The Golden Goose looked the same as always. Like everything else, nothing much changed in just eight years. It was quiet; there were a few people talking in booths. No one sat at the bar.
He felt bad that he hadn’t come back sooner, but it was easy to lose track of time. Time used to be valuable, more so as a person aged and the sands of time ran out. Now it was easy to waste it. Humanity had put a stopper in the hourglass.
His eyes had to adjust to the low light. Grem still kept the place in great shape- every piece of wood polished, the bar and all the tables in the alcoves along the wall gleamed. The style predated Bob himself and he was no youngster. Low light, dark wood, dark leather in the booths. After all the years that Grem had taken care of it, the Goose still felt as homey as any bar Bob had ever been to.
Even Grem looked the same. But of course, he would.
Grem looked at him for only a second, instantly recognizing the walk and the slightly grayed hair. He smiled as Bob walked up to the bar.
“Hello, Bob. Haven’t seen you in a while. Glad to have you back. How are you?”
Bob smiled and took a seat on a barstool. “Same as always. No older and no younger. How are you? How’s the Goose?”
“Same old same old. Still keeping the old girl running. It’s getting a little harder to pay the bills though. Not too many into well-maintained antiques any longer.”
Bob grimaced at the irony in Grem’s words. “Yeah. In more ways than one.”
Grem looked embarrassed. “Hey, I didn’t mean…”
Bob waved him off. “Forget it. After all these years I can tell a slip from a dig.”
“Yeah, I imagine so. What’ll you have?”
“Just a beer. Whatever you have on tap is fine.”
“Coming right up.” Grem pulled a glass out of the rack, slid it under the tap and pulled the handle. “What brings you here?” He smiled again, and set the glass in front of Bob. “Other than the beer, I mean.”
“I got a call from Al. Al Thompson. You remember him, right? Said he wanted to meet someplace where we could talk for a while. I thought he might like to meet at one of our old haunts.”
“Do you two keep in touch?”
Bob looked at his beer. “No, not really. I lost track of time and he moves around a lot. We were in the Corps of Engineers together, you know. We started when it was still part of the U.S. Army. They’ve needed every hand for decades now, and every time he thought about leaving they’d give him some big, juicy project to manage. Hadn’t really even thought about him for quite a while. Kind of embarrassing, really. We’re actually pretty good friends. Or we were, I guess.” Bob hesitated, looking at his glass. “They retired me out when my wife died. Medical retirement. Probably for the best.” He took a sip of his beer. “This is really good.”
“Thanks. One of the new brews. Some pre-warming archeologists found some old recipes in Europe and brewed them up. They ran the results through an analyzer and added a few tweaks. Came up with a half dozen great beers. Amazing what you can do with a little information and a smart machine.”
“Whatever they did, it worked. Think they’ll go into distribution?”
Grem shrugged. “Hard to tell. Those things move so fast. One day you’re a hit, the next you’re an old fad.”
Bob nodded. “Don’t I know it. Hard to keep up with all the things going on nowadays. Especially with the Artificial Intelligences. I heard a group of AIs did some experiments that showed there’s a way to circumvent Einstein’s barrier.”
Grem looked astonished. “Wow. Hadn’t heard that. Guess I should get on the net once in a while. The speed of light’s been the limit for so long it looked like the Kuiper belt was going to be as far as anyone was ever going to go. I don’t think even the AIs thought sublight starships would ever be practical.”
“It is sort of a big deal. With a little luck, we'll both be around when they launch the first FTL ship.”
Grem smiled. “Wouldn't that be something? I might consider migrating if it happens. I could probably use a change. Or maybe just take the bar and move it to Alpha Centauri.” Grem hesitated. “What about you?”
Bob shrugged. “Might be fun. It's getting a little stale here.”
Grem hesitated. The silence got longer. “Have you heard anything new? Medically, I mean.”
Bob frowned. “No, nothing new. It's been a long time and there are fewer researchers interested in my situation.” He shrugged. “I'm a dead end. Doesn't make sense to invest time and resources in a problem that no longer exists. Except for me, of course. And Al. And a few others.” He swirled his beer. “And getting fewer every day.” He took another sip from his glass.
“Hey, don't get discouraged. Who knows, maybe some AI will find an answer for you.”
Bob smiled sadly and shook his head. “Probably not. Too busy working on FTL drives.”
Grem looked unhappy and discouraged. It wasn't a look Bob saw very often any longer. There was a lot of optimism now. The Cyclone Decades were long gone, famines were reduced to occasional events in the locations where recovery was still under way, the Great Cleanup and the global ecology laws had worked, and the bad times were gradually fading away. Space was opening up, too. Not fast enough to move much of the world’s population off-planet yet, but between the population crash during the famines and effective population planning the New Frontier of space was beginning to feel like a real option again. There was a lot of hope out there.
Bob shook it off and brightened his smile. Didn't make sense to dump his problems on someone else. “Hey, no worries. You're right. I've got a lot of time and there are a lot of smart people and machines out there. Somebody will figure it out.” He held up his glass. “In the meantime, I’ve still got my slot at the University. And now there's some mighty fine beer.”
As he took another drink two men came through the door and took stools down the bar from Bob. Grem stepped back a bit. “Gotta work. I’ll be back in a few.”
As Grem moved away Bob looked into the mirror behind the bar. He saw a gray-haired old man, face wrinkled with age and experience. He looked at the hand holding the glass of beer; it looked about right for seventy. A healthy seventy, and right for the rest of his body. The package as a whole looked aged but he thought he should be grateful. He was rather young looking considering how old he was. Unchanged for years. Two hundred years, give or take.
The eyes and face in the mirror hardened, and he looked away. He knew what the view was like.
Looking seventy in a world where almost everyone looked thirty or younger was not the best of circumstances. It wouldn’t be so bad if there were a few more people in the same situation. There weren’t a lot in the beginning, though, and even the few that there were had slowly disappeared. On the plus side, some had made it through the bad times and gone into space. On the minus, a few hundred years of famines and accidents hadn’t left a lot of survivors even with the longevity treatments. Then there were the people who made the decision, the ones who couldn’t take being lonely old people in the land of the young. He just didn’t like to think about them.
He thought about Meg. They had both had the stabilizing treatment. The first ones to get it had been those who were both valuable and threatened by old age. It was nearly experimental when they started the treatment. It had worked, of course, but for the old ones like Meg and him there had been a major drawback. The old ones who were treated stopped aging, but they stopped at the age they were at. At first it was an easy price to pay to help rebuild, especially since the expertise they had acquired was critically needed. It wasn’t until the young ones started getting the treatment, with ages stabilized at twenty-five to perhaps ten years older, that things went sour. Over time, the world Meg and he knew became younger and the original “old ones” became rarities. Not just rarities, but oddities.
They had made it through most of the bad times. Thank God they had both gotten in to the experimental group. He didn’t know what he would have done if she had died in her nineties (or younger) like most people they had known. For sure he wouldn’t have made it through the bad times without her. It had been good to have her with him for all those years, too. They had grown old together, and they had stopped aging together. They each had someone to talk to who knew about the old days, and knew about their new problem.
He had come apart completely when he heard about the accident. They had made two hundred and fifty years together, much of it through really tough times. They had been survivors at a time when life was at risk everywhere.
Then suddenly she was gone. A once-in-a-century accident, they’d said, as if the safety record meant anything to the people who lost loved ones. The University psych people had fought to bring him back from his breakdown for two solid years. He was mentally healthy now, sort of. He still wondered whether all the time and effort of the psych people had been worth it. He was still an old one in a world where everyone else was young.
Bob’s thoughts were interrupted by a slap on the back. “Well, hello, old man. My, my, you don’t look a day over a hundred.”
Bob turned to see his friend Al. “Considering I’m supposed to look seventy, that’s not so good.” He stuck out his hand. “You don’t look much younger than a hundred yourself.”
Al smiled and shook hands with Bob. “Just stayin’ alive.”
“Definitely. Come on, pull up a stool. What’ll you have? Grem’s got some really good beer on tap.”
“Beer sounds good.” Al looked around and saw an empty booth. “Would you mind moving to a booth? Easier to chat over there.”
Bob rose up from his stool. “Sounds good.” He turned and waved at Grem. “Bring another beer for our friend here. We’ll be over there.”
Grem waved at Al. They moved and slid into the empty booth.
“How have you been?” asked Al. “It’s been a long time. I didn’t realize how long until I started thinking about calling you.”
“Doing all right,” responded Bob. “I had the same reaction when you called. Just didn’t occur to me how long it had been since we last got together.” He took a sip of his beer. “This longevity thing makes it easy to waste a lot of time. Like time is cheap or something.”
Grem walked up and put Al’s glass on the table. “Another old timer. Good to see you, Al. Seems like it’s been forever since you’ve been in. What’s it been, ten years now?”
“I think ten is about right,” said Al. “We were just talking about that. Now we’ve got time to waste, and it seems like that’s what we do with it.”
“I know what you mean. I don’t know what it was like in the old days but it’s really easy to let things slide now. You’ve got to have something you want to do to keep moving. Gotta have a life plan or something.” Grem looked at Bob. “Like that thing we talked about. Making a trip to a star.”
Al looked curious. “What’s this? A trip to a star?”
Bob smiled. “A group of AIs have done experiments that seem to confirm that Einstein’s limit can be circumvented. If we hang around long enough we might see the first faster-than-light ship. We might even see humans on a planet around another star. Probably still a long trip, but not centuries like on a sublight ship.”
Al frowned. “Hmm. Well, even with FTL a trip to another planet that’s worth going to would be a long one.”
Bob shook his head. “Time is something we have a lot of. And who knows, maybe with some work even marginal planets might be livable. With all the time we’ve got, maybe a challenge is something we need.”
“Maybe.” Al looked doubtful. “I don’t know, though. Humanity made a lot of challenges for itself. Not sure it makes sense to go off into the wilds of space looking for more. Besides, what would we do with a bunch of new territory? Probably just make a mess of it, like we did with Earth. At least here it was a matter of survival to straighten the mess out. If we started on new planets, we might just go around wrecking perfectly good ones because we could leave and forget about what we’d left behind.”
Bob shook his head and smiled. “You always were a bit of a pessimist. Do you think we’re going to forget all we went through and just walk away after making another mess?”
“Look around, Bob. They’re no different on the outside, but the young ones were never in the mess and don’t think about it. You know, people who are actually in their twenties and thirties, not the ones that only look like it. They’ve got the information in their heads; they don’t have it in their hearts. Not like the ones who came through the bad times. Not like us.”
“Maybe. We don’t have just humans now, though. The AIs won’t forget. Neither will the enhanced humans. I think it would be hard to backslide.”
Al shook his head and frowned. “I don’t know. If humanity goes out pioneering there won’t be a lot of law out there. There will be those who figure it’s all right as long as they don’t get caught. It’s not like somebody from Earth is likely to take off into interstellar space to chase down rumors of ecological destruction. As for people who have colonized other star systems, interstellar travel will be as slow for them as for us- getting to another star will take years. It might be like that for decades, maybe for centuries. Why burn years to go looking for problems in another star system? They’d have their own problems. Nobody would be interested in hunting down ecological pirates that mess up their own worlds.”
Bob countered, “I think you’re too pessimistic. You can argue that we might destroy another planet’s ecology, but with what we can do now I’m not sure there’s a rationale for that sort of thing any longer. Why destroy a good planet when the things we need are probably available on uninhabitable planets? Even in our solar system, we can mine the moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Using the tough places might be more expensive initially, but how much did it cost us to fix the damage we did to Earth?”
Al looked thoughtful. “I guess you might be right. Nowadays we can put the really bad stuff in places where it doesn’t matter. Maybe that’s the real answer.” He took a drink of his beer. “Wow, this is good. I think I’ve been gone too long.”
Bob finished his first beer and signaled Grem to bring another round for the both of them. “So what’s on your mind? Probably not interstellar travel.”
Al lubricated with another taste of beer. “No, it’s not about interstellar travel.” He remained silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, I came to invite you to a party. A farewell party.”
Surprised, Bob asked, “A farewell party? Have you got another project with the Corps?”
Al smiled sadly. “No, it’s not for the Corps.” He hesitated again. “I’ve decided to leave.”
Bob wondered if Al was still right in the head. “Yeah, I got that. That’s what a farewell party is for. So where are you going?”
Al searched for the right words and decided to come straight out with it. “I’m not going anywhere, Bob. I mean I can’t stay in this life anymore.”
Bob stared at his friend. “You mean…you can’t mean you’re going to suicide.”
The nod that Al responded with seemed a little shaky to Bob. Maybe there was a way to talk him out of it.
“Are you sure, Al? What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
Al took a drink before he answered. “A little of everything, I guess. Frankly I’m surprised I’ve been able to hold out this long. Maybe it would be all right if we were like the young ones. The ones who got the treatment at the right age. I’m lonely, Bob, and I can’t fix that. We’re freaks, old people living among the forever young.
“I don’t regret having done it. The country needed us and the world needed us. But now we’re paying the price for the decision. Some of the young ones are sympathetic, but most don’t care. For some we’re just reminders of the bad people who wrecked the planet, whether or not we helped put it back together again.
He took another sip, then set his glass down. “Man, this beer is good. The Corps hasn’t called me for a couple of years now. They don’t need us anymore. My first kids, the ones who made it, have been adults for a hundred years. Even the second bunch are in their sixties. They talk to me now and then but it’s been years since I was a real part of their lives. Alia divorced me decades ago. She’s still around, I hear, but trying to bring that back would be like trying to raise the dead. Once in a while I run into some young thing that decides it will do her soul good to fuck an old man, but they’re kidding themselves and they can’t kid me.
“It’s not a life anymore, Bob. The world is telling me I’m obsolete. I’m no longer needed, even by my family. It feels like it’s time to call it quits.”
“What about space? It’s wide open out there and completely different from what we’ve got here. I can’t imagine the Exploration Agency would turn you down. After all the things you did for the world? How could they? Even with your age issues, maybe even because of your age, they’ll take you. They need all the technical people they can find. I think they’d take you as soon as you walked through the door.”
Al shook his head. “You’re probably right, but I think going back to the job would be a temporary fix. Besides, I’m not interested in living in one of those glorified boxes out there. They make it look pretty but the reality is you’re living in a big tube under tons of rock just about anywhere you go. Not my cup of tea. I spent too much time fixing things so we could have a beautiful outside again.
“Moving out wouldn’t change my situation. My problem is that I’m lonely. Most of the ones who were like us are gone and the young ones don’t need us.
“Not the way I need to be needed anyhow. Alia divorced me after the second family was grown up. We hoped that the new kids would help us stay together. It didn’t work. She said she didn’t want to do it again and we’d been together so long it was boring. When I see my kids, you can tell they’re struggling too. Everyone’s been divorced, looking for a new playmate. Of course, they don’t look a day over twenty-five.
“You know what really gets me now, Bob? There are no kids around anymore. I see a little one maybe once a month now. Sometimes it’s longer than that.
“My girl’s sixty-one. The girl from the second bunch, I mean. When she applied for motherhood twenty years ago, they gave her one kid. One. That one’s grown up now, if twenty is grown up anymore, and just started to think about applying. She’s saying she might not have one until she’s sixty. Forty more years before there’s another little one in the family. And again, Family Planning will give her one. Maybe not even one, you know? Even now the number of people leaving the planet isn’t keeping up with population growth. If none of us are going, is there room for more kids? Maybe in the future the only new ones will be born off Earth.”
Bob tried to be sympathetic. “You know the rules, Al. A lot of the problem, maybe most, was overpopulation. It could get even worse with all of us living forever.”
Al smiled ironically. “Doesn’t really help me. Knowing why doesn’t change things.” Bob thought that sounded pretty familiar. “And even if Family Planning wasn’t a problem, who would I have a kid with? You and I are the last of the old codgers, ugly old farts in the land of the beautiful. Raising a kid means someone would have to look at this face for at least a few years. Who would want to do that?
“I’d like to stay with someone for a while. I’m not interested in a two-week pity fuck, although frankly I’d take even that now. It’s been a long time since I’ve had someone sharing a bed with me.”
That struck a chord with Bob. No one would ever replace Meg, but after so many years it got lonely. Really lonely.
Al sighed a long sigh. “It’s not one thing. It’s all of it put together. Not really anywhere to go and no one to go there with. I’ve decided I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Bob hesitated, then gave it another try. “Are you really sure about this? Death is pretty permanent. No one’s going to bring you back once you’re gone.”
Al stared at his drink for a long time. “Do you believe in God, Bob? Could it be there is an afterlife?”
Bob shook his head slowly. “I’m not sure. I see where you’re going with this. Do you really want to gamble that there is something after we pass away?”
Al grimaced. “When times get hard we start to look at our options.” His face softened. “Do you ever think about Meg?”
Thinking about Meg as part of this conversation was something Bob had hoped to avoid, but here it was. He took another sip of beer. “I do. I do a lot, actually. In a way she hasn’t really left me. I miss her. I’d like to think she’s out there, somewhere, and that someday we can be together again.” This time he took a solid gulp and emptied his glass. He caught Grem’s eye and pointed to his glass. Grem nodded. “Do you want another one?”
Al finished off the little bit he had left in his glass. “Sure. Sounds good.” Bob waved his hand again, held up two fingers and Grem acknowledged.
Bob looked down at his empty glass. “You know, in my heart I want to believe that there’s something more, that maybe we get to retry life and not make the mistakes we made the first time around. Then my head kicks in. What are we up to now, two hundred orders of magnitude between the smallest and the largest things in the universe? That doesn’t even count the possibility that there might be a huge number of alternate universes out there, a lot or maybe all of them as big as ours.
“I think about ants and how close they are in size to us on the scale of the universe. On the grand scale we’re just a tiny bit bigger than them, and maybe on that grand scale we’re also just a tiny bit smarter. Do you think God cares a heck of a lot more about us than he does ants? Maybe he or she cares about all life, but that doesn’t mean he’s so committed to life that he’s got us and all the other intelligent beasts on an infinite loop, letting us all have a multitude of shots at things we haven’t done right in our prior lives. Maybe God and the universe are actually limited in some way and there just aren’t any options for him or for us. Who knows? I don’t want to think about Meg being gone forever, but it’s hard to have much hope. Too many paths to oblivion and too few to paradise.”
Their conversation stopped for a minute as Grem brought fresh beers and took away the old glasses. “Thanks, Grem,” responded Bob.
“I’m not betting on an afterlife,” said Al. “It’s just…I’m getting tired of being alone. I wonder if I’m taking up space that should be going to new life. I just don’t know if I can do it much longer.”
“You know what I think? I think you’ve been on the sidelines too long. I think we’re back to doing things like going out to space. Maybe that applies to me, too. We can’t just sit around watching the world go by. We’re slowly going stir crazy in the life we’ve got now. Time to get off our butts and try new things. And there are new things to do. We should be out there trying to do them.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. I know it’s the final alternative. Maybe I should give more things a try before I decide I’ve had enough.”
Things still felt delicate and Bob wasn’t sure the next question was timely. But he gave it a try.
“So, do you think you can put off this farewell party for a while longer?”
Al nodded slowly. “Maybe. You’re the first one I’ve told. I didn’t want to get the kids all wound up until I could talk to someone in the same position. I wanted to talk to you first.”
Bob smiled. “I’m glad you did. We should try to stay in touch more. We’ve let things slide. It’s so easy to put things off now. So much we’ve been through. Just getting together more often would be a good thing. Especially since we’ve got a long way to go yet.”
“You know, I hadn’t thought much about what we’ve got left. Sounds like you’ve been keeping up with the news more than I have. What’s the word? Have you spoken to any of the doctors about how long we’ve got? I stopped being concerned about medical stuff years ago. How about a fix to our peculiar problem? Any word on that?”
Bob looked at his glass. “I still have connections with a small research project at the University. They try to follow us old guys. There are a couple people who did a full physical workup on me with the idea that they might be able to tell how long we’ve got. They said at the rate we’re going, we’ll probably make 500 years. They said it was more likely we’d die of an accident or some other unnatural cause than we would from any kind of disease or aging. The bad news is that our particular problem isn’t any closer to being solved. I’m not sure anyone’s even working on it anymore.”
Al shook his head. “Wow. Two hundred fifty behind us and another two hundred fifty to go. And for a while there it looked like Mother Nature’s global retribution would take us out before we hit a hundred. Another two fifty living as an old man, though. Not exactly the best of all possible worlds.”
Bob sighed. “No, not the best of all worlds.” He smiled ironically. “I heard a long time ago that the Chinese had a special curse- ‘May you live in interesting times.’ I guess someone’s cursed us. Not only have we lived in interesting times, we’ve lived a long time in them and as old men. I think we should update the curse somehow.” He took another sip of beer. “Maybe the next two fifty won’t be quite as bad. Hope springs eternal. I think hope will be around even longer than us.”
Al looked at his watch and took a long drink of his second beer. “I’ve got to get going. This was a good talk. I’ll think about what you’ve said. Maybe you’re right. Maybe what I need is a challenge. New horizons, that sort of thing. Maybe the party will just be a party instead of a farewell. What do you think we owe?”
Bob waved it off. “Forget it. I’ll take care of it. Just remember to invite me to the party, farewell or no. Okay?”
“Yeah. We should get together more often no matter what. And…thanks for everything.”
It was rather ironic that he was leaving almost two years to the day since he and Al had their first talk. There had been a number of other conversations over the next six months. It turned out that their first conversation had been good for Bob. It had started him thinking, and then he had started to do some research.
The thinking brought him to the conclusion that he didn’t want to be like Al, seriously considering ending it all. He didn’t feel that his options were really exhausted. There were things he still wanted to do, things he still wanted to see.
He didn’t have Al’s people problem. He had always been a bit of a loner. Meg had been his one true friend and love. Even Al was peripheral to his needs; that had been pretty clear when he had gone eight years without even getting in touch. And Al had called him. Having survived this long without Meg, Bob figured he could keep it up a while longer.
He thought about Al. He couldn’t really tell whether their talks were good or bad for him. It didn’t matter any longer; Al finally had his party, and it was a farewell. Bob got to meet both generations of his kids. Even Al’s ex-wife was there. There had been a few tears; perhaps fewer than Bob had expected. At the end, Al had given him a big hug and thanked him for all the good times. He thanked him again for the last few months as well.
Bob wasn’t sure he deserved that. Nothing he said when they got back together, or anything he said afterward, had changed Al’s mind. It had just taken a little longer for Al to go. Maybe that was really all that could have been expected.
It was a little silly that Bob had to hold back tears that wanted to come as he thought about Al. He had made it out the door at the farewell party but then he hadn’t been able to stop them for a while. It was easier now; the deed was done and the pain had faded. All he could hope for was that sometime in the distant future he could join up with Meg and Al again when his own time was up. The doctors had said five hundred years, assuming his luck held out. Not really likely considering he was almost certainly raising the odds against himself. Of course it wouldn’t matter much if the afterlife didn’t exist. Bob wouldn’t be around, either.
He would never have given Al’s particular way of leaving a second thought if Meg was still around, or if the planet still needed him. When Al came to see him he actually considered the idea for a while. Al’s argument never really stuck, though. It didn’t take long for Bob to come to the conclusion that it didn’t make sense for him personally. Al’s way out seemed all too permanent and pretty scary unless you believed in some kind of afterlife. Bob wasn’t religious; he’d seen too many bad things during the bad years. If there was a God, he was perfectly happy to let humans go to hell in their own way. Not likely there was help from that direction.
He hadn’t really spent any time thinking about space travel. Oh, he had kept up with headlines and such, but really understanding hadn’t been a priority. His years on Earth had been filled with the struggle to get the planet back on course, and with his days with his wife. Now those things were memories, some good and some bad. It had been an exciting life in that first hundred years.
After a fair amount of consideration he realized that he needed some kind of change. If nothing else, it was clear that he was bored. After decades of excitement, and decades of love, things had certainly gotten dull. In that first conversation with Al, the subject of space travel had been as much about pulling Al out of his funk as it was a real thought.
The idea of space travel had arisen almost as soon as Bob realized he needed a change. The idea turned into a dream, and then into an objective. He had seen much of the Earth, and with the possible exception of the oceans there weren’t many frontiers left. In space, however, there didn’t seem to be any limits. In the Solar System alone a man could spend centuries and never see it all. According to the docs, he had centuries to burn.
His interest in space travel had been pretty superficial when the thought arose. He really knew almost nothing about it, except that for a while humanity had almost lost it. During the worst of the climate crisis, all the resources went to saving planet Earth and its people.
He had always been a quick study, though, and space turned about to be a very interesting subject. It took him a year, but at the end of the year he was a bit of an expert on space and space travel.
Once the planet had breathing room again, a lot of the best minds began to refocus on space travel. There was the feeling that a backup plan was needed, not only to have a way out in case of another major climate shift but in case any of a number of possible catastrophes occurred, natural or manmade. There was also the human itch to see what was out there. The unmanned probes of the old days had found all sorts of unique oddities on the satellites of the outer planets. Relatively little was known about the big planets and things beyond. Maybe it was time for mankind to go and see for itself.
Space travel had survived, and while it hadn’t moved quickly during the bad years it still progressed. The solar sail ships had supplied small permanent colonies on the Moon during the early years of the global crisis, and research stations in the atmosphere of Venus were established. More sunlight at the distance from the sun of Venus meant twice as much power as sunlight around Earth orbit, making the trip easier than the relatively long haul to Mars. All that power made building easier. There were also some commercial possibilities in the atmosphere of the second planet that made the investment worth the risk.
Things stayed that way, with a few colonies on the Moon and research stations just outside the atmosphere of Venus for some years. As things got easier on Earth and the challenges were met, there were explorers who turned their eyes back toward Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and the outer planets.
That was when the next big leap occurred- the lightways. It started with a massive station following Earth in its orbit around the Sun. For the most part it was a huge array of solar panels and a big set of lasers. The panels provided power to the lasers, which pushed gigawatts of power into the distant reaches of the solar system in a tight beam of monochromatic light. A solar ship caught the light in its sails, converted it back into electricity and created a big plasma push through its electric engines. The first lightway did dramatic things to the cost of travel to Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and even the moons of Jupiter, reducing fuel costs in the same way that the solar sail ships on the Luna run cut costs to the Moon.
There were now three lightway stations at nearly equidistant points around the Sun near Earth orbit, each one pumping concentrated energy into space to power lightships on their way to the outer Solar System and back. Three more were being built to provide more capacity, easier transitions from one lightway to another, and greater flexibility in scheduling. There were also plans to build light stations near the orbit of Venus, to pick up more power from the Sun for faster trips to the outer system. As for Venus itself, there were now factories in orbit around the planet. They were breaking down the carbon dioxide that made up almost all of the atomsphere into carbon-oxygen products, with transportation to and from Earth provided by lightships that took their power directly from the Sun rather than relying on a lightway. There was no need for a lightway with the energy density of sunlight between the Earth and the second planet.
After his year-long study he had made his own decision. He started to apply for jobs in outer space. It turned out that there were slots that made sense for him everywhere from Venus all the way out to the Kuiper belt. People with his experience in large-scale construction and environmental development were rare, and his problem became one of picking the places he wanted to see rather than whether someone would take him. No one cared what he looked like as long as he could do the job. He did have to complete six months of training in vacuum and low-gravity living and survival. That had not been as hard as he had anticipated. Even at his apparent age of seventy he was in better health than he had been before the treatments. His mind was still sharp. After his training he was ready to go.
A medical crewmember stopped at his cocoon. Bob suppressed the embarrassment he felt at the situation. Here he was lying naked, waiting for an attractive young lady (she looked young, anyhow) to give him the pill that would put him to sleep. Of course at the moment every other passenger was naked in his or her cocoon too. Not like he was the only one feeling embarrassed.
The pretty lady wasn’t wearing much, either. Her uniform was a rather tiny little bikini-like thing, just enough coverage to provide a place for her crew insignia and provide a little modesty. Much more would have been more annoyance than meaningful. After all, she was going too. The crew monitored things for a few hours, and then handed the flight over to the ship’s AIs. In a few hours, she would be naked in a cocoon too. His hormones still worked, and the thought of this little lady lying naked on her personal bed actually got things rather stirred up. Nowadays that didn’t happen to him very often.
Once he was down she would close up the cocoon and the cold sleep cycle would start. It was about a week to get to the nearest lightway station along Earth’s orbit and a three-month trip to Callisto, the outermost of the large Galilean satellites of Jupiter. It was a lot more efficient to put everyone in cold sleep than to maintain a waking environment for the passengers and crew.
Even the (human) crew would be down unless there was a dire emergency. The ship’s Artificial Intelligences would be running the show for nearly all of the trip. For the human crew there wasn’t going to be much to do. Why sit around with nothing but games and simulations to occupy the mind and body?
Once he reached Callisto, he had choices to make. The four Galilean satellites of Jupiter each had opportunities for an engineering specialist, as did Titan and some of the other satellites of Saturn. His tentative plan was to spend time on the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn, and then make a decision about next steps. He could come back to the inner Solar System to see what was happening on Venus, go asteroid mining in the Belt, stay where he was near Jupiter or Saturn, or head further out from the Sun. Most of the inhabited spots around Uranus and Neptune, as well as locations in the Kuiper Belt, were small research stations at the moment. He didn’t think he would want to go out that far, but who knew? Maybe something important would happen out there that would make the year-long trip worthwhile.
“Are you ready, sir?” she asked.
Bob nodded. “Ready to go.” She handed him a little cup with the magic pill and a small glass of water. He took the pill and washed it down. “Have a good trip, sir.”
He smiled and lay back. “See you on the other side.”