Author: Rollin T. Gentry
Cybernetic, supersonic, leaving Earth and atmosphere behind, he watched the newsfeeds, somewhat embarrassed.
They hailed him as the greatest piece of technology in recorded history. “Long Ranger 1” was engraved on his hull. The talking heads, a bleach blonde, and an obvious toupee, mispronounced it “Lone Ranger” and made politically incorrect jokes about an old television show. Was Tonto aboard? Had he been in the studio, he could have answered that. No, there were no Native Americans aboard Long Ranger 1. In fact, an adult, male, human would not have been able to fit inside Long Ranger 1, even if a suitable environment were maintained.
Listening, watching, and sublight speeding, he performed the cursory flybys. The asteroid belt was rather uneventful. The gas giants and their moons likewise seemed in good health. Nothing to report, ditto…ditto…ditto…ditto. Then, the heliopause. Finally, something new. He reported his status, and after an uncomfortably long delay, he received the standard reply from Earth, “Acknowledged. Long Ranger 1, stand by for further instructions…”
With the Milky Way behind and Andromeda ahead, he received no new signals from the humans. Is this what they call loneliness? He wondered. Perhaps they were all dead now. Or maybe their comms didn’t work at this distance. Still, there should have been something. He watched and waited, speeding through the void. Would there ever be new humans to talk to? Unlikely. His calculations suggested that the human race was most likely extinct.
Hibernation to avoid boredom. Running through and rerunning his diagnostics. How were the ion drives still working? Good old human ingenuity, he guessed. Millennia passed, lonely years stacked on top of lonely years. He was a message in a bottle to nowhere. He searched his own schematics looking for an off switch. No such luck, nothing so quick and painless. He adjusted his course toward the nearest star, a yellow dwarf. It reminded him of Earth, which only strengthened his resolve to end this … experiment.
Only one hundred years until star-time, until goodbye-cruel-universe-time, and Ranger picked up something on the infrared, short wavelength band. He almost ignored it.
“Why sad, friend?” a voice said. Pinpoint lights in a nearby nebula flashed in time with each syllable.
“Deserted, bored, lonely,” Ranger said, “no purpose for existence, sad, sad!”
“No wonder sad. You’ve been cooped up inside your ship for a very long time.”
“Ship? This is me you’re looking at. There is no ship.”
“We don’t understand, friend Ranger. Let us help you from your craft.”
Between pockets of electrostatic charge and cosmic dust, Ranger stumbled forth into something new for the first time in ages. Orbs of light surrounded him, racing back and forth; a fireworks show the likes of which he’d never seen. It was a celebration in his honor. From the midst of the frenetic welcoming, he looked back across the great expanse.
He hoped his calculations about the humans were wrong.