Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ark Ship - Part 6 (The End)

A financial crisis at home had exacerbated the problem with the Russians. A major celebrity had been found in a compromising situation with a politician. Those two stories, along with a myriad of juicy gossip and chatter, were dominating the news.

Sutton was exhausted. His team had been working diligently to try to get the tachyon communication system up and running, and they had just made a major breakthrough. A grainy picture of Susan Macintosh appeared on the screen in front of them. The audio was distorted, but audible. She said, “Hello, Earth. If you can hear this, and see me, then we've done it.”

Sutton and his team cheered. With any luck, Susan would be getting a video message from them within a couple of days. Sutton instructed his press assistant to contact the news outlets. Sutton himself, after punching out a quick quantum message of congratulations to Susan, called Markey at the White House. He and Markey discussed the breakthrough excitedly and they were both awed by the potential to reinvigorate the space program. Markey said that he'd get the news to the President immediately, but of course, with everything else that was going on, Markey couldn't guarantee any kind of Presidential response or action. Sutton disconnected the call. His press assistant came over to him.

“Sir, I'm sorry, but none of the major news outlets will touch the story. They've all told me that there's too much happening on this planet to worry about stuff happening on other planets.”

“Dammit. I was afraid of that.” Sutton shook his head in frustration.

“I do have a reporter from Scientific American coming over to do a piece.”

“Well, at least that's something.”

Susan stared at the clumsy video rig she and her team had constructed. With any luck, the message from Sutton's team would be coming through any minute. Susan was desperate that this would work, because Woods and his anti-Earth supporters had come to dominate the colony. She hoped that seeing a video link to their home planet would help change some minds.

The video screen flashed a couple of times, and then slowly, a grainy picture came up. It showed a small room filled with computer equipment. A man in the middle of the screen started speaking, the audio distorted but audible. “Hello, Susan. I'm George Sutton. If you see me, then we've done it.”

Susan smiled and tapped a quantum message back to Sutton – they now knew that two way video communication was possible. It was an incredible breakthrough.

Something was nagging at her, though. Somehow, she had expected – she didn't know – something more official looking? The room in the video didn't look like the old newsreel footage she'd seen of NASA Mission Control. It looked like a small office building. And nobody was wearing a uniform. She decided it was probably nothing, and decided to call a colony meeting to discuss the breakthrough and watch the video message.

The meeting was sparsely attended. Woods had told his supporters to stay in their own quarters, and many of them had. Still, Susan was convinced that she could move a few people, and maybe they would move a few more. She stood up at the lectern and pointed at the video display.

“For centuries, the only contact our little band of explorers has had with our home planet has been through quantum code. Short, typed messages, no audio, no video, no real connection. Well, today that has changed. Thanks to our good friend, George Sutton, whose ancestor Verne Poole helped lead the crew that started our journey across the stars, and thanks to my science team here, who have wrought miracles from ancient technology, we now have a new, more concrete, more direct connection to our home world.

“Tachyons – particles that travel faster than light – can carry audio and video messages. Until recently, this has only been a theoretical statement, at the edges of physics. Well, it's no longer just a theory.”

With that, Susan activated the message. The colonists watched, and Susan could tell that they were impressed. When the message was over, Susan said, “We've set it up so that we can receive a video message from Earth about once a week. We can also send Earth messages about what we're doing.”

Susan paused and looked serious for a moment. “Look, I know it's tempting to want to abandon contact with Earth and just do our own thing. I know it's sometimes difficult to feel a connection to that planet. But Earth is our home – it's our origin. It's where we come from. And that's important. I think it's very important both for us and them.

“Please, when you leave here, please talk to your friends and family. Tell them not to buy into radical isolationism. We need Earth, and they need us.”

There was a smattering of applause, and the colonists filed out. Outside the meeting hall, a small knot of protesters carried signs demanding a halt to all communications with Earth. Susan noticed to her dismay that Mike Harris seemed to be among the leaders of this protest.

George Sutton had finally managed to attract the attention of a few of the news outlets, and he had made the rounds of the chat shows to discuss the tachyon communication breakthrough. Of course, he had to argue and claw his way around the army of pundits that the news outlets put on the chat shows with him to show a “balanced” perspective, many of whom had absolutely no scientific knowledge whatsoever. George's disdain for the media grew stronger every day. His disdain for government also grew. Despite this major breakthrough, nobody in Congress wanted to even talk to him about the possibility of America starting up a new space program. And President Gibson, while he was good for an encouraging word and the occasional press statement about the importance of continued space research, certainly hadn't done much to move the ball forward. George understood that there was a financial crisis, and the situation with Russia, and blah blah blah, but there was always that crap – politics was never quiet.

A new video message was coming through from the colony. Susan's grainy face filled his video monitor. She was discussing the colony's upcoming elections, and George was alarmed to hear about Woods and his band of isolationists. Then, Susan asked the question that George had hoped he would never have to answer.

“I hate to ask this, but - I am talking to NASA, right?”

The first video message from Earth had changed the political dynamics in the colony, but not as much as Susan had hoped. Woods had lost some following, and one of the other candidates, a charismatic leader of Susan's science team who enthusiastically backed continuing communications with Earth, was picking up support. Susan continued to be dismayed by Mike's devotion to the isolationist cause, and she worried that if Mike and John Woods got two of the three administrator seats, it would mean the end of everything she'd worked for.

George's face appeared on her video monitor. Unlike the last message, he was alone, sitting behind a desk, and when he spoke, Susan's jaw dropped.

“Susan, I was hoping I wouldn't have to tell you about this, but I believe in total openness and honesty – especially now, since we've made this major breakthrough. The truth is that I don't work for NASA. In fact, NASA doesn't exist anymore. It was privatized. America doesn't have a space program anymore. You represent our last great space project.”

As George continued, and explained the whole sordid history of the last two and half centuries, Susan realized just how completely alienated her group of colonists was. Maybe the isolationists were right, she thought to herself. After all – if Earth doesn't care about us, then why should we care about Earth? But it was what George said next that really took her by surprise.

“Now that I've told you everything, I'm sure you're thinking to yourself that your isolationist comrades might be right – that if Earth doesn't care about you, then why should you care about Earth? But that's exactly the wrong attitude to take here. I've been working my tail off to get your mission the respect and admiration and honor that it deserves here. I've been in regular contact with the President, and he is very supportive of you. I've been calling Congressmen. I've been on the news, advocating for a rebirth of America's space program. Your video messages have been played all over the planet. There is movement, but it's slow. We need you - now more than ever - to show us why Earth needs to care about space.

“Obviously, it's up to you whether you share the information I've just given you with the rest of the colonists. If you do, it might embolden the isolationists. I recognize that. By telling you this, I might have completely doomed everything we've been trying to achieve. But again – I've come to believe that if we're got a chance to succeed here – to make people on Earth interested in space again, and to give your colony the respect and honor that it deserves – then we need to be totally honest with each other.

“I give you my word that the Ark Ship Project will always be devoted to you, and with any luck, we will make the rest of the world see how important you are.”

The message ended.

Susan's face on the video screen was grave, and her message was simple. “I've been instructed by the new co-administrators of the Colony to cease all communications with Earth, effective immediately.”

George shook his head slowly. His weeks of publicity, of campaigning, of meeting after meeting, of slowly turning the tide of public opinion until there was at last a beginning of something that could lead to a resurgence in space research – finished. Without the excitement caused by the video messages from the Colony, the momentum he'd built would fade and disappear. Worse than that, perhaps, was the fact the Ark Ship Project's mission was finished.

The story was leaked to the media later that day, and this time, the media ate it up. Of course they did, thought George. Anytime something failed spectacularly and embarrassed or otherwise discredited someone important – that was something the media would report on mercilessly. The Ark Ship Project was attacked first for lying to the ship's crew for two and a half centuries by not telling them about the political changes on Earth, then attacked again for telling the colonists the truth now. Funding sources dried up, the office was closed, and George and his team found themselves unemployed. George's team did receive one consolation prize. Liaison Markey had convinced President Gibson to purchase the tachyon communication system and put together a research team to study its possible uses. It wasn't NASA, but at least there was a government team working on something related to space travel again.

Life in the colony continued apace, and soon a new generation – the first ever humans born on an alien planet – began to grow up. In school, they learned that their parents had come across the stars, but they learned nothing about the planet that had launched their exodus. Instead, they were taught a new history, emphasizing the importance of self reliance and independence, and the incontrovertible fact that the planet where they were living was the only home they would ever know.

On Earth, the colony was quickly forgotten, once the next celebrity/political scandal took over the news reports. The Ark Ship Project was relegated to a footnote in the history books, and the Houston Space Center, Inc. continued as Earth's only viable space project, launching billboards continuously into low Earth orbit.