"Questions about purpose, humans’ yearning for exploration, and individual destiny... Those who enjoy science fiction with meticulous world-building and philosophical themes will appreciate White’s thoughtful novel."
"Find something worth dying for, and you will discover what it means to live."
Energy and artificial intelligence revolutions have made life perfectly comfortable for all of the people of Earth. New Horizon, is the last great forward thinking project of a world which is gradually succumbing to a deep existential malaise. The target is Haven, a planet one hundred and sixty years, and six generations of crew away. Launch is the story of those who join this mission, and who bet against the universe to establish a fully self-sustaining human presence on another world.
Markus Bowland wins a spot on the historic mission, and he faces an impossible choice when he finds himself torn between obligations to his loved ones, and the opportunity to be part of something extraordinary.
Prologue to New Horizons: Launch
Ten Years Ago…
“How about Tau Ceti? It’s the closest G-type outside Alpha Centauri…”
“Mmm… no, see? Metal poor, and… yeah, I thought I’d read that. It has a heavy dust cloud; there would be too much meteoric bombardment.”
“Right, right… and Alpha Centauri itself doesn’t have an appropriate planet… but Delta Pavonis looks good."
“Sure does, and that’s why the Catholics chose it. They should be well out of the Solar System by now. Obviously it would break our protocols to go where a mission was already headed.”
“Right, I knew that… Okay, 82 Eridani, no terrestrial planets. Eta Cassiopeiae looks good of course but that’s where the Mormons are headed…”
“What about Sigma Draconis? Earth-type planet… right in the sweet spot… no indications of complex life… yeah, I’d say it looks perfect!"
It was a warm Mediterranean evening in Alexandria, Egypt. It was early fall, and seated around the modest table were some of the most impressive Human Beings that Earth had to offer these days. They were collectively referred to as the famous four, and would become ever more so in the coming years. Master Sadhika Sengupta was a technological wizard, a born engineer who in her adolescence had become captivated by biochemistry and microbiology. Combining these passions, she had over the decades become an industrial giant in the perpetually lucrative biotechnology industries. She had always been, and continued to be, the nominal head of Brahma Biotech, the synthetic biology and genetic technology company she had founded after completing both her microbiology and biochemistry PhDs at only twenty-three years old.
“What… exactly is meant by ‘no indications of complex life?’” Ever concerned with detail, and the exact meaning of words, Kim In-Su was the soul of their little group. The Korean born wordsmith was one of the most accomplished and revered linguists and authors in contemporary Earth society. He spoke eight languages fluently and had a long resume of poetry, novels, and translations to his credit. Words, and their precise meaning in usage, were very important to him.
“Well, that is actually pretty hard to say,” Neil Sagan admitted. He was the exoplanetary scientist of the group. It was his team which had pioneered much of the research that had been done into what planets in the local stellar neighborhood might be habitable for humans. The long retired NASA Terrestrial Planet Finder had identified many such planets, but studying the light and spectra coming from them was challenging work. It was however, a field in which that hard work usually paid off. “Technically all it means is that the spectra reveal abundant free oxygen in the atmosphere. The only way we know this to be possible is if the oxygen is continually being produced. We think that would indicate prolific plant life, with sufficient animal life to consume that oxygen and create carbon dioxide for the plants to consume in turn. It’s the cycle that exists here on Earth.”
“Why does it have to be continually produced to be there?” In-Su asked.
“Well, cuz free oxygen is fairly unstable. Once in the atmosphere it’s really easy for it to find something to react with. As a result, oxygen levels shouldn’t be able to get to any substantial amount unless it’s continuously being put into the atmosphere quicker than it’s being burned up in reactions. The only natural mechanism we know of that does this is the photosynthesis of plants.” In-Su nodded his understanding.
“No indications of complex life also means,” Neil continued, “that there’s no indications of industrialization like chlorofluorohydrocarbons in the atmosphere; we don’t know of any natural process that can put them up there. Of course… there’s a humongous gulf between the emergence of animal life, and the de-velopment of industrialization as we know it. I mean… people looking at Earth today the same way we’re looking out into the universe, would only have found these indications as recently as six hundred years ago. Modern humans have been around much longer than that though.”
“Hmmm…,” In-Su considered. “That is quite a gulf. I’d hate to see a repeat of what happened to the Americans here… especially to be the cause of it personally.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Sadhika suggested. “We are aware of those risks and we will have strict protocols. We’ll um, well… I mean they, will orbit the planet and send hermetically sealed research teams and simulants down for some time before they actually land themselves and spill out onto the planet. Unlike the Europeans, we will be aware of the risk, and we’ll actually take care. Again, I mean they. Sorry.”
“Spilling out onto the planet, what a powerful image…” In-Su mused.
“Look, I know this is kind of esoteric,” Wiremu offered while shifting in his seat, “but what exactly is the cut-off point for us between intelligent and non-intelligent life? I mean… of course we don’t expect to find like, chimps and bonobos out there, but what tips us off to say ‘hey, that’s intelligent life?” The hard science of the mission was usually over Captain Wiremu Tynes’ head, but he knew enough, and was smart enough, to ask the right questions. This had taken him far in life; he’d seen a lot, and been faced with an array of novel ethical quandaries in his thirty-five years in the Trade Corps sailing all over the Solar System.
“Any such distinction would ultimately be arbitrary,” Neil answered abruptly. “All we can say at the moment, at this point, is that any signs of industrialization at all in the spectra of an atmosphere would rule out a candidate planet for colonization. If… such signs were detected.” He then added, “Of course we’ve never seen such signs anywhere but here…”
Wiremu harrumphed. “That’s not a very satisfying answer…”
In-Su smiled at him. “The most interesting questions never have one Wii… So,” he continued, turning back to Neil, “how far is Sigma Draconis?”
“Um… eighteen-point-eight light years,” Neil replied after consulting with his scroll.
Wiremu whistled slowly over the size of the distance. “That sure ain’t a vacation hop is it? Let’s see…” he reached across the table to the napkin dispenser and withdrew one, then started scribbling some calculations on it with a pen. “With the thrust engineers claim the next generation ion engines’ll be able to generate… if we used four of them on a ship the size we’re talking about… we should be able to achieve an effective acceleration of around six point two centimeters per second squared.”
“That doesn’t sound like much,” In-Su remarked.
“No, but over twenty continuous years of it,” Wiremu explained, “it’s enough to get us all the way up to thirteen percent of the speed of light.” He flipped the napkin over and did some further calculations on the other side. “Given that… from orbit to orbit I figure it’ll take about a hundred and sixty years, give or take.”
“Really! That long?” In-Su asked, surprised.
“Well, it’s really really far away!” Neil retorted with a chuckle. “Besides, you already knew that none of us would actually get to arrive there ourselves, that’s just… that’s just part of the deal,” he pointed out.
"Yes…” Sadhika chimed in, as she put her hand on In-Su’s, “but what a legacy.” He nodded his agreement.
Captain Tynes leaned in with a slightly more serious tone and asked: “so… are we serious here, I mean like… like really serious about this?”
--- --- ---
Two Years Ago…
“Ready? Okay. Fire up the primary accelerators.”
What makes a life worth living? What is ‘the good life’, and for that matter what is this ‘progress’ you are all so fond of speaking of when discussing either an individual person, or a society at large? Is there any endpoint to human potential? Is the absence of suffering a sufficient goal for humanity? What if we have reached that goal, but we have created a new kind of suffering, a deeper, more existential hunger which is as hard to define as it is to feed?
Sadhika, In-Su, Neil, and Wiremu, were onboard Orbital One overseeing the initial start-up of the New Horizon Generational Star Ship’s prototype fusion core. The New Horizon project had for a few years occupied a large office block on the station, and they were now conducting tests from the operations room they had constructed for situations such as this; it was their mission control until the ship was completed and self-sustaining. The ship’s orbital construction was approximately eighty percent complete, but all crews had been evacuated during these initial start-up tests as a precaution. It was a big day for all of them; an important milestone for the project. The New Horizon’s fusion core was the most sophisticated ship-borne power system ever constructed by human beings, and this was to be its first full power test after being installed.
There have been a variety of answers to this puzzle throughout our history. The ancient stoics believed that the healthy life was one lived in the centre, ideally moved neither by pain nor passion. They taught that one should be a creature of reason, and at peace with the order of the universe and one’s place within it. Similarly the ancient Taoist, Confucionsits, and Buddhists, all preached a fundamental acceptance of the world and one’s place within it. They believed that personal and societal peace was only achievable through being in balance with the natural order of the universe, and that disunity with it was the ultimate source of all human suffering.
All that was available to the technicians were instrument readings since there could be no direct video feed of the reactions themselves; the interior of the thick walled reactor was far too hot for any kind of camera. Inside the doughnut shaped reaction vessel, powerful magnets began dragging hydrogen atoms along at ever faster speeds and pressures to create plasma so hot and dense that the protons would fuse, releasing tremendous amounts of energy in the process. Inside the reaction vessel, the plasma swirled hotter and denser as more and more energy was being dumped into the system to achieve fusion. Once the reaction began, its energy output could be looped back into sustaining the reaction, with tremendous surpluses of energy left over to power all of the ship’s systems; such was the marvel of fusion technology.
The Hindus however believed in a perpetual cycle of creation and destruction, death and rebirth. They believed in karma, and the idea that one could, through their perpetual incarnations, evolve beyond what they are in the human material world, and into a being of pure thought and light. Beyond that stage no one could know, but it was understood that the idea of an ‘ending’ was a human illusion, born of our terrestrial mortality. This is certainly a noble and appealing idea, but sadly a metaphysics not supported by science. Nonetheless, the idea of perpetual improvement with no specific definable objective or destination was an important idea.
There were tense moments as the engineers and contractors from Bowland Power Systems checked the indicator panels and power readings, looking for any dangerous anomalies that might require a precautionary emergency power down. These drives were modern marvels but their initial start-up procedure could be very difficult, especially with a new prototype. It would be much easier to maintain the reaction once it was initiated and stable though. All of the variables had to be balanced just right, but once running smoothly the controls could be locked down and the reactor run continuously for as long as the hydrogen fuel held out. No such anomalies were found, and eventually the lead technician from Bowland gave the all clear. They had just given birth to a miniature artificial star.
In the last half millennium Western culture has infused the idea of perpetual improvement into their technical proficiency. The end result has been the virtual elimination of war, poverty, hunger, and disease. But with our bellies full and our lives extended, the ever increasing ease of every aspect of our life is smothering some unique spark in humanity which I fear becoming lost to us forever.
“We have a stable fusion reaction. Good work everyone.” The room erupted in cheers and a spontaneous round of hugs. Even In-Su, typically so reserved and avoidant of physical contact, was swept up in the moment.
“Congratulations all around people, but we’re not done here so please settle down. Magnetics, how are the fields looking?”
“Rotation and compression accelerators are… nominal,” one of the technicians answered a few moments later after tapping intently at his work screen.
A different technician reported the status of the magnetic fields generated to keep the plasma properly swirling in place with the correct geometry. “Superconductors… nominal. Frequency and shape… nominal. Temperature is… in the green,” he reported after intent investigating of his status displays and system monitors. Magnets were crucial to the mission for two reasons. Not only were they central to how the fusion reactor itself worked, but they were also essential to using the energy produced by the fusion core to generate the ship’s own protective magnetosphere. Much like how the Earth’s magnetic field protected life on its surface against high energy radiation from space, the ship’s powerful artificial magnetosphere would likewise protect the crew from solar wind generated within star systems. More importantly given the nature of the ship’s mission though, the field would also protect the crew from the silent and invisible high energy cosmic rays which endangered all organic life out in the void of deep space.
The lead technician turned to the famous four leaders of the project. “With your permission, we’re ready to test fire the engines.” Wiremu gave him an acknowledging nod, at which point the technician swiveled his chair back to his desk. “Engine Team, go on Engine One power up.”
From Orbital One, the largest space station in orbit around Earth, people were gathering at the windows on the floor of the habitat ring to see the big event. Orbital One shared a parallel orbit with the New Horizon which allowed a wonderful view of the ship being built from the station. Barely perceptible at first, the eerie electric blue jets coming off the first of the four massive ion engines appeared and then grew brighter and brighter until a long pale blue jet could be seen out the back of the engine. Elemental xenon was being excited electrically until one by one the atoms were allowed to fly out the back of the reaction vessel, imparting a minute acceleration onto the giant generational starship. Being an ion drive, the light was much more impressive than the thrust, which by design only aggregated over time.
Abraham Maslow first coined the term ‘self-actualization’ as being at the very top of his pyramidal hierarchy of human concerns. His idea was that we can only commit our attention to our ‘higher’ concerns once we are satisfied with our ‘lower’ concerns. At the bottom are our physiological needs, for which we all now find ourselves satisfied with our abundant food, water, heat, and shelter. Then comes safety, which has been satisfied by effectively eliminating war and crime through abundant resource distribution, and compassionate concern for those who do violate our laws or quarantine for those who are unable to understand or follow them.
“Engine one, full thrust. Power readings… steady, zero warning signals… system nominal,” the head of the Engine Team called out.
“Excellent,” the chief technician answered, “okay. Power down engine one, then go on engine two power up.” The bright jet of engine one diminished more and more until it was entirely gone. Then, just as imperceptibly at first, a faint blue jet began to emerge from the rear of engine two.
A loud alarm suddenly filled the control room, accompanying flashing warnings on many of the screens. “What is that?” Wiremu asked.
“Fuck… I’m sorry sir, that’s the Earth-bound solar flare alarm.” The directions in which solar flares burst were quite random, but this particular one just happened to be aimed straight at Earth, thus triggering the alarm.
“What’s the ETA on the particle wave?” Wiremu asked.
“Network reports that it’s a fast one sir, only thirty-three minutes.”
“Hmm. Fuck indeed… Oh well, not much we can do about it now. Power down the reactor and lock all of the New Horizon’s systems into safe mode. We’ll have to call off the tests until the weather settles down.”
Solar flares were a known danger in space, but one which could usually be mitigated with early warning systems and artificial magnetospheres. Although the New Horizon’s field was scheduled to be initiated later thay day, Orbital One’s powerful magnetic field had already protected everyone from the photon burst and would likewise protect them from the proton wave when it struck. It was fortunate that crews had already been pulled off of the New Horizon during the fusion core start-up procedure, but even if they had not they would have brought a portable field generator with them regardless. After some bad accidents earlier in the space flight era, it had become a New Commonwealth workplace mandate that nobody was allowed to work naked to radiation exposure in space.
If our physiological and safety needs have been satisfied, we then become able to turn our attention to our needs for belonging and love. Most humans today exist as a single collective, with safety and a sense of belonging stemming from sheer safety in numbers. When so few of us are in an appreciable way different from those around us, it is hard for us to avoid a sense of belonging, and our inherent predisposition to love ourselves is likewise extended to those like us, which has effectively become everyone. And then… we stop. We have a global civilization which has become stuck here, and is stagnated from any further growth leading to self-actualization.
“I said shut down the core. Shut down the core now,” Wiremu ordered, frustrated at the delay. The technician tapped at the screen a few times before pleading, “I… I can’t! There’s something wrong, I think somehow her electronics are… oh no.”
“What?” Wiremu asked.
The technician stood to face him. “The system is locked into an over-regeneration cycle. I can’t shut it down!” This meant that more energy was being looped back into the reaction than was needed to sustain it, leading to ever higher temperatures and pressures.
“Son of a…” the captain stated half in anger, half in disbelief. “The controls are completely unresponsive?”
“Yes Captain. We have instrument feeds… but the ship’s computer isn’t accepting any remote commands at all now. It appears to be a cascading failure… most probably caused by the initial radiation burst. Either way, only…” the technician turned to Wiremu again looking very pale and distressed, “twenty-eight minutes until it breaches if we can’t shut it down.”
Wiremu put a reassuring hand on the technician’s shoulder and asked him to keep trying to access the New Horizon’s systems anyways. He then turned to his friends. “Sadhika, In-Su, Neil… A word please?”
It is because the next step can only come as a result of being challenged, of having obstacles in your way and learning about yourself in the process of overcoming them. Maslow described the next level in his hierarchy as ‘esteem needs,’ as one’s sense of individual and personal achievement, as well as the perceived acknowledgement of those successes by others. Somehow, in our lack of any real need of anything, we have forgotten that we need a sense of individual achievement, that we need challenges to overcome in order to discover our inner strength and value. This is the only way to find your path to self-actualization, or enlightenment, or whatever you wish to call it, by whatever philosophical school that suits you.
The four huddled together outside of earshot of the technicians. “We have a serious problem. We’re getting uncontrolled regeneration in the core. They project it will detonate in twenty seven minutes."
There was silence as they pondered the grim reality of the situation Wiremu described. “What can we do?” In-Su asked. This problem was so far out of his realm that he could only hope one of his friends knew enough to figure a way out of this for all of them.
“Well,” the captain replied, “ordinarily it wouldn’t be a problem, we’d just send a crew over to physically sever the connections which loop the reactor’s outputs back into its own power systems, but…”
“…but the proton wave will catch up with them and be lethal to anyone who goes out there to make the repair…” Neil realized out loud.
“Either problem alone we could deal with, but together… It we try to wait it out New Horizon will detonate.” A strange unidentifiable noise escaped from In-Su after Wiremu said the word ‘detonate.’ The idea of so abruptly losing the ship elicited a reaction he couldn’t quite contain. “Exactly, and what would we do then? We don’t have the resources to just start all over again,” he added.
“At the moment Wii I’m more worried about the lives on Orbital One,” Sadhika pointed out. “If New Horizon goes, Orbital One would be at great risk from the blast.”
‘No question,” Tynes confirmed.
“Is there nothing we can do?” she asked.
“Yes. There is a way… but you’re not going to like it.” They all looked at him expectantly. “I’ll take a shuttle to manually shut the reactor down myself. I’ll physically sever the pathways; I’ll destroy the whole regeneration system if I have to!” Sadhika shot a worried look at him.
“You can’t…” she uttered with growing anxiety. “You can’t.” she said again, more defiantly. “Send a droid or, or a sim!”
“Be damned if I’d trust a droid to do such an important job. Besides, that proton wave will disrupt their electronics just as effectively as it will DNA. Human or mecha Sadhika… somebody’s gonna have to die today. It has to be done Sadhika, and you know it. And you know I can’t ask anyone else to do it for me.”
“You don’t have to ask. I’ll do it,” Neil declared. The other three looked at him, stunned.
“Maslow himself once said: “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone – when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other and higher needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new and still higher needs emerge, and so on.”
“Neil what are you talking about, you’re not even qualified!” Something in Wiremu already knew how things were about to unfold, but his mind had yet to accept the inevitability. “We can’t lose you, you’re invaluable! I’m not, you can find a new captain. This is my job, Neil! I can’t let you do this!” Wiremu was too seasoned to betray any panic, but he was desperate for an alternate solution.
"No one as good… and besides, you can talk me through it. How hard can it be to sever a power conduit?” The other three were looking at him with incredible dread. “My friends… look. I’ve already accomplished what you needed me for on this mission. My task is complete. I have found you your Haven beyond the horizon, now please let me do this. Please let me die for what I believe in, and let us all resolve, to do whatever is necessary to launch this mission. I’m dead already; the mission is all that matters now… and you all know it. You know that this is the only thing that matters.”
In-Su seemed positively paralyzed with fear. Sadhika’s eyes were wide and on the verge of tears, but Wiremu’s steely expression betrayed only an acceptance of Sagan’s argument. Finally he declared: “I’ll walk you to the shuttle and explain the job on the way.”
“No!” Sadhika cried out in agony despite herself, her emotion momentarily overriding her usually implacable reason.
Wiremu turned and glared at her and in a stern voice he reserved for issuing orders, simply stated: “don’t.” At that she quieted down, and Wiremu led Neil out of the room. In-Su slumped down onto the floor and started tearing up. He wanted to completely let go, but he knew that he couldn’t in front of everybody. At the moment everyone in the room was sharing a collectively pooled resolve and composure. He couldn’t sabotage what little was left of it.
Sadhika knelt down, gave him a firm and lingering hug, and whispered in his ear that it would be okay. She then stood up, and turned to address the technicians. “Alright people, listen up. Here’s the plan…”
You are all young, and hopefully you still have some desires left burning somewhere within you which your society has yet to snuff out. You probably are not close enough to the void of time yet to really understand the message I am trying to impart on you today, but I implore you to find those burning passions, and to do whatever you can to feed and nurture them. These are your most precious possessions. I encourage you to never be satisfied with satisfaction, to never decide that enough is enough, or that things are good enough as they are. I promise you that the day you have nothing left to want for, will be the day that you are dead… or worse.
--- --- ---
“You know I wouldn’t let anyone else do this right? That this is going to haunt me forever?”
“Yes… I know. And I can’t thank you enough for bearing that burden for me. I know how much easier it would be for you to just do it yourself.” Wiremu and Neil had arrived at the shuttle airlock and were speaking their last words to each other. The emergency had left the normally bustling microgravity departure bay eerily deserted. “Remember, it isn’t that complicated. The shuttle will dock with the ship autonomously.” He pulled apart the medium scroll he was holding and displayed a schematic diagram of the core room on the unfurled screen and zoomed in on the relevant part. “If you can get the terminals to accept inputs I can talk you through the shutdown. Otherwise, cut here, here, and here,” he said as he pointed out locations on the scroll. “If it comes down to it though… here; old school.” Wiremu held an axe out to Neil and he took it. “I know it’s low tech but uh… well, unfortunately it’d be the right tool.”
“To both of us.”
The two men looked at each other understandingly, and then Neil suddenly looked sternly and demandingly into Wiremu’s eyes. “You take care of that ship and crew, you hear me?” Wiremu nodded somberly, at which point Neil nodded back at him intently, as if to confirm. He then turned back around and headed through the airlock. It closed behind him, and he never looked back.
Find something worth throwing your life into with every gram of your essence. Find something worth dying for, and you will discover what it means to live. Thank you, good luck, and congratulations Class of 2162!