A memorial for mankind

This is where we are.

 

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We are a single, luminous point in an emptiness so vast that the human mind cannot conceive of it if it tried.

We are a ship, and we are a city. In our cylindrical drum there is perfect gravity. In our garden there is food. Water and air are closed systems. Our reserves are barely tapped, but there is room for error.

Our destination is a world called Cybele. It has approximate .8 earths of gravity and the correct atmosphere for fostering organic life. Ahead of us, capable of decelerating at speeds that would turn us to pulp, ride the terraforming machines, self-replicating devices who never tire and never complain.

By the time we arrive, Cybele will be a garden.

Or so we hope.

 

In space, there is nothing to slow you down. In the absence of all things, our forward progress is inexorable.

We will keep moving until the ship is rotated along its axis and the deceleration ‘burn’ begins. I will not live to see that day. None of us will.

That thought has never bothered me.

 

If by some accident we do not begin the deceleration, if the engine fails or if the crew is incapable of performing the “turn and burn” then we will continue moving forever, or until we find ourselves captured by a sufficiently large gravity well. That is a less comforting thought.

The laws that govern our motion are immutable.

 

We have to pray that our descendants can turn the ship around and pull the trigger at the appointed time. We have to pray that nothing goes wrong. We have to pray that the world does not end before then.

Nothing much has changed. This is the history of humanity.

 

In my time, Earth was not one nation. By the time you read this, it may well be. In my time, the nations of Earth were engaged in colonial endeavors amongst the stars. Our various polities sent autonomous vehicles to mine asteroids and humans had begun, slowly and cautiously, to visit and live on the surface of other worlds, hostile though they might have been to organic life.

That’s no way to ensure the survival of the species. That’s just stalling.

As long as humanity remains confined to one system, to one world, we are vulnerable. To those who have said the stars are not for us, I say they must be. We were made to wander. To seek out new worlds. To adapt. To thrive.

 

I spent my last day on Earth at Sandymount Strand. I have chosen to remember it as it was in early morning. The air ways slightly chilled by a wind from the west. Clouds dangled in the sky, moving as if along wires. Their filaments grew darker to the west, anchored by the path of the jet stream.

By the time you read this, those words might be meaningless to you. Even in my time, the Strand was sinking beneath a quickly rising sea. Humanity lived in a paradise we were destroying. The forests were gutted, the oceans choked with refuse and poisons.

Seagulls flew in arcing paths guided by sharp breaths of wind. The crest of Howth Head rose like the back of a beached leviathan out of the foggy deep.

The Strand was vacant, quiet. In the distance there were smokestacks and glass towers. On a clear day you would be able to see them. So it goes.

 

We have raised our children here. It has been thirty years since any of us have seen Earth, but we preserve its memory. We have told them of Paris, of the cafes of Buenos Aires, of the Grand Canyon and the Yellow River. We have tried to describe rainstorms and wildfires. We have tried and failed to relate things that you can only understand through experience.

We have tried to preserve Earth, to make a memorial of a place our children will never know. We have tried to explain what we have given up.

However, there is one thing we do not discuss. It has become a ritual for us.

No-one else knows about my last day. I have never told Siobhan, the love of my life. I have never told my children.

We decided, through unspoken agreement, to keep it holy. The organization that sent us off granted us the freedom to choose any place in the world. It was a small cost compared to the trillions of euros sunk into this endeavor.

 

This is the history of man. You make a machine. You make a machine to make a machine. That machine builds another machine.

Your children outlive you.

 

How can you explain a sunset to a child who has only seen the sun on computer screens and VR sims? How do you explain to them that our world was dying? How do you explain that we lived in constant war with ourselves, with nature, and with all our creations? How do you explain that to a child who has never known anything but bright, sterile abundance?

I have asked myself that every day. I have sat in front of my classroom and pondered how to explain to the dull, sleepy children in my care the burden we all share.

I sit in front of my own children sometimes. When I was born I had a choice. I chose this life. I chose to imagine a new life on Cybele. I chose to defer that dream so that my children’s children’s children could live it.

I chose to make my life a memorial of humanity.

How can I ask them to make that same choice? Eoin and Maeve are watching the ocean again. They are sitting in my living-room, awaiting the test results that will decide their occupation for the next five years.

“It smells of salt.” I tell them. “The air has this scent of salt. It’s all around you. It raises the hairs on the back of your neck. And when you wade into it, you can feel the power. You can feel it rushing around you. It’s exhilarating.” Siobhan and I met by the ocean, one night clubbing in Barcelona. I don’t tell them that. I don’t want to.

They have never seen water in quantities bigger than a hydroponic hose can produce. If by some miracle my children were to see a horizon they would never understand it. They wouldn’t be able to anchor their eyes correctly – they’re too used to the gentle arcing contours of their world, to confinement and false angles.

 

The next morning, I was back in the classroom. Today we had to run evacuation drills. In case of depressurization of any portion of the ship, you have mere minutes to make it to a safe zone. In case of a fire, the doors begin closing automatically. These are the cold equations we have made.

Li was trapped behind the wall. When the alarms went silent and the ship was cold and bright and safe again, I took her in my arms. I told her it was okay, that it was just a drill. There would be time to try again.

 

Our ship has an observation deck, where there is no pull of centrifugal gravity. Few of our children ever come here. It is mostly silent. The emptiness of space is strange to most, the conceit that we would even desire an observation deck being a very… planetary choice.

I took Eoin to see it once, when he was very young, before his sister was even born. Siobhan was there, holding his hand as he floated in the blackness.

The human body depends upon gravity to survive. In its absence we need medicine and calcium supplements. Our muscles atrophy. Our eyes deform and our organs suffer.

My son vomited the first time he floated in the blackness. Small constructs with cleaning agents and a damp towel were by his side immediately.

“I’m sorry… we’re sorry.” But this is the world. This is what you were born into. Forgive me.

 

Last night, I imagined that the hard burn had kicked in, and the long, slow deceleration that marked our journey’s end was upon us.

Our grandchildren were unrecognizable. When they stepped, blinking, onto solid ground they soiled themselves and screamed and fled back into the safety of the vehicle.

I stood there, resolute. I was Moses on the mountaintop. I knew that the chosen land was not for me. I knew I would never step foot in the holy land. Eoin was there, his eyes wide. He was seven years old, floating as if on wires in the emptiness. Terraforming machines combed the basalt architecture of the world.

What could I say to these children? They fled into the brightly lit womb of the ship. Cybele was not their mother.

 

Later, I took him to the observation deck again. He was seventeen then. It had been ten years since he’d seen the future.

I pointed to a single, solitary dot in the emptiness, chosen for me by a computer overlay. I could only hope that he would understand.

 

“This world is yours. We died for it.”