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Chapter 8

March 3, 2087

Rain sat with Roger and other members of the first contact team in the gallery overlooking the chamber of the United Nations in New York. Instead of tying in virtually, every member of the committee was flown to New York to help Julia prepare for her presentation to the General Assembly. They had been with her ten to twelve hours a day for the past four days leading up to her presentations today. She gave the first one that morning, laying out the case for the crisis on Proxima Centauri b.

The chamber was filled with dignitaries from every country in the world—literally. Rain had been to New York many times in her life but had never taken a tour of the venerable UN Building, which had recently been upgraded and modernized. Rain wondered how much longer it would be before the UN had to update its logo—which for the last century had showed all the continents of the Earth in a stylized, top-down view of the globe—to include the Moon. When she left the Lunar Observatory, there were rumblings among the people living in the various habitats for independence. It wasn’t difficult for Rain to conceive of a lunar nation or nations in the not-too-distant future.

The debate following Julia’s morning briefing was spirited: The Russian ambassador questioned how anyone could make such dire predictions about the future of the Proximans from so little explicit data and without the Proximans even admitting there was a problem. The ambassador from El Salvador wondered why the UN was so concerned with a people so far away when there was a war in Central Africa in which hundreds, if not thousands, were dying each day as a result of the conflict. Most, however, listened attentively and expressed admiration for the detective work of the first contact committee and sympathy for the Proximans, who were facing extinction.

The afternoon session was the one in which Julia was going to lay out the committee’s plan to help the Proximans. On cue, the gavel dropped to call the afternoon session to order and the floor was given back to Dr. Julia Coetzee, chair of the First Contact Committee.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for allowing me to return to the podium to brief you on the approach we recommend the united peoples of Earth take to help our recently discovered kin on the world of Proxima Centauri b who are facing an existential crisis like no other. Time is short and unless we undertake the paths I will describe here this afternoon, I fear an entire civilization will collapse and die.

“First, the committee recommends that a message be sent to Proxima Centauri b outlining what we believe is occurring there and why, along with an offer to help. We know that getting a return response will take a minimum of nine years, and it is imperative that we not wait on a response from them before we take the additional steps recommended by this committee. Granted, we may be wrong in our assessment. The committee believes this is a low probability and that we should not be deterred in providing what will be, ultimately, a global response to their plight.

“Second, the committee recommends that a comprehensive educational program of study be developed to bring the Proximans from their current state of biological knowledge to a level comparable to our own. The program should begin with first principles, to make sure we begin at a level that is commensurate with the level of understanding of the Proximans. It should be tailored to introduce new material in a logical and coherent fashion to allow their medical and biological experts to understand how the science has evolved, helping them to avoid the many years of research spent in directions that proved fruitless, and to increase their understanding of human biology dramatically and rapidly. The program should place special emphasis on the human genome and how to identify elements in the genome that cause or contribute to various disease states and conditions in the hope that it will help them identify the cause or causes of their fertility problem.

“There will not be time for Socratic dialog. The educational program will need to be comprehensive and not steeped in any single cultural approach to learning. For this reason, we recommend that a multicultural team of physicians, biologists, educators, and linguists work with the world’s leading experts on all things Proximan and collaborate on the program of study, and that the first element, described in Attachment One, be completed and sent toward Proxima Centauri within six months. The remaining elements to follow over the next one to two years.

“Third, we recommend that the UN support and fund a medical mission to Proxima Centauri b as soon as possible. We are all aware of the revolutionary developments in space travel that have occurred within the last two decades, beginning with the invention and use of the Samara Drive. The committee was briefed about the recent performance improvements to the Samara system and new onboard power systems that will now enable the transit of large, human-occupied ships across interstellar distances with trip times as short as ten to twelve years. If we begin now, it should be possible to get a medical team, with state-of-the-art medical technological equipment, to Proxima Centauri b in time to avert the total collapse of their civilization. Barely. We estimate that the youngest cohorts of women of child-bearing age will be in their fifties. By any measure, that is very late to be having children—but, biologically speaking, for many it is not too late. And with the state of medical care our team will bring, we have every expectation that both these women, and their children, can be kept in good health.

“An element of the proposed medical mission upon which the committee was divided and unable to make a unanimous recommendation was that the mission would take with them one hundred thousand frozen female human embryos. Population experts believe that this would be a viable floor to maintain Proxima’s human population should a cure not be readily found. The embryos could be implanted in willing women, by procedures easily taught to their local physicians, as a last-ditch effort to prevent their extinction.

“We realize these proposals will be controversial and expensive. However, the survival of an entirely new branch of the human species is at stake and we must act, now, decisively, if we are going to save them.” Julia completed her introductory speech, took a deep breath, and looked into the gallery at her committee members—eyes seeming to rest upon Rain.

Rain, without thinking, gave her a thumbs-up.

Julia, then continued her presentation by pulling up charts showing the details behind each phase of the proposed plan.

The questions, debate, fear mongering, and political grandstanding began.

* * *

It was 4:30 and the UN was scheduled to end debate and adjourn for the day at 5:00, none too soon for Rain and the rest of the first contact team. They were exhausted, and they weren’t even the one who had been at the podium for most of the day. Poor Julia must be close to passing out, Rain thought. Though she doesn’t look it. Her AI signaled her that she was getting an urgent message.

She pulled out her datapad and saw that the message was from Enrico Vulpetti: We need to talk. 7:00 dinner at Sardi’s?

She knew what he wanted to talk about. He’d likely been watching the televised UN debate and heard about the committee’s proposal to send a ship to Proxima Centauri b. And he had approached her about half a year ago with his own proposal for such a starship. Rain was surprised that he would contact her, given that she was extremely vocal in her opposition to such a ship at the time and was the main reason his proposal never made it to the UN for consideration. Things had changed dramatically since then. Her opinion had changed.

She replied, See you then.

After the UN adjourned, Julia was swamped by the media and didn’t get out of council chambers until after 6:00. Rain congratulated her on the presentation and told her, briefly, about her dinner meeting with the aerospace physicist from Georgia Tech.

“Find out what you can, but don’t make any formal or informal commitments. We’re at a critical juncture in the debate and we can’t afford any appearance of favoritism toward any one group until the world is committed to our plan,” Julia admonished Rain in their brief moment together.

“Don’t worry. I voted against his idea the first time, remember?” Rain said with a smile.

“I remember,” Julia replied, adding, “Be sure to message me afterward to let me know how it goes.”

Rain nodded in affirmation and hurried out the door to catch an autocab to the restaurant. She didn’t want to be late. And, of course, it was raining.

Sardi’s was a New York landmark. Located in the Theater District, the restaurant was built in 1927 and became the place to eat for visiting celebrities. The walls were lined with caricatures of over a thousand celebrities who had eaten a meal there in its one hundred sixty–year history. Rain had heard of it, but never eaten there. As she exited the autocab, she saw Enrico standing at the door, looking her way. He still was as handsome as ever. Rain quickly squashed those thoughts to the back of her mind.

“Hello, Dr. Gilster. I’m glad you were able to join me tonight,” he said as he opened the restaurant’s door for her.

“I appreciate the invitation. Your message caught me by surprise, though it shouldn’t have, given our last conversation together,” Rain said. “You know there was nothing personal in my decision?”

“Personal? Oh that? Never crossed my mind.” He dismissed her halfhearted apology.

“Great, then. Good to see you,” Rain said guardedly.

“I watched your colleague’s most impressive presentation today and I must say I am the one who should be surprised.” He smiled a very bright and toothy smile at her. “Surprised at your turnaround on the issue of sending a starship to Proxima Centauri. But let’s not discuss this here in the doorway. We should get our table and at least have an appetizer and glass of wine before we talk business.”

“Of course,” Rain replied. She immediately realized Vulpetti was on a charm offensive. He was as well groomed and appropriately attired as the last time she saw him and was using his contagious smile to disarm her. And, of course, the “no business talk until after we have a drink” was as smooth and polished as they come. She thought that she would need to be on her guard because, well, damn, it was working.

As she expected, the salmon appetizer tasted as good as the menu described it and the wine was perfect. After placing their dinner order, Vulpetti shifted back into “business mode.”

“Dr. Gilster, the reason I’ve asked you here tonight is to make you aware of the progress we’ve made on our starship,” he said.

“You’ve begun building it?” she asked, with more than a hint of surprise in her voice.

“The design is complete; we’ve begun buying the components and lining up the rocket launches that will be required to put it all into space for final assembly. If we remain on schedule, the first component launch will be in just over two years.”

“When we last spoke, I thought you were just talking about something that could be done. I had no idea you were already building it. Who’s paying for it? I haven’t seen anything in the media about it,” she said.

“I can’t divulge the names of our sponsors, but there is big money behind the project and it is moving forward. We have every intention of going to Proxima Centauri b whether the UN approves such a mission or not. We would rather go with their blessing and support if we can. My investors have a lot of money, but perhaps not enough to make the ship as much as it could be. And, quite frankly, this whole Proximan fertility crisis has changed everything. We want to help. We’ve got a head start on the starship and we can take the medical supplies we heard about in the briefing today—if we start planning to do so now. The design is mostly complete, but at this stage we can modify it to accommodate the specific equipment you need for the medical mission fairly easily. A year from now, it will be impossible.”

“How many people can you take?” she asked.

“Twenty-five. The accommodations won’t be luxurious, but they will be comfortable enough. Each member of the crew will have about as much room as you get on a luxury cruise liner,” he said.

“For twenty years,” she said, remembering the trip time he quoted in their previous conversation. “That’s a hell of a long time to be cooped up in a stateroom, no matter how luxurious it is.”

“Well, the good news is that we think we can get the trip time down to ten years, like your spokesperson said today, instead of the original twenty. And there will be an option for sleeping part of the way. It isn’t the cryogenic sleep you see in the VRs, but more of an induced coma. While the person is asleep, their muscles are electrically stimulated to keep them healthy, their bodies are fed, and wastes disposed of. They will still age, they just won’t have to endure the full ten years in deep space. Crew members can choose to sleep all, part, or none of the time during the trip and they can change their minds at any time. And, of course, due to special relativity the trip will seem slightly shorter than ten years to the crew onboard.” Enrico paused for effect and drank the remaining wine from his glass.

“This whole story is, well, difficult to believe,” Rain said.

“Oh, what we are building is very real and we will be more than happy to provide the details and offer a tour of our facilities if the UN is interested in working with us to make the trip happen.”

“May I ask where you are building the ship?” Rain asked.

“The components are being assembled in the United Arab Emirates, but it will be integrated in lunar orbit,” Enrico said.

“The UAE has a history of thumbing its nose at the UN. Will you launch from there too?” Rain asked.

“Most likely. The commercial rocket companies are all international these days and the one we’re working with has a sea launch platform that they can tow just about anywhere in the world,” he said.

“And you want me to be your advocate,” Rain said.


“Despite me shooting you down the first time,” she said.

“You did what you had to do, based on the information you had available. But circumstances have changed. These people are dying unless we get there and help them. Your concerns about biological contamination aren’t unfounded and we are trying our best to mitigate the risk as much as possible in our starship design and in our crew selection. Again, we can provide the details if there is interest. But we need to know soon.” Enrico looked at her expectantly, turning on all the charm he could muster—which was considerable.

“Shall we have dessert?” he asked nonchalantly, flashing his smile once again.

“Absolutely. I’ll take the crème brûlée and a glass of sherry,” Rain said.

“Does that mean we have a deal?” asked Enrico.

“It means we’re having dessert. But I’ll take your offer back to the committee. Tell your team that they’d better be real and have something to show us or a whole lot of important people, very important people, will be extremely unhappy that their time was wasted.”

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