Among the Stars

 

     The youth woke with a start as a buzzing alarm dragged him from the world of sleep. Rubbing his still-weary eyes, he climbed out of bed and silenced the noise. The youth glanced around his familiar room. It was small, containing only a chair, a desk with a small, collapsible computer and the bed he had just left. Everything was the same, monotonous gray color. Slipping on one of the drab-colored jumpsuits all the members of his community wore, he briskly left his room and traveled his daily route to his community's school. On the way, he met some of his friends and greeted them cheerily.

     His class had just begun to learn about the history of his species. The previous day, their teacher had shown them a map of the African continent to show them where humans first evolved. When the students asked where they were on the map, the teacher replied simply, "We're not on this map." This particular youth thought there was something more. He thought about it, and he suddenly realized that during his entire life, he had never left the community, or even seen the exit, if there was one. He had never seen the sun. The only living things he had seen were the plants in his community's farm and his fellow human beings. He came to a startling conclusion: wherever Earth was, his family, his fellow students, the teacher, and his whole world, weren't on it.

     That day he had stayed after class, until all the other students had left. The teacher glanced up from his desk. A look of surprise came upon his face. "Yes?" he asked.

     "We're not on Earth, are we?" the youth ventured.

     The teacher removed his spectacles and placed them on the table. "See me after dinner. Bring your father; tell him I think you should be brought outside."

     "But —" the youth was cut off.

"After dinner." The teacher shooed him away.

     Puzzled, the youth followed the stragglers of his class to the communal meal hall. There were never any meat or dairy products. The youth, after reading about them, had asked as to why they were always absent, to which his teacher responded, "Energy conservation. It's more efficient if we eat the plants instead of giving them to a cow and then eating the cow. You see, the cow has some inedible parts, and uses some of the nutrition of whatever we feed it." The youth still didn't really understand, but hadn't pressed further.

     Once he arrived at the dining hall, he did not sit with his close friends as he usually did, but instead joined his father and mother. They were happy to see him and greeted him kindly. He told his father his teacher's message. Suddenly his parent's expressions grew more serious. "Eat lightly" was the youth's father's only comment. "But eat something!" his mother added in a firm but caring voice.

     The youth and his father ate a small, vegetarian meal and then left the dining hall. Everyone else was still eating. The youth observed that while most of the other children whispered and pointed, the adults merely glanced for a moment and returned to their meals and conversation.

     The father brought his offspring to a part of the community the youth had never been allowed in before. The youth immediately began firing question upon question, but his father refused to answer. "It's better you see for yourself," he said. The youth, quite confused and annoyed by the lack of explanation, followed silently.

     After a half hour of walking, the youth and his father met the teacher, who was standing near a hall marked "AIR LOCK". He was not wearing his normal clothing, but instead had donned a much bulkier outfit, covered in hooks and other things the child couldn't recognize, and a helmet. The teacher motioned for the two to enter an adjoining room, where more of these suits, as well as many helmets, were being stored. The father and the son both put on a suit and helmet, and joined the teacher in the hall marked "AIR LOCK".

     "Before we go outside- into space," the teacher began.

     The youth was shocked. His entire life he had assumed he was living on Earth, but apparently it was all a lie.

     The teacher continued, "it's important you remember a few simple rules: One: don't take off the suit or helmet until you're told to do so. Two: don't look straight at the Sun. These helmets provide some shielding, but they won't save your eyes from a direct blast. Three: don't unhook yourself from the station!" With that, he slowly dragged his suited arm and slid a hook onto a hook on the youth's suit. He saw that his father had attached a similar hook, and each hook had a cable attaching it to a small box.

     Suddenly a hatch closed behind them, sealing off the hallway. The youth heard a whooshing noise. "The air is being pumped out of the room," the youth's father explained through a radio communication system. The noise ended, and the other side of the hall opened to reveal... nothing. The three stared out into the emptiness of space. The teacher pulled himself along metal rungs lining the sides of the hallway and attached the cables to three hooks on the outside of the station. He motioned for the youth to follow. "Pull yourself along on the rungs. That's it." He encouraged. "Remember, if you lose your grip, you're attached to a cable, so you're not going anywhere."

     The youth slowly pulled himself out of the lock and onto the outer wall of the station, his father patiently waiting behind. The youth exited the lock and was turned around by the teacher. He was faced with the vast emptiness of space. He saw from the corner of his helmet a dim light- the sun. He quickly jerked his head the other way, just to be safe.

     The youth soon realized his motion couldn't be stopped; that the intensity of his previous movement spread through his whole body, and his torso began to move as well. He struggled to stay stable and managed to right himself.

The teacher raised an arm to point at a dark, reddish-orange sphere in the distance. "Do you recognize that?" he asked the youth.

     The youth thought back to his lessons. "It's Mars!" he yelped. "Good. How about that?" The teacher pointed to another sphere, this one dark and mysterious. "Look through the clouds—you'll recognize something."

     The planet and sun were angled so that the youth could only see a small sliver of it. But what he saw was enough- partially covered by clouds was the Australian continent.

"It's... Earth. But... What happened?"

     This Earth looked nothing like the Earth of the teacher's lessons. Instead of being covered in a rich, blue ocean, with vast fields of green forests and grasslands and patches of white and orange deserts, fading into black tundra and then into shining white ice caps, the Earth was almost entirely white with snow. The portions that were not white were black-lifeless. The youth could just see a shadow of a large protrusion of rock on the planet's edge.

     The teacher explained to the frightened boy. "Thousands of years ago, the Earth was the beautiful planet you learned of in school. Billions of people lived under a world government developed after the turmoil of the 20th through 22nd centuries. It wasn't perfect, but it worked. It worked very well. Humanity as a whole entered a great golden age. Science, art, and mathematics excelled for hundreds of years. Soon we ran out of room. Colonies on Mars, the moon, and hundreds of other planets and moons were established. After that, humans began to settle in space, mining metals from asteroids and constructing autonomous, self-sustaining orbiting stations like the one we live on.

     "But it wasn't meant to last. Our scientists discovered an asteroid headed for Earth. At that time, a quarter of humans were not living on Earth, and only two thirds of humans had ever been there. It was still a huge concern- 75% of human population would be wiped out in an instant. Work immediately began on saving as much life and achievement as possible. Colonies were built or expanded to house the billions of refugees, and thousands upon thousands of works of art were sent in storage capsules into orbit, to be picked up later. There were 8 billion humans on Earth when the asteroid was discovered. Seven and half got off."

     "What happened to the ones that didn't?" The youth burst.

     "They didn't want to leave. They were either killed by the asteroid impact or succumbed to supply shortages beforehand. Anyway, the point was, most of humanity had survived, but Earth, the main hub of life, was totally barren and empty. The dust and radiation snuffed out nearly all life except for the most resistant bacteria. Later the ice advanced through the already dead land. The Earth won't be safe for humans to live on for thousands of years still."

     The teacher paused. He glanced at the youth's father, who had been patiently observing the history lesson. The teacher nodded to the father, who nodded back.

     "Son, that's why we're here. Humans are living in space until we can go back. Right now, kids like you on colonies all over the solar system are learning the same thing. Look there," the father pointed to Mars. "See the light on the surface? That's a colony, filled with people. A lot of them too, if it's that big. Now there," he pointed to a small speck of light that was slowly moving across the stellar backdrop. "That's either another colony or a comet, I never really could tell the difference." He grinned.

     "No, it's a colony," the teacher laughed. "Let's go back inside; we're going to be placed almost directly in the sun's rays in half an hour."

     The three entered the lock again. The air was pumped back in and the three removed their protective suits and entered the colony. "I've got a question," the youth was just starting to collect his thoughts.

     "Shoot." The father replied.

     "If we're in space, how is there gravity?"

     "Good question. The whole station is built in a loop. You haven‟t seen more than a tenth of it. Most of it is farms. It's a big loop, and it's spinning pretty fast. As it spins, it sends all the objects inside it-us, the furniture, your dorky teacher over there," the teacher made a face and chuckled. "To the outer edge, with a force equal to about 8/9ths of Earth's gravity."

     "Centrifugal force, you mean?" the youth asked.

     "Exactly! You've been studying well." The teacher beamed.

     "So, we're kind of... an ark? Keeping samples of Earthly species so they can repopulate when it's safe?" The youth continued with his questions.

     The teacher explained, "This station is too small to keep any animals. It's only designed to house humans and grow enough food to feed them. We still rely on occasional shipments of equipment from the moon-based colonies if things need repair. The real "arks" are on Mars and a few of the really big stations."

     The youth's head was spinning, trying to comprehend all of the information. "What about-" he began.

     "I suggest you sleep on it." His father cut him off. "You' re a smart kid. It'll make sense soon."

     "Yes, get some rest. There's a math test tomorrow." The teacher winked and walked off.

     The father and son walked back to their rooms, and in some deep recess of the youth's mind, he knew that some day, he would walk down this very hall with his son or daughter after they received this same information, and his child would be thinking the same thing.

     His mind's eye looked forward many thousand years, to an Earth that would one day be covered by vegetation and animal life, and later, humans. And somehow he knew, through thousands of years, that a part of him would be there.