Read Half Life Online

Authors: Hal Clement

Tags: #Science Fiction

Half Life

BOOK: Half Life


Hal Clement

To Robert E. Stearns, Jr., in memory of a lengthy discussion a few years ago as we sat on a bench in the exhibit room at the ConAdian World Science Fiction Convention.

Its precise effects on my thinking are far too labyrinthine for me to detail, or even remember completely.

Its connection with the events in this book would never have been believed by the late Immanuel Velikovsky, who seems to have been convinced that any such relationship should be direct and obvious.

The connections are there. Maybe you can spot some.

Thanks, Robert.

Table of Contents

Identifying the shapes, colors, and assembly dates of the segments in a million-piece but not quite completed jigsaw puzzle is probably impossible. Doing the same with the factors comprising a human being who has been around and active for over three-quarters of a century is much harder.

Chronologically, I suppose one starts with the parents who taught me and my sister the three Rs well before we started school in 1928, and were understandably miffed when our English usage deteriorated after that date. There were numerous grammar and high school teachers who contributed pieces, even ones I didn’t like, such as “Business” in high school, which are still in the picture.

There were college professors I remember well, such as Bart J. Bok, Donald H. Menzel, Fred L. Whipple, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and John Arrend Timm. There were many I don’t remember in much detail, but who certainly also contributed.

There were the taxpayers who provided my education degree under the G.I. Bill, and other taxpayers who supplied my chemistry M.S. via a National Science Foundation grant during the post-Sputnik panic.

There were science fiction writers and editors like John Campbell, Fred Pohl, Jack Williamson, and Neil R. Jones, and legions of fans who liked my work or criticized it usefully or both.

And latest—not last, I hope—there is Adam Goldberger, who, possibly with assistants and co-workers whose names didn’t show on the work sheets, confronted me during the preparation of this book with the most complete, challenging, detailed, and professional piece of copy-editing I have faced in fifty-seven years of writing. I know I have a good scientific background, and held my end up fairly well there; but I also thought I was a good speller. It’s just as well I reached for the dictionary when we disagreed. And grammar… Well, I’ve been sure for a long time that languages evolve, even in literate societies.

I’m grateful to them all, and apologize for the mistakes I still make; but of course a science fiction writer has to provide some sort of evidence that he may be human.

Northern Research Force
  1. In view of the common human tendency, when seeking to explain observations, to favor the first speculation which comes to mind, the following procedures will be observed by all ranks:
    1. No speculation by any member of the services will be reported to higher-ranking personnel unless accompanied by
      1. a comparably plausible alternative speculation, or
      2. a detailed procedure for testing the one proffered.
    2. if the said speculation occurs during a general discussion, either formal or informal, then (i) or (ii) may be delayed until after the end of the said discussion. Alternative ideas contributed by participants other than the originator of the speculation will be regarded as satisfying 1(a)(i) above.
  2. This rule is not intended to discourage speculation, which is recognized as a necessary first step in developing any body of knowledge, but to help preserve objectivity as far as possible in both private reasoning and public debate.
  3. The commander of any research unit, whether of observer or theoretician grade, is authorized and advised to use discretion in the detailed enforcement of this regulation.
  4. No punishment more serious than reprimand is to be inflicted for violation of this rule.
Rule X

This is not a formal regulation, and cannot be stated with real precision; but reference to “Rule X” in conversation or inferred thought of any person is pejorative. It may be used by anyone to anyone else regardless of any rank involved. The “rule” is to the effect that “I told you so” is unacceptable language. It presumably evolved in the hope of keeping scientific debate as free as possible from, or to delay as long as possible, the use of personalities.


The crew, or staff, whichever it should be called, of one of the oddest spacecraft ever to lift from Earth was as strange as the vessel itself. Not one of them had previous space experience. They were neither draftees nor volunteers; the best name might have been “persuadees.”

And none of them expected, or even very much hoped, to get back. Most of them knew they were dying, and had simply chosen to die usefully away from their home world.

The ship itself was a two-hundred-meter-diameter, slightly prolate sphere, with twenty remountable fusion thrusters distributed uniformly over its surface. It lifted very wastefully from Earth under its own thrust, docked with a supply station in medium orbit, and took on board every possible additional kilogram of water. It was then inserted into a minimum-energy Saturn trajectory.

There were fifty people aboard. All but three were dying and knew it, a far higher percentage of terminal cases than in Earth’s now drastically shrunken population. The crew number had been chosen by highly mathematical guesswork, with none of the mathematicians involved agreeing on appropriate assumptions or algorithms.

And few if any had taken their calculations seriously.

For almost two centuries, Earth’s population, human and otherwise, had been decreasing at a rate almost perfectly described by a 69.2-year half-life. Then, twenty-two years before, births had rather suddenly caught up with deaths, and the curve had become a nearly horizontal line.

Hard-line optimists promptly decided that the danger was over, and even praised the mysterious phenomenon which had delayed the climax of the earlier overpopulation crisis. Most of these quickly decided the Saturn mission would now require only a small crew. Even these, however, admitted the importance of finding the cause of the epidemics.

Others pointed out, however, that whatever the general population change, the fact that those who were going were nearly all terminally ill meant that a much smaller half-life should be used in figuring the crew number needed. Neither group ever mentioned publicly that no number of people which could be carried in any practical spacecraft, even with construction and energy costs nearly negligible, could be large enough for half-life calculations to mean anything at all.

This was demonstrated before the orbit of Mars had been passed. Erroneous planning of some of the equipment seeds had been recognized, including those for aircraft to explore Titan’s heavy atmosphere, and made it necessary to keep more of the staff active and at work during the five-and-a-quarter-year trip than had been planned. Eleven people instead of the “calculated” one or two were dead, their personalities remembered as friends and colleagues and their bodies preserved as data, before the rings could be seen clearly by the unaided eyes of the survivors. The orbit had been a minimum-energy Hohmann semi-ellipse; there was a vast amount of water on board, but most of it was intended for uses other than reaction mass.

Eighteen more—much closer to the guessed-at figure—were lost during the work inside Saturn’s radiation belt, while fragments of ice were being assembled and welded by careful squirts of water into a rough sphere with the original ship in the center. This went on until the ship and its personnel were shielded from particle radiation by half a kilometer of ice that was fairly solid, but not perfectly so; the fragments had not been melted before assembly and did not fit each other very well.

Two of the eleven, including one of the three not known to be terminal, could only be memorialized; their remains could not be salvaged or even found. The outside work, spotting and capturing construction material and repeatedly relocating thrusters so they remained on the outside of the growing ice ball, all the while exposed to particle radiation which no suit could keep out completely, had come closest to matching the half-life for this part of the task predicted before liftoff.

When the resulting station had been worked into orbit around Titan and the six unprotected and uninhabitable relay stations which allowed observation of any part of the big moon were in place, there were twenty-one survivors.

Not only were they not spacemen, they were not even scientists in the full sense of the word. At least, they were not
. They were well educated, well supplied with common knowledge, and familiar enough with the cause-and-effect reasoning needed for research to be able to plan scientific work. None, therefore, was seriously inclined toward supernaturalism, and they had a vast information store in the Station on which to base their thinking.

Figuring the seventeen-plus-year half-life which corresponded to the loss on the way out, the nine-month one for the construction deaths, and the nine-year combination which covered the whole Earth-to-station period was mere mental arithmetic to any of them, unless one of the many new Alzheimer’s syndrome varieties made someone forget ln2—and that number could always be supplied by Status, their information bank. They, too, attached no weight to the figures; if the calculations had not been trivial, no one would have attempted them. They were like calculating the weight of Earth’s atmosphere to settle a minor bet.

Their ailments were under the best available control. They could—probably counting out any Alzheimer’s victims—take care of the general run of foreseeable emergencies. If advice—not physical help—was required they could probably afford the roughly three hours needed to send a question to Earth and get an answer.

Or rather, roughly three hours plus the time needed for a repeatedly decimated and largely panicked humanity to find an answer. When this totaled too long, or the problem occurred during the period every twelve and a half months when the Sun cut off communication for a few days, ingenuity and imagination would have to serve.

Contact was to be carefully maintained with home, since the staff would almost certainly never get back themselves. Whatever they learned, however,
reach the rest of humanity. Even if they didn’t learn what they had been sent for, any possibilities they might eliminate could be critical for future planning.

Their mission was easily stated: Fill the information gaps between the mineral and biological worlds. This seemed logical, if not exactly hopeful. After all, if flying machines suddenly develop a fifty-percent-per-flight crash rate and flight is still necessary, one studies the
basic physics
of aeronautical engineering as well as the wreckage. When life itself is failing, the need for basics, probably chemical this time, is even more critical.
was wrong with life processes in general; the decay curve, with only modest differences in half-life, applied to most nonhuman species as well.

When the station finally began operation, its staff consisted of:

Corporal Cheru Akagawa
Corporal Ludmilla Anden
Sergeant Gene Belvew
Corporal Marilyn Carla
Major Maria Collos
2nd Lieutenant Olivia D’Arnot
1st Lieutenant Emil diSabato
Dr. Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Donabed (presumed healthy)
Sergeant John Paul Finn
Colonel Arthur Goodall
Sergeant Barn Inger
1st Lieutenant Carla lePing
Corporal Peter Martucci (presumed healthy)
Major Louis Mastro
Corporal Marahla Nemaya
1st Lieutenant James Skokie
Recorder Status, bank of factual and fictional information
Corporal Jenny Vannell
Corporal Xiawen Wei
Major Jennifer Xalco
Captain Seichi Yakama
Corporal Phyllis Zonde

Their ranks stemmed from a century-old attempt to organize along military lines the research obviously needed to salvage humanity. Noncommissioned ranks were “observers”; officers were “theoreticians.”

The distinction, and much else of the military flavor of science, had blurred badly during the twenty-two-year flattening of the population decay curve. The resumption of the drop on Earth, with a noticeably shorter half-life, during the trip to Saturn failed to clear the blur in the least, though many people suddenly began complaining that the ship and crew as planned had been far too small. Humanity might be dying, but otherwise wasn’t changing much.

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