“The launch is on schedule,” she said. “You’ll be on your way soon.”
She sat in the chair. “I know you won’t believe this, but it wasn’t easy for me to do this to you.”
“Yeah, you’re really sentimental.”
She ignored the barb. “Do you know what I studied in college? What my undergraduate degree was in?”
“History. I was a history major.” She drummed her fingers on the desk. “Most people assume I had a science major or business management. Communications, maybe. But no. It was history.”
“Doesn’t seem like you.” I sat up on my bunk. “You don’t spend a lot of time looking backward.”
“I was eighteen years old and had no idea what to do with my life. I majored in history because I didn’t know what else to do.” She smirked. “Hard to imagine me like that, eh?”
She looked out the barred window toward the launchpad in the distance. “But I learned a lot. I actually liked it. People nowadays…they have no idea how good they have it. The past was unrelenting misery for most people. And the further back in time you go, the worse it was.”
She stood and meandered around the room. “For fifty thousand years, right up to the industrial revolution, human civilization was about one thing and one thing only: food. Every culture that existed put most of their time, energy, manpower, and resources into food. Hunting it, gathering it, farming it, ranching it, storing it, distributing it…it was all about food.
“Even the Roman Empire. Everyone knows about the emperors, the armies, and the conquests. But what the Romans really invented was a very efficient system of acquiring farmland and transportation of food and water.”
She walked to the other side of the room. “The industrial revolution mechanized agriculture. Since then, we’ve been able to focus our energies on other things. But that’s only been the last two hundred years. Before that, most people spent most of their lives directly dealing with food production.”
“Thanks for the history lesson,” I said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d like my last few moments on Earth to be a little more pleasant. So…you know…could you leave?”
She ignored me. “Leclerc’s Antarctica nukes bought us some time. But not much. And there’s only so many times we can dump chunks of Antarctica into the ocean before the direct problems of sea-level rise and ocean-biome death cause more problems than Astrophage. Remember what Leclerc told us: Half the global population will die.”
“I know,” I muttered.
“No, you don’t know,” she said. “Because it gets a lot worse.”
“Worse than half of humanity dying?”
“Of course,” she said. “Leclerc’s estimate assumes all the nations of the world work together to share resources and ration food. But do you think that will happen? Do you think the United States—the most powerful military force of all time—is going to sit idly by while half their population starves? How about China, a nation of 1.3 billion people that’s always on the verge of famines in the best of times? Do you think they’ll just leave their militarily weak neighbors alone?”
I shook my head. “There’ll be wars.”
“Yes. There’ll be wars. Fought for the same reason most wars in ancient times were fought for: food. They’d use religion or glory or whatever as an excuse, but it was always about food. Farmlands and people to work that land.
“But the fun doesn’t stop there,” she said. “Because once the desperate, starving countries start invading each other for food, the food production will go down. Ever heard of the Tai Ping rebellion? It was a civil war in China during the nineteenth century. Four hundred thousand soldiers died in combat. And twenty million people died from the resulting famine. The war disrupted agriculture, see? That’s how massive in scale these things are.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. I’d never seen her look so vulnerable. “Malnourishment. Disruption. Famine. Every aspect of infrastructure going to food production and warfare. The entire fabric of society will fall apart. There’ll be plagues too. Lots of them. All over the world. Because the medical-care systems will be overwhelmed. Once easily contained outbreaks will go unchecked.”
She turned to face me. “War, famine, pestilence, and death. Astrophage is literally the apocalypse. The Hail Mary is all we have now. I’ll make any sacrifice to give it even the tiniest additional chance of success.”
I lay down on my bunk and faced away from her. “Whatever lets you sleep at night.”
She walked back to the door and knocked on it. A guard opened it up. “Anyway. I just wanted you to know why I’m doing this. I owed you that.”
“Go to hell.”
“Oh, I will, believe me. You three are going to Tau Ceti. The rest of us are going to hell. More accurately, hell is coming to us.”
* * *
Yeah? Well, hell’s coming back to you, Stratt. In the form of me. I’m hell.
I mean…I don’t know what I’ll say to her. But I definitely plan to say stuff. Mean stuff.
I’m eighteen days into my nearly four-year journey. I’m just now reaching Tau Ceti’s heliopause—the edge of the star’s powerful magnetic field. At least, the edge of where it’s strong enough to deflect fast-moving interstellar radiation. From now on, the radiation load on the hull will be much higher.
Doesn’t matter to me. I’m surrounded by Astrophage. But it’s interesting to see the external radiation sensors go up and up and up. It’s progress, at least. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m on a long road trip and my current status is “just walking out the front door of the house.”
I’m bored. I’m by myself in a spaceship without much to do.
I clean and catalog the lab again. I might come up with some research experiments for either Astrophage or Taumoeba. Heck, I could write some papers while I’m on my way home. Oh, and there’s the matter of the intelligent alien life-form I hung out with for a couple of months. I might want to jot a few things down about him too.
I do have a huge collection of video games. I have every piece of software that was available when we built the ship. I’m sure they can keep me busy for a while.
I check the Taumoeba farms. All ten of them are doing just fine. I feed them Astrophage from time to time, just to keep them healthy and breeding. The farms emulate Venus’s atmosphere, so as the generations of Taumoeba go by, they’ll get even better at Venusian life. After four years of this, by the time I drop them off at the planet, they’ll be well suited for it.