another star. It was cool to see the pictures, but it didn’t look too different from our solar system, except for having three stars.”
“And no Earth-like planets,” said Park. “The Centaur Project isn’t going to be farming anytime soon.”
“No,” said Good. “At the time the Centaur Project launched, ninety years ago, it would have been too expensive and taken too long for them to check the place out first. But no, the Centaur mission hadn’t arrived. It might have blown up in interstellar space for all we know. The second Venture project might have founded a colony by now, or they might have fallen victim to any number of quite lethal technical glitches. All three of those projects might bear no fruit at all except to send the first human corpses to the stars. 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, “He’ll go, if he wants to. Mr Gilbert, perhaps your tests exaggerate, but you test as the best male we’ve seen, and your numbers, reaction time, eyesight, peripheral awareness, frankly, you exceed 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. But I would suggest you try Asteroid Pirates.”
“It’s a rather simple game,” he replied, thinking of Destiny: Star.
“Work your way up to the top level,” said Park, “and then tell me if it’s simple. And try the cheat code 55555. Five fives.” 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. You aren’t going to be, what do they call them in the videos? A fighter pilot.” 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 head on out of the Solar System.