PLACE: INTERPLANETARY COLONIAL ACCESSIONS DEPOT
TIME: 0445 HOURS
DATE: ALTERNATE NEAR FUTURE
Okay, kids, wake the hell up. I know you’ve been sitting in those desks since zero-four-hundred, wondering what the hell is going on, but never forget that you volunteered to be here. Nobody is making you do this. If you want to, you can go directly out that door in the back of the room, call your mommy or your daddy to come pick you up, then go home to your comfy little beds . . . No?
Right. Good. Now, pay attention. This is your official inprocessing brief.
A few days ago, the New Horizons probe did a close fly-by of the (dwarf) planet Pluto. Did you see the news? The pictures? I know, Pluto kinda gets lost in the shuffle — what with all the politicized, hyperbolic, narrative-laden bulls*** they cram into your brains all day. If it’s not the snooze news, it’s social media — where the way you change the world is by clicking your mouse, then giving yourself a hug. Because you care so much. No, don’t bother denying it. You’re children of your era, I know that’s how the game works. Virtue-signaling. Slacktivism. Never get your hands dirty.
Well, be prepared to get some soil under your nails, boys and girls. Because Pluto is where we’re ultimately headed. And beyond. Not with robots. But with human beings.
See, we used to be the kind of people who knew about frontiers. They were dangerous, wild places where a guy could literally lose himself. For a tiny period in the 1960s and early 1970s, we almost recaptured the dream. The moon truly is a harsh mistress. Like all frontiers, it’s mighty unforgiving on the careless, and the stupid. No room for politically correct doublethink. You either get it right, or you die. Mistakes — even the little ones — are fatal. Not an environment that’s terribly kind to Speshul Sparklee Snowflakes. Going to the moon requires engineering, guts, skill, and no small degree of stoicism.
I repeat: guts, skill, and stoicism.
When is the last time we cared about these things? And I mean, really cared? As a people?
Because the moon is just a puddle jump. Mars, the Jupiter system, and beyond, will require a quantum leap — not only in terms of dollars and infrastructure, but also in terms of civilizational grit. The fortitude and certainty we used to have, when we were still pioneers. The kind of cultural granite that our Speshul Sparklee Snowflakes are eagerly erasing from our collective consciousness.
Doubt me? I know some of you have had some college recently. Raise your hands. Were there designated safe spaces? Gender-flexible bathrooms? Was there free microaggression counseling? Did they teach you about how capitalism is evil? Were you warned to check your privilege?
Okay, put your hands down. Those questions were mostly rhetorical. Take my word for it. Once you pass through this facility, all that poofy s*** is over. Am I clear? Over.
See, I just shocked you. Your faces gave it away.
Let me step back for a sec. I know it’s pure heresy for me to suggest that running around like spoiled children — shrieking and crying every time something rubs you even a little bit the wrong way — is not just a bad idea, but a complete failure of moral fiber. It’s the truth, though. You cannot be a pussy and make it to the stars. I repeat: you cannot be a pussy and make it to the stars. You can have a pussy, fine. You just can’t be a pussy.
There, shocked you again. Get used to it.
See, our ships aren’t made of wood anymore, but the men still have to be made of iron. Women too, frankly. The fact you have a vagina doesn’t give you a free pass. That officer who filed you in here? Remember her? The one with the small scar on her chin? Mean look on her face? The one who didn’t smile back at you? Did she seem like the kind of person who pulls her dress up over her head when life gets uncomfortable? No, I don’t think so either.
She’s sturdy folk. The kind of woman who, one-hundred-and-seventy years ago, could put her husband and two babies into the ground, then let the tears freeze on her face as she kept the oxen and the wagon headed toward the snow-blown sunset.
Not that sturdy folk — men and women alike — aren’t still among us. They can often be found working in the ranks of our militaries and our blue-collar services: fire departments, police departments, emergency medical response teams, and so forth. They’re on the farms and ranches in fly-over country. They do your plumbing and your electricity. They pour cement and frame houses. They drink beer and watch sports and tell dirty jokes, and talk about their last deployment with the Guard or Reserve. They cringe and bite their tongues every time some yammering, pampered weenie in a suit gets on TV and lectures them about what terrible people they all are. Because they didn’t grow up in a tony upper-middle-class suburban world, going to tony upper-middle-class lib-arts colleges, where they got tony upper-middle-class degrees in Hating America.
But sturdy folk are the only chance civilization’s got.
Doubt me? Check it out.
Once upon a time, such folk left the western side of the Appalachians behind, and within a century they tamed a continent. The descendants of those pioneers endured the Great Depression, then went on to beat the Imperial Japanese, Nazi Germany, face off with the Soviet Russians and Red Chinese during the Cold War, and put spacecraft on the moon — just sixty-six years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
Something else: sturdy folk don’t give a damn if you’re male, female, trans, gay, straight, black, white, brown, red, or purple-polka-dotted. Sturdy folk only care about two things — are you reliable, and can you maintain your nerve and your sense of humor when the s*** hits the fan? ‘Cause I can tell you right now, the flakey ones, and squirrely ones, the brittle ones, and the people with chips on their shoulders, they’re going to be gunning for a little airlock justice. Do I need to go into detail about what I mean when I say airlock justice?
Good, I didn’t think so. This is the deal: we all piss yellow, we all s*** brown, and we all bleed red. Someone hacks you off? If it’s not a mission-critical issue, forget it. Water on a duck’s back. This ‘aint about you and your ego. Your feelings don’t matter. Keep your noses out of business that ‘aint yours to mind, especially among your crewmates, and you’ll be fine. But the minute you think you deserve an exception, you become a danger to not only yourself, but everyone else around you. Again, this is no place for Speshul Sparklee Snowflakes.
Now, you may be thinking, there’s no frontier anymore. The whole Earth has been swallowed up in the 21st century web of technology and ultra-convenience. Besides, your history teachers taught you that pioneers were evil, genocidal, racist maniacs, destroying Gaia and Her peaceful tribes. Right?
I see you nodding your heads.
Well, this is the place where you will unlearn much of what was spoon-fed to you by people who aren’t qualified to poor warm piss out of a cold space boot, even with the instructions stenciled on the heel.
The frontier still lives. Pioneering still lives. It lives right here in our hearts.
If we could just boost a few thousand sturdy folk into Earth orbit . . . no, not just Earth orbit. Think bigger. The asteroid belt. Endless mountains of raw ore. Drifting. Waiting. It’ll take a blue-collar, can-do attitude to harness that untapped river of iron, silver, platinum, gold, and titanium. Haul a few of those rocks back home. Set up the interplanetary shipyards overhead. Get the emigration bureaus churning. Are you good with your hands? Do you have a sharp mind? Can you be taught to do technical things under difficult conditions? Can you take and obey orders, from people who’ve earned the right to give them?
Wait, don’t answer, we’ll test your asses — to be sure. No trophies for participation, on the accessions exams. You’ve either got what it takes, or you don’t. So keep on your toes.
Here, I want you to look at this picture on the big screens in front of you. See that ball? That’s Charon, Pluto’s runty sibling. There’s a dark blotch at the top. See it? Good.
Ladies and gentlemen, some day — maybe in fifty years? Maybe in a hundred and fifty? — we simply will walk into Mordor!
But not until after we’ve sweated, bled, and died for the right to do so.
Yup, I said it. Death. No pioneering effort can escape it. We lost three good men with Apollo, and almost lost three more. We lost fourteen people with the shuttle. Both of those programs had thousands of specialists and billions of dollars working to ensure the crews were as safe as possible, and it wasn’t enough to make things foolproof. Where we’re all going in the future, there will be even greater risks, using even more cutting-edge technology, to strive for higher goals. So make no mistake about it. Men and women are going to lose their lives. Remember that giant wall of little empty plackards you passed when you came in the door today? We expect to fill the whole thing with names, and then some. Some of you sitting in this room, might be up there eventually.
Don’t get scared — it’s all in a day’s work. Your great-great-grandfathers used to walk I-beams in the sky over New York, thirty stories up, without so much as a single safety belt. And just like your great-great-grandfathers, you’ll have plenty of caffeine, nicotine, porn, and poker cards; to help you cope. They did it. I have faith that each and every one of you, sitting in those desks, can do it too. You just have to want it. You just have to have the will. Again, it don’t make a damned bit of a difference if you’re male, female, trans, straight, gay, brown, white, or purple-polka-dotted. The only thing that matters is, you can’t be yellow down your spine.
Alright, that’s the end of the brief. If you’re a Speshul Sparklee Snowflake, please depart to your rear — and don’t ever dare show your face in my depot again; not until you’ve gotten over yourself, and have grown a pair.
But if you’ve got what it takes . . . first door behind me — your front — please. Single-file. When the accessions battery is concluded, we’ll feed you lunch, prior to giving you your results. After that, they will laser-size you for your space suit, issue equipment, and coveralls. Pick up your space-standard foot locker at the end of the building, right before you exit onto the tarmac. Those lockers are heavy. Don’t worry. One end has wheels.
The training shuttles will be waiting.
AUTHOR NOTE: the audiobook of my Baen novel The Chaplain’s War is now on sale through Audible.com’s HIDDEN GEMS promotion — good through August 6, at a very generous price of $3.95 US. Click the cover link to get your copy!