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Lost in Space: The Return

By William233

Scifi

Last Week, As You Recall...

Chapter One: “Last Week, As You Recall…”

Dawn came as a gradual lightening to a predictably gray, swirling, alien sky. Jagged peaks marched in increasing dimness to the horizon, finally losing themselves in mist and haze. Gnarled, twisted trees and coarse shrubbery sprouted haphazardly from the sands, lending a dry, arid ambiance to the depressingly dreary landscape. Scattered rock outcroppings assumed weird shapes with their wind-blasted surfaces, pock-marked from uncounted eons of abrasion, overhanging one another in jumbled masses of startling asymmetry. In fact, taken together, all the elements of this strange world gave an impression of vast desolation stretching drearily across leagues of uncounted miles.

Yet, if an air traveler, soaring high over the grey wasteland but just below the cloud overcast, happened to direct his gaze downwards, his eye would undoubtedly be attracted to a singular point on the ground, a spark of reflected light, like a jewel partially buried in the sand of the blasted desert. Drawing closer out of curiosity, this aeronaut would gradually be able to discern a disc shape reflecting the bleak light from the roiling clouds that created an oppressive blanket overhead. Closer still, he would finally realize this was not an ore deposit of a rare alien metal or some unexplainable geologic anomaly on the ground. In fact, it was something artificial, something that hinted at intelligent engineering and careful design, something apart from the howling wilderness that surrounded it with lifeless sand and debris. In fact, it was a large spacecraft partially sunk into the dust of the planet.

It was like a huge plate turned upside down, with a small dome on top that pulsated slowly with light. The sides of the vessel were slightly blackened near the bottom edges, as from a past fire or other catastrophic event. A large window faced outwards into a clearing that was cluttered with tables, chairs, and other equipment that showed this was an inhabited campsite. A dusty, sloping ramp descended from a large open door in one side of the ship, from which people were just beginning to emerge.

The high-flying observer, before departing for further exploration of this blighted planet, would have to assume this was either a pioneer outpost of a distant civilization, or a wreck site sheltering a forlorn group of castaways. He would be correct on both counts. It was, of course, the lonely crash site of the Earth vessel Jupiter 2 and its crew of seven explorers struggling to survive in a hostile environment.

It was on October 16, 1997, three years ago, that the space family Robinson launched from Earth in their saucer-shaped starship, the Jupiter 2, on a mission to explore and colonize a far world orbiting the star Alpha Centauri, four and a half light years away from Earth. On board were five members of the Robinson family, their astronaut-pilot, a Class M-3 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Robot, and, unknown to them, a reluctant stowaway who got caught aboard the ship just before it launched. The human members of the team had been placed into cryogenic deep-freeze for the long journey, all except for the stowaway. Shortly after takeoff, there had been a malfunction in the ship’s navigation system that caused it to go wildly out of control and off the meticulously planned navigational course. Despite the stowaway reviving the pilot from cryogenic sleep to take command of the ship and in spite of his herculean efforts to recover control, the Jupiter 2 spiraled into an uncontrollable acceleration that propelled it far off course and into an unknown sector of the galaxy. With no frame of reference and no reliable star fixes, the space family wandered briefly through empty reaches of the galaxy, eventually crash landing on this alien world. Here, powerless to escape, they eked out a primitive existence as modern-day castaways, hopelessly lost in space.

As it was morning on this strange world, the campsite surrounding the Jupiter 2 was slowly coming to life. Major Don West, the pilot and second in command, was the first to step down the ramp as the main door to the Jupiter slid open. He stretched his arms over his head and opened his mouth in a cavernous, blustering yawn, hardly paying any attention to the familiar, if desolate, landscape surrounding the ship. He allowed his gaze to scan the sky as he absently ruffled his short black hair. A small boy, approximately twelve years old, followed him eagerly out the open door and stood at the pilot’s side, grinning with youthful enthusiasm at the dawn of a new day.

“Well, Will,” Don smiled down at him. “What’s your prognostication for today?”

Will Robinson looked up mischievously at his friend. “That sounds like something Dr. Smith would say.”

“Hey, now,” Don blurted with mock seriousness, cocking an exaggerated eyebrow at him. “Be nice. I can’t deal with insults this early in the morning. After coffee, I’ll be ready to trade barbs with you all day, young man!”

Will laughed good-naturedly at Don’s joking manner, then turned his attention to the swirling clouds overhead. His hair stirred in the slight, dry breeze.

He pressed his lips together, considering. “It feels like maybe it might rain, but I’m going to check the weather station first. In fact, I’m almost sure of it! Wouldn’t that be great?”

“Yeah,” Don agreed, scratching his side. “Our water supply is down quite a bit. A few days of good, steady rainfall would be a blessing.”

“What would be a blessing?”

Maureen Robinson had also emerged, looking fine and alert, and had overheard Don’s comment. The slim, blonde matron of the Robinson family--and wife to Professor John Robinson--had her hair done in her usual “up-do”, and, if she found life difficult on an inhospitable world, there was no indication either in her face nor in the radiant smile she bestowed on the Major. In fact, she was probably the least complaining member of the team, and her positive outlook always buoyed the spirits of anyone nearby.

“’Weatherman Will’ says it’s going to rain,” Don asserted, waving dramatically at the sky.

“Good,” Maureen said with conviction, as if Will’s prediction was a foregone conclusion. “I’m tired of our rationing, even though it’s not that bad yet. A nice, long, hot shower would feel wonderful.”

“In that case, I’d better get to work on building an ark.”

“Sure, you do that,” she slapped him good-naturedly on the arm.

“See you, Mom!” Will blurted abruptly, launching himself excitedly down the entry ramp on which they were all standing.

“Will!” Maureen called after him. “We’ll be having breakfast in an hour, so don’t be gone too long!” She lifted her voice to carry after the rapidly receding figure of her son. “You know how your father likes having everyone around the table at the start of the day!”

Will spun and backpedaled towards the boulders and rock formations that surrounded the camp. “I know,” he yelled, respect for his mother warring with his overwhelming desire to bolt. “It won’t take long, I promise. I’ll be right back!” With that, he whirled about and sprinted off, vanishing around a rock outcropping, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

“Be careful!” Maureen warned, lifting a hand in the time-honored fashion of all mothers, who knew their advice generally fell on deaf ears.

Don chuckled, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. “He’s just going down into the valley. Tell you what. I can yell at him for you when breakfast is ready. For me,” he paused and cast an appraising glance at a large vehicle parked nearby. “I’d better start laying out the tools for the tear-down of the Chariot’s main generator. That damn thing hasn’t worked for weeks, and I know John wants it running again as soon as possible.”

The Chariot was their all-terrain exploration vehicle mounted on twin tracks, giving it a faint resemblance to Snow-Cats used on ski slopes back on Earth. Vaguely rectangular in shape, it was entirely composed of hardened safety glass set in a thin metal framework to give it additional strength. Several antennae and one large radar dish were set in the roof, along with a clear bubble top hatch. Huge headlights were mounted on the front. Three rows of seats could be seen inside, as well as a control console set between the front seats. The vehicle could be dismantled for easier storage within the limited cargo spaces of the ship.

“Yes, I do,” Professor John Robinson agreed as he strode out the open door of the Jupiter, shrugging into his workaday shirt. Tall and slim, his dark hair carefully combed, he exuded command and authority, which was appropriate for the de facto leader of the marooned Earth expedition. Stepping up with his signature devilish smile, he leaned down to Maureen, giving her an enthusiastic kiss and encircling her waist with his arm. “Good morning, darling.”

“Good morning!” she smiled up at him.

He looked over at West, who was picking at a fingernail with focused concentration. “Morning, Don. Once you get the Chariot fixed, I want to head south again to search the area where that vein of deutronium ran out. I really think it picks up again…we just didn’t search far enough.”

Don shook his head. “We exhausted that vein months ago,” he noted while walking down the ramp and reaching under the camp table for a tool box. “Why do you think there might be more down there?” He grunted as he lifted the heavy metal box onto the table.

John jerked a thumb over his shoulder back at the ship. “You know how low we are on fuel. In a few weeks, we’ll be so short on deutronium that we won’t even be able to run the heater on the ship much less put it back into space. That vein was so large, I’m willing to bet there’s more just waiting for us to find. It’s statistically impossible it would exist all by itself.”

“Statistically impossible?” Don repeated, puzzled.

“I thought Will was almost done with his solar cell experiment?” Penny Robinson asked as she bounced out into the morning air, a handful of music tapes in her hand. As the Robinson’s youngest daughter, she was quickly growing past her childhood and into the first bloom of almost-adolescence. Her black hair was straight and curved around her face, her wide, alert eyes missed nothing, and her clothing was functional and clean.

“What are you talking about, dear?” Maureen asked, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Your father was talking about the ore we can refine into fuel for our engine.”

“I know,” Penny said with a slight pout, “but Will told me his solar cells could supply enough power for everything on the ship, once he could figure out how to make them work better!”

John shook his head. “Solar cells won’t solve our propellant problem, Penny. The Jupiter’s main engine runs on refined deutronium, not sunlight.”

“Good morning!” Judy Robinson called as she swept out of the ship, buckling her belt around her waist. As the eldest daughter, she was a tall beauty with blonde hair and sparkling eyes, much like her mother’s. “What’s for breakfast? Hi, Don!” She danced over to the Major, who was still leaning over the open toolbox, to land a kiss on his cheek.

Startled, he straightened and grinned boyishly back at her. “Morning!”

“Ewww,” Penny moaned, rolling her eyes in exasperation and skipping down the ramp to a nearby rock, where she sat down and arranged herself to sort through her tapes.

Maureen walked over to the outdoor storage shed and began pulling out dishes. “I’m thinking of having the vegetables we harvested yesterday, along with the last of our oatmeal, for breakfast. Penny! You can play with your tapes later. Give me a hand setting the table.”

“Vegetables?” came an indignant, precisely articulated voice from the open door to the ship. “Oatmeal? How dreadful!” Dr. Zachary Smith stood just outside the Jupiter’s main door, frowning disapprovingly at the sky. In his fifties, he was slightly wide in the middle, but otherwise appeared in good health. His eyebrows were arched superciliously, creating multiple creases in his broad forehead. His brown, wavy hair was combed back, and he stood regally straight, his hands clasped before him, as if he were a monarch disdainfully surveying the peasants of his realm. A military doctor, he had been trapped on the Jupiter when it launched from Earth years ago, and the events leading up to his presence on board had never been adequately explained. The adults in the family harbored some dark suspicions, but nothing had ever been proven. Consequently, they had been forced to allow him to become a member of their expedition, but this acceptance came harder to some of the Robinson party than to others.

For now, he merely seemed irritated, grumpy, and put upon. “There is no possible way anyone concerned about his fiber intake--such as myself--would call that unidentifiable pap…oatmeal!” Tossing his head, he marched stiffly down the ramp. “Eggs, madam, eggs! For protein, naturally. Additionally, bacon, crepes, strawberries, and peach yogurt would be a fine start to an otherwise dreary day.”

“Now, Dr. Smith,” Maureen smiled, inured as she was to the doctor’s usual impossible requests. “You know we don’t have any of those things any more.”

“Yeah, Smith,” Don noted sarcastically, hefting the toolbox and heading towards the Chariot. “Give it a rest…it’s too early for your whining. Hey!” He stopped as if with a sudden, brilliant thought and turned back. “You know, I think I got your strawberries right here, Smith!” he said, grinning and making an unmistakable pointing gesture towards the lower half of his body.

“Don!” Judy scolded, appalled.

West guffawed loudly as if savoring a victory and turned back towards the Chariot. Penny’s hand went up to her mouth to stifle a giggle, and she dropped the plate she was laying on the table with a clatter.

“Manners, Major!” Smith snarled, his eyebrows crawling further up his forehead in affronted wrath. “Your knowledge of fine foods is restricted to ground beef and soggy French fries! Uncultured boor! I’ll have you know…”

“However, we do have coffee,” Maureen interrupted brightly, setting the table and interposing herself to cut off what was likely to be another round of verbal sparring between Smith and West. “Would you like a cup?”

Dr. Smith dropped himself onto the nearest chair with a great show of weary resignation. “Madam, no offense, but that brown concoction we have been forced to consume in lieu of proper ground Arabica is hardly what I would dignify with the term ‘coffee’. How-some-ever,” he rolled his eyes melodramatically towards the now percolating pot, “perhaps with some additional sweetener,” he softened his tone and pushed a mug forward eagerly with an ingratiating smile, “I can bear with the sacrifice to my discerning palate.”

Don made a derisive noise from behind the Chariot. Dr. Smith pointedly ignored him while Maureen filled his cup.

“I’ll go get those vegetables, mother,” Judy said, turning and climbing back into the ship.

“Where’s the Robot?” Professor Robinson asked, looking around. “I want to find out if he’s finished analyzing those core samples I gave him.”

Don’s head poked out from behind the rear hood of the Chariot. “I heard Will ask him last night to monitor his weather station. He’s probably been out there all night.”

John straddled a chair and gratefully accepted a mug of steaming, black liquid from his wife, then cast a thoughtful look towards Don. “Why does the Robot need to monitor the station?”

“No idea.” Don vanished again head and shoulders into the maintenance bay of the vehicle.

“I can go get him?” Penny suggested tentatively, dropping eating utensils on the table in an untidy heap and starting to move off in the direction Will had taken.

“Uh, uh,” Maureen stopped her in her tracks. “Get back here and help me put breakfast on. We have seven hungry people to feed here before we start the day. And I have some research of my own to do after breakfast. Come on, now!”

“Aw, Mom,” Penny moaned, but came back and began helping Judy, who had come out bearing a basket with vegetables in it.

“Research?” John asked meaningfully. “You mean, the garden…?”

“We’ll discuss it after breakfast,” Maureen said evasively.

After many years of marriage, the Professor knew precisely when not to pursue a subject with his wife, so he hunched over his coffee cup and said no more.

After the breakfast table was set and the food set out, Maureen walked to the edge of the camp. “Will?” she shouted, cupping a hand near the side of her mouth. “Will! Breakfast! Will!”

She jumped as the Robot rolled around a jagged outcropping, as if summoned by her shout. “Oh! You surprised me!”

“That does not compute,” stated the Robot impassively and trundled past her with hardly a glance.

Maureen shook her head, smiled fondly at the retreating back of the automaton as if at an old joke, then filled her lungs to shout again for Will.

Six feet tall, moving on rollers attached to accordion-like legs, the B-9 Environmental Control Robot, the mechanical member of the Robinson expedition (and whose name was simply, Robot), was an imposing sight. Lights flashed on his barrel-shaped, silver torso. A disk-like Plexiglas bubble surmounted the torso, and the unblinking dual points of light that were his eyes swiveled alertly as he approached the family. Also within the glass bubble, sensor probes oscillated up and down like insect antennae. A large, translucent panel just under the bubble--and on his torso--housed a light display that flashed in coordination with his spoken words. Red circular claws were attached to arms similar in their accordion-like design to his legs. These arms were currently retracted into the silver torso in their usual stored position.

Originally, the Robot had been nothing more than a programmed, ambulatory computer, responding only as his software directed, incapable of autonomous thought or direction. He had been designed on Earth to assist the Robinsons in environmental analysis once they had achieved their goal of landing on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. However, inexplicably, he had exceeded the sum of his programs over the years in space and, at some point, became self-aware. None could say when this extraordinary event happened. However, since then, he had become such a close member of the family that none could remember a time when he was not a “Robinson,” nor could they imagine a future without him. While he still was not able to feel the full range of human emotions, and still acted more the logical, computing machine than a thinking being, he nonetheless was able to express a surprising level of feeling for his adopted family, even the irascible Dr. Smith.

The Robot rolled up to the breakfast table where he stopped with a lurch, his eyes turning to survey the family.

“Now, see here you insensitive metal malingerer!” Smith growled disdainfully at the unassuming machine, waving his coffee mug and heedlessly splashing some of its contents out onto the table. “You were supposed to be fixing my cabin door! It still squeaks, and I cannot abide the assault on my nerves every time I slide it open or closed. Go fix it at once!”

“Not now,” John snapped in exasperation, mopping up Smith’s spill with a napkin. “Robot,” he began. “About that core sample.” A sudden thought occurred to him, and he changed the subject abruptly, looking with some curiosity at the android. “Robot, why were you at the weather station?”

The glowing eyes swiveled towards him. “Will asked me to monitor last night’s parameters in real time to provide data for a hypothesis he is formulating.”

John stared at him, then drawled out, “Okaaaay. More on that later, I suppose. Never mind. Right now, I need to know if you have completed the analysis on those core samples I gave you yesterday afternoon.”

“Affirmative.”

“Well?”

“Please define your inquiry. Your term ‘Well’ does not compute.”

Dr. Smith’s eyes bulged and he inflated himself like an angry puffer fish, but the Professor interrupted the coming explosion with a wave of his hand, then spoke slowly and precisely. “What were the results on your analysis of the core sample I gave you?”

“Core samples showed negative for radioactive ore. Core samples showed negative for uranium, deutronium, or other isotopes. Core samples were devoid of any traces of petroleum, natural gas, or geothermal evidence. All results, negative.”

Overhearing, Don walked over, wiping black grease and soot from his hands on a rag. “Negative, huh? I thought sure we had stumbled onto another find. The geology in the area was right; I don’t see how we could have missed. Maybe you’re right to check south again.”

John frowned. “Maybe. I really thought we had something, there, too.”

“I’ll have the Chariot’s generator rebuilt by this evening, then we’ll see if we can get some life back into our faithful tank. I suppose we’ll have to go quite a bit further than our last mining operation. How about using the jet pack to scout ahead first before we use that gas-guzzling machine?” he suggested, nodding at the Chariot.

The jet pack was a dual rocket device that could be worn on the back, enabling the “pilot” to fly in a vertical, standing position over the ground at low altitudes. Both Don and John were qualified to operate the pack, and it had been used numerous times on search missions to cover far more terrain than could be explored in the same time via Chariot.

“Yes,” agreed John. “That makes sense. Let’s get some breakfast first, and I’ll help you with the generator. Then we’ll put together another exploration plan.”

The family was settling down to the table as Will re-entered the campsite, looking absorbed at a clipboard where he had written various notes and equations. The Robot, who had moved away near the main window of the Jupiter, stood still, clicking and whirring to himself. If he remembered Smith’s direction to fix his squeaking door, he deliberately ignored it.

“Well, William!” Dr. Smith beamed warmly at the boy, still his favorite member of the Robinson company. “And what does our weather prognosticator have to say on this beautiful spring morning? Some delightful rain to water our gardens, perhaps? Or just balmy breezes and mellow sunshine to gently tan away our unhealthful winter pallor?”

“Fine spring morning?” West blurted, looking up at the gray overcast, then giving Smith his best “you’re-an-idiot” look, which Dr. Smith disregarded.

Will sat down at his usual spot at the table without answering. Maureen, arranging bowls of food on the table, looked at him curiously. “Will? Dr. Smith was asking a question. I think it would be polite to answer, wouldn’t you?”

Will set down his clipboard and ignored Penny, who had made a face at him. “Sorry, Mom. Sorry Dr. Smith.”

“What is it, son?” Professor Robinson asked, looking down the length of the table, sensing his son’s unusual preoccupation.

“Well, it’s just preliminary,” Will began.

“What’s preliminary?”

Will looked up at his family. “Well, according to my observations, and these figures, the temperature is going steadily down, not up.”

Dr. Smith took another sip of coffee. “Nonsense, my dear boy. Anyone can see we are quickly leaving this dreadful winter behind us, with splendid days of basking in the sun ahead.” However, Smith threw a glance upward at the roiling gray masses overhead. “Although, there does seem to be a decided nip remaining in the air.”

“Well,” Will repeated. “I don’t know. Something is happening. I’ve been recording a steady drop in average temperature every day for the last two weeks. The Robot confirmed my findings last night. It’s kind of like, I don’t know, like another winter is coming.”

“Preposterous,” Smith declared, noisily gulping more coffee. “Another winter, indeed. This last one was bad enough. We’re just having a cold snap before spring sets in.”

John looked thoughtful, cupping his own coffee mug in both hands. “I’m afraid I have to side with Dr. Smith’s opinion. Could just be an irregularity. Nothing else would make sense. We know how unstable this planet’s orbit is, but it’s generally predictable in the long term.”

“Quite right!” Smith agreed. “Just some unseasonable cold weather. I’m sure it’ll warm up nicely. I’m starved, madam! What’s for breakfast, again?”

John watched Will’s somewhat crestfallen expression. “Let’s you and I take another look at your findings after breakfast and we’ll see if we can decipher this mystery. I’m sure they’re accurate, we’re just not analyzing them correctly. We’ll get the Robot to help.”

Will took up his spoon as Maureen placed a plate of food before him, but he still appeared preoccupied.

Breakfast proceeded as usual. Casual conversation was interspersed with the usual mild complaining from Dr. Smith about the quality of their food, and Don complained about Smith’s complaining when he was not discussing technical problems with John. Judy, Maureen, and Penny chattered on about various domestic subjects, while Will remained uncommunicative, staring morosely at his clipboard and studying his meticulously collected data.

As everyone helped clean up following the meal, except Dr. Smith, who excused himself into his cabin, grumbling loudly of a mild and most likely imaginary stomach upset, Maureen slid close to John.

“John,” she whispered, out of earshot of the others while they were placing the cleaned plates back in the storage shed. “Could Will be onto something? You know the hydroponic garden is showing signs of returning dormancy, like at the beginning of last winter. If it keeps up, we’ll have to bring it back inside or rebuild the greenhouse.”

John nodded, laying a stack of dishes on an empty shelf. “Well, we could pull out the tarps again and set up the greenhouse, but I doubt this will go on much longer. Could there be any other reason for the problem in the hydroponics?”

“I don’t know,” Maureen answered, but said no more. John could see she was unconvinced and not a little concerned. He had to admit to himself that anything affecting their continued food supply made him worry, too.

* * * *

“Volcanic activity is beyond sensor range, but its effects here are observable, increasing, and planet-wide. Effects on global temperature are also increasing at a predictable rate and will influence our survival estimates in a negative fashion.”

It was night, several weeks later. The B-9 Environmental Control Robot was performing its primary function: analyzing the environment and reporting results. However, the results were none too welcome to any of the Robinsons, all of whom were sitting in comfortable chairs on the main deck of the Jupiter 2 and listening to the Robot’s information. Maureen, Judy, Penny, and Will were wearing light sweaters against the moderate chill inside the spacecraft. John had reduced electrical consumption by reducing life support heating, and everyone was feeling the effects. Dr. Smith was sitting, bundled up in blankets with only his unhappy face showing, sniffing wetly. Both John and Don were wearing light jackets. Professor Robinson was sitting with his chin on his fist, staring at the Robot and listening to his report.

“So,” John said once the Robot concluded, “that’s what’s going on around here. Volcanoes are blanketing the planet in a shroud of dust, sending worldwide average temperatures plummeting.”

“That’s why my weather analysis was giving those results!” Will interjected, waving a clipboard with columns of numbers and equations. “I knew my data couldn’t be wrong about temperatures. It is getting colder!”

“But the rate of change is what’s puzzling,” Professor Robinson mused. “It’s happening too fast. All our computer models have not predicted this. We should be well into the 70’s outside, instead of hovering in the mid-forties.”

“Must be some powerful volcanoes to be causing all this,” West said. He was standing behind the seat occupied by Judy, who was hugging herself tightly against the chill.

The Robot continued. “Observed data would point to a major rift in the planet’s outer shell. A single volcano could not be the cause. It would have to be hundreds, perhaps thousands of volcanoes, indicating a major break in the crust of the planet that would allow the molten core to escape.”

“I still find it difficult to believe we would not have detected this earlier,” John said, stroking his chin with thumb and forefinger, his face creased with worry.

“This is a miserable world,” Dr. Smith wailed, blowing his nose thunderously into a tissue. “Is there no respite for weary castaways? I’m telling you, we’re doomed. Doomed! I’ve known it all along.”

“Button it, Smith,” Don growled. “We don’t need panic here. We need some answers.”

“And maybe sooner than we thought,” Maureen added. Seated next to John, she had a thin blanket draped over her shoulders. “Robot, can you tell us what will happen if conditions continue as they are, I mean with the increasing high altitude cloud cover, or smoke, or whatever it is? What does it really mean for us? Can you extrapolate any conclusions?”

The glowing eyes swiveled towards her. “My computer models predict successive planetary drops in temperature of 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit on the average per year over the next 10 to 15 years.”

John’s hand dropped to his lap. “What? You’re saying the temperature could drop eighty degrees in two years on average? Then that means…”

The Robot filled in the pause. “This planet may be incapable of supporting carbon-based life in the very near future. Perhaps within a year.”

Silence reigned on the main deck, disturbed only by Smith’s occasional sniffs.

“What does he mean exactly?” Penny asked finally when no one said anything, looking scared. “We can’t live here anymore?”

John straightened in his chair. “That kind of climatic change will cause advancing ice packs from the poles, very little sun, plummeting temperatures, snow, ice storms, and toxic volcanic gases. For many years. Is that how you read it, Robot?”

“Affirmative, Professor.”

“It’s like what happened to the dinosaurs on Earth, but on a smaller scale,” Will mused to himself. “Or maybe a bigger one…”

“I thought dinosaur extinction was due to an asteroid impact?” Judy said, pulling her jacket more tightly about her.

“It doesn’t matter, young lady,” Dr. Smith exclaimed, rising from his seat in alarm. “The fact of the matter is that dinosaurs became extinct, as we all will be if we remain on this misbegotten world. Doomed!” His voice dropped to a sepulchral whisper. “We are the dinosaurs on this world, and we’re doomed! This planet is bent on destroying us!”

“We are not dinosaurs!” Maureen scoffed wearily. “Really, Dr. Smith. You’re scaring the children.”

“Damn right we’re not dinosaurs!” Don added. “We just have to think this through.”

“I have an additional conclusion,” the Robot said, and an odd note of concern had crept into his metallic voice, “although my data is insufficient to support it as anything other than an opinion.”

“Mental midget!” Smith exploded. “Opinion, indeed. You are incapable of having any opinions other than the ones I deign to give you! Presumptuous popinjay, if you have anything else...”

“Please, Dr. Smith,” John interrupted despairingly, waving a hand. “Hear him out. What’s your opinion, Robot?”

The eye-lights surveyed the family. “Volcanic activity on a scale to affect this level of climate change might be sufficient to cause the near time breakup of this small planetary body.” He paused uncharacteristically, then added weakly, “Just a thought.”

What?” Smith bawled. The rest of the family looked at each other, horror reflecting in their eyes.

“Again,” the Robot added, somewhat sheepishly, “it’s just an opinion.”

“It’s something to think about, anyway,” Maureen said, looking about the room, the calm in her voice soothing. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. The question still remains: what do we do about this? It sounds like we can’t stay here anymore, but we can’t leave, either. We hardly have enough fuel to heat the Jupiter, much less fly it.”

“Fuel!” Professor Robinson slammed a hand suddenly and with rarely seen emotion into the arm of the chair he was in, making everyone jump. He leaped to his feet and paced the deck. “We need fuel! We need it to heat the ship, make our meals, power the force field generator, recharge our lasers, and run the damn engine!” He whirled to face a startled Major West. “Don, I’m tired of negative results. I’m tired of broken Chariot generators, cold nights, dying hydroponic gardens, water shortages, and a spacecraft that won’t fly. We need to put our heads together and start becoming active, rather than reactive. I want to find something that will power this ship!”

West nodded, watching the Professor carefully. “Okay. Okay. You’re right there. You did want to go south beyond our previous mining locations. Maybe the deutronium vein picks up down there somewhere. It was our best vein until it ran out and those monster plants ate all our processed fuel!”

“Now, that wasn’t anyone’s fault,” Maureen soothed as Judy glanced down guiltily.

Don glared pointedly at Smith. “I disagree.”

“I had nothing to do with that!” Smith defended himself indignantly. “It was her fault for getting trapped in the first place!” He nodded at Judy, who shrunk even further into the chair.

The family all recalled the time that “monster” plants temporarily took over their world. Dr. Smith had discovered plants that were able to duplicate anything that was placed close enough for them to engorge. However, these plants also had an appetite for deutronium fuel as fertilizer. Judy had somehow fallen under the spell of the plants and walked into their midst, after which she was overcome with the fumes from the plants and fell asleep inside a huge flower. Dr. Smith had observed this and was instantly plotting to use this information to blackmail Professor Robinson into allowing Major West to fly him in the Jupiter back to Earth. However, unknown to Smith, the plant was somehow able to duplicate Judy and send her replica to the Jupiter 2 to obtain all the family’s supply of deutronium. The replica fed all of the deutronium supply to the plants, allowing them to grow, multiply, and completely cover the spaceship. The Professor and Don ended up destroying the plants so they could rescue the real Judy, but the deutronium was completely gone.

“All right, that’s enough,” John snapped. “I want everyone’s mind in the game here. What’s past is past, and we need to look forward. Our very survival is in question. We can’t search the entire planet foot by foot. So, how do we search it? Where do we find deutronium ore?”

“If it’s even here!” Dr. Smith whimpered, gathering his blanket more tightly about him and sneezing. “Maybe there’s no more deutronium! What if there’s no more at all?”

“Shut up, Smith,” West growled irritably, glaring at him.

Will raised his head and spoke to the Robot. “Robot,” he said, “can you run any kind of program that would tell us where we should look? Like, a prediction or something?”

“With a larger cross-section of core samples, a statistical analysis may reveal the most likely locations for distant deutronium veins.”

“You mean a best-guess on where to go looking,” Don said.

“I believe I said that,” the Robot replied dryly.

“What would you need for your analysis?” John asked, looking intently at the Robot.

“Data could be extracted from a randomized, 360 degree search pattern. Core samples would have to be brought to me for study. In order to minimize the effect of unwanted variables and establish inferential patterns correlating variance factors and mean square weighted deviations…”

“Damn it, Robot,” an exasperated West finally broke in, running a hand through his hair. “You’re talking in Greek or something. Simple English, please! What do you need?”

The eyes glowed in the bubble top. “I need twelve core samples, taken at equal distances from the Jupiter 2 at a radius of ten nautical miles. That should do it.”

“That’s a little over sixty miles in circumference,” John quickly calculated. “Don, what do you think?”

West pondered. “Sixty miles? It would take a couple of days, maybe a week, and a completely full fuel tank in the Chariot, maybe more. Do we really want to go joy-riding like that when our fuel is already low?”

“We have to consider that’s only for the search,” Maureen added, looking at her husband. “We still have to get to the deutronium site once we think we’ve found it. There are no guarantees we’ll find anything after all that effort.”

John held up a hand. “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Besides, not doing anything is not an option. All right.” He towered over his group, his eyes alight with a decisive fire. The others had straightened, watching him, hope dawning in their eyes. “Will, how would you like to do a breakdown of our main fuel supply, figuring our current rate of daily consumption, with an eye to answer the following question: do we actually have the fuel to do a search in the Chariot, and how will that impact our dwindling reserves?”

Will’s face had brightened at the prospect of one of his favorite exercises: mathematical analysis. “Yeah, it would be easy! I could work up some algorithms to account for the Jupiter’s electrical consumption on a daily basis, add in the Chariot’s fuel consumption based on average speeds and loads…well, I’d have to figure variables for uneven terrain…”

Don threw both his hands in the air, grinning. “Okay, Will, I think we got the picture. You and the Robot are quite the pair.” He turned towards the Professor, shaking his head in exaggerated concern. “John, we gotta get this boy out more. He’s starting to even sound like the Robot!” He grinned at the whirring machine. “No offense.”

“None taken,” the Robot answered, imperturbable.

The family broke out in laughter, and the tension seemed to recede significantly. Will was blushing through his grin, the freckles standing out on his face. More tasks were assigned as Professor Robinson continued fleshing out his plan. He himself would work up the search grid and give the data to Will. Don would add in information on Chariot capabilities and conduct an initial survey of the planned search path via jet pack. Maureen and the girls would evaluate food production, hydroponics, and supply. The Robot would develop search algorithms with Will. And even Dr. Smith had a job: stay out of the way! He complained loudly and indignantly at this outcome, much to Major West’s amusement.

“All right, people,” John finally said, clearly wrapping up the family gathering and rubbing his hands together as if savoring the challenge ahead. “We have a lot of work to start tomorrow. I suggest we get some sleep. Everyone set your alarms for an early wakeup!”

* * * *

Preparations were in high gear, and two days had passed of frenzied but productive activity. Will’s analysis showed they could operate the Chariot on the planned profile without seriously impacting their dwindling fuel supply. Don completed his jet-pack survey in record time. He traveled the sixty mile circle at an altitude of 1000 feet, successfully mapping out the most economic route for the Chariot to use that would optimize time and fuel. Food was a concern, but thanks to Maureen’s thorough work in previous weeks to preserve and protect their existing supplies, the question of food was not worrisome as yet. With the help of the Robot, Maureen, Judy, and Penny had re-erected the greenhouse over the hydroponic tables, and their garden had actually started recovering from its former blight.

However, in spite of the positive successes the family was realizing towards their goals, they could not help but notice how climate conditions were noticeably deteriorating. Nightly temperatures were below freezing and getting steadily colder, while daytime temperatures hardly allowed thawing out from the previous night. The castaways had not seen sunshine in weeks owing to the grayish-brown, swirling masses that sailed high overhead in the upper winds, blanketing them in a pall of smoke and dust. A smell of sulfur was in the winds that seemed to blow incessantly from the north, seemingly confirming the Robot’s conclusion that volcanic activity was transforming their planet at an alarming rate.

Even more compelling, however, was the evidence of the flakes of gray dust that floated incessantly down from the heavens, blanketing the silver hull of the Jupiter 2 in a coating of volcanic ash. Somewhere, great geysers of steam and smoke were pouring ash into the planet’s atmosphere, shrouding it in a poisonous heat-reflecting shield of particulates and deadly gasses.

Will took it upon himself to more closely monitor seismic activity and discovered their little world was convulsing far beyond their horizon. He registered readings of distant earthquakes that sent tremors all the way to the planetary core, and they seemed to be increasing in intensity. In fact, after his report, many in the family felt or imagined they could feel the faint echoes of the subterranean vibrations in the very ground surrounding the ship. Dr. Smith swore he heard the ground cracking under his feet and expected at any moment to be swallowed into a gaping crevasse that might unexpectedly open under him. He consequently rarely left the “safe” confines of the ship, preferring to watch--and criticize--the family’s activities through the large main viewport.

Two days had passed, and a gray, dismal dawn had once again come to the Robinson camp, but there was great activity outside their spaceship. There was a constant stream of people, boxes, and equipment to the Chariot that was parked next to the boarding ramp of the spaceship. In spite of the precarious nature of their position, the entire family seemed galvanized with adrenalin and excitement over the events that were transforming their lives, and how they were reacting to it.

“That’s it, I think,” Major West called, throwing a large square container through the open transparent door of the Chariot and into the flailing arms of Dr. Smith, who nearly toppled over backwards.

Smith had been coaxed out of the ship to help out with a variety of polite requests (from Maureen) and threats of violence (from Don). Will was sitting in the most rearward bench inside the vehicle, piling the equipment in a stack as he received them from the doctor.

“Hey!” he yelped as Smith nearly landed in his lap.

“Damn you, Major!” Smith cried out angrily, regaining his balance and juggling the container. “You did that on purpose! Watch what you’re doing!” He passed the box over the bench to Will, then arched his back with a grimace. “Oh, my back is about to give out with all this lifting. A man of my quality, reduced to being a conveyor belt! Indeed!”

John, standing next to the Chariot, made a last flourished checkmark on a clipboard, agreeing with West and ignoring the still spluttering Smith. “You’re right. That completes it. Everything’s on board except the food. Maureen!” he called, turning towards the Jupiter’s open door.

Maureen came down to the Chariot, followed by Judy. They both were carrying bulging boxes of processed food. “Here you go, dear. This is all of it.”

The Professor sized up the boxes. “You pack well. Okay, put them inside.”

“Head’s up, Smith, more cargo inbound!” West called as he hefted another box.

“No!” Smith cried in distress. “A moment, you Neanderthal nutcase! Will! You must help me here...this is too much…”

Will pushed around some crates inside the Chariot, elbowing past the Robot, who was already inside the rear of the tightly cramped interior. “Dr. Smith, I think it would be easier if you went outside, and I’ll tie them down on the floor there with some straps.”

“Brilliant idea!” Smith said in relief. “I knew I could count on you for some common sense. I’ll just step outside and let you secure this lot. Young lady!” he called, reaching for Judy, who was standing just outside the Chariot’s door. “Help me out!”

He extended both arms towards Judy, who grasped them and began pulling him out. “Oh, dear!” he whimpered, groaning loudly. “I am ruptured! Oh, my back! Delicately, my dear, delicately!”

“I’ve got you,” Judy assured him, struggling to keep the doctor upright, who creakily negotiated the entry ladder to step out on the ground. He overbalanced onto Judy, nearly taking them both to the ground, but West stepped in and wrapped his arms around both, preventing the fall.

“C’mon, Smith!” he snapped irritably. “Stand up, for crying out loud!”

“Thank you, my dear!” Smith wheezed in appreciation to Judy, straightening up after achieving his seemingly superhuman task of exiting the Chariot. “I beg your pardon. Such a sturdy young lady.” He shook himself away from West’s grasp. “No thanks to you, Major!” he huffed and stalked off, mumbling to himself. Judy smiled demurely up at Don, whose arm was still around her waist.

“That’s good, Don,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “I’m all right now.”

“Come on, Don,” John rasped, clearing his throat meaningfully. “Let’s mount up and get this show on the road.”

“Right!” Don chuckled. “Let’s do this!”

At that, the Professor turned and grabbed a startled Maureen by the shoulders, kissing her soundly. “No long goodbyes, darling,” he said, pulling back. “We need to get going. This shouldn’t take more than four days, and we’ll be within radio range the whole time. Wish us luck!”

“Always!” she said, still glowing from the kiss. “Hurry home, dear!”

“Count on it.”

“Bye, Don!” Judy said, twining her arms around Don’s neck. “Take care of Dad for me!”

West returned her embrace. “You can count on that!

“Dad, it’s not fair that you won’t let me go,” Will pouted loudly, climbing down from the Chariot after finishing his work inside. “I could really help out there!”

John Robinson knelt to look at his son level in the eyes, grasping him by the shoulders. “Now, you know why. I’m counting on you to keep us up to date with the weather, and I need you to finish those solar cells!”

“They won’t work without sun,” Will observed, glancing longingly at the dirty, leaden sky.

“Just get them done,” Robinson grinned. “You never know when they might come in handy. I can’t afford not to explore all options at this stage, you know that.”

“All right,” Will surrendered glumly, crossing his arms in barely concealed frustration.

“Besides, I need you to help your mother take care of things here. Don, the Robot, and I can handle this survey.”

Dr. Smith piped up from a nearby lounge chair, where he had deposited himself after his exertions. “Yes, quite right! You three go tearing about the countryside in that noisome glass-covered tank, and we will hold down the fort right here! Capital plan!”

“Thank you, Dr. Smith, for your stamp of approval,” John acknowledged sardonically. “I’m sure you will courageously ‘hold down the fort’ for us.” He turned to Major West. “All right, Don? Let’s get to it.”

Quickly mounting the Chariot to waves and farewells, they closed the side door, then climbed into the front seats of the vehicle, the Professor taking the driver’s seat, and Don, the seat next to him. John hit the starter and the Chariot thundered to life. With a jaunty wave over his shoulder, he engaged the tracks, pushed the drive levers forward, and the Chariot bounced off into the wasteland. The last view the rest of the Robinsons had of the survey team was that of the Robot in the rear of the Chariot, tossing a claw upwards in farewell.

“Well,” Maureen sighed as she watched them go and the noise of the motor faded into the distance. “That’s it. Come on, girls, we have chores to do. This volcanic ash is getting into everything, and I’ve a mind to do some spring cleaning inside the ship.”

“Mom,” said Will, “can I work on the engine performance computers?”

That stopped Maureen as she was heading into the Jupiter behind her daughters. She turned to look curiously at her son. “What?”

“The engine performance computers. I’d like to download from data from them.”

“The ship’s performance computers?”

“Yeah.”

Baffled, she looked at him. “Now, Will, why in the world do you want to work on those things? They have no function if the engine isn’t running. Besides, your father told you to keep working on the solar cells.”

“I know,” Will pleaded. “But I don’t have much more work to do on those cells, and I have a theory about, umm, something, that I’d like to explore. I might be able to find out some information from the engine performance buffers that might help us.”

Maureen cocked her head, her eyes narrowing. “Help us to do what? Have you spoken to your father about this?”

“No. He was all preoccupied about this survey, and I didn’t want to bother him. Please, Mom,” he whined. “I promise not to break anything.” He could see her wavering. “I’ll do the solar cell work, too, just later. This other thing could be important! Please, Mom! It won’t take long…”

Maureen saw his determination and knew he would probably do it anyway, regardless of what she said. “Fine,” she sighed. “Knock off the wide-eyed, beseeching waif look, you can do it.” Will brightened instantly, causing Maureen to raise a finger warningly. “But don’t take anything apart, and don’t modify any of the software! And next time, you ask your father first. I find it extremely suspicious that you should ask about this after he goes off on a four-day trip. You won’t mind if I mention it to him the next time we have a radio contact, will you?”

Will beamed a broad smile, clearly exulting in another victory. “Nope, and thanks, Mom! He won’t mind. And I won’t break anything, really,” he repeated. “I just want to test a theory I have. It shouldn’t take long.”

“Good for you, William!” Smith called approvingly from his chair, where he was clearly settling in for a nap. “The scientific method! Discovery and experimentation! That’s the stuff! However,” he squinted at the sky, “first be a good lad and get me an umbrella and a towel. This infernal ash is getting all over me!”

“Yes, Dr. Smith.”

* * * *

“Mom, they’re back!”

It was early morning, and Penny had run into the ship, shouting in excitement. The rest of the family came boiling up from the lower deck via elevator and ladder, blinking in surprise. Sure enough, looking out the main viewport of the Jupiter, the Chariot was parked in front of the campsite, and the two explorers were already disembarking.

Major West and Professor Robinson had only been gone two days. They had checked-in regularly via radio, but transmissions were brief and extremely garbled due to the havoc being wrought in the atmosphere from static discharges caused by volcanic ash. There was never any mention of returning so early; Maureen was happily surprised but concerned at the same time as to what would have brought the men back early from their explorations.

Greetings were quickly exchanged, and Maureen’s doubts were quickly allayed by the sight of the schoolboy grins both John and Don were sporting.

After embracing, Maureen smiled up at her husband. “You look like you won a lottery!”

Professor Robinson’s eyes were twinkling. “Yes, I’ll have to say that, in a way, we did!”

“Oh, John, that’s wonderful!” Maureen gushed. “How much deutronium did you find? Where is it?”

“Well,” he drawled. “That’s a good news, bad news story.”

Doubt crept into Maureen’s voice. “I hate it when you do that.” She stepped away and gave him a steely look. “All right, buster. Spill it. What’s this all about?”

“C’mon, everyone,” John waved towards the table sitting near the viewport. “Let’s sit down and talk. I’m beat. Is that coffee ready?”

Once everyone was comfortably seated around their outdoor dining table with steaming mugs of coffee, John continued. “We did find indications of deutronium. On our first day out, the Robot picked up traces on nearly the very first core sample we took. By taking successive samples, we followed the ore’s signature down to the south, past our last mining operation, into that mostly flat desert that begins about 20 miles from here.”

“It’s out there all right,” Don added, setting his coffee mug back on the table, wrapping his hands gratefully around it. “A large deposit of deutronium, but the indications are that it is at least four to five hundred miles away, somewhere in the desert.”

“How far out did you go?” Judy asked, accepting a mug of tea from her mother.

“The Robot triangulated the readings he was getting, and we pressed ahead until we reached our turn-around point. We were nowhere near the deposit, if it exists. We had to turn around and use what remained in the Chariot’s fuel tanks to get back here.”

“Then,” Maureen concluded, her hopes fading, “it doesn’t do us any good, does it? It’s too far to reach with the Chariot. Even if you could take enough fuel, how would you get the deutronium back here?”

“Absolutely true,” Don agreed cheerily. “There’s no way we can get there and conduct a mining operation, then return.” He leaned forward as if to enhance his next point. “If we have to rely on the Chariot.”

“But,” Judy said, looking at West oddly, “even the jet pack isn’t an option. We don’t have any other way of transportation to get that far, unless…” She stopped abruptly.

“Yes?” Don inquired brightly. “Judy has a suggestion, perhaps?”

She frowned back at him. “Well, the only thing that might reach that distance, I mean, the only thing really, would be…”

“Yes?” Don said again, making a “come hither” motion with his hand. “Keep going…”

Several others in the family, coming to the same conclusion, turned to look behind them at their vessel.

“Yes, the ship,” John nodded decisively, keeping his attention on his family. “We may have enough fuel to launch and fly to wherever the deutronium is. Space flight is out of the question, but Don and I agree that we might be able to do a brief atmospheric flight…about five or six hundred miles.”

“But, what would that do to our fuel supply?” Maureen asked.

“Well,” John mused, cocking his head, “assuming we do have enough fuel, it would be an all or nothing attempt. Either we launch and find the deutronium ore, or we launch and find nothing. In that case, we’re in serious trouble.”

“And use up what little fuel we depend upon for survival?” Dr. Smith, who had been frowning skeptically, looked appalled. “We will do no such thing. Use up all our fuel on a wild goose chase? Rubbish! We should stay right here and prepare ourselves for the coming ice age. We should hoard our food and fuel, and prepare! What you’re proposing is a suicide run!”

“There is something to that line of thought,” John admitted, then hastily added, “I mean, the part about hunkering down and preparing, not the suicide part. The problem is that we may not be able to survive whatever ice age is enfolding this planet. It might go away, or it might not. We could spend years trying to figure it out, and then find out too late that we should have left when we had the chance.”

Don continued the line of thought. “We could also be overcome by the volcanic fumes, which are definitely toxic. The atmosphere could become poisonous to us, in a much shorter period of time.”

“Or, what happens if the planet is actually breaking up?” Will said, warming to the disaster scenarios being discussed and gleefully grabbing his opportunity to augment. “The tectonic activity I’ve been monitoring is really strong and increasing. Could that happen, you think? A planet breakup?”

John raised his hand. “All of these things could happen. But that leaves the question: do we become proactive and chart our own course, or do we continue to react to natural events over which we have no control? In other words, do we stay, or do we take the opportunity now to get off this world and into space again?”

Still outraged, Smith opened his mouth to argue, and then stopped himself with a sudden thought. Drawing back, he narrowed his eyes and scrutinized the Professor intently. “And, if I may be so bold, Professor Robinson,” he paused meaningfully, “where would we go, if, theoretically, we could leave this wretched planet?”

Silence reigned in the group. All eyes were on John Robinson. Everyone knew of his dedication to the mission: reach Alpha Centauri to colonize whatever habitable planet was found there, then send word back to Earth. This was the mission, and John Robinson was the man who had been picked to lead the attempt and carry the hopes and prayers of a dying, overpopulated Earth to the stars. At the same time, everyone knew Dr. Smith’s sole, overriding desire for the past three years was to return to Earth, any way he could. The Professor looked away from the group, unaccountably hesitant to voice what might be an unpopular view. He seemed to gather himself, took a breath, and was about to speak.

Will’s voice interrupted whatever John was about to say. “Dad.”

“Yes, Will?” he answered wearily, turning to his precocious son.

Will uncertainly regarded his father’s face.

“Will?” Maureen asked, seeing the familiar signs in her son that he had something important to say. “You can tell us. What’s on your mind?”

“I know where we are.” His eyes appeared large and getting larger as he looked from one to another.

Will’s seemingly random statement took everyone by surprise, and their blank return stares showed they had no idea what he was talking about.

Finally, Maureen said softly, “What do you mean, you know where we are?”

“I know where we are, too,” Penny said sarcastically. “We’re right here!”

Annoyed, Will glared at Penny. “No, no. I guess what I meant to say is that, well, I know where we are with respect to Earth.” He looked imploringly at his father. “Dad, I know where Earth is. Um, and how to get there.”

No one said anything until John said patiently, “Son, we have been lost in space for nearly four years. The navigational fix on our solar system was lost when we went out of control at launch and encountered the meteor storm. There is no way to find Earth again because we don’t know where we are. We have no frame of reference. You know that.” Yet, he was watching his son carefully.

Will looked uncomfortable, as he always did when disagreeing with his father. “But I kind of know where we are.”

“All right, son,” John said, fully attentive. “Out with it. What are you trying to tell us?”

Will plunged ahead. “When I told Mom I wanted to have a look through the engine performance computer buffers, I just wanted to see if they had any usable memory circuits I could use in my solar experiments. I would have asked before I took them!” he exclaimed in response to the disapproving looks coming from both his father and mother. “Really, I would have! But, when I looked at them, I discovered a lot of the circuits were still good! I mean, they still had uncorrupted data in them stored from our flight. So, I decided not to ask to use them.”

Don shook his head, puzzled. “Will, what do engine control memory circuits have to do with what we’re talking about here?”

Will plunged ahead, talking rapidly. “I decided instead to copy all the data into my computer. I just was curious to see what was in them. I ran a tracking routine and a linear analysis on all of it. By tracking every single engine parameter, I could develop a history of the engine operation. You know, like when the engine surged, when we shut it down, when we started it, when we went to full power, and when we went to idle. Stuff like that.”

“So?” Don prompted with interest.

Will was warming to his subject. “I correlated engine performance with accelerations and decelerations, in all axes. Our navigation computers had flight parameter data, so I downloaded that, too, and cross-referenced it with the engine data. After a while, I saw a pattern developing, like a line of where the ship had to be if a certain kind of acceleration was happening. I tracked it from when we wrecked on this planet, back through atmospheric entry, traveling through space, through the meteor shower, and even back to our launch from Earth!”

“Do you mean you followed the course of the ship from Earth to here based on engine readings? In reverse?” Don asked dubiously. “That doesn’t sound possible…” He trailed off, as if he began to see where Will was going.

“That’s right, Don!” Will said with conviction. “That’s exactly right! I mean, it is possible!”

“And did you tie it in with a navigation solution somehow?” John asked.

“I just commanded the computer to use all that information to calculate an origin point, express it in celestial coordinates, and print out the numbers.”

“And did it?”

“Yes, sir.”

Professor Robinson’s gaze intensified. “And what did you do with these celestial coordinates?”

“Well,” Will slowly pointed at his telescope, unnoticed up until now, that sat nearby on splayed tripod legs, pointing upwards. Wires were running from a computer to the timing mechanism that kept the telescope pointed at one area of the sky despite the rotation of the planet. Everyone looked up; the sky was still completely overcast.

Dr. Smith was staring upwards at the sky. “William, do you mean to say that…?”

“Yes, sir. I plugged the numbers into the telescope’s orientation and timing mechanism. My telescope…well, it’s pointing directly at our sun, and our solar system.”

“It is not,” Penny disagreed, frowning. “You can’t see anything through the clouds.”

Will scoffed dismissively. “Of course not, dummy. But it’s pointing to where the sun would be if there weren’t any clouds! Jeez.”

Professor Robinson was staring intently at him. “And you can feed that fix into the ship’s navigation computer.” It was a statement, rather than a question.

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you sure of this?”

“Yes, sir.”

Dr. Smith’s eyes traced the imaginary line that ran from the lens of the telescope and extended it into the clouds overhead. “Earth…?” He stared up in disbelief.

Penny looked at her mother. “Does that mean we know the way home?”

Maureen said nothing. She looked at her husband, who was watching Will.

“Yes,” John finally said after another pause, nodding slowly and gazing at his family. “If we find fuel,” he stopped and took a deep breath, then spoke very slowly, “and if Will’s theory is correct, I think it might be time…”

No one breathed.

“…to go home.”

The silence lasted three heartbeats. Then, everyone at the table leaped to their feet, cheering.

John smiled.

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