[Newer York, 247AS] Somebody's ringin' the bell, part 3

The discussion between the Earthers and Newer York's leaders gets underway...

Newer York, 243 After Starfall, 3 Cheshvan

The docking port used had been chosen specifically for its proximity to Conference Room Two. Conference Room One might have been more appropriate for a meeting of such significance, as the place where the Mayor, Admiral, and Chief Rabbi traditionally met to do business.

Conference Room Two, however, had the advantage of a vast window-wall that looked out into the Cylinder, with its sweeping agricultural spaces still under cultivation, as they had been since the ship’s launch. This was the room where the Mayor themselves generally conducted their business, with light coming in the window that approximated daylight on Earth.

The Mayor had fretted a little that it wasn’t really fancy enough, there having been very few truly ceremonial occasions that required it. As a result the room had received a bit of a refresh, which everyone agreed was probably overdue anyway. Chairs whose padding had gotten a little thin got replaced, as had the carpet, which had become worn. Other fixtures had similarly gotten at least refurbished, and the whole looked far less lived-in that it had come to.

It remained, however, merely comfortable and functional, not fancy.

If the delegation from Lewis and Clark thought it inadequate for its purpose, it didn’t show in their manner. If anything, they seemed mainly appreciative that it was all so familiar. Baldursdottir even commented, with a smile, “It seems almost...banal. I mean, we’ve come 40 light-years, a trip that took you 300 years before the Skip, and us 185 days with it, and here we have a room we could have left behind on Earth!”

Mayor Goldman, who had been doing most of the talking for Newer York’s side of things chuckled and agreed, “I imagine over time we’ll each find many things to be surprised about, with so much time gone by, but a meeting room is still a meeting room! We have coffee, tea, and water here on the sideboard, and lunch should be arriving in about 90 minutes. If anyone needs anything sooner, please don’t hesitate.”

“Excuse me, your honor,” Carstairs said, earning him a bit of a look---not really a glare---from his captain, “Did you say, ‘coffee’? Like, real, honest-to-G-d roasted bean coffee?”

Amused, the Mayor responded, “The very same. Our founders took their coffee very seriously, and ensured there were several varieties in our seed bank, some of which were cultivated even during the Journey. We mainly grow it hydroponically. The fields out there are either food crops or park land” she waved at the window. The officers looked for the first time through it, and realized they were looking at the inside of the vast O’Neill cylinder that was the Dream of Spring’s interior.

It was magnificent, and it was disorienting. All three of them had grown up in the domes that were the main habitats on Earth, now, shelters against a climate that was now almost actively hostile. Almost all food on Earth was now produced by artifice or at least in vertical farms. There was more open land inside this vessel, this station, this city, than any of them had seen.

On the one hand, it looked like pictures they’d all seen of the what Earth had been like before the Collapse---fields, ponds, rivers, trees. As they watched, birds flew past the window, a hawk was soaring against the Coriolis, then stooped for something it had seen in a field.

On the other hand, it looked like nothing they’d ever experienced at all. It was not a flat plain of land, but curving tube, which meant that there was no true horizon. No matter which way they looked, except maybe straight outward from the window, they saw variations of the same thing---the illusion of land. Far, far in the distance, there was a shadow of another vast disc-shaped wall like the one they were looking out from.

Despite the disorientation, it was hard to turn away from the vista. Swallowing hard as she turned around, Captain Baldursdottir said, a bit shakily, “Is this what the ship’s name meant?”

The Admiral---who justifiably considered the ship, per se, and its history, his province, said, “Partly. Partly, it was a hope of reaching a planet that would look like that, like Earth used to be. Only, you know,” he grinned, “curved the other way.” The humor did its job, broke the tension. “Of course, we were not so fortunate, as you already know. Revi’i does support a very diverse ecosystem of life, but the atmospheric mix will kill us. Too much hydrogen sulfide.”

Baldursdottir nodded. “But there are people living down there, yes?”

“Yes. Not long after Starfall, there was a dispute over the decision not to settle the planet. There had been a plebiscite, and the decision was overwhelmingly to build out an orbital community instead. The idea was to work on creating the necessary technology to terraform the planet first, and settle later. The rebels disagreed and it came to violence. The ringleaders were exiled, and the planet is now exclusively theirs. We believe they resorted to cloning to maintain and expand their population, but we really don’t know for certain.

“All we know for certain is, they’re still there. They are successfully growing crops in the soil, inside their domes---we can tell that just from remote observation. From what you’ve told us of current life on Earth, it strikes me as somewhere in between what we do here,” he waved back at the window, “and in our other agricultural stations, and what you now do on Earth with vertical farming. None of us---you, them, us--really quite has the old ideal of endless miles of arable land, any more...but we all still manage to eat!”

Everyone had gotten their breath back, at this point, the Admiral’s narration helping to ground them, and remind them all of some of the things they had in common. They all moved to the sideboard for refreshments as offered. Baldursdottir and Li each settled for water, but Carstairs could not resist the lure of the fabled coffee, a beverage that was now merely legend on Earth. The Mayor looked on, slightly amused, as Carstairs sipped it gingerly, first in its black, unadulterated state, then with a dollop of cream, then asking, “Is there sugar?”

“We don’t refine sugar, generally speaking,” the Mayor said, “although we did bring both cane and beet with us in the seed bank, and some of our people have experimented with it. But we have bees, and so, we have honey, in the squeeze-bottle there,” they pointed. Carstairs availed himself of a small dollop of honey, apparently achieving the balance of bitter, creamy, and sweet that suited him best. He smiled, almost sublimely, and took his mug over to a seat near his fellow Earthers on one side of table, back to the broad window.

The Rabbi had remained quiet for most of this exchange. She had wanted to be here, to witness the moment, in part because she felt the dignity of her office, eroded as it had become, warranted it; and in part from a selfish desire, she admitted to herself, to be a part of history. Now that she was here, however, she was at a loss. The Mayor and Admiral seemed so much at their ease, although she knew much of that was a pose. She envied them that ability to put on that pose, though. She was young for her honors, and her province was primarily the spiritual lives of her people, a topic that had simply not been touched on.

Her only consolation was, that, so far, Commander Li had been similarly silent---attentive, but not talkative. He seemed content to let his captain take the lead, with occasional outbursts from his irrepressible lieutenant.

They had deliberately set very little agenda for this, knowing that could be awkward but wanting to keep the discussions relatively informal. The fact that Lewis and Clark had no real diplomatic remit limited what could be talked about that would require more formality, anyway.

Instead, Baldursdottir seemed to pick up on the loose thread from the discussion of sweeteners for coffee. “For some reason, I’m surprised you have bees. We did manage to salvage them back home, thankfully, and still use them for pollination even, but I just have trouble imaginging bees on a spaceship!”

The Mayor said, “Rabbi Chava, I believe beekeeping is an avocation of yours. Perhaps you’d like to answer?”

Trying not to show visible relief at having something to contribute at last, and something she was downright eager about, she said, “Bees were very important right from the founding. We wanted to be able to pollinate as naturally as possible, and we wanted the honey, of course. There were experiments way back in the 5740s Old Calendar--um...1980s CE I think---that showed that bees could adapt to microgravity in only a week, and we have roughly a one-third G simulated here. We thought there might be a problem keeping them confined to the Inner Cylinder---we don’t really want hives all over the outer corridors, where people live. In the end, though, since most of the pollen is out there”, she waved at the window, “they don’t really have much interest in building hives out in the outer layers. We have some people who keep bees as their main contribution to the Community, and others, like myself, who do as more of a secondary thing.”

Here, Li seemed to have a question. “Does everyone contribute something to agriculture here?”

“Yes and no,” Chava responded. “Nearly everyone does a rotation every few years pitching in; similarly, nearly everyone does a turn out on a mining or industrial station. It’s less about the extra labor, although for harvests that’s useful, of course, and more about making sure, if a disaster were to happen, the necessary skills would still exist. It would take time to redevelop expertise, but we wouldn’t be completely stuck trying to re-bootstrap something. It’s...well, I don’t know if anyone on Earth still practices this, but I know it wasn’t uncommon for countries to have mandatory service of one sort or another, usually military. This is sort of like that.”

Li nodded, satisfied it seemed with her answer. “There are still some places that do that. The Arctic Union toys with the idea occasionally but it never quite passes a referendum.”

The conversation continued like that for a while---anecdotal comparisons of life on Earth to life in Newer York. The conversation eventually turned to the construction that was under way. This was the Admiral’s province, and he dove in with clear relish for his subject.

“You have to understand that the Founders always planned for the possibility that we would need the ship longer than the Journey. We came here equipped with tools and machinery to immediate begin mining the rocks of either belt, smelting ore, and so on, to bootstrap the ability to build small out-lier stations, which in turn could process more material. Then we built new habitat satellites---temporary villages, at first, to house people while we rebuilt and refurbished the ship section by section, shifting people around as needed. What we learned building those was then used to build more permanent agricultural villages to supplement the cylinder---get our eggs into more than one basket.

“We’ve continued to grow around the Inner Belt like that, in small settlements and single-clan outposts. But the core of the Community remains this old ship, and we sort of expected that. So now, we begin the next phase---expansion of the ship in its modern role as a station, as a city. The first ring we’re building will be called Manhattan, appropriately enough for a place that aspires to be the namesake of New York. It’s being built far enough out from the core to provide a simulated gravity closer to Earth’s---something many of us will have to work hard to get used to, but if things work out, our grandchildren will mostly grow up thinking it normal. That will immediately relieve some of the pressures we face, and have faced for over 500 years, to maintain a healthy population in lower gravity.”

Baldursdottir sensed an opening for something she felt she needed to probe. “It will also be more comfortable for visitors, or immigrants...”

“I’d wondered when we’d get to that sort of thing,” the Mayor said. “Honestly, we haven’t gotten that far in our own thinking. Until a few months ago, we honestly thought we were alone, or as good as alone. Maybe Earth had survived, maybe not, but 40 light years at sublight speeds makes for a long commute...”

A brittle chuckle went around the room, and Li responded, “It still does, really. The Skip makes the trip less onerous, but it’s still not easy. We’ll be months getting back out to the Skip Limit to head home, and that’s despite the fact that TRAPPIST-1, as a system, has a much smaller radius than Sol. Then we’ll be weeks in the Skip, and then more months to get home once we reach Sol’s outer limit. It took us 180-odd days to get to the point where we first contacted you. By the time we get home, we’ll have been more than two years away. I don’t think it’s ever going to be a short holiday trip for people.”

The three leaders of Newer York looked at each other. It was, perhaps unexpectedly, the Admiral who spoke next. “So, that raises a point we all need to think about. And maybe you don’t know the answer, but, we have to ask: when you get home...”

Baldursdottir caught the ball easy. “...what are they going to do?”

She sighed, a distinctly unmilitary sigh. “I have no idea. I really don’t.”