TUESDAY: Comeback

BY DAVID MOORES

Copyright is held by the author.

There had been a time when those who cared were expecting a human mission to Mars before 2050. That didn’t happen after South Florida disappeared under the ocean, and nuclear war sparked by the West’s panicked flight from consuming oil, obliterated the Middle East. The world had other concerns. The mission finally happened in 2113.

FOR THE first month after landing, the crew of four plus one, one being Jane the robot — yes they were still called that, not cyborg or android — enjoyed success beyond the expected. They found life. Not just the remnants of life, fossilized in ancient sea beds, but actual living organisms, single-celled bacteria.

Yet along with definitive proof that life was not confined to one small planet came an ineffable sadness. The crew felt it, certainly, and their reverent eulogies to the green fertile world that Mars had once been raised similar emotions back home. The dry, stony, freezing plains seemed to echo with laments for a paradise lost, and to many it was a chilling warning of a dire future for Earth.

On Tuesday May 13th 2114 the crew communication channel went silent. No more tweets, no more emails, no more voice or video. Surveillance cameras showed empty crew spaces and nothing happening on the rock-strewn desert outside. Diagnostics indicated nothing wrong, but nobody was communicating. There was nobody home.

Jane had her own separate channel, though she could also use the crew’s, and it actually stopped working altogether. This was even scarier since it permitted The Ground to control certain elements of Jane’s mind, albeit not in real time, as radio signals travelling at light speed still took minutes to reach Mars. She was not supposed to be able to turn it off.

After six weeks of silence, with Congress and the media screaming for action, the pressure became insurmountable. The President and the Administrator of NASA met after the July 4th long weekend.

“Sir,” the Administrator told the President, “we have few options, only one really. We can bring the ship back. The families and the humanitarians will hate us for it, but we’ve gamed this every way, brought in outsiders, even a psychic.” The President greeted this with a resigned grin. “And we at NASA have concluded that bringing the ship back, with whatever contents it may hold, is the only way we will ever have any chance to find out what happened.”

The President nodded, said nothing for a long moment. “What about the samples they found? You’ll get those, right?”

“We should, Sir, and if, as we believe, the crew has perished in some mishap we can’t even guess at, then these samples of life on another world will be their memorial. If you want it played that way, that is.”

“Even if we don’t, the media will,” said the President. “and we can argue that the samples may provide vital insights that could help our struggle against climate change. And that’s true, right?”

“Up to a point, Sir. Unless we bring them back we’ll never know, that’s for sure.” The Administrator leaned forward in his chair. “One last thing Sir, we are currently in a Mars return launch window. If we launch today, which we can easily do, the ship gets back into Earth orbit right about Election Day.”

“I appreciate the warning Administrator, you’ve always been sensitive to wider implications. But I think in this case the major reactions, good or bad, for my re-election prospects, will be felt when you announce the decision to bring the ship back. So, do it,” said the President “but leave it ‘til the weekend. I’ll call the press conference for Friday at two.”

Dismissed, the Administrator rose to leave, then sat back down.

“I am sorry to bother you further Sir, there is one other matter. I’m sure you’ve heard the conspiracy theorists ranting on about Jane. The religious right hates robots as you well know. ‘An affront to the immortal soul God created, just machines mimicking human behaviour,’ all that. They’re as good as accusing Jane of bumping off the crew, which is just so much garbage but there’s no way to counter it, not until the ship gets back anyway. And the fact that Jane’s comms channel died has only fuelled the speculation and pushback against your drive to give robots rights as sentient beings.”

“Administrator, that’s too bad because I have sworn not to repeat with robots what this country did to the slaves. It’s beyond doubt that we have, for better or worse, created conscious beings with minds. Like somebody said ‘the brain is the hardware, the mind is the software’, and America has a duty to humanity, not just the robots, to treat robots with dignity and fairness.”

The Administrator withdrew, hope and irrational presentiment wrestling in his own mind.

NASA never got the chance to issue the launch command. On the Friday of the planned press conference, at four in the morning Eastern Standard, telemetry showed the ship’s fuel pumps being tested and automated pre-launch checks of guidance systems. There was nothing The Ground could do even if they wanted to. Given the 20-minute signal delay, the Roosevelt would already be in space.

No word from the crew, wild speculation, and unbearable waiting — for five interminable months.

***

Mission Control, with most of the world looking over their shoulders, saw the Earth orbit entry burn happen right on schedule, a healthy ship and . . .?

Over the audio channel came a voice that no one had thought to hear again.

“Well hello there Houston, it’s been a while, sorry to keep you in the dark but we’ve been a little busy.” It was Ed Hotchkiss, the captain. “And just so you know, we’re all here. Say Hi, gang.”

Annie Farmer, Wanda Baron, George Chang and Jane gave quick hellos before Ed came back on. “Folks, we know you have a thousand questions. We do have some surprises for you but we’re going to hold further communication for now. You’ll understand when we land. Roosevelt out.”

The ship blasted down on a thunderous pillar of flame, extended its legs and landed, with a final belch of smoke, at Mojave Spaceport, not far from where it had departed the year before. Spectators surged forward to barriers around the pad.

The hatch opened, a ladder dropped, and Jane appeared. Only Jane. A boom mike was extended to catch the first words of her miraculously returned crewmates. Jane gazed impassively across the landing zone. She opened her mouth, but it was Ed’s voice that spoke.

“We are all here, as promised,” he said. “We owe our lives to Jane. We’ll tell the full story later but what happened was, we all, us humans that is, got sick. Really sick. We think it was the bacteria we found despite all the precautions we took. We decided together what we needed to do. We have recorded that decision in case anyone has doubts.”

The Administrator had an intuition about what was coming. Oh my God, he thought.

“Like I said,” Ed continued, “we all made it.”

Cheers and shouts from the crowd. “Show yourselves! Where are you?”

Jane raised a hand and tapped her forehead. “Their minds are all in here, safe with me. Their graves are on Mars.”

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