Read an Excerpt
Chiang Chantao sat in his powerchair, floating high above the flooded city of St. Louis.
“This shouldn’t be happening,” he said, his voice barely more than a pained croak.
“But it is,” said Felicia Ionescu, seemingly standing in midair beside him.
What had once been a thriving city was now a drowned disaster, buildings inundated, highways submerged, even the magnificent Gateway Arch’s foundations awash in several meters of muddy water. Long lines of miserable refugees were plodding away from the city, automobiles, trucks, buses inching along, bumper to bumper, piled high with mattresses, bicycles, clothes washers, sticks of furniture; others were on foot, sloshing stolidly through the rain, the water knee-deep in some places, carrying babies and bundles of whatever they could salvage from their ruined homes.
“Kill the display,” Chiang commanded.
The virtual reality simulation disappeared. Chiang was sitting in his powerchair in the middle of the VR chamber, a wizened, bald, crippled old man connected to the blinking, softly beeping heart pump and artificial lungs and other machinery that kept his emaciated body alive.
Felicia Ionescu was a tall, imposing figure, generously proportioned as an old-time opera diva, and just as imperious. At this moment, though, she did not look haughty or domineering. Despite her name, she looked unutterably sad.
“Demons and devils!” Chiang burst. “All my life we’ve been fighting the sea-level rise. We’ve built dams and levees and pumping systems all over the world! We had things under control! And now this.”
He pointed a wavering clawlike finger at the satellite map of the world that covered one wall of the VR chamber. China’s long rivers were now broad arms of the sea reaching a thousand kilometers inland, drowning villages and whole cities, killing hundreds of thousands, wiping out millions upon millions of hectares of productive farmlands.
Where once the Mississippi River had wound its peaceful way from the northern lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, a great inland sea was spreading, flooding Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, reaching up into Missouri and still growing.
The Nile was inundating Egypt and the Sudan, drowning the Sphinx and lapping against the great pyramids. The swollen Orinoco River and mighty Amazon had virtually split South America into two separate subcontinents. Coastlines around the world were no longer recognizable: the sea was inexorably conquering the land.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Chiang insisted, his voice a painful rasp. “We’ve stopped burning fossil fuels. We’ve removed gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
“Not enough,” said Ionescu, mournfully. Like Chiang, she spoke Mandarin, but with a Romanian accent that was painful to the old man’s ears.
“We’re doing everything we can,” he insisted.
“We started too late. Despite all our efforts, the global climate has tipped into a warm cycle. The Greenland ice cap is melting. So is Antarctica. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it.” She took a breath, then added, “We’re paying for starting too late. We did nothing for more than a century, and now it’s too late to prevent the floods.”
Chiang craned his wattled neck to glare up at her. “And you’re back again to wheedle me into approving a backup mission to Sirius? How many times do I have to tell you it’s impossible?”
Ionescu closed her eyes, then said, as if reciting from rote, “As director of the International Astronautical Authority, it is my duty to remind you once again that the exploration program calls for several backup missions.”
Waving his withered arm toward the satellite imagery again, Chiang demanded, “And what do I tell the people of Chongqing? And St. Louis? And Cairo and São Paulo and all the other cities that have been flooded? How do we feed the refugees? Where do we house them?”
Ionescu said, “We should have launched the first backup mission seventy-five years ago, long before either you or I came into power.”
“Do you know what the Council would do if I recommended we send a backup mission to Sirius?” Chiang screeched. “They’d flay me alive and nail me to the gate of the Forbidden City!”
“I’ve worked all my life to save our world from disaster. I’ve fought my way to chairmanship of the World Council. I’m not going to allow the IAA or any force on Earth to distract me from my purpose.”
“It’s less than two and a half billion kiloyuan for the first backup mission,” Ionescu replied, her voice rising slightly. “We have all the basic facilities in place. We have the organizational infrastructure.”
Chiang took a deep breath, while the life-support equipment on the back of his chair chattered angrily. “It’s not the amount of money, woman, it’s the symbolism. Here we’re struck with the worst disaster since the original greenhouse floods five generations ago, and you want to spend badly needed funds on sending another team of pampered scientists to Sirius! It’s impossible!”
Working hard to control her own volatile temper, Ionescu said, “The first team should have reached Sirius by now. They’re only twelve people—”
“If they need help let them ask for it.”
“Their messages take more than eight years to get here. They’re effectively alone, isolated.”
“Your predecessors knew that when they sent them, didn’t they?”
“Yes, of course, but our original program plan called for a backup mission. Several of them, in fact.”
“Those plans are canceled,” Chiang snapped. “They’re underwater. Drowned. Just like the village of my birth.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way,” Ionescu said, almost pleading. “Twelve people, alone out there…”
“They’re going to have to make the best of it,” Chiang said. “Just as we are.”
Ionescu turned from Chiang’s age-ravaged, angry face and stared at the wall-sized satellite display. But in her mind’s eye she saw the starship taking up its preplanned orbit around the planet Sirius C. New Earth.
Copyright © 2013 by Ben Bova