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by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright 2010
No matter how you slice it, interstellar travel in our real world is going to be a slow, expensive, and difficult process.
This is a story about one way to make interstellar exploration faster and cheaper, but the savings come with a twist.
“Mommy, why am I here?” Mary asked with the innocence of a six-year-old. It was a pleasant spring day. The sun shone through the window over the kitchen sink. Janet, her mother, took a moment from washing dishes to bend down and face her.
“You’re here because God wants you to be here, Mary.”
“Yes, Mommy. But why am I here? What am I supposed to do … when I grow up?”
“God has something very special in mind for you, Mary, I’m sure,” answered Janet. “In the meantime, have you done your studies?”
“In that case why don’t you run outside and play for a while.”
Mary ran outside. The house was at the center of a farm couched in rolling hills of spring-lush green and covered with a canopy of intense blue sky and low-flying white cottony clouds. Mary skirted the hog pens and ran to the barn. Uncle Gustav was there half under the tractor working on the engine.
“Mary, please fetch me the 5/8” wrench, please, from the toolbox on top of the tractor.”
Mary clambered up and reached for it. As she did, she sent the toolbox clattering down. It fell solidly on Gustav’s hip.
Gustav howled. “Mary! Please be more careful.” He scrambled out from under the tractor and checked the motion of his leg. “Rats,” he said, “something’s broken. I’m going to have to go to the hospital.”
“I’m sorry, Uncle Gustav.”
“And well you should be, my dear,” he said, only slightly angry. “Please be more careful next time.”
“I will, I promise.”
Gustav limped out of the barn muttering. “If I don’t get this tractor done soon, we won’t finish the plowing in time.”
Mary wandered further into the barn where the milking was going on. Bill, her brother, and Frank, her dad, were industriously attaching milkers to the cows as the cows contentedly ate their morning meal.
Frank asked. “Was that Gustav I heard yelling in the front?”
“Yes, he had an accident.”
“What happened?” asked Bill.
“I dropped a tool box on his hip and it broke. He’s going to the hospital now. I told him I was sorry, Daddy.”
“Very good, dear,” said Frank. He turned back to the cows.
“Daddy?” she said, “Why am I here?”
Frank turned from the cows; bent down and said, “You’re here because God put you here.”
“That’s what Mommy said, but why am I here now?”
Frank looked at her. “You’re six now.”
She pouted. “Daddy. You forgot.”
He smiled at her. “No I didn’t. You’re almost seven, aren’t you, and tomorrow is your birthday.”
Mary brightened again. “That’s right. I’m going to be seven years old and you said that when I got to be seven years old, why something very special would happen.”
Frank grinned at her. “That’s right, dear. Something very special.”
Mary pleaded. “What is it, Daddy? I’m almost seven, now. You can tell me. What’s going to be special?”
Frank looked at her, paused. His stare went blank a moment, then he said, “Well, I can’t tell you everything, but I can tell you this: Tomorrow at your birthday party, you’re going to meet somebody very special.”
“Wow,” said Mary. “Who’s it going to be?”
“Somebody you’ve never met before, but somebody who’s had a tremendous amount to do with your life.”
“Wow, is it God?”
“No,” he laughed. “It’s not God. But it is somebody very close to God for you. But that’s all I’m going to tell you. Now, how would you like to help Bill and me get these cows hooked up to the milkers.”
“Well, you learned how last week, didn’t you?”
“We’re not teaching you these things for nothing,” said Bill.
Mary started attaching milkers to the cows. She was a bit clumsy and some of the cows protested. But when they did Bill came over and continued to correct Mary so she rapidly was doing her part to help out.
School time came shortly. “Mary, Mary!” Janet yelled from the front of the barn, just loud enough to be heard over the din. “Mr. Corvax is here.” Reluctantly Mary handed off her work to Bill, came in from the barn, and went to her study room with Mr. Corvax, her tutor.
Mr. Corvax reviewed her studies. “Well, Mary, you’re doing excellently. Your arithmetic, your English, your science, your social studies are all progressing very nicely.”
“Why thank you, Mr. Corvax,” Mary said, “And you know something, Mr. Corvax? Something very special is going to happen tomorrow.”
“What is that, Mary?” he said.
“Why that’s right! And you’ll be seven years old, won’t you.”
“That’s right. And Dad tells me I’ll meet someone very special at my birthday. Do you know who that could be?”
Mr. Corvax paused, had a blank stare for a moment much as Frank had done earlier, and then said, “I understand that it’s going to be Mr. Metzarkin.”
“Who’s that? I’ve never heard of him before.”
“You haven’t heard of him, Mary, but he’s been very important in your life.”
“Dad tells me he’s sort of like God.”
“He’s sort of like it. He’s had a lot to do with arranging this whole place. Now let’s continue with your studies. There are still a few more things you should know if you’re going to be a seven-year old.”
That evening at dinner, Uncle Gustav came back.
“How are you feeling?” asked Frank.
“Oh, fine. Just fine.”
“Understand you took quite a hit from that toolbox.”
“Yeah, it was quite a clunk, but the hospital got it all fixed up. I’ll work on the tractor this evening after dinner and she should be all fixed up and ready to go first thing tomorrow.”
“That’s good to hear. The weather’s just right.”
Mary said to Uncle Gustav. “Did you hear? Mr. Metzarkin is coming tomorrow to my birthday party.”
“Mr. M is coming? That’s really special, my dear. That means there’ll be some big changes coming. You’re really growing up fast.”
“Have you ever met Mr. M?”
“No. None of us have, I reckon.” He looked around, and there were nods of agreement. “But we know all about him, dear.”
“How come I don’t know all about him?”
They all went blank for a moment.
“You don’t know about him ’cause you’re special,” Billy said, “and ’cause you’re only six years old. But tomorrow you’ll know about him.”
In Mary’s eyes the rest of the evening, and that night, and the next morning took forever to pass. She tried to pump more information out of her family about the mysterious Mr. M. Whenever she pestered, they laughed. Whenever she pried, they changed the subject. No more was to be found out.
Finally at noon, after the morning chores were finished, her birthday party came. It was another fine spring day. The five of them, Janet, Frank, Bill, Uncle Gustav, and Mary celebrated.
“Now Mary,” said Janet, bringing out the cake, “there are seven candles on this cake, and if you make a wish, and you can blow them all out, then you will get what you wish for.”
“And I have a suggestion,” said Frank, “Why don’t you wish to see Mr. M.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Mary. So she closed her eyes and thought to herself. “I wish to see Mr. M.” With a big breath she blew all the candles out. And when she opened her eyes there was a stranger in their midst.
And not just any stranger. This wasn’t even a person. It was three feet tall and silvery all over. His head was rounded and his arms had curious lumps at the elbows, shoulders, knees, and ankles. The voice he spoke in was tinny. He said, “Hi, I’m Mr. Metzarkin.”
Mary giggled. “You’re Mr. M?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“And you made me … and Mommy and Daddy and Bill and Uncle Gustav?”
“That’s right,” he said, “I made you.”
“Well then. Gee. You can tell me why I’m here.”
“Yes, I can,” he said, “and now that you’re seven years old, I will.
“Mary, you’re a human being.”
“That’s right,” she said, “but you aren’t.”
“That’s right. And what planet are you living on?”
“I’m living on Earth.”
“That’s wrong. You’re living on the planet Azzuza, my planet. A planet that is four hundred light years from Earth.”
“Then why am I here?”
“You are here as part of an exchange program. We are so far away from Earth that it is hard for us to study people, and we want to know a lot about people. Just like Earth people want to know a lot about Azzuzans.
“So the people of Earth sent us your genetic code and they told us about how things are on Earth. We used that information to grow you and make this farm for you to live on. You are grown from the genetic code of Mary Broadbent, my counterpart on Earth. She’s busy growing a Mr. Metzarkin there.
“You’ve been growing up like an Earth child for seven years. Now we think you’re old enough to know what being an Earth child is like, and it’s time to introduce to you to our world—the world of an Azzuzan.
“That way you can learn more about us and we can learn more about you.
“What about Mommy and Daddy? Did you grow them?”
They all chuckled. Janet answered. “In a way, Mary. But not the same as you. We were built—built specifically to raise you. We’re not human and never were.”
“Oh, I knew you weren’t the same as me.”
“How did you know that?”
“Whenever you went to the hospital you always came back right away, and didn’t hurt anymore, not like the people on TV, or me. And sometimes you creaked. I never, ever creaked.”
Long before physical space craft can travel between the stars, light waves carrying messages will be able to. This concept is the heart of the SETI search for signals coming from other stars. This story takes the SETI concept one step further, and uses the message light waves can carry to build an explorer on a distant world.
Mary lives in an Earth-like place on Azzuza so she can report on what she sees from an Earth-like context.
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