There’s an old Chinese fable about a farmer who had to journey around two mountains to get his produce to market, adding many unnecessary miles to his trip. One day, he decided that it would be easier to go through the mountains instead and vowed to move the hilly giants himself.
Upon hearing this, a wise man asked him how he would achieve this. He explained that he would move it one stone at a time. The wise man calculated that the length of time it would take to move the mountains, would take longer than several generations of delivering crops using the current route. Knowing this, the farmer concurred with the wise man, further explaining that for centuries, the old ways had been followed without question, but there comes a time when new ways must replace the old. Overhearing this conversation, the titans that oversaw the mountains reported this to the emperor, who commanded them to intervene and move the mountains themselves. They each grabbed a mountain and moved them far away. The farmer was overjoyed and philosophised that one must work hard to eventually get what is desired. With the new route to market now opened, the Farmer and his family saw great prosperity and were able to feed all of China. However, when the first rains came during storm season, a giant flood rushed through the newly created valley unhindered, permanently destroying the farmer’s fields and crops… Unable to re-plant his crops, he died hungry and poor.
The moral of this story is not that you must work hard to get the things you want. It’s that, if one works hard, then one must also work wisely.
"Captain Pike, san."
Kitahachi Koji bowed slightly, interrupting the small Scrum meeting, as he addressed the chief scientist at the Joint Space Agency (JSA).
Philip Kevin Caldwell – aka Captain Pike – had overseen the JSA for over ten years, heading up projects such as Ceres I & II, the first water extraction projects on the ice planet; Mars Orbiter I, the first multinational space station orbiting Mars, and the current mission of landing a robot colony on Pluto (ROP-I).
“What is it, Kit?”
“…You need to see this, sir.”
When Pike first took on the job at the newly formed JSA, he did so with the knowledge and experience of fifteen years as the leading launch and return specialist at SpaceX. Awarded multiple commendations for his flawless record of successful project launches and returns; the current three colonies on Mars, owed their very existence to his precise calculations and calm manner during the several crises that cropped up along the Milky way. The ninety-six-year-old Elon Musk had personally congratulated him via the well-established iHollo application – the new Hollonet’s version of the old Internet’s Zoom meeting app. It was a testament to the advancement of technology that Pike could chat to the retired creator of SpaceX in a real-time, holographic environment, as if they were both in the same room. More amazing was the zero-lag time in conversation between Pike on earth, and the man who opened the doors to space migration; sitting in his 3D printed, mobile habitat, at the base of Olympus Mons, on the surface of Mars.
Putting a team together at JSA needed a high level of diplomatic skill. The agency depended on funds from many governments around the globe, and each one required their own political prerequisites be met before releasing funds. Part of their demands required a certain number of home-grown scientists and engineers to be involved.
To Pike, this was no issue. He came from a family of philanthropists, dating back to the dark days of slavery. Each generation learned from the previous one that life was precious, and wherever there were unjustly practices, the Caldwell Foundation would be there to fight for what is right. This became more apparent when in 2047, the foundation – run by Pike’s younger brother, Jeff; raised a private army of Middle-Eastern mercenaries, becoming the first foreign occupier of Afghanistan to defeat the new Mujiban and return the country to a lasting state of peace.
Pike held those traditional beliefs and teachings close to his heart. He wanted the best of the best on his crew, so their national background did not matter. It took eleven months to assemble his team of thirty scientists, ninety engineers, and twenty-seven astronauts. The resulting team at JSA boasted a melting pot of the best brains in Intergalactic science and exploration, capable of achieving whatever they set out to do.
“It’s gone!” A bewildered Koji spluttered.
“What do you mean?”
“Pluto, sir… it fell out of orbit.”
“Illogical,” Pike responded in a Star Trek’s, Spock-esque retort. He often recited Trekkie dialogue when confronted with challenging news. This had prompted some colleagues to use his first two initials to spell out and nickname him, Pike – the first captain of the starship Enterprise in the classic TV series, Star Trek. So many Trekkie quotes had been referenced through the years, that the unofficial motto on the main JSA building, read ‘To Boldly Go Where No Human Has Gone Before,’ a slight misquote of Captain Kirk’s introductory narration. Believing the quote to be sexist, ‘Man’ was changed to ‘Human.’ The agency had certainly lived up to the motto, and their Captain Pike had always successfully led them across many uncharted territories throughout his tenure.
Pike hurried to project controls’ large, holo-screen display in the centre of a circular set-up of consoles and seating that made up JSA’s Ground Control. Using a combination of hand signals and finger points, the holographic projection of Earth’s live solar system spun and rotated with each of Pike’s air-controlled gestures.
“Why can’t I locate it?”
Pike’s bewildered question drew more team members over to the affectionately labelled, ‘Round Table’ - coined by a history professor assigned to the first JSA project.
Frantically searching for traces of the dwarf planet like someone rummaging through the junk draw in a kitchen, Pike issued instructions to log into the latest in space telescopy, the ElonGate; the most powerful space telescope in Earth’s modern history - named after its inspirational space pioneer. If that couldn’t find a planet-sized object hurtling through space, then nothing would.
Lili T’ien had just returned from her own iHollo call - to her father in Guangdong, China. She had been updating him on her investigational monitoring of unusual radio waves emanating from beyond earth. It was a task assigned to her when some of earth’s ground-based radar dishes picked up pulsating signals that interfered with certain classified wavelengths JSA depended on for clear communications.
Lili’s father had been an Astro scientist for six decades. Comrade T’ien had founded the Beijing based, ‘Yugong Industries;’ a politburo-controlled organisation. Its name derived from a character in an old Chinese proverb that goes:
“The man who moved a mountain was the one who began carrying away small stones.”
Celebrating its own small pebbles of progress, the top-secret project hoped to create a new propulsion force that required no moving parts or fuel – just radio waves.
Starting with monorail-based trains, the project grew to experimenting on small aircraft, then moved into launching spy satellites with the technology. No-one outside of the centrally controlled, Chinese space community knew about this new propulsion system. The government long ago, had stopped video broadcasting of satellite launches, citing protection of the people’s intellectual property as the reason. This allowed the national space agency (CNSA) to secretly grow the technology into a more powerful force. The full intentions of this technology were initially unclear. The CNSA hoped to use it for interstellar travel – with the long-term goal of achieving close to light speed velocities. The government… well, they were undecided.
In the year 2060 – using radio wave propulsion - the CNSA launched twelve spacecraft loaded with space station modules into deep space. On these craft was the experimental Yugong Propulsion System, tested only in smaller capabilities. Immensely powerful, deep space provided a safe environment that avoided the risk of unintentional catastrophic aftershocks on Earth.
Using an innovative hybrid of their propulsion technology, the flotilla of Chinese spacecraft reached their destination at sub-light speed in an astonishing five weeks, then parked in a stationary orbit at the other side of Pluto. Back on Earth, the CNSA hailed it as a new people’s revolution. Previous missions to Pluto had taken an average of eight years, so this indeed was world-shattering, with the potential to take humankind beyond the known stars in the stellar sky. Using this technology, new Earth-like planets could be finally be reached in a single lifetime.
Unaware of her father’s close ties to the Chinese central politburo, Lili had innocently provided him with JSA’s proprietary galactic charts, mapping out the solar system in Four Dimensions. If found out, Lili could face serious charges against her – innocent or not. For now, she was needed to engage the 4D mapping system and find the missing dwarf planet.
“Override international protocol and bring Hubble and Webb back online,” requested Lili.” “With ElonGate, let’s try and triangulate Pluto’s signature.”
Koji quickly tapped a set of commands into a virtual keyboard. Several studious moments passed before two satellite telescopes registered in the holo map.
“Contact established… booting up, now.”
Pike busily swiped, expanded, and flagged up the two telescopes as they came back from being mothballed. Still able to perform beyond expectations, both had made way for next generation space telescopes that utilised current technology.
“Picking up anything?”
“Not yet,” Lili responded – too focused on reading her data to look up at Pike.
“I detect unusual gravitational waves coming from the region of Neptune,” declared Koji.
“There’s an oddity in the radio waves as well,” added Lili.
“Hubble and Webb online now,” Koji interrupted.
Pike briefly studied the expanding 4D map. Being able to turn the solar system almost inside-out, allowed him to manipulate timelines, positions, and trajectories of planets. Before retiring the two legacy telescopes, it was decided to refit and transport them to two separate edges of the solar system, peering back at Earth, utilised to launch the new 4D mapping system; until newer technology came into use. The telescopes had been decommissioned only four months ago but remained idling on low power.
Out in deep space, Hubble’s positioning jets, silently activated, shifting its gaze; pointing its mirror towards the vicinity of a dense and gaseous, liquid ice planet, that takes 164.8 Earth years to orbit the sun. Simultaneously, The James Webb telescope also restarted. Within the past few minutes, in the vast expanse of deep space; the two telescopes had become giant, digital CCTV cameras, hungrily consuming the new information filling their onboard memory chips.
Dormant graphs and holographic maps began interpreting the data on JSA screens, responding to the fresh input of data.
“Bring up the visual from Hubble, please.”
Pike’s request still rung in the air as the real-time image from Hubble’s lens displayed a sight that immediately hushed the room. On the giant wall screen at the front of the control room, the live image of Neptune filled the chamber with its hazy blue colour, sending a collective, cold shiver through those staring at it.
As Pike slowly rotated the holo map, the realisation of what was being transmitted, caused him to squint and readjust his glasses. There was a planet-sized object spinning past Neptune – falling through space like a slow-motion replay of a ball travelling through the air.
“Koji, Is that?…”
The unmistakably large, dark red patch confirmed its identity.
“Pluto sir,” Koji incredulously blurted out. “It’s Pluto, sir!”
Looking at each of his team members, Pike held back his response. He could hardly believe this himself. With all his combined physics studies and experience, this was unprecedented – almost unreal.
“There’s something else,” Lili pointed out.
Pike examined a sector close to where Pluto should still be.
“Is that… a space station?”
Comrade T’ien stood humbly with head bowed; in front of the president of the people’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping II. He had been personally summoned to Beijing by the president.
The richly decorated state room was adorned with ancient, Ming Dynasty-era pottery, farming artifacts, and hand-painted murals depicting China’s history from the birth of the people’s revolution to present day. The patient president sat at the end of a long, oval teak conference table, the surface bare of any decoration but surrounded by twelve, uniquely hand carved chairs – each with part of a dragon carved into their back rests. Walking around the table, visitors would marvel at how each beautiful, singular piece transformed into the collective and powerful, mythical creature. A visual metaphor not lost on visiting dignitaries.
Seated at the first two chairs either side of Xi Jinping II, were four very serious-looking senior members of his politburo. It was obvious from the body language that Comrade T’ien was receiving a dressing-down from his superiors.
“How did this happen?”
“It was an accident, your Excellency,” explained Comrade T’ien. “At the moment of broadcast, the space stations’ stabilising jets blasted an unscheduled adjustment, shifting its axis. Instead of targeting one of the moons, it emitted a maximum wavelength pulse directly at the planet.”
One of the more serious looking of the president’s advisors, angrily stood up.
“This is incompetence of the highest degree!”
Comrade T’ien avoided any eye contact and concentrated his gaze at the floor.
“Our secret is now discovered. How do we explain this to the world?”
A small gesture of Xi’s hand returned the angry advisor to his seat.
“What do we tell the world, Comrade T’ien?”
Still averting his gaze, T’ien removed his watch from his wrist, placed it face up on the table, and touched a symbol on its display. Instantly, the watch projected a holographic version of the planets and their orbits – filling the space above the table.
“Regrettably, this is unavoidable, your excellency,” answered T’ien. By our calculations, the planet Pluto is on a collision course… with Earth. Our options are limited to one.”
The angry officials fell back into their chairs like deflating balloons, while Xi gathered his thoughts.
“I must inform the ambassadors immediately,” he assertively decided. “The People’s party will bear the responsibility. Transparency is truth... Let time be the ultimate judge of our actions.”
Pike awoke on the makeshift cot in his office at JSA. The dawning day delivered warming streaks of sunlight, streaming through his tinted windows; making it hard to sleep. It had been eight years since the discovery of Pluto’s orbital change, and China’s disclosure to the world. Pluto’s current position was now visible to the naked eye – each day guiding it closer to destiny. Avoiding any celestial intervention from another planet, Pluto had picked up speed from gravitational momentum, as it passed close to a few of the planets - on its way to Earth. Current analysis of its trajectory, had it skipping off Earth like a billiard ball; and that still classified it as an End of Days event.
For eight years, world powers had come together in an unprecedented sharing of information. The Chinese had confessed to the theft of JSA’s 4D celestial mapping system, subsequently sharing all their technical data – in an act of cultural contrition. Every government now had access to their once secret propulsion system. This led to the inspirational theory that what could be made to move, could also be made to stop.
It had taken over seven years to build an earth-based radio wave system - taking nearly one year to experiment on distant asteroids. Test results were encouraging; however, Earth’s scientists had only one opportunity to get it right. One solitary chance to save humankind.
In those tension filled years, new space industries had emerged – albeit, with potentially short lifespans. Their main purpose, to ferry as many people as they could off planet Earth to new lives on Mars’ growing community of colonies. Mars Transport Services – fully backed by the 104-year-old Elon Musk – handled the logistics of scheduling hundreds of the new Spaceships that had been built by several countries’ space programs. So far, over seven million humans now called Mars their home. Using Hubble and Webb, many new planets had been discovered. In a first for the human species, radio wave technology had sent a rocket filled with ninety-eight humans and supplies to an Earth-like exoplanet named, Proxima B. At sub-light speeds, the journey was expected to take nearly nine years, so the decision was made not to try the new, suspended animation pods. Instead, the ship carried extra supplies and building materials. An additional three supply crafts left Earth six months later, and to this date, both missions are operating at nominal levels – all thanks to Captain Pike – now, the head of Space-X-O-Dus, the habitable agency. Their motto? ‘To boldly live where no humans have ever lived before…’
The task of preventing Pluto from impact with Earth was given to Lili T’ien. Her valuable expertise - combined with the threat of impending doom - had saved her from prosecution. At the request of the Chinese government, she was to become head of ‘Deflect Pluto,’ the name given to her part of the mission.
What lies ahead for planet Earth is solely reliant on a technology created to propel objects across vast expanses of time and space. This is the first - and possibly the last - stone moved in Earth’s history. Many humans will survive. Perhaps, not on Earth. Perhaps out in the galaxy and beyond.
Perhaps one day – when looking up into a red sky, the children of Proxima B, or curious Martian settlers, will catch a partial glimpse of the blue marble once called home. Perhaps, all that may be visible will be the scattered remnants of a beautiful planet, drifting across the Milky Way.
One thing is for sure. The echoes of bygone radio waves will continue to carry the sounds of what Earth was really like…
…before the farmer decided to move his mountains.
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Hi Chris, I like the proverb at the beginning and how you've incorporated it throughout. Adding Elon Musk to the story is was funny and iHollo made me laugh too. Adding in Star Trek was a great touch too. I really liked this line "frantically searching for traces of the dwarf planet like someone rummaging through the junk draw in a kitchen." It gives the reader a nice visual. My critique is that your story is very information heavy. I understand that it's needed to set the scene, but I don't know that you need all of it. I think you c...
Hi Kate, Thanks for taking the time to read and critique my story. I'm guilty of loving back stories. Maybe suited for longer reads, but I'll take your suggestions with me as I develop my style further.
Welcome 🤗 I don’t think back stories are bad, but I would agree that they’re suitable for longer reads where you can pepper it throughout your story.