Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ark Ship - Part Five

For the next several weeks, the colonists busied themselves with the task of putting together a viable, comfortable community. The ark ship was fully dismantled and brought down in cargo ships, all parts of it integrated into the building of communal structures. Greenhouses were built to grow the crops that the colonists had brought with them that weren't compatible with the planet's arid soil. A farming rotation was established, with all able-bodied colonists taking a shift tending the few crops that had been implantable directly onto the planet's surface. Exploratory teams continued to map the colony's borders and venture beyond them. There had been a few accidents, injuries, and mishaps, but, all things considered, Susan was pleased with the colony's progress.

With all of the colony's activities, sometimes Susan forgot to check in with Communicator Sutton, even though he sent her a status request message every morning. After a time, George began to become concerned, because there seemed to be an increasing interval between messages, and he would often not hear from Susan for several days. The line connecting them seemed to be fraying.

Also fraying was George's patience with the media. He had tried to get someone, anyone, to provide continuous coverage of the colonists' progress. So far, only one major news outlet had done an extended piece about the project, and that had been weeks ago, and had focused more on the history of the project and the public backlash that had essentially destroyed the American space program after the launch of the ark ship.

George had always felt personally insulted when he'd read the historical accounts of that period. One of his ancestors had been aboard that ship, and George valued that connection. It was why he'd taken the job at the Ark Ship Project, and had wrangled his way to a position as Communicator, so that he'd be the one to make contact when the ship landed. And he had, and it had been an amazing moment for him. But it was also strangely unsatisfying. The world continued on its way, only a few people taking note of what he had heard the President call “an Apollo moment.” Sure, George had spoken to the President, but still. More needed to be done here. An appropriate global recognition of the momentousness of the event just hadn't happened, and to George, that was a grave injustice.

He grabbed an info pad and pulled up some of the news footage from after the launch, when the public backlash had begun in earnest. Senator Vince Hockley of Oklahoma, a radical anti-spending crusader, was debating NASA Administrator Jan Mahoney, on a cable news talk show.

Hockley said, “Look, you folks at NASA just blew about a trillion dollars shooting something into space that we'll never see again. Meanwhile, the deficit -”

Mahoney interrupted, “The ark ship project was deficit neutral, Senator. You know that. I know that. The American people know that. It was paid for by repealing tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans, and by -”

“Yeah, you liberals raised taxes! You raised taxes to shoot a thing into space that'll take, what is it, 250 years to get to where it's going? Now how is that something I should pay for, when I'll be long dead -”

“If you'll recall, Senator, when the project was passed by Congress and signed by President Blancheford, there was overwhelming public support for it.”

“But the American people were never told the real cost of the project -”

“Look, Senator. I don't recall you being this upset when former President Stockard blew trillions of dollars on an intractable war with Venezuela – a war, I might add, that we're still paying for.”

“We went to war with Venezuela to protect freedom and democracy down there. Those pinkos were about to spread their socialist garbage all over South America. That was something we couldn't risk.”

George knew the rest. Hockley, who had always been a crusader against what he perceived as “government waste,” had gone on to lead a vicious smear campaign against President Blancheford and her party in Congress, and had used the massive cost of the ark ship project as a rallying cry that cost Blancheford her reelection chances and shifted the balance of power in Congress. Eight years later, Hockley had been elected President himself, and had privatized every bit of the government he could get his hands on. The resulting economic chaos had almost bankrupted the country, with ripples felt around the world, and Hockley had been driven out of office in shame. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and America's space program lay in ruins, broken up, split, and privatized into a dozen different and competing pieces. America retreated into itself, and much of the world, watching the drama unfold, followed America's lead. The space elevator was dismantled and sold for scrap, the International Space Station project was abandoned, and the station itself, along with the orbital construction dock, eventually decayed its orbit and burned up in the atmosphere.

Of course, thought George, the colonists weren't aware of any of that, and that fact gave him hope. If he could convince the world to care about the colonists, then maybe he could get the world to care about space again.

He decided he needed to talk to the President.

Mike and Susan were having dinner in the colony's newly constructed communal dining room. In preparing for her role as Coordinator, Susan had done a lot of reading about the various ways humans had organized themselves in communities throughout history. She had a particular affinity for the Kibbutz movement of twentieth century Israel, especially since at least one of her ancestors who was part of the launch crew had been Jewish. Kibbutzim had been developed to foster a sense of communal responsibility and the sharing of limited resources in a difficult an untamed environment. Susan felt that such a philosophy would serve the colony well, and so she had guided the construction of the colony so that it roughly resembled a Kibbutz. Colonists had their own sleeping quarters, but they dined communally, shared work duties, and shared resources equally among them. So far, it was working well, but she knew that the colony's natural growth pattern would necessarily create challenges to this model.

“Any word from Earth?” Mike asked.

Susan looked up from her food, startled and confused a bit by the question. “Oh shoot – I keep forgetting to contact them. I hope they don't think something horrible has happened.”

“If you'd like, I can help you with the messages.”

“Thanks, Mike, maybe I'll take you up on that one of these days.”

“I know we've all been pretty busy, but hey, we've got a pretty good colony taking shape here.”

Susan nodded. “Yep. I'm pretty proud of it. Pretty soon I'm going to look into the feasibility of creating a democratic governance structure. I'm not comfortable being a dictator.”

Mike was surprised by Susan's admission. He hadn't thought of her as being a dictator, because the technical nature of the task before them necessitated that certain people take on certain roles, and Susan had long been designated as Coordinator. It was just what had been decided. Still, as he thought about it, he realized that she was right. After a certain point, there would be no continuing pressing need for her to remain as Coordinator, and any colonist should have the democratic right to lead. Hell, Mike thought to himself that he might want to run for some colony office. He was getting a little bit weary of tending the greenhouses.

The Russia situation was simmering at a slow boil, and so President Gibson felt for the first time in weeks that he could relax. He was growing tired of fighting the same battles with the same people, knowing that these battles had been being fought for centuries before he was born and would continue to be fought centuries after he died. Most of it, he knew, was for show. For votes. Nationalistic military posturing always played well to a certain portion of the populace. It had worked well throughout history, and the United States certainly had its own examples of such nonsense. Give the people something to fear, and then tell them you can solve it, and you'll get their vote every time. Gibson himself had used that tactic in his own campaign.

Liaison Markey had been bugging him for a meeting, and today, Gibson felt that talking to Markey would be the best thing to take his mind off of things for a while. The presidential secretary showed Markey into the Oval Office.

“Mr. President, thanks for seeing me.”

“No problem, Henry. I'm always happy to hear about the exploits of our intrepid space team.”

“Well, I've been contacted by Communicator Sutton, who has an interesting point to make.” Markey hesitated. “He said you and he talked, and you referred to this as an 'Apollo moment.'”

The President nodded. “Yes, I did.”

“Well, sir, if it is an Apollo moment, then why doesn't it feel like one? Why isn't the world tuning in?”

“I don't know – it's been two and a half centuries since that ship took off. And we really haven't had a space program since then. People have taken it off their radar. They're busy living their lives, going to work, trying to pay the bills.”

“Yes, I know that, Mr. President, but -”

“But what? It's not newsworthy anymore. Joe Schmo out there learned from his history teacher that the whole project was a waste of taxpayer money. That's how the official history goes. The official line is that the project nearly bankrupted the country, and that we're still paying for it today. And it's been two and a half centuries. And I can't risk my own political neck to tell Joe Schmo that his history book is wrong.”

“But his history book is wrong, Mr. President. There are now hundreds of human beings living about a hundred and fifty light years away, establishing the first human foothold on an extrasolar planet. I don't call that a waste. I call that an amazing feat of human ingenuity.”

“I know that. So what does Mr. Sutton want me to do, exactly?”

“We want to figure out a way to set up a video link between Earth and the colonists.”

“But that's impossible. The only way we can communicate with them is through quantum code. Everybody knows that.”

“Everybody knew that until just recently, sir. We've discovered that a team in France is working on tachyon communication.”

“Tachyons. Particles that move faster than light speed, right?”

“Yes, sir. The French team believes that they can instruct the colonists to modify their existing equipment to allow for the transmission of tachyon particles between Earth and the colony. That would definitely allow for audio communication, but it might also allow for video. It all depends on the quality of the colonists' video equipment and whether it can be modified to accept the tachyon particles.”

“Would that allow for instantaneous communication?”

“No, there would still be a delay. The French team estimates it'd be a week or so between messages. But still, if we can get a video message to the colony, and get a video message back, now that would be something the news media wouldn't be able to ignore.”

“Alright, tell Sutton he has my backing to look into this. But let's keep a lid on it for now. Cat, bag, and all that.”

“Understood, sir.”

The colony was preparing for its first democratic elections. Susan had convened a meeting of all of the colonists to hammer out what kind of governance structure they wanted, and the colonists had voted to establish a council of three co-administrators. Seven colonists had stepped forward to declare candidacy for one of the three spots, including Mike Harris.

Among the other candidates was a charismatic leader named John Woods, who had become the de facto leader of the “anti-Earth” faction of the colonists. Essentially, he argued, the colony had no connection to Earth, really, because of the time and distance separating them. Therefore, the colony should cut off all communication with Earth and establish its own identity and culture. He had a growing number of supporters, and Susan worried about the effect that this isolationist group might have on colony morale.

Susan herself had decided not to be a candidate for one of the three administrator positions, because she felt very strongly that other colonists should be given the chance to lead. She had been busy communicating with Earth and trying to figure out this new tachyon communication system they wanted to try. She had a team of scientific experts working on modifying their existing equipment to accept the tachyons and translate them into audio and video. It had been a daunting task, and Susan wasn't at all sure it would work. Their efforts thus far hadn't been promising, and Susan feared that if Woods became one of the colony's administrators and managed to pass through his mandate to cease communication, all of this work would be for nothing. Susan was convinced, however, that if audio and video communication with Earth became possible, the dynamics on the colony would shift against Woods and his isolationist comrades. Since elections were to be held a little over a month, the situation was becoming more urgent by the day.

She heard a noise outside, and peered out the window of her office. She was surprised to see a small knot of people, including Woods, holding a protest against her. They held signs demanding she stop work on the tachyon project, and chanted anti-Earth slogans. This was the first protest she'd ever actually seen, and she wasn't exactly sure how to respond.

Susan walked outside to talk to Woods and see if she could appease the protesters. She raised her voice to be heard above the cacophonous chanting.

“Now look here, everyone – let's talk about this. Hey -” The group simply tried to drown her out. She continued trying to communicate with them, but it was clear that the group's interest lay in disruption rather than dialogue.

Mike wasn't as convinced as Susan of the importance of maintaining communication with Earth. He had attended several of the meetings led by Woods, and he liked the idea of the colony creating its own identity. He was, however, wary of the charisma that Woods exuded, of the fierce loyalty his followers had for him. Mike had read plenty of history books that detailed the kinds of major problems such a cult of personality could engender.

John Woods had noticed Mike at his meetings, which wasn't difficult, as Mike was certainly the youngest colonist to have taken an interest in local politics. John knew that Mike was running for an administrator position, and he hoped to sway Mike to his way of thinking and campaign together as a kind of coalition ticket. Heck, if John could sway one more of the candidates to his side, he'd have a powerful case to make to the colonists to vote for a unified anti-Earth ticket.

Susan had seen Mike attending John Woods' meetings, and she was worried that his association with Woods would fray their longstanding friendship. During one of their regular meals together, she broached the subject.

“Mike, I'm a little concerned about your association with John Woods.”

Mike looked at her, surprised, and said, “Why?”

“Well, it's just, I'm worried that if he gets his way, we'll lose a vital link to our history. I mean, I know we've been separated from Earth for two and a half centuries – but that planet is where we come from, and we should honor that. They spent trillions of dollars to send us out here – we can't just abandon them.”

Mike thought for a second. “I see your point, but I also see Woods' point. If we tether ourselves to the Earth, a planet that none of us has ever seen, then we'll never be able to establish our own identity as a people.”

“I don't agree with that. I think we've already established our own identity as a people, and we've done so not despite our continued link with Earth, but because of it.”

“Look, Susan, why do you feel so threatened by Woods? You're the one who wanted democracy here – and this is what democracy looks like.”

“I know that.” Susan sighed. “It's just – I'm working on a big project right now to establish a video link with Earth. It would be a huge breakthrough in tachyon communications and a major boost to America's space program.”

Mike snapped back, “Who cares about America's space program? They shot us out here into the middle of cosmic nowhere without any idea of whether we'd make it. They doomed thousands of people to live out their lives on a spaceship and have no choice in the matter. And those are the people we want to help? I'm sorry, but I just don't think so.”