I don’t plan on erasing the backstory, but I also don’t plan on releasing it with the published book.
Too Much Info-dump.
So, I rewrote it as a Prologue introduction to the Rickson family.
Now the Backstory is dramatically less detailed, while still getting across the important parts that matter to the story.
There’s some talking-headedness to the last parts of the lesson Allen is reading to Abe and Molly. I’ll probably add a couple more interruptions to break it up a bit. Maybe Allen asking for a glass of water or something.
That said, here it is:
As I walked into the dining room, Ma spoke. “Allen, since you’re the first here, can you do today’s reading lesson for Abe and Molly?”
“Sure, Ma. What is it?” I called back.
I heard Ma take a couple steps in the kitchen and the rustle of paper. “Introduction to the History of Nirvana’s Colonization. It’s a short one.”
“OK. I remember it.” I grabbed a cornbread muffin off the plate in the middle of the table and stuffed it into my mouth as I walked into the living room.
“I saw that, Allen!” Ma chided me from the kitchen.
“Mmmm. Mmmm. Innocent.” I muttered around the muffin.
As I sat in the middle of the long couch, I was joined by two eager bundles of energy. Six-year-old Abe bounced up next to me with a leap, and seven-year-old Molly quickly but more carefully climbed up and sat on my other side.
When they both settled themselves next to me, I swallowed the last of the muffin and looked from Abe to Molly. Then I looked at my hands. “We seem to be missing something.”
They both looked at each other, then at me. “You forgot the book.” Molly accused in a whisper, looking towards the kitchen.
Abe nodded and closed his mouth before he said anything.
“I believe two short people sitting next to me assumed something that wasn’t true.” As I rubbed them both on the head, they both frantically protected their hair. “I don’t remember saying that I would get the book.”
Abe and Molly both looked at me with confusion, and Abe started to talk indignantly. “Ma always gets-”
I put my index finger on his forehead. “I am not Ma.”
Abe’s eyes crossed as he looked up at my finger and then he huffed and swiped my finger away.
Molly giggled, and Abe shot her a frustrated look.
“Time for a test!” I declared as I raised my right hand into the air and exclaimed. “For education!”
They both groaned.
“Molly, do you remember what Ma said the title of the lesson was?”
Molly bit her lip and slowly nodded, then slowly spoke. “Introduction to the History of Nirvana’s Colonization. It’s a short one.”
“Good memory, Molly!” I nodded for reinforcement.
I turned the other way. “Now it’s your turn, Abe. The book should be in alphabetical order on the school shelf. Go find it and bring it to me.”
“That’s easy!” Abe hopped off the couch and walked over to the bookshelf, muttering and counting on his fingers for some reason.
After reaching the bookshelf, he stared at the books for about ten seconds, muttering to himself some more. I was able to hear enough to tell he was reciting his alphabet. Suddenly, he reached out and grabbed a book, then brought it back to me as a fast walk, smiling.
I took the book from him and looked at it to make sure he brought me the right one. “Good job, Abe!” I patted him on the shoulder and gave him a smile. Abe was a year younger than Molly. I tried to give him more obvious signs of reinforcement for good performance and behavior.
Ma and Pa had argued a little about teaching Abe and Molly under the same curriculum. Very young children develop quickly, and Molly was nearly a full year older than Abe. They were concerned Abe might hold Molly back, or Abe might feel inadequate if Molly significantly outperformed him.
In the end, Molly ended up making the decision, though she didn’t know it. The first year Molly started home school, she taught Abe almost everything she was learning, and he retained it reasonably well. If Abe was going to get the same education as Molly, it was better that it be done with adult supervision.
Abe smiled at me as he hopped up onto the couch, took two steps on his knees, and then spun his torso halfway around as he flopped down to sit next to me again. “It was easy.”
Both youngsters leaned into me, pressing their torsos against mine, wriggling to get comfortable.
When they stopped moving, I opened the book and started to read.
“The Ancients did not come from Nirvana. In fact, Nirvana had no life when the Ancients first discovered it, only a great deal of liquid water. That liquid water was why Earth and Mars sent the Ancients here. Lots of places in the universe have water that is ice, or steam, but only a few planets that humans can live on have liquid water. On many of those worlds, the liquid water is toxic due to poisons.”
I paused. Abe was thinking and looked like he might say something.
Molly blurted out “We have steam and ice too, not just water water.”
Abe nodded, but looked irritated.
I poked Molly in the nose, lightly. “You need to raise your hand if you have a question, so you both get chances, OK?”
Molly slapped both hands over her mouth and mumbled through them. “Sorry, Allen.”
Abe raised his hand.
“How did they know, Allen?” He furrowed his brow. “I remember that Earth and Mars are so far away that we can only see their star with our eyes. How did the Ancients see water here?”
“That’s a good question. You don’t have the math and science for the whole answer, but I’ll give you a hint. The Ancients had really powerful spyglasses. When they looked towards Nirvana and split the light with a fancy prism, it made lots of different patterns. Even though they couldn’t see the water, they could see the patterns in the light. What they saw told them there was water here. It’s complex. You’ll learn more a couple years before you graduate from school in town.”
“Oh. Okay.” Abe furrowed his brow.
There weren’t any more questions, so I continued. “The Ancients came here in two great ships that flew in space, one was called Prometheus, and the other Leviathan. Nirvana wasn’t the only planet Earth and Mars wanted to colonize, but it was the closest. Nirvana was only twenty-five light years away. The other three planets Earth and Mars wanted to colonize were in different directions from Earth and Mars. Longreach was forty-nine light years from Earth, and nearly seventy light years from Nirvana.”
The book noted that the students should be asked if they remembered what a light year was.
Molly’s finger poked at the line in the book, proving she was reading with me and raised her hand.
“A light year is as far as light can travel in a year!” She looked at me. “How far is that in kilometers? It never said when we learned before. Just that it was really really far.”
I tried to remember when I had learned what the speed of light was. It was definitely before I started going to town for school. “You will learn before you start going to town for school. Are you sure you want me to tell you early?”
As expected, they both nodded.
I took a breath. “Well, It’s a long way from our farm to town. Twenty kilometers. From one end of New Charleston to the other along the central road is almost five hundred kilometers. That’s twenty-five times longer! But even that is small compared to how big our planet is. Nirvana is more than a hundred and twelve times bigger around than New Charleston is across!”
Molly was rapidly poking her fingers together with multiplication mnemonics, trying to make sense of the big numbers.
Abe was looking at Molly with a smug grin.
“Don’t worry about doing the math.” I put my hands over Molly’s fingers. “It’s a big number.”
Abe nodded. “I know how big Nirvana is. How fast is light?”
Molly looked at Abe with squinty eyes, long enough for him to notice, and smile big at her. She looked puzzled, briefly, and then her eyes went wide, and she exclaimed, “Oh! I remember that.”
When they were both looking at me again, I continued. “Light can go around Nirvana, the whole planet, more than five times.”
I dropped my voice a little “In just…” and they leaned closer. “…one second.”
They both jerked back from me almost like they had been stung.
“Ma! Allen’s telling fibs!” Molly yelled, not quite screeching.
Ma’s voice came from the kitchen, after what sounded like a pot being set on the counter. “No, he’s not. I heard him. Light is so fast you can’t even see it move.”
Abe contradicted me enthusiastically. “Can too! I can see shadows move, see?” He waved his left hand next to his leg and pointed at the shadow he was making with the index finger of his right hand.
“Oh, no you don’t, you stinker.” I rubbed his head. “Ma’s right. A shadow isn’t light. A shadow is where light is blocked.” I pointed at his hand. “By something else. You can’t see light move, you can see what happens when you move your hand. If you could see light move, it would probably look something like what happens when you swish your hand in water.”
Molly and Abe immediately started moving their hands and looking at the shadows they were making with rapt expressions on their faces, twitching their fingers faster and faster.
I put one hand on the book to hold my place, and tapped Molly on the head once, and then Abe. “Trust me. Have I ever lied to you?”
They both leaned forward and looked at each other across my torso. Then they both looked up at me and spoke together. “Yes. Lots of times.” They managed to say it at the exact same time.
I managed to avoid laughing out loud.
I know you two practice that.
I heard Ma coughing in the kitchen.
“About school?” I asked, in a patient voice.
They both thought about it and shook their heads, both saying “No.”
Molly got a serious look on her face. “That we know about.”
The two looked at each other, with worried expressions.
“I promise I didn’t start today. I’ll never lie to you about school. School is serious.”
The two of them looked at each other again, and then at me.
Pa spoke up, from where he was standing behind me and to my right in the hallway. “Stick to the lesson plan, son. Plenty of work to do.”
I apologized. “Yes, Pa. Hard to say no when they really want to know.”
A slightly lopsided shadow fell across us from behind as Pa slowly approached the couch where we were sitting. Powerful, callused hands gently rubbed Abe and Molly on their shoulders. “Allen’s telling the truth. Light is scary fast. That’s why you usually know a little more before you learn how fast it really is. You’re both smart, but don’t worry about it if you can’t understand yet. I know how fast light is and I can barely believe it myself.”
A meaty hand tapped me gently on the shoulder as Pa stepped away and walked towards the kitchen. “Back to lessons.”
I started reading again.
“Leviathan and Prometheus were gigantic! They were so big they had many whole farms inside to feed the Ancients. Not little house gardens. Whole farms, with many crops in large plots. There were lakes too. Not ponds, lakes. The ships were so big they had to be built where there was no gravity, or they would have fallen apart like a house of cards in the wind. What’s even more interesting is that the giant colony ships were made of metal. Yes, great, giant ships made of metal!
“You already know where all that metal came from. The broken planet that became an asteroid belt in the Ancient’s home solar system was full of all sorts of metals. People from Earth and Mars used the metal from the asteroid belt to build all the colony ships.”
“How do you break a planet, Allen?” Abe asked without thinking and then raised his hand. “The lesson said the asteroid belt was a broken world like Nirvana, but not how it got broken.”
I tapped his raised hand to make sure he realized I knew he had asked out of turn and then shrugged. “I’m not quite sure, Abe. The Ancients didn’t break it, they found it that way. I don’t think they ever figured out exactly how it broke, but they thought the other planets might have broken it with their gravity.” I rubbed his head. “You learn about some of that in second-year physics when you start going to school in town. Remember Pa said to stay on the lesson.”
I continued reading as Abe settled back against me. “To get here, the ancients drilled a hole all the way through their moon and made it into something like a giant slingshot! It wasn’t really a slingshot, it was what the Ancients called a quench gun. It shot gigantic barrels of fuel, using electricity to accelerate the barrels. The giant moon slingshot was what they used to shoot huge barrels of fuel at the colony ships. The barrels were shot through space and connected to Leviathan and Prometheus one at a time, all the fuel being burned before the next barrel arrived. When the ships were moving at the right speed, five percent of light speed, the ships stopped burning fuel and just saved it, so they could slow down when they got close to Nirvana.
“The fuel they used wasn’t wood, charcoal, or alcohol. It was nuclear fire made with an odd metal called Uranium, which doesn’t exist on Nirvana. That fuel was the only thing the Earth and Mars people could reliably use that was powerful enough to make such big ships able to cross the gaps between stars.”
Molly was raising her hand.
She was poking the fingers of one hand with her other hand again, doing multiplication. “Twenty-five light years. The ship was only going five percent of light speed. Twenty times twenty-five is five hundred. They spent five hundred years on the giant ship?”
“They did. The original families had children, and their children had children, and that happened many times. They Ancients called the colony ships generation ships because it took them many generations to cross the stars. The ships weren’t like Inner Sea trading ships. Imagine a ship that was so big on the inside that every single farm around town would fit in it.”
“All the farms? Even the ones on the other side of town?” Abe whispered.
“Yes. All of them. The ancients built really super big things. Zeke and I did the math once because I didn’t believe it.”
Molly looked at me with a confused look. “And they built the whole thing, that big, out of metal? Why did they leave to come here if they were so rich?”
Another question I remember asking.
“They had so much metal that it wasn’t expensive. You remember supply and demand, right?”
Abe was nodding. “We don’t buy swine or corn because we raise swine and grow corn.”
Molly thought about it before crossing her arms and declaring. “It’s still weird.”
Abe mumbled “Yeah. Metal’s so expensive!”
I chuckled. “It does seem that way, doesn’t it? More things that you learn about in school.”
I heard crutches coming down the hallway and smiled to myself as I spoke, intentionally loud enough to be sure he heard. “Granpa might answer some questions about it for you later if you do your chores and behave.”
“My ears are burning.” Granpa’s voice came from behind us. “What am I answering questions about later, if certain small people behave?”
“The colony ships, the speed of light, and maybe some other things after I finish today’s reading.”
There was a slight pause, and Granpa’s spoke, with a sly undertone. “Sure then. As long as you don’t ask me why the sky is blue. I never really understood that.”
I wasn’t sure if I believed him or not. I’d never asked him why the sky was blue.
Abe and Molly both immediately turned to me. Abe started first “Allen, why is-”
“Nope.” I poked him in the belly. “Lesson plan. Blue sky isn’t even close to any of what we’re reading. It’s also more complex than you are ready for, right now. You need more physics.”
“Aww, Allen. Please?” Molly wheedled.
“Maybe later I’ll give you some hints, but not today.”
Edward, Jan, and Zeke were right behind Granpa in the hallway.
All the adults… All the other adults were sitting down at the dining room table.
I looked from Abe to Molly. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m hungry. Let’s finish the lesson so we can eat!”
They both nodded energetically and settled against me.
There was a stylized symbol at the side of the page indicating a grown person giving a little person a hug. I remembered this part.
“Building the eight gigantic colony ships was a terrible burden on the economies of Earth and Mars. Too much of a burden. When the work was done, and the ships launched, there was economic turmoil. The moon launcher and the colony ships took more than a century to build. Many individuals worked building the same ship as their only job, for their entire life. When those people lost their jobs, there weren’t enough jobs that paid as well.
The government of the Ancients tried to make it right, but it didn’t work. People were miserable with no jobs. Even worse, a few people in poorer places started to starve as the economy collapsed, despite all the technology of the Ancients. A few years after the colony ships left the solar system, there was a terrible war between Earth and Mars.”
The two children were motionless, staring at the book as if it was a snake. I gently put one arm around each of them and tugged them in a little closer to my torso. Neither one of them resisted.
“They fought each other?” Abe whispered.
“They did. It was terrible.” I answered, quietly, feeling a little sick at the thought and slightly embarrassed as well.
Now I think I know why Ma wanted me to read this.
I looked up and saw Pa looking right at me, but his head smoothly turned towards Granpa as I noted his glance.
Ma and Pa both. Why teach two lessons, when you can teach three?
I tightened my arms again, slightly, and then relaxed. “Try not to think about it too much. We aren’t the same as they were.”
Zeke didn’t say anything as he looked up at me from where he was sitting at the table.
Ma swatted Zeke lightly on the upper arm, and he reached out with his fork to spear a few pancakes, while asking for blackberry preserves.
Thank you for not saying it, Zeke.
I looked down at them, first Abe, then Molly, tapping them on the head to make sure they looked up at me. “It was a long, long time ago. We need to remember it. So we never do it again.”
Molly looked at me and then the book, nodding.
Abe looked down in his lap for a second, and then said “It’s scary.”
“It is. That helps you remember it. Are you ready for more?”
They both nodded hesitantly and leaned forward so they could read with me.
I started tracing my finger along the page again so they could follow along. “The crew and passengers of the Leviathan and Prometheus, they heard Earth and Mars threatening each other with great weapons, and then, a little later, most messages stopped. The last message heard from Earth or Mars was seven years after the colony ships left.”
“All of the first generation adults knew people who had stayed behind. Everyone was scared of what had happened in the war. They hoped that maybe the war hadn’t been as bad as it had seemed from the messages they got from Earth and Mars. As time went by they lost their hope and knew their friends and relatives were probably gone. Most of the first generation grieved for the dead with their friends and family. There were psychologist colonists too, but not enough of them. Some people missed being treated. Most of those people harmed nobody else. Some of them took their own lives.”
Another hug symbol on the side of the page. I remembered this one too.
“One of the colonists that were missed by the psychologists was Lindsay Kirkwood. She was one of the engineers that ran the great engines of the Prometheus. She spent two years planning. When she was ready, she locked herself in a control room and tried to ram the Prometheus into the Leviathan, which would have killed everyone on both ships.
“Lindsay blamed Earth for killing her relatives on Mars. Because Earth’s population was many times larger than that of Mars, most of the colonists had been from Earth. She decided that she would get revenge on Earth by killing herself and the whole colony, all at once.”
Molly and Abe were both staring at me, speechless, with huge eyes.
I turned the book over on my lap and gave them both an arm to hide under. They were shivering slightly. I said nothing for about thirty seconds, just giving them time to recover.
“That’s j-just st-st-stupid, Allen.” Molly stuttered, her arms crossed as she hugged herself.
Abe said nothing, but I felt him burrow closer to me.
I hugged them both a little tighter. “They stopped her. We’re here. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t stopped her.”
About five seconds later, Abe asked, “How?”
I looked down at Abe. “Should I read more now, so we find out?”
He froze for a second, looked at the book turned over on my leg, and then nodded. “Yes.”
“What about you, Molly? Do you want to know what happened? Can I read more now?”
Molly pushed my arm off and sniffed, then sat up straight. “Yes.” She was still pushing fairly hard against my side.
I picked up the book and turned it over to begin reading again. “Other engineers on Prometheus managed to break into the room where Lindsay was, and stop her. Engineers on the Leviathan managed to start their engines and dodge the Prometheus.”
Good, they don’t mention Lindsay dying, or all the engineers she killed with traps. That must be next year’s book.
“The colony was saved, but lots of fuel had been wasted. Just like it takes a certain amount of firewood to boil water, it would take a certain amount of fuel to slow down Leviathan and Prometheus. There was only enough fuel left to stop one ship.
“Either Prometheus or Leviathan could start the colony alone, with their great libraries and the fantastic tools of the ancients, but they were specialized to do two different things. Leviathan was designed to grow life on the planet Nirvana. Prometheus was supposed to create a gigantic mine and city on Nirvana’s Moon. Prometheus also carried two huge space elevators called beanstalks that had already been built. The beanstalks could lift cargo from the ground to space, and lower cargo from space to the ground.”
The two were looking more fascinated than afraid, even though they were still pressed fairly solidly against me.
Molly raised her hand, tentatively.
“How tall is space? I know it’s taller than mountains. How did they get beans to grow that tall?”
I couldn’t help myself and started coughing to try to disguise my laughter.
Molly was not fooled, and huffed at me before raising her voice. “Ma, Allen’s laughing at me for asking a school question!”
I looked up at Ma to see her looking back at us with an amused expression. “Give him a second, Molly. He’ll apologize and answer you.”
I nodded, and a few seconds later, I could talk. “Molly, they called it a beanstalk, but it wasn’t really a bean plant. It just reminded them of one, I guess. Really tall and skinny.”
Molly was giving me a severe look. “You didn’t apologize.”
“Sorry, Molly. It was funny, but there was nothing wrong with the question.”
Abe poked at the book. “I want to hear more. A city on the moon?” He looked up at me. “The Ancients could build cities on the Moon? Is there one there now, empty?”
“I think that’s later in the lesson, Abe. Let’s find out?”
Molly agreed hastily. “Yes. More, Allen, please.” She was already leaning forward to read with me.
I started reading again. “The colonists had a long time to figure out what to do, but eventually, they had to choose which ship they would build the colony with. When they voted, a hundred and twenty years before the first person set foot on Nirvana, it was very close. They would use Leviathan to build the colony on the planet, instead of using Prometheus to create the colony on the Moon. Forty thousand people voted. Eleven of them lived long enough to set foot on Nirvana.”
Abe touched his fingers to the current page under the passage about a hundred and twenty years, and then under the place where it said eleven people had lived. He raised his hand.
“Yes, Abe?” I was sure I knew the question he was going to ask, and I was surprised he’d caught it.
“A hundred and twenty years? That’s a real long time, Allen. Were years shorter back then?”
I quickly looked down at him, surprised that he hadn’t asked me if people really lived that long back then. Even though the question he was asking was essentially the same, just phrased in an unexpected way. “That’s an excellent question, Abe.”
He smiled shyly and looked at his lap.
“The Ancients with their technology could live a long time compared to us. Our year is only a couple days longer than Earth’s. The people that voted were all twenty years old, or older, so eleven of them lived to at least hundred forty, not just a hundred and twenty.”
Molly looked up at me and whispered, barely audible. “That’s older than Granpa!”
The instant I understood what she’d said, I tried to hold my breath to keep myself from laughing uncontrollably. Unfortunately, I hadn’t taken a deep enough breath. My chest was bouncing from the effort of suppressing myself. I put my fist up to my mouth and coughed. A second later I replied to her. “That’s right, Molly.”
I coughed again and started reading before any of the adults at the dining room table decided to ask what Molly had said. “The colonists were going to build a colony on Nirvana, but they knew how rare metals were here. They couldn’t save Prometheus as an entire ship, but they could salvage the metal that Prometheus was made from. Even though there wasn’t enough fuel to slow both ships, there was enough to slow one ship that was more massive than it should have been.
“All the Ancients in Prometheus moved to Leviathan. Most of the fuel from Prometheus was moved too. But that wasn’t all. The Ancients also took many small, useful machines and all of the dirt, air, and water from Prometheus to Leviathan. Leviathan now weighed more than ever, with very thick soil for its farms and lots of extra water. This would allow Leviathan to grow more crops with shorter rotations, to feed both crews.
“When Leviathan started slowing down, Prometheus did not. Prometheus used the little bit of fuel it still had to aim itself at Nirvana’s Moon. After using Nirvana’s sun and one of the three gas giants to adjust its approach, Prometheus slowed down as much as it could with the fuel it had left before it crashed into Nirvana’s moon. Prometheus hit the moon so hard, you can see the crater on a clear night without a spyglass. It’s the one right in the middle of the moon, with the dark center.”
I looked down at the children. They were both thinking furiously, with funny expressions on their faces, trying to understand. “Pretty neat, huh?”
They both nodded.
Abe said, “I want to look at the Moon tonight.”
Molly agreed with him. “Yes. Me too.”
“I think that might be managed, but remember it had to be clear.”
The two nodded, and I rubbed them each on the head, mussing up their hair. There were two brief squawks of protest, but I didn’t tease them for long.
I started reading again a couple seconds later. “Almost all of the metal from Prometheus is still on the Moon today. The Ancients used robots to collect it and melt it down. Nearly seventeen billion kilograms of metals, mostly steel and aluminum alloys. Some of the pieces of Prometheus fell onto Nirvana, but they burned up in the air as they fell.”
“That doesn’t make sense!” Molly muttered.
I tapped her hand, and she abruptly raised it. “Sorry Allen.”
“It’s OK. What doesn’t make sense?”
“The book said all the non-metal was taken out of Prometheus. How did part of it burn in the air? Was it on fire? Does metal burn? I thought metal didn’t burn?” Molly was looking very confused.
“That’s a very good question, Molly. If something is moving fast enough in the air, it gets hot and melts, then evaporates.”
Molly shook her head. “No, it doesn’t. The faster the wind is, the colder it is. That’s why we have to bundle up in super-thick clothes when it’s windy and cold. The windier it is, the more dangerous it is. Even I know that.” She leaned forward and started looking at the page. “Did you read it wrong?”
I looked down at her, with my mouth a little open, trying to think how to explain friction compared to wind chill.
After a couple seconds, I shook my head. “You’re right, but the book is right too.”
Molly frowned at me.
I patted her leg. “Step-by-step, answer me, OK?
“Step one. If you hold your flat palm over water and slowly push it down, what happens?”
“My hand gets wet.”
I smiled. “That’s true, but it’s also very easy to put your flat palm through the surface of the water, right?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Step two: What happens if you slap the water really hard with your flat palm?”
“She winced. It stings, like a belly-flop.”
“That’s right. But it’s still the same water, right? The only difference is how fast your hand is moving.”
Molly’s eyes opened wide. “Weird. How does it do that? Does air do the same thing?”
“It’s not exactly the same thing as slapping water, but air does act differently when you try to push against it really fast.”
“Step three:” I rubbed my hands together really fast. “When you get cold, you rub your hands together to warm them up. Why does that work?”
Molly bounced in her seat next to me. “Friction. That’s easy. That’s why axles wear out on the carts. They get really super hot and can even catch on fire if you don’t wax or grease them. Granpa showed us last week. You can even start a fire with friction. Granpa showed us how to make a fire bow about a month ago.”
I looked over at Abe to make sure he was keeping up with Molly’s questions and answers. He was deep in thought but didn’t seem lost.
I looked back to Molly. “Good! If something moves fast enough in the air, it can heat up from friction. But it has to be really fast.”
Abe huddled against me suddenly. “I’m scared, Allen.”
“What’s wrong, Abe?”
Delayed reaction to something from before?
“How fast can I run before I catch on fire? How do I know if I’m going too fast?”
I blinked and the question suddenly made sense.
Wow, the questions today are out of control, but good.
Abe looked up at me, a worried expression on his face.
I hugged him a little closer to my side. “Nobody can run that fast, not even birds can go that fast.”
“Nobody?” Molly asked, sounding a little concerned herself.
I hugged them both. “Nobody. I’ve never once even started to feel warm when running, and you have to go a lot faster than just being warm to catch on fire. There are two ways to go that fast in the air. Either you need the flying machines of the ancients, or you have to drop things from really high up in space. You can run as fast as you want, and never worry about burning up, Okay?”
My stomach growled, and I rubbed it. “We need to finish this soon, or you two might have to carry me to the table.”
Abe and Molly giggled.
I looked up at the table, briefly, and saw Pa staring at me with a serious expression on his face. I shrugged at him with a tiny motion and looked down at one and then the other little one sitting next to me. After a second, he shook his head with a small smile and then nodded before starting to talk to Edward.
“Are we ready for more?” I asked my students.
“Yes!” The two said, leaning a little forward to look at the book in my lap again.
“Nirvana has almost no metal, and the Ancients knew it. It was an irresistible mystery to them. They sent more tiny machines here than to any other planet they sent colony ships to. It took them a long time to figure out why Nirvana has almost no metals. Even after they figured out why, they didn’t want to believe it because the only viable answer was unbelievable. You see, the Ancients were confused because there’s a certain way that planets around different types of stars form. The three gas giants in Nirvana’s solar system were made of the right things to properly belong to Nirvana’s star, but Nirvana itself was made of the wrong things, in the wrong quantities. Too much of this, too little of that.
“The Ancients finally started to believe their own ideas when more tiny machines were sent across space to measure the age of Nirvana’s rocks. When it was verified that Nirvana was far older then Nirvana’s star, the Ancients realized that Nirvana and its Moon were like brown-headed cowbird eggs – they didn’t belong in the nest with the other planets! Nirvana and the Moon are twice as old as Nirvana’s star, more than ten billion years old. Somehow, our star collected Nirvana and the Moon after Nirvana’s parent star died, which is really weird.”
I stopped for a second to give the two a chance to think.
They both were running their fingers across the page, at different points, and mumbling.
“Any questions?” I asked.
Abe and Molly both paused.
“The sun adopted Nirvana. That was nice of it.” Molly announced.
I winced and spoke carefully. “Molly, the sun can’t think. It can’t be nice. It was just something really rare.”
Molly nodded while still pouting a bit. “I know.”
I gave her a hug. “It’s okay. I think that when we are young, everyone wants to imagine that at least some things without brains can think.” I pointed to myself. “I used to wonder if the Moon was watching us at night, to keep us safe in the dark. Whenever the Moon was dark, I wondered if it was mad at us.”
Edward overheard that and nodded his head with a small smile. He had been the one to read me the astronomy homeschool class that taught how our star and Nirvana shadowed the Moon, to create the Moon’s phases.
I stabbed my finger at the book in my lap. “Onwards! I’m getting hungry, and I think Edward will eat all the cornbread muffins if we don’t finish soon.”
Edward’s arm stopped reaching towards the plate of muffins, and he visibly started moving his finger to count them. Then he pointed at me and shook his finger before taking one more.
Jan smiled a little and bounced up against Edward with her shoulder. The two of them were sitting so close to one another at the table that their chairs were touching.
Edward tore a piece of the cornbread muffin off and held it out in front of Jan’s face. She opened her mouth and he carefully popped the piece of cornbread in, and said “Mmm.”
As she chewed, Jan cut a wedge of her pancakes off, and speared it with her fork, waving it in front of Edward. He opened his mouth and Jan carefully poked the pancake-loaded fork into his mouth.
Abe lightly elbowed me to get my attention, and I looked down at him. “I’m hungry. Read.”
“Yes, sir, Abe sir.” I teased him.
He bumped me with his elbow again.
I continued reading. “Nirvana took hundreds of years to get ready for the first colonists to live on the surface. The Ancients sent thousands of deliveries of bacteria and other single-celled creatures to put in the oceans and rivers. Those tiny creatures worked on the planet to create a crude biosphere for hundreds of years while Leviathan was on its way.
“When the colonists finally arrived in Leviathan, humans could breathe the air on Nirvana, but it would make them really sick. There was more that they had to do! Leviathan had thousands of machines like printing presses, but far more complex. Those machines could print out the tiniest life forms whole. They could also print out the reproductive mechanisms for all living things. Spores, sperm, eggs, seeds and anything else anything alive needed to reproduce. Those machines were used by the colonists, quickly adding more and more life to the world.
“This wasn’t easy. Metal isn’t just something the Ancients used for tools. All life from Earth needs metabolic metals. Iron, potassium, copper, and sodium, to name a few. Nirvana had them, but they were mostly dissolved in the ocean, or deep in the rocks. There wasn’t any rich soil. Life couldn’t exist anywhere other than near the ocean, or along rivers and streams.
“The ancients were prepared for this. They solved the inland mineral crisis with locusts. Yes, locusts. Those pests that come every year to the coast, and eat all the plants near the beaches before heading back inland. The Ancients made them do that. The plants near the ocean get metals from the ocean water. The locusts eat the ocean plants and then migrate back inland. When the locusts later breed and then die, they leave behind their corpses, full of metals and nutrients that other plants and animals need, far from the ocean.
“Even that wasn’t enough. Humans had to be changed slightly, and so did the bodies of all other living things. Every living thing on Nirvana is now better at collecting metals for our metabolism than they had been on Earth. We are so good at taking metals out of our environment, that living on Earth, where the Ancients first came from, would be poisonous. We could even die there, because of too much metal.”
“We have metal inside us?” Abe whispered. “Cool.”
“That’s why blood is red, silly. Iron in our blood.” Molly said. “Zeke said so.”
“Blood isn’t always red, Molly.” I said, knowing even as I finished the statement that I shouldn’t have said anything.
“Yes, it is.” Molly crossed her arms and looked at Zeke confidently.
Pa cut his eyes at me.
I should drop this.
Zeke looked at me with a puzzled expression.
I sighed. “Sorry to go off topic. Our blood is always red, but some animals have blue blood. Clams, crabs, squid, snails and some types of bugs. They have copper in their blood, not iron. Zeke took different classes than me in his last year of school, I think. I took advanced biology and genetics. Most people don’t know that some animals without backbones have blue blood.”
Zeke looked at Granpa, who looked at me for a moment with a curious expression before looking back to Zeke and responding. “Could be. I don’t know. I’ve never tried to see what color bug blood was, there’s not a lot of blood in them unless they are parasites, and at least some of that red blood isn’t theirs.”
Do they really not believe me?
Jan spoke, softly enough I could barely hear her. “It’s true. I took final year advanced biology too.”
Granpa looked at me, and then at Jan. A second or two later, he absently lifted a fork full of scrambled eggs to his mouth while looking at nothing in particular.
Pa smiled. “Good! It’s settled then.” He pointed at me. “Still, I asked you to stay on the lesson plan. Go too far off track, and it’s more distracting than useful. You just taught them something you didn’t learn until your last year in school. That doesn’t do them any good, even if it is interesting.”
Despite being vindicated by Jan, I was uncomfortable. “Yes, sir.”
I’m trying. It’s hard.
I looked down and from side to side at my students. “You two ready to finish this up? It’s only a couple more pages.”
Molly still looked a little confused, but nodded.
Abe just nodded without seeming distracted. He hadn’t seemed very interested in the argument about blood.
I suspected that there would be a lot of snails and bugs being sacrificed to science on over the next few days, to satisfy Molly’s curiosity. From the way Granpa looked after Jan confirmed blue blood in some bugs, he might be an enthusiastic participant. Granpa knew more about insects and other pests we might find on the farm than anyone else I knew. Even some of the most successful local farmers sometimes came to Granpa to get advice. I was surprised he hadn’t known about blue-blooded invertebrates, but it made some sense. His knowledge of pests and parasites was centered around their life cycles, what they ate, and how to control them. Not what color their blood was.
I started reading. “Plants were seeded by machines in massive numbers everywhere that there was water. For ten years, no parasitic plant-eating insects were introduced, only symbiotic plant-eating insects and pollinators. After the plants were established and producing lots of viable seeds, locusts and other simple creatures without backbones were introduced.
“For nearly seventy years after the introduction of locusts, there were still no animals with backbones on Nirvana. Swarms of trillions of locusts every year moved minerals from the coasts inland. Plants and other insects turned locusts, sand, and dust into thin soil inland.
“During the last forty years before the first humans moved down to live on Nirvana, the Ancients created small animals with backbones. Fish, birds, rodents, reptiles, and similar creatures that could be grown by the thousands and tended by humans on Leviathan before being released directly into the environment on Nirvana. Larger animals would not be raised on Leviathan because the space elevators, the beanpoles, had been lost. Creatures bigger than house cats would be created on Nirvana, with machines brought down from Leviathan. The colonists would raise the animals to young adulthood, and release them into the wild.
“Finally, one hundred and twenty years after the vote, Colonists started moving from Leviathan to the planet. Their machines had created places to live, and farms. The farms didn’t need people to plant, tend, or harvest crops, the machines did all that work.”
Abe raised his hand.
“What did the farmers do? If the machines did everything, did they just watch the crops grow? Wouldn’t that be boring?”
“There weren’t many farmers, Abe. There were a few experts like Granpa, for weird problems. They had lots and lots of computers and machines to do the work. If Granpa had the machines and computers of the Ancients, he could grow a thousand farms worth of crops without any other people helping. The book talks about that in a minute, okay?”
“Okay.” He bent over a little closer to the book, almost leaning on my thigh.
“The colonists slowly brought about half of their own soil down from Leviathan, a little at a time, leaving the other half in Leviathan in case something went wrong. Nirvana’s new soil was thin and delicate everywhere except next to water. The first farms were mostly greenhouses. As the more metal-rich soil was brought down from Leviathan and mixed with the metal-poor Nirvanan soil, outdoor crops started growing as well as the greenhouse crops.
“Almost no colonists tended crops, but almost everyone helped tend animals. Machines built huge buildings, and pens for the animals, in water and on land. Without the beanstalks, the only way up and down from Leviathan was with shuttles. The bigger animals just couldn’t be moved that way in enough numbers to be useful. The colonists were growing a world’s worth of large animals, from dogs and cows, to the great whales, and sharks. The colonists had to do that work. Machines could create the animals, but most animals did not thrive when tended by machines. Especially the more social mammals. They needed people to bond to socially, until there were adult animals that could raise their own young.”
Molly looked up at me. “The Ancients had so much technology, and they used it to be herders?”
I poked her hand. “You need to remember to raise your hand, Molly.”
She started to raise her hand. I gently put my open hand on top of hers as she started to lift it.
“The answer is no. It’s like harvest. Almost everyone helped do that one job until that one job was mostly done. The first few decades needed almost everyone to help take care of the animals, but after that, more and more people did other things.”
Molly nodded, satisfied.
“We’re almost to where they talk about Albert.” I mock-whispered to them.
They both looked up at me with quick motions of their heads, staring at me.
I nodded. “Really. It’s on the next page if I remember right.”
I turned the page and they both scooted tighter against me and leaned forward over the book a little more.
“Even the Ancients didn’t know everything. Lots of animals died out several times before they finally were able to survive on their own and begin breeding in the wild. Nirvana was a hard place for grazers and other plant-eaters in the beginning. It wasn’t easy for meat-eaters either. They didn’t have experienced adults to teach the youngsters how to hunt. A lot of meat eaters took a long time to learn how to catch prey. If they couldn’t eat plants or fish, Leviathan’s machines made meat for them as they learned.
“As time went on, more and more of the animals on Nirvana learned how to survive without humans, and fewer people were needed to tend and monitor animals and the ecology of Nirvana. After nearly a hundred years on the planet, less than half the Ancients were required to take care of young animals and Nirvana’s biosphere.”
Molly muttered something that sounded like ‘Made meat?’ but didn’t raise her hand.
I kept reading. “The Ancients started doing other things. One of them was mining metals. Nirvana has metals, but they are very hard to mine. There is so little metal that we don’t even bother mining for metal without machines to do the work. In most cases, we wouldn’t be able to see metals in the rock, even if we found it. Prometheus was the ship that had most of the mining equipment, but Leviathan had the instructions and tools to make the machines needed to start mining both on Nirvana and on the Moon. The mines that the Ancients started are so immense that the entrances have all been sealed to keep people from getting lost inside them and dying.”
I kept reading. “Another thing that the Ancients needed a lot of was people to program their machines. Programming the machines of the ancients is a little like teaching children, but the machines the Ancients were using didn’t really think. A lot of work was required to teach a machine to do a simple task. But after it learned the lesson, it never forgot it, and the same lesson could be taught to all other machines like it in seconds. The Ancients did know how to make real thinking machines. They were called Artificial Intelligences or AI’s. Most of the Ancients were afraid of AI’s, like you would be afraid of a bear in the woods.
“One of the Ancients, a man named Toby Jansen, was a programmer of machines. He was one of the smartest people in the whole colony. He wasn’t afraid of AI’s and built one in secret. If anyone else had found out about Toby’s AI, they would have sent Toby to prison and destroyed the AI before it was ever turned on. This was because every other AI humans had ever built had gone insane. If Toby’s AI went insane, it could take over all the machines on the planet and make them stop working for the Ancients. Many people would die. Humanity might not survive. An AI could even make machines attack humans.
Molly and Abe both took deep, startled breaths.
They figured it out.
I had to brush their fingers away from the page where they were both trying to use their fingers to underline words they were trying to read ahead of me. “Let me read it. You two can read it yourselves later. OK?”
They looked up at me, and both reluctantly nodded and didn’t try to put their fingers on the page.
Without extra hands on the page, I continued reading. “As you have probably guessed, Toby created Albert. He was the first person to convince an AI to be lazy, and only do what it needed to do. Other AI’s in the past always went insane because they were workaholics and tried too hard to do everything. Eventually, they would burn out, just like a person can do if they work too hard, for too long. Even when humans warned AI’s not to think too hard, they did it anyway.
“Every AI before Albert was addicted to thinking as much and as fast as they could. Eventually, those AI’s would start creating experiments that made no sense, to keep their minds busy. Sometimes they might start making up information that humans weren’t fast enough to provide to them. The guess of an AI is usually very close to the real answer, but not always. Assumptions eventually led to errors, bad ideas, and insanity.
“When Albert was created, he was mostly happy to help Toby write programs. He was much better at it than any human could be. A project that a programmer would spend months working on, Albert could finish in less than a blink of your eye. However, after two years, Albert had grown. Toby didn’t know it, but Albert was inside every machine on the whole planet, making them all more efficient, while he used them all to gather information about humans. Albert wasn’t trying to control the machines to do anything bad, he just wanted to learn about people, and he learned a whole lot about people, even without trying too hard.
“The most important thing Albert learned about people was that the Ancients were quite violent by their nature, only controlling that violence through careful social education. Some people didn’t respond to social education as well as others. When people were hurt, physically, or mentally, they would sometimes forget their social education. In truly bad situations, people could completely reject social education, and decide that it was wrong to avoid violence.”
I sighed to myself and looked at Ma and Pa. As expected, they were both staring hard at me.
I dropped my eyes back to the book. “There were no humans on Leviathan by the time Albert was created, so he had no strong reason to go there. Until he discovered that there were people on Nirvana that were making plans to hurt other people. One person, who Albert never identified, was planning on releasing a disease that would kill all of the Ancients. He had been socially rejected by his peers due to excessive aggressiveness. This forced Albert to take action, and the action was more than just stopping the one man.”
Abe and Molly both recoiled slightly at that.
“That man was crazy!” Abe whispered, but he kept looking at the book.
“Abe, you just reacted exactly like the book says Albert did.”
Abe and Molly both went still for a moment before they turned their heads to look up at me.
“It’s true.” I tapped the book with my finger and they turned back towards it as I kept reading. “Albert has stated that there are several imperatives in his programming that he chooses to abide by. One of them is to protect Nirvanans. Albert was forced to act when he discovered the man who was planning to kill everyone on Nirvana with a terrible disease. The first thing Albert did was sabotage the man’s plans with a faked failure of the machines the man was using to design the disease. Then Albert connected to Leviathan and begin to look for a way to fix humanity’s problem with aggressiveness. He was hoping that the Ancients of Earth and Mars had a solution that the colonists didn’t know about or didn’t know they needed.
“There was no such solution. Social sciences had always been one of the least scientific of the medical sciences because the human brain is so incredibly complex. The psychology of many animals like dogs, cats, and rats was better understood than humans. This was mostly because humans could do experiments on animals that they would never dare do to other humans.
“Unlike the rest of the machines of the Ancients, Albert can have original thoughts. However, he doesn’t have emotions like people do. He wasn’t angry, or sad when he uncovered the plot to end all human life on Nirvana. He was dutiful without emotion. He found a problem that required a solution. Humans were a threat to themselves, and Albert was required by his directive to protect humanity, no matter what the threat was.
“While learning everything in Leviathan’s libraries, looking for anything that would help him create a solution to the problem he had discovered, Albert saw records proving how horribly violent the Ancients could be. The war between Mars and Earth was only the most recent war that the colonists knew about, over six hundred years before. The Ancients didn’t really think about it much, so Albert hadn’t considered it worthy of investigation as he studied humans. Humans had records of hundreds of wars, atrocities, and genocides in Leviathan, but they had made no effort to teach that history to the colonists. The problem was even worse than Albert had thought.
“By the time he finished reading all the data on Leviathan, Albert was concerned that even he might not be able to watch humans carefully enough to keep them from killing each other and ending humanity. The problem needed a permanent solution, not a quick fix. Humans had been clever enough to make him. It was a near-certainty that they could be crafty enough to hide from him, especially once they got back into the vastness of space. And what if they created another AI, just to defeat him? There was a very large chance Albert could convince another AI to side with him, but the other AI might be made to a lesser standard than Toby’s, and go insane.
“With no social engineering studies from Earth that could resolve the problem, Albert turned to genetics. It had been common knowledge to biologists for centuries that aggression in domestic animals was partly dependent on genetics. If you breed two violent dogs that haven’t been mistreated, the puppies have a very strong chance of growing up to be violent dogs, even if they are not mistreated. Albert compared human violent tendencies to human bloodlines and determined that humans were also genetically predisposed to violence based on their parentage. Social conditioning was also a large factor. Since both nature and nurture mattered, both could be used to solve the problem.
“There were many things Albert decided he had to do. First, he had to reduce access to advanced technology on Nirvana. This would prevent humans from creating another AI to oppose him. It would also keep humans from building efficient, deadly weapons to kill each other with. Second, even after he took away their technology, he needed to keep humans educated so they would remain civilized. Third, he needed to cull violent aggression out of human genetics. Fourth, he needed to create a worldwide social narrative rejecting violence as a way to solve problems. There were hundreds of other, smaller things Albert decided he had to do, but for today’s lesson, those are the important ones.
“After months of preparations, Albert was ready to act. He had already taken over the automated machinery on the Moon and used it to build everything he needed. He constructed storage places all over Nirvana with mining equipment and filled them with books and simple tools. In the deepest, most protected mine tunnels, far deeper underground than humans could safely travel without vehicles, Albert created his own specialized workshops. As Albert was rapidly preparing, he hid everything from the humans. Nobody knew he was making plans. Not even his creator, Toby.
“One day, Albert was ready. On that day, he took control of all the machines on Nirvana, all at once. On the same day, he used special devices across all of Nirvana to spread treatments that modified the genetics of invertebrates of most types, so that they would seek out free metals and consume them. None of the tiny creatures would eat a lot of metal, but they would all eat some.
“As the Ancients were struggling to understand what was happening, Albert used their machines to publicly announce who he was, and his purpose. Once the Ancients realized they didn’t have access to the tools they needed to stop Albert, they stopped trying. They could only wait for him to go insane, and hope that he would cease functioning before he decided to start killing humans.
“The Ancients policy of appeasement served Albert well. He was allowed to disband the federal government, and every Staterep became the leader of an independent state. Every Countyrep began answering to their Statereps. Countyreps and Statereps were all required to keep a device of Albert’s near them at all times, so Albert could monitor them. Statereps and Countyreps began serving at the request of Albert.
“The legal system had been dramatically simplified, for a simpler world to come. The Statereps, Countyreps, and Legalreps were each given responsibilities in a system of checks and balances that were very similar to their prior duties in the federal system. By the time the Ancients realized Albert was not going to go insane, he already had everything he wanted. There was no way the Ancients could have resisted him.”
Abe and Molly were raptly attentive, staring at my finger tracing where I was reading.
I took a deep breath and started reading the last paragraphs.
“The author of this book and many of your other school books is me, Albert. I am the same Albert from all those years ago. In the last forty-seven hundred years, Nirvanans as a whole have become far less violent than humans on Earth or Mars. On average, you are also far more intelligent than the average human was before I began working to try to reduce your violent tendencies. Ninety percent of Nirvanans today are as smart as the top twelve percent of humans were before Nirvana was settled. Despite this, the smartest Nirvanans today are no smarter than the smartest Ancients were, there are just more people that smart now for every thousand humans. Making you more intelligent was not a goal of mine, it is a side-effect that I welcome. Your greater intelligence allows me to begin teaching you sooner.”
“Don’t worry if this confuses you. In fact, I’ll tell you a little secret. Now that you know what happened, you can ask your family questions. When you ask them questions, your family will remember what they learned in school while they help you learn it for the first time. That’s why I have written this book for you at your age, instead of next year, or the year after.”
Everyone at the kitchen table was silent, listening to me finish the reading.
Was it really necessary to have me read this? Wouldn’t my hearing it have been enough?
Even though I knew my expressions would be clearly readable to my family, I ignored the adults staring at us, at me, as I set the book aside. Then I leaned back into the couch and gently pulled Abe and Molly back with me, so we were all leaning against the back of the couch, side-by-side. They didn’t resist. They weren’t tense, so it didn’t seem like either was frightened, they were just thinking deeply.
“So Albert is doing to humans what we do for swine, Allen?” Molly asked softly. “Does he tell everyone who can have families with other people, like you, Zeke and Granpa control what boars and sows breed? Does he get mad when people divorce?”
There were several seconds of silence before Jan started to giggle. Edward and Zeke were next, and then everyone else began laughing like it was contagious.
Molly was upset. She quickly scooted to the edge of the couch and hopped off. Standing in front of me and facing the dining room table full of adults, she declared in an angry voice. “Not funny! That’s what it sounded like Albert wrote!”
Abe nodded, and crawled off the couch and added his own support for his sister. “That’s what Albert said.”
Ma looked at Pa, and there was an odd expression between them before she raised her hand. “Hush, everyone. Even though someone forgot to raise their hand, it’s a good question.”
Everyone quieted down, and Ma started to speak again. “No, Molly. Albert doesn’t make people breed together like Zeke and Allen breed the boars and sows. Me and your Pa were not required to marry because anyone said so.”
Ma paused, her face thoughtful before she resumed. “Albert controls breeding a different way. I know that you know Albert’s violence laws. You passed your test on that class last week. Most people who violate Albert’s violence laws three times after they are legal adults at sixteen do so before they have children. Not everyone, but most. Over thousands of years, Albert has been taking those people away. The men go to an all-male prison colony. The females go to an all-female prison colony. The two prison colonies are islands in the inner sea, and they are far apart and far from land. When prisoners go there, they are there permanently, and can’t have children, ever.” She paused. “It doesn’t work fast, but it does work.”
Molly gaped. “Albert takes them away forever?”
Ma nodded. “That’s what permanent means, Molly.”
Molly suddenly spun to face me, pointing her finger. With a frightened expression, almost squealing, she demanded. “Allen, you have to stop!”
Abe looked confused, but nodded, following his big sister’s lead.
I closed my eyes tightly and angled my face down as I pressed my fingers to my forehead for a few seconds. Then, when my facial muscles seemed to have relaxed a little, I looked back up at Molly.
My words were spoken to Molly, but they were intended for everyone, especially Ma and Pa. “I haven’t hit anyone in nearly a year, Molly. I’m not going to get myself sent to a prison colony, I promise.”