literature

After Dormancy

Deviation Actions

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It has been nearly a decade since the Earth fell into the sun, and children are growing up on Mars to whom the notion of Earth as a "home" is strange. The endless tunnels of Mars are what is familiar, the sour stink of the enormous recycling algae tanks, the harsher smell of the powerful disinfectants that prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria in vital equipment the endless throb of air purifiers and heating systems, spacesuit drill and tunnel-digging, and the terrible/wonderful sight of the endless red desert of Mars, speckled here and there with the dark, lumpy shapes of Martian pseudo-cacti.

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When Iilah blew itself to atoms in 1950, it initially provided a propaganda boost to the USSR, which accused the US of endangering the world with a new "superbomb", which had distributed an alarming amount of radioactivity into the upper atmosphere and caused hundreds of thousands of casualties throughout the Pacific region thanks to the tidal waves created. Winter closed in with some truly spectacular sunsets and frightful cold as a result of the enormous amount of debris thrown up: when the next summer proved chilly, more propaganda points were won as even the US suffered food rationing, the USSR suffered some famines (not nearly as bad as previous ones, and fairly easily covered up), and nastier and non-concealable famines hit China and other dirt-poor parts of the globe. The US government spluttered about a volcanic phenomenon, realizing that the truth ("we were trying to fight an aggressive alien invader") would not be received well.

However, November of '51 brought some revelations that (in the wealthier parts of the globe, anyway) made mere famines pale by comparison.

Early on scientists noted that given the size of the blast and the monstrous crater in the sea-floor, there should have been a rather worse global winter, with far more debris settling into the atmosphere: it was as if much of the mass had achieved escape velocity. This was explained before long, as astronomers noted something odd going on with the relative positions of the Earth and Moon, and to a lesser extent the positions of the other planets: and even when it became fairly obvious what was happening, many returned to check their findings again and again, refusing to believe. Not until a French astronomer broke his silence on Paris radio in early November was the situation revealed to the public, and even then panicky governments worldwide tried to deny or diminish the situation: ever so slowly, the Earth had begun to fall out of its orbit, spiraling inwards towards the sun. An atomic explosion shaped in a manner impossible to terrestrial technology had acted as a colossal rocket blast, propelling hundreds of cubic miles of rock into space, and giving the Earth an inwards acceleration sufficient to insure it would not stop until it hit the sun. The global panic was, to say the least, impressive.

Initial estimates that it would take over half a century for the world to fall sunwards settled things down a bit, although some gloomy theoreticians in a few years time began to discuss the notion of "runaway greenhouse effect" and other mechanisms that would bring civilization to an end much sooner. The whole "US has doomed the world" thing led to considerable violence and the deaths of many Americans abroad, and the US story of an Alien Menace, even with photographs and detailed records and samples, was widely dismissed as a fraud, and the US refusal to release its "superbomb secret" – which presumably could be used to knock the Earth back into a safer orbit – led to a war scare with the USSR and an infuriated western Europe. Only slowly, as scientists reported the impossibility of such a "shaped discharge" with any known technology, the opening of US bases and research centers to other nations, and the increasing realization that the US wasn't likely to cut off its face to spite its nose, did cooler heads prevail.

In the meantime, while the world was plagued by mass suicides, violent or just annoying apocalyptic movements, people quitting work and taking up surfing or something, most of the peoples of the world screamed to their governments and their scientists and engineers, SAVE US!!!! And after some hemming and hawing, the governments did respond with "no worries, we'll get the Earth back where it was, just bear with us for a bit – and if that doesn't work, we'll move to, um, another planet!" While various schemes were being devised for using lots of nukes to launch enough junk into escape velocity to slow the planet's fall, other scientists began to apply the notion to the problem of getting people into space. A chap by the name of Ulam came up with the wacky idea of a ship propelled by nuclear explosions: after the Rocket Equation was examined in detail and found to be rather discouraging, and various alternate notions (atomic piles, giant lasers, Really Big Linear Magnetic Accelerators, etc.) proved to be inadequate or requiring a lot more research, Project Zeus got underway in 1953. Although initially a US project, as the Earth began to noticeably heat up, it became an international effort.

It took some 25 years in another world to go from V-weapons to the Apollo landing: in this one, with the resources of a world behind it and a vastly greater sense of urgency, it took only 9 years (and a lot of radioactive iron raining from the heavens) to build the ship that would survey Mars and Venus. And by then things were starting to get a bit desperate: the weather by 1962 had become wild and unpredictable. Areas were ravaged by drought, others by abnormally heavy snow or rain. Food prices were rising. The deserts of Africa were spreading, and although chaos and famine were mollified by continued colonial control, heatstroke deaths in tropical Africa (and SE Asia, and South America) were steadily climbing.

The Voyager blasted off that summer carrying the hopes of humanity aboard it: its return six months later blasted many of those hopes. Venus, covered with bubbling toxic oceans under a deep layer of noxious air, was uninhabitable. Mars was cold, dry desert, with atmosphere of breathable density only at the bottom of the deepest canyons, and then only for an inhabitant of high Tibet or the Andes: its life primitive, tough, and chemically incompatible with earth life.

(Note that Earth is fortunate enough to be in a late 40s SF-universe: our Mars and Venus are considerably worse).

Still, Mars had a solid surface, and a fair amount of water, at the poles and in underground permafrost under much of its surface. People could live there, with the aid of atomic energy: the main problem would be transferring enough equipment and enough people to create a self-sustaining civilization: and the clock was ticking.

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The "Global Cooling Initiative", although ultimately doomed to failure, was perhaps the most world-wide of all the projects undertaken in those days. The use of massive nuclear explosions to throw dust into the upper atmosphere (fallout was well down people's "to worry about" list by this time), massive bombardment of the upper atmosphere with super-cannon shooting explosively dispersing sulfur aerosols, cloud seeding, massive tree-planting efforts (most of which died before reaching maturity), and China's heroic but somewhat misguided effort to reflect sunlight back into space by coating everything in China without crops growing on it with white, reflective paint. As the number of Orion-type ships rapidly multiplied after 1962, efforts to create space mirrors between the earth and sun began to accumulate resources.

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The Mars Colonization project took place in parallel to, and frequently in competition for resources with, the Orbital Stabilization project: the competition was often acrimonious. Each could point out the failures of the other: by 1968 the Martian colonies were little more than a few sealed caves with a few tens of thousands of inhabitants, heavily dependent on continued flow of supplies from Earth: while the titanic explosions that the planetary engineers had been setting off had done little aside from spreading radioactive contaminants planet-wide to the extent that cancer rates had doubled planet-wide. To this day there are those on Mars who stubbornly argue that if the resources expended on Orion ships between 1963 and 1980 had been concentrated entirely on the Orbital Stabilization project, the final great effort of 1980 (after which resources available would drop rapidly) would have been a success rather than merely slowing Earth's fall by six months and incidentally reducing its day from 24 to 23 hours.

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In spite of all the efforts of the Global Cooling Initiative, the equatorial regions became increasingly uninhabitable as the 60s went on, and the Great Migration brought hundreds of millions of poor, dark-skinned people to the areas nearer the Poles. They became cheap labor for the massive projects to increase agriculture in the north, the great building of dams and canals to control unpredictable precipitation, the struggle to drain the melting permafrost. (This was supplemented by an effort to develop synthetic food sources and hydroponics not dependent on weather and sunshine: guess who got to eat the wheat and potatoes and who got to eat vat-yeasts and synthetic protein paste and mutant algae. I'll give you three guesses). There was much nastiness in this era, labor contracts barely distinguishable from slavery, revolts violently repressed, exploitation: yet at the same time there was a remarkable new cosmopolitanism born: in the Thorium mines, in the giant plants building parts for Orion ships, on the vast polar agricultural projects, people of every color, creed and language worked together and spoke together in the Esperanto everyone was now taught in an effort to unify the globe.

The Negative Population Growth movement arose from an understanding that the great majority were unlikely to survive, and the immorality of bringing children into the world when they would be doomed to die young. Although opposed by most religious authorities, the movement spread rapidly, and the development of effective birth control medications made it effective: by the early 80s, global reproduction rates were on the average less than 1.5 children per woman. Of course, the actual shrinkage of global population by then had more to do with the plagues, famines, super-storms…

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Human paranoia and bigotry being what it was, it was not until the mid-1970s, by which time it was clear the world was dying, that a world government of sorts finally came into being. Economic differences were no longer so important: all the world's economies were essentially socialist by this time, the never-ending struggle to ensure human survival and the consequent permanent "war economy" having by this point led to the subordination of all industry to government control for the duration. This brought no joy to the old Soviet Union, which found out, that along with everything else, the US was better at scientifically planning an economy and resource allocation than they were.

The World Government would last for a little over a decade.

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The icecaps melted, and the seas rose with alarming rapidity: further vast migrations took place, and the importance of synthetic food production grew, along with the construction of quick cheap housing. Colossal refugee cities, powered by the atom, with mass-produced plastic houses and an air conditioner in every house, were thrown up in areas more than 200 feet above sea level across the north. Older inland cities simply expanded, upwards or outwards. In some areas, colossal storms arising from the heat being dumped into the atmosphere led to the building of underground settlements safe from being simply blown away. Nudity and near-nudity became far more tolerated in the eternal, sticky heat.

The passenger lists for the colony ships became increasingly a political issue after the late 60s: with most of the initial settlers being scientists and experts of one sort of another, the ethnic composition of the settlers was mostly European, American, and Soviet, with some Japanese, Chinese, etc, even as many of the equatorial nations ceased to exist as those who could packed up and moved north or to the far south: this led to some serious anger among the darker-skinned majority of humanity (the Chinese, who felt they were being underrepresented, were already angry). An initial quota system to bring in people from all nations and ethnicities still limited admission to those with testable technical, agronomical, architectural, etc. skills, which led to further annoyance as the rich and powerful placed their offspring in the very best schools and men divorced their wives to marry female engineers and recycling experts to improve their chances.

Innumerable education programs sprang up to teach people skills useful on Mars (many of them outright scams of one sort or another) but the rich always had the advantage, and those with neither the resources nor the time to pursue a professional education remained without hope of escape. Increasing political turmoil and mass anger finally led to the establishment of the Lottery, which initially reserved one-fifth of all places to randomly selected families: as conditions worsened in the last years, this was increased to one-fourth and then one third, and the cheating by the wealthy and politicians grew ever more blatant.

Still, the number of colonists ballooned in the 70s, as the number of Orion ships rapidly increased and the early arrivals rapidly expanded the available living space as the various difficulties in surviving on Mars were overcome one by one (with, alas, a fairly high consequent death toll). Although the Bad Years are generally equated with the 1980s, the peak number of arrivals on Mars – over 4 million – was actually achieved in 1983, after the nuclear terror attack on Greater Calgary.

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Although from the start there were those who called for hairshirts, self-flagellation, or extermination of the Unworthy, Religious Millennialism was for a while not really a mass movement: the 50-year period was from the average human perspective a long time, and people preferred to think that God or science might yet save the day and did without donning robes and heading for the hills or burning down the nearest nuclear power plant. People blew things up or murdered infidels or simply distributed pamphlets, but it was not really enough to seriously disrupt the ongoing efforts of government and industry. Later, it would be suggested that an "inflection point" of sorts was reached in 1980, after the Orbital Stabilization Project made its grand failed effort: after the earthquakes were over and bits of planetary crust stopped raining back down, the possibility that the world was, truly and inescapably, Doomed began to really sink in for the majority of the population. People freaked out, of course.

Although the world would come to an actual end in 2001, civilization would essentially collapse in the 80s, as the increasingly rapid rise of the sea, the colossal global storms arising as equatorial temperatures climbed beyond the boiling point of water, the ever-shrinking habitable zones, the increasingly desperate resource situation as mines to the south became inaccessible through heat and insane weather, and the rise in apocalyptic violence and mass sociopathy brought about the steady collapse of civilization and the rapid shrinkage of its productive capacity. Multiple mass religious movements arose: some were quietist, calling for an end to the struggle and the putting of complete faith in God, but too many called for violent activity: the destruction of "arrogant" machines and even science itself (the US "an alien did it" claim was once again rejected: it was US science that had killed the world), not to mention scientists: the death of all the infidels/atheists/commies/Jews/Christians/Muslims/Hindus whatever: forcible conversion of everyone: the replacement of the World Government by a proper theocracy. Others did not bother to join a faith, but simply embraced nihilism and the rule of disorder.

The world government, much of whose membership were doing their best to do a rat off the sinking ship of earth or had joined the mobs themselves, struggled to maintain order. It proved impossible to keep the Orbital Stabilization Project going, and the efforts to moderate the temperature rise increasingly were falling behind the rise in temperature. What resources remained were redirected to getting as many people to Mars as possible, and building refrigerated shelters to keep as many alive as long as possible: and the remaining cities began to burn, and Orion ships to explode on site, and terror and madness went abroad as the years slowly succeeded eachother.

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The Bad Years came to an end, at last. The second-to-last Orion, packed with politicians, was launched in 1987 (they found themselves assigned to hard labor on arrival by a colonial government that had become pretty sick of Earth politicians arriving and starting to spout orders): a few months later, the last, packed with bombs and religious fanatics, set off to destroy the ungodly Martian colony, only to crash in an empty Martian desert and kill nobody and nothing but some harmless lichenoids. By 1989 atmosphere was now hot steam even at the poles: further heating was slowed by the reflecting properties of the glaring white planetary cloud cover. A few tens of millions of people still survived in the underground shelters. Antarctica was now bare of ice, gently steaming, but nobody would ever settle it.

Some efforts were made to rescue these left-behinds: some Orions made the return trip, and some brave men and women even made it to the steaming surface, but the violent storms were almost continuous, and it soon became clear that rescuing all those who were left would be an exercise in futility. Many goodbyes were said, and many killed themselves with worry-excising, sleepy-making drugs which had been developed for that very purpose over previous decades. Others, though, sought to make the best of what time was left, and some hoped to send back to Mars some scientific reports of what happened as the Earth ended its final hours.

The reports and messages from Earth, spiraling ever faster into the sun, continued well beyond the orbit of Mercury: only slowly did the messages die, and the very last report, from a man deep underground in a remarkable insulated chamber of his own design, was not cut off by his death, but by the energies of the solar corona itself finally making all radio contact impossible.

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There are twenty-three million people alive on Mars. There were almost twice as many, but the colossal solar flare which followed Earth's fall into the sun's deeper atmosphere burned one hemisphere of Mars and destroyed all but the deepest-buried of shelters. Fortunately, this possibility had been anticipated and the shelters had been evenly distributed around the planet. They are from all land and races, although not perhaps in exact proportions: the Chinese are underrepresented at three millions, the Americans overrepresented at two: on the other hand, what is an American now, considering how many of them in the last days were from Brazil and Colombia and Nigeria and Ethiopia and India and Malaysia? Esperanto, spliced and tweaked in odd ways with English and Russian and Chinese and a few other languages, is the common tongue, although many nations little and big struggle to maintain their own speech. There are no such things as Russian or American or Chinese or Muslim or Hindu shelters: the populations have been very deliberately mixed, to prevent the fragile human community from dividing against itself.

Of course, there are those who see this as a form of tyranny, and those who simply can't stand the idea of their children growing up as parts of a homogenized, westernized alien culture. Many nationalities are here in very small numbers, and their fears for the survival of their cultural heritage are probably not foolish: there are a grand total of three thousand Tibetans on all of Mars.

It could take an ugly turn. There are shelters which are deliberately segregating themselves, encouraging those of the "right" race, nation, or religion to come and those of the "wrong" to leave. And then there is the divide between the majority of skilled experts who keep everyone alive and tenuously support a high-tech existence on a minimum of resources and limited specialization and the so-called "booby prizes" of the lottery, many lacking any of the skills needed to keep the colony afloat, and often used as grunt labor with little ability to say "no" – you want to eat, you work. (The blue-haired clown's claim that "Mars needed laughter" did not keep him out of 12-hour work days in the recycling vats). There are those who fear this may lead to some sort of caste system over time, and work hard to see that the children of the "booby prizes" are educated up to the standards of engineering and science families. And then there are those who were rich and powerful on Earth, but lacked skills: although often abused after the local regime change, as educated and often politically clever people they have more options than a Peruvian weaver or a Turkish goat herder, and maneuver to find places and influence within the government and bureaucracy of the Martian colonists: after all, the technical people may be firmly in charge right now, but they aren't skilled politicians, and things can change…

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Mars is endless tunnels and mines and heat exchange towers rising from the red sands. It is dusty, battered but continually patched vehicles crossing the barren land in search of new mines and sources of raw materials. It is synthetic food which is fuel rather than enjoyment, and a few figs or grapes grown in hydroponic special gardens for a rare treat. It is a small population of dogs and cats, illegally smuggled here but never successfully rooted out by even the most fanatically survival-minded administrator. It is tall, thin young people who have to take certain medications every day of their lives to prevent the weak gravity from doing odd things to their bodies as they grow and develop. It is stress and fear and leaking air and endless work and endless patching and made-do. It is problems and challenges that never end.
It is hope. It is life. It is the home of the human race for as many years as it takes to get from here to the stars.
Based on a short story by AE Van Vogt, the old school SF writer. I decided to give humanity a slightly happier ending...
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