New Earth (Excerpt)

Check out New Earth by Ben Bova, out on July 16:

The entire world is thrilled by the discovery of a new Earthlike planet. Advance imaging shows that the planet has oceans of liquid water and a breathable oxygen-rich atmosphere. Eager to gain more information, a human exploration team is soon dispatched to explore the planet, now nicknamed New Earth.

Upon landing on the planet they discover something unexpected: New Earth is inhabited by a small group of intelligent creatures who look very much like human beings.

Who are these people? Are they native to this world, or invaders from elsewhere? While they may seem inordinately friendly to the human explorers, what are their real motivations? What do they want?

Moreover, the scientists begin to realize that this planet cannot possibly be natural. They face a startling and nearly unthinkable question: Could New Earth be an artifact?

 

AWAKENING

 

He opened his eyes slowly.

His eyelids felt gummy. Slowly he reached up with both hands to knuckle the cobwebs away. My name is Jordan Kell, he told himself. I’ve been asleep for eighty years.

He was lying on his back in the cryosleep capsule, looking up at the softly muted glow of the ship’s ceiling panels. The coffin-sized capsule smelled like an antiseptic hospital room, cold, inhuman. A shudder went through him, his body’s memory of the years spent suspended, frozen by liquid nitrogen.

Peering down the length of his naked body he saw that all the tubes for feeding and muscle stimulation had been removed. Nothing but faint scars here and there.

They’ll fade away soon enough, he thought.

Well, we must have made it, he told himself. Eight point six light-years. Eighty years to reach Sirius.

Then a pang of doubt hit him. Maybe we’re not there! Maybe something’s gone wrong!

The robot slid into his view. It was a semi-anthropomorphic design, man-shaped except that it rolled along on tiny trunions instead of having legs. Its silicone-covered face had two glittering optronic eyes, a slit of a radiator where a human nose would be, a speaker grill for a mouth.

“Are we . . . ?” Jordan’s voice cracked. His throat felt dry, raw.

The robot understood his unfinished question. “The ship has arrived in orbit around Sirius C,” it said. Its synthesized voice was the rich, warm baritone of a noted dramatic actor back on Earth.

“Good,” Jordan croaked. “Good.”

“Diagnostics show that you are in satisfactory physical condition,” the robot reported. “Your memories have been uploaded successfully from the central computer back into your brain.”

“The others . . . ?”

“Their uploads are under way,” said the robot. “You are the first to be revived, as per mission protocol.”

Rank hath its privileges, Jordan thought.

The robot turned away briefly to the row of diagnostic monitors lining one wall of the narrow compartment. When it came back to Jordan’s open capsule it bore a ceramic cup in one metal hand.

“A stimulant,” it said, “and a lubricant for your throat.”

Tenderly, the robot lifted Jordan’s head with one silicone-skin hand and brought the cup to his lips, like a mother feeding a baby. He grasped the cup with both his trembling hands, grateful for its warmth.

Tea, Jordan realized once he’d taken a sip of the steaming brew. Tea with honey. Stimulant, lubricant, warmer-upper. Good old tea. He almost laughed.

“Do you feel strong enough to get to your feet?”

Jordan thought it over, then replied, “I can try.”

The robot gently helped him up to a sitting position. Then Jordan swung his bare legs over the edge of the capsule and carefully, tentatively, stood up. He felt a little wobbly, but only a little. Not bad for a fellow who’s a hundred and thirty-two years old, he thought.

The little cubicle’s walls were bare, off-white. It was hardly big enough to contain Jordan’s cryosleep capsule, a marvel of biotechnology sitting there like an elongated egg that had been cracked open. The life-support equipment and monitors blinked and beeped softly against the opposite wall.

Each member of the expedition had a cubicle of his or her own; the robots assisted with the reawakening process.

Staying at his side, the robot led Jordan three steps to the closet where his clothes were stored. He pulled the door open and saw himself in the full-length mirror inside the door.

He was a trim, well-built middleweight, standing almost 175 centimeters in his bare feet. Normally he weighed a trifle under seventy-five kilograms, but as he looked down at his bare body he saw that his long sleep had cost him some weight. The skin of his legs was still puckered from the freezing, but beneath the wrinkles it looked pink, healthy.

His face was slightly thinner than he remembered it, his arched aquiline nose a little more obvious, his cheekbones a bit more prominent, the hollows beneath them more noticeable. He saw that the neat little mustache he had cultivated so carefully over the years had grayed noticeably; it looked somewhat ragged. I’ll need to attend to that, he thought.

Then, with a shock, he realized that his dark brown hair had turned completely silver.

They didn’t tell us to expect that, he said to himself.

Back on Earth he’d often been called elegant, sophisticated. At this moment, farther from Earth than any human being had ever traveled, he felt shabby, weary, and strangely detached, as if he were watching himself from afar.

Jordan shook his head, trying to force himself to accept where he was and who he was. While cryonic freezing preserved the body, it also tended to degrade the synapses of the brain’s neurons. All the members of the team had downloaded their memories into the ship’s computer before they’d left Earth and gone into cryosleep.

With deliberate concentration, Jordan tested the upload. He remembered leading the team into the ship’s luxurious interior. He remembered climbing into the sleep capsule, watching it close over him. Childhood memories floated before him: the Christmas he deduced that Father Christmas was really his parents; tussling with his brother Brandon; graduating from Cambridge; Miriam—he clenched his eyes shut.

Miriam. Her last days, her final agony.

My fault. All my fault. My most grievous fault.

It would have been good to have erased those memories, he thought.

Slowly, carefully, he pulled on cotton briefs, a turtlenecked white shirt, dark blue jeans, and comfortable loafers. Then he studied himself for a moment in the full-length mirror on the back of the closet’s door, his steel-gray eyes peering intently. You don’t look elegant and sophisticated now, he told himself. You look . . . bewildered, and more than a little frightened.

Then he realized, “I’m hungry.”

The robot said, “A very normal reaction.” It sounded almost pleased. “The wardroom is less than thirty meters up the passageway, in the direction of the ship’s command center. The dispensers offer a full selection of food and beverages.”

With a crooked smile, Jordan said, “You sound like an advertising blurb.”

The robot made no reply, but it turned and opened the door to the passageway.

Jordan hesitated at the doorway.

“The wardroom is to the right, Mr. Kell.”

Jordan tried to recall the ship’s layout. The living and working areas were built into the wheel that turned slowly to give a feeling of gravity. Leaving the robot behind him, he walked carefully along the passageway. Although the floor felt perfectly flat, he could see it curving up and out of sight ahead of him.

The wardroom was empty as he entered it. Of course, he realized. I’m the first to be revived. I’m the team leader.

It was a pleasantly decorated compartment, its walls covered with warm pseudowood paneling, its ceiling glowing softly. Six small tables were arranged along its russet-tiled floor; they could be pushed together in any pattern the team wanted. At present they were all standing separately, each table big enough to seat four people.

Very comfortable, Jordan thought. Of course, crew comfort was a major goal of the mission designers. This far from home, a few luxuries help to keep us happy. And sane. Or so the psychotechs decided.

One entire wall of the wardroom was taken up by machines that dispensed food and drink. But Jordan’s attention instantly was drawn to the wall opposite, a floor-to-ceiling display screen.

It showed the planet that the ship was orbiting. A lush green world with deeply blue oceans and fleecy white clouds, brown wrinkles of mountains and broad swaths of grasslands. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

Jordan marveled at the sight. It really is a New Earth, he thought.


DATA BANK

 

Even while the massive floods, droughts, and killer storms of the greenhouse climate shift were devastating much of Earth, astronomers were detecting several thousand planets orbiting other stars. Most of these exoplanets were gas giants, bloated spheres of hydrogen and helium, totally unlike Earth. But a few percent of them were small, rocky worlds, more like our own.

One in particular raised hopes of being really Earthlike: Sirius C. It was almost the same size as Earth, and although its parent star was a fiercely blazing blue-white giant, much larger and hotter than the Sun, the planet’s orbit lay at the “Goldilocks” distance from Sirius where its surface temperature was not too hot, and not too cold for liquid water to exist.

On Earth, liquid water means life. Beneath the frozen iron sands of Mars, liquid water melting from the permafrost hosts an underground biosphere of microbial life forms. In the ice-covered seas of Jupiter’s major moons, living organisms abound. In the planet-girdling ocean beneath the eternal clouds of giant Jupiter itself, life teems and flourishes.

But Sirius C was a challenge to the scientists. The planet shouldn’t exist, not by all that they knew of astrophysics. And it couldn’t possibly bear life, Goldilocks notwithstanding, not sandwiched between brilliant Sirius A and its white dwarf star companion, Sirius B. The dwarf had erupted in a series of nova explosions eons ago. The death throes of Sirius B must have sterilized any planets in the vicinity, boiled away any atmosphere or ocean.

But there it was, a rocky, Earth-sized planet, the only planet in the Sirius system, orbiting Sirius A in a nearly perfect circle. Spectroscopic studies showed it had an Earthlike atmosphere—and oceans of liquid water.

Might there be a chance that the planet did harbor some kind of life forms? The astrobiologists worked overtime concocting theories to support the hope that the Earth-sized planet might indeed host an Earth-type biosphere. The popular media had no such problem. They quickly dubbed Sirius C “New Earth.”

For nearly a full century, while governments and corporations all over the world toiled to alleviate the catastrophic results of the climate change, Earth’s eagerly inquisitive scientists hurled robotic space probes toward Sirius C. Even at the highest thrust that fusion rockets could produce, the probes took decades to reach their objective, more than eight light-years from Earth. Yet once they arrived at the planet, what they saw confirmed the most cherished hopes of both the scientists and the general public.

Sirius C was indeed a New Earth. The planet bore broad blue seas of water, its continents were richly green with vegetation. There was no sign of intelligent life, no cities or farmlands or roads, no lights or radio communications, but the planet truly was a New Earth, unpopulated, virginal, beckoning.

Impatient to explore this new world in greater detail, the International Astronautical Authority asked the World Council to fund the human exploration of Sirius C. The Council procrastinated, citing the enormous costs of mitigating the disasters caused by the global climate shift. Then the lunar nation of Selene stepped forward and offered to build a starship. Shamed into grudging cooperation, the Council reluctantly joined the effort—meagerly.

They named the starship Gaia, after the Earth deity who represented the web of life. Gaia would travel to Sirius more slowly than the robotic probes, to protect its fragile human cargo. It would take some eighty years for the ship to reach Sirius C.

Men and women from all around the world volunteered for the mission. They were carefully screened for physical health and mental stability. As one of the examining psychotechnicians put it, “You’d have to be at least a little crazy to throw away eighty years just to get there.”

But the crew of Gaia would not age eighty years. They would sleep away the decades of their journey in cryonic suspension, frozen in liquid nitrogen, as close to death as human bodies can get and still survive.

Gaia was launched with great fanfare: humankind’s first mission to the stars. The explorers would spend five years mapping the planet in detail, studying its biosphere, and building a base for the backup missions to work from.

By the time the ship arrived in orbit around Sirius C, eighty years later, only a handful of dedicated scientists back on Earth were still interested in the mission. Most of the human race was struggling to survive the catastrophic second wave of greenhouse flooding, as the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica melted down. The backup missions had been postponed, again and again, and finally shelved indefinitely by the World Council.

Even the eagerly waiting scientists saw nothing, heard nothing from the explorers, for it would take more than eight years for messages to travel from Sirius back to Earth.

 

New Earth © Ben Bova 2013

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