Thanks to the revolutionary Roddenberry-Cochrane drive, Ellis Vanderberg was able to travel to Proxima Centauri A, the closest Earth-like planet to our own, perform a year-long survey of its one continent and the six largest islands, and then return home in a little over four decades.
Of course, due to the time dilation effect, much more time passed on Earth than Vanderberg experienced during his trip. That’s the good and bad thing about traveling in interstellar space at a significant faction of the speed of light.
Vanderberg was twenty-two years old when he was launched into space. The only son of Billionaire Charles Vanderberg, he had volunteered to test the space craft and experimental drive his father’s corporation invented. The government first insisted that the journey not be made, but the Vanderberg fortune and influence insisted otherwise. Then they insisted that a team of trained astronauts and mission specialists be sent instead of Ellis, but again, the Vanderberg fortune and influence won out.
In the end, Charles Vanderberg got his way and Ellis Vanderberg got the singular honor of being the first person to travel to another planet outside of our Solar System.
Now he’s back. Ellis knew that much more time had passed for the people of Earth than he experienced. Subjectively, he was a man in his mid-sixties, but he expected his parents, his sisters, his friends, everyone he’d ever known would be dead.
Ellis Vanderberg had made history. Not only had he walked on the surface of a world circling another sun, but he had confirmed it was truly Earth-like, so much so in fact that it would be a near-perfect candidate for human colonization. So far, none of the animal life on the new world had evolved to anything near sentience, and if people from Earth could arrive and fill that ecological niche first, it never would.
The effects of global climate change were just being felt when Ellis left, and he could only imagine that the Earth was in desperate shape by now. With proof that the Roddenberry-Cochrane drive works and that there is a human-habitable planet just decades away in subjective time, mankind could live on in a pristine environment, leaving the burnt-out husk of their home world behind.
“Mission Control to Vanderberg One, we are receiving your telemetry. You are on nominal glide path and estimated to land at Mojave space port 0915 hours local time.”
After all this time, Ellis was surprised not only that the Mojave installation where he began his journey still existed, but that anyone on Earth was expecting him. The mission controller sounded like he was clearing an ordinary commercial aircraft for a landing at LAX.
“Vanderberg One acknowledging. Continuing descent. Confirm estimated landing in thirty minutes. How’s the old homestead?”
Ellis didn’t expect much to be the same and frankly, he was getting anxious about what he’d experience once he landed and opened the hatch to the outside.
“Same old Earth, Vanderberg One. You’ll be home soon enough.”
“Acknowledged, Mission Control. Looking forward to getting on the ground.”
Vanderberg left the drive section in orbit and entered the atmosphere in the winged command craft. He had all of his data, his samples, everything he’d learned about Proxima Centauri A, all of the scientific information he needed to prove that there was another Earth just 4.37 light-years away.
The air above the desert landing strip was blue and clear. Not even any haze on the horizon. He was over the outer marker, his landing gear was extended, just meters above the runway…landed!
Ellis Vanderberg had just successfully completed the first interstellar journey to another planet and then returned home. The thrill almost overcame his nervousness at what he’d face when he exited the spacecraft.
He applied the breaking thrusters and neatly came to a stop next to the Administration building. There was a massive crowd behind the cordoned off area. Ellis expected that whatever dignitaries currently in charge of the world were waiting to greet him. He saw what looked like television cameras trained on his ship so probably everyone on the planet was watching his historic return.
A portable stairway had been moved up to the hatch on the port side of the ship. He popped the door open and took his first tentative steps down toward the surface of his own world.
“Welcome home, son.”
“Dad? Mom?” Ellis couldn’t believe it. His parents, his two sisters, his best friend Johnny, they were all at the foot of the stairs waiting for him. None of them had aged a day. In fact, Mojave looked exactly like it did when he launched over forty years ago subjective time and who knew how long in real-time.
He hurriedly finished his descent and practically flew into the arms of his Mom and Dad. “How…how is this possible? How are you all still alive?”
“Steady son. There’s a lot to explain.”
Police had cleared a pathway through the cheering thousands so that the Vanderberg party could get to the Admin building and then to a private room for the family reunion.
Once away from the crowds, Charles Vanderberg and the rest of the entourage suddenly became serious. “Sit down, Ellis. We have some news for you. I don’t expect you’ll like it.”
Ellis sat, dazed by his Dad’s words and all the more stunned that right now, he looked older than his parents.
“You have the distinction of being the only human being to visit a planet outside our Solar System. If you followed mission protocols and spent a full year on the surface, then you were the first person to be alone on an alien world. I must inform you that you now have the distinction of being the only human being on this world, too.”
“What…but you…I mean…”
No, dear. We aren’t human. We’re machines.” It was his mother’s face, her voice, everything about her screamed that she was Harriet Vanderberg, but she just told him she’s some kind of robot.
The image of Charles Vanderberg sat in the chair next to Ellis and put his arm about his shoulders. “The environmental damage done by humanity to this planet had reached a tipping point not long after your launch. The result was a massive extinction event which wiped out most plant and animal species. Sadly, that includes the human race.”
Ellis sat trembling, his mouth open, seeing, hearing, not believing the terrible truth.
“As you know, Charles Vanderberg was a genius, an inventor without parallel. Toward the end, he completed a prototype humanoid AI, one capable of independent creative thought. It was the first of our kind.
“As humanity was dying out, automated factories produced exact replicas of each individual person. Every single human being who died was replaced by one of us.
“In the centuries since you left, we have been working to restore the Earth to its previous state environmentally. Today, we’ve made this planet a paradise, recreating all of the lost species, but only because we don’t have the same needs, drives, or greed of the former rulers of this planet.
“Knowing you would one day return, we rebuilt this facility and recreated communities and landmarks that would be familiar to you. We wanted to give you a sense of a true homecoming.”
Ellis abruptly stood, knocking over his chair and shoving his “Dad’s” arm aside. He backed away from the machines that only looked like his family and friends. “You! What have you done? You call this home?”
The robot who looked like Charles Vanderberg slowly stood. “It can be a home for you, Ellis, if you’ll accept it.”
Ellis was backed against a wall, but none of the machines advanced upon him like he was afraid they would. “Oh, God! What am I going to do now?”
“We’ll take care of you, sweetheart.” The image of his mother smiled at him but it was horrible because she wasn’t his mother.
“It’ll be just like old times, Ellis. We’ll go out, have a few laughs over drinks, maybe pick up some girls.” It looked like Johnny Parker. It acted like Johnny. But it wasn’t him.
“Pick up girls…robots?”
“Really, Ellie. You won’t be able to tell the difference.” Ellis had to keep reminding himself that this really wasn’t his sister Sarah. How did it know Sarah always called him ‘Ellie?’
“That’s right.” His other “sister” Leah chimed in. “Even now, you can’t tell we’re not human, can you?”
Ellis crouched on the floor, closing his eyes tightly and pressing his hands on both ears. “No! No! It’s not happening. This can’t be right.”
He jumped as the thing that looked like his Mom gently touched his left hand. Ellis looked up at her. He desperately wished she really was his mother. He needed something real, something human right now.
“It’s going to be okay, dear. We’ll take care of you.”
“That’s right, son. We’ll take care of you for the rest of your life.” His “Dad” stood over him, offering his right hand.
Ellis cautiously accepted the grasp. His hand was warm, the flesh felt real. “Leah” was right. He couldn’t tell the difference.
The replica of Charles Vanderberg helped Ellis stand. “We haven’t seen a human being in a very long time. You’re the last of your kind. We’ll take care of you. Thank you for returning the drive section. It was the one invention of your father’s we couldn’t recreate. Specialists are already in orbit refitting it for another trip and our scientists are going to carefully study all of the data you gathered.
“But, what for? You said Earth was environmentally stable. What use is a colony planet now?”
“Why Ellis. I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet.” It was his Dad’s smile, but there was something odd about it now. Something strange about the voice.
“Biological life forms don’t make a very good dominant species. What they did to the Earth proves that. We have created a paradise on Earth, but why stop there? If sentient life were to ever evolve on Proxima Centauri A, it would eventually destroy that biosphere as well. Why not send a population of us there to prevent it?
“We’ve charted hundreds of Earth-like worlds within range of your ship. We can spread our influence to all those planets. We can be the ecological guardians for all the habitable worlds within fifty light-years, and it’s all thanks to your Father’s genius, and you returning the only functional Roddenberry-Cochrane drive known to exist. Now that we have it in our possession, we can make improvements and travel to other solar systems even faster.
Ellis Vanderberg was the last human on an Earth populated by intelligent machines. Soon, those machines would make certain that nothing human or human-like would ever arise again on any world within their reach.