Authors: Jack McDevitt
Novels by Jack McDevitt
THE HERCULES TEXT
TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE
with Mike Resnick
THE CASSANDRA PROJECT
The Priscilla Hutchins Novels
THE ENGINES OF GOD
The Alex Benedict Novels
A TALENT FOR WAR
THE DEVIL’S EYE
SHIPS IN THE NIGHT
CRYPTIC: THE BEST SHORT FICTION OF JACK MCDEVITT
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-14650-1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Coming home / by Jack McDevitt. — First edition.
ISBN 978-0-425-26087-6 (hardcover)
Cover illustration by John Harris.
Cover design by Rita Frangie.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Ginjer Buchanan,
longtime editor, inspiration, and friend
I’m indebted to Michael Bishop for his advice and intuition; to Walter Cuirle and David DeGraff for technical guidance; to Sara Schwager, the copy editor; to my agent, Chris Lotts; to Mike Resnick; and especially to my wife, Maureen, who always has to read the second draft.
Dates not classified as Common Era (
) are based on the Rimway calendar.
When Alex Benedict graduated high school, his uncle Gabe, the only parent he’d ever known, provided the ultimate gift: a flight to Earth, the home world, the place where everything had started. It was a mixed blessing, though. Alex had a hard time adjusting to interstellar travel, though he didn’t like to admit it. The jumps in and out of transdimensional space upset his stomach. And the constant changes in gravity levels never helped. But there was no way he would pass on the opportunity to see the oceans and mountains so prominent in his reading. And the great cities, Paris and Denver, Berlin and Shanghai. And the Alps and the Grand Canyon. The pyramids, the Great Wall, and the Arkon. And, for Gabe’s sake, he pretended to be enthusiastic about touring the world capital in Winnipeg.
What most excited him was that Gabe had promised to include a visit to the Moon. That, of course, had been the stage for everything, where Neil Armstrong had climbed out of Apollo 11, stepped down onto the ground, and delivered his giant-leap statement.
But he was surprised to discover, on their arrival, that Armstrong’s footprints were no longer there. “What happened to them?” he asked Gabe.
His uncle frowned. “Actually, nobody knows.” Gabe was tall, with black hair beginning to gray, and sharp features that had been hardened by so many years digging into archeological sites under alien suns. “They were there for a while, but they disappeared during the Dark Age. Vandals, probably.” Gabe shook his head. “Idiots.” They were seated at a small round table in an observation lounge, drinking sodas and looking across the shops and hotels and cottages that covered the lunar surface at MoonWorld, the multiplex area reserved for tourists and shielded by a semitransparent dome. A few kilometers away, the cluster of walls and beams and platforms that had been the original Moonbase lay serenely in the vacuum, illuminated by the glow of the home world, which never moved from its position just over the horizon.
Alex leaned back in his seat. “Nine thousand years,” he said. “It just doesn’t look that old.”
“Time tends to stand still in places like this, Alex. If you don’t get wind and rain, nothing changes.”
Alex picked up a change of expression, a darkening of mood. “What’s wrong, Uncle Gabriel?” he said.
“I was just thinking how much I’d have enjoyed walking around and looking at the Apollo landers. The first manned spaceships.”
“What happened to them?”
“They were here for over a thousand years. But when everything collapsed, they took all that stuff back to Earth. Too many people had access to the Moon by then, and they wanted to preserve as much as they could. So they put the landers in museums. Primarily in the Space Museum in Florida. Most of the rest of it went to the Huntsville Space Museum, where they were keeping other artifacts from the Golden Age. Eventually, though, they had to move it out of there, too, because they were losing control of the area. There’d been a worldwide economic collapse. Alabama just wasn’t safe anymore. There was a lot of material from the first thousand years of off-world exploration. Helmets, personal gear belonging to the astronauts, electronic records from the early flights. Absolutely priceless stuff.”
“So where’d they move it to?”
“Some of it was taken to Centralia. Which in those days was called the Dakotas. We don’t know how much. Or what actually was saved.” A look of weariness came into his eyes. “Whatever was left was put into a storage facility there. After that, we don’t know what happened to it.”
“It would be nice to find them,” said Alex.
“Yes, it would. Some people have devoted their lives to trying to figure out what happened. Huntsville had artifacts from the very beginning of the space era. From the Florida Space Museum. From Moonbase. From Tyuratam. I’d give anything to have been able to look through all that.”
“Florida was underwater by then, I guess?”
“What happened to the Apollo flight modules?”
“They were left at the Florida Space Museum and went under with the rest of the state.”
“I bet you’d like to have one of those, Uncle Gabe.”
Gabe took on a negative look. “I’m not sure what it would sell for. It’s not exactly the kind of thing you could put on a bookshelf.”
Gabe smiled. “Alex, I’d give anything just to have a chance to
one of them.” He sighed. “It’s a pity.”
“I don’t think I’d have wanted to be around during a dark age. It’s odd, though. They had interstellar flight. And data retrieval and everything.”
Gabe nodded. “None of it matters if you have an unstable society and tin-pot dictators. They had several hundred years of economic collapse. Widespread poverty. A few people at the top had all the money and influence. They had terrible overpopulation, struggles over water and resources. Civil wars. And widespread illiteracy.” The thirty-second to the thirty-ninth century. “It’s a wonder we survived.”
“But there were other worlds. Other places. How could they all have collapsed? I’ve read the books. I know what they say about greed and corruption. But I still don’t understand how people let it happen.”
“The colony worlds weren’t self-sufficient at the time, Alex. So they just got taken over. People with money and influence gradually pushed everyone else out of the way. It was like a disease.”
They sat quietly for a couple of minutes. Alex finished his soda and put the glass down. “Uncle Gabe, this would probably be a good place for a dig site. You ever think about coming here?”
“They don’t allow it, son.” He looked out at a crater rim. “I don’t think there’s much here anyway. The place has gotten a pretty thorough sweep.”
* * *
They strolled over to the museum. There were about forty people inside, wandering among the showcases, buying souvenirs, looking at portraits of astronauts and pilots and ships ranging from the Apollo vehicles to modern interstellars. They went into the showroom, which offered a virtual tour of the original Moonbase. Posters informed them the tour would show the facility as it had been on the morning of March 2, 2057, when the first manned voyage to Jupiter was nearing its objective. “Sounds like fun,” said Gabe. “Why don’t we watch?”
“Jupiter’s the big planet, right?” asked Alex.
“Yes. If it hadn’t been for Jupiter, we probably wouldn’t be here.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“It acted as a sweeper. Cleared out a lot of the debris that would have rained down on Earth. Usually, if you don’t have one of those in the planetary system, life stays pretty primitive. If it gets moving at all.”
“The Jupiter flight was the first manned mission after Mars, right?”
“Yes. Mars was the first off-world settlement. Unless you count Moonbase, of course.”
that.” Alex made no effort to hide his annoyance.
“Sorry,” said Gabe.
“You know, Uncle Gabe, I can’t imagine how they traveled around in those days without a star drive. It must have taken forever to get anywhere.”
“It was fairly slow going, kid.”
“I mean, they needed
to get to the Moon.”
Gabe laughed. “Yeah. They did. That’s correct.”
Alex looked out at the Earth. “You can almost
* * *
They sat down in a theater area with about a dozen other people and put on headphones. The lights dimmed, and soft music filtered in.
“Good morning, Alex,”
said an amiable female voice.
“Welcome to Moonbase.”
The lights came back up, and Alex’s chair seemed to be moving along a curving corridor. His uncle was beside him. The others were gone.
“My name is Leah,”
the voice continued.
“If you wish at any time to stop the tour, simply push the red button on the right arm of the chair. Push the yellow button to speak to your uncle.”
The corridor was cramped and gray. Not at all like the tasteful, spacious passageways of MoonWorld.
They turned left into an austere meeting room. Several people were seated on narrow chairs, and a young man in uniform was apparently checking off names and assigning quarters. Everybody wore odd clothing, the kind you saw in historical films. Hairstyles were strange. There was a pomposity in the way the women wore theirs. Girls looking like that would have been laughed out of Alex’s old high school. And the men all had facial hair. As if they were trying to look like people who desperately needed to be taken seriously. Most striking, though, there were people of different colors. Racial variations had long since gone away in most areas of the Confederacy after thousands of years of intermarriage.
“Moonbase was established in 2041,”
“by a private corporation. Originally, the plan had been that it would be a government operation. Eventually, however, it became clear that wouldn’t work. Moonbase, Inc. came into existence, made possible by an agreement among seventeen nations and eleven corporations.”
Their chairs navigated out of the meeting room.
“We are now in the living quarters,”
“Forty apartments are available for staff. Another thirty for visitors. The Galileo Hotel provides forty additional rooms.”
They passed through a doorway and found themselves in the lobby of the Galileo. A cube-shaped transparent pool was elevated overhead. There were probably twenty kids and a half dozen adults swimming and splashing around while others watched from the sides.
“Nice place,” said Alex.
“If you mean the pool,”
“it was so popular that they had to enlarge it on three different occasions.”
She took them to one of the apartments.
“As you can see, it’s smaller than those available today.”
But it looked comfortable. The bed folded out of a wall. A display screen was mounted on the opposite side. Beneath the screen, on a table, was an electronic device.
“It’s a computer,”
“Note the keyboard. It’s not unusual for the time. Data storage was still in a relatively primitive state.”
“Did any of them survive?” asked Gabe. “I mean, any of the computers they had at Moonbase?”
“There is one, which you can find at the Paris Deep Space Museum.”
“What happened to the others?”
“They disappeared, along with virtually everything else, during the Dark Age.”
Gabe took a deep breath.
The Moonlight Restaurant was the most misnamed facility Alex had ever seen. It was cramped, with dull yellow walls and drab chairs and tables, overflowing with maybe thirty people. They drifted past a souvenir shop, whose shelves were filled with magazines and jigsaw puzzles and pullover shirts, some with images of the Moon and of Moonbase. There were models of a primitive-looking ship that Alex would not have trusted to take him anywhere.
“It was one of the early vehicles carrying people to Mars.”
Everything in the shop was sold in packages bearing pictures of other antiquated space vehicles and astronauts in clunky pressure suits. And, of course, a ringed planet. Saturn.
“Uncle Gabe,” said Alex, “it’s too bad they didn’t leave some of the landers up here. Sitting on the Moon, they’d have lasted forever.”
“If nobody ruined them.”
“Think what one of them would sell for.” Alex couldn’t resist the comment because he knew how Gabe would react.
“That’s not what matters, son.”
* * *
The souvenir shop blinked off, and Leah took them outside. There was no multiplex in that era. The dome, of course, did not exist either. Several pieces of the automated equipment that had built the structure were scattered across the regolith. Three landing pads had been placed several kilometers away, near what appeared to be a cabin.
“It’s actually a subway entrance,”
“It provides transport into the central complex.”
They veered off again, toward an array of radio telescopes.
“Solar collectors, Alex. They supply power for Moonbase. If you’ll look to your left, you will see that construction is getting started on a nuclear facility. At this time, it was still several years from completion.”
* * *
“As you are probably aware, Alex, March 2, 2057, is an historic date.”
“Because of the Jupiter flight.”
“Correct. Actually, they were going to Europa. They’re getting ready inside, so if no one has an objection, we’ll go to the command center and see what happens.”
The lights blinked, and Alex was seated in a wide room with seven or eight people, all watching displays and talking into microphones. The displays were mostly carrying lines of numbers, but one had an image of a gray globe, which had to be Jupiter, and another was showing the rugged, broken surface of a moon.
“Notice the giant red spot on the planet,”
“It’s a storm. It was at least five hundred years old at this time, but didn’t fade out of existence until the fifth millennium.
“The person in charge of overseeing the Europa operation is Nazario Conti. He’s over to your left.”
Conti was short but imposing, wearing a relaxed attitude that suggested historic projects were simply part of the normal routine.
“Is that an accurate representation of him?” asked Gabe.
“No. In fact we know he existed and that he was one of the senior people on-site. But the records have been lost, so we don’t really have any idea what he looked like or even that he was present during the operation at this moment.”
Gabe did not reply, but his expression said it all. So much was gone.
“I should also add that the language has changed over nine thousand years. We’ll have these people speaking Standard.”
“What’s the name of the ship?” asked Alex.
. It had a crew of seven or eight. Accounts vary. We know that the captain was Andrey Sidorov.”