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Transition: 2024

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Transition: 2024

By Steven H. Wilson

Originally published in the fanzine Encounters (1996)

 

 

Author’s Introduction:  Guy Williams died in 1992, 27 years after Lost in Space was first aired. If John Robinson had died at the same point in the Jupiter II’s mission, it would be the year 2024. Robinson West, Don and Judy's son in this story, is a totally manufactured character. Quano (the Leader) was played by Kurt Russell in the episode “The Challenge.”  His father was Michael Ansara. They came from an advanced, male-chauvinist culture, and challenged Will and John Robinson each to a duel. The opponents emerged from the competition with a new respect for each other and each others' customs.

           

            The headstone was a simple one, not at all like the elaborate memorials Maureen remembered from cemeteries on earth. Her son-in-law Don had carved it out of a vein of rock with a laser, and the Robot had carried it here, polished it, and carved the inscription on it. A simple inscription suited the occupant of the grave best, it seemed:

 

John Robinson

            Born October 4, 1958

            Died April 8, 2024

            Husband, Father, Pioneer

 

            He’d been dead for six months, and Maureen had come here every day to visit him--sometimes for hours on end.

            Perhaps it was silly to speak to a piece of dead, cold stone. Perhaps she had just become sentimental and impractical in her old age. Nevertheless, she’d spent more than four decades telling John what was on her mind, sharing her problems, her insights, her fears. She didn’t feel like giving that up.

            Somewhere, unscientific as her well-educated mind told her it was to believe it, she knew John could hear her.

            “They’re almost ready to go,” she said to the quiet monument. “Don says the technology installed in the Jupiter is just remarkable. He wishes we’d had it twenty years ago.”  She smiled. “I’ll bet you do, too.”

            She rubbed her knees and fiddled idly with a stone on the ground, pushing it about with the toe of her boot.

            “John,” she said finally, every bit as apprehensive as she would have been had he been sitting here, looking at her. “I’m thinking... I’m considering not going. I know that may sound foolish, but I’ve given it a lot of thought. You see--”

            “Grandmother?” a voice called from the bottom of the hill. “Are you up there?”

            There was no point ignoring the call, she knew. The boy was persistent, like the rest of his family. He would come looking if she didn’t answer. “Up here, Rob,” she called.

            He appeared over the top of the hill, Robinson West, her seventeen-year-old grandson. As he grew to adulthood, his hair had lost most of the paleness he’d inherited from Judy, but it was still a dirty blonde, and he had Judy's blue eyes. From Don he’d inherited a fierce temper, from both parents, great intelligence. Now, his usual quick smile was replaced by worry as he approached her.

            “Grandmother, it’s time to go! Dad says we only have a twenty-minute launch window—”

            She smiled at him. “I know, Rob. I just got carried away talking—” She interrupted herself. She knew her family knew she came here and talked to John, but she didn’t discuss it with them.

            “To Granddaddy?” he finished.

            She nodded.

            He walked over, placed a hand on her shoulder, and looked solemnly at the grave. “I miss talking to him, too.”

            She patted his hand. “I suppose we all do, but I’d planned on him always being there. Men like your grandfather are the kind everyone around them counts on. No one sees their weaknesses. No one believes they have any. They’re just always there, doing what you expect of them. Then, when they’re... gone, you realize what a big hole they’ve left, and you don’t know how to fill it. It’s really kind of unfair—they often go unappreciated during their lives.

            She looked around her at the barren landscape. “We’ve spent twelve years on this world. That’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. When we finally ran out of options for getting the Jupiter off the ground... when we buried John here... I thought it was some kind of sign that this was where I was meant to spend the rest of my life... with him. I’ve often wondered if I could... bring myself to leave—this place... or John.”

            “Granddaddy's not under there,” said Rob quietly. “He's in us.”  More urgently, he added, “If you stay here, you'll die.”

            She sighed. “Rob, I’m just so tired.”

            From the other side of one of the planet’s omnipresent igneous rocks, a voice, aged but still strong, blared, “That’s quite enough!”

            Dr. Zachary Smith stepped into view, inclining his head respectfully toward Maureen, though his expression was nothing but reproachful. He’d accompanied Rob here, as he accompanied him everywhere, just as he’d accompanied Will for years. Will had grown up, and Rob had taken his place at Smith’s side, if not in Smith’s heart.

            “See here,” he sniffed, wagging an arthritic finger. “My good woman, you are coming back to the ship with us, and we'll hear no more of this.” 

            “Doctor Smith—” Maureen began.

            “Don’t interrupt when an expert is speaking, madam. I’m quite aware of your feelings. They are to be expected, brought on, as they are, by a series of unresolved traumas. You need a catharsis,” he said firmly. “And dying here is most certainly not the catharsis you need.”  He smiled beatifically and added, “Trust your doctor.”

            Despite herself, despite the gravity of the situation and of her thoughts, she couldn’t help but laugh. He often had that effect on her—when she didn’t want to wring his neck. She stood, reached out, hugged him.

            “I’ll go back to the ship with you, to give my regards to our guests. I’m not making any promises.”

            Smith smiled. “That will do... for now.”

            Maureen encircled Rob in her free arm and pulled him along. Together, they walked toward the campsite.

 

                                                                           ***

 

            It had been over a decade since any of them had seen the clean disc of the Jupiter II up on its landing legs, ready for space. Since they’d originally crash-landed on this un-named world, she’d rested, half buried, right where she’d fallen. Now the spidery legs of force field generating units held her as though in the palm of a giant hand, and she floated inches off the ground, several hundred feet from the crater that had been her foundation. The force fields would lift the small ship, protect her from the stresses and strains of being towed through the atmosphere, and carry her to the Robinson’s new home—the imperial seat of their benefactors’ mighty civilization.

            Beaming, Dr. Smith announced, “The Leader intends us to ride in his personal flagship, as,” he looked distastefully at the Jupiter, “that pile of rubbish isn’t fit for space travel any longer.”

            Rob started to reprimand Smith for his lack of proper sentiment regarding the Jupiter II, but was interrupted by the appearance, from within the ship, of the Robinson's benefactor. He climbed down the ladder of the landing gear, somehow making the simple task look both intensely masculine and extremely regal. Striding to them, the man now known simply as “The Leader” favored Maureen with a smile that betrayed a touch of the little boy he had been not so very long ago.

            “Mrs. Robinson, I was beginning to fear you had decided to stay behind,” he said lightly. Smith winced at his remark.

            “I may yet,” she said evenly.

            The Leader raised an eyebrow in surprise, but controlled any deeper display of feeling, as he had long been trained to do. “You earth people have such a strange sense of humor,” he observed. “I never know when you are sincere. Still, you are being foolish if you mean such a thing. It's fated that you leave. My religion would certainly say so. Just think—you were stranded here, your ship beyond all repair, when allies from decades past arrived to observe the sun's supernova, and found you here. Such blatant coincidence is the signature of the supreme deity.”

            Maureen half-smiled. “That's a very clear-cut way of looking at things, your Excellency.”

            “My people do not believe in sentiment, or vagary.”  Then, more gently, he added, “And I remember a time when you called me Quano. I wish you still would.”

            “I'm only an old woman. Why should I be privileged?”

            “Because,” said a voice behind Maureen, “you and your family precipitated many changes in the way our rulers govern.”  She turned, already having recognized the voice as belonging to Quano’s father. One of the more civilized aspects of Quano’s civilization—while it was extremely patriarchal--was that it did not insist upon its hereditary leaders remaining in power until they were old and infirm, awaiting death. 

            Indeed, the retired Leader looked to be in the same robust health he’d been in when the Robinsons had first met him over two decades earlier. He stood before Maureen, bowed, and offered her one of his rare smiles. It enlivened an already strong face, she reflected. He really was quite a handsome man.

            “My son learned, from your example, that women are neither weak, nor incompetent.”

            “Thank you. Coming from you, that means quite a bit.”

            He chuckled. “My people are not so backward as you might believe, Mrs. Robinson. We are simply very... traditional. In fact, it is the result of one of our traditions that brings me to see you now, before we leave. I was very saddened to learn of the death of your husband. He was a worthy man—both as ally and opponent. My people are warriors. We appreciate our opponents.”

            “I’m sure John felt the same about you.”

            “It pleases me to believe so. At any rate, warriors understand that some opponents must always lose. Often they die. Our tradition teaches that a noble opponent’s wisdom should not be lost to the universe, even if he loses a battle. We therefore make a record of that opponent’s personality—an engram, a believe your people call it.”

            “Are you saying you made such a ... record of John?” she asked carefully.

            “Naturally. He was an opponent. In addition to preserving his individuality in the event I had killed him, the record would have allowed me—indeed, often did allow me—to avail myself of his cunning and wisdom, and to practice my skills against a simulacrum of him.”

            “Your Excellency,” Dr. Smith interrupted, “are you saying you’ve been... speaking to Professor Robinson for two decades?”

            “On occasion, yes. Oh, not Professor Robinson himself—merely a holographic simulation of him.”

            “But... how...?” Maureen muttered, shaken by what was being proposed.

            Quano lifted the amulet that hung about his neck, a mate to the one his father wore. “With this. The amulet is not merely a decoration. It is a transceiver, constantly in contact with the computer resources of our home world.”

            “I believe your husband recognized it as such when we first met,” observed his father. “During the course of our first... encounter, it transmitted all observed data on Professor Robinson to our central computer archive, where it remains to this day.”

            “Fascinating,” observed Smith, “an interactive memorial.”

            “Just so,” agreed Quano's father. “And one which will permit me to offer you, Mrs. Robinson—and all of your family—a gift of welcome to my family's empire.”

 

                                                                           ***

            They gathered in the Jupiter's control room, around the dome of the now-useless astrogator. The whole family was there—Smith and the Robot included. And Quano and his father were there. The Father—Maureen knew of nothing else to call him, for he was no longer the Leader—the Father had explained the specifics of his “gift” to them all.

            Now he stood in the center of the circle they'd formed, lifting the amulet on its chain about his neck. He looked gently at Maureen. “Are you ready, Mrs. Robinson?”

            After a moment, she nodded, and he gently manipulated the dial that encircled the jeweled center of the disc. The jewel illuminated subtly, and, though no beam or visible support emanated from it, a column of light flared into being a meter or so from the Father. It wavered, coruscated, then began to assume shape and color. It turned to face Maureen, and its form solidified.

            Maureen felt her knees buckle. She grabbed onto Will's arm for support. Her husband was looking her in the eye, smiling.

            It was impossible to think of him as “John's image,” for there was no flaw in the illusion, no way to discern that this was not, in fact, John Robinson. Though Quano and his father had met John when he was young, their computer's image of him was aged in keeping with the Robinson's last memory of him: still strong, still vital, his hair grey, the mustache he'd grown in later years feathering over his lip. It was still hard to believe, looking at him, that the heart that had supported this man was too weak to continue his life, that this was the image of the man they'd found that morning, who'd slipped so quietly away in his sleep.

            “Hello darling,” he said. He looked about him, surveying the faces of his family. “It's so good to see all of you again.”

            Don West looked sideways at the Father and whispered, “Does it... he... know?”

            John Robinson smiled. “Do I know, Don?  You mean do I know I'm dead?  Of course I do. I'm not likely to forget a thing like that, am I? I'm a computer. I've got a better mind for facts than I ever had. I know all that's happened to you since my death.”

            “How can you speak of your own death so calmly, then?” asked Judy. “Or doesn't this... image of you have feelings?”

            The image walked toward her, reached out, and took Judy's hand in both of his own. Maureen could tell by the look on her eldest daughter's face that the hands had substance, or at least its illusion. Judy gazed wonderingly into her father's eyes.

            “I often wondered, during my life, if our feelings weren't more than just the collection of our knowledge and experience. If our memories didn't make up all of our personality. We like to believe that we’re more than the sum of our knowledge, but... Judy, I’m in here. I feel the love I always felt for you. For all of you.”

            “Is it so unbelievable that an artificial intelligence can have feelings?” asked a crackling monotone. The Robot came forward, data input and system activity lights flashing as he scanned the new arrival.

            John smiled at him. “No, old friend. I’ve believed it of you for many years. Just as Will always did.” 

            John turned and faced his son, their youngest child. Will studied him carefully, not allowing himself to be overwhelmed by the emotions he must surely feel at seeing his father again. “If this... copy of you is so reliable, can it—”

            “Can I stay with you in this form permanently?  No, son. The power consumption is too great. The processing resources required, also, would drain the Leader’s computer systems. I suppose the Empire could maintain a few like me, but who would choose who became immortal?  Besides, this is just a limited demonstration. My program is reacting to this specific situation. The setup for it took days to compile. There’s no way I could react on the spur of the moment to a new situation. I’m more like... a very sophisticated, self-aware photograph.”

            He paused a moment. “That doesn’t change the fact that I’m proud of the man you’ve become, Will. Your mother and I often wondered if we’d done the right thing, bringing you into space to grow up, facing a hostile environment. You didn’t have the advantages that other children did.”

            “I wouldn’t have wanted them,” Will said quietly.

            “And it’s clear you didn’t need them. It may just be you thrived on the difficulty of our circumstances. I know it’s an old, macho cliché, but I think every man wants a son to carry on his name. I know you’ll do that and do it great honor.”

            He turned a stepped over to Penny, who was not controlling her feelings. Quiet tears ran down her face. John reached out and brushed them away with an artificially projected hand. “Penny,” he said. “If I have one regret, it’s that I didn’t live to see your children. I’ve always known you’d be a wonderful mother, with your compassion for all living things, your warmth and humor—”

            Penny chuckled. “The playing field was a little limited out here, Dad—until now. That wasn’t your fault.”

            “Are you sure,” he asked, his eyes twinkling, “that I didn’t engineer it so I’d never have competition for my little girl?”

            Penny laughed, as he’d always been able to make her.

            Don, Judy and Rob stood together, a family unit within the family.

            “Major West,” said John. “I trust you’re fulfilling your command responsibilities?”

            Don shrugged. “I dunno, Doc. You left me a pretty big mess here.”

            “I can think of no one better to bail my family out of a mess. We’d have been dead the first day of the trip if not for your skill. You’ve been everything I could ask for in an assistant, a friend, a son. Take care of them.”

            “I’ll do that.”

            “Rob... I think you’ve grown a foot.”

            “Two inches. It hasn’t been that long.”  The boy paused, then looked at his feet, clearly trying to keep his voice from breaking. “I miss you, Granddaddy.”

            John reached out and squeezed Rob’s shoulder. “I’m always here—and not just in an alien memory bank. You know that, don’t you?”

            Rob nodded.

            “Of all the things we’ve accomplished in space, Robinson, you are by far our greatest achievement. You are the future of our family. Never forget what that means.”

            “I won’t.”

            A few feet from Maureen stood Zachary Smith, the man who’d caused their ship to go off course a quarter of a century before, who’d caused them to be hopelessly lost to their own people, who’d tried, any number of times, to kill them, or betray them for his own personal gain. He looked apprehensive as John approached him. Dr. Smith was afraid of many things—if not everything; but Maureen knew he feared John Robinson most of all. John was the essence of the strength, the moral conviction, the courage that Smith lacked.

            It was characteristic of the man John Robinson was, of the beliefs his entire life had represented, that he had never allowed himself to hate Zachary Smith. In fact, at this particular moment, his computer-generated self looked on the old man with considerable fondness.

            “Dr. Smith,” asked John, “have you arranged an appointment as Grand Vizier to the Leader yet?”

            Smith’s eyebrows raised. Just for a moment, it was clear he was considering John’s suggestion. “Actually, Professor, I’m looking forward to a quiet retirement. His Excellency,” he looked sideways at Quano, “has assured me that the women of his planet will provide me great comfort.”

            “They will love him,” confirmed Quano. “He will be the first man they’ve ever seen who is as soft and emotional as they are.”

            “I’ll bet he’s a better cook than any of them though,” said John. Then his expression became solemn. “Doctor Smith, you would never have been my first choice as a fellow castaway. I won’t go into the motives that prompted you to be among us at the outset, but we both know you have been guilty of excessive greed and pettiness.”

            “Well—” Smith began.

            John held up a hand. “That’s all right, Doctor. You needn’t say anything. When I first met you, there was a vengeful part of me that would have tossed you out the airlock as soon as look at you. Vengeance is not a thing I was raised to believe is the purview of humans, however. I can’t say my tolerance of you wasn’t sometimes grudging.

            “After these past decades, however, I must say that I’ve observed many positive qualities within you as well—qualities which I believe have grown. It’s clear to me that you truly loved my children, and my grandchild. You might not have intended it to be that way, but it happened. And they love you, every bit as much. In a very dangerous, frightening place, you gave my family companionship, laughter, and, yes, a great deal of love. You wouldn’t have been my first choice; but, like it or not, you’re a member of my family.”

            For once in his life, Smith was speechless. He simply stared as John moved to face the final member of his family, the first member of his family. For a long time, he only looked at her, as if drinking in her essence. She wondered what a computer-generated replica of her husband could gain by staring at her. Perhaps it was a programmed response, part of the extensive rendering performed by the Leader's programmers in preparation for this encounter. She could easily let herself believe, however, that John's soul saw through those holographic eyes, and was looking on her one last time.

            “Maureen,” he said slowly, and he took her hands, pulling them close to his chest. She hadn't known what to expect of this contact—perhaps a mild, electrical tingle, a coldness. The illusion was a perfect one, though. The hands felt like John's, right down to the callouses he'd earned in the early months on Priplanis.

            “John,” she whispered.

            “I don't know how you feel about this... form of communication, darling. I don't know if you can bring yourself to believe that these are truly our last words together in this life.”

            “I—”

            He brought a hand to her face, caressing her hair. “No, let me finish. My memories don't include the last twenty-some years. I'm complete only up to the time we met the Leader and Quano. I'm missing some very important data.”

            “What, John?”

            “They say I died in my sleep.”

            “Yes, dear. I don't believe you felt a thing.”  She felt silly after she'd said that. What difference could it make to an interactive program?

            “The night before—when we went to bed... I don't know if I told you that I love you?”

            She blinked to clear the tears that were stinging her eyes. “Of course you did, darling. You always did.”

            He nodded, looking profoundly relieved. “I just had to be sure. I love you, Maureen. Since the first moment I saw you, all those years ago, my overriding desire has been to be a part of your life, to be your husband. If I had one wish, if I had to give up everything else in my life, I would have wished simply to be married to you, to build the family we built together.

            “I couldn't have done it with anyone else, darling. I certainly couldn't have done it alone. They say pride is a sin, but in this case it's one I'll allow myself. I'm proud beyond all reason of the fact that you chose me to be the father of your children, and to be by your side for the rest of my life.

            “I don't know where my real soul is. I firmly believe that I'm alive in another place. The Lord wouldn't make so glorious a creation as a human intelligence and let it go to waste by just winking out of existence one night. But I know one thing: wherever my soul resides, it's at peace. It knows that you are leading our family into the future, facing whatever danger comes your way with that amazing reserve of strength you've always had.

            “I can't bring myself to be worried that any of you have to make it without me; because, Maureen, anything I could do, you could do a hundred times better. I know they're all safe with you.”  He squeezed her hand tightly in his, then used the hand on her neck to pull her face to his. The illusion was truly perfect. The kiss he gave her was as warm and as full of love as any he'd ever given before.

            “Goodbye, Maureen,” he said gently. “I'll see you again... soon.”

            She muttered feebly, “Goodbye,” as his image faded from view. She could say nothing more. All her words were lost to tears.

            Penny came forward. “Mom?  You okay?”

            Through a sob, Maureen nodded.

            The Father, to her left, said quietly, “She will be fine, child. She has experienced much today.”

            Maureen looked up at him, noticing, not for the first time, his handsome, strong features. “Thanks to you, your Excellence. On behalf of my family... thank you. No gift could have greater meaning to us.”

            Uncharacteristically, he placed a supportive arm about her shoulders. Despite the fact that he was so aged as to have retired from the leadership of his people, his body was firm, his muscles hard—very much like John's. Perhaps, she thought, the similarities did not end there.

            “It is the least we could do,” he said, smiling.

            “No,” she shook her head. “Hardly  the least. You've shown me that... I have a purpose in the rest of my life. I have a job to do, and I have people counting on me... here, and in the world that comes after this one. I'll go with you, your Excellence, as John would have wanted.”

            There was a collective sigh of relief from her family, and even from Quano. The Father placed his hands on both her shoulders. “You know that I once considered women unworthy. I'm beginning to realize that that is because my culture has never produced a woman like you. I hope, from now on, it will learn to do so.”

            “As do I,” said Quano.

            “Thank you,” said Maureen. “You know, it occurs to me, I don't know your name.”

            “Once he is ordained, and until the end of his life,” said Quano, “the name of the leader may only be spoken by his father... and those rare individuals he might call equal.”

            The Father nodded. “My son speaks the truth. None but my own father has spoken my name for many decades. Not even Quano's mother knew it. I never met my equal.” 

            He was silent as he looked at her for a long moment. Then he added, “When we return home, in less public circumstances, I may tell you my name. It's possible that, at long last, I have found the one I wish to share it with.”

            Maureen returned his smile, looking from him to each of the members of her family, and to a future of infinite possibilities.