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GRADUATE (honors) Cadet Dixon stood at attention in front of the Academy Commandant's desk. "Stand at ease, my boy and take a seat," said the Commandant, "and pay attention because this is important.

"I have a task for you. I know that you're due in the Pentagon in several weeks and, Lord knows, they're demanding your presence hard enough but I need you for a special assignment that only you can do: I need you to command the Venus Space Probe."

"Yes, sir," said Cadet Dixon.

"As you know, lad," said the Commandant, "this is the second probe. The first crashed into the planet and only recently have the technicians found out why. The sentient computers became totally unhinged. They went mad, Cadet Dixon. Totally mad. The technicians believe this was because they lacked companionship. They had no one to talk to but themselves and this wasn't enough. So I put your name forward to be their companion. You were my first and only choice because your memories are so full of your time here. Your memories will keep the sentient computers sane.

"Look at your record here at the Academe. You scored 100 percent on every examination since you got here and have won the Sword of Honor each year. You're the leader in the debating club, the chess club, the public speaking club, the bridge club, the multicultural club, the environmental club, global issues club, the graduation council, and the drama club; you've played brilliantly as quarterback for the football team and, because of you, we have won the State Finals for four years in a row; your financial plans for the Academe increased our profits by 2,000 percent; and, in your spare time, romanced and won the State's contestant for the Miss World Pageant while also running a very successful four-star restaurant. My, boy, who else could I recommend?"

"Yes, sir," said Graduate (honors) Cadet Dixon.

In a parking orbit high above the Earth the Venus Space Probe began its final preparations for the long journey. Inside, Cadet Dixon unclipped his faceplate and looked about his quarters. Dominant in the room was a communication console linking him with the three main sentient computers who would guide the ship into the atmosphere of Venus: Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Through this he was to make sure the computers remained sane so they could complete their task. And so it began.

For the journey Cadet Dixon ate, slept, and talked to the computers.

Mostly it was talking. Dixon talked about his childhood in Puget Sound. He talked about fishing, in the Sound, who he went with and their lives; he talked about his school days and how he excelled in everything he had attempted; he talked about his teenage loves, how they looked, the conversations held; he talked about his cadet years and the drinking parties and the camaraderie; he talked about his plans for the Pentagon and how he was going to eliminate war for all time; and he talked and he talked and he talked.

The sentient computers learned from Cadet Dixon and asked questions about every phase of his life. They talked and talked and talked and Dixon listened and listened and listened. All were surprised when the astrophysical computer, not sentient, reported they were in orbit about Venus.

"Well," said Cadet Dixon. "Now to work. We can talk more on the way home. You okay Alpha?"

"Yes, sir," said Alpha

Dixon: "You okay, Bravo?
Bravo: "Yes, sir."

Dixon: "You okay, Charlie?"

Charlie: "Yes, sir."

Dixon: "Well then, since I'm okay also, let's get to work."

The space ship reversed thrust and began its descent into the thick atmosphere of Venus. Magnetically controlled bottles scooped up a ball of gas two kilometers across and the ship rose away from the planet to begin the ride home. The mission to retrieve gas for research was almost complete.

Cadet Dixon had smuggled a bottle of champagne on the Space Probe and opened it in celebration. He drank to the computers and said happily, "Now we can talk. I know you can't taste champagne yet if you were programmed to believe you had taste then you'd know how this tastes. In fact, if you were programmed to taste then there'd be no difference in your sentience as to if it were real or not. Same with memories: if they were programmed in you wouldn't know if they're real or not." So Dixon with his rich memories of taste talked to the sentient computers that had not been programmed to taste.

He talked about wine and meals he had enjoyed; he talked about dinner companions and the jokes he had been told and the jokes he told; he talked about his collection of restaurant menus and, because he had a photographic memory, talked of each item on every menu; he talked and he talked and he talked. Again it was a surprise to all four when the astrophysical computer told them they were in orbit about Earth and that the technical teams were on their way.

Pressure inside the hull of the space probe was earth normal but, because it was nitrogen filled to prevent corrosion, the technicians kept their space suits on as they moved to the computers.

"They made it back so we have to assume they're sane," said one technician.

"Yeah," said the other, "but only sane enough to return. Are they still sane now? If they are then it means that we can have deeper space probes. If not, then it's been an expensive experiment the psych boys concocted. You heard the transmissions. Have you ever heard such boring, talk? Yammer, yammer, yammer. I hope the psych boys were right about conversation filling the gaps so these didn't go nuts. I just hope that Dixon did his job."

The technicians strung connecting cables to each of the sentient computers and one technician tapped in the coded phrase 'are you okay' that would cause each computer to check itself and, if sane, reply with 'yes, sir' confirming sanity. If proven sane, the computers' sentience would be downloaded to their respective owners at NASA and the military.

The technician tapped in: 'Are you okay, Alpha?'

Sentient Computer Alpha: 'Yes, sir.'

'Are you okay, Bravo?'

Sentient Computer Bravo: 'Yes, sir."

'Are you okay, Charlie?'

Sentient Computer Charlie: 'Yes, sir.'

'Are you okay, Dixon?'

Sentient Computer Dixon: 'Yes, sir.'

"Okay," said the chief technician, "They're sane. Download 'em. We can use them again."

Several months later the youngest Major General in the history of the country, Dixon, stood at attention in front of the President's desk in The Oval Office. "Stand at ease and take a seat, my boy," said the President, "and pay attention because this is important. The fate of the world rests in your hands. I have a task for you. I want you to be my man on the Pluto Probe."

"Yes, sir," said Dixon.

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