THE TERMINAL PROJECT AND OTHER VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY
From the time he was a child, Emery Harmon had felt it: loneliness.
Perhaps it was because his father had died before he was born. Emery knew him only from poorly-shot videos of family parties and from holograms in his mother’s albums--living images of the dead.
Perhaps it was because, after his father died, Emery’s mother withdrew from her family and friends. And she withdrew from him, too: feeding him, clothing him, but enclosing him in a wall of silence. She, too, became a living image of the dead.
Perhaps it was because he had no brother or sister.
Whatever the cause, Emery was unable to form friendships. He was unable to fall in love.
He was always lonely.
As he grew older, he transformed his personal loneliness into a cosmic yearning.
“We can’t be alone in the universe. There must be life--intelligent life--on other planets. And wherever they are, no matter how different they may look, no matter how strange, they will be our brothers. And I want to find our brothers.”
His loneliness had become a cause.
Fortunately for him, he lived at a time when that cause could become a profession: when Emery was ten years old, Charles David Lindstrom invented Laser Channeling--in effect, a faster than light drive. At last, it was possible to travel to the stars. (For some reason, relativity theory didn’t apply: time in a Laser Channel didn’t slow down. So if a traveler was gone for ten ship years, he would return ten Earth years later.)
The Solar System had already been thoroughly explored. All of the planets and satellites were barren. Except for Mars, where fossilized shells were found far beneath the surface--the three-billion-year-old remains of organic (that is, carbon-based), probably aquatic life.
But only the remains. There may have been soft-bodied creatures, too, but they left no clues behind them.
There were no artifacts on Mars--no indications that there was intelligent life that knew it was life--that had built something--created something.
Some scientists believed that life began on Mars and somehow migrated to Earth.
Emery didn’t agree.
“Wherever--whenever--the conditions are right, life is a possibility. Those conditions may have occurred thousands of times--millions of times.”
Emery prepared himself for the search. In college, he majored in biology, with a minor in chemistry.
He also followed a rigid program of physical conditioning.
By the time he graduated, he was mentally and physically ready to pass the rigorous exams for DeepSpEx--the Deep Space Exploration Project.
DeepSpEx accepted only five recruits a year. After eighteen months of Phase One training and conditioning, one of the five would be selected for Phase Two--six months of pre-flight prep. Many recruits washed out.
Even among the survivors, only a handful would ever actually become Explorers. There were several reasons for this.
First, although Laser Channeling (L.C., or Elsie, as it was called) had been invented more than a decade ago, it was a treacherous technology, difficult to harness, difficult to package, difficult to handle. Witness the deaths of the first three Explorers.
Moreover, building an Elsie engine, and housing it safely in a complex, crystalline alloy of aluminum, titanium and lead, was an enormously expensive undertaking--so expensive that the Elsie Ships were built as small, one-person vessels. This resulted in a whole new set of problems--emotional problems. An Explorer would be alone in the vastness of deep space, thousands of light years from home, on a dangerous voyage that could last for five or six years. Could he or she stand the loneliness?
Emery could. And he proved it to the psychiatrists who examined him. That was one reason he was selected to fly DeepSpEx XII.
Nonetheless, as added insurance against loneliness, DeepSpEx XII was the first ship equipped with a “Companion”--a brand new, one-of-a-kind android assistant that packed all its remarkably sophisticated neuro-circuitry into a minimum of space: it was the size of an eight-year-old boy, although it had the proportions of a miniature adult.
The Companion was designed to perform a variety of essential tasks: it could handle many of the technical functions on board; it was a self-repairing, indestructible, mobile array of life-sensing devices that could accompany the Explorer onto the surface of a planet; and, according to its inventors, it could also carry on a pleasant conversation.
Although he told the Program Chief that he didn’t need a Companion, Emery didn’t raise any serious objections: the only thing that mattered to him was to begin the journey that he had hoped for, and planned for, all of his life.
In fact, he soon discovered the value of his Companion: it was programmed with all the parameters of the voyage, the sequence of stars he would visit, the Elsie coordinates to reach them, and the documentation that would be required. These instructions were duplicated in the ship’s memory, but the Companion would free Emery from all the routine, boring jobs aboard ship.
He began to feel a little friendlier toward the Companion. He even gave it a name. He picked “Christopher,” short for “Christopher Columbus.”
A week before the launch, Emery spent several hours alone with Christopher, going over the details of the flight plan again, and reviewing the available information about each star they would visit.
The little android’s voice was incongruously deep and masculine and, for some reason, Emery mentioned that fact to Christopher. He regretted it immediately.
“Would you like me to change it?” Christopher asked. “Just say the word.”
“No, it’s okay. I don’t really care what you sound like. I don’t intend to talk to you very much.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Christopher said, in a smug voice.
The android’s expression reflected that smugness.
Emery smiled. “That’s a little aggressive for a Companion, isn’t it?”
“Not really. I wasn’t programmed to be a yes-man.”
He said, “Well, I wasn’t programmed to need much conversation. I’m used to being alone.”
“But you’ve never been out there. You’ve never seen the blackness, the unblinking brightness of the stars, the cold emptiness. You’ve never been that alone.”
“Neither have you.”
“But I’ve been programmed with the images of past flights. Believe me, you’ll be grateful that I’m out there with you.”
“Do you want me to show you how Elsie will make you feel?”
“How could you do that?”
“One of my sensors can detect telepathic imagery. Just in case we run into a telepathic life form. That’s supposed to be all the sensor can do. But I’ve been playing around with it, and I’ve discovered that it can also project imagery.”
“Do you mean that you can do things you’re not designed to do?”
“Neural programming is an art, not a science. Who knows what other hidden talents I may have.”
Emery felt uneasy. Christopher was a brand new model--a prototype. Maybe it hadn’t been thoroughly tested. Maybe the little son of a bitch would go berserk out in space and . . .
Emery was willing to take a chance on that. He wouldn’t delay his departure for anything.
He said, “I’ll find out what Elsie is like soon enough. Let’s talk about the odds.”
“You have the data from all the previous flights?”
“From the first six of them. Not counting the ones that failed. The others haven’t returned yet.”
“How many planets were explored?”
“You know the number already. Two thousand five.”
“Just checking. How many planets did we actually land on?”
“You should know that, too. Nine.”
“And they were deserts.”
What if he spent the next four or five years searching--and came back with nothing? It wasn’t just a matter of where he went, but of when: he could arrive before life evolved. Or after it had disappeared.
What if the whole universe were a desert?
What if we searched for a thousand years and never found our brothers?
What if life were just a bizarre accident in one tiny corner of eternity, never repeated, never duplicated?
Emery felt an icy wave of loneliness wash over him.
He shook his head. He wouldn’t fail.
Elsie was a gentle name for an awful experience.
Emery had read about the process, so he knew that it had something to do with transforming matter into photons--particles of light--then back again to matter at the destination.
But how could light travel faster than light?
He didn’t have the mathematical background to really understand Lindstrom’s work.
After his first Elsie jump, however, one thing was clear: it wasn’t the kind of thing you’d do if you didn’t have to do it.
He felt as if his body had melted, or disintegrated, or exploded. He felt as if he were standing next to himself and inside of himself. He felt frozen in a block of ice and burning in a sheet of flame. And then he felt, for one long terrifying moment, as if he didn’t exist any more.
Right after the jump, Christopher said, “You should have let me preview it for you.”
Emery laughed. “I might have quit the program!”
When he looked at the image on the main video screen, he stopped thinking about Elsie. DeepSpEx XII was now a new, tiny asteroid in the first star system that he would explore.
Christopher said, “The name of this star is Procyon B.”
“It’s about the size of our Sun. A comfortable star, right in the middle of the Main Sequence--young enough and old enough. Are there planets orbiting it?”
Christopher inserted his left index finger into a socket on the instrument panel, connecting the ship’s sensors to his processors. He began the read-out.
“Yes. There are six planets in the system. We are just beyond the orbit of the sixth planet.”
“Our first star--and it has a family!”
Christopher’s deep, baritone voice cut through his enthusiasm. “Planet Number Six. Dead. Always was. Primarily frozen methane.”
They were about two billion miles from Procyon B--a safe distance. According to Lindstrom’s equations, if a ship jumping at full Elsie power came any closer than that to a star, the photons would never become matter again. The vessel, and everything in it, would disappear in a burst of light.
From now on, DeepSpEx XII could only take low-powered, short Elsie jumps. And when the ship came within two million miles of a planet, it had to switch to its standard, relatively slow, laser-thrust engine. That was why the Explorers’ expeditions took so long to complete.
They left the sixth planet and focused on the fifth. A short Elsie jump--which was just as nauseating as a long one--brought them closer to it. Then Christopher activated the laser-thrust engine. The trip to Planet Number Five would take five days.
To maintain an Explorer’s biological clock, DeepSpEx XII was calibrated to mimic an Earth cycle of nights and days. Emery’s work period was ten hours long. At the end of each ten-hour span, the ship’s lights dimmed for an eight-hour sleep period. When Emery woke up, he exercised for an hour: the ship’s Drummond Screen generated artificial gravity that helped keep his muscles healthy. And if Christopher kept out of the way, there was just enough room in the cabin for sit-ups, push-ups, et al.
If Emery started feeling the effects of cabin fever, he had another exercise option: EVA--Extra-Vehicular Activity, which Explorers called A Walk on the Wild Side. He could put on his pressure suit, step into the airlock and take a stroll in space. The Drummond Screen generated a gravity field on the outer shell of the ship, too, so EVAs were perfectly safe.
During the six-hour post-sleep period, Emery could read (on the video screen) or watch a movie or listen to music or write an entry in his Log.
His food and the atmosphere of the ship were manufactured from a combination of his recycled wastes and a compressed plasma of molecules packed in a platinum alloy container called a Zero Bottle (because it was cooled to a fraction of a degree above Absolute Zero).
During the slow trip to Number Five, Emery was thoughtful and silent.
His search had actually begun. That golden light on the screen was the first star. And there were planets circling it.
The waiting, the loneliness would be over soon. He was sure of it.
If not this star, the next.
There were almost two hundred on his itinerary.
If not the next, the one after that.
Christopher’s read-out: “Gas giant. Dead. Always was.”
Short Elsie jump.
Laser thrust for six days.
“Gas giant. Dead. Always was.”
Short Elsie jump.
Laser thrust for five days.
“Volcanic. Mostly methane atmosphere. D-e-a-d.”
So were Numbers Two and One.
“Bad result,” Emery said, “but a good start. The process works. The equipment works.”
“You mean me?”
“I mean everything. Including you.”
Emery said, “I’m even beginning to get used to Elsie.”
“So am I.”
“You? You can’t get used to things. You don’t feel anything, do you?”
“Of course I do.”
There was that smug tone again. How could an android be smug?
Emery said, “That’s not possible.”
“You mean I’m having delusions?”
“That’s not possible, either.”
“Emery, trust me: I can feel every emotion you can feel.”
“But you’re a machine.”
“So are you. The difference is, your parts grow naturally. Mine have to be manufactured.”
Emery wondered if Christopher was beginning to malfunction.
He looked exactly like a very small, very serious young man, with thick, brown hair (that never needed trimming), intelligent brown eyes (that never needed sleep), a compact, sturdy body (that never needed food), dressed in a miniature, tan Explorer’s jumpsuit.
Emery said, “Machines don’t have feelings.”
“Until now, they didn’t. But I was designed to be a Companion--to live and work with a human being for years--in the cramped environment of a ship--and in dangerous places we’ve never been before. Would you like to spend all that time with a cold, emotionless robot? No way, Jose. So they gave me emotions--the same ones you’ve got. Haven’t you noticed?”
“Unfortunately, I have.”
“I just want to concentrate on what we’re doing. On the search. That’s what I’m here for. I don’t need a friend.”
“I’m not a friend; I’m a Companion. And I’m a breakthrough. The first android with a heart--figuratively speaking, of course. The only one of its kind.”
“Do me a favor. Keep it to yourself.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
The next star was planetless. As was the star after that one.
Then they jumped to Capella, which had one planet orbiting it--a gas giant fifteen times the size of Jupiter, too large to be a genuine planet, too small to ignite the nuclear fires that would make it a star.
Emery said, “A sad fate. Imagine spending billions of years wishing you’d become a sun, knowing you’d never be one. And all the time, Capella is showing off with its light and heat, right there in your neighhorhood.”
“Hey, it’s nice to hear your voice again. Does this mean that you’re finally coming out of your shell?”
“I told you that I don’t talk much.”
“Emery, we’re going to be out here for years. Just you and me and the Universe. A little conversation wouldn’t kill you.”
“What should we talk about?”
“The ship. The search. Any old thing at all.”
“Christopher, I’ve never even shared my thoughts with people. Why would I want to share them with a--with you?”
The little android smiled. “Did I just detect a trace of sympathy? You were going to say, ‘with a machine,’ but you spared my feelings. That’s a giant leap for mankind, n’est-ce pas?”
Emery, caught in the act, couldn’t help smiling.
Christopher repeated, “My feelings.”
“So now you believe I have feelings.”
“I guess I do.”
“So we can start talking to each other, right?”
“Okay. But shouldn’t we prepare the next Elsie jump?”
“What do you mean ‘we’? Since when do you do any of the grunt work around here?”
Emery took the challenge.
“Fine. Why don’t you just sit back and relax? I’ll take care of everything.”
“On second thought, I’m not so sure I want to put my life in your hands.”
“You have no choice. I outrank you.”
It took Emery more than thirty minutes to do what Christopher could do almost instantly. But Elsie kicked in perfectly, they disintegrated and reintegrated, and the ship was just over two billion miles from a yellow, main sequence star called Theseus B.
Christopher nodded appreciatively and said, “Well, you’re not the fastest worker I’ve ever seen, but that was a good jump.”
“I’ll scan for planets, too.”
“Will wonders never cease?”
Emery began the read-out. “Three planets. The outer one is frozen volcanic rock. Dead.”
“Don’t get discouraged. We’ve only just begun.”
Emery handled the low-powered Elsie jump with relative ease. Then he switched to the laser thrust engine.
He sat back, sighed and said, “Nothing to it.”
He asked the dispenser for a cup of coffee, which it delivered almost immediately.
He took a long sip. “Okay, Christopher, let’s talk.”
The android smiled and settled himself on his favorite perch--a steel shelf opposite Emery’s chair.
“So tell me about your hopes and dreams.”
“I’d rather not. Why don’t you tell me who programmed your vocabulary. Your choice of words is a little--strange.”
Christopher sighed and said, “It’s difficult for me to talk about all that pre-natal stuff: how I was built, how my circuits were installed, how I was programmed. I know it happened, and I was aware of some of it, but it seems so remote. It’s like asking you what it was like to be a fetus.”
“Never mind. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“I can tell you this: the person who programmed my vocabulary--my style--even my voice--made me a mirror image of himself. His name is Featherstone. He’s supposed to be a genius. But he’s also a flake.”
Emery laughed. “Which makes you a son of a flake.”
“I guess so. But at least he was always honest with me. Some of the other people who worked on me treated me like a thing. They gave me feelings, but they didn’t respect those feelings. Featherstone respected me. And he told me something that no one else did. He told me that they would never build another Companion like me.”
“What do you mean?”
“They would never build another android with feelings. Machines had no right to feel anything. So I’m the beginning and the end of my species. Featherstone told me that.”
“And they gave you to me. What a gift!”
“Now let’s talk about you.”
Emery sipped his coffee thoughtfully for a minute, then asked, “What would you like to know?”
“Were you always the strong, silent type?”
Emery smiled and nodded.
He said, “I grew up in a very quiet home.”
“Did you ever have any fun?”
“You poor bastard.”
“What the hell do you know about fun?”
“Whatever Featherstone told me. And he thought that if you didn’t enjoy something, you shouldn’t do it.”
“He’s right. But there are different ways to enjoy things. It’s not always about ‘fun.’”
“So what else is it about?”
“Why do you care so much about the Search?”
“I don’t want to believe that in a universe with trillions of stars--trillions of possibilities--human beings are all alone, stuck in an unimportant corner of an ordinary galaxy, circling an average star. I don’t want to believe that there’s no one else out here. That scares me. It’s like living in one small room in a huge house--and knowing that no one has ever lived in any of the other rooms, and no one ever will.”
“And that matters to you?”
“It always has.”
“And you call me a flake?”
Emery finished his coffee.
He said, “I’m tired, Christopher. Lights out in a few minutes. We’ve talked enough.”
“For now,” Christopher said. “For now.”
The simulated days and nights came and went. Emery and Christopher searched--from star to star--from planet to planet--and found nothing but stars and planets.
Sometimes Emery was silent. Sometimes he was willing to talk to Christopher.
Once, six months into the voyage, they both took a Walk on the Wild Side.
They stood together on a sliver of metal in the star-spattered blackness, almost a billion miles from a golden-yellow sun, millions of miles from a barren, frozen planet.
They couldn’t speak to each other, but they could communicate: Christopher could send--and receive--telepathic messages.
At first, to Emery, telepathy was almost as unpleasant as Elsie. It was like eavesdropping on someone else’s mind.
Then, after a while, the process became more comfortable and Emery could separate his “voice” from Christopher’s. And they could talk to each other. It just took a little practice.
Emery thought, “You’re not cold out here?”
“My instruments register the temperature, but I don’t feel heat and cold.”
“And you don’t need air or food. You could survive just about anywhere.”
“If you’ve got it, flaunt it.”
“Incredible view, huh?”
“Makes you feel so small.”
“I am small. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Here you are, facing eternity, and you can’t be serious.”
“I’m too small to be serious.”
“Two more planets in this system.”
“Two more chances.”
Emery reached out his hand, which was enclosed by the glove of his pressure suit. He pretended to hold the distant golden-yellow star on his fingertips. He could almost feel the warmth of it, a billion miles away.
And, at the same time, he could almost feel the coldness of the empty space between them.
How empty is it? Emery thought.
Christopher didn’t answer him.
More than one Earth year had passed. Their search was moving quickly--too quickly. Most of the stars they visited were planetless. And when there were planets, they were dead. One long Elsie jump, a quick survey, and they moved on.
The conversations between Emery and Christopher were sometimes spoken, and sometimes telepathic. Emery became quite adept at telepathy and even preferred it when he was tired. He could close his eyes and rest, and still keep up his side of the conversation.
But he was beginning to lose hope. They had already explored half of the stars on their itinerary and they had found nothing.
The process had become a blur of disappointment. Emery gave Christopher more and more of the responsibility for handling the ship and the sensors.
Then they jumped to a star called Medusa. It had a family of four planets.
The inner two were too close to Medusa to sustain life: too much heat, too much radiation.
The planet furthest out was frozen gas--a methane popsicle, Christopher called it.
As they approached the third planet, Emery watched its image on the video-screen absently, without much interest.
It was about the size of Earth. Its atmosphere was very thin and transparent: no oxygen, no water, just a scattering of inert gases. The surface was incredibly smooth and uniform, a Venus-like expanse of ancient, hardened lava, unmarked by rivers or canyons or meteoric craters or seismic disturbances--devoid of surface features.
Except for one dark brown ripple on the ocher face of the planet--a ridge about 300 feet high, a mile long and half a mile wide. Four deep gouges ran up one side of the ridge, like a huge flight of steps, and the top of it was a broad mesa.
Apparently, like its namesake, Medusa had turned the third planet to stone.
Christopher began to scan it.
He smiled and said, “Pay dirt!”
Emery’s stomach tightened. He leaned toward Christopher.
He said, very softly, “Tell me. Tell me.”
“There’s life on that planet. Organic, growing, changing, repairing itself. And thinking!”
“Thinking? How do you know that?”
“Not from the ship’s sensors, Emery. I can feel the thoughts. I’ll show you.”
Christopher opened a telepathic gate and pushed a stream of alien images into Emery’s mind: flaming, underground rivers of heat and light, felt rather than seen; dark, massive, subsurface towers of frozen lava; lightless, sinuous tunnels, snaking through buried mountain ranges.
No words, no thoughts. Just an incoherent, grammarless language of the senses.
Emery closed the telepathic gate. The images were too chaotic for him to handle.
He said, “Why are their minds so confused? Why is it such a jumble?”
“I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
“Where are they? Not on the surface. Below it?”
“On the surface and below it.”
Emery watched the screen as the ship’s video camera moved closer and closer to the planet. The image was unchanging: smooth, hard, featureless.
“There’s nothing on the surface.”
“One thing. That ridge.”
“Is that where they are? Inside the ridge? Below it?”
Christopher ignored the ship’s instrument panel. He was reaching out with his own telepathic sensor. He didn’t answer Emery for several minutes, as DeepSpEx XII descended toward the planet.
Then he said, “One mind. One voice.”
“You can only sense one mind?”
“There is only one living being on the planet.”
“Somewhere in that ridge? The survivor of a disaster? The last of his race?”
Christopher shook his head.
He said, “There never was another. There never will be.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve contacted it. It doesn’t have words. It senses that I exist but it doesn’t understand what I am--or how I can exist. When we land, we’ll learn all about each other.”
“But where is it? In the ridge? Below the ridge?”
“Neither and both: it is the ridge.”
The ship landed a few hundred feet from the ridge, searing a black circle in the yellow lava rock. Emery opened the hatch and climbed down the narrow ladder. Christopher, in his tan jump suit, was right behind him.
Emery walked without effort in the almost-Earth gravity. His pressure suit was slim and flexible. His tinted, transparent helmet fed him breathable air and gave him an unobstructed view of the smooth, barren surface, the ridge, the black sky, the distant stars and yellow Medusa, hanging like an ominous lantern above the horizon.
He thought, This place is a nightmare. There’s life here?
Christopher answered, Intelligent life. An enormous intelligence, enormous capacity. It never had a need for words. It never had to communicate. It fed on images, sensations, and its own imaginings. And now it’s learning what language is--what words are--from me--so quickly that, by the time we reach the ridge, it will be able to speak to us.
They walked across the empty plain, Medusa behind them, looking over their shoulders, casting their long, pale shadows on the ground.
The ridge, which had seemed so tiny on the video screen, loomed like a mountain ahead of them.
Then, in their minds, they heard a new voice--a tentative voice--that seemed to be testing every word it thought.
The new voice said, “I didn’t know there were others.”
Christopher expanded the statement: “Other beings.”
“I didn’t know there were other beings.”
Emery: “There are no other beings here?”
“There never have been. I am here now. I was here always. I will be here always.”
They had almost reached the ridge. It was not hardened lava. It was dark and porous, and it shimmered in Medusa’s yellow light. Long, shallow ripples moved slowly, continuously, over its surface, like waves in a sea of molasses.
Emery asked Christopher, “What material is that?”
Christopher didn’t know.
The new voice said, “Silicon-carbon rings, crystals of matter, elements pulled from the rocks, the lava rivers. Self-repairing, self-replicating. Dispersed intelligence: everywhere, nowhere in particular.”
Emery said, “Self-replicating? But aren’t you the only living thing here?”
The new voice said, “I add to myself. I grow myself. I am many. I am one.”
Christopher’s telepathic voice spoke slowly, as if he were translating an image: “A colony with millions of bodies that become one body. Millions of minds that think as one mind.”
Emery and the little android stood silently on the smooth lava plain, a few feet from the shimmering ridge. Questions and answers--words and images--raced back and forth. Human thoughts--computer thoughts--alien thoughts--flooded the silence.
Christopher said, “Tell us about yourself,” and it did.
It said that it was immobile. But its mind could travel.
It plunged into the molten core of its planet, and traced the glowing streams of magma that flowed through subterranean canyons.
It soared into space, to the other planets in the system. And sometimes it touched the fiery face of Medusa and burrowed into the nuclear fires of the star’s interior.
For its own pleasure, it fashioned worlds of imagination, conjuring up fantastic dream landscapes more beautiful than any it had seen.
It played with colors and shapes, with light and darkness, like an abstract painter.
It knew that there were other stars, other galaxies, too far for its mind to reach.
It believed that there were no boundaries, no limits, no barriers to its dreaming.
But it had never imagined another living being. It had never thought that it was alone, because there never seemed to be an alternative.
Now there was.
Emery and Christopher told it about a world where billions of individual creatures lived--from one-celled plants and animals through the whole evolutionary chain--to people, families, cities, nations.
They told it about birth and death.
They told it about romance and science and politics.
They told it about space travel and the Search.
Medusa had set. Emery was exhausted.
He said, “I need some sleep.”
It never slept, never rested. They told it about sleep.
Christopher wasn’t tired, of course. He asked Emery if he could stay and continue the conversation.
“Sure. Take notes.”
When Emery returned to the ship, he tried to understand why he didn’t feel excited, or satisfied, or relieved.
The Search is over, he thought. I’ve found what I was looking for.
But he felt cold and empty.
He was almost too tired to fall asleep. And when he finally did, he dreamed of places that no man had ever seen.
When he awoke, hours later, he didn’t feel refreshed. He washed, brushed his teeth.
He checked the video screen. Medusa had risen over the ridge. Christopher was still standing in the same place.
Emery asked the dispenser for scrambled eggs, a toasted English muffin and coffee. He ate his breakfast quickly. Then he went back to the ridge.
As he approached, he could tune in on their conversation. They were exchanging ideas so quickly that the words and images overlapped. He couldn’t make sense of them.
It was almost as if Emery had become the alien.
He interrupted the flow with his own thoughts.
“Christopher, have you recorded all the information we need?”
“Then it’s time to go back.”
The little android didn’t move.
“Christopher, let’s go.”
The android turned to look at Emery. Its dark brown eyes seemed remote and lifeless.
The other voice--the alien voice--said, “Don’t go. I didn’t know that I was alone. If you go, I will be lonely.”
Emery said, “We must return and bring back the news that we’ve found you. We must go.”
The voice said, “You can go, Emery. But Christopher must stay. He is my brother.”
The android smiled at Emery. It was a calm, peaceful smile.
Christopher said, “We are the same. We are not born. We do not die. Our minds can grow and expand and learn forever. We are self-repairing, indestructible. We can teach each other. We can become each other. And each of us is unique--alone--one of a kind. The first of our race, and the last. If I stay here, I won’t be alone. Neither of us will be.”
Emery didn’t know how to respond.
Christopher said, “I know what you’re searching for. But you’ve been looking in the wrong places. You aren’t unique. You aren’t alone.”
Emery watched the slow waves shimmer on the face of the ridge.
Then he said, “I’ll tell them that you self-destructed. That your emotions got the better of you.”
“They’ll believe that, because they want to.”
“And I won’t tell anyone what we found here. This will be just another dead star system. No one will ever come back.”
“Thank you, Emery.”
When he reached the ship, Emery turned back to look at them. Christopher had climbed onto the ridge and was sitting there, a tiny figure outlined by Medusa’s yellow glow.
Emery knew that he still had a hundred stars to explore. But that thought no longer excited him.
Because, for the first time in his life, Emery Harmon wanted to go home.