By David L. Nye
Journalists in cheap suits packed the room and tried to yell over each other. At the front of the aisles, large cameras glared from tripods. Flashes burst from around the room. They blinded Thompson, a Navy captain sitting at the thin table under the bright lights.
Thompson had been under these lights before, at this table. He first sat here after entering the astronaut program. Seven years later, he returned to explain the colony NASA planned to build on Mars. There were fewer reporters then.
“Dr. Tivoli,” a reporter said, “Given the track record of Capt. Jerry Thompson, why replace him so late in the game?”
The man at the podium, Dr. Tivoli, grinned. Thompson wondered if Tivoli planted the reporter. Probably not, he decided.
“That is the brilliance of the Avatar Program. Adam-1 is Capt. Thompson.”
Thompson leaned forward a little and looked to the opposite side of the stage. The six-foot-seven behemoth knelt at the table. If human, he would have been too tall and heavy to be an astronaut. But, as an android, he was considered perfect.
“Capt. Thompson and key members of his team have had their minds cloned for this project,” Dr. Tivoli said. “Adam-1, like Capt. Thompson, remembers training on the moon. He has twenty-six years of military experience, and he has been an astronaut for the last seventeen.”
The same reporter shouted over his brethren, “But why spend the money on a robot when we already have a human ready to do the mission? This change of direction has not come cheap for the Pathfinder Program.”
“The fact is, medical intervention can only carry humans so far,” Tivoli turned and gave Thompson a tight smile. “Capt. Thompson bravely volunteered to lead humans to Mars for initial colonization, but he would certainly have died on the planet within ten years. With the robotic revolution advancing and the avatar program proven, we have found a way to establish the colony without risking human lives. The avatars will require much less support on the planet’s surface but will still be able to test the systems before the arrival of humans in fifteen years. They retain all the strengths of their human counterparts without the frailties of the flesh.”
The reporters turned to look at Adam-1. Kneeling behind the table, he appeared smaller, closer to Thompson’s own height. He wore a copy of Thompson’s face over the blue polymers comprising his frame. The flesh covering the head stretched under the torso plating so it looked like a human in a suit rather than a robot with a mask. The appearance put the press, to a degree, at ease.
A brave reporter directed the next question to the android.
“What do you think of the mission?”
“I think the same about the mission today as I did a year ago,” Adam said. “Our job is to establish humanity’s foothold in the stars. I am honored to be given another chance to serve, and I look forward to what my team can achieve.”
Then, he smiled a disarming smile, a charming smile. It belonged to a young man, something Thompson hadn’t been for decades but Adam would be forever.
The crowd swooned. For the rest of the press conference, reporters clamored for Adam as Thompson sipped water. The session went long, and reporters were already leaving the room when Tivoli made his announcement.
“We’re also proud to announce that, after seventeen years as an astronaut, Capt. Jerry Thompson will be retiring. A ceremony will be held in the Glen Auditorium in fifteen minutes.”
None of the reporters turned around.
Thompson accepted his final awards with little fanfare as Adam watched from the back. Thompson did not hear the speeches in his honor. Instead, he remembered the longing as he went to sleep in the brain scanner. He knew two of him would awaken. In the humming tube, he had prayed to wake up as the robot. The robot who would fly to Mars.
Instead, he retired. He ceased to be Capt. Thompson and became Jerry.
Two years after the ceremony, Jerry sat on his front porch. He owned a small house near Reno, in the desert. He shut himself in for the first few months after the shuttle launch. Calls came regularly from news shows that wanted to know what decisions Adam would likely to make during the flight and on the planet. He didn’t answer the calls. It pained Jerry to know the mission continued without him, with the other him.
Jerry had, under the advice of his publisher, gotten his memoirs out in time for the Mars landing by Adam and the Pathfinder team. The book sold well.
In the years since retiring, Jerry read. He swam. Occasionally, he went to town. He had a garden that he loved.
Then, the androids landed on Mars.
The morning of the landing, sunlight broke through the closed curtains of Jerry’s house and burned his eyes. He groggily reached for his glasses, put them on, and swung his legs off the bed. Jack, a terrier, crawled from under the bed and ran immediately underfoot.
Jerry got up and brushed his teeth.
He made breakfast but only ate half. Then, gloves in hand, he went outside.
He watered the garden and looked for a task for the morning. The bean plants were poking through the soil and needed stakes to climb. Jerry walked to the shed with Jack running at his heels. He pulled open the double doors and looked through the cluttered space for the stakes.
They were in the back, neatly bound in groups of five. He carried eight bundles to the garden over two trips. He also brought a coil of wire.
Jerry first drove a stake at each end of each row. Then, he ran a length of wire between each pair of stakes. The rest of the stakes he drove down next to the emerging beans so the plants could crawl up the wood. The wire across the rows acted as a guideline, ensuring the stakes were straight.
Jerry made a sandwich for lunch.
Through the hot afternoon, he answered emails from the people who still wrote him and read a story from Jule’s Verne’s Voyage’s Extraordinaires.
He went to bed after a small dinner of leftover chicken.
He lay in bed and thought of mushrooms growing in the center of the earth, of giant squids squirming in the ocean, of red dust settling on alien steel. He considered intrepid spelunkers moving through caverns and brave mariners struggling in the depths. He dreamed about robots plodding across scarlet sands.
There were five of them glinting under the sun of a foreign sky. Blue skin covered and protected their moving parts. Blue legs carried the large beings as unshod feet kicked up eddies of dust. Blue shoulders bore heavy loads as they emptied the lander. Featureless blue faces looked across a bare landscape.
A sixth robot appeared, a different robot. He had the same build, but he had a human face. The masculine features were youthful and his face showed emotion. He smiled a charming, disarming, young man’s smile. The smile of a young Jerry Thompson.
Jerry watched as the male surveyed the five workers. The robot’s face became pensive. He glanced around the small valley the team labored in and frowned. A second later his face relaxed like he had solved a pesky problem. Three of the other robots paused. Then, in sync, they walked to a large beam going through the center of the space and picked it up. They shifted it three inches and set it back down. Rising, they returned to their previous tasks. The man-faced robot surveyed the work and saw that it was good. He grinned.
And Jerry woke up.
He swung his arthritic legs over the side of the bed. Before his feet touched the ground, the dream sifted out of his mind. Only a sensation of red, and maybe blue, remained.
He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast, and he went to the garden.
He again spent the morning in the dirt. The rich brown earth crumbled under his fingers as he pulled weeds from among the plant rows. The tomatoes required pruning. He spent thirty minutes going from plant to plant pulling tiny offshoots that, if left, would kill branches. Jack ran around the garden, his tiny white body darting through openings in the green stalks as Jerry worked.
Jerry ate lunch over the sink, staring at the garden through the window.
The thermometer said one hundred and two degrees as Jerry passed back outside.
He stared at the garden, troubled. The stakes sat perfectly over the beans in the weed free garden. There were no signs of pests. The soil held moisture only an inch down.
But Jerry knew something was wrong. He thought of blue.
Jerry walked back inside and went to his closet. He pulled jeans from hangers. There were only four pairs in the closet so he changed into shorts and added the pair he had worn to the stack. He pulled winter shirts from a box in the shed. There were no blue ones so he drove to the store with Jack.
Jerry returned with a can of spray paint and five old paint buckets. He painted five shirts and the buckets blue. He stuffed the clothes with straw and gave the resulting creations heads by tying the buckets to them with the wire. The five scarecrows were too lumpy to stand on their own, so Jerry drove five stakes in the ground and leaned the blue guardians against them.
He ate dinner and went to bed.
That night, he tossed and turned, barely able to grab snatches of dream-wracked sleep. Every time he made it back under, he’d see the red sands again. He watched the robots in the swirling crimson winds of a dust storm.
That morning he stumbled out of his bedroom. He fell in his truck before he realized he had not dressed. The truck had an emergency kit in the toolbox and Jerry pulled a poncho and a pair of snow boots from it as he drove to town.
He walked to the back of the hardware store. They sold fill dirt here and he picked out the reddest he could find. His hands shook as he carefully stacked the bags in his truck bed, building the layers like a mason constructing a brick wall. He muttered to himself as he worked and wished the blue men were there to help him.
The blue men, the blue man. A young man’s smile.
As Jerry drove away, another regular customer spoke to the owner.
“Was that Jerry?”
“Yeah,” said the manager.
The customer looked into the cloudless sky.
“Why’s he wearing a poncho?”
Back at the house, Jerry slipped off his poncho and left the snow boots by the open door of the running truck. He pulled away one of the railroad ties holding the rich soil of the garden in place. With a snow shovel, he removed all the fertilizer, plants, and mulch that were in his way. The scarecrows were moved to the side lest they be harmed in the process.
After he emptied the bed, Jerry replaced the railroad ties. He began emptying bags of red sand into the open space the garden used to occupy
Bag after bag went onto the ground. Jerry’s tired muscles protested, but he didn’t relent. He poured sand until it filled the ties and then he kept pouring. When the sand ran out and Jerry smoothed the top, it poured over the borders of the former garden and spilled onto the surrounding ground.
He placed the scarecrows back into their places before lying down in the middle of them. His tired, wracked body slipped towards sleep.
Again, he tossed restlessly throughout the night. In the morning, he awoke to Jack crying at his side.
Jerry stood but his aching back stopped him short of his full height.
With shaking fingers and shuffling steps, he went to the shed. In the back, he grabbed a bundle of stakes. One bundle at a time, he moved them to the sand bed. He returned with the wire coil and tied the bundles together so they resembled one long beam.
Around noon, he finished. The sun beat relentlessly again as the temperature climbed. Birds circled as Jack cried from the shadow of the truck.
Jerry took the wire that remained and began shaping it. He built five skeletons, all five feet tall. On these frames he slipped the clothes from the scarecrows before stuffing them again with the straw from the ground. With the wire frames in place, Jerry positioned each doll just so over the beam. Two of them he put at the ends, backs locked with arms stretched down to the bundles of stakes. The other three he placed a few feet away, two on the north side, one on the south. All three were leaning forward as if to grab a hold of the beam.
Jerry replaced all their paint bucket heads.
The sun was almost out when he sat in the red sand and surveyed the scene. He saw that it was good.
The birds began pecking at him before his breath ran out. Under the rising moon, they tore scraps of flesh from his burnt face and arms. Jack ran from the truck to protect his master, but the birds ignored the small dog.
Hungry himself, Jack stopped protesting after smelling the blood. He took a place at Jerry’s stomach when the torso fell to the ground.
Jerry’s face twisted to the sky. His lips twitched as he searched out the glimmer of Mars. He smiled a young man’s smile.
David L. Nye (@justdavidnye) is a student of creative writing at Full Sail University in Orlando, FL. His fiction work has appeared in publications including Epiphany Magazine and The Story Shack, and he has an upcoming publication in Pure Fantasy and Sci-Fi. He is a former Army airborne journalist decorated for operations in the U.S., Bahrain, and Afghanistan. More of his work can be found at unsupervisedtyping.com.
Image Credit: Robonaut and astronaut hand shake, NASA