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A Thought Experiment

Wiatt P Kirch received his Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Florida in 2013. He now works as a research and development engineer for a well-known semiconductor company. When he isn't working, or writing science fiction, Kirch enjoys hiking, backpacking, and wine tasting around the Pacific Northwest with his wife. His debut novel, a Hard SF / Cyberpunk mashup, called Reformat (ISBN 9781732898912), is available in print and on Amazon Kindle.

Were it not for the swearing roboticist, incessantly trying to ping the ship's computer, the hydroponic garden would have been Bruce's favorite place to work. Her angry cursing made work impossible, so he sighed instead, looking up from his future students' curriculum and letting his tablet float away from his lap. The teacher turned to stare out of the viewport, next to him, and into the pinprick emptiness of deep space beyond. The ship's pilot had said they still were about a month away from their destination, but he could see it easily now; a yellow faux-star far brighter than the stars surrounding it.
His sigh became a shudder. Whenever he stopped working, Lei returned. Sometimes he remembered coffee with her out on the patio; the sunny days and bluebirds singing. Other times, he remembered them making love, or the smile on her face when she'd walked down the aisle. This time, he remembered their last road trip together.
It had been Lei's way of saying sorry. She'd been exhausted from working long days and long nights for three months straight. Bruce hardly ever saw her, and he was certain she was having an affair. She'd said she wasn't, so he'd asked her what it was that she was doing that was so important, that needed so much of the time she owed him.
She couldn't tell him, of course. That was part of the job.
They hadn't spoken for the first half of the apology drive to a hotel on the coast. Roaring tires on asphalt was the only noise that played over the deafening silence of two people who'd grown into near strangers. Lei looked over at him with a funny sort of crooked smile.
"I have a thought experiment for you."
Bruce remembered grunting. "Yeah? What is it?"
"Let's say you have two years to train and send eight people into space. Their job is to start a colony, but it's a one-way trip and no one else is coming afterwards. Who do you send?"
"Weird thought experiment."
"Yeah, I know."
"Why can't they be resupplied?"
She shrugged. "It's a long way from home, maybe? Maybe everyone back home is dead from an asteroid impact or something?" Lei paused for a moment, as though she was considering something that she'd just said, and her smile disappeared. "Yeah. Let's just assume everyone back home is dead."
"Why only eight people?"
"That's all you can get into orbit. It's a one-shot deal."
Bruce folded his arms and watched the car driving itself. "I don't know how you pull that off with just eight people. You need a pilot, obviously. You're probably going to need an aerospace engineer, a mechanic, and an electrician just to keep things from breaking down in-flight." Bruce bit his lip as he thought. "You'll need a farmer to figure out how to grow food in space and wherever it is you're going. I'm guessing you're going to have to build everything on-planet when you get there too, aren't you?"
Lei nodded.
"You'll need robots, so you'll need a roboticist." Bruce remembered his thoughts drifting back to grad school, when he was still a biologist and not a teacher. "Eight people isn't going to work, long term, no matter what you do. You need at least a few hundred breeding pairs to create a genetically stable population."
"Let's assume you're bringing your breeding population with you. Remember those MIT scientists who figured out how to grow a fetus outside the womb?"
"So you freeze pack your population and take it with?"
Lei nodded. "Breed it when you get there."
"You'll need a doctor."
Lei shook her head. "No you don't. We have robots that can handle first aid, basic infectious diseases, even surgery without human intervention. What do you think people could run into on a dead planet?"
"I'm not talking about a general practitioner. You need a fertility doctor; an expert in fetal viability and artificial insemination and stuff like that." Bruce remembered Lei nodding, far too thoughtfully. "All right, I have a thought experiment for you, now."
"Yeah? What is it?" Lei asked.
"Where do you send these people? Mars?"
Lei rolled her eyes. "Come on, Bruce. Don't be so pedestrian. People didn't evolve to live in one third Earth gravity. You'll have all sorts of health problems, never mind the radiation."
Bruce shrugged. "Okay. So where, then?"
"Almost the same gravity as here and the atmosphere is thick."
"Oh, so people evolved to live in a cloud of sulfuric acid?"
Lei smiled, suddenly seeming very proud of her own ingenuity. "Don't need to if they live more than 30 kilometers up, and there's plenty of carbon dioxide to convert back to breathable air. They could live in a big, hot Venus-air balloon."
Bruce remembered awkward wordlessness returning to their road trip. He realizing that their thought experiment wasn't just a thought experiment. Lei broke the resulting silence. "That makes seven, right?"
"So, who's your last crewmember? A physicist?"
Bruce laughed. "Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you? What's a physicist going to do when they get to Venus, build a particle accelerator?"
Lei looked disappointed. "Okay, who?"
Bruce bit his lip again. "You have a colony of five hundred children and eight nerdy adults. You can't have computers raising them, or you'll end up with five hundred sociopaths. " He put his hands behind his head and leaned back, self-satisfied. "You need a teacher."
Lei's lips had smiled, but her eyes didn't smile with them. At the time, Bruce hadn't understood why. When she responded, her voice was barely a whisper. "Yes. You would, wouldn't you?"
Back in deep space, Bruce blinked away tears, watching them form perfect little saltwater planets in the null gravity. If only Lei could have seen that far-off, yellow unstar before she'd saved him. She would have been so proud of herself. This had been her idea, after all.
Well, most of it, anyway.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 13th, 2020

Author Comments

I got the idea for this story from my wife, whose lucid dream about impending planetary destruction led to a car-ride conversation not unlike the one depicted above.

- Wiatt P Kirch
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