The first starship landed about one hundred years past schedule. It floated gracefully, almost reluctantly, down through the atmosphere as gradually as a feather drifting to the earth. As it neared the ground, it swept upward, pointing its nose to the sky, and completed a perfect, three-point landing onto the crumbling cement remains of its original launch platform.
It should be mentioned that the janitorial staff scrubbing the platform down were very much disturbed at this unexpected arrival, and distracted from their duties. They gazed up at the silver arrow of a ship, gleaming like the day it was launched, and completely forgot the brushes gripped in their pale hands.
For a great while, the ship just sat there doing nothing in particular. Some of the more foolhardy janitors took tentative steps toward it to investigate. While others looked at one another in a befuddled way and made comments like,
"Now what do you suppose THAT is?"
Then the moment was broken, or at least enhanced, by the hatch hissing open. The seamless door slid back and a lean man appeared in the doorway. He was smiling broadly revealing a set of painfully white teeth, and clutched his streamlined helmet against his white-and-blue space-suited body.
He stood for a moment gazing around as if expecting the cheers and thronging of a great multitude. Getting none of that, he shrugged and tossed his helmet back into the ship. He finished climbing down from the ship quickly, and asked one of the janitorial staff where he could find a good place to eat.
The first star pilot was midway through consuming his second turkey club sandwich when the crowd caught up to him. The lazy diner atmosphere was broken as the door burst open to admit a group of people overdressed and plastic enough to show obviously that they were reporters. They spread across the restaurant and then converged on his table.
"Sir!" one shouted, flourishing a picture of a thin faced, dark haired, youth with big ears and awkward features. The boy in the picture was perhaps 18, and was smiling and squinting into the sun. "Do you recognize the man in this picture."
The star pilot squinted in a way exactly like the boy in the picture and looked it up and down. Recognition crowded onto his face like a group of schoolchildren at recess. He held up a finger as he finished chewing an overly-large bite of sandwich he had taken. It took about a minute before he swallowed and washed it down with a liberal amount of his cherry milkshake.
"That's ME!" he beamed.
"Your name is Francis Yerington Smith?" another reporter shouted.
"Mr. Smith, your starship lost contact on the day it was launched, one hundred years ago today. ISEC reported you as presumed dead."
"Really?" he frowned, but his face still held its joyful frame in the excitement of the sudden attention. His face had filled out since the day the photograph had been taken. When he was launched he was nineteen years old. He now looked to be about forty and had the overall appearance of the leading man in a soap opera.
"Mr. Smith, how do you account for your absence of the last hundred years?"
He opened his mouth to reply, but before he could, a suit forced his way through the crowd and held up a plastic ID.
"Francis Yerington Smith?" the suit asked with a no-nonsense scowl.
The star pilot held up his hand and took another bite of his sandwich.
"You can call me Frank," Frank said through his mouthful.
"I'm Agent Pennington from Government Operations. You'll have to come with me."
"Now wait a second!" a lady pushing her way through the crowd called, "Mr. Smith here has a right to legal representation. Mr. Smith?" she addressed Frank, "I'm Linda Fortson. I represent a major legal firm, and we would like to represent for you."
"Oh no you don't!" a man pushed his way through, "Mr. Smith, Linda Fortson's firm is a sham! They're an international corporation interested only in the publicity your case will cause. If you accept her representation, she'll turn you into a circus. I'm Harry Glenn from Glenn and Bender. We're a local firm interested in your privacy."
Linda snorted. "Mr. Smith, Glenn and Bender have a dubious record at best. They lose cases and bail on clients. If you go with our firm..."
"That's not true! You had better watch yourself, Ms. Fortson, your comments could be misconstrued on a legal bases as..."
"Yeah? What do YOU know about law?"
The lawyer's quarrelling was getting louder, and the reporters began shouting questions over them. Frank looked pleadingly at Agent Pennington.
"Can we get out of here?" he asked. The agent was looking a bit uncomfortable himself.
Frank rose, stretched a long arm through the crowd, nabbed a waitress, and pulled her in.
"Listen, could you wrap the rest of this to go? I want that milkshake in a cup, and put a couple more pickle spears in with the sandwich, huh?" Frank winked at her before Agent Pennington jerked him away.
"Wait!" Frank said.
"What," Pennington growled.
"I have to pee," Frank stage-whispered.
Frank came back a few minutes later, and the two almost made it out of the diner before their path was blocked by the wide girth of the manager.
"This man can't leave until he pays for his meal."
Agent Pennington looked at Frank and then back at the manager with a smirk.
"This man can't pay for his meal," the Agent stated, producing a card, "Charge it to this."
Frank shrugged at the scowling manager and said, "I was sure I had a bank account."
The room was blank and smelled strongly of cleaning chemicals. The lights were overly harsh, and the chair Frank sat in was none-too-comfortable.
"Do you know what THIS is?" an Agent shoved a black cube in his face, dangling it from its severed wires. Frank looked at it as if suddenly recognizing the yearbook photo of a long-forgotten schoolmate.
"That's my flight recorder!"
"Do you have any idea what we retrieved from this when we read its memory banks?"
"Exactly. Not a single thing. Its been wiped clean. Now why would the flight recorder have been erased?"
"Uh... radiation surges?"
"Wrong answer! This thing was so heavily shielded from radiation that it could have been dropped into a star and still had data to give us, and you know it! Now why was this erased?"
"Maybe someone sabotaged it?" Frank asked hopefully.
"Why would someone sabotage your flight recorder?"
"Because they were bad?"
"You think this is a game!" the agent shouted, growing red in the face. Another agent gently pulled the angry man aside and approached Frank.
"Now Frank, we've pulled your star ship apart and analyzed each of the pieces, and we still have no idea where you've been for the last hundred years. Why don't you just tell us?"
"You... you took my spaceship apart?" Frank looked as if he was going to cry.
The agent placed a hand on Frank's shoulder, "Now, Frank, that wasn't your spaceship. It was a government-funded project. You have to understand that it's important you answer our questions. Space exploration hasn't advanced much in the last hundred years. Yours is the only faster than light ship we've ever built, and it was rated a failure. Now we find out you weren't destroyed, and we need any information you can give us, understand?"
"Uh-huh," Frank nodded his head vigorously. The agent waited for more. Frank looked around distractedly. The agent cleared his throat.
"So... what can you tell us?"
"Not much. Where do you suppose I could get a bed tonight?"
"We're not talking about that right now. Do you remember your launch?"
"Sure. There were a lot of people there."
"Describe the launch to me."
"Well, Mom was there, she hugged me goodbye. Everyone seemed to be cheering me on... Mom's dead now, isn't she?"
"Actually, your mother is in cryogenic freeze at a medical institute. Cooperate with us, and you may get to see her."
"Really? Can she be revived?"
"There's a good chance of that."
"So are you going to tell us what we want to know?"
"You want to know where I've been for the last hundred years. I haven't been anywhere in particular. Space is soooo big. But there's not that many places to go. Especially in just a hundred years. It takes that long just to run out and back again."
The first agent stepped back in front.
"Yeah, that's a real clever thing to say, Smith. Real clever. Except that we know that the way your drive works, you've been out in the cosmos for roughly 26 years of your time. In that time, with that drive, you could have flown half-way across the Galaxy and back."
Frank shrugged, "I got lost. Like I said, its big out there." He frowned and looked up into the harsh lighting. "It's dark, too. Unless you're looking at things in the Ultraviolet. Then, ZOWIE! Things really light up. But I don't want to talk about space anymore."
"STOP TOYING WITH US, SMITH!!!" Red-Face exploded. The other agent gently restrained him.
"Look, Mr. Smith has been out in space for more than half his life. It might have done things to his mind. Lets have him run through a full psych."
"He KNOWS something!!"
"I know, I know. But we've waited a century. We can wait a while longer."
The hand she extended him was slim and firm. He was sitting in the hospital in a flimsy gown after just completing a physical. He rated in top shape.
"I'm Dr. Tracy Goy," she introduced herself with a professional blankness.
"What's up, Doc?" he took her hand with a boyish grin.
"I'm going to be doing regular counseling sessions with you in order to determine if you are suffering any ill effects from your long voyage."
Frank seemed to think about this for a little, a frown accenting the tiny wrinkles that had begun forming around his eyes.
"You DO know that I haven't seen a women for the last twenty-odd years."
"Twenty-even, actually. Yes, we're aware. What is your point?"
Frank held up his hands passively, "Far be it for me to question the powers that be, but I'm kind of questioning the powers that be. Do you feel comfortable giving regular counseling sessions to a guy who isn't used to female company?"
"You're not used to ANYone's company if your testimonies are true. The real question is, are YOU comfortable?"
"Sure, let's give it a whack, shall we? If it doesn't work out, we can still be friends, right?"
Again, he grinned like an overly pleased three-year-old. The hint of a smile played across Dr. Goy's lips. Nevertheless, her professional air remained solid.
"So how do you feel about all this?"
"Being back on earth? All the attention you've been getting?"
"Great, thanks. And you?"
"I feel as if you aren't being honest with me. Is there something you would rather talk about?"
"You may call me Dr. Goy."
"Wow, five minutes and I'm already on a third name basis with you. Must be the devilish charm I've been perfecting in space. You know I invented a total of 34 imaginary people to keep me company while I was out there?"
"You felt a need for company on your journey?"
"Yes, but I was making it up about making up imaginary people."
"You were about to say something when I interrupted you earlier. I apologize for that. What were you about to say?"
"I questioned your honesty and asked if you wanted to talk about something else."
"Anyone ever tell you that you are like talking to a computer, Doc? I was going to say that honesty about feelings is a stupid thing to expect. After all, what are feelings? You can't touch them, can't measure their resonance or pitch, can't test their edges on your fingertip. You have some vague notions that our mind takes on certain states on the inside that determine how we think, and that these states are triggered or linked to things on the outside. It's not a good system. It's not science. If I tell you that I feel nothing, or that I feel bored, or that I suddenly want to soak in a hot tub while eating chocolate cake, how can you call that dishonest? Those are some things I have felt since we started talking. I also feel like years have passed since I started this sentence, and I know less about you than ever. Somewhere in the universe years HAVE passed since we started this conversation.
"The TRUTH, Doctor, is that I don't know what I feel. How could I? All my feelings are inside me, and my eyes only see outside me. How do YOU feel?"
"You keep asking me how I feel. Are you trying to avoid talking about yourself?"
"Yes. But I am also interested in you. As you are so keenly aware, I have not been in contact with another human for the last twenty-some years. Now that I'm back in the atmosphere, who are the people I have had the opportunity to talk with? Reporters. Lawyers. Government Agents. Psychologists. All these people are professionals. What is their profession? They put you under a microscope. They take away your humanity reducing you to a set of conveniently simple adjectives and nouns. To the reporters I am 'The Mystery Rocket Man returned from The Cosmos!' To the lawyers, I am 'The Case of the Century that could Make a Name for the Firm.' To the agents I am 'The Sole Material Witness to the State of their Missing Hardware.' And to you, Doctor Dearest, I am a PTSD in a regressed emotional state with possible borderline personality disorder stemming from extreme, prolonged isolation. Write that down. It'll save you time."
"You believe I am going to leap to conclusions about you. Perhaps you should do me the favor of not forming quick conclusions about me."
"Sorry, Doc. Want to take a walk with me?"
"I don't know. This is YOUR century. Where's a good place to walk?"
"Well," she sighed putting her pen down and pushing her glasses up to her hairline, "There's a park a few blocks away from here."
Tracy had not expected him to be so intelligent. That was a mistake, and she chided herself for it. Just because he had been young when he launched, and acted childish didn't mean he was stupid. The space program had reviewed, what, thousands of candidates? Perhaps even millions? All picked from the finest of human specimens. They had looked for physical superiority, emotional stability, and, yes, supreme intelligence. Frank Smith over here had hit all marks dead on.
The park was sunny and smelled of spring: the sweet, fermenting smell of mulch, the pollen, and the dampness of the frequent rains.
"Why do you wear glasses?" Frank asked, balancing himself, arms outstretched, on the curb next to the sidewalk.
"So that I can read."
"What's so funny?" Tracy asked.
"One hundred years ago they had corrective surgery for eyesight. What happened?"
"You're wondering about what changes have happened since you've been gone."
Frank seemed to tilt dangerously toward the grass. Suddenly his hand swung out and nabbed hers. He toppled to the grass pulling her along. She shrieked in surprise, then felt him cushion her fall in his arms, lowering her the last few inches gently to the grass.
"Stop it, please," Frank said as Tracy struggled to sit up.
"What do you want me to stop, Frank?"
She had called him Frank. Not Mr. Smith. It might be inappropriate to do that. The professional veneer was getting too thin as it was.
Frank rolled over on his back, cushioning his head behind his hands. His eyes drifted half shut.
"Active listening: a counseling technique wherein the counselor responds to statements by the subject by rephrasing the statements in her own words, offering encouragements to continue, or asking clarifying questions. The purpose of which is to make the subject feel understood without casting any sort of qualifying judgment on what the subject is saying. That cloud looks like Popeye."
"You don't like me treating you like a subject. How would you LIKE me to talk to you, Frank?"
"As if we were both human beings. I think that's what I've been trying to say. I've been back on earth for a whole day and haven't met a single human being. Well, except for that waitress. I wonder if I could have gotten her number. You guys still have numbers, right?"
"We have PLN's."
"It mean's Personal Location Numbers. They are twelve-digit numbers that give you voice, digital, image, text, and profile access to any given person, depending on the level of access that person has granted you."
"Oh. Well that sounds like too much work."
"What's your PLN, Doc?"
"Mmm..." he grinned, "sexy."
"You're listed as a client, so you are only granted business access."
"You have some way a guy who's been out of the loop for a bit can meet friends, then?"
Tracy didn't answer. Things were complicated nowadays. People were savvy and paranoid. Everyone was using everyone else, which pretty much defined human history, only these days everyone was very aware that they were being used. A sort of jaded apathy had developed, and with it, a failure to connect. So many people were so broken inside because the more ability they had to communicate, it seemed, the less able they were to do so. How, she thought, can I tell this man to make friends when I'm so alone myself?
"Our time is almost up for our session. They are going to want to put you in holding for observation tonight."
Frank smiled an inhaled deeply.
"Springtime." He sighed. "Springtime on earth. Internalize it, Doctor. I know I will. When they lock me in a box and throw away the key, the last thing I will remember from the outside is the greenest grass, the bluest sky, the whitest clouds and the smell of Springtime. One, eight, four, dot, four, eight, seven, dot, nine, three, eight, dot, seven, three, six. Client access only."
"You have a good memory, Mr. Smith."
"Yes," he gazed up into the sky, "I do."
Giving him paper and a pen had been a risk, but one Cordrey was willing to take. The Doctor seemed to think he was not an immediate danger to himself, and if they locked him in a box for twelve hours, chances were he would get bored and use the paper and pen to write something they could use. Best case scenario: he writes down some mathematical formulas or star charts or journal that help them figure out what he was up to out in space for the last century. But even if he wrote a poem, played tic-tac-toe with himself, or drew a pretty picture, it would give them SOME foothold into his head.
As it stood, the first star pilot entirely ignored the paper and pen. As soon as he got into his cell, he found the bed, folded his arms behind his head, crossed his legs, narrowed his eyes and lay there humming to himself, swinging his leg in time to his tune. For twelve hours straight he did this, his eyes never closing so fully that he could be said to be sleeping.
At nine-hundred hours they brought him breakfast. Agent Cordrey relieved the Paige, taking the tray in himself.
"Good morning, Mr. Smith," he faked a smile.
"You must be tired."
"Nope. What's for breakfast?"
"It's toast, eggs, and grapefruit with orange juice."
"So, you slept well, then?"
"Oh, yes. Thank you so much for your concern."
"Mr. Smith, our technicians were monitoring you all night. You never even closed your eyes."
"No? Well I dreamed, anyway. Bon Appetite!" He raised his glass of juice in mock toast. Agent Cordrey grit his teeth, but tried to keep his face passive. It was time to play the only card he had.
"Mr. Smith, I wanted to talk to you about your mother."
"Yes. Reviving a cryogenically frozen person is an expensive procedure. Now technically, you are still an employee of the state. If we can determine that you preformed the job you were given adequately, then you are entitled to payment for that job. The payment, along with your retirement package, would be enough to fund the revival procedure and allow you to live very comfortably for the remainder of your life. How does that sound?"
"Do people dream in cryogenic sleep?"
"How does my offer SOUND to you, Mr. Smith?"
"It sounds like you haven't accounted for me supporting my mother."
"The offer includes support for your mother."
"Oh, well, that would be nice, then."
"Fine. Now do you remember the mission you were given?"
"I was to fly a pre-designated course to determine the effectiveness of the lightspeed drive. I was to orbit Mars one revolution, gathering data as I did so, then return to earth."
"Correct. Now clearly you did NOT do this. We need to know why. Did you deliberately alter your course, or was there a malfunction in the lightspeed drive? Any information that could lead us to better understand how the device functioned will be invaluable. Since there was no data recovered from the flight, your recollection of the flight is the only data we have to go on now."
"Hey, how come you guys never sent another flight out after mine in the last hundred years? Seems like something you would get around to."
"One hundred years is not as long as you think, Mr. Smith. Your spaceship was an unbelievably expensive project. When it was considered a failure, the state dissolved the space program. The country was going into a recession that it took us nearly fifty years to dig ourselves out of. It took an additional twenty years for them to put together another space program, and right now our budget is laughable. They let us run probes out to planets, and we share a modest number of orbital platforms with some partnering countries right now."
"So my coming back shows that the drive is feasible, it might get the government to throw some decent cash your way."
"Close. The space program was privatized when it re-opened. We run like any other business now. And since your return, investors have been VERY enthusiastic. If word gets out that the ship didn't bring back any useful information, and that our pilot is a nut-job, our investors will withdraw, and the program could go belly-up."
Frank shrugged sympathetically. "Tough break."
"Does that mean," Cordrey growled, "That you aren't going to cooperate?"
Frank looked meaningfully into Cordrey's eyes. "These are some dynamite eggs. You wouldn't expect that from a loony bin, either. They must have really improved the quality of living in these places. Seriously, try these!" Frank held up a forkful to the back of the Agent as Cordrey stomped out the door.
"I want that man labeled as a danger to society and to himself!" Agent Cordrey shouted at Dr. Tracy Goy. "I want him in a straight jacket and a padded cell!"
"Agent Cordrey, I need you to calm down," Dr. Goy coaxed professionally. "Two days ago, Frank Smith and his vessel were ancient history. If you don't recover anything from him, you are no worse off than you were."
"No worse...?? Do you know how much money and man-hours have gone into the analysis of that ship, not to mention that man? Seriously, I wish he HADN'T returned!"
"Again, I need you to take several deep breathes and calm yourself."
"Why should I?"
"Because what I am about to tell you is bound to... excite you."
"I just signed the release forms for Mr. Smith in there. He's going home today."
"You can't be serious! No one authorized that! The man doesn't even have a home to go to!"
"If he doesn't, he soon will, I'm certain."
"What are you talking about? Our company..."
"Just changed ownership. As of the opening of the stock market this morning."
"Mr. Smith in there is your new boss."
At this point the Agent lapsed into a disbelieving silence. Dr. Goy began to explain.
"What no one took into account was the investments and bank account that Frank Smith had prior to taking his flight. When he was labeled missing and presumed dead, his estate passed to his mother. Since she has been in cryogenic sleep and not legally dead, his accounts remained open under her care. It was apparently a fairly easy legal procedure to have the account placed back under his name as her closest living relative. He's been accumulating interest in his investments for a hundred years. He may well be the wealthiest man on the planet."
After taking a minute to digest this, Agent Cordrey whispered, "He's been under constant monitoring since he landed. When did he have time to...?"
"Apparently you stopped to let him go to the bathroom at the diner. He took the time to make arrangements with a lawyer on-hand."
Tracy nestled her head into the nook of Frank's arm as the two sat on the park bench watching the sunset. His mother was dozing in her wheelchair close by.
"May I please ask you a question and get a straight answer?" Tracy said.
"Sure. Why not?"
"Where DID you go for all those years?"
Frank did not answer right away. Tracy turned to see that he was looking at her in surprise. As if he couldn't believe she hadn't guessed by now.
"Everywhere. I went everywhere."
"I don't understand."
"Tracy, I had my own SPACESHIP! I skimmed the atmosphere of Venus. I flew so close to Jupiter's red spot that it filled me and I got lost in it. Then a zipped away at the last second. I flew through the arching solar flares, played chicken with a comet, buzzed Olympus Mons and visited dozens of other worlds that no one has a name for yet. I do, though. I've named them all.
"I was the freest man the universe has ever known. Probably ever WILL know." He sighed, staring at the grass. "I'll miss that."
"Then why did you come back?"
"You're the shrink. Why don't you tell me?"
"Well, I could say that you needed human companionship. That you couldn't take the years alone. But I think I know better than that. What I think is that you and your mother set this up all along. Time dilation of space flight, right? A quick trip around the solar system, and when you get back, you're a billionaire."
"Not a very psychological explanation, Doc."
They lapsed into silence. The sun was almost gone, now. The sky was darkening.
"Was it worth it?" Tracy asked.
Frank was too busy staring at the stars to answer her.