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Vested Interest ~ Chapter One

James Looven wasn't alone in his fears about the future when the world economy staggered, almost fell, and then shakily regained its feet. Pundits shrieked from vid screens the world over that wanton spending had sunken the ship, and even more serious analysts wondered if the economy needed a permanent dry-dock.

Like others, James fearfully questioned how long his privileged lifestyle could continue, but unlike most, he felt he could do something about it. James was a backyard inventor by nature. He liked to consider his historical antecedents to be Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin, although his friends would have said he was much more like Nikola Tesla or Madame Curie. James had a degree in aeronautics engineering and a Ph.D. in astrophysics, specializing in reactive mass dynamics.

Like his hero, Thomas Edison, and so many of his colleagues and friends who worked in the higher sciences or controlled multiple millions in failing businesses, James came from a privileged background. For some of them the destruction of the space programs meant a loss of revenue, but many shared James' vision, and they were canny enough to fear the loss of humanity's one hope in the chaos of the oligarchic dictatorships warring for the last few resources left on a used-up planet. They cried aloud when funding was cut at NASA, but few thought they could do anything about it. The public will was not there, they were told, and if the vid news was correct, people were more interested in naked pictures of starlets than whether their starving grandchildren might live long enough to breed more starving people.

All this outrage would have perhaps come to nothing, would have been spent in a few ineffectual protests and letter campaigns, if James could have remained on the NASA team, and if public outcry against space exploration had not shut down the space agency.

The hungry millions accused NASA of squandering resources and misallocating money for research, and with marches nearing riot status, the government buckled and gave up its space program. The European Space Agency and Japan's Aerospace Exploration Agency soon followed. Russia's had already died the natural death of economic defeat. Except for China, which was desperately trying to continue its own fledgling program, humanity had turned its back on space.

"Do they have any idea what they're doing?" James had asked his friend Chase. "We're running out of resources because all those people are fucking like rabbits, and now we're supposed to stop doing the one thing that might bring in enough resources to allow them to continue to breed."

"They're just worried about their future, James. Everyone is." Although he knew that what James was saying made sense, Chase had two children by two different women, and his own fears had multiplied accordingly.

"When you worry about something, you do something about it." James was an engineer through and through. "This is the time to turn our minds to the solar system, to get out there and get the resources we need if we're going to continue to overrun the planet. It's either that or crawl back into the cave and wait to starve."

"I'm not sure it's that black and white," Chase grinned.

"All the ones who are telling us that NASA engages in frivolous research want to use that money for what?"

"Social programs, mainly," Chase could see where the argument was going.

"It's not just the breeding," James' voice lowered. "We have let corporations run our science, and all they've given us is what they can make money from. Terminator genes and social placebos. And meanwhile, the same people who want to cut funding to the space program are perpetuating the very problems they want to use the money to get rid of. If humans wanted to get rid of poverty, war and stupidity, and we could, we would have done it. We've chosen this world, so it must be the one we want."

"I don't think people want to starve," Chase suggested mildly.

"But if you don't want something, but you do everything to ensure that it happens anyway, is that the same as wanting it?"

"Meaning?"

"Starving people have children. People driving to work cause global warming, consumers throw away the trash. And they want to take the money from the one organization which is not about either hedonism or greed." James gave a disgusted snort. "The one organization that unlike them is looking beyond their dirty navel long enough to wonder about the universe."

"We never heard back from the Mars mission," Chase said to change the subject. "And-"

"They never had a chance. Only a year's worth of food and a team of fifteen. We sent them on a suicide mission." The Martian colonists were a sore spot with James; he'd worked on the team that planned their trajectory. "Even at the time we could see they were being skimped. You don't send fifteen people two hundred million kilometres away with just a can of soup."

Chase remembered the arguments, for he'd been the structural engineer on the planning committee that made many of the recommendations the colonists would have needed to survive. "They're likely gone now, James. And with Hubble out of commission, we can't even look over to see an infrared signature." The Hubble telescope had been one of the earliest causalities of the war against space, as James called it. NASA's funding cuts meant that its orbit was no longer maintained, like that of the International Space Station, by ion thrusters. It hadn't quite deorbited, but it was deteriorating and it was only a matter of time before it was a falling star that starving children could wish on.

"SETI is still up and running," James said hopefully.

"Barely. I'm in touch with Gord, who ended up there, and he says public funding is down at least fifty percent, and they've had some problems with vandalism. Look, James. I've got to get back."

"I thought you were heading back later?"

"Yeah, but I've got some stuff to do. You know, polish the resume."

After Chase left, James recalled what'd he said and realised that Chase was likely weary of the argument. James had been saying the same thing for at least a dozen years, ever since he'd graduated from MIT. He was becoming tiresome.

James switched on the vid screen for distraction. Ignoring the twenty-four hour religious programming that had taken over from the NASA station, he turned to the news. It was all bad. Russia was reporting widespread famine and asking for international aid, Africa's population continued to soar and Australia's croplands were on fire from drought and rioting. India's lowlands were flooding and refugees were pouring into the UK in a kind of reverse colonialism. Japanese solar stock was soaring, although they were in the middle of a resource war with China over the mining of lithium. James was just about to switch off the news, when the station went dead.

Switching between the channels, and mentally ticking off those which were tied to the same communications satellite, James knew the interruption for what it was. One of the Rogers satellites, after operating in the vacuum for over four decades, had winked out.

"What are you going to do about that, huh?" James yelled in his empty living room. "You want to breed and you want vids, and soon you're not going to have either one."

By the time James stumbled to bed, knocking over empties on the way, the stations were back on the air, bravely proclaiming that they'd had a momentary interruption to service, but it was easy to see that they'd spliced the signal from another satellite onto the missing one. "Cover up," James mumbled to himself as he pulled a sheet over his head. "Fucking cover up."

 

 
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