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“The only choices left are choices that aren’t choices.”
Julian Hartsock. “Why Neptune?” Precipice: The Autobiographical Ramblings of Julian Hartsock. (Chapter) A & A Publications, 2123.
by P.E. Rowe
Agreeableness (Compassion)—(Hartsock, Julian Q.) 20th Percentile: Compassion (AC) is the psychometric score assigned to an individual’s propensity to empathize with the emotions of other people; understand their emotional pain and struggles; and act in a manner beyond self-interest to alleviate such distresses. Individuals low in Compassion are unlikely to go out of their way to help others selflessly. They typically act more in accordance with self-interest. People low in Compassion may become frustrated by social situations where they may be judged harshly for failing to help those in need. They may often be perceived as cold or callous, perhaps even more so than genuinely Machiavellian personality types who lack Compassion entirely but respond according to appropriate compassion-related social cues to maintain social status.
A score in the (20th) percentile, coupled with the distribution profile of psychometric measures herein, suggests a cool personality, prone to neglecting the emotional needs of others, responding instead cerebrally to emotional situations and problems. Professions that require empathic human interactions should be avoided.
Of all the psychometric scores returned on me, this score from MM³ was the most surprising. I think people usually have a sense for themselves. If you’re a slob, it’s not hard to fathom an Orderliness score in the teens. I didn’t even consider the possibility that I was such a cold bastard until the numbers told me so. Reserved, maybe, but not cold-hearted. Gladstone et al. scored me even lower—18, but mercifully their narrative didn’t pile on; their feedback read as follows: Low but not disturbingly low AC score places subject above the threshold for psychopathic tendencies.
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In the early decades of the Space Age, as some referred to the era following the Space Race of the 1960s, there was genuine excitement in the world’s industrialized cultures about the future of humanity in space. Contemporary science fiction and futurist literature portrayed wildly optimistic near-future outcomes. Children born in the decades following the moon landing were bombarded with media that convinced them their world would be one with flying cars, cities on the moon, and regular space travel. The truth was that the moon landing was a literal moon-shot in the figurative sense—the most improbable and insanely unlikely outcome was its success, fueled more by the pressures of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union than by any realistic scientific or commercial ambitions. And given the degree to which the moon flight was so barely achievable at that time, continuing to explore the moon was of little practical or commercial value then.
The zeitgeist and pride in the moon landing for Americans generated funding for space exploration for decades to come, though, and emergent satellite technology helped to advance a budding information-rich culture. But the slowdown of space exploration after the Space Race was a reality check for a culture that had so recently envisioned their star-born future. The American space program, while quietly achieving many great and necessary foundational successes, also suffered costly failures in the form of two shuttle explosions that rattled public confidence in the feasibility and practicality of manned space flight. But culturally, at least in America, there was perhaps no wetter blanket thrown over the idea of space as a realistic near-term human habitat than a bizarre privately funded experiment in a closed ecological bubble in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2. The experiment was, as the unimaginative name denotes, an attempt to construct a closed, ecologically stable environment, principally to simulate the challenges of maintaining a sustainable habitat for humans in space. Odd though it may seem now, the project was a media phenomenon, with daily news reports and newspaper articles on the state of the “biospherians” inside the bizarre desert eco-dome. Schoolchildren, tourists, and gawkers alike even flocked to Arizona to poke the glass as though those eight pioneers were some zoo-bound community of chimpanzees in matching red jumpsuits. Due to this public exposure, the world was watching the Biosphere mission nearly as closely as the space shuttles when the participants grew increasingly more emaciated and oxygen-starved over the months. The initial experiment ultimately ended in a very public controversy involving the injection of oxygen and outside material being brought into the dome. This controversy, portrayed by most media as an epic failure, left a lasting mark in the public’s psyche despite some successes and many lessons learned from its numerous failures. For a long time, though, sustaining human life in space seemed unachievable, or at least impractical, distant.
Looking back on that era, with more than a century’s hindsight, those people, with their technology, thinking that they were going to build and live in a lunar city in their lifetimes was as absurd as thinking they could build such a metropolis on the sun. Yet I find something inspiring about both the instinct and the grit of the attempt. The lessons learned in those failures still inform foundational concepts in space archology today. And somehow, those pioneers are largely forgotten or remembered as an oddity or curiosity, as though the media circus and resulting perceptions made them any different from explorers who’d come before them in wooden ships, submarines, or airplanes. Cultural zeitgeist, in its way, is its own force of nature, impossibly inaccessible to those caught up in it.
We’ve built space stations since then, yes. Lots of them. So I wasn’t prepared for the challenges that those original biospherians struggled with to still be problematic for us over a hundred years later. When Cass brought the subject to my attention, initially I dismissed it as insignificant. After all, we had dozens of outposts—Mercury, Mars, the Moon, the stations in low-Earth orbit, the Jacks in the Belt, the L2.
I’d just gotten back from a trip out to Europa myself, visiting with my friend Gunnie. Even he was starting to come around to the idea of humans leaving our solar system by then, mostly because he saw it as inevitable. I was sitting on my balcony at my home in Clearwater when Cass first brought the issue to my attention. I wasn’t spending much time at the office by then, and even though I knew it was a pain in the ass for him to come to my house instead of meeting in VR, I did insist on meeting in the real world still. Being who I was afforded me that eccentricity. I wanted everyone, Cass included, to feel like I was that much more inaccessible than the average person. Theatrical and pompous maybe, but so be it. I was A & A. I was at the point that I felt the world should come to me after everything I’d done for it.
Thunder clouds were darkening and billowing up over the Gulf waters as Cass continued to talk.
“In another solar system, Julian, we won’t be getting any care packages,” he announced as though I didn’t understand that fact. “We’ll have to prepare as though the things we need won’t be available to us—at least for some time as we build new infrastructure.”
I shrugged. “What’s the problem, Cass?”
“Problems. Multiple problems, many of which won’t be evident until we encounter them in the field.”
Then he referenced that very Biosphere 2 experiment and suggested we do something like it, here in our own solar system.
“Around Neptune,” he suggested.
“Why Neptune?” I asked him.
“It’s far enough away to seem alien. It is intriguing and captures the imagination in a way Mars and Jupiter don’t. People are already familiar with the idea of people being there. We should plan an expedition to Neptune to build a self-sustaining settlement.”
“Plan one? Or should we build it, Cass?”
“It depends. What’s our timeline for an expedition to Geddes?”
“That depends,” I told him, “on how fast we get all these environmental problems solved.”
He shrugged his shoulders, looking at me and shaking his head. I didn’t have a more accurate answer than that.
“A Neptune project would serve as a decent cover. You could mask our intentions for an interstellar mission behind it, Julian. Preparations for Neptune could serve two masters and seem entirely unsuspicious. We could use it to recruit key people, select appropriate cargo, and if we decided to build it, we might even find Neptune far enough from Earth to make resettlement on Geddes unnecessary.”
At the time, I still wasn’t certain that leaving our solar system entirely was the proper decision. But I also thought it was prudent to prepare as though we needed to go. We could always decide against it later. You couldn’t spin up an interstellar mission with tens of thousands of colonists overnight. You could cancel it in an instant though, however difficult the fallout might be.
“Get me some literature,” I told Cass. “Specs if they’re out there would be good. Somebody must have proposed something relevant.”
Cass shrugged. “Nothing inspired.”
“Functional,” I told him. “We can worry about inspiration on our actual projects. This is just speculative at this point.”
I wanted to talk to someone new. Of the handful of people who knew of my intentions to leave Earth, I wasn’t sure any could articulate real concerns against me. More to the point, I wasn’t sure I was capable of listening to real concerns from them if they voiced them. I’d never felt so distant, stereotypically separated from real concerns of real people, like a king or an emperor who couldn’t relate to the commoner in the country. I hated the feeling, but I also didn’t know what to do about it. A & A had to run, so I didn’t have the luxury of a mid-life crisis.
Cass dumped a slew of files on me that night. Most of them were relevant to the Jacks in the Belt. I was familiar with a lot of the engineering concerns there, having overseen much of that early work, but again, these weren’t ecosystems so much as outposts—apartments in asteroids.
In Cass’s files, there were a few serious proposals for O’Neil-type cylinders in the asteroid belt, and the more I read through them, the more I liked the idea. We could turn a modest sized asteroid into a modest sized city by hollowing it out, running a drum about five miles in diameter forty miles deep into the rock, spinning it, filling it up with an atmosphere and amenities, and that would serve as our own experiment in sustainability in space. Only, I did like Cass’s suggestion to get further out. Neptune seemed like a step—a real step. I spent a lot of time in the following weeks looking for the right rock. I also spent a lot of time reading.
A name kept coming up in my literature search—Avery Daley. She was an Ag specialist. She’d been a first or second author on sixteen papers in two years on a process called minimal growth agriculture, and she was just a kid, not even twenty-four yet. And the more I read, the more I thought it might be good to talk to someone about the process, because the biggest problem in the biospheres, from what I could tell, was mastering the balance between plant and animal life—oxygen and carbon dioxide, food and waste, heat and light—all needed to be in a steady balance, and minimal growth was like a cheat code. We could grow our food without growing the plants that produced most of the calories and biomass, which meant we could grow other plants elsewhere, trees and grasses, flowers and vines. I spent several hours watching lectures on the process from her mentor, as well as some onsite talks about their lab on Mars. It was clear she was sharp and engaged. I was thinking about having Flor send someone to bring her in. Then I thought, what was I doing in Florida that I couldn’t do from space. I figured I’d go to Kannur where she was working, get a bigger view of things. I made numerous calls over several hours jumping through the proper hoops to take out one of the FTL ships.
I got a call from Flor. “Julian, what the hell are you doing?”
“What do you mean, Florence? I’m going to Mars to look into this Ag process for the cylinder.”
“To look into the process or the girl?”
“She’s twenty-three, Julian. And you want to what? Pick her up and take her for a ride in your spaceship? Sometimes I wonder what the hell goes on in that head of yours.”
“Jesus, Flor, she’s a kid. My interests are strictly professional. You know that.”
“Then why not go visit with Penny up at UNH?”
“Because I want to know what she thinks about this stuff. Penny is an old man. Old men don’t move to Neptune. Young people do. I don’t talk to enough real people, Flor. Or young people.”
“I wish for once you had a sense for the optics, Julian. If you insist on going, I insist on accompanying you.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate you chaperoning, Flor.”
“See, Julian, you’re being sarcastic, but she actually will. It blows my mind how you think it would be appropriate for a middle-aged billionaire to randomly pluck a college girl off her research post to jaunt around the solar system for the afternoon. Just, really. Let me know when you want to leave.”
Of course, Flor turned out to be right. We went back and forth on the matter on the way out to Mars. The manifest was just us, the Captain, and the two techs—human backups to the real pilot, the Marquan AI Navigational Domain—as though I couldn’t have done the math if we got into a pinch. Even when you own the ship, build the ship, and design the computing framework, you’re never free from the constraints of corporatism. This was my point to Flor.
“This is not me being corporate,” she told me. “This is basic human understanding—normal social cues. I know you’re genuine in your intentions, Julian, because I know you. Nobody else does. You can’t just ignore perceptions.”
“I don’t care what people think of me,” I told her.
“I wasn’t thinking about you, Julian, you selfish bastard. You should know that by now. Really. I was thinking about the girl.”
Flor was joking. Mostly.
Anyway, as soon as we got to Mars I realized, yeah, it would have been weird. Even walking in there would have caused a stir, like everything else I did. It was going to take about ten minutes for it to get back to NASA and India that I was poking around Kannur. They’d be wondering if I was going to start poaching their Ag specialists, and just that fact alone would get half the world wondering what I was up to. This was my problem. How could I ever talk to regular people if the result was a ten-billion-dollar market swing if a photo got out?
Flor offered to shuttle down and pick up Ms. Daley. As always, she had those corporate concerns top of mind—and all figured out, of course. Florence returned with two young ladies—Avery Daley herself and her friend Sagi Herron, which was the dealbreaker. Even with Flor along, Avery was reluctant to come by herself despite Kannur’s Mission Operator practically pushing her out the door, presumably hoping additional funding would come back with his young superstar Ag specialist. I certainly didn’t mind Ms. Herron tagging along, though I had no professional interest in a top-tier drone operator’s thoughts on our cylinder project. She was much friendlier than Ms. Daley, though, who seemed skeptical of the whole scenario.
“Ever been to Neptune?” I asked them as they floated into the sitting area.
“My God, I’d have killed for a room this spacious on the way out,” Sagi Herron said.
“Did you come out on the Perth or the Ake?” I asked her.
“Neither,” she answered. “I came out the old-fashioned way—seven months on the Starshiner. I’ve never been on an FTL flight.”
“And you, Ms. Daley?” I asked her.
“I came out on the Ake. And, no, we didn’t go to Neptune. Our turnaround was out in empty space.”
“Welcome to the Mirror.”
“Is this your ship, Mr. Hartsock?” Ms. Herron said.
I shrugged. “Call me Julian, please. And, yes, I guess technically they all are, because A & A is the only fleet with FTL capabilities presently, but I can’t just grab the keys and go for a joyride, as it were. There are all kinds of hoops even I have to jump through.”
“Please secure yourselves for travel,” The Marquan AI, announced.
Flor joined us from the corridor, floating into the lounge area and smiling at the two young ladies, who sat beside each other across from me on the inner ring of the lounge’s long bench seating. Flor floated over and pulled herself down beside me, holding onto a beverage that she clicked into the cup holder before securing herself. First things first.
“Birdie’s too shy to ask,” Sagi Herron announced, “but I’m not. Is this some kind of billionaire pickup thing.”
“I’m sorry? Birdie?” I answered.
“Nobody calls her Avery. She’s Birdie, and she wants to know if this is your way of asking her out, because she has a boyfriend.”
“Told you,” Flor said.
“No, um, Birdie? That was not my intention at all.”
“Julian is brilliant,” Flor joked. “But he’s not that smart.”
“Thank you, Flor,” I said. “I was hoping this conversation, if anything, would be more of a job interview. But, no pressure. I’d really just like to pick your brain on a few things. I read all your papers, and I was impressed by your work.”
“Why are you reading Ag, journals, Julian?” Sagi asked. “I thought you built spaceships and space elevators and such.”
“Let’s wait till we get to Neptune,” I suggested. “I have an interest. A great interest.”
Sagi couldn’t stop talking about the transit—the miracle of it. She had a lot to say about those seven months on the Starshiner too. The Mirror was a cruise ship, relatively speaking. That was true. The idea that we could be halfway out of the solar system in nineteen minutes was a revelation for her, as it was for all of us. None of us had felt the pain of half a year lost creeping to Mars, though. Avery, or Birdie as Sagi Herron called Ms. Daley, seemed unimpressed. Or perhaps that was just her manner. It was difficult for me to tell. Flor did a little work trying to break the ice, but Birdie seemed about as interested in the small talk as I did.
When we got to Neptune, I asked Birdie if she would mind joining me along the outer ring. I think she’d taken a certain enough measure of me to understand that my intentions were professional, or at least entirely platonic. So she joined me in one of the small rooms along the outer perimeter of the circular concourse. We rotated the hub so that we were looking out at Neptune, back toward the sun, floating weightless by the window.
“I imagine you didn’t expect you’d find yourself here,” I said to her. “Not today, maybe not even a few years ago.”
“Definitely not a few years ago.”
“I’m sorry, Bird? Is it weird if I call you that, Ms. Daley. I prefer a first-name basis, but I wonder if that wouldn’t sound as odd to you as it feels for me to say.”
“It’s what people call me, Mr. Hartsock. It’s not too familiar, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Bird then, if you’ll please call me Julian. You don’t work for me—yet, that is.”
She smiled at the view, but I got the sense she was holding something back. “Why Neptune?” she asked. “In order for my skills to be necessary, there need to be mouths to feed, Julian. And, as beautiful as this view is, there’s no one out here.”
“Intra-system transits being what they are now, I’m considering changing that fact.”
“Yeah, but why Neptune? Why not more people on Mars or Europa or the Jacks? Why so far out?”
“That’s part of it. I’m not overly inclined to share everything, but the point is to build an independent self-sustaining outpost far from Earth.”
“I’m sworn to secrecy,” she said, smiling. “I’d like to know the scale.”
“Let’s call it much larger than Kannur.”
She looked puzzled and perhaps slightly offended by something.
“Why the NDA, Julian, if you’re not even going to talk about what you brought me out here to talk about?”
“Flor?” Bird said, nodding. “Nondisclosures. Yeah, she insisted on it. Both me and Sagi.”
“Oh, I’m sorry about that.”
“No, I mean, I’ve signed probably thirty different waivers at Kannur—for my research, for other people’s research, for NASA, for the outpost itself. I pretty much can’t legally talk about anything now except sports,” she joked.
“Hmm, okay, well then. Do you see those little dark spots out there, Bird?” I pointed to the area out the window where the L4 Trojans were, though they were tough to make out. “Lights,” I said, dimming the room’s ambient lighting.
“Still tough to see,” she said.
“Give it a minute for your eyes to adjust. When it comes into focus, you’ll be looking at a cluster of asteroids caught in Neptune’s fourth LaGrange point. They’re called the Trojans. The one I’m interested in is called Clete. I’m toying with the idea of hollowing it out and building an O’Neil cylinder inside her. Are you familiar with the concept?”
“Space station architecture isn’t exactly my wheelhouse, Julian.”
“It’s a pretty simple concept really. We build a massive cylinder—about five miles in diameter, then we spin it to create gravity. Fill it up with atmosphere, a couple reactors for heat and power, and then we build a mega-city inside, more or less.”
“Five miles in diameter?”
“Thereabouts. Though the diameter will be slightly less in the inner layers. I figure we’ll have to build several layers into the design. I’m thinking probably forty miles in length—two cylinders actually, twenty miles apiece.”
“Compared to Kannur, yes.”
“That would dwarf all the environments on Mars hundreds of times over, just in surface area. I’m just thinking about the acreage…relative to Boston. My geometry’s a little suspect, though.”
“It’s about the surface area of Rhode Island.”
Her eyes grew a little wider. “And you’re talking to me, so you’re thinking about minimal growth feeding what? A million people? Five million people?”
“That would depend, Bird? How many people could we feed that way?”
“Surface area’s not a problem, just the amount of water. We’d need the largest network of algae tanks ever created. I’d need to do a lot of math. But, I mean, this is crazy. You know how new this is. We’re so far from that scale, it’s like I can’t even find a metaphor.”
“You know I built a space elevator, right?”
“Yeah, but I mean…the technology isn’t even remotely ready to be scaled that way.”
“My point, Bird, is that when I started the Clearwater project, we were nowhere near ready to build the Space Ladder. Five years later, we started at the bottom and worked our way up. This is much more achievable.”
She was shaking her head in disbelief from what I could gather.
“So, I was working on my speech in my head already,” Bird said. “About my contract at Kannur, not wanting to let Professor Penny down, or Antrim.”
“My supervisor,” she explained. “I strongly suspect they’d both be thrilled if this materialized, even if it meant I had to leave to do it. Most of the processes we use, though, are patented.”
I couldn’t help but let out a laugh. She looked over at me, and then I really started laughing.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I know. Such an arrogant asshole, right?”
“Okay, so you’d acquire the patents and then A & A becomes the future of agriculture in space. And then what? Scale up a couple hundred cylinders like this one in Earth’s orbit and control the entire human race’s agricultural production? Is that the endgame here, Julian?”
I started genuinely laughing.
“What? You think this is funny? Does the prospect of immiserating the entire world’s population give you pleasure?”
“No, God, have you misread me, my young friend,” I said, shaking my head. “I hadn’t even nearly thought that far ahead. But I’m genuinely blown away by the cosmic scale of villainy you think me capable of. Immiserate. Great word, by the way.”
“I’m a little sensitive to this, you know. I understand what we’re creating on Kannur, our research. My family has been scraping by to keep our land profitable for generations. The irony is not lost on me that I’m working on a process that could finally destroy our way of life, not just for my family but for millions—billions maybe.”
“There aren’t that many farmers anymore. No. I read about you, and my assistant read me in on your area. Hay, potatoes, cow-corn. It’s too damn cold up there. Too much granite.”
“You forgot pumpkins, apples, and strawberries.”
“New England. How could I forget the pumpkins? You know I’m a farm kid too, right, Bird? Or I was, like forty years ago now. It’s been a long time.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“My dad still works. He’s in his seventies now and he still works the Hartsock fields. I could buy him an island and a fleet of yachts and the man would scoff at me, shake his head in disgust, and tell me he had to get the corn in. You think I could ever take that from him? Not willingly. Your people are my people. That’s a big part of why I want you. It took you two minutes to sniff out the danger for what it was. The consequences. I don’t always know what the hell I’m doing, but I have good instincts about certain things. Somebody’s going to acquire your patents if I don’t, Bird, and they’ll have bankers.”
“That fact is not lost on any of us at Kannur, nor Professor Penny.”
“God, Bird, I did not expect our conversation to go this way. I should have figured it. Every truly revolutionary person has their own minefields to negotiate. Have you talked to anyone about this?”
“This problem specifically?”
“Nick and I talk—Dr. Penny, I mean.”
“But not like this, openly, like the naked truth about being twenty-three and knowing that your choices won’t just shape the lives of your family and friends and the people in your community, but humanity? Humanity writ large?”
“Mostly we just talk about the work. It’s hard to talk about the implications. Maybe it’s that he’s older and he’s used to his work affecting millions of people. Or maybe he doesn’t see the implications because it’s hard for anyone to think on that scale.”
“To be honest, I never did. It’s almost impossible to. So on this project for example, I’ve been thinking about what life would be like in there, inside that cylinder. I mean, look out there at that dark asteroid, Bird. Imagine the concept we’re talking about now as a reality. It very well could be. Who are the people who would be taking up the life that we’re talking about engineering right now? They’d probably be young like you, your peers. Maybe they don’t have great prospects on Earth. Maybe they do. Maybe it’s just the adventure of it that calls them here to be a part of something different, a new path.”
“Even that, though. How do you engineer that in good conscience? I don’t think people should be engineering other people’s lives.”
“I build things, Bird. They’re on an ungodly scale, and they’re magnificent things. But they’re still things. People negotiate their own futures.”
“I’ve watched my parents struggle my entire life. You know what my dad thinks about his life? He says it all the time: ‘The only choices left are choices that aren’t choices.’ That’s his reality. Somebody else has made those choices for him, maybe years, decades, generations before.”
“And he negotiates the environment, Bird. That’s what every living animal has always done, since forever. We always have agency. The choices you have before you will certainly, long term, exert difficult economic forces on farmers. Your work also opens the stars to humanity. It’s also inevitable. The question isn’t whether it happens, but how and when. I would suggest that people like us—people with an understanding of our parents’ struggles—would be better stewards of the change.”
“A kinder, gentler knife in their backs, Julian?”
I didn’t even register the genuine hurt in her face, in her voice. I certainly didn’t pause to acknowledge it.
“A cut will come,” I answered. “The question is how to minimize the damage and maximize the benefits. You must have a better sense than I do about the reduction in food scarcity such a transition would bring. Mathematically, I can venture a guess, just in terms of calories and cost.”
“I get it now, Julian. I was going to ask you why you always look so sad. Sagi thought it was because you were alone. People speculate plenty why that is. You choose it, though, don’t you?”
“I’ve made a lot of choices, Bird. There aren’t many I regret.”
“I asked you ‘why Neptune?’ but I get the sense you don’t really care about Neptune, do you? You’re not going to live in there. You’ll walk through your cylinder, take a tour, maybe even stay for a few days to get a sense of the place, but you have no intention of living there.”
“You’re very perceptive, Bird.”
“Where do you want to live, Julian?”
“My house in Clearwater.”
She shook her head at me doubtfully. She had a sense of what I was getting at.
“You want to know the craziest thing I’ve ever done, Julian?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“There’s a rock outcropping in the mountains where I live. It’s very beautiful up there, overlooking the notch between two mountains, like a canyon really. Near the top, there’s a very narrow rock formation with a proper cliff on all sides, hundreds of feet straight down. My boyfriend’s a year older than me, and around the time he graduated, one of his friends got it in his head that we should all go up there the next time it got really windy—see who had the guts to walk out onto the clifftop. I have no idea how hard the wind was blowing the day we went up. Could have been fifty miles-an-hour, could have been a hundred, but it was real weather, fierce wind, pouring rain, cold. We walked all the way up there, and not a single one of us had the guts to go out onto the rock. The wind was just unbelievable and terrifying. The thought of that moment—looking out onto the rocks from the edge of the woods, the stunning swiftness of the clouds whipping through—it still frightens the hell out of me.”
“Sounds like standing back was the sensible thing to do.”
“The sensible thing would’ve been to stay home in the first place,” Bird joked. “On the way back to the car, after we all chickened out, the five of us struggled to stay on our feet. We tripped over rocks and roots and got blown over by the wind as we descended in two groups. I was the slowest, so my boyfriend stayed back with me maybe thirty or forty feet behind our friends. As we were walking, one of the biggest trees I’d ever seen came down right between our two groups—must have been two hundred years old. With the wind and rain in our eyes, none of us had a chance of seeing it fall. It was just a sudden tremendous crash that shook the ground so violently it knocked me and my boyfriend right off our feet. We suddenly found ourselves lying on the ground in the mud with no idea what had happened. We heard our friends on the other side of the tree screaming. They thought we were under it when it fell. The way they screamed. I’d never heard a sound like that from another person. And for a very brief moment, I thought about not shouting back to them, just out of curiosity, not to scare them or prank them, but I was already yelling to them that we were okay, almost before I could think to hold back. And the rest of the way down, after we’d crawled over the trunk of that tree, every single one of us was always looking up at the canopy, the massive old growth trees, tons and tons of rain-soaked wood waving over our heads like reeds or tall blades of grass, just dangling over us, shifting in the gale-force winds. When we finally got down to the safety of the parking area, scared out of our wits, properly humbled as we deserved to be, that’s when it hit me that not a single one of us had actually noticed the real danger because we’d been so fixated on the terrifying prospect of crawling out onto the rock in three-digit winds.”
Bird stopped talking, but the way she tailed off gave me no sense of finality, like she’d forgotten to signal her story was over, so I thought she had more to say. She didn’t though.
The silence got too awkward for me. “That’s quite a story,” I said.
“What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done, Julian?”
“I don’t think I’ve done it yet.”
“Why Neptune, Mr. Hartsock? This cylinder you want to build—is it the trees, the cliff, or something else entirely?”
That was a hell of a question. I didn’t have a proper answer to it yet, so I didn’t answer her.
“I need to hire you, Bird. I’d like for you to think of terms you’d find acceptable. I understand you’re on contract with Kannur still, but A & A will buy you out of it and make a generous donation as well. I’ll get you the team you need, the equipment you need, everything it will take to make the leap we need to make.”
“I’m not going to crawl out onto the ledge with you, Mr. Hartsock,” she said. “But I might be convinced to walk into the woods.”
After I made Bird the job offer, we re-joined Sagi Herron and Florence in the adjoining room. I could tell she was still somewhat reluctant, but there was always a number, even for a loyal farm kid like Bird.
When the Mirror arrived back at Mars, Sagi offered me a tour of the labs. I told her I would definitely come down next time. I didn’t even have to tell Flor I wanted Bird. She knew exactly what to do.
I remained in orbit aboard the ship, staring down at the surface of Mars, thinking, mostly about what it took to make a good decision. Or perhaps more rightly, who was capable of making a good decision. A genuinely destructive person couldn’t, but I was not that, clearly. My record spoke to the creation of wonders. The Florida Space Ladder, in the process of destroying the industry of heavy launch engines, generated more work for spaced-based propulsion than the rocket industry could have ever dreamed. The space elevator more or less killed Earth-based metal and mineral mining, but most people viewed that as a net positive for humanity and the planet. An easy tradeoff. This one, though? Would you trade away your farms and sell out your farmers for all the food a hundred billion people could ever eat?
This was not the problem I’d started the day with. Maybe it was better I was a cold bastard. Maybe it helped me to make the right call. Julian Hartsock, cold-hearted, environmental engineer, fabricator of futures.
If I didn’t do it somebody else would.
The following morning, I started my day on the beach, working by eyewear, crunching numbers. It was still nearly dark when I got out there.
By seven-thirty, Cass came out, barefoot, his cuffs rolled halfway up his calves. He sat in the lounge chair beside me, coffee tumbler in hand.
“I heard you took a little trip yesterday,” he said. “You and Flor.”
“Checking out some real estate, Ibere,” I answered. “And some talent. Bird convinced me we should corner the market in agriculture.”
“All of them, I think. Not sure yet. There might be some impractical candidates for off-world growth. We’ll see.”
“Must have been some persuasive bird.”
“What do you think about Neptune?” he asked.
“I think it’s not far enough, but it’s a start. We’ll learn a lot there.”
The sun was coming up behind us. The clouds over the water were that subtle pink that just peeks out through the gray.
“What would you like me to do about it, Julian?”
“For now, do nothing. Flor’s going to get the Ag team in order. Once we have some estimates from them, energy requirements, space, all that, we can start to play with the other variables.”
“Food first, eh?”
“A farmer’s son. Yes,” I said. “She told me a story, Bird. She and her friends went out in a storm, all the way up to the edge of this cliff in the wind. They hiked right to the edge of this mountain to see who had the courage to crawl out onto the cliff in the howling wind.”
“Sounds more like stupidity than courage to me,” Cass said.
“And to them too, apparently. They climbed all the way up there and none of them went onto the cliff. I wasn’t there myself, so I can’t account for what they experienced, but I think I would have regretted that, Ibere, not going out there.”
“Is a frivolous way to die, no, Julian? Stupid, even? What would be the point?”
The point. Why are you so sad, Julian? Why are you alone, Julian? Why Neptune? What’s the point?
“I don’t rightly know anymore, Cass,” I told him. “I seem to have forgotten the point.”
I hadn’t though. I knew. To be a pioneer is to risk looking stupid, enduring ridicule, dying frivolously and being forgotten, becoming the butt of the world’s jokes, sinking to the bottom of the sea, exploding in space, memorializing yourself as a cautionary tale. The point is daring to do something while you’re still alive enough to do it.
Maybe I had to be a cold-hearted fool to do the things I needed to do. With an AC in the 20th percentile, maybe I was just the perfect blend of crazy to stroll out onto that rock pillar, buffeted by hundred-mile-an-hour winds, unimpeded by emotional connections, and dare to fly away.
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