"It's not 'We just got another one up' any more, it's 'We just got another one BACK', the NASA chief scientist told the military leader. They were conversing in an atmosphere of high excitement. NASA spotters had picked up the remains of a long-forgotten spaceship falling into a stable orbit around the Earth, and there was no answer to the questions it posed but scientific frenzy.
"Was it manned?" the general asked. "If so, I think you've got a ghost ship to contend with."
"A robot ship, actually," the scientist said. "The only intelligence aboard that one was artificial. It was sent to orbit the sun, forever picking up data and transmitting it back to us. After two and a half years, it ceased transmitting, and we figured it for lost. Actually its transmissions were a constant, and what had happened is it had gotten out of that sustaining orbit. How, we don't know." Been on the job too long. "It was powered by solar energy and should have lasted as long as its matter. The fact that the sun's energy did not deteriorate that matter is proven by the positive identification of the mass of junk that now fulfils its robotic orbiting function by doing so around our planet. Our speculation is that certain Earth-conditions were built into its orbiting function and this is what has brought it back."
The general, rightly or wrongly, saw an implication in that. "I wasn't seeing it as duty to its people," he said.
"Well, there aren't spooks on it," another scientist told him.
Actually, its program had deteriorated. Having started out in an experimental Earth orbit, it had now, in a general deterioration, reverted to an earlier program, following a regression plotted into it by one of the original programmers, and all of them were at this moment no more available than the spooks with which the general had populated the ship.
In this sense, the programmers were the crew, and had provided a homing instinct which, if certain things were ignored, had given the ship its human qualities and speculative crew. The ship had keeled off its solar orbit in response to things which could not be omitted even by pure science, and now was haunting Earth with a past it had virtually forgotten. The general expressed this new mood.
"What about the Sputnik?" he asked. "It's suffering from neglect too. Could be it's getting kind of lonely."
Copyright © 2002 by John Thiel and Bewildering Stories.