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Chapter 6

August 12, 2086

In the four years since the original exchange, there was no new information from Proxima Centauri b. After Earth’s reply was on its way with its series of questions and the Earth Encyclopedia, a second message was prepared. It was simply a collection of additional questions that no one thought to ask in the first one—an addendum. The UN team continued to meet, review the data provided, and parse it out to the entire world, open and freely available on the global internet to any who wanted to review it. Thousands of technical papers and many more popular press articles were published about the Proximans, their humanity, and their culture.

It was a busy year for Proximan culture on Earth. There was a play on New York’s Broadway about a Proximan family in crisis due to a missing child; VR stories were created that allowed the viewer to experience what could best be pieced together about life on Proxima Centauri b, and concerts devoted to performance of Proximan music. For a while, it became fashionable to wear the long flowing robes that so often adorned the Proximans in the photos received thus far.

It was late in the year that Rain Gilster moved back to Earth after reaching her maximum allowed time on the Moon. She wasn’t happy to leave, but she knew the rules and that it was for the best. She formally left the staff of the Lunar Observatory and accepted a position as Eminent Scholar of Astrobiology at Emory University in her hometown of Atlanta. She found it amusing that a physicist radio astronomer should be given a plumb emeritus position at a prestigious university in a field that was not her own, just because she was the one lucky enough to discover the existence of the Proximans. But since the job allowed her to remain on the contact team as an active member, she didn’t complain. She didn’t even have to teach regularly—just provide a few lectures each semester, bringing faculty and students up to speed on the latest discoveries from deep space.

It was after one such lecture, a joint event between Emory and Georgia Tech, that she met Enrico Vulpetti. He approached her after the last of the student questions and as she was packing up her belongings from the podium in the lecture hall. Despite the predictions that higher education would become virtual, making real-life university lectures a thing of the past, many colleges persisted and thrived. It seemed that people learned more and better in the physical setting of a university lecture hall. And Rain was glad for it. She loved the idea that she could VR with most anyone in the inner solar system from the comfort of her own home, but she found interacting with students in the here and now was something she enjoyed immensely. Of course, all the students’ AIs were recording the lecture and, consequently, some students tuned out during her talk. But most did not, and it was for them that Rain would willingly go the extra mile.

“Dr. Gilster, may I have few minutes of your time?” asked Vulpetti with a smile. It wasn’t a “how are you I’m glad to meet you” smile, but more of a “I’m friendly, can we talk?” smile. A smile that totally disarmed Rain and kept her from hurrying off as was her custom after a lecture.

“Sure,” she said. She had noticed him approaching the podium and wasn’t totally surprised by his introduction.

“My name is Enrico Vulpetti and I’m in the aerospace engineering department at Georgia Tech. My specialty is advanced in-space propulsion,” he said.

Rain liked his voice. It was deep, purposeful, and conveyed confidence, but not arrogance. She didn’t know the man, but she already liked him. He was probably ten to fifteen years her junior and she liked his overall appearance—tall, at least six feet, a full head of black hair, and just a bit of a five o’clock shadow that had to be intentional. She couldn’t tell if he was bioengineered. Just enough facial hair to be masculine, not enough to look unkempt. She momentarily wished she were younger. Especially when she noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

“How may I help you, Dr. Vulpetti?” she asked.

“Please call me Enrico. My students call me ‘Dr. Vulpetti.’”

“Alright then, how may I help you, Enrico?”

“Have you been keeping up with the work on the Samara Drive?”

“Only to the extent that it made my last few years on the Moon much more tolerable and is the reason we’re now sending people all over the solar system. I remember the ‘good old days’ of chemical rockets taking us from here to the Moon and I cannot say that I miss them,” she replied.

“I’m on the team that’s working on the next generation Samara Drive, one that doesn’t require the same amount of input power to derive thrust. Basically, we’re improving its overall performance and simultaneously reducing the power required to use it. We’ve got a major test next month that I believe you’ll be interested in.”

“Why so?” she asked.

“Because, if it is successful, then we can start thinking about building a ship to go to visit the people on Proxima Centauri b instead of just sending them radio messages.”

“I read a few years ago that we could already do that, or so I thought.”

“You probably read about the robotic probe that the research group in Bremen came up with. Until now, there were limits on the ultimate speed a ship with Samara Drive could achieve that depended upon the weight of the ship and the availability of onboard power to drive the propulsion system. The Samara Drive’s limits at the time kept the trip time to about one hundred years because it would have stopped accelerating when it reached about twenty percent the speed of light. As the ship’s mass grew, the trip time increased and the maximum speed the craft could achieve dropped—if the power available remained the same. Unfortunately, if you want to have more power available onboard, the size and weight of the power system grows, making it more difficult to go faster, etcetera. To go faster, you need more power, which makes things heavier, which make them slower and requires more power, etcetera. The system begins eating its tail, as it were, and we’re stuck with a century to send a robotic probe—one way.”

“And that’s changed?” Rain asked.

He smiled and said, “Oh, yes. Our new design is much more compact than its predecessors and the drive doesn’t require nearly the input power. In addition, the Chinese have come up with a new compact fusion reactor design that we believe can fit on a large spacecraft, large enough to carry people, and accelerate it to at least 0.4c, maybe even as much as 0.9c, with possible trip times of under twenty to even ten years.”

“Twenty years to Proxima Centauri? That’s amazing. But for humans? Why not just send the robotic mission and cut the trip time even further? Wouldn’t that be simpler? And if you’re traveling that fast, shouldn’t you get there a lot sooner than twenty years?” Rain asked in rapid-fire succession, her mind racing and now thoroughly engaged in the conversation, his thoughtful and penetrating gaze notwithstanding. She wasn’t going to allow herself to be distracted by his good looks.

He smiled. “I’ll try to answer your questions if I can remember them all. Yes, twenty years to get to Proxima Centauri. Yes, that would be for sending a ship carrying about a dozen people along with all the supplies needed to keep them alive for the trip. We propose a human mission because I—I should say we—don’t believe that a robotic-only mission will have the support that a human mission would have. People are fascinated by the aliens at Proxima Centauri b and they want to go there and meet them. That might now be possible,” he said.

“I’m impressed, but you didn’t answer all my questions. Why is the trip time so long? If you are moving at forty percent the speed of light, then you should get there a lot faster than twenty years,” she replied.

“If we want to stop at Proxima Centauri, then we will have to slow down. We’ll accelerate to a maximum of about 0.4c at the halfway point and then turn it around and begin decelerating. Newton’s Law says that it will take us just as long to decelerate as it took us to accelerate, lengthening the overall trip time.”

“I get it. And why are you telling me?” she asked.

“I think that should be obvious. I want your support in the UN contact team when we bring it before them next month.”

“And how long before this ship of yours could be ready to launch?” Rain asked.

“Not before the next message cycle. Three to five years. And that’s if we can get the funding lined up quickly.”

“I’m definitely intrigued, but before I can make any commitments, I will need to do my homework. Can you send me your contact information?”

“Already done. My AI proactively did that before we even began our conversation. I hope you don’t mind. It can sometimes be, well, a bit pushy.”

“I’m sure AIs don’t get that kind of trait from their owners,” Rain said with a smile.

“Of course not. Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.”

“It was my pleasure,” said Rain, looking wistfully at young Dr. Vulpetti as he walked away. All that and brains too. Once again, she found herself wishing she were a decade (or so) younger.

* * *

Later that night, after a mostly vegetarian meal and sinfully delicious chocolate cake dessert, Rain got on the ’net and did her homework about the Samara Drive, Chinese fusion reactor research, and Dr. Vulpetti. All three were very real and very impressive. She noted that Vulpetti was not just a propulsion researcher at Georgia Tech, he served as the Endowed Chair of Advanced In-Space Propulsion at Georgia Tech and directed the Advanced In-Space Propulsion Division at a major aerospace conglomerate. His credentials were impeccable and the more she learned about him and the nascent plans to build an interstellar-capable spacecraft within the next few years, the more she came to believe that it all might just be real.

She also came to the realization that it might also be premature to be thinking of a trip to Proxima Centauri. There was simply so much they didn’t know about the Proximans and their world. Why were they keeping their knowledge of biology a secret? Without more biological information, any physical contact between Earth and Proximan humans would be dangerous—for both parties. She was reminded of the words spoken by Chayton Jonathan Williams in the committee hearing a decade ago and of her knowledge about the earliest contact between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America—before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

That thought took her to one of the many reports, books, and briefings they’d been given to read since joining the contact team—a book about the same first contact Williams’s ancestors experienced. The conclusions were not encouraging.

It was now known that fishermen from northern Europe contacted native American fishermen in the North Atlantic and along the coast of North America long before Columbus convinced the Spanish monarchy to support his journey across the ocean in 1492. The two groups of fishermen didn’t fight with each other, but the result couldn’t have been any deadlier for the Native Americans. European diseases, to which the natives had no immunity, spread widely and wiped out significant fractions of the local population. Much of the pre-contact Native American population was already dead or dying when Columbus arrived in Hispaniola. It was first contact of the deadly kind.

The risk of disease being exchanged between Earth humans and Proximan humans was very real. If both were truly biologically human, then each would be susceptible to the diseases that afflicted the other. And, from what she knew about how rapidly viruses could mutate to get around any immunities that might exist, she doubted that either side would have experience with the illnesses that might be common and mostly harmless on their individual home worlds. A common cold for an Earth human might cause respiratory arrest in a Proximan human never exposed to a similar virus and vice versa. Or they might not. Humans were humans after all and the human immune system adapts. There was just no way to be certain on either side of that argument.

There truly was no way to know if this was a real risk, or not. The Proximans left out from their Encyclopedia just about everything related to their biological past, including common diseases. Earth decided to omit from its Encyclopedia any information about genetic mapping and engineering since it was assumed the Proximans would not yet have discovered this was possible—trying to not give away too much technological information too soon. Without these tools, without the common languages of modern biology and epidemiology, it would be impossible to know the risks. A ship full of Earth humans arriving at Proxima could be the catalyst for a global pandemic there, wiping out millions or billions of people. Or not. However, such a trip could prepare for just that scenario with a couple medical epidemiology experts, stores of vaccines and pharmaceuticals, and the means or technology to produce new treatments as needed all taken along for the ride. Another possible approach might be to ask the Proximans for volunteers to stay in quarantine with the Earthlings for a few weeks to watch for symptoms on either side. While it might be premature to jump to a manned mission, there were ways to do it safely. Or at least with lower risk.

* * *

Five weeks later, the idea of sending a crewed ship to Proxima Centauri b using the newly improved Samara Drive came up for consideration by the first contact committee and failed—by a slim margin. The suggestion would therefore not be sent to the General Assembly by the committee for a full vote unless one of the members of the Security Council decided to bring it up themselves. Of course, not everyone in the world agreed that the UN had jurisdiction over such matters and Enrico Vulpetti knew who many of these people were—and he had a “Plan B.”

Two weeks after the committee vote, Enrico Vulpetti met with a group of angel investors in the Hotel Palácio in Estoril, Portugal. He requested they meet in Portugal, and this particular hotel, because Vulpetti was putting into play a plan that might not be well received by the rest of the world, particularly the world’s political leaders, making him feel positively “cloak and dagger.” It was here that the novelist Ian Fleming had supposedly penned the first of his James Bond novels and as the plan Vulpetti was pulling together became clear, he felt more and more like a character in one of those ancient novels. One of the villains, to be exact. Though he didn’t feel like a villain, he gave the project a codename: Spectre.

Together, the three investors who met with Vulpetti controlled nearly one trillion dollars in assets. Their clients were the ultrawealthy who either felt truly blessed to have so much money and were eager to share their good fortune with the masses, or they were the ultrawealthy who believed they could achieve a sort of immortality if they were to use some of their excessive wealth to the betterment of the species. Either way, what Vulpetti proposed piqued their interests—selfish or not.

By the time the dinner was over, and the chocolate mousse and aperitif were consumed, the deal was made. Design and development would begin immediately for the world’s interstellar ark to carry her emissaries to Proxima Centauri—the UN be damned. As far as Project Spectre was concerned the governments of the world had little reign over the final frontier. Oh, the United States, Russia, and China each had their space forces but they were there to protect their national assets and industrial complexes and infrastructures in and throughout the solar system. Deep-space exploration was pretty much like the wild western frontier of the 1800s in North America. And there were few, actually a total of zero, US marshalls out there to do anything about…well, anything. Project Spectre would begin in secret and remain there as long as possible to avoid premature legal challenges that could slow them down or ground them altogether.

The plan was audacious. The ship would be built in the open, in the same lunar orbital shipyard that was now building the next of many interplanetary arks soon to be bound for the many planets, asteroids, and moons of the solar system. Only this one would be built to unique specifications, unique for a ship taking a multidecade-long voyage to Proxima Centauri at a significant fraction of the speed of light. With luck, no one would uncover the ship’s true purpose until well after it was launched—when it was too late for any government to stop it. There was a lot of work to be done between now and then. Three years and some months was a long time for anyone to keep a project of this magnitude secret for very long. But it had been done in the past by military operations, video game industries, and moviemakers, so Project Spectre would do it as well.

At the end of the meeting, Saanvi, the investor who represented a multinational pharmaceutical consortium, asked Vulpetti the question that each of the meetings’ attendees had been wondering about, but not willing to ask—until now.

“What’s in it for you? Why are you putting your career, possibly your life as a free man, on the line to make this mission happen? Granted, you have the technical expertise to make it happen, but why? Once the world finds out about the project, won’t you likely be arrested and put on trial on some charge or another? You might even be tried for treason against humanity, if there is such a thing. We’ll make sure we are safe and untraceable. Our money will be laundered so much that it will look bleached by the time you receive it. We know how to do things like that. You don’t and, in this case, can’t. What is your angle?”

“It’s quite simple. I want to go. If I’m on my way to Proxima Centauri they can’t very well put me under arrest and lock me up, can they?” Vulpetti said, sipping the last drop of his Aperol. “And besides, I don’t buy all that nonsense. There’s no law keeping a citizen of most any country from deciding to leave the planet or solar system if they have the means. Show me the law.”

The man on the other side of the table burst out laughing, held out his hand, which held his flexible AI interface pad, and said, “Pay up. I told you he would want to go on the trip.” Looking resigned to his fate, the other investor took out his own AI pad and touched the two together.

“The funds are transferred,” the second man said, now bursting into his own smile. “I’m not totally surprised, but I can’t stand to turn down an interesting bet. And Dr. Vulpetti, you make a particularly good point about the laws. In fact, we might start paying some lawmakers and media conglomerates to start emphasizing and socializing that idea so that it will certainly appear legal, as far as everyone on Earth will believe, when the time comes.”

“I’m glad that I lived up to your expectations,” said Vulpetti, looking only slightly annoyed at being the brunt of their fun.

“Our expectations won’t be met until you are on your way to Proxima Centauri. And remember, we get to pick fifty percent of the crew,” said Saanvi, looking Vulpetti squarely in the eye.

“I remember. And you remember the crew members you select can’t be a bunch of fat bankers. Whoever you select must have a skill that’s needed, and they must pull their own weight on the trip out, and back, if they then choose to return to Earth.” Vulpetti paused, briefly sizing up the investors. “I have one more requirement.”

“And what is that?”

“I want my stepmother and my sister to be given forty-two million dollars each, tax free, and no questions asked. I want to be assured that they will be taken care of once I leave the planet. They’re the only family I have.”

“Why forty-two?” Saanvi asked with one raised eyebrow looking over a martini glass.

“First, I calculated about how much they would need to never have to work again and maintain a moderate low-end upper-class lifestyle for the rest of their days.” Vulpetti smiled and finished with, “And I like Douglas Adams’s writings. As old and antiquated as they are, they’re still funny to me.”

“Not familiar with the reference.” Saanvi eyed his cohorts as if they were speaking telepathically with one another. Vulpetti guessed that their AIs were passing information back and forth and displaying them on virtual displays on their contact lenses or through their audio ear patches.

“We’ll agree to those terms provided you deliver and agree to ours,” Saanvi replied.

“It’s a deal.”

With that, the four nodded and stood from their chairs, said their goodbyes, and went their separate ways. Vulpetti headed for the casino across the street. He wasn’t yet finished with his spy-novel adventure. Not until he found a wealthy and attractive blueblood to share the rest of the evening with him.

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