Excerpted from Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel Aurora, published July 7, 2015, by Orbit Books.
So there they were: in the ship, in orbit around Aurora, which was in orbit around Planet E, which orbited Tau Ceti, 11.88 light years away from Sol and Earth. Now there were 1,997 people on board, ranging in age from one month to eighty-two years. One hundred twenty-three people had perished, either on Aurora, or in the ferry in the ship’s stern dock. Seventy-seven had died in the dock decompression.
Because the plan had been to relocate most of the human and animal population of the ship down to Aurora, they were now somewhat low in supplies of certain volatiles, rare earths, and metals, and to a certain extent, food. At the same time, the ship was overfull of certain other substances, mainly salts and corroded metal surfaces. Various unequal inputs and outputs of the ecological cycles in the ship, the imbalances that Devi had called metabolic rifts, were now causing dysfunctions. Evolution of the many species on board continued to occur at different rates, with the fastest speciations occurring at the viral and bacterial level, but at slower speeds in every phylum and order. Ineluctably, the occupants of the ship were growing apart. Of course, every life form in the little ecosystem was in a process of co-evolution with all the rest, so they could only grow apart so far. As a supra-organism they would perforce remain a totality, but one that could become markedly less hospitable to certain of its elements, including its human component.
In other words, their only home was breaking down. They were not fully aware of this fact, possibly because they themselves were growing sick, as one aspect of their home’s breakdown. It was an interrelated process of disaggregation, which one night Aram named codevolution.
This was social as well as ecological. The confrontation in the spine continued, its floating crowds still angrily denouncing or defending what had occurred in the dock. In the midst of the arguments, a group of people barged into the dock’s operation room, and tele-operated robots in the open chamber of the dock, moving all the bodies that were still floating free in the chamber back into the doomed ferry. When that grim task was accomplished, the ferry’s door was closed, and the ferry ejected from the dock into space.
“We’re just making sure,” this group’s spokespersons announced. “This dock is now closed for good. We’re sealing it off. We’ll leave the outer door open, and presumably the vacuum will sterilize it, but we aren’t taking any chances with that. We’re sealing the inside doors. No more access. We’ll have to use the other docks now. No sense having such a disaster happen without making sure it keeps us safe.”
Ejecting the bodies of seventy-seven of their fellow citizens in a pilotless ferry was denounced as a callous act, a desecration of people whose surviving family and friends were all in the ship. The dead had been integral members of the community until all this happened; now their bodies wouldn’t even be returned to the cycles to nourish the generations to come. In the fights still breaking out over control of the spine, these grievances were shouted out, and just as loudly denied.
Freya went up to the spine to see if she could do anything to defuse the situation. She floated up and down the passageways, pulling herself on the cleats and stopping abruptly to talk to people she knew. People saw her and shot through the air at her to tell her their views, and see what she thought. Soon she moved in the center of a group that moved with her down the spine.
No one attacked her, although it often looked like it was about to happen. When people yanked to a halt before her, she asked people what they thought, as in the years of her wandering. If they asked her what she thought, she would say, “We’ve got to get past this! We’ve got to come together somehow, find a way forward—we don’t have any choice! We’re stuck with each other! How could you forget that? We’ve got to pull together!”
Then she would urge everyone to get out of the spine and back down into the biomes. It was dangerous up there, she pointed out. People were getting hurt, the ship could get hurt. “We shouldn’t be up here! The ferry is gone, those people are gone, there’s nothing more that can be done here. Nothing! So get out of here!”
Hours passed while she said things like this to people. Some of them nodded and descended the spokes to the rings. Down there the struggle over access to the spokes went on. There were not enough people committed to guarding all twelve spokes, and some were still being used to get up to the spine. Fights occurred in the spokes, and here, if people fell or were shoved off the stairs running up the inner walls of the spokes, they could fall to their deaths. In Spoke 5 three young men died tangled in a single fall, and after that the shock of the blood on the floor seemed instrumental in getting that spoke closed to all traffic.
Meanwhile, up in the spine, the permanent closing of the fatal dock continued. The group in charge there applied a thick layer of sealants to its inner lock doors, then covered those with a layer of diamond spray sheathing. It was excessive, some kind of ritual action—an erasure of the scene of the crime, or the excision of infected flesh.
Back in the Fetch, Badim and Aram watched the screens anxiously, switching around to a number of different cameras to see it.
“They’ve gone crazy at the dock,” Aram said at one point as they left for a meeting. “It’s a mess. I don’t see what we can do.”
A meeting of the councils had been called in Yangtze to discuss the situation. Some felt they needed to discuss what to do now that Aurora was revealed to be poisonous to them. Discord would continue until they had a plan, these people said. Aram and Badim weren’t so sure, but they went and listened.
When the meeting in Yangtze began, the people in charge of the sealed dock floated back to the A spokes, and at Freya’s urging, they and everyone else in the spine descended to the biomes. Most of them went down Spoke 3 and headed directly to the meeting in Yangtze, so it seemed that calling the meeting had indeed helped to clear the spine. Even if it did nothing else, Badim remarked, it had been good for that.
In Yangtze there was a big crowd gathering in the central plaza. The main speaker at first was Speller, who had become one of the leading figures in the engineering group after Devi’s death. And in fact he began by insisting that the ship’s biomes were fundamentally healthy. “The ship’s biosphere is a self-correcting entity,” he said. “It can endure for centuries, if we just let it self-correct. Our interference has been impeding its ongoing homeostatic process. We only have to resupply it with the volatiles we’re short on, and we’ll be good to continue to a more hospitable planetary system.”
At the back of the room Aram leaned over toward Badim and said, “Do you think he means it?”
“Yes,” Badim said.
Certainly it seemed so. “The ship got us this far,” Speller went on. “It’s a life support system of proven robustness. It will last for centuries more, if we take care of it, which means mostly staying out of its way. All we have to do is restock the elements we’re running low on. All those elements are common in the Tau Ceti system. So there is no cause for despair. We can still find a new home.”
The nearby star RR Prime held great promise, Speller told them. It was just seven light years away from Tau Ceti, an M-class star with a full array of planets, including three in its habitable zone, which, as usual around M stars, was closer to its star than Earth was to the sun. The planetary system there had been discovered in the 2500s, and though they were in possession of all the information the Terrans had had about it twelve years before, the fact was that not much was known about it. But it was quite possible this system could provide them with a home. “What else can we do?” Speller asked. “It’s clearly our best chance. And the ship can get us there.”
But many others were now arguing for Tau Ceti’s Planet F’s second moon. It was a nearly Earth-sized moon, like Aurora, but denser. It was tidally locked to F, and rotated around F in almost exactly twenty days, so it was not much different from Aurora and E in that regard. It was a rocky moon, and completely dry except for a little comet-impact water ice. Up until now it had been presumed to be lifeless, being almost free of water. But the experience on Aurora had made them more uncertain in judging this matter. Some people pointed out that meteorites had to have been ejected from Aurora by asteroid impacts, and some of them cast up the gravity well to land on F’s Moon 2. That such rocks could have successfully transferred the Auroran life forms, given the lack of water and air on F’s moon, seemed unlikely, but could not be entirely ruled out. Life was tenacious, and the pathogen on Aurora was still not understood. Even naming it was a problem, as some called it the cryptoendolith, others the fast prion, others the pathogen, and others simply the bugs, or the thing, or the stuff, or the alien, or the whatever.
Be that as it may, F’s Moon 2 remained a real possibility in the minds of many of them. “Water can be imported to it,” Heloise said in all the meetings. She was a leader in Ring A’s ecology group. “F’s Moon One is an icy moon, we can move that water over. We can build underground stations to start with, then expand those while the process of terraforming gets started. Then domed craters, then tent cities. It can work. It was part of the plan all along, after all. The back-up if Aurora didn’t work out. And then there wouldn’t be the need for another interstellar trip, which is good, because it isn’t certain the ship will sustain that. This was always the secondary option, and now we need it. And it can work.”
Aram didn’t believe this, and stood up to say so. “It would be like living in the ship,” he said. “Except we would be buried in the lithosphere of a rocky moon. After that it would take many hundreds of years, or more likely thousands of years, to terraform this moon, and during that whole time we would be confined to interiors like these biomes. The problems plaguing us here would plague us there. We wouldn’t live long enough to reach the time when we could move out into open air. Our descendants would get sick and die. They would go extinct.”
This pessimism, or dark realism, whichever it might be, enraged Speller and Heloise, and everyone trying to make the best of things, trying to find a way forward. Why be so negative? they asked.
“It’s not me being negative,” Aram would reply. “It’s the universe obeying its laws. Science isn’t magic! We aren’t fantasy creatures! We have been dealt a hand.”
“So what do we do?” Heloise said angrily. “What are we supposed to do, in your opinion?”
Aram shrugged at this.
Freya called in to the meeting that was discussing the situation, from the spine where she was just now coming down, in the last group of peacemakers.
She said, “We should go home.”
Silence greeted this pronouncement. Air vents, electrical hums.
“What do you mean?” Speller asked.
Freya’s voice came through the speakers clearly, even loudly. “We should resupply the ship and fly it back to Earth. If we succeed, our descendants will survive. There’s no other option we have now where you can say that. It’s too bad, but it’s true.”
The people on the plaza in Yangtze looked around at each other, silenced.
Her idea, which she explained in the days that followed, had originated with Euan. It was also something Devi used to mention, she said. It was a good idea, she said. A workable plan.
Clearly it shocked people. In all that was going on, it seemed too much to take in.
Freya herself spent most of her time cajoling, and in certain cases physically threatening, people to get out of the spokes and stay in the biomes. Teams organized by the security council took over at every spoke lock, and began to work like one-way valves, allowing people to leave the spokes but not to enter them. Eventually a point came where it was possible to persuade or coerce everyone still in the spine and spokes to descend into the biomes. People then gradually dispersed to their hometowns, or gathered with like-minded people to make further plans. The individuals responsible for the deaths of the settlers in the dock slipped amongst their supporters, and those groups resisted any calls for a further investigation of what had happened. Clearly no one had wanted people to die, it was often said. It had been an accident, a disaster. Time to move on. Time to figure out what to do next.
Thus in a continuing tumult of the spirit, with many still grief-stricken, still furious, all actions possible to them at this point were in effect dumped on the table and inspected at length. It did not seem like the right time for this, but there was no stopping it either. It was the only thing worth talking about, given their situation.
Freya’s proposal was one of the actions discussed. That it was Devi’s daughter proposing the idea gave it a certain weight that it might not have had otherwise. Devi was missed, her death a wound that had not healed; often people wondered what she would have done in the situations they now found themselves in. There was a kind of slippage in which since Freya had suggested the plan, it seemed to be Devi’s plan. And though Freya was the first to speak the idea out loud, she hadn’t been the first to think it. They had to do something, go somewhere. And it was undeniable that the solar system was at least a destination they could trust to sustain them, if they could get there.
Still, this was only one plan among several now discussed.
One faction, including their old friend Song, argued for sterilizing Aurora and proceeding there as originally planned. As the pathogen on Aurora was so poorly understood (Aram was coming to feel that Jochi had not actually identified it), this group was small, and its arguments seemed not to persuade many, especially among those who had been involved with the deaths of the returning settlers. Part of their justification for the dock disaster now lay in claiming that Aurora was irredeemably poisonous.
Speller and his faction continued to argue for going on in the ship to RR Prime. Heloise and a large group advocated inhabiting F’s second moon. And quite a few begin to assert that they could simply stay on the ship, and use the various planetary bodies of the Tau Ceti system to resupply whatever they might lack, filling the metabolic rifts as they occurred. From the ship they could consider their options, and perhaps work on both Aurora and F’s second moon.
In all the arguing, there were some people attempting to model the options. Unfortunately, their modeling work led most of the modelers to conclude that no plan available to them was likely to succeed. They had very few options; and none were good; and for the most part, they were mutually exclusive.
Bitterness and anger grew in people as the modelers’ conclusions became known. The spine was emptied now, and under guard by people who had agreed to enforce the security council’s edicts. The stern dock was physically sealed off. Jochi was sequestered in his ferry, held magnetically inside Inner Ring A.
On one level the situation seemed calm; people had returned to their biomes and resumed their lives there, and were dealing with crops that had been neglected, and now had to be planted or harvested. Animals had to be cared for, machines had to be tended. But things were not well with them. Now more than ever before in the history of the ship, their isolation began to press on them. No one could help them govern themselves, nor make the decisions they now had to make. They were alone with all that. It was up to them.