PROJECT ARES 

Everyone in their heart knows where humanity is heading: complete and utter ruin. It's just a matter of when, not if the end comes. Billions upon billions of people, half slowly starving and the rest diseased by their inability to stop stuffing their faces with material abundance, all living on one tiny rock and who for all their pretensions of progress, still depended on little more than burning glorified dinosaur dung to enjoy the supposed achievements of modern civilization. Who really expects that to end well?

No, no one disagrees that humanity has neared the end, only about how the Fall will finally come. It won't be America's never ending war in the Middle East that's always ostensibly about something other than oil. Not even another rogue Russian nuke like the one that wiped out that forgettable city in one of the "stans" five years ago. No humanity is too numerous and determined to succumb simply to war. All our insistent efforts to kill each other are still dwarfed by that oldest of enemies: disease.

Make no mistake: it was our own arrogance that has led us here and unless corrected, will inevitable lead to the Fall. The arrogance to hope against all rational expectation that China would not cheat every climate accord and render meaningless our feable attempts to preserve the only home we have ever known. The arrogance that we could endow billions of humans with the tools to trade nature's bounty, a gift we neither fully understand nor deserve, for the pleasures of short term gain.

Thousands of years ago our ancestors in the Pacific Northwest worked little more than a dozen hours a week to hunt salmon and pluck berries from the bountiful bushes lining her streams, leaving ample time for the important things in life. And it is in our arrogance that we have turned away from such gifts for the false progress of fast food and burning dinosaur dung to move our fat bodies rather than simply using our feet.

The only way forward for us as humanity is to turn our backs on modern conveniences, not singularly or even as an organization, but in mass and in total. The important thing now is for us to have the will to follow through on what truly is required...

-Rant by "Demosthenes" on Reddit.com/r/ExtinctionRebellion, November 5, 2026

Elton Minx flipped off his laptop and looked out over the sprawling megalopolis of San Francisco and the Bay beyond.

Millions of souls, blissfully going about their daily lives, too busy with the latest cat videos to look up, let alone alter the inevitable.

That nut Demosthenes had gotten one thing right. Everyone really was certain mankind was doomed, regardless whether they wanted to admit it to themselves.

Yet he couldn't help but crack a small smile. He had a secret up his sleeve that would save humanity and prove them all wrong.

Earth might be hurtling towards disaster, but that wasn't the only option...

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."


The fall and the flight

February 2, 2032
Low Martian orbit

"...Humanity matters. As the only intelligent life form we know of, mankind literally gives meaning to the universe and 'no we will not go quietly into that good night but rage, rage'--"

Jessica turned off the recording of the ceremony sending off ships to the first Mars colony five years ago and floated across her pod. They were about to enter Martian orbit, and she was stoked at the prospect of enjoying gravity again. Of course, there was the minor matter of landing safely on Minx's private planet.

But heh, what was an interstellar vagabond sneaking into Mankind's Last Best Hope supposed to do?

The ship jerked as it entered the atmosphere. The road to utopia was bumpy indeed. Jessica half smiled. Back on Earth people didn't even have the luxury of taking this chance. It was already decided for them.

All the supposed experts debated the origin of the plague -- the byproduct of next gen GMOs or ecoterrorists subscribing to that Earth first clap trap -- but no one could ignore it's consequences. All were equal before the gray death. The rich scrambled to escape the cities but nowhere was safe. It decimated Seattle and small villages alike.

She could still remember the years before the plague came to the West Coast. Those were happy times, tinkering away in the lab. Sure thew world was falling apart but it was all seemed so distant. She and her friends would see the news about America's second default and the third invasion of Afganistan.

It felt like the end of days because it was -- no matter how much President Will Farrel tried to make light of the situation. And at home traffic just got steadily worse in her LA commute as more and more people used self driving cars to run errands like drop off dry cleaning and pick up groceries from the Amazon Now lockers.

Sure the problems were obvious but what could anyone really do? The voting in the VR show America's Top Gamer felt more democratic. She could still do her research and like everyone else she could escape into the latest immersive virtual worlds whenver reality got too dull. So she tweeted her anger into the void like everyone else and little more.

Politics was something out of the control of normal people like herself, let alone something someone with scientific talent should dirty themself with. And now she needed to convince the man who literally mastered the universe to offer more help to the people of Earth. It was a strange mission, befitting the dire circumstances. The United Nations scrambled scientists and resources to find a cure.

As the plague worsened, some suggested Earth's leaders ask the new colony on Mars for assistance. Hope sprung eternal in humanities best and brightest, even if they were eight light minutes away. Elton put his top people to help with the insatiable gray death, but many back on Earth thought Project Ares still did not grasp the gravity of the situation.

So Jessica and a few friends at JPL decided to retrofit an old rocket in a last ditch effort to talk to Minx in person. One of the older engineers recounted stories about how track two Russian-American diplomacy averted nuclear war in the Trump years to keep up morale and remind everyone of the importance of the mission. The human race literally was counting on them.

When the question came up of who to send, the team approached it with logical precision. She scored the highest in emotional intelligence in the NASA HR algorithms. Plus Dr. Locke had authored several compelling arguments for Martian assistance that were being retweeted across the interwebs. So it was a unanimous team decision that she should go. Sweet reason, the last hope of humanity on Earth.

Mars' artificially thick atmosphere slowed her craft more and more. The capsule's parachute deployed. All systems were still nominal. Good.

Jessica loved this ship and the spirit it represented. A small team with the skills and the right stuff to transform an aging NASA rocket into an interstellar envoy. And now their work had carried her all they way to Minx's doorstep.

The parachute ejected and airbag ballooned. Four giant bounces and she couldn't help a wide grin. Then suddenly, the air lock opened and a masked technician wearing an all white jumpsuit with an Ares colony logo appeared.

"Dr. Locke come with me."

Humanity's last, best hope

February 3, 2032

The Ares operations team put the new Astronaut in confined quarters while tests for Gray Death could be run.

"So it seems we have another PhD on the planet? I suppose we will have to make an exception to the standard intake protocol. Dr. Locke certainly has impressive qualifications.

A Putnum winner and lead scientist at JPL is no trivial accomplishment -- particularly these days back on Earth. And no one else has ever been so bold to just show up at Mars base! At any rate, once she clears the nanotech tests, take our visitor to the main conference room when she's awake."

"Of course Mr. Minx."

Elton still remembered the first time he came here. He famously did not die on impact. Instead he touched down at the main base of Project Ares and was rather routinely shuttled in a rover to the biosphere.

The fifty odd staff at his new headquarters stood at alert, hope and even adoration gleeming from their eyes. Of course, Mars was only three percent terraformed. Elton was not happy with the progress. He had let that be known.

Still the surface would hardly be recognizable. What remained of the polar ice caps was a radioactive wasteland. From those ashes a new world emerged grew stronger each and every day. Perhaps that was why the uniform of every Project Ares member had a pheonix emblazened on its right breast pocket.

 

The future is already here. Now is the time to distribute it
 

The main conference room doors opened to Elton staring out above the planes beyond Olympus Mons.

Jessica Valentine Locke, PhD in aerospace engineering, strode in.

"Dr. Locke, I'm glad you came. We have much to--"

"Yes Mr. Minx I've been sent from Earth. The gray death has accelerated more rapidly than anyone could imagine."

"That is unfortunate though perhaps inevitable given the state of human affairs down there. Did you ever drive on the 405 in LA?"

She wasn't sure how to respond. It just seemed so irrelevant. After a pause, "yes?"

"That freeway drove me insane. Fifteen years to add a lane to a freeway that they built in less than three! I sent the city plan after plan after plan for a tunnel with electric autonomous buses and all were ignored."

"I'm not sure I see where you're going Elton."

"Jessica you're not viewing Earth's present difficulties with the proper perspective. You see Project Ares aspires to much more than Mars colonization. It's always aimed at the salvation of the human race. That freeway is only a small example highlighting how far our so called leaders on Earth have lost their way. Just look at the unending wars in the middle East. The crusades were shorter."

Jessica stared for what felt like minutes at the man she thought she knew. The world knew Eltonas the engineer that built an internet company in his garage and against all odds, built a technology empire everyone thought was building a sustainable future for the human race.

"I'll cut to the chase.

"But why? Millions have died! Millions more will die if we don't do something."

"You're not thinking big enough. Try billions. But what is that against the thousands of years of human history that are now possible! What alternative did I have? Wait another decade while our wimpy political leaders dither and squable over petty differences that ultimately only paper over the inevitable? Decline and dashed hopes as we lapse into squalor and wait for this whole charade to collapse like the Mayans? And yes I will take resposnsibility, even though drones disbursed the gray death."

Jessica's mouth opened in horror. She heard the words but she could not comprehend how that could be possible.

But what about all those people!" Jessica blurted out. She thought of all her friends and family back on Earth: her brother Jason, scantly eighteen and about to head off on a two year fellowship to the Sahel. Also her colleagues at JPL, so full of hope and idealism. "We developed space technology to save humanity, not kill it!"

Elton smiled knowingly.

"And that's precisely what we've done. Everyone on Earth has been dead a long time already. Can you seriously not see how with nuclear and bio and nano technology that possibility is what truly is unthinkable?

I happen to believe humanity matters. So yes, I killed billions. But in order to save a hundred generations from misery and war. What are the deaths of a single moment in the eons of human history compared against the clear fact that once again we have a future! Humanity can push out beyond earth, comfortable that its survival is ensured, offering an infinite future of abundance, peace and prosperity."

Jessica, a woman scarcely third five, stood still. The weight of human history made even the air heavy.

"You can relax Doctor. This isn't a James Bond movie. The gray death is inevitable at this point. The nanomachines will complete their work within the week."

Dr. Locke stared at him. "You're a monster." She shut the door behind her.

After Ares

February 17, 2033

A drone whirled over fields of gray, what a year ago had been San Francisco. It circled over the bay then landed at the new habitation where thousands of the new colonists had set up camp.

Jessica Valentine Locke hated Minx with every fiber of her soul. Everyone she knew was dead. Yet now the only thing left to do was rebuild. Today the team was setting up their command center and integrating the still intact grid. Tomorrow they would plan how to leverage the unused gigawatts to start servers back up across the globe.

The biotech group was already operationalizing neural prothesises in everyone, and the team was breathlessly trading excited tips on how to best use the new computers in their brains. The synthesis of natural and artificial intelligence held limitless potential.

Everyone was confident all the old impossible scientific challenges would melt into air with this quantum leap in intelligence. And soon humanity would venture forth beyond its new homes on Mars and New Earth across the solar system. Push out further and further. No wars or red tape or traffic to get in the way. Just pure discovery.

The possibilities were intoxicating, a whole world bright and fresh and new, ready to be sculpted as one might make a new capsule back in her JPL days. A simple life of exploration with friends that was anything more natural that the overpopulated ticking time bomb that was the early twenty first century.

The sun rose, light shining through the newly 3D printed habitats. Gray specks floated in the wind, thousands of years of human history flickered away. Humanity's new era had begun.
 

Context: Is there a space in effective altruism for speculative fiction?

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