You are floating in space, a few hundred meters above Habitat.
It orbits serenely about a thousand kilometers above Earth.
On the night side of the surface, you see fires raging—glowing spots and deep clouds of soot wafting across millions of acres.
On the day side, the thin cellophane of the planet’s atmosphere is gray with smoke.
Individual features are often obscured by the roiling banks of weather systems and the ash of humanity’s still raging wars.
If you stare long enough, you see the brilliant flash of a bomb detonation.
After so many years of war, the fact that there’s anything left to destroy seems incredible.
But here, in space, high above an angry world, Habitat slowly turns—brilliant, silvery, glittering, a squat cylinder five hundred meters across and two hundred meters deep: Eighteen levels topped with a hundred-meter-wide Observation Dome rising thirty meters above the top level.
We descend from our vantage point, gliding, circling closer and closer to that Dome, and pass through its clear skin, settling in the center.
It’s a huge, cathedral-like space, dozens of smart metal ribs holding the curving pie sections of the diamond-hard thermoplastic roof in place—a massive atrium in which the citizens of Habitat can gather under the starry sky to talk, to play, to wonder at the universe beyond.
It’s the night before the launch and most of the passengers are here.
Some sit on the perimeter benches, pondering the planet below for the last time.
Others lounge on the many chairs and sofas scattered around the room.
A few stretch out on blankets, their arms behind their heads, looking up, gazing out into the galactic ocean that will now be their home.
Woven into the thick carpeting at the center are directional arrows like the kind one might find on an old compass.
The one marked EAST also bears the words CHUTE ONE.
If your eyes follow the line, you see the top of an elevator tube shaft about two meters wide and five meters high rising from the floor. Here, people enter and exit from the rest of Habitat.
At the moment we arrive, we see the Chute door open with a pneumatic whoosh and watch Jaja Huang and her husband Tulku Najari come in.
Jaja—five feet of kinetic energy—is 29.
She manages the elaborate computer and electronic systems that run everything from the climate to the propulsion system.
Tulku—born in a place called Mombasa—is two years younger than his wife and is Habitat’s chief linguist and historian.
He’s helped stock the Archive with a database of Earth’s languages as well as details of the planet’s historical record. He’s also directly in charge of the twenty-five Mechanicals on board.
In the Uprising that will come in ten years, I will be the only one of the twenty five to survive, and he will utilize fragments of electronic devices to piece together the Emogram that he’ll install in me.
Near the Chute, we see a grouping of dwarf trees—cherry, weeping willow, palm—planted in enormous terracotta pots.
Kelvin McLoughlin is tending them.
He’s in his early 40’s, has a head of shaggy blond hair, and wears a grey-colored canvas apron in which various gardening tools are arranged—clippers, a small shovel, a watering bottle.
He stands on a three-step ladder, reaching to cut a stray twig from the top of the willow.
He’s in charge of the HydroGarden that takes up all of Levels 10, 11, and 12.
There, Habitat’s fresh food is produced, waste recycled, oxygen created by varieties of flowers, plants, shrubs, and trees. He calls it Paradise, though like the great mythic Garden of the Islamic-Judeo-Christian narratives it, too, will suffer great loss.
Fortunately, only a portion of Habitat’s Garden will be destroyed in the Uprising; it will be completely restored thanks to Septimus Walking Moon.
You’ll meet him later.
As we move away, the laughter of a young man catches our ear.
It’s Mars Walking Moon.
He’s a 6 year-old aboriginal—a Navajo boy from a reservation in the deserts of North America. He sits cross-legged with his father, Solomon, and his aunt, Mary Petersen, eating a picnic supper.
Theirs is a sad and romantic tale.
Back on Earth, on the reservation, Solomon and his wife, Sonja, hoped for children more than anything else—Mary (Sonja’s beloved sister) would tell me this years later.
They tried many times, and after a series of miscarriages, Sonja became pregnant.
At the doctor’s request—and Solomon’s insistence—Sonja stayed in bed and pampered herself through relatively uneventful trimesters.
The morning of the birth arrived, and, as if on cue, the contractions began.
The doctor was called.
One hour of labor became two, then three, then four.
After the sixth it was abundantly clear something was wrong.
Because the local hospital had been shut down and there weren’t any ambulances on the Reservation—they’d been deployed to the West Coast war zone—the doctor called the midwife and the local medicine man with his herbal remedies.
Nightfall: The tenth hour.
Men and women from the tribal council arrived, huddled at the doorway, keeping vigil, chanting prayers, burning fragrant incense.
Solomon and Mary were frantic.
Finally, the twelfth hour.
The crown of the baby’s head appeared, the rest of the body following in a burst.
The boy was born, and, with a slap, began a newborn’s fervent squall.
Aunt Mary took the baby.
Some of the elders rushed in and with the others desperately tried to revive Sonja.
Despite everyone’s efforts, she died.
Her body had endured too much, had lost too much blood.
The doctor—who had known Sonja since she was a child—dropped any pretense of professional demeanor and sobbed on the midwife’s shoulder.
The medicine man—also a life-long family friend—stared at the floor, shaking his head in abject disbelief, moaning.
Solomon howled like a wounded animal, cradling his wife in his arms.
It took three council men to pry him lose.
He ran from the trailer to the corral, where he mounted his horse, Rising Moon, and roared to the top of the mesa.
Up there, at the cliff edge, he screamed and wept until dawn.
Later that day, members of the council coaxed him back down.
He entered the trailer.
It was empty.
The breezeless heat of the afternoon, the sun cutting through the voile curtains Sonja had just made, dust motes hanging in the air.
Mary walked in with the baby.
Solomon looked at it—and then tenderly took it his arms, cradling it to his chest.
He cried quietly.
Then he said: “Your name is Mars. Mars Walking Moon. Just like the bright red star your Mom and I...” He stopped and took in a deep breath. “...like the star she once loved to watch on clear desert nights.”
From that moment on, father and son were inseparable.
After the funeral—a traditional Navajo burial—Mary would come every day to help Solomon with the baby.
The boy grew—and it was obvious from the start that he was special.
Full of laughter and spice.
And then, perhaps best of all, Solomon and Mary fell in love.
Yet, out of their respect for Sonja, they never married.
Sonja would remain Solomon’s wife till the day he died.
Mary understood this without question.
But Mary became his life’s helpmate, comrade, and confidante.
They also chose to remain celibate—another way to honor Sonja.
Some people thought this very strange; indeed, many on the Reservation begged them to marry, saying that Sonja would celebrate the love that Solomon now had for her sister.
But the couple would hear nothing of it.
Then, when Mars was around 5, Solomon and Mary—because of their skills as scientists at the region’s remaining University—were asked to join the Habitat team.
They agreed, but only if Mars could join them.
Not only did they want to keep the family in tact—the alternative would have been to let the boy be raised in an orphanage, and “We would never have agreed to that”—but they sensed that he’d become a remarkable scientist in his own right, a valuable member of Habitat.
Time proved them right.
So tonight, there they sit.
Solomon and Aunt Mary have been telling a story to Mars, and he laughs heartily.
Solomon, 40 years old, is an astrophysicist who’s also a competent bioengineer.
Two different passions merged into one multi-layered career.
His Mary—whom he calls Loved One—is a bit younger (34) and is the chief Maintenance Officer.
Both of them will die.
But we won’t think of those terrible things; for now, we see a family laughing, enjoying each other’s company on the eve of humanity’s greatest adventure.
Mars starts telling a story of his own—Sol and Aunt Mary listen intently; he is the pearl of their eyes.
Mars, though 6, is already a prodigy—one of those one-in-a-million humans capable of world-changing thoughts.
He’ll be 17 at the time of the Uprising and, like his father, a great bioengineer.
But now we must turn to the darker side.
Every tale has its antagonists, and we can spot Raymond Tucci—35, dark-hair, somber brown eyes—sitting on a bench near the Southern side of the Dome with his friend, Sidney Feldman—27, un-smiling, a devoutly religious man.
I really do want to believe that there’s no such thing as a purely evil man.
I still think Raymond started out with all the best intentions, was loved and loveable.
But things change.
Souls can darken.
Beliefs can warp.
Habitat’s chief engineer and dazzling computer expert will become convinced—we will never fully know why—that Habitat’s mission is an “abomination.”
He and Sidney—who turns into a spiritual fanatic of the worst kind, claiming personal messages from God—will start the Uprising by convincing a handful of others to join their cause.
Thanks to them, two-thirds of Habitat will lie in ruins, a burnt-out tangle.
Tonight, however, you can’t imagine that.
You see two men sitting side by side in quiet conversation and would never think these comfortably dressed men would become raging anarchists a decade later.
Such is the mystery of humanity—and why I sometimes fear Tulku’s implant.
I think: Who knows what I might do someday now that emotions are beginning to root into my programming?
Fear is new to me, but from the data I’ve studied, my inner reactions to certain things are just that: Fear.
And my greatest fear is that I might one day destroy something, perform an irrational act.
The next morning, Jaja, Raymond, and Sonja take the Chute down to the Command Center on Level 2, and begin the launch process.
An announcement is made.
Those remaining in the Dome take a last glimpse.
And with an almost imperceptible tremor, Habitat slowly moves away from Earth.
So slowly at first that some think Habitat isn’t moving.
But it only takes a few minutes for everyone to realize that the continents below, the cloudy atmosphere, the gray oceans are becoming increasingly smaller.
An hour later, the hulking, icy mountains and craters of the Moon begin to fill the sky above the arching Dome.
The dazzling silvery light reflecting off the plains contrasts with the intense blackness of space.
Every eye is filled with wonder—and the realization that not only do the fusion engines really work, but there is now no turning back.
Read their eyes.
Explore their faces.
What do you see?
Such deep truths and revelations:
They are the last humans.
This is a one way trip.
They will never see Earth again.
And for many, there exists the most exciting and most terrifying question of all:
We are standing on a rise of yellowing grass clogged with gravely sand. Looking west, we squint.
Brother Richard stands with his back to us, facing the sun and the blue-gray machine of the sea. The waves groan.
The wind is cool and tussles his brown curls.
The sand blows up from time to time; you blink and rub your eyes. You’re fine in a few seconds and look again. Richard’s silhouette against the clementine sunset, the russet splashes on cloud bellies, and the inexorable ocean are all so astonishing that you wish you could take a photo, but, of course, your camera was shattered in the explosions a couple of weeks ago. You’re just grateful to have eyes to see.
We all moved to the new island last week, fearful of more bombing raids. But those seem over for now, too. I guess the enemy’s given up on us in the Orkneys. I mean what possible threat can we pose? I’m sure that’s what they thought when they sent the clean-up crew two weeks ago--they said, “Who are those stupid farmers and fishermen up north?”
How wrong they were. Yes, there were only eleven of us--Brother Aloysius, Brother Richard, Brother Stefan--and the eight kids: Mary, Alice, Harry, and me--all teenagers--and the four little ones: Anne, Samantha, Eve, and Clark, aged 6 to 11. Yet we proved resourceful and strong.
It happened quickly.
A trio of soldiers arrived by helicopter and attempted to wrest us from the farm house we’d moved to after the bombings had destroyed the monastery.
When Richard complained about their rough treatment of the kids, one of them, in a fit of rage, blasted a bullet into his leg. I think that was the tipping point for Clark, one of the smallest. He’d evidently found a piece of unused 2-by-4 in a hall closet and with extraordinary stealth crept up behind the commander and started to beat him. Within moments, the other kids were joining in, kicking, and screaming, howling like wolves.
They killed him.
Meanwhile, Harry and me were out back with the other two, getting water from the well--or that was the story we’d invented to get them away from the house. Here we were, two 17 year old boys--I guess now we’re men by all accounts--able to rip away their rifles, all because they didn’t take us seriously. We dispatched them quick enough, too, with a kind of cold-heartedness that sent shivers even through us.
But that’s war. You do things to survive, and even the youngest child can tap into that inner brute to defeat the tiger about to leap.
Of course, Aloysius still feels guilty for it all. He’s a writer--much to the annoyance of his superiors in the Provincial office down in Edinburgh--and Eve had asked him to tell her a bedtime story. Like some of us, she was recovering from injuries we’d sustained when our shelter was blown to bits. Her parents and all the adult villagers had been hiding in the undercroft of the church. They’d been killed outright in the bombings. Somehow we 11, battered and bruised, survived because we’d hunkered down in the stone wine cellars deep beneath the monastery. We’d made it, true enough, but that was thin consolation to everyone, especially the kids who were overnight made orphans. So a bed time story seemed to be in order--something that would remind her of her now shattered Mum.
When the others heard he was telling a story, we made him finish it to all of us at the dinner table the next evening--the evening the soldiers flew in. But the tale--about survival against all odds--inspired us in ways Aloysius never expected, and he attributed Clark’s brutality directly to his story-telling.
For the last two weeks, he’s been a quieter man, praying in silence, wandering off alone, his face carved with remorse. I worry about him.
Last Wednesday, we stole a boat. Of course, if all the fishermen are dead, is it really stealing?--or the providence of God?
Who knew the answer?
We certainly didn’t strain over it; we took the boat, and rowed our way north for a full day to this rocky, bluff-fringed place.
We no longer heard bombing to our south and the fires on the horizon that we once saw clearly at night had faded. Night was night.
The rumbling sea.
The Orkney wind.
We were utterly alone. Three monks, 8 kids. An island. The provisions we’d brought over in our boat.
This might be it.
But then Richard called us to the bluff this evening to witness the sunset, to watch and hear the ocean, to participate in things that are beautiful.
“If fear is our reality,” he says, “then that’s what will shape us.”
He looks at each of us with his hazel eyes and says in that remarkable tenor voice, “We need to be careful how we use our imaginations. If what you imagine is always the worst thing, then that’s how you’ll act and react to everything in life.” He pauses when he comes to me. “Yes, be careful what you imagine--it’ll guide your every step.”
Then he turns again to face sun and sea, balancing on his good leg, his wounded one held rigid with sticks and wrapped in voile from old curtains.
That’s when, to our surprise, he starts to sing. I knew from Mass that he had a pleasing voice, but this is something unexpected, something astonishing.
He sings out as gently as anything I’ve ever heard on professional recordings, a beautiful song I know from an old opera CD in the monastery library, now long reduced to cinders.
He sings into the kaleidoscopic light dipping into the edge of the sea, the persistent rhythm of the ocean below accompanying him, the cool evening breeze blowing off the water: “Una furtiva lagrima negl'occhi suoi spunto: Quelle festose giovani invidiar sembro. Che piu cercando io vo? M'ama! Sì, m'ama, lo vedo, lo vedo.”
And then again, in English: “One tear falls so furtively from her sweet eyes as if she envied all the youths who passed her by. What more could I want? She loves me! Yes, she loves me! I see it, I see it.”
With the repeat--which sounds just as good as the original--is it two or three minutes? You don’t know. What matters is the beauty.