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Chapter 9

August 27, 2087

Rain’s AI received the meeting request from Julia Coetzee while she was sleeping, noted its source and urgency, and adjusted Rain’s calendar for the day to accommodate it. In the process, two other meetings were rescheduled for the following week and one was canceled outright. The AI also decided to awaken Rain half an hour early so that she would have ample time for her morning routine, which now always included a brief conversation with her mother.

Rain noted the changes to her schedule as she was preparing her breakfast oatmeal and wondered what the reason Julia might have for calling an emergency, her term, meeting of the First Contact Committee. She would find out soon enough.

Because it was a beastly hot summer day in Atlanta, very typical for this time of year, she decided to participate in the meeting from her home office and not venture to the university. Those online who had visited her home would immediately recognize the backdrop—a room filled with bookcases and stacked with old-fashioned books, paper books, some dating back to the late 1800s. Rain read all of her professional journals electronically, but she preferred the feel of a book when it came to fiction or historical texts. There was something about reading history on paper that made it more real for her.

The meeting began promptly at the appointed time with all but two committee members present. One was unable to be reached, which was quite unusual in this day of everything being network connected, unless one didn’t want to be reached. The other was ill and his AI declined the meeting invitation. Julia wasted no time getting to the point.

“Late yesterday, we received a new message from Proxima Centauri b. This one appears to have come from a different group from the one that sent the first message. They made that very clear in their opening. In fact, the message has the look and feel of a less-well-funded minority or dissident group sending a message in secret. It was brief and to the point. Before I begin, please keep in mind that Earth’s message to Proxima, in which we disclosed our belief that they have a fertility problem, was only sent a little more than two months ago and our first installment of the Biology 101 tutorial was only sent earlier this month.

“Based on this new message from Proxima Centauri, we believe our assessment of their problem is, unfortunately, correct. There is a fertility problem on Proxima and it has reached a crisis stage. They first noticed the decline in female births about a hundred Earth years ago. At first, the decline was small and mostly anecdotal. Based on their level of technological development, I would guess that they were in the latter part of their version of the industrial revolution and record keeping was basically ad hoc, with an occasional census of some kind or another thrown in. The salient point is that it began then and grew gradually worse.

“According to the sender of the message, who we are now calling ‘Dissenter,’ the problem grew worse with time until about twenty-five Earth years ago. Since that time, there have been fewer than one hundred thousand females born each year. Far too few to sustain the human population.

“Dissenter went on to tell us that their scientists have been unable to come up with an explanation or even a hint of how to fix the problem. The Proximan government is trying to keep the civilization and the economy working, but it is failing. Families consisting of multiple men per woman are now common. Female kidnappings and rape are at crisis levels, and much of the younger generation appears to be dropping out of the society. They are hopeless and believe there is no reason to plan for a future. Overall, Dissenter paints a very bleak picture of the place. They are experiencing general economic and societal collapse.

“Dissenter sent an extensive demographic database, which is not much more than our census records, and page after page of notes related to the fertility problem from their doctors and other medical personnel. It was an overt plea for help.”

“Do we have any idea of who this Dissenter is?” asked Hiro Tanaka, one of the “policy” members of the team.

“Yes. From what we can tell, he is a government official who had access to our interstellar message exchanges and the connections necessary to get his message transmitted. The message repeated only sixteen times before it stopped. We can only surmise that someone noticed the apparently unauthorized transmission and terminated it.”

“This means that we are doing the right things to help them,” said Mina Lappas, one of the doctors added to the team after the fertility crisis was discovered and the UN intervention plan approved. Rain liked Mina. They had a lot in common and met regularly in person due to Mina being on assignment at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“I would say so, yes,” replied Julia.

“I hate to say it, but it sounds like we are already too late,” said the group’s only political scientist, Wilhelm Duesenberg. Duesenberg was normally quiet during the committee meetings, which Rain found to be curious. Most political scientists she knew were not exactly the shy and quiet types. Duesenberg normally broke that mold.

“Explain,” said Julia.

“Well, they are now at least twenty-five to thirty years into full-blown demographic crisis, which I would prefer we call it. It isn’t a ‘fertility crisis’ at all. Demographics are destiny and their destiny is bleak, as you said. And they know it. Let’s say we are wildly successful in our medical tutorial and they quickly understand the information we broadcast. How are they going to do anything with it? Do they have the manufacturing base to build the laboratory equipment, tools, and tests necessary to isolate the cause and determine how to mitigate it? Did we also send the electronics and computer science tutorial to allow them to build the computers they will need to make sense of the data? The success of the Human Genome Project was as much about computing power as it was biology. Do they have the virology labs they may need to insert a fix into developing embryos if, in fact, the ‘cure’ can be implemented that way? What if the cause is a virus? Or environmental, as we discussed previously? Will they have the tools and the time to use the knowledge we sent in the proper correlation studies? Time is their enemy and they won’t even receive the first of our biology tutorials for another four years!”

“And if the female birth rate has dropped even lower, then the biology tutorial will be too little, too late. We need to get a fully staffed, fully functional biolab there as soon as possible,” said Rain, her heart breaking as she spoke the words. She feared that it, too, would arrive too late to be of any help at all.

“Rain, the UN did approve the starship relief mission—largely because of you,” Julia reminded her and everyone on the team.

“Yes, they did. Let’s consider Wilhelm’s pessimistic assessment and assume that the ship launches slightly ahead of schedule in two years. It will take a decade to get there. How many women of child-bearing age will there be? Thousands? Hundreds?” Rain asked.

“We don’t have any way of knowing.”

“With society collapsing and what few women there are being threatened with kidnapping, how many will be healthy and accessible when the ship arrives in twelve years? And arrival is when the work really begins. It may take years to isolate the cause before the team can attempt to do anything to correct the problem,” Rain said.

“Don’t forget the contamination risk. As Rain mentioned in one of our previous meetings, and as we’ve talked about several times, there’s a good chance we might contaminate them with some virus that would prove deadly to the local population and vice versa. If we go there and inadvertently kill off the natives or they our team, then the whole thing also fails. Don’t forget, this is the sort of stuff I worry about in my normal day-to-day job at the CDC. And there’s one more thing,” said Mina.

“What’s that?” asked Julia.

“The people we send on the starship. They know that we probably can’t let them ever come home, right?”

“Because of the viral contagion risk? It’s been discussed, but their possible return has always been in the ‘we’ll isolate you when you come home to prevent contamination’ category, not the ‘you can’t come home’ bucket,” said Julia.

“Well, you need to move it firmly into the latter. If there is even the slightest chance this demographic crisis is contagious, we cannot take the risk. Even if an isolation period sufficient to rule out any traditional bacterial or viral infection is implemented, it may not be enough. The risk is too great.”

“Thankfully, I’m not on that committee,” said Julia with a sigh.

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