Robert stomped down the street, occupied by his thoughts. He failed to notice when every other window on all nearby buildings suddenly blinked and formed into a picture. Dani, however, noticed and her gasp brought Robert out of his reverie. While the PLN installed the emergency screens in all windows, they were never used all at once because of power allocation. Something big was happening, thought Dani immediately. Robert didn’t think much of it. Being saturated with so much new technology deadened his ability to be surprised anymore.
A slight drizzle of rain began to fall. Dani pulled out the umbrella and Robert crowded under it with her. Neither thought of going indoors. In fact, most of the people on the street seemed to be ignoring the rain, concentrating instead on the broadcast. Robert realized that it must be something truly important and began to take an interest.
Dani grabbed Robert’s arm as they watched the newscast. In the years after fusion power had propelled man to the asteroid belt, a G-type star in Orion was found to have a possible habitable planet. The excitement was overwhelming as the PLN converted a large asteroid into an interstellar ship. A lone astronaut named Brian Springer, a modern Buck Rogers, was placed in cryogenic storage and sent on the asteroid to the planet. The journey had taken twenty-seven years ship time, or forty-one years Earth-time. Now, almost one hundred years later, the first signals from the astronaut were making their way back.
Dani, Robert, and the rest of the solar system watched the view from the asteroid as Springer entered the new solar system.
“Isn’t this exciting?” Dani’s eyes were glued to the nearest window so she missed the frown on Robert’s face.
The next image was from two years later. It was the asteroid, or what was left of it. The journey from Earth had required so much raw matter to power the fusion reactor that only about one sixth of the original asteroid was left. The next picture was a shock. It was the Springer, standing on the planet under an off-blue sky, saying that his radio had malfunctioned and it had taken him this long to mine the planet for the materials needed by the robot systems to build a new circuit board.
A low murmur started from all the people watching nearby. That meant that Springer had actually lived on the plant for the past two years! His ship wasn’t equipped for long-term survival. If the planet was found to be uninhabitable, he was supposed to have placed himself back in cryogenic storage and head back home.
“What happened to the back up supply?” Robert wondered aloud, wiping moisture from his face. “You know that they had to have sent him prepared for almost every contingency. He should have had a spare radio on hand.”
Dani ignored him as the astronaut went on to describe in detail the planet, which he had named New Earth, and to stress that he had managed to live on his own for the past two years. As far as he was concerned, and the scientific data from the robots supported him, the planet was totally inhabitable.
Dani and Robert stood immobile for about an hour, watching as Springer described the local flora and fauna, giving the world an electronic sight-seeing tour.
Seeing the lakes, mountains, and fields of New Earth cut into Robert badly. Suddenly, he longed for nothing more than to be able walk alone across that field, stand next to that lake, and look into the mountains. With a population of twenty-five billion on Earth, you were never alone.
Near the end, Dani found the presence of mind to pull out her personal recorder and record the end of Springer’s presentation.
“…make no mistake folks; this planet is dangerous. There is no life more advanced than insects and small water creatures. This is a young planet, after all. But the native plants are filled with toxins totally lethal to the human system. Nothing on this planet is fit to eat, but the water is drinkable after some basic filtering. I had to live for five months on survival rations, hoping the potatoes I brought with me and the corn would grow. They did, thank God.” Springer sighed, sweating under a sun hotter than his native Sol, “The local mites or something have destroyed my latest crop. At the conclusion of this speech, I am going to place myself back into cryogenic storage to wait for the next expedition.”
The rest was boring, at least a far as Robert was concerned, so he grabbed a protesting Dani by the elbow and led her to the tram station.
Robert and Dani rushed into Dr. Motich’s half an hour late. Dr. Motich looked up from his terminal as they walked in.
Dr. Motich stood, “Robert, thank you for coming.”
Robert accepted the outstretched hand and shook it, “Doctor.”
Dani took a seat in a corner as Robert pulled up a chair in front of Dr. Motich’s desk. Dr. Motich’s office was spartan by modern standards. All he had was a rug, a simwood desk, one terminal, and two chairs. Only the front wall was a holo-wall, unlike so many executives who converted all four walls, the ceiling and the floor to holo-walls.
Robert appreciated the office. It was simple. He always felt comfortable here. More than just about anywhere else, he felt at home in this office.
Dr. Motich rubbed his eyes as he sat down, “We’ve got a problem, Robert.”
Robert frowned, glaring at one of his cigars, “What’s that, Doctor?”
“A Senator from Sector 2, Chinese, has learned of EarthCo’s experiments in time travel.”
Dani stifled an exclamation as she edged her chair forward. Robert frowned, saying, “So what does this mean?”
“Well,” Dr. Motich began, “he learned of your name, but thought that it was the call-sign for my temporal project. As of yet, he doesn’t know that we managed to pluck you out of your century. But he will find out eventually.” He sighed as he swiveled his terminal so that Robert could see it, “This is a list of everyone who knows that you’re not what you seem.”
Robert studied the list, amazed, “There’s over twenty people on that!”
Dr. Motich nodded, “It includes the crew of the ship we used when we tried the experiment. Most of these people have been on shore leave for the past five months.”
Dani leaned forward next to Robert, “I never knew that there were so many people who knew.”
“We can’t be entirely sure that they all know, but they were all exposed to some part of the truth at one time or another.” said Dr. Motich. “But that’s not our only problem.”
Robert looked up, “What’s the other one?”
“If I don’t forward my research, all of it, to this Senator, he’s going to blackmail me by exposing me to the World Council and the entire Senate.”
“So,” Robert mulled, “what can we do?”
Dr. Motich stood and paced around the front of his desk, “We have a difficult decision to make, Robert. The only way to throw him off of our back will set my research back three years, at least.”
Dani reached over and grabbed Robert’s hand, gently tapping his palm, “What’s the plan?”
“All of my records concerning temporal research, with the exception or your personal file, Robert, are stored in the mainframe near Jupiter, on Io. The computer there is so remote both physically and in the net that it makes detection nearly impossible.”
“What I want to do,” he said, “is to sabotage that computer, destroying my records. I will have a hard copy of all essential files made, though.”
Robert pushed Dani’s hand away, already knowing the answer to his next question, “What does that mean to me?”
“It means that all the theoretical work that the AI system is doing now to solve your problem will be lost. When we’re able to start back up again, we’ll have to input all the data from hard copy and start from scratch.”
“Let me get this straight,” Robert said, “You destroy they data and thereby guarantee that you shake your nagging Senator, but ensure that I’m stuck here for a minimum of at least three more years?”
Dr. Motich sighed, “That about sums it up.”
“I’ve got another solution,” said Robert suddenly.
Dr. Motich raised and eyebrow, leaning against the desk, “What is it?”
Robert took a deep breath and exhaled, “I want to go to New Earth.”
Both Dani and Dr. Motich chorused, “What?” Dani blurted afterward, “Robert, you don’t even know if we’re going to send anyone there yet!”
Dr. Motich shook his head, “No, Dani. We are planning a colony ship.” He looked at Robert piercingly, “But how did you know? That was discussed only two hours ago by myself and the senior staff of EarthCo.”
“I didn’t know,” said Robert, “but I suspected. The broadcast was aired all over the world.” He grinned at Dani, “If you didn’t follow with something spectacular, you’d disappoint your viewing audience.”
Dani smiled, catching the reference to their earlier conversation. Robert continued, “It’s time I faced the facts, Doctor. I’m not going home. My life has been a complete holding action since I got here.”
“But going to New Earth,” Dani pleaded, “that’s a big decision!”
Robert nodded, “Yes, it is. But my skills will be more useful there.” He scowled and held up his banded arm, “Here, I’ll always be an idiot.”
“I could get that thing off of you, Robert”, Benjamin motioned at the band, “You don’t need to go to New Earth to be rid of it.”
“I know,” Robert agreed, “but there’s more to it.” He stood and lit the cigar he had been holding, “If I stay in the solar system, I’ll always be running to catch up, never feeling comfortable with the new technologies.”
“What does that have to do with New Earth?” Dani asked.
“Once the colony ship lands on New Earth, the colonists are going to be on their own. All the modern conveniences and technology will be useless. The closest help will be fourteen light years away. It’s going to take hard work, not just technology, to get the colony stable.”
Robert glanced at Dr. Motich, “Do you know what the technological level will average as compared to present day on the colony planet?”
Benjamin walked around his desk and plugged into the infonet, forgetting social etiquette for the moment. After a brief wait, he unplugged, wiped his eyes, and spoke, awed, “The average tech level will be early twenty-first century, just decades ahead of your native tech-level. How did you know?”
Robert raised a hand, showing his band “Again, I just suspected. I’m not quite the idiot this thing implies I am. I knew that there was no way it could be as advanced as it is here. If I go to New Earth, I’ll be back in my element. Hell,” he puffed on his cigar, “I may actually be of some genuine value instead of just being a unique specimen.”
“By the way,” asked Robert, “Why did Springer have to mine for materials for his new radio? Didn’t you send spares or something with him?”
“Indeed we did,” Benjamin nodded. “Springer sent in a separate transmission that when he landed on the planet, he pierced his eco-suit and scratched himself against a native tree. It was a stupid, unnecessary accident. Apparently, the toxins didn’t kill him, but sent him some terrible hallucinations. In a frenzy, he flew back to the ship and destroyed all the electronics with his sidearm before he passed out.”
“Is that why he’s not heading back?” asked Dani.
“Yes. He not only destroyed his transmitter, but he demolished the AI system and the guidance system as well. He’s effectively stranded until you get there. Fortunately, the cryogenic storage unit is self-contained and wasn’t affected by his madness.”
Robert frowned. “That planet’s going to need extensive terraforming, isn’t it?”
Benjamin nodded, placing his hands on the desk with an air of finality, “I can arrange for you to be on that ship, if it’s really what you want to do.”
Robert nodded slowly, “Yes. I think it is.” He looked at the Doctor, and then at Dani, wanting them to really know how he felt. “Don’t you understand, Doctor, that this is my one chance to have a life I can understand? This is my one chance to be in control of my own destiny again. I need this chance. I’m dying a slow, meaningless death here.”