Thursday, June 25, 2015
Novel: Chapter Two
My classroom is Assembly Hall 3, two decks above my mess hall. The first class is seventh tier – most of them are twelve or thirteen years old, but a couple of them are a ten or eleven, and a couple are fourteen or fifteen. Sometimes students are held back moving to the next tier because of emotional maturity, sometimes because of intellectual deficiency. I read accounts of teachers on Earth long ago, and I marvel that such an inefficient and clumsy system was ever acceptable – students advancing up the grades purely because of age.
I enter the hall; the students rise as I enter, and I motion to them to sit. “Good morning!” I wave my hand in front of the podium, and the display projects in front of me. “Enrolled: 44. Present: 43. Excused absences: 1.” I sweep my hand down and close it, and the display clears.
Around the classroom, students are showing differing levels of attention – as is usually the case at 0730. “Janos, late night gaming?” Janos’ eyes were closed, trying to catch a bit more rest, but he was not asleep. He glares at me, but he knows better than to talk back.
“Today we start with a part of history that I know interests many of you, because it is why you exist. Today we move away from ancient events on a planet that we will never see and we explore our place, our meaning, our purpose.” I waved my hand again, and an ancient, low resolution video appears above the podium, and above their desks. It shows our ship as it neared completion almost a thousand years ago, a huge, uninspiring silver cylinder with only a few markings indicating entry points. Behind it, as the video panned to the left, was the curiously beautiful blue and white orb of Earth.
I could hear a few sudden inhalations from my students as Earth came into view, even though it isn’t new to any of them. I confess; no matter how often I see an image of Earth, it makes me pause for a moment. And it isn’t just Earth. When I was their age, we passed a solar system with a planet that looked much like it, and caused much the same reaction. We almost spread our seed there, but at the last minute the biologists found something incompatible with the life already there. Nonetheless, it was gloriously beautiful with clouds and oceans and great cyclonic storms.
“Here is the start of our journey, a voyage of discovery and expansion.” I scrolled my hand sideways, and a galactic map showed our ship’s movement across the stars in one of the spiral arms. I pulled my arm back slightly, and the podium zoomed out from the map. “Our ancestors committed themselves and us to a bold experiment, to seek out new homes for mankind, and to find other intelligent life.” No surprises here; the students pretty much all know how the story starts, but every story needs a flourish of an introduction.
“Over the last thousand years we have traveled an enormous distance through the galaxy.” I slowly spread my thumb and index finger apart, and the slightly jagged line showing our path across the galaxy completed. “How fast are we traveling?” I knew who was going to answer the question; Janos was going to be a physicist in a few years, and was already taking twelfth tier physics.
Jan raised his hand, and I nodded in his direction. “At full cruising speed: .95c.”
“So how much time has elapsed on Earth since our journey started?”
“At least 5000 years. We don't keep that full speed throughout our voyage; when we slow down to visit a solar system, it reduces our average speed. Time dilation is dependent on v2 divided by c2. We know that a lot has changed on Earth since we left.” Jan frowned, but knew better than to say more. The end of broadcasts was hardly a secret; still, it is considered impolite to say it, rather like speaking ill of someone who has air locked.
“So what happens when we slow down to visit a solar system?” I looked around the classroom again, trying to find one of the quiet kids who never volunteers. “Jana,” and stared at a pretty brunette trying to hide in the last row of tables. “I know you're taking tenth tier biology already. I'm sure you know the answer.”
Jana is very shy, and the look on her face screamed, “Why me?” She looked down at the table and, just barely audibly, “We survey planets that might contain intelligent life, or where our species might settle.” I confess that I do not understand Jana’s shyness; she is very pretty, and in a year or two, she will be very popular in Lounge C. Or perhaps someone did not wait for her to come of age?
“What have we found so far?” I again stared at Jana. I'm sure that she feels very picked on by me, but my job is not just teaching history to these kids, but also to socialize them into a form useful to the needs of the ship. Jana looked around the classroom, with that desperate look of, “Won't someone pick up the ball here, please?” It's always hard to tell if her classmates were enjoying seeing her on the spot or simply felt that she was most likely to give a correct answer. This is such a ferocious age.
Jana realized that no one was going to save her from answering the question. There is no room in our society for a person who is not prepared to take the lead. And that is another reason why my job is to pick on students like Jana. “So far, I think we have visited 45 Earth-like planets, and found intelligent life on none. A few had life, but primitive."
“That is correct. No intelligent life. Even the planets with life were shockingly simple. Photosynthesis, a few sea dwelling creatures, and one planet with land animals. It was not at all what we were supposed to find." I smiled at Jana. “What about planets habitable by man?”
In the front row Mark raised his hand. Mark was not shy; he was a tall, muscular kid with curly blond hair and an infectious smile. “Several so far. Some require terraforming because there's no life there to produce oxygen, but by the time some other ship passes through, the plants we've left will make those planets habitable. They'll be their own Edens.”
“Mark, you should probably explain what an Eden is.”
Mark turned around in his chair to make sure that everyone could hear them; my guess is that he will end up as a teacher himself someday. There certainly is not much need for any other form of public speaker in our society. “I've been reading up on the ancient superstitions of Earth, and Eden is the name of a perfect garden claimed as the origin of man.”
Before anyone had a chance to ask about those ancient superstitions, I thought it best to keep the class headed down the narrative that I had planned. “What about the planets that already have oxygen?”
Mark smiled even more broadly. “We seed those planets with Earth plants and animals and pioneers. I want to be one of those pioneers!” There was a brief tittering from some of the girls; there's something romantic about being a planet pioneer, and even if Mark was not sincere in his desires, I can see why more than a few teenaged boys have affected the planet pioneer career path as a dating strategy.
“How many of you want to be pioneers?" I smiled as I said it, so that no one would feel ashamed to say yes. There is a need for pioneers, but someone needs to keep this ship headed outward. Our policy is to neither encourage pioneers, nor to discourage them. Well, maybe discourage them a little bit.
Perhaps five hands went up, some rather tentatively. “Why would you want to be a pioneer?” I continued smiling; I don’t want to discourage my students from expressing interest in an almost disreputable career goal.
“There's something unnatural about the way we live on the ship.” For once, Jana spoke clearly and forcefully, without a hint of discomfort. “I want to live on a planet, like my ancestors did. Not in a metal box.” And to my surprise, not only Mark, several other students cheered and applauded.
Melissa spoke next. “I want to grow my own food. I want to sleep under a blue sky. I want natural children, my own children.” Now, instead of cheering and applause, I heard gasps. This was not the first time that I heard a student express this desire, and certainly among adults I have heard this strange request, but at this age it is all quite daring to talk so directly about such things. “I want children, not the black tube.”
It was time to redirect this conversation before became any more awkward than it already was. “Well, some of you may get your opportunity. Most of you know we are decelerating into a system with a very Earth-like planet.” I saw a couple of slightly surprised faces but most of the students seemed to know this already.
The time had come to suggest assignments. “For this week's assignment, you are to pick out some aspect of the launching of the expedition, or of the history of the expedition to the present. I know some of you much prefer the ancient history, but let's keep the assignment no more than 50 years before launch. I expect you to make use of the usual sources, but if you are researching something of recent history, feel free to conduct interviews with people who were part of those events.”
One of the more satisfying parts of teaching in the modern times was how many students did oral histories with people whose stories had never been recorded. A few years back, one of my students had recorded the experiences of the planetary exploration team that had explored SN 9468 – 4, an Earth-like planet around a G0 star. This was 70 years ago, ship time, but the memories of the disappointment were still very strong. A small team of pioneers were already starting to build temporary structures on the surface, when the cattle started to sicken and die. There was something in the indigenous bacteria that was in conflict with our life forms; had they remained in contact with the local biosphere, the pioneers would've died too. Of course, there were technical reports of what had happened, but the intervening decades had granted some perspective to the team that could not be found in the official reports of that time.
Mark raised his hand. “I think I would like to explore what the first members of the ship's crew thought would happen to their children. Did they ask if we wanted to be born, live, and recycle so far from Earth?”
“Mark, just keep it dispassionate. Stick to the facts you can find, and don't let your personal feelings take over the paper.” I knew that Mark felt, as did more than a few of our society, being stuck on this expedition by our ancestors was supreme selfishness. There was no way “home” from here, even if everyone aboard agreed to turn the ship around. At least ten generations separated us from the green hills of Earth. Some were embittered by this knowledge; some leaped at the first chance to get something at least close to “home” by becoming pioneers; some, in their depression, air locked. I could understand their hurt and sense of loss, but this was home, not Earth, nor any substitute, no matter how blue the sky, how green the forests, or how luxuriant the grasses we planted there.