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Jack McDevitt

In hard science fiction there is a test that all writers must pass when constructing a future history—how do we get there from here? Jack McDevitt shows us not the first step into space, but maybe the first step back into space.  


The moon was big. It was an enormous gasbag of a moon, like the one Uncle Eddie used to ride down at the fair grounds, when she'd stand only a few feet away, watching it strain against the lines and then cut loose and start up. She used to wish for the day Uncle Eddie would take her soaring above the treetops, but he said he couldn't because of insurance problems and eventually the gasbag went down and Uncle Eddie went with it. Janie thought of that last flight as she gazed at the foreboding presence dominating the night sky. The moon looked as if it was coming down. It was dim, dim as in dark, not at all like the bright yellow globe that rides the skies of Earth. It was a ghost moon, a presence, a thing lit only by stars.

"If there were more light," said the voice in her earphones, the voice that sounded a bit too cheerful, "it would look silver and blue. Its name is Charon, and it's less than a third the diameter of our moon."

"Why does it look so big?" asked Daddy.

"Do you know how far the Moon is from the Earth?"

Daddy wasn't sure. "About a million miles," he said.

"That's close, Mr. Brockman." The AI was very polite.

"I think," said Janie, trying not to sound like a know-it-all, "it's 238,000 miles."

"That's very good, Janie. Right on the button. But Charon is only twelve thousand miles away."

Janie did the arithmetic in her head. Multiply by ten and Charon was still only half, one-twentieth of the distance of her moon. "It's close," she said. She'd known that, but hadn't understood the implications. "It's right on top of us."

"Very good, Janie," said the voice. It belonged to a software system that was identical to the AI that had made the later flights, the Iris voyages, the Challenger run, the Long Mission, and the circumsolar flight on the Eagle. All the data from those missions had been fed into it, so in a sense, it had been there.

Its name was Jerry. Same as the originals. The onboard AI was always Jerry, named for Jerry Dilworth, a popular late-night comic of an earlier era. Daddy had commented how much the voice sounded like Jerry Dilworth, for whom Daddy had a lot of affection.

The sky was dark. This place never really experienced daylight. She wondered what it would be like to live where the sun never rose.

"But it does rise," Daddy explained.

"I know," she said. He meant well, but sometimes he just seemed to go out of his way to misunderstand her. Of course it rose, and for all she knew it might be up there now among all those stars, but who could tell? It was no more than a light beam.

She lowered her gaze and looked out across the frozen surface, past the Rover. A few low hills broke the monotony of a flat snowfield. It was lonely, quiet, scary. Solitudinous. Janie liked making up new words from the vocabulary list.

The Rover was the sole man-made object on the planet. It looked like a tank, with sensors and antennas aimed in all directions. The International Consortium seal, a blue-white globe, was stenciled on its hull.

"It's really much lighter than it looks," said Jerry. "Especially here, where the gravity is light."

"Nobody's ever been to Pluto, Janie," said Daddy. "It's very far."

Of course no one had been to Uranus or Neptune either. But never mind.

A bright star appeared over the hills and began climbing. "Do you know what it is, Janie?" Jerry asked.

She was puzzled. Another moon? Was there a second moon she didn't know about?

Daddy put his hand on her shoulder. "That's the Ranger," he said.

Oh, yes. Of course. Given another moment she'd have thought of it herself. "I know, Daddy," she said.

" . . . Orbits Pluto every forty-three minutes and twelve seconds."

The place felt cold. She pulled her jacket around her shoulders. This little stretch of ground, the hills, the plain, the snow, had been like this for millions of years, and nothing had ever happened until the Ranger showed up. No dawn, no rain, nobody passing through.

"Once in a while," said Jerry, "the ground shakes a little."

"That's it?" asked Daddy.

"That's the whole shebang." Jerry waited, perhaps expecting another question. When no one said anything, he returned to his narrative: "The snow isn't the kind of snow you'd see at home. It's frozen carbon monoxide and methane. . . ."

He went on like that for a few minutes but Janie was no longer listening. When he paused she touched her father's arm. "Daddy, why did the missions stop?" The magazines said it was because there was no place else to go, but that couldn't be right.

"Oh, I don't know, honey," he said. "I think it was because they cost too much."

"In fact," said Jerry, "unmanned missions are much more practical. Not only because it's a lot cheaper to send an instrument package rather than a person, but also because a lot more can be accomplished. They're safe, and the scientific payoff is considerably better."

"That's right," said Daddy.

"People can't go on deep-space missions without getting damaged. Radiation. Zero gravity. It's a hostile environment out there."

This was the reason Janie had come. To put her question to the machines that ran the missions. To get it straight from the horse's mouth. "Jerry," she said, "I can understand why you would like to go, but what's the point of running the missions if we have to stay home?"

She could almost hear Jerry thinking it over. "It's the only practical way," he said finally, "to explore the environment. But it's a good way. Most bang for the buck. And nobody gets hurt."

Daddy squeezed her hand.

"Seen enough, Janie?" the AI asked.

She didn't answer. After a moment the snowscape and the Rover blinked off and she was sitting with sixty or so people in the viewing room. Music started playing and the audience began talking and getting up and heading for the doors. A group of teens in front of her were deciding about going down to the gift shop for a snack. Somebody in back wondered where the bathroom was.

"That was pretty good," said Daddy.

They drifted out with the crowd. Janie had never been to Washington before, had never been to the Smithsonian. She'd done the virtual tour, of course, but it wasn't like this, where she could touch a coffee cup that had been to Europa, pass through the cabin of the Olympia, from which Captain D'Assez had looked down for the first time on the Valhalla impact basin. She could try on a suit like the one that Napoleon Janais had worn on Titan. And stand before the Mission Wall, where plaques honored each of the thirty-three deep-space flights.

They wandered down the shining corridors, lined with artifacts and images from the Space Age. Here was a cluster of antennas from Archie Howard's transmit station in the Belt, where he'd directed operations for almost a year until someone decided that mining asteroids wasn't really feasible and the whole project collapsed. And Mark Pierson's jacket, with the logo for Jupiter VI, the mission which had made it back leaking air and water while the entire world watched breathlessly. And a replica of the plaque left on Iapetus. Farthest from home. Saturn IX. August 3, 2066. 

There were portraits of Yuri Gagarin, Gus Grissom, Christa McAuliffe, Ben MacIntyre, Huang Chow, Margaret Randauer, the whole range of heroes who had taken the human race out toward the stars over the course of almost a century.

"Are we ever going back, Daddy?" she asked.

He looked puzzled. "Home, you mean? Of course."

"No. I meant, to the moon. To Mars. To Europa."

Daddy was a systems technician in a bank. He was more serious than the other kids' dads. Didn't like to play games, although he tried. He even pretended he enjoyed them but she knew he would rather be doing something else than playing basketball with her. But he never yelled at her, and he encouraged her to say what she thought even if they might not share the same opinion. It was hard for him. She couldn't remember her mother, who had died when she was two. He studied her, and then looked around at the pictures of Luna Base, of a crescent Jupiter, of Deimos, of a launch gantry at the Cape. "I don't think so, darling," he said.

They were standing just outside the exhibition hall, which contained a mock-up of Mars Base. She could see part of the dome, a truck, and an excavation site.

"There's no point in people going," Daddy was saying. "Robots can do everything we can, can go anywhere, and it's safer."

"Daddy, I'd love to see Charon. Really see it."

"I know. We all would, love." She could tell he had no idea what she was talking about. "The money that's been saved by not sending people out there has been put into doing real science. Long-range missions to the edge of the solar system. And beyond." He smiled, the way he did when he was going to do a joke. "Of course, I won't be here when the long ones get where they're going. But you will. You'll get to see pictures of whatever's at Alpha Centauri and, what is it, Something-Eridani. That wouldn't have happened if we'd stayed with the manned program." He waited for a response. "Do you understand what I'm saying, Janie?"

"Yes, Daddy."

Where, Janie wondered, was Hal Barkowski?

"He was something of an embarrassment," said Daddy. "I think they'd just as soon everyone forgot him."

Hal was the father of artificial intelligence. He'd been Janie's hero as far back as she could remember, not because of his work with advanced sentient systems, but because he'd been at Seaside Station on Europa when President Hofstatter, during her first month in office, cut off U.S. support for the international space program. The ships had been ordered home, everything and everybody, but Barkowski had insisted on staying at Seaside, had refused to come back even when the last ship left, had stayed and directed the machines until they'd broken through the ice. He'd sent the sub down into the ocean and kept reporting for seventeen months, but the survey had revealed nothing alive, nothing moving in those chilly depths, and eventually, when he was sure no one would be coming back to get him, he'd shut down the base AI, told the world that the president of the United States was a nitwit. And then he'd opened his air tanks.

"He thought," Daddy told her, "that he could bluff them. That he was too important, had won too many awards, that they couldn't just abandon him. I thought so too. We all did." He shook his head at the man's arrogance. "Didn't happen."

Louise Hofstatter was still in office and was immensely popular. Though not with Janie.

She had been seven years old when they'd left Europa, and she'd prayed for Barkowski, had gone to bed every night thinking how it must be for him all by himself millions of miles from anyone else. She hadn't understood it then, hadn't been able to grasp why he'd stayed behind. That was probably because the search hadn't been successful, no life had been found, and it had seemed such a waste. But she knew now why he'd done it. The search was all that mattered. What you found or didn't find was beside the point. She prided herself thinking that, if she'd been there instead of Barkowski, she'd have done the same thing.

Daddy led the way into the Martian exhibit, and they looked at the world flag and the excavation gear and Janie climbed onto the truck and sat in the front seat, pretending to drive. The sun was high overhead, pale and small, but the sky was dark anyhow, though not nearly like the sky at Pluto.

"Hello, Janie." The voice startled her. It came out of the earphones, female this time. It sounded like Miss Harbison over at Roosevelt. "Welcome to Mars."

"Thank you."

"My name is Ginger, and I'm the base AI. Is there anything you'd like to know?"

"How fast will this go? The truck?"

"It's capable of speeds up to fifty-five miles per hour, although we wouldn't run it that fast."

"Why not?"

"We don't have roads. It would be dangerous."

"What does it use for fuel?"

"It uses batteries."

She imagined herself bouncing over the uneven terrain. Vroom. Look out for that ditch. Cut hard on the wheel.

Ginger explained how the base had functioned, showed her where the landers had been serviced, how fuel had been extracted from the ground, provided a simulated flight in an orbiting communication satellite. She'd raced above the red sands, chirping with joy, and thought how it must have been to lift away from Moonbase and ride the rockets out to Io and Titan. She laughed and begged Ginger for more.

She was accustomed to the house AI and the school AI and the AI down at Schrodinger's. They were all wooden and serious and addressed you with tiresome formality. The one at school even yelled at you if you blocked the corridor while classes were changing. But Jerry had seemed more realistic, somehow. More like a person. And Ginger sounded vaguely as if she would have enjoyed a good party. "Were you actually there, Ginger?" she asked, pulling off the VR helmet. "Mars?"

"No. I've never been out of the museum."

"Oh." She shifted her position on the truck seat, which was too big for her.

"I'm the same model, though."  

"Will you have a chance to go someday?"

"To Mars?"


"Marsbase is shut down, Janie."

"Well, yes, I mean, I knew that. But I meant, will you have a chance to travel on one of the missions?"

"No. I don't think so."

"I'm sorry."

There was a tinkling sound like water tumbling over rocks. As if Ginger was having problems with a relay. Or reacting without words. "It's okay. I'm only a data processing system. I don't have emotions. No need to feel sorry for me."

"You seem too alive to be just software."

"I think that's a compliment. Thank you."

"May I ask a question?"

"Of course."

"How old are you, Ginger?"

"Fifteen years, eight months, four days. Why do you ask?"

"I was just curious." And after a moment: "You're older than I am."

"Yes. Does that matter?"

"Are you aware that you're an AI?"

"Ah, a philosophical young lady, I see. Must be top of the class."

"I'm serious."

"Wouldn't you rather just look at the rest of the base?"

"No. Please. Are you aware who you are?"

"Yes. Of course."

"But you're not supposed to be, are you? I thought AIs were not conscious."

"Well, who's to know? My instructions call for me to give the illusion of consciousness. But whoever knows for sure what's conscious and what isn't? Maybe that stairway over there is watching us." 

"You're kidding me."

"Not entirely."

It was hard to believe. But Janie thought about the AIs going out to the Oort Cloud, and the one headed for Alpha Centauri, who wouldn't get there for a thousand years.

Riding alone.

Like Hal Barkowski on Europa.

She climbed down, making room for a pushy ten-year-old boy. Daddy told her she looked as if she'd have made a good astronaut. He said it as if she were only ten herself but she controlled her irritation. "Daddy," she said, "do they really not feel anything?"

"Who is that, honey?"

"The AIs."

"That's correct. They're just machines."

"Including Jerry and Ginger."

"Yes. Just machines." He actually seemed to be enjoying the exhibit. He was looking around, shaking his head in awe. "Hard to believe we actually managed to send people to all those places. Quite an achievment."

"Daddy, how do we know? That they're just machines?"

"That's a tough one," he said. "We just do."

"But how?"

"Your friend Barkowski, for one reason. He says so. And he designed the first generation of sentient systems." He glanced at her. "In this case," he added, "sentient doesn't literally mean aware." He held up an index finger and spoke into his mike. When he'd finished he nodded. "Ginger tells me all the deep-space systems were designed by him."

"That would include her," said Janie.

He shrugged. "I suppose so."


They went into the dome, which was pretty primitive. Plastic tables and chairs, a bank of monitors, some obsolete computer equipment, a half-dozen cots. Windows looked out over the reddish sand. She approached one and thought how the landscape never changed. Like Pluto. No lights anywhere. No movement. No rain. No flowers. Zip.

Maybe Daddy was right. Maybe people should stay home.

"You don't really believe that." Ginger's voice again. Different now. More intense. "Hold on to the dream, Janie. Interplanetary vehicles should have viewports and bases should have windows. And there should be somebody to look out the window. If we don't have that, we'll take the temperature of Neptune and not get much else."

"That's a strange way for an AI to talk."


"You can look, Ginger. You have sensors. You can probably see better than I can."

"No. I can look, but I can't see. I can't describe what's out there. I can't penetrate things the way you do."

Janie laughed, but she felt the hair rise on the back of her neck. "Are you sure you don't have any feelings?"

"Absolutely." The voice was serene again.

"And you think people should go? On the long flights?"

"I think you should go."


"Somebody should go who can get out of the ship and look at the peaks on the moon and know what it means. Someone should throw a party on Io. Someone should capture her feelings in a poem that people will still be reading a thousand years from now."

"Yeah," she said. "I'd love to do that."

"Then do it."

"But how? There's no program anymore. I can't ride on the ships they send out now."

"How old are you, Janie?"

"I'm thirteen."

"A child."

"I'm not a child."

"It's okay. You won't always be so young."

"I'm a teenager."

"Your time will come. When it does, take hold of the hour. Make it count."

* * *

"The AI said you could go to Alpha Centauri?"

"Not exactly, Daddy. She told me, when I got the chance, I should go."

"Probably tells that to all the kids."

"It seemed a strange thing to say."

"It probably has a bug somewhere. Don't worry about it." They strode out through the doors onto Constitution Avenue. It was damp and rainy, but the air smelled of approaching spring. "They ought to do something about the damned things. Get them fixed." Daddy flagged down a taxi and they climbed in. He gave Aunt Floss's address, where they were staying, and the vehicle slipped back into traffic. "Encouraging kids to do crazy stuff. It's probably Barkowski's programming. Man dumb enough to miss the last bus off Europa, what can you expect?"




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