[Creative Writing Contest] Giving Comfort

Oct 28 202113 min read 0

3

One of Mona’s earliest and happiest memories was her eyes following the curve of the world. She looked straight forward until the world curled up and the opposite side came into view, with houses, gardens, and statues just like her own. She imagined herself taking a big jump all the way there.

It was a silly idea, she’d known that even at the age when her head didn’t even reach the dinner table, although she didn’t know exactly why. Still, the thought made her giggle. It would be so convenient to just jump! and then gradually lose weight until she could float like the flyers in the center of the world, and then drift down calmly on the other side like the autumn leaves she’d seen once.

It was a few years later when Mona learned that for most of human history, people hadn’t been able to look up to see the opposite side of their world, or even take a visit to its center like she could in Comfort. Her tutor showed her a blue and green ball, a globe he’d called it, and it was supposed to be a model of the world they’d come from. Earth. Far different from the colossal cylindrical home she’d spent her entire life in.

Mona frowned when she saw it. “But how can people live on a sphere? Comfort keeps us inside with its walls, but if someone tried living on that they’d just fall off.” To demonstrate her point, she placed her stylus on the globe, and it rolled off. She caught it before it fell to the ground.

Her tutor, Ms. Furrset, smiled at her. “We’ll go over this in physics, but the reason for that is because they’re kept fixed to the sphere by a force called gravity.”

“Gravity? But how does it have gravity if it doesn’t spin?”

Ms. Furrset gave her a confused look before she nodded. “Oh, I see. You’re confusing the centrifugal effect from Comfort’s rotation with gravity, probably because your parents call it that for simplicity. There are a few things I need to correct you on. First, Earth does spin, so there is a bit of a centrifugal effect, but it’s easily canceled out by its gravity. And gravity is actually an attractive force that pulls objects towards its center.” The tutor demonstrated, bringing her own stylus closer to the globe.

“Oh, so it’s like magnets!”

“Yes, in a way. But this is history we’re going over now, so I’m only going to mention physics when its relevant to history.”

As it turned out, physics - astronomy in particular - were very relevant to Mona’s history lessons. Over time, she learned that Comfort’s cycles of days, nights, and years were based on Earth’s rotation and orbit around the sun. Even the seasons in some special parts of Comfort were based on Earth’s seasons, which came from Earth’s tilt and uneven solar irradiance over the course of the year. Mona didn’t usually like math that much, but it was fun calculating the crazy differences in solar radiation over the course of the year for some latitudes. People back then must have been freezing and melting constantly! At least those who lived a certain distance from its equator.

These history lessons also answered some questions that Mona had thought about before. Like why her parents had said that she became another year older every 365 days. Now she knew. It wasn’t a random number of days. She was seven years old because that was the number of times Earth had orbited the sun since she’d been born, with each orbit taking 365 days.

At that age, her history lessons presented Earth only as a backdrop to the proud past of Comfort and its sister stations. Mona learned about the space elevators which had been the first step to cheap, high-volume exploration of the solar system. Then she learned about how her ancestors had finally freed themselves from the dangers of Earth, like natural disasters or the various diseases in unclean environments. And perhaps most importantly, they’d spared the Earth of the danger of people, because any serious attempt to shape Earth came at the cost of damaging its wildlife.

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When Mona was fourteen that her parents and tutors considered her mature enough to learn the true horrors of history. Instead of the general descriptions of earthquakes and hurricanes she’d read before, now she saw actual footage of collapsing buildings, flooding, and panicked people as they tried to reach safety. Before, she’d had textbook knowledge of what diseases were and what symptoms they’d had on people without the genetic blessings her ancestors had wisely given to the people of Comfort, but now her lessons gave her historic accounts of the pain of the sores, boils, and tumors of disease and the devastation of the sick peoples’ deaths on their loved ones.

For a time after that, Mona had carried around a med-kit and had read its user manual with a religious fervor. She watched her friends and family like a hawk, ready to swoop in and listen to the kit’s comforting voice and administer aid with practiced hands whether it was to give antibiotics, clean wounds with antiseptics, or wrap them in bandages. Unfortunately (although when she thought about it some more, it was actually fortunate), she never had the chance to use it.

“Mona, what’s the worst pain you’ve ever experienced?” he asked.

She thought for a few seconds. “I skinned my knee once when I went bike-riding a few years ago.”

“And how long did the pain last?”

Mona gave him a strange look. “I don’t know. A few seconds, maybe?”

“Even though it still took a few days to scar over and heal?”

“Yeah. It was still distracting, but it didn’t hurt.”

He nodded. “That is our experience of pain today. A sensation which can only reach a certain maximum intensity, lasting for a few moments at most. Even if you had broken your leg, it likely would have hurt only a little more, and the pain would have faded just as quickly. However, the injury would have drawn much more of your attention. Enough to address it, but not nearly enough to cloud your mind or leave you incapable of calling for help or treating it yourself. This is not at all like what the human experience of pain was like only a few centuries ago.”

A terrible suspicion dawned on Mona. “Mr. Li, are you saying that people could have been in pain for minutes, or even hours?”

“You’re not being imaginative enough. In some cases, chronic pain lasted for years, and its intensity could reach heights beyond our imagination.”

After Mona had learned that, she’d prayed and given thanks to her ancestors for their efforts to save their children from such suffering. She didn’t really believe in an afterlife, even though her dad and some of her friends did. But just in case she was wrong, she wanted them to know how grateful she was.

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When Mona was seventeen, the age of majority in Comfort, she moved out of her parents’ house to a smaller, but cozier home with her girlfriend and three boyfriends. She was the youngest member of their quintet, but not by much. Alice and Matieu were only a year older than her, while Choki was nineteen. David, the oldest, was twenty-one.

However, even though they weren’t that much older than Mona, they reacted as if she were hopelessly naïve when one day she suggested to them that she wanted to work to improve the lives of the people of Earth.

Mona brought up the idea when they were taking a break from one of their flying races in a small track in Central Comfort. They sat in a section of the track a small distance from the central axis of Comfort, where ‘gravity’ was less than one percent of Earth normal.

“It’s so great that we’re able to reserve this track with only a few days of notice,” Mona noted. Through the transparent walls, they could see other flyers in their own tracks or the public track. There were quite a few tracks unoccupied, and crowding was only an issue on holidays. “Imagine if we were as packed as Earth. How many people are down there now anyway?”

“Highest estimates put it at 6 billion,” David said.

“That’s still over a thousand times the population of Comfort!” Choki said. “I thought they’d rein themselves in the past ninety years.”

Mona disagreed with the time scale Choki proposed, but his statement made sense. It hadn’t even been a full century since Earth’s average annual temperature had risen by 7° C in the late 21st century from a 1900 baseline. A result of the runaway greenhouse effect worsening when it had melted the Arctic permafrost, releasing methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

David shook his head. “You’d think that, but when resources dwindle, sex education and birth control aren’t considered priorities anymore. They’re not like us, their women risk pregnancy whenever some semen gets inside their vagina.”

Mona and Alice shuddered at the thought. Even when the women of Comfort chose to give birth themselves rather than using external wombs, it was always within their control whether or not to allow any sperm cells to fertilize ova after sex. Any adult could simply consult their digi-assistant to either shut down or reactivate their contraceptive measures when they felt that it was the right time.

“Yeah, I read about that,” Mona said. “So would you agree, David, that birth control would be one of the most important parts of any aid package?”

“Mona, what’s the point?” Matieu asked. “Are you planning to provide them with pills their whole life? Where are you going to get the resources for that?”

Mona frowned. “No, I was thinking of a nanobot capsule as a permanent measure and a few pills to reverse it when they plan to have children.”

“No no no no,” David shook his head, which in the low ‘gravity’ caused his lower body to shake as well in a somewhat funny sight. “A passive contraceptive gives too much power to the provider. Even in Comfort we don’t put that much trust in our government, only measures which require active attention to maintain are allowed. And even if that weren’t the case, what makes you think the Terrans would even believe that you’re offering them a contraceptive rather than a sterilizer or something along those lines?”

“I’d never do that!”

We know that,” David said. “But Terrans won’t. There’s maybe one in fifty thousand of them who’d even understand the science behind the kind of capsule you’d plan to offer, although in some places it might be more like one in ten thousand. Terrans don’t receive the kind of education that we do, most of them can’t.”

“Because most of them are still ancestral humans,” Mona said.

David nodded. “Our ten-year-olds could probably outmatch most of their adults in their knowledge of math, science, philosophy, and ethics. Which, to be fair, aren’t all that useful beyond the basics in most modern Terran environments, but they’re necessary for what you plan to do for them.”

“How deeply have you looked into aiding Earth, David?” Alice asked.

“Mona’s not the only one who got the idea that we should help the Terrans,” David explained. He turned back to Mona. “But Earth as it is now is a lost cause. Look deeper into it yourself if you’d like, but there are better things to do with your time, Mona.”

“But the Terrans are suffering! I understand that I might not help all of them, but saving someone has to be worth at least some time and effort.”

David sighed. “They don’t know how to accept the help we could give them. Or maybe we don’t actually know how to help. Either way, the final result is the same.”

“He makes a good point,” Choki said. “Most Terrans, for one reason or another, won’t better themselves. How can you expect to help them when they cling onto minds which were suited for survival in a hunter-gatherer environment rather than a complex society with various advanced technologies and complicated configurations.”

Alice also spoke up. “And even if that weren’t a problem, how much food and medicine would a Terran community need in comparison to Comfort or our sister stations?”

“I know, I know,” Mona said with a scowl. “I’m not bringing this up out of nowhere. I did some research of my own. I’ve run through the numbers, supporting an average ancestral Terran to adulthood would be around five times more resource-intensive than an enhanced human. Not to mention in most cases they’re only a fraction as productive. I know that, and I want to do something anyway.”

“Alright, it’s your choice,” Matieu said. He and the others looked at Mona as if they thought she was being foolish.

However, David later sent her a long file with a list of charity groups in Comfort and its sister stations. He warned that some of them weren’t too serious in their efforts to aid the Terrans. Giving Back, for example, was a small group which arranged for orbital drops of aid packages every few months to certain communities. That alone wasn’t too bad, it was a common method for charity groups, but they didn’t put much care into their selection of drop locations. Sometimes their aid packages were stolen by groups who lay in wait to steal from the communities the drops were actually meant for. At other times, the hunting tools, gene-enhanced crop seeds, or other tools in the drops were too effective and their overuse devastated the local environment of their drops.

Another one, Raising Up, focused on offering technology and knowledge to poor Terran communities. They put custom solar powered devices in their drops which lasted for at least a decade so they could easily be replaced. In a few cases, though, the knowledge of chemistry and engineering had allowed communities to make better weaponry and dominate their neighbors. When Raising Up had cut them off, that had led to even more violence as the subjugated individuals often revolted.

In the end, Mona decided to join a newer, but fast-growing group known as Flourishing For All, initialized as FFA. It was based in a station whose name translated to Rod-of-Heaven, but the group had members in orbital stations even beyond the Earth-Moon system and even a few on Earth itself.

When she was accepted, she was invited to have a brief video-call with Yang Fu, one of the founders of FFA. He was in his sixties, but had halted his age to appear as a bald man in his early thirties.

They exchanged greetings, and she realized that he spoke with a slight Chinese accent. After they’d introduced themselves, Yang asked, “What made you choose Flourishing For All rather than another group?”

“Um . . .” It was a reasonable question, but it had still caught Mona by surprise. “I’ve read up on the other charity groups of the stations, and frankly I haven’t been too impressed. While FF-I mean, Flourishing For All doesn’t have many achievements to its name yet, I thought its mission to improve the lives of all conscious beings was admirable. More than just the enhanced humans of the stations or humanity in total, but everything that can perceive, feel, and has the ability to-as is in the name-flourish.”

“An ambitious goal, isn’t it?” There was a twinkle of amusement in Yang’s eyes. “But did you just join because it sounded impressive? Perhaps we’re only a collection of fools, reaching for a prize we cannot grasp.”

“No, not at all. At least, I don’t think so. You have resources and a detailed and well-considered plan for how to achieve your goals. You already have contacts with the ancestral humans of Earth, you have experts in ancestral human psychology and education. I’ve memorized the stages of the Plan for Flourishing. Agriculture Assistance, Education, Healthcare, Enhancement, and Relocation to Space along with which Terran polities you expect to be most suitable for acceleration through them.”

He asked a few more questions about her knowledge of FFA. Mona couldn’t answer everything, but she felt she was doing well in the interview.

“Hmm, you’ve certainly read much about us.” Yang nodded. “And you have the right attitude. I hope your stay with us is long-term.”

And Yang was proven right, at least for the next few months. Mona was assigned to a community in Canada as an educator. She taught biology and bioethics for the adults while teaching various scientific subjects for the adolescents.

It was strange at times. Their religions were strange, and many at first were reluctant to consider improving on ancestral physiology. For some reason, they considered their bodies to have been the work of some intelligent force or deity rather than their ancestors acclimating to an environment through natural selection and other evolutionary processes. Regardless of whether the universe was the product of some divinity, it was clear that ancestral humans had been molded to breed and die, not enjoy life or engage in learning. Ancestral humans were shaped to enjoy life or engage in learning to some extent of course, but only what was instrumental to reproduction.

Mona dabbled in ancestral human psychology in order to learn why they held such strange beliefs. She’d known vaguely that ancestral humans were prone to cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning, and to be fair even enhanced humans were not always perfect logicians, but it was a shock to see the experiments on ancestral psychology showing the prevalence of confirmation bias, self-serving bias, and others. Their memories were also far less reliable than enhanced humans, many tended to forget events that portrayed themselves negatively or look back on the past with rose-colored glasses.

It was no wonder why most of them didn’t realize the good enhancement would do for them. With modern gene therapy, even ancestral adults could receive enhancement, it wasn’t something reserved only for their descendants.

Eventually, as more months passed and Mona’s quintet accepted her choice to work in Terran aid, David mentioned her work.

It was during the night, as they lay in bed together after some satisfying sex. “I’ve heard that the FFA convinced some Terran cities to run fusion plants, impressive,” he said.

“Oh, I didn’t have much to do with that. The credit goes to Lǎo Yang, Frau Wagner, Mrs. Webb, and all their engineers. I’m just a teacher.”

“A teacher who probably taught the science behind those plants to those cities’ schoolchildren and prepared recorded lessons for others. Future power plant workers will end up learning from you.” David pointed out.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” Mona said, even as she smiled at the praise. “Why the interest in FFA? I thought you said the Terrans were a lost cause?”

He grinned and gave her a shrug. His sculpted body, the result of both enhancement and traditional exercise, made even that movement enticing. “Maybe I was wrong.”