Sunday, 24 October 2010

The final frontier... a hope

The year was 2071 and so many of the social problems humans had faced over the last hundred years were still a pretty big problem. Most people were still poor, corporations still ran the government, and politicians were constantly caught with invalids of both sexes, living and dead.

When politicians weren't blowing each other's personal lives completely out of proportion for political gain, they were starting wars with other countries. Sometimes, they would even start wars with people inside their own country, but those were usually ideological.

Perhaps the biggest and worst change was that the polar ice caps had melted and much of the Mojave Desert was now prime beachfront property, and the air across the globe tasted like you were sucking on a tailpipe.

As pressing and horrible as those issues were, they really didn't enter into the minds of Narayan and Venkat Pai. They were working class and average in most ways.

Narayan worked a standard 60 hour work week and, to help make ends meet, Venkat picked up 39 hours a week, part time, working at the deli counter at the local, national chain grocery emporium.

Even with all those hours, supporting their modest household and single child, Narayan, Jr., was a difficult exercise. After the mortgage, the bills, the poor tax, and their basic needs, there wasn't a lot left over for leisure, though they had saved up their pennies for quite a while to afford the sizeable Ramtech brand HD television that provided the centerpiece for their living space.

Each night after work, Narayan Pai would settle into his favorite tattered easy chair that he was still making payments on, he would crack open an ice cold beer, and watch his immense television. Despite his disinterest, he seemed to watch the local, nationally-syndicated-for-the-region news. Little Narayan, Jr., just before bedtime, would sit cross-legged in the space of carpet between his father and the television, transfixed by every image shown on the high definition display.

"Tonight, we have a special live program for you from science reporter Suresh Bharve."

"Venkat! Can you grab another beer for me, love?"

"This is Suresh Bharve, and I'm here at the Abdul Kalam Space Center in Bay of Bengal, reporting live for a momentous occasion, both for science and for mankind."

"Yes, dear! I'll grab another can from the ice box."

"With me, I have Doctor Alok Aspen, chief architect of Project: Humanity, brought to you by Exion, which is launching in a rocket in T-Minus 8 minutes."

Venkat arrived a moment later in the living room with Narayan's beer, putting it in his hand and leaning down, pulling the foot rest on his recliner up for him. He sipped the head of the beer that had flowed over the lip of the can, paying far less attention to the launch than his boy was.

"What we're doing is really quite simple. The top minds in the world have created a 60 year plan to fix the problems of the world, hunger, disease, war, and monetize those solutions for their sponsors...."

Narayan, Jr., blinked. At seven years old these concepts were still just a little too abstract for his innocent little mind. He'd been hungry before, but he couldn't understand how it could be a problem since food seemed so readily available. And he didn't think disease would have been a big deal because whenever he got too sick, he would be taken to the emergency room.

And war was something cool that his dad had showed him in movies. But he was appropriately naïve for his age, like all boys his age should be.

"And what we're doing is quite revolutionary in order to solve the mortality problem and allow these brilliant minds and captains of industry to oversee their plan to the end and beyond."

Narayan slurped his beer, worn to the bone. Venkat listened to the broadcast from the kitchen where the smells of a cooking dinner were all consuming.

"...and could you explain to our audience at home how you plan to conquer 'the mortality problem'?"

"Time travel," the good doctor said as he flashed a sparkling grin at the camera.

At the sound of the phrase, little Junior's eyes widened and his ears perked up. This was the sort of television that fired the imaginations of little boys the world over into overdrive.

"Time travel? And how is that possible?"

"By going very far, very fast. We're going to blast them into space and they're going to approach the speed of light on their way out of our solar system and galaxy. Then they'll sling shot back. The closer to the speed of light they travel, the faster time on Earth goes by.

It's the time dilation effect. Their voyage will take about 10 years for them, but we estimate about 60 years will have elapsed on Earth by the time they come back."

Junior's eyes were as wide as saucers and the hairs on his neck were raised on end. "Dad, dad..." the boy turned to his father, excited. "They're flying to the future!"

"Eh?" the older Narayan looked up, noticing the flashing images on the screen as Dr. Aspen introduced the audience at home to the rocket ship's crew, the Earth's first recorded Time Travelers. The Captain, the crew, the science team, the business leaders, the support crew, all the families, there were a hundred and four in all.

"And each of them are heroes of the highest order, embarking on this ten year odyssey in the name of science, of profit, and in the name of humanity."

Dr. Aspen cut in, taking the microphone from the reporter, "Make no doubts about it, we are sending Earth's most brilliant mind's as a gift to the future."

"And here we are, with one minute left. You can see on your television the enormity of the rocket--"

"--it has to be that big, in order to facilitate the nuclear blasts required to achieve near-speed-of-light travel."

Both Narayan and his son were completely entranced by the screen with a burning sensation of pride in their chest. This was what humanity could achieve if we worked together.

"All our problems will be solved then, won't they son?"

Narayan, Jr., could only nod; his eyes could not leave the screen.

"While they're gone, they'll have a crew of ten working in the greenhouse on board, making sure the ship is well supplied with oxygen and fresh food for all hands on deck."

"Do they have any livestock on board, Doctor?"

"Of course, they had access to some of the last remaining livestock resources on our planet. There will be very little reprocessing for them, the ship was designed to be completely sustainable on their voyage."

Narayan, Sr., took long, deep gulps of his beer, but paying an unusual amount of attention to the television.

"And why is it they decided to bring their families along, Doctor?"

"I think that's rather obvious, Suresh. They'll be gone for 60 of our Earth years. When they come back, they'll be able to carry on their family lives as though they haven't missed a beat. They won't return to be younger than their grandchildren."

"Are we sure this will work, Doctor? I mean, time travel sounds a bit far fetched..."

"The science is sound. The consensus of the scientific community is that this will work. And I've seen the data and everything suggests complete success."

Without realizing it, Narayan, Jr., had been inching closer and closer to the television. In fact, he'd gotten so close that the letterboxed screen encompassed the entirety of his field of vision. He was at a rapt state of complete attention.

"And why aren't you going along, Dr. Aspen?"

"Well, we decided to hold one mind here in reserve on Earth, to shepherd the project along while they are gone on their momentous voyage. There is a lot to do in the next 60 years if we're going to fix the world, and their work needs to carry on. They've given me the blueprint and I hope to get things off the ground before my time is up. I'll pass the torch to others beyond me, and they'll pass that torch along until these brilliant minds return."

"Fascinating, Doctor. You really are onto something important here, sir."

"I sure hope so. We're really putting our eggs into one basket, so to speak."

As the countdown to the launch began, neither Narayan, Sr., nor his son realized that they were holding their breath.

"Now, with 30 seconds left, we're about to witness the launch of the fastest, most immense ship ever fired into the outer-reaches of space."

"With 25 seconds left, I'm reminding myself that this is a moment we will all remember in the collective memory of society for years to come, like the first time we walked on the moon, or the September 11 attacks, or the annexation of Mexico."

"Indeed, and it's important to remind the audience that this is the first time humans will have left our galaxy. But now we're about to go to the countdown at mission control."

"This is mission control. We have launch in T-minus 10.

"9.

"8.

"7.

"6.

"5.

"4.

"3.

"2.

"1. We have lift off."

In a brilliant flash of light and accompanied by the sound of rolling thunder, The Hope of Humanity was launched into space, hurtling toward the heavens.

"And there it is. The Hope of Humanity has launched. It's a beautiful sight. The rocket and all of its crew are just a few seconds from leaving the Earth's atmosphere, not to return for another 60 years."

And that's when something went wrong.

With the eyes of the world watching, the rocket exploded into a fiery ball of shorn, metal debris, quite obviously killing anyone and anything inside.

The television feed cut back to the reporters, horrified looks nestled firmly on their faces. "Uhh... Ladies and gentlemen, it seems as though... this is a terrible, terrible tragedy... The rocket has exploded, everyone inside is most likely dead. The Hope of the Future exploded just before it left the Earth's atmosphere."

While Suresh and his colleagues struggled to swallow their tears and find words to describe the catastrophe that occurred on live television, little Narayan, Jr., burst into deep, troubled sobs, trying hard to comprehend what he just saw. A shivering thrill of excitement had run up his back, only to turn to tears and terror almost instantly. He stood up and ran to the loving arms of his mother who walked into the room, wondering what the commotion was about.

"What happened?" she asked as she put her arms around her son while he cried into her apron.

For all the gruffness of his exterior, Narayan was having a hard time holding back tears. "The space ship... It exploded..."

"Oh, dear," she said. The blood ran from her face as she realized that more than a hundred of the world's brightest minds were lost in that single moment.

Narayan couldn't bear going to work the next day and neither could Venkat. Narayan, Jr. stayed home from school. The entire world was in a state of shock and no one was faulted for closing their businesses for the day and curling up in the fetal position in front of their televisions, hoping to find some sense in such a senseless event.

For days and weeks and months and years after, pundits, scientists, and anyone in between would debate the cause of the explosion on TV, the news, and the internet, but the answer was pretty simple: That's just what happens when you live in a world without meaningful regulations and is run by force of profit motive: the lowest bidder always wins the contracts.

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