"And this is an anti-grav generator. Do you know what that is, Harry?"
Did Harry know? Sometimes his father was such a nit. "Sure, Dad," he said.
"We have one at school."
"Do you want to try it?"
A bot was standing by, waiting for him to answer, or to get out of the way for the next kid who, Harry thought, also knew what an anti-gravity generator was. Was there anybody on the planet who didn't know?
Behind the next kid was a little girl, maybe six or seven, watching with her eyes wide while she waited for a chance to levitate her hat.
They moved on to the bridge mockup. Displays indicated it was an exact replica from the XAA-466, the Tokyo, which had visited the black hole at Momsen. (Visuals of the black hole were available in the gift shop.)
There was a model of the Lexa Habitat from CX26, which had done interdimensional research near Antares a long time ago. Harry had read about it in the fifth grade, and it had ignited his interest in the interstellars. It was where Adcock had died and Parrish had vanished out of a sealed chamber. Where Corelle had done the research that had led eventually to the star drive that now carried his name. "Dad," he said, "do you know how long we were there?"
His father studied the interlocking tubes and spheres as if the answer lay within the geometry. "Not sure," he said. "It was before I was born."
By about two centuries. "Sixty-six years," Harry said.
His father nodded. Okay. Sometimes Harry got into his know-it-all mode and Dad got irritated.
And over there, nestled in a cradle, was Captain Songmeister's lander. It had lost power entering the atmosphere of Antares III when Songmeister and his team thought they'd seen a city. Songmeister had used a sputtering auxiliary unit to guide the vessel to a safe landing in mountainous terrain. That had been the good news. The city had turned out to be nothing more than a reflection on an odd rock formation.
"They never found anybody," said Harry. "Not there. And not anywhere else."
His father was already moving on to the next exhibit. "Nobody to find, Son. There's nobody out there."
They were looking at a space shuttle. The Rosie McGreer. It had run between the Overby station and the spaceports at Rome and Barcelona.
"Here's something you'll like." They slipped into the Cosmicon, which lit up with images from the colonies, gleaming cities and soaring towers and vast parklands. Here was Mirax on Deneb II, serene and cloud-wrapped on a mountaintop; and New Paris on Altair III, awash in music and soft light; and Shay Pong, straddling the mouth of the Karraso, the longest river on any known world. But of course it wasn't the length of the Karraso that made Harry's heart pump. It was the magnificent lighthouse.
"I'd like to go there someday," Harry said.
His father nodded. "It is nice. Your mother and I went there on our honeymoon. We had a nice hotel. And the beach was outstanding. There's something about the sun. You can stay out in it a long time and you don't have to worry about getting burned."
One area was designated as the memorial room. Virtual ships floated along the walls and guarded a long table. Harry knew them. The Wallsley, which had made the first flight to Alpha Centauri. And the London, which had carried the first colonists offworld. And the McCondrey, lost while testing the ill-fated Qubic Drive. The Dallas had visited Polaris, setting what, at the time, was a new distance record. And the Exeter, a few months later, had almost doubled that, going all the way out to Zeta Aurigae.
Harry knew them all. The Sabre, the Valiant, the Reliable. He'd had a picture of the Reliable on his bedroom wall. They were magic names. Harry knew who their captains had been, knew their stories. They were from the era when the survey ships were still going out, still looking.
It had been a long time ago.
"Dad," he said, "let's go look at the Indomitable."
The Indomitable was the reason Harry had wanted to come. Everything else here in the Calgary Museum was more or less duplicated in Toronto. But not the Indomitable.
They picked up an escort bot. He was designed to look like Captain Parmentier, who was the hero of the HV Interstellar series. All pure fiction, of course.
"We're still working on the Indomitable," Captain Parmentier said. "It's in a temporary shelter next door. You'll have to walk through clay to get to it. And the ground is still a little wet from the rain last night. Inside the shelter, parts are scattered everywhere. You'll have to be careful where you walk." He smiled. It was the familiar everything's-fine smile from the series. "Before we proceed, you'll have to stipulate that you understand the risks, and you agree to relinquish your right to sue. If you agree to the conditions, please move a little closer to the imager and hold up your hand."
They complied. "Very good," said the captain. "This way, please."
The Indomitable did not look as big as some of the other ships he'd seen. In fact, it looked about half the size of the Seattle, which was based in that city. But it had pursued a different mission from the cargo ship. And it possessed an aura none of the others had. Not even the Valiant.
Working lights illuminated the area. The Captain stood in the ship's shadow. "It was a survey vessel." He looked up at it, and for a moment Harry thought he sensed sadness. "It's a Pyrrus model. The only one left." Harry heard a door close somewhere. "We were very proud to be able to bring it here."
Its insides lay in piles on the bare ground. Engines here, fuel tanks there. Corelle unit in the corner. Instruments, ducts, stabilizers, black boxes. A chair from the bridge. One of the hatches leaned against a bulkhead.
"Eventually," the captain said, "we'll put it back together."
"How long will it take?" asked Harry.
Parmentier smiled. Made a face. "Unfortunately, a while. Most of our workers are volunteers. They know about this ship, and they know how to take care of it. But they aren't young."
"It's beautiful," said Harry.
The captain agreed. "It's been as far as 15,000 light-years out. Halfway to the core."
Harry's dad shook his head. "You say it's the only one left? What happened to the others?"
Parmentier stared at the hull. He seemed to be looking at the inscription beside the airlock. Deep Space Survey. "They were broken up and used for scrap."
Harry's dad nodded. Of course. What else would you do with old ships?
"When you're finished working on it," said Harry, "would you be able to use it again? To go out in it?"
"We hope so. It depends on what we find. We don't have a lot of money, so if there's substantial damage--." His voice trailed off before he switched subjects. "It wasn't the last of the operational survey ships. The Ranger was the last one taken out of service. A lot of the Ranger was used to provide the framework for the Benson Building in Tucson."
Harry placed his fingertips against the hull. The metal was cold and unyielding. "Why?" he asked.
"Why what, son?" asked his father.
"Why did they stop the missions?"
"You know why, Harry."
"No. I don't. Tell me."
He sighed. "Because we'd found enough worlds to last us a long time. Plenty of room for us to spread out. Enough for thousands of years."
Harry's hand was still pressed against the hull. Holding onto it. "But is that really the reason we went out there? To get more places to live?"
"Sure it is."
"I thought we were looking for somebody to talk to. I thought we wanted to find out whether we were alone."
"Harry, we found out. We are alone. There isn't anybody else."
"How do we know?"
"Because we've looked at thousands of worlds and there's nothing. We've been listening to radio waves around the galaxy for centuries and there's nothing. Not a peep anywhere. No life, except for a few cells here and there. Otherwise, zip."
"Dad, maybe we gave up too easily."
His father smiled. Benign. Proud, even. "It's over, kid. Maybe you're right. Maybe we could have gone farther. Maybe there's something in another galaxy somewhere. But it costs money. And nobody really cares anymore." He waited for Harry to say something. When the boy remained silent, he gently put his hand on his shoulder and pulled him away from the Indomitable. "Let's go, champ," he said. "It's getting up to dinner time."
Parmentier led the way past the ship's prow. He opened the door for them and sunlight spilled in. Harry looked back as the work lights went out. "Beautiful day," the captain said.
They went out into the bright afternoon. The ground was rough and full of holes.
"Careful where you walk."
Harry wasn't sure who made the comment. "It's not over," he said.
His father smiled. "Your mother said she'd have spaghetti and meatballs for us tonight."
Copyright Cryptic, Inc., 2008. Originally published in Baen's Universe, April, 2008.