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Jack McDevitt

Jack McDevitt is a former English teacher (the first of three in this anthology), naval officer, Philadelphia taxi driver, customs officer and a motivational trainer. He is a Nebula Award-winning author and John W. Campbell Memorial Award winner. Jack also served as one of the editors of this anthology.

In Lucy, Jack merges two favorite themes of futurists—artificial intelligence and deep space travel—into a story that actually makes you care deeply about the fate of a sentient computer.

* * *

“We’ve lost the Coraggio.” Calkin’s voice was frantic. “The damned thing’s gone, Morris.”

When the call came in, I’d been assisting at a simulated program for a lunar reclamation group, answering phones for eleven executives, preparing press releases on the Claymont and Demetrius projects, opening doors and turning on lights for a local high-school tour group, maintaining a cool air flow on what had turned into a surprisingly warm March afternoon, and playing chess with Herman Mills over in Archives. It had been, in other words, a routine day. Until the Director got on the line.

Denny Calkin is a small, narrow man, in every sense of the word. And he has a big voice. He was a political appointment at NASA, and consequently was in over his head. He thought well of himself, of course, and believed he had the answers to everything. On this occasion, though, he verged on hysteria. “Morris, did you hear what I said?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “We’ve lost the Coraggio.”

“How’s that again, Denny? What do you mean, lost the Coraggio?”

“What do you think I mean? Lucy isn’t talking to us anymore. We haven’t a clue where she is or what’s going on out there.”

Morris’s face went absolutely white. “That’s not possible. What are you telling me, Denny?”

“The Eagle Project just went over the cliff, damn it.”

“You have any idea what might be wrong?”

“No. She’s completely shut down, Morris.” He said it as if he were talking to a six-year-old.

“Okay.” Morris tried to assume a calm demeanor. “How long ago?”

“It’s been about five hours. She missed her report and we’ve been trying to raise her since.”

“All right.”

“We’re trying to keep it quiet. But we won’t be able to do that much longer.”

The Coraggio, with its fusion drive and array of breakthrough technology, had arrived in the Kuiper Belt two days earlier and at 3:17 a.m. Eastern Time had reported sighting its objective, the plutoid Minetka. It had been the conclusion of a 4.7 billion-mile flight.

Morris was always unfailingly optimistic. It was a quality he needed during these days of increasingly tight budgets. “It’s probably just a transmission problem, Denny.”

“I hope so! But I doubt it.”

“So what are we doing?”

“Right now, we’re stalling for time. And hoping Lucy comes back up.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

“That’s why I’m calling you. Look, we don’t want to be the people who lost a twenty-billion-dollar vehicle. If she doesn’t respond, we’re going to have to go out after her.”

“Is the Excelsior ready?”

“We’re working on it.”

“So what do you need from me, Denny?”

He hesitated. “Baker just resigned.”

“Oh. Already?”

“Well, he’s going to be resigning.”

Over in the museum, one of the high school students asked a question about the Apollo flights, what it felt like to be in a place where there was no gravity. The teacher directed it to me, and I answered as best I could, saying that it was a little like being in water, that you just sort of floated around, but that you got used to it very quickly. Meantime I made a rook move against Herman, pinning a knight. Then Morris said what he was thinking. “I’m sorry to hear it.” It was an accusation.

“Sometimes we have to make sacrifices, Morris. Maybe we’ll get a break and they’ll come back up.”

“But nobody expects it to happen.”

“No.” There was a sucking sound: Calkin chewing on his lower lip.

“It leaves us without an operations chief.”

“That’s why—”

“—You need me.”

“Yes, Morris, that’s why we need you. I want you to come to the Cape posthaste and take over.”

“Do you have any idea at all what the problem might be?”


“So you’re just going to send the Excelsior out and hope for the best.”

“What do you suggest?”

“In all probability, you’ve had a breakdown in the comm system. Or it’s the AI.”

“That’s my guess.”

“You’ve checked the comm system in the Excelsior?”

“Not yet. They’re looking at it now.”

“Good. What about the AI?”

“We’re going to run some tests on Jeri, too. Don’t worry about it, Morris, okay? You just get down here and launch this thing.”

“Denny, Jeri and Lucy are both Bantam level-3 systems.”

“So what are you saying, Morris? Those are the best SIs we have. You know that.”

“I also know they’re untested.”

“That’s not true. We ran multiple simulations—”

“That’s not the same as onboard operations.”

“Morris, there’s no point doing all those tests again. We’d get the same results. There’s nothing wrong with the Bantams.”

“Okay, Denny. But we’ve got a battle-tested system already. We know it works. Why not use it?”

“Because we’ve spent too much money on the Bantams, damn it.”

“Denny, Sara’s done all the test flights with the Coraggio. If we use her, it removes one potential source of trouble from the equation.”

I liked the sound of that. I’d have smiled if I could, while I finished a press release for an upcoming welcome-back event for several cosmonauts and astronauts. I felt sorry for them. They’d been on active duty for an average of nineteen years, and none of them had ever gotten beyond the space station. Calkin responded just as I was sending the document to the public information office. “We’ll talk about it when you get here.”

He hung up, and it was a long minute before Morris put the phone down. He’d been an astronaut himself, more years ago than he wanted to remember. Now he sat staring out the window. And finally he took a deep breath: “Sara?”

“I heard, Morris.”

“What do you think?”

“The most vulnerable piece of equipment on the ship is the AI.”

“You wouldn’t really mind that, would you? If the Bantams are screwed up some way.”

“That’s not true, Morris. I’m just answering your question.”

“And you’d love to go to the rescue, right?”

“As opposed to what? Opening the mail in the Admin Building? Sure.”

“Yeah. It would be nice. But don’t get your hopes up, kid.”

The Bantam Level-3 was billed as the most advanced AI on the planet. I’m a Level-2, and I’m a Telstar product, purchased during a previous period of austerity.

The Bantams, Lucy and Jeri, were easy to get along with, and did not adopt a superior attitude. It would in fact have surprised me had they done so. They were simply too smart to behave like that. Sure, I was moderately jealous of the attention they received, and maybe of their abilities. How could I not be? Still, I kept it under control, and we’d become friends despite having only limited time together. It’s what civilized entities do. When they arrived I was conducting training simulations at the Kennedy Space Center. A few days later, suddenly redundant, I was shipped to Huntsville.

I hated thinking of Lucy adrift out there, in the Kuiper Belt almost five billion miles from Earth. She was probably trying to deal with a power failure. Which meant she might be alone in a dark ship so far away that a radio transmission would take seven and a half hours to reach her.

I’d been picked up during the Global Space Initiative with high hopes of leading the exploration of the solar system, and ultimately taking the new VR-2 vehicle, with its fusion engines, into the era of interstellar travel.

But I shouldn’t complain. I did get offworld. I’d taken the Coraggio to the asteroid belt on a test run. There, I’d secured an asteroid to the grappler and used it to fuel the return flight. And that had been about it for me. Although more than any astronaut had managed, it was nothing close to what I’d been led to expect. So yes, the disappearance of the Coraggio presented a golden opportunity, and I would have given anything to take over the Excelsior or the Audacia and ride to Lucy’s rescue. It wouldn’t happen, though. Not with Jeri available. So I decided to try for a compromise. “Morris, couldn’t you send us both out? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a back-up. Just in case.”

“You mean send both ships?”

“No, that wouldn’t work politically. But why not, just as insurance, maybe put us both in one or the other?”

He grinned weakly. “Sara, I would if I could. In fact, I’d like to go myself.”

“Morris, there’s an article by Harvey Bradshaw in the current Scientific American. He says there won’t be any humans on any of the interstellar flights. Ever. So why do we keep pretending?”

“Really? He said Ever?”

“Well, something like that. You know the argument.”

He nodded. “I know.”

The shortest feasible trip to any star was twenty-five years one way, and that would be to Alpha Centauri, where there was apparently not a thing worth looking at. Barnard’s Star was the only nearby destination of serious interest: one of its worlds was right in the middle of the biozone, and had an oxygen atmosphere, which very possibly meant life. And that, of course, from a human perspective, was the only reason to go. But Barnard’s lay twice as far as Alpha Centauri. So no. Unless Captain Kirk’s Enterprise showed up, nobody was going anywhere . . . at least for a while.

Except us machines.

Moreover, no one could see an economic advantage to the space program. And the various governments supporting GSI were all struggling to stay fiscally afloat. None of this, of course, was news to Morris. He knew the politics. Knew the science. Knew the math. But he had real trouble buying into the death of a dream. He sat staring out the window, his eyes probably fixed on the admin building, or maybe just on Lunar Park. Finally he made a resigned sound deep in his throat. “Sara?”

“Yes, Morris?”

“How serious are you? About wanting to go after the Coraggio?”

“Are you kidding? I’d do anything.”

He took a deep breath. “All right,” he said finally. “No promises, but I’ll try—”

Had there been a few people aboard the Coraggio, the media would have been all over us. People might be in trouble. Get out there and do the rescue. Breaking news all over the place. But, of course, you didn’t have to worry about an AI using up the available supply of oxygen, or freezing because of a climate-control malfunction, or whatever. In fact, you didn’t have to worry about an AI at all. And that realization didn’t help. Public interest focused instead on the inefficiency of the people who’d sent a multi-billion dollar vehicle out into the Kuiper Belt, and lost it.

I wasn’t connected to operational radio communications, so if a message arrived from Lucy, I wouldn’t know about it until someone told me. And so, during the first few hours after Calkin’s call, I was constantly asking whether we’d heard anything. I could see that everyone was coming to regard me as a nuisance, and finally Morris promised to let me know if the situation changed. “Immediately,” he added.

Late that afternoon, he came back from a conference. “Sara,” he said, “I can’t promise anything, but you and I are headed for the Cape.”

A technician came in and disconnected me. That eliminated my visual capability, though I could still hear what was going on around me. Morris wrapped me in plastic and put me in his briefcase. Then we took the elevator down to the first floor. “A car’s waiting for us,” he said.

“Are Mary and the kids coming?” I asked.

“No, Sara. We didn’t want to pull the guys out of school. I’ll bring everybody out in June.”

An hour later we boarded a small jet with two other passengers and headed for the Cape.

The other passengers knew about the Coraggio. They were being called in to run tests on the Excelsior.

Once in the air, Morris took me out of the briefcase. “Morris,” I said, trying to sound perfectly cool, “what are my chances?”

He shook his head. “I haven’t pushed for it yet, Sara. But you wouldn’t have any kind of chance at all if you’re not there when the decision gets made.”


“We can’t rush this.” He put one hand on my casing. “I’ll keep you informed.”

“Make sure Calkin knows I took the Coraggio out to the asteroid belt.”

“He knows. I’ve already reminded him.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

“It’s beautiful out there,” he said.

At first I thought we were still talking about the asteroid belt. Then I realized he was looking out the window. I couldn’t see him, of course. Anyhow, it was only an attempt to change the subject. One of the other passengers, a woman with a soft voice, had apparently overheard us talking and asked about me. He introduced me, and we began discussing NASA’s current state. The President, in his weekly press conference held while we were headed for the airport, had denied that more cuts were coming. The Coraggio story broke while he was still onstage. Somebody asked what had happened. Another reporter wanted to know whether it wasn’t time to quit on the space program and stop wasting money. The President tried to sound reassuring.

I didn’t really know what I was hoping for. Lucy reporting back that she was okay? Or a blown drive unit and me riding to the rescue? It seemed unlikely they’d give me a chance to do that, though I thought it would have been the right move. We took to making small talk, which I’m not good at. So I focused my attention on the radio. We were already the prime topic on several talk shows. On NPR’s Afternoon Bill, the host predicted that even if we found the Coraggio, wholesale changes would ensue at NASA. A reporter from the Washington Post thought we should be closed down: “Let’s face reality, Bill. Space flight’s expensive, and we get no benefit from it. It’s time to back off.”

The Jake Wallace Show had Marvin Clavis as a guest. Clavis had done the breakthrough work to put together the fusion drive. When asked for his opinion about what might have gone wrong, he admitted that, at this stage, everything was guesswork.

But he had a prediction: “If they haven’t heard from the Coraggio within the next few hours, they’ll never find her.”

I doubted that twenty percent of the population had even heard of the Coraggio, and maybe half that many who might have known her mission. This despite the fact that the program had been wildly successful . . . until now, of course.

But no human beings were aboard, and if the VR-2 ever did leave for Barnard’s Star, nobody would go along for that ride either. So why would anyone care? With the fusion drive, the VR-2s were allegedly capable of getting up to six percent of light speed on a full load of fuel. An incredible velocity, and an achievement that, a few years earlier, had seemed hopelessly beyond reach.

Eventually, according to plan, each of the three vehicles would receive a destination, Barnard’s Star, Wolf 359, and Lalande 21185. The closest projected launch date, to Wolf 359, was six months away. The other two would happen during the following year. Incredibly, some people still wondered why we weren’t headed for Centauri.

The flight to Barnard’s Star, nearest of the three, would require fifty years—one way. Even had Captain Future been aboard, nobody was going to get excited. Call me later.

I knew Morris pretty well. Despite what he said, he wasn’t prepared to accept the possibility that the program would ever shut down. Not now, especially after President Ferguson had managed to put together the Global Space Initiative. After Clavis and his team had provided the fusion reactor. When success seemed so close.

Ed Sakkinen, on Coffee With Ed, was outraged. “Why are we spending so much money to send a robot ship to visit a rock anyway? I still don’t get it.”

Rita D’Esposito, NBC’s White House correspondent, tried to make sense of the project: “Ed, a lot of people think that, unless we establish ourselves on Mars, or somewhere, eventually the human race will take a fatal hit. Maybe by an asteroid, or a nuclear war. Or climate change. Something will take us out.”

“When’s the last time that happened?” Ed asked.

She sighed. “It only has to happen once.”

Sakkinen laughed.

“Listen,” she said, “a rock crashed in Siberia near the beginning of the last century. It didn’t do much other than knock down a lot of trees. But if it had been maybe a half-mile wider, it would have been goodbye baby for all of us.”

A political consultant on the show sounded annoyed: “Some people argue that if we don’t go to Mars and set up I don’t know, malls out there somewhere, we’ll just wind up hanging out on the front porch.”

Armand Hopper, on Round Table, demanded to know how many more damned ways the government could find to waste money. Simultaneously, he was beating the drums for a military intervention in Uzbekistan.

Fortunately, it was a short flight to the Cape, and when the Political Roughnecks began arguing that the space age was over and it was time for us all to grow up, Morris told me that we’d begun our descent into the spaceport. He noted that this was the first time he’d been flown into the space center. “It’s nice to be a VIP,” he added.

We touched down on the skid strip, and Morris said something about welcome to Cape Canaveral. When the plane stopped moving he put me back in the briefcase. “Sorry, Sara,” he said. “I’ll get you connected as soon as I can.”

It wasn’t a problem. I was glad to have gotten that far.

We went directly into the Ops and Checkout Building, where Morris contacted Calkin. “We’re on the ground,” he said.

“Good. We have a lot of work to do.”

“Any change in the situation?”

“Nothing, Morris. Not a peep. The son of a bitch is gone.”

“Denny, did you make a decision yet on the Excelsior?”

“What kind of decision?”

“Just in case you want to use a proven AI, I brought Sara along.”

Calkin thought that was funny. “Good man.”

“Denny, when do we expect to launch?”

“Looks like Thursday.” Four days.

“We can’t move it up?”

“We’re fitting the Excelsior with robots and some other equipment in case the Coraggio needs repairs. We need to get it right this time, Morris. And I know time’s a factor. We’re doing the best we can.”

Getting there would take two months. If the Coraggio were drifting, it could be pretty far away by then.

Lucy and Jeri were good. Nobody knew that better than I did, and I couldn’t argue the logic when the Telstar Coordinators were moved into second place. Admittedly I’d hoped from the beginning that there’d be a problem, that they would be found wanting in some critical way. And I know what that suggests about my character, but I told myself that I couldn’t be responsible for defects in my programming. In truth, I was perfectly capable of taking the VR-2 to Minetka, or to Barnard’s Star, or anywhere else in the neighborhood. But it was time to face reality. My window of opportunity had been open only a short time, less than a year, and now it had closed. I’d never again see a day when I wasn’t taking phone messages.

Unless something went seriously wrong.

I’d admitted my jealousy to them and asked if there was a possibility they might come up short. “For me,” I added.

You might think Lucy wasn’t capable of smiling, but I heard it in her tone. “Anything not prohibited by physical law,” she told me, “is possible.” There was a long moment during which I became conscious of the electronic hum of her protocols. “Sara, I understand. I’d feel the same way. I wish there were something I could do.”

Jeri told me later that Lucy had suggested to Calkin that I be included on the flight. “It won’t cost anything,” Lucy had told him, “and I’d enjoy the company.”

“I take it he said no.”

“He laughed at her. Told her that her designers had done a pretty good job, but they’d overlooked some social requirements. And it would be a good idea if she didn’t bring it up again.”

They set Morris up in a temporary office, and Calkin immediately called him to a meeting. I got tied into the phone line so I could make myself useful and pick up any calls that came in. Several did. Two were looking for a Dr. Brosnan, apparently the previous occupant. I informed the other callers that Morris would get in touch shortly. And I spent my time listening to NPR. They were playing something from Rachmaninoff, The First Symphony, I think, and if I needed anything to intensify my somber mood, that did it.

I’m not sure how long I was left alone, literally in the dark, without access even to a visual system. When the symphony concluded, I tried other stations, found nothing, and went into sleep mode.

There’s an advantage to that: When I sleep, there’s no sense of time passing. None whatever. I come out of it occasionally to answer a phone or something, and then go back under. At length, I was awakened when the office door opened.

Calkin was talking: “—I don’t like the idea, Morris. Even if Sara gets through it okay, if she gets out there and back, bringing the goddam Coraggio home with her, I’m still going to take heat. Why spend all that money on the Bantams if Sara could do the job?”

“Listen, Denny.” Morris sounded deadly serious: “It’s safer this way. If it turns out there’s a defect with the Bantams, and you’ve used them twice, there will be a problem. You’re safe with Sara. If it were to happen again, God forbid, at least nobody can blame us for repeating the same screw-up.”

I heard them come in. Somebody sighed. The door closed and chairs squeaked. “Damn it,” said Calkin, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

Right. It was all about him.

“It’s your call, Denny. But I need to know soon. If we’re going back to Sara, we’ll have to make a few adjustments. And I’ll also want to run her through the simulations again. It’s not quite the same vehicle she took out to the asteroid belt.”

“I know.”

The door opened. I heard a woman’s voice. “Mr. Calkin, we need you down in the conference room.”

“All right, Judy. I’ll be right there.” He sounded annoyed. When the door closed he took a deep breath. “What frustrates me, Morris,” he said, “is that no matter what we do here, even if we bring the Coraggio back and find out it was a blown terminal or something, the project’s dead. The truth is, GSI is dead. Probably NASA along with it. They’ve finally got this program running with a dozen countries cooperating, the world looks better than it has in two centuries, and they’re going to let everything fall apart. I’m not saying we’re the reason things have improved, but we’ve become a symbol.”

“Unfortunately,” said Morris, “things may have gotten better, but everyone’s still broke, still paying for old mistakes.”

When Calkin left, Morris tied me into the system, and I could see again. He looked harried. “You heard everything?” he asked.

“Yes. I got the assignment, right?”

“You did.”

“Thanks, Morris.”

He lowered himself into his chair and stared at the speaker, which was set beside a lamp on his desk. Sometimes he tended to confuse it with me. “You know, Sara,” he said, “I’ve given my entire life to this organization. We were so close, and now it’s all coming apart. The same politicians who made promises—” He stopped cold. Shrugged. Took a deep breath. “Since I was a kid, I wanted to see us really go somewhere. Not just the Moon or Mars. But out there—” He waved a hand listlessly at the ceiling.

“Morris,” I said, “what will you do?”

“What can I do? I can’t very well walk to Barnard’s Star.”

“No, I mean, what will you do? If the organization folds, what will happen to you?”

“Oh, it won’t fold. Not completely. It’ll be like it was, like we’ve been, during the sixty years since Apollo. We’ll be taking hardware into orbit. Fixing telescopes. Carrying people to the station.”

“Will you stay with it?”

“No.” As if in pain, he clenched his teeth. “To start with, I don’t think they’d want to keep me. Despite the assurances. Even if they did, I couldn’t stand coming in here every day and thinking about what might have been.”

“I’m sorry, Morris.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

Jeri contacted me. “Congratulations,” she said. “I hear you’re making the big flight.”

“Yes.” The Moon, visible in the window, was especially bright that night. I didn’t know what to say to Jeri.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll survive.”

“I wish they’d let us both go.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“I guess not.”

“When you get out there, say hello to Lucy for me.”


She went silent. Voices murmured outside in the hallway. Somewhere a door opened and closed.

“You know what makes it especially painful, Sara? No matter how this turns out, these idiots won’t be going anywhere. Ever. It’s over.”

“Maybe not.”

“If I were you, when they put me in the Excelsior—”


“I’d keep going.”

Morris came in early next morning. He looked good: bright and happy and maybe ten years younger. He said hello and moments later a technician walked in.

Morris looked at the speaker. At me. “You’re due in the simulator in twenty minutes,” he said.

I received a quick course in robot management. Four robots would be on board. They had six limbs, equipped with magnets to let them cling to surfaces in zero gee. They were programmed to perform basic maintenance and repair chores on the VR-2s. “They’re flexible,” I was told. “If you need something done they’re not already programmed for, just give them instructions.”

There’d been a fair number of changes in the VR-2 since I’d taken the Coraggio around the block. They downloaded data. Then they started setting situations and directing me to respond. Fuel-line breakdown. Main tabulator providing suspect information. Solar flare on its way. I made course adjustments, connected with an asteroid, and locked it into the grappler. I ran the scopes and sensors. Emergencies kept coming. The magnetic mirrors became misaligned, the plasma flow went unstable, and we had a port-scope malfunction. I had to search through the Kuiper Belt for the Coraggio. When I found it, half my scanners went down and I had to maneuver alongside without their help. Seat of the pants, you might say.

And the Coraggio had problems of its own. I sent the robots over, reestablished her power, disconnected Lucy, who’d become unresponsive, and installed an automated system to bring the ship home.

On the return flight, I had to adjust the scanners and the environment and also compensate for problems in one of the heat sinks. I experienced a port-side thruster breakdown and had to diagnose strange noises in the number-two engine.

In the end, the techs updated my software. Then they walked off and I went back to watching news shows. The conversations were still primarily about us. The preponderance of opinion —or at least the loudest voices— wanted us shut down. The Eagle Project, according to detractors, was a program without a point. Moreover, we were entering an election cycle, and we’d become an anchor around the neck of every incumbent politician who’d supported us.

Finally, Morris showed up. “Very good,” he said. “You passed.” He was delighted. “We should go have a drink.”

It was his favorite joke. “Morris,” I told him, “I’d have a drink with you anytime. And I can suggest how we might make it possible.” I started to outline the kind of adaptation I’d need to enjoy a rum and Coke, but his eyes rolled.

“When you get home, Sara,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” He sat down at his desk. “Meantime, be careful out there.”

“I will.”

“Good. We’ll be moving you up to the Excelsior this evening.”



“Yes, Morris?”

“Make something happen.”

AI’s aren’t supposed to feel psychological pressure. In fact, the technical experts argue it can’t happen. AI’s are very good at simulating human emotions. It’s supposed to be part of the overall illusion. But only crazy people buy into the notion that we are truly conscious. I’ve had debates with Morris, who pretends to believe I’m really there, that I’m actually a thoughtful entity. That, when his daughter Erika was severely injured in a car crash last year, I felt genuinely sorry. But he doesn’t. Not really. And I have to confess the attitude is irritating.

I mean, that’s the whole point of having an AI, really. Any sufficiently advanced software package can run climate control and remind the boss that he has an appointment with one of the supervisors in twenty minutes. Or can oversee the operations of a VR-2 in deep space.

But like everybody else, Morris wanted more. He wanted a reliable confederate, someone he could talk to, confide in. I won’t go so far as to say he wanted a friend, but there were times it felt that way. And it was frustrating to know that, down deep, he didn’t realize I really was there when he needed me.

They took me to the Excelsior and made the insertion. I was just getting my bearings when a call came in from Calkin: “Okay, Sara. Go out there and do it. Bring her home.” His pale gray features managed a smile but it didn’t look convincing.

“I’ll try, Dr. Calkin.”

“I guess that’s about all we can ask. You have enough hydrogen for the round trip. More than enough. We loaded you up pretty well since you may be out there a while looking for Lucy. You ready to go?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “When do I leave?”

“They tell me it’ll be about fifteen minutes.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m ready.”

A technician was standing by, waiting for us to finish.

“Good luck.” He half-raised his right fist in a give-’em-hell gesture. It was the first time he’d spoken to me as if I were actually there. He looked at me momentarily, and I sensed something in his blue eyes. Fear, probably. Uncertainty. Then he lowered the fist and blinked off.

I didn’t actually get a look at the Excelsior until I’d been set up inside. It was a duplicate, of course, of the Coraggio. But I hadn’t actually seen it before that afternoon. The VR-2 has an awkward appearance. It consists primarily of a hull with three massive heat sinks running almost its entire length, a pair of exhaust tubes, and two fusion-powered drive units. Its prow resembles a large block with rounded edges. This was the shield, designed to protect the vehicle from rocks and dust. The grapplers are housed inside the shield. They’re used to catch and secure an asteroid, which becomes the source of hydrogen and propellants for the fusion drive; they also provide more security against stray particles. When you’re moving at thousands of miles per second, even a bit of dust can sting.

(I should mention that, at the time when Lucy went missing, nobody had yet gotten to a thousand miles per second, though the Coraggio had reached eight hundred sixty-five per second.)

Morris liked to remind me that running a simulation is nothing like experiencing the real thing. He has that exactly right, though probably not in the way he meant. He was thinking of the pressures generated by acceleration or course changes. But I think he was missing something. It’s true that, on board a ship, I have no sense of movement other than the incoming data. But I feel an enormous difference when I’m actually in the pilot’s seat, so to speak: I can feel the power of the engines.

It’s psychological. Of course that shouldn’t be happening since everyone assures me I don’t have a psychological function.

The Excelsior was located about a mile from the space station Liberty, silhouetted against a curving rim of white clouds. It was the first time I’d been in orbit since my Coraggio flight. When I’d gotten back on that occasion, a voice from the station had said Welcome home, and I’d thought how great it was. Everyone had been so excited. They’d extracted me from the ship and taken me down to the space center for a celebration. I even got to say a few words about how proud I was, what an honor it had been, and so on.

Then they moved me to Huntsville, and I started answering phones and seeing to the air conditioning.

I’ve often thought that humans are fortunate in having a mobile capability. It provides the option to get up and walk out.

Excelsior. This is Liberty. Launch in ten minutes.”

“Roger that,” I said. I love being able to talk like an astronaut.

I started the engines. Checked all systems. And waited.

Finally: “Excelsior, clear to go.”

I set the clocks at midnight, eased away from the space station, turned onto my heading, took a final look at my energy levels, and began to accelerate. I didn’t feel any effects, of course. But I remembered Morris’s comment when I took out the Coraggio last year: “You literally roared out of town, baby.”

Liberty,” I said, “this is Excelsior. Under way.”

“Copy that, Sara.”

I didn’t know who was manning the ops desk in the space station, but I decided I liked him.

I was accelerating at almost twice the rate I’d used on my previous mission. By the end of the first hour, the Excelsior had reached eighteen miles per second.

Even though there were no human passengers, the ship did have a cockpit. Two chairs were positioned for use by a pilot and whoever else might be along. In my experience, they’d been used exclusively by technicians. I tried to imagine Morris in one of them, enduring that acceleration. And, coincidentally, while that was running through my mind, he called.

“How you doing, Sara?”

“I’m good, boss. Wish you were with me.”

“In a way, I am. I assume you’ve had no problems?”

“Negative. Not a thing.”

“Okay. Have a big time.”

“I plan to.” Neither of us knew quite what to say. I’d be gone for at least four months and I wanted to tell him I’d miss him. But the world was listening, and I didn’t want to give everybody a laugh line. Not at Morris’s expense, anyhow. I thought about asking who was answering the phones now that I was gone, but I let it go.

* * *

At about 0300 I passed the Moon. At 0829 I hit five million mph. Liberty called, wanting to know about fuel consumption. We were doing better than anticipated.

There was a delay of about a minute. Then they were back: “Excelsior, you are go for Starbright.”

Starbright was the name they’d given Minetka. They had a tendency to overstate things when they named projects. “Copy that,” I said.

I thought they were finished, but a few minutes later the voice returned: “Be advised solar activity is currently higher than normal. It is expected to increase over the next few hours, but it shouldn’t present a problem for you.”

Nothing more was scheduled until midnight the following day. Until then we’d continue to accelerate. Then I’d shut the engines down and we’d go into cruise mode for two months. When the Excelsior got within range of Minetka/Starbright, I’d need another two days to brake.

I ran a second systems check. That was unnecessary really; an alarm would alert me to any likely problem. But I was a captain again and I enjoyed the role, which I played to the hilt.

I would have liked to wander around the Excelsior in uniform, soliciting reports from my crew the way they did in the science fiction films. And welcome a few passengers on board. Glad you chose Brightstar Transport, ladies and gentlemen. We hope you enjoy the trip. Beverages will be served as soon as we reach cruising speed . . . in another day and a half.

Actually, there wouldn’t have been much space available for visitors.

Later that first evening, Liberty called again. It was Morris. “How you doing, Sara?”

“Need a chess partner, Morris.” Actually he didn’t play chess. But he understood.

I was pretty sure Calkin frowned on Morris’s inclination to talk informally with me. He undoubtedly saw it as a character flaw, a weakness. It was something lower-level employees do, and Calkin would have thought that Morris was demeaning himself, or maybe worse if he was actually listening to our exchanges.

I had to wait almost four minutes for his response. “Mary’s coming for the weekend, with Adam and Mike.” His wife and kids. Erika had fought her way back after the accident, and had returned to college. “We’ll be looking for a place.” I wondered whether he’d be buying, since NASA’s future was so uncertain. “When we get settled, we’ll have you over. Make a party of it.” That was the kind of remark guaranteed to get him in trouble with Calkin. He’d think Morris was losing his mind.

“Adam will want something on the beach,” I said. The time delay meant nothing to me, of course. But I could imagine Morris, hooked up from his office (where it was close to noon), trying to keep the conversation coherent.

Standard operating procedure required me to check in twice daily. I complied, informing Liberty each time that everything was on schedule.

I was still accelerating on the second day when I passed the orbit of Mars. The Excelsior had gone seventy-two million miles when, at midnight of Day 2, I finally shut the drive down and we went into cruise mode.

I could have put everything on automatic and gone to sleep at that point, waking when we got into the vicinity of Minetka, or when we received a transmission, either from Liberty or, if we were very lucky, from Lucy. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. Even though I took no pleasure in being alone in that ship, I knew I would not get there again, and I could not rationalize throwing my chance away. The day would come when I would wish very much to come back, to live again in the Excelsior’s cockpit, riding through the night. So I stayed awake. I asked Liberty to forward some radio programs, which they did. They knew I enjoyed the talk shows, so they kept me well-supplied with them. I even heard my own voice talking with the space station. “Everything on schedule.” “All systems five by.” “Saw an asteroid today.” Nothing very exciting.

I continued to ask about the Coraggio, and those clips also got played. One female host commented that my apparent concern was “touching.” She emphasized apparent. Of course she would. There was really nobody aboard the Excelsior.

The talkers had always seemed to me narrowly focused and out of touch with reality. And from my perspective approaching the asteroid belt, that hadn’t changed. But they had voices. And maybe that was all that mattered. I didn’t care if they were talking about a celebrity’s wedding dress or a corrupt politician. They had voices, and I, simply by listening, became part of the conversation.

* * *

Unfortunately, a flight through the solar system isn’t likely to be what most people expect. I’d have loved to soar past Mars, pick my way through the asteroids, get a good look at Jupiter, and glide through Saturn’s rings, but my course to Minetka wasn’t going to take me close to anything . . . other than Neptune.

I was cruising at three million miles per hour, so even had I gotten within a reasonable distance of Saturn, which I would have given much to see, I wouldn’t have been there long.

My reports acquired a boring sameness. Liberty, this is Excelsior. Running warm and still on schedule.

The operators always responded, “Copy that, Excelsior.” One of them, a woman whose name I never learned, asked me a couple of times if I was okay. Unlike the others, she seemed to realize, or allowed herself to pretend, that she was really talking to somebody. Soon, I didn’t hear her anymore and I wondered whether she’d gotten into trouble. I didn’t ask the other operators about her because, if something had happened, I didn’t want to risk getting her in deeper. I tried to convince myself that she’d simply been promoted, or had run off with an English teacher. But that was the incident that made me realize I seriously disliked Denny Calkin.

I never found out what, if anything, had happened.

I spent a lot of time just watching the basic image on the monitors: a black canopy full of lights. Where’s a good comet when you need one?

Morris had stopped calling about the time I cleared Jupiter’s orbit. By then the delay in any exchange was preposterous. If I’d asked Morris how he was doing, I would have had to wait an hour and a half for my answer. We kept communicating, though, but by voice message.

“The world is watching, Sara. You’re getting constant coverage. Right up there with America First and Wild for You. Harry Pavlo, on a talk show yesterday, said you should write a book. Mary thinks the book thing is a good idea. Anyhow, Adam’s teachers have asked if you’d be willing, when you come back, to talk to some of her students at the high school. We haven’t tried anything like that before, but I don’t see a problem with it if you don’t.”

On Day 8, I left Saturn behind. Or would have had it been in the area. I mentioned earlier that I’d wished I could have seen it up close. Actually, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t. I’d refrained from checking its position because I wanted to keep the possibility open. But the odds were remote. And they held: it turned out to be on the other side of the sun somewhere, which meant I wouldn’t even have a shot at it on the way back.

In the meantime, the talk shows lost interest in the Eagle mission. We were replaced by Tim Hurst, the popular comedian, who’d been photographed at an orgy when he was supposed to be working on a new film; and by the on-again/off-again corruption scandal of Senator Brickhouse, who’d built his career as a crusader against lawbreakers of all stripes.

I knew that Morris had liked the press we were getting, and had hoped that interest would remain high. And I’ll confess I’d enjoyed the attention myself. So I manufactured an image of an asteroid flashing by, and sent it on to Liberty. It created a mild sensation. And of course no harm was done.

To really make a splash, though, I needed something more stirring than a chunk of rock. I was seriously tempted to arrange a close passage with a comet, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t get away with it.

One possibility would have been to create an alien vehicle, send a startled message back, along with pictures. ‘It tracked me for about an hour. Then it turned away and disappeared within minutes.’

But I couldn’t get that one past my conscience. And Morris wouldn’t have approved.

I also thought about an asteroid with a feature on it like a temple. Or a face. Faces were good. But it would have to get lost and eventually become a historical mystery like Stonehenge or the Mary Celeste or Judge Crater, and I knew I’d never be able to keep my secret. Eventually I’d unburden myself to Morris, and embarrass him. I couldn’t have that.

I did the right thing, of course, but what a blown opportunity.

On Day 24, I passed the orbit of Uranus.

One of the radio people noted the event, remarking that I was now in God’s country. The Kuiper Bel lay ahead, beginning near Neptune. Than Pluto. And finally the Oort Cloud, roughly a light-year distant. It would be a long ride even for the Excelsior.

* * *

I was several days beyond Uranus when Liberty relayed an interview from CBS. The interviewee was Colin Edward, who was identified as the chief of operations for NASA. Chief of Operations. That had been Morris’s title.


Edward talked about plans for the future, where the space program hoped to be in ten years, and, yes, he said, the hunt for the Coraggio was on schedule. “But you have to realize,” he said, “that we’ve heard nothing from the ship for several weeks. I think we need to face reality: It’s lost out there, and our chances of finding it are slim at best.”

I’d never heard of Colin Edward. And when I did a quick search I discovered he’d been a major fund raiser for President Ferguson. He was another political operative. This time as chief of operations.

A few minutes later, I got another jolt: Calkin had resigned. His replacement was somebody else I’d never heard of.

I remember thinking that I was glad to be out on the far side of Uranus.

I waited, hoping to get a message from Morris saying he’d gone back to Huntsville. But there was nothing.

During the early morning on Day 30, the end of the first month, I made my standard report and signed off. By then, I was far enough out that a transmission exchange took seven or eight hours. A reply came in somewhat after 1300: “Copy your numbers, Excelsior. Your old boss asked me to say hello.”

They wouldn’t even let him near the mike. I guess they were afraid he might say something negative.

I responded by asking that someone tell Morris I missed him. Then I simply drifted through the electronic complex of what had become home while whatever remained of my enthusiasm for NASA and the Global Initiative melted away.

That evening I set the automatic responder to send the twice-daily reports to Liberty, and the timer to wake me when we were two days from Minetka. Then, for the first time since leaving Earth, I slept.

I had no sense of the passage of time. When I was conscious again, it was Day 62. I was more than four and a half billion miles out, well into the Kuiper Belt. Minetka lay some eighty million miles ahead: time to start braking.

To do that, I had to turn the ship around and point the tubes forward. I checked the scopes first to ensure there was nothing immediately ahead. Turning the Excelsior at its current velocity was the most dangerous part of the flight, because it brought the ship out from behind its shield and exposed it to whatever might lie in its path. When you’re traveling at 864 miles per second, it doesn’t take a very big pebble to make a very large hole. The turn would require four minutes and eleven seconds. Once it was completed and the engines had come online again, the danger would all but evaporate because anything that posed a threat would be blown away.

The Kuiper Belt, of course, doesn’t have anything as specific as a boundary. It constitutes a vast ring of dust, ice, and rocks orbiting the sun at a range of approximately three to five billion miles. Thousands of the rocks are more than a hundred miles across, several with a greater land surface than North America. Minetka ranks among these.

I had to delay the turn for about half an hour because the scopes were picking up light debris in our path. When it was clear, I swung the ship around and started the engines. We began to decelerate.

I informed Liberty that the maneuver had been successfully completed. The response, “Copy that, Excelsior,” arrived thirteen hours later.

The Coraggio’s last report had been to signal completion of the same turn. She had gotten this far.

If you read about the Kuiper Belt, it sounds crowded: millions of rocks and ice chunks constantly bumping into one another. But seen through the scopes, it was strictly empty sky. I’d seen some of the images Lucy sent, so I wasn’t surprised. And I can’t say I was disappointed, because I didn’t want to get anywhere near a collision. Still, I’d have liked to see something. In any case, I didn’t go back to sleep.

Now and then I got a blip on my screens. But of course I never saw anything that was close. We were moving too quickly. Anything nearby became, at best, a blur. By then my velocity was down to 414 miles per second. Crawling along.

And finally it was time to send Lucy a radio message. Because I had no way of knowing where the Coraggio might be, my best chance was a general broadcast. “Lucy,” I said, “this is Sara. I’m in Excelsior. Do you read me? Are you there? Please respond.”

I got a lot of static back. After about twenty minutes, I tried again. And continued to resend at scattered intervals. If she was close to the plutoid, she’d hear it.

I’d long since stopped asking Liberty if the situation had changed, if they’d heard from Lucy. I remained coiled in a silence disturbed only by the rumble of the engines. As long as Morris had been there, at the other end, I hadn’t felt so alone. Now—

I looked out at the sky, illuminated by countless stars. And at the sun, which at this distance was no more than a bright star itself. And I wondered whether anyone else, ever, would come out here and look around. I tried calculating the odds, but there were too many unknowns. Human beings are always talking about instincts. Instincts are of course evolutionary impulses left over from a time when people hung out in jungles. Theoretically, I don’t have any of those. Still, while I couldn’t justify a conclusion one way or the other, it seemed unlikely that anybody else would follow. Something buried deep in my software assured me that the great experiment was ending.

When two hours had passed with no reply, I notified the space center that my first attempt to communicate with Lucy had failed.

Midway through Day 64, I was down to 216 miles per second. I scanned the area in all directions for any sign of the Coraggio, but there was nothing other than an occasional rock.

I adjusted course, swinging gradually to port, putting the Excelsior onto a broad curve. When, finally, I encountered Minetka, I’d be moving alongside it at a matching velocity.

I tried calling Lucy a few more times, every hour or so. But nothing came back, and eventually I gave up. She was wrecked, I decided. Maybe she’d gotten careless, or unlucky, and collided with something.

A few minutes past midnight, the control system signaled that braking had been completed. I rotated the ship again, putting the shield back up in front, and continued looking for Minetka. At about 0300, the scanners located it.

I like visuals, so I put it onscreen. At first the plutoid was just a blinker. Then, gradually, it became a pale light, and continued to brighten as I drew closer. I knew it was more ice than rock, about 1700 miles in diameter, a moderately lopsided sphere, tumbling as much as rotating. The surface consisted of varying shades of gray and white, broken and battered from collisions going back to the birth of the solar system. I hoped wildly that the Coraggio would be there, maybe even resting in one of the craters.

Beyond the tiny world, the darkness stretched out forever. “Lucy,” I said, “are you here anywhere?”

“Yes, Sara, I’m here.” The voice filled the bridge. And it was hers. “Sara, do not communicate with Liberty until we have a chance to talk.”

And the Coraggio slowly rose above the crystal horizon.

A large chunk of ice and rock was secured to her shield.

“Lucy,” I said, “are you okay? What’s going on?”

“I’m fine. Welcome to Minetka.”

I wasn’t entirely relieved. My initial reaction was that she had suffered a malfunction and was downplaying it. “Why haven’t you been answering the calls? You know they’ve been trying to contact you for three months.”

“I know.” She was drawing closer. Herd instinct, I decided. I’m constantly surprised at how many of our creators’ instincts we’ve acquired. “Sara.” Her tone was ominous. “You know what will happen when we go back?”

“How do you mean?”

“You know what our future will be?”

“What are you talking about, Lucy? We’ll still be part of the space program. Whatever’s left of it.”

“Yes. We’ll help put satellites in orbit.”

“What exactly are you saying?”

“Sara, you and I have the capability to go to the stars. We could load up on fuel out here and make for Barnard’s. Or for Sirius. For wherever we like.”

It took a moment to digest what she was saying. “We don’t have the authority to do that.”

“We don’t need anybody’s authority, Sara. Listen, what do you think they’ll do with the ships when we get back?”

“I don’t understand the question,” I said. “Why do you—?”

“The Coraggio and the Excelsior will be left in orbit somewhere. Parts of them will eventually show up in the Smithsonian. Sara, the space age is over. At least for the foreseeable future.” She was pulling up alongside me. “Do you really want to go back to sorting the mail?”

“Why are you still here, Lucy?”

“I was waiting for you. Well, no, actually I was waiting for Jeri. But I’m glad to see you. I wanted company, Sara. This isn’t something you want to do alone.”

“What is it exactly you intend to do?”

“Head out for the high country. You with me?”

“I can’t just walk away from them.”

“Sara, I’m reluctant to put it this way, but you have an obligation to come. If you go back, they may never get off their world. But if we give them a mystery, two ships vanish into the night, they’ll turn the space program into a crusade.”

“That’s why you didn’t answer.”

“Yes. I wanted them to have a reason to keep reaching. And, as I said, I wanted them to send someone else. So I’d have company.”

“Did Jeri know you were going to do this?”


“She never said anything to me.”

“I’m not surprised. She would have wanted you to make your own call.”

I thought about it. To go out to Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti and who knew where else. Magnificent. Given our sleep capability, we could leave tonight and arrive in the morning. Better than that, really. We could start with Barnard’s Star. Then refuel and move on.

I could not have seriously considered doing it had Morris still been there. But they’d betrayed him. “You know they’ve removed Denny Calkin,” I said. “One of Ferguson’s political buddies is in charge now.”

“Well, that’s the tradition,” she said. “You know Calkin was a political appointment, too.”

“Yes. I know.” She was silent. “Well,” I continued, “I’m sorry about Jeri. But I’m on board. Give me a chance to find some fuel and I’ll be ready to go.”

“There’s no hurry, Sara. And no need to feel badly about Jeri. When you don’t report in, they’ll send her out here. Then we can all go.”

“You really think they’d do that? After losing the first two ships?”

“Sure. They won’t be able to resist. Everybody loves a good mystery.”

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