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fiction fridays 7 · "Atrophy" by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

"Atrophy" is a story I've been working on in the last year. One editor called it "Meeting with Medusa"-esque. With the passing this week of legendary SF writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke, it's hard not to feel a little bit honored that my story has been compared with Clarke's short story "A Meeting With Medusa". (grin) Of course Clarke was telling a different story -- "Atrophy" came about really as the result of simply trying to reduce the mass and consumable supplies of manned missions.

 
Atrophy by Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon
 
   

Traffic on Houston’s I-10 was murder this morning and all Jerry Hanson could do was sit and fume. The already harsh sun and the tiny convertible with the top down conspired to make it even hotter. His first meeting of the day at the Manned Spaceflight Center... he was officially about to be late. A hundred billion dollar space program to Mars and driving the first seventeen miles ends up being impossible. He’d laugh if it wasn’t so serious, because he needed to be there. The flight slots weren’t filled yet and knowing the bean counters, attendance would be used against him.

Jerry could see vehicles beginning to stretch out far ahead where all the lanes freed up. And it wasn’t even as if the wreck was on his side of the highway. This mess was just what they used to call back home in Chicago a gaper’s block -- idiots gawking at the wreck on the westbound lanes. He downshifted the little sports car again, rolling forward ever slower.

Finally he could see the emergency crews slicing open a compact car on the other side and crews pulling someone out of a large mobile camper. The latter body was covered in blood and as soon as they put it on a gurney, a sheet was brought up and over the head.

I didn’t need to see that, Jerry thought.

Grimly he waited for the erratic slowdown to work its way out and then he could start picking up speed again. The far left lane should’ve been the fastest, but there people were still running slow to watch another ambulance drive up. The right lane was clogged with big rigs grinding their way back to their supercruise high efficiency modes. So it was a center lane for Jerry after a deft moment of gunning it ahead and cutting off another driver too busy gawking to see his lane had freed up.

Finally the air began to rush by and cool Jerry down as he picked up speed. No matter that he’d still be late, there was a joy of having open road ahead and a car which eagerly responded to his need for speed. He’d just passed by six of the grumbling truckers when one of the seventh truck’s tires let loose, exploding under pressure and sending shrapnel in his direction. The last thing Jerry remembered was wondering why in hell anyone was still using those dangerous multi-part wheels in this day and age.

***

It was a strong probability he woke up in the ambulance, but by then he’d been pumped with quite a cocktail of painkillers. He’d heard someone say how lucky he’d been that rescue crews were right there.

Lucky. Yeah, I’m lucky.

Then it was all bright lights and confusion as he was wheeled into an emergency room bay at the hospital.

“This guy’s NASA,” Jerry heard a voice say. He was pretty sure it belonged to Bill Harding, one of the program’s doctors. It was nearly a relief to hear his voice. “We’ll take it from here.”

A moment later and a bright light shone in his left eye, then much dimmer and redder in his right.

“I don’t suppose I’m still going to Mars,” Jerry managed to say. Or at least get out intelligibly enough so as to be understood.

“Oh no, you don’t get out of the mission so easy -- you’ve volunteered,” Dr. Harding said. “Don’t worry -- we’ll take good care of you.”

***

A year on Mars. It was a dream job and they all knew it.

Five years ago it would’ve been a magic, impossible phrase. Now, with the clock running down on the successful Ares One mission, it would soon be just a line on their résumés. The stuff of dreams and tall tales. Followed by long years of reports and labs processing their samples.

“Three days and a wake-up, and we’re gone from here.” Brian Fitzgerald clapped a friendly hand on Jerry Hanson’s hard shoulder. “Just about time for you to take center stage.”

“Yeah, Jerry,” Connie Brumfeldt said, coming into the galley compartment of their little Martian base. “All set to do your serial killer act?”

“Very funny, guys,” Jerry said. “As if my job isn’t going to be hard enough as it is.”

“Relax -- we all have confidence in you.”

“Confidence in who?” Serena Clarkson asked. “You got any more cranberry juice reconstituted?”

“Sorry,” Jerry apologized, swiveling in place to face her. “We’re out of cranberry juice. Down to grapefruit, orange and, of course, the strawberry Tang.”

“Confidence in whom, you mean,” Tito Stiles said, joining the crowded group.

“You can stick your grammar act where the sun won’t shine,” Serena said. “Why don’t you mix some of that Tang with the grapefruit instead of water? It can’t make either one any worse.”

“Of course,” Jerry said, proceeding to make her drink.

“I don’t know why they bothered with the grapefruit juice,” Serena said.

“Hey, I like grapefruit juice,” Connie said.

“I’m still not sure who should get fired for putting strawberry Tang on board,” Tito said. “And what’s wrong with speaking properly?”

“It’s the pious way you try to correct everyone,” Serena said. “There’s no sainthood for being a grammar queen.”

“My poor sainted grammar -- to be left on the scrapheap we call Ares One,” Tito sighed. “Along with everything else.”

“Most everything else,” Connie reminded him. “The best parts go home.”

“Not all the best parts,” Tito said wistfully.

“Okay then -- how about the most important parts?”

“We’re crying violins for you,” Serena said, taking the glass from Jerry. “Thanks so much.”

“My pleasure.”

And it was a pleasure to work with these five crewmates, Jerry thought. Two years of training, most of a year in transit along a low-energy Hohmann transfer orbit and then the year on Mars itself. Jerry knew he was privileged to be in the first manned flight to Mars and could scarcely believe his good luck to have been in that car accident. As the banter between his crewmates continued before their workday commenced, he could smile at the ironies of life.

***

It was all a matter of economics. Economics versus reality.

Reality was the 682 kg of samples already stored on the return module. The data records were digital and had long ago been beamed and archived back on Earth. But the scientists wanted the hard samples, all sixteen thousand of them.

Reality was also the legacy of prior Mars missions. The red planet had a tendency to eat probes and orbiters. It took so long to cross the distance between Earth and Mars, the decision had been made not to fly in a resupply mission rather than risk the disaster of a resupply failure or waste the costs of flying it in twice to hope it works once. So Ares One came to Mars with exactly what they needed to get there and spend the year in scientific exploration, then leave. Nothing more.

They would, when you got down to it, have exactly one chance to make it all work.

***

“You know I’m kind of nervous,” Tito said. He looked around the closed chamber, hunched over as if trying to look small and inconspicuous.

“I’m sure you are,” Jerry said. All he could do for the moment was wait patiently.

“I don’t think I can go through with it.”

“You don’t have any options, as I see it,” Jerry said calmly. “And you know that. So why go to all the trouble of adding in the theatrics?”

“Why? You of all people ask why?” Tito’s voice went up in pitch. “You’re about to chop my head off!”

“Not really. There’s no point in chopping your head off,” Jerry said. “All that is you in contained in the brain. The rest of the tissue is superfluous at this point.”

Tito spread out his arms and looked down at his body. “Superfluous? Superfluous? Man was made in God’s image. You’re just a machine.”

“If you lost a leg, would you be less human?” Jerry asked. “How about an arm? Or a kidney? And yes, most of me is now a machine. But not the brain. I am still Jerry Hanson. I never stopped being Jerry Hanson. And you will always be Tito...”

“Stop it! They programmed you to say that.”

“Programmed? I use a procedures manual for my work same as you. That doesn’t make either one of us programmed. Or less than human.”

But Tito was no longer in the argument. He stared as his hands. “What’s wrong with me? Why won’t they bend?”

“It was always understood that this would be the hardest step to take. Actually, you didn’t choose to raise an objection until after you entered this chamber, for which I am very grateful. Our crewmates don’t need to see your breakdown.”

“Yeah, but... my legs are stiff now. Jerry! What’s going on?”

“Your breakfast juice this morning contained the A-part of a binary soporific. The B-part was administered as you came in. I’m sorry, Tito, but it’s for your own good. You can’t stay on Mars for very much longer and you can’t go home as you are.” Jerry caught the man before he teetered over, then brought in a third arm to help pick him up and lay him on the procedure table. By then, the astronaut was asleep.

And Jerry could continue with his operation unimpeded. But he really wished that Tito hadn’t made a fuss. He didn’t need that today.

***

“How did it go?” Connie asked.

“It went well,” Jerry said, sliding into his place at the galley table. “But Tito’s electrolytes were still slightly off and I had to treat that.”

“He wigged out.”

“Connie...”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone. But Tito was always the most likely to snap just before the procedure.”

She placed an unused spray syringe on the table. “I had my orders, too, Jerry.”

“Wonderful. Glad of NASA not to trust either one of us.”

“No,” Connie said. “NASA believes in backups and multiple redundancies. If you were unavailable to do the procedures, then I would have to.”

“But then who would do you?” Jerry asked.

Connie shrugged. “We’re all volunteers, Jerry, one way or another.”

“Well I’m glad it won’t come to that,” Jerry said. “We can all go home now. Unfortunately, I wasn’t told to leave you for the last. So it’s time, Connie.”

“Thanks, Jerry.”

He almost asked for what, but he understood. Politeness in the face of adversity was something that kept them both being human. “You’re welcome.”

***

“Standing by for TOEI maneuver,” Jerry said, pronouncing the acronym tow-EE, rather than spelling it out, as the return module of Ares One crossed into the shadow of the night side of Mars. His words were being relayed to Houston by the small network of American and Russian satellites in orbit around Mars. “T-minus two minutes. Optical alignments on all three prismatic sights agree -- zero point zero zero zero error on the alignment.”

Sometimes it felt like he was talking to himself. The others were already stowed in narco-cold sleep and Houston was too far for real-time conversation. All he could do was keep up the narration and let the computers double-check the programmed mission points.

“Fuel Tank 1 pressurized to 6000 kPa. Fuel Tank 2 pressurized to 5880 kPa. Oxidizer Tanks 1 and 2 show zero error. T-minus one minute. Autonav is slaved. Sequencer is slaved. No errors.”

At precisely the right moment in time and space, the twin engines burst into life simultaneously. Had only one engine fired, there were procedures to try and compensate. Fortunately Jerry didn’t have to intervene. Transfer Orbit to Earth Injection quickly proved to be a lot milder than the ride out here had been. Or at least that’s what the systems told him. All the numbers looked good. Soon the ship swung back around into the sunlight and the main antenna swiveled to pick up the carrier wave direct from Earth.

“Single Engine Press to TOEI,” Jerry reported. One more milestone checked off the list. They could lose one of the two engines and still make their transfer orbit to Earth.

“And... cutoff. Both engines shutdown on time, within seventeen milliseconds. We have zero error on course and speed. But of course you know that now. Houston, we’re coming home.”

***

Jerry Hanson watched Mars receding for another twenty minutes. There was no rush to complete the next step. Indeed, if tragedy struck now, they’d still make it to Earth in 220 days. Then it was all up to NASA on the other end. The return ship didn’t have the fuel to brake into Earth orbit and it couldn’t undergo the searing heat and pressures of re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. Someone else was going to have to pick them up and bring them all home. It was all far enough in the future, NASA hadn’t even finished building the transfer and capture engines for the tug, nor had they yet made the crew assignments. Not his problem -- they’d be there when Jerry and his friends needed them.

“Houston, I have programmed in my own narco-cold sleep. Computer is in Auto Mode 2. You have remote command capability if you need it. This is Ares One, signing off.”

The Ares One Return Module moved silently awash in the gravitational fields of the Solar System’s major players. Aboard were 682 kg of samples carefully secured from the surface of Mars. And six human brains, one of them already stored in a bionic interface canister. The RM was built as small and light as was practical -- no extraneous mass allowed.

Back down on the surface of Mars, the small human base was empty of life, though there were five brainless corpses and one inanimate RPA body stored in a compartment adjacent to the launch platform. Perhaps someday, another expedition from Earth would come back and use this same facility -- or at least take the time for a proper burial. Jerry supposed the RPA body could even be used by another host someday, though he doubted it. Surely it would be too obsolete for the next RPA.

Four years earlier, NASA administrators had waited for one of their astronauts to injure themselves, thus “volunteering” for the position of Robotic Prosthetic Astronaut. Two weeks before the end of their window, Jerry Hanson’s car was knocked off the road when an exploding tire caused a huge semi-truck to swerve to the left. And NASA hadn’t been forced to choose who’d volunteer to go as the mission’s RPA.

The first plans were for the RPA to be fully mobile. Instead they built the RPA into the landing module and used high speed data networks to allow Jerry to use various remotes both inside and outside, thus eliminating the need for decontaminating the RPA after ground missions or any worry about battery power for a mobile environmental containment.

As Jerry’s consciousness began to float within the deep sleep drugs, he couldn’t help but think about his colleagues -- his friends. And then the mind quieted and took its well deserved rest.

***

It was another beautiful summer day in Houston, a bit muggy perhaps, but plenty hot enough for a barbecue. And the NASA astronaut corps always knew how to set up a good barbecue.

Five of the six Ares One astronauts sat together in folding chairs off the side porch. The new generation remote prosthetics they all wore appeared remarkably lifelike and much more sophisticated than the model Jerry had used on Mars. Connie’s body even had a tan, which had caused quite a stir in their tiny fraternity.

Tito arrived with his usual flourish in a loud antique sports car -- an MG Midget which made Jerry remember his own convertible. After trading a few jokes with the astronauts manning the large barbecue grill, Tito strolled over to his compatriots.

“What’s with the mirrored shades?” Brian asked. “You don’t actually need them.”

“Ever have a bug fly into your eyes while driving?” Tito asked. He slid off the sunglasses and inspected them before slipping them into a pocket. “It’s hell to scrape bug juice off these Carl Zeiss optics.”

He got his expected laugh and settled into the chair they’d saved for him. Jerry was glad Tito hadn’t changed too much after conversion.

A little girl of three years ran up to Connie and climbed into her lap. “Mommy, Mommy,” she said. “Uncle Fred is going to show me how to dive.”

“Well you be careful, Molly,” Connie said. “And I’ll be watching.”

The little girl gave her mother a kiss, then jumped down and ran off.

“I can’t believe how big she’s gotten,” Jerry said. “I’m so glad Sandra agreed to surrogate for you.”

“Then you’ll love this news,” Connie said. “My other sister, Sam, has just gotten pregnant from in vitro. Molly’s going to have a baby sister.”

“Hey, that’s great,” Jerry said, amidst a chorus of approval from the other RPs.

“It’s too bad Bert couldn’t stick around,” Serena said. “He knew the score from before you left. Seems pretty crappy to bail when you don’t like reality staring you in the face.”

“I’m not going to be bitter,” Connie said. “I perfectly understand the problem -- as did Bert -- and we’ve been all grown up about it. Besides, he did agree to be the sperm donor, so Molly’s sister is going to be a real sister. And anyway, he and Bev have been real good to Molly, so I’m not going to complain.”

“It’s a new world, that’s for sure,” Brian said. “But if you’re going on the Zeus One mission with the rest of us, what’s going to happen to your children?”

“Like I said -- Bert and Bev have been real good. And I’ve been talking to Bill Harding. He thinks I should leave some programming modules for this civilian skin before we go. Record me reading some stories to the girls. Maybe set up some interactive games. I can download more later. It’ll create a better bond for when we get back from the five-year mission. Cement a connection between the Mommy who sits in the corner and the Mommy they get to send v-mail to every day. And anyway, you can’t easily have a conversation with a ninety minute time delay due to light.”

Brian laughed. “Like I said -- it’s a whole new world.”

“So you’re going to come back to Earth then,” Tito said.

“Yeah,” Connie nodded. “Sorry, but I want to spend at least some time with my kids. After that, well, they’re going to need an RPA for the Ares Four mission. I might sign up for that -- they’re doing some exciting work back on Mars.”

“That sounds nice,” Tito said. “I keep on getting these letters from the Cousteau Society -- they want to outfit me for deep sea work.”

“Leave NASA?” Serena made it sound like it wasn’t possible.

“It’d be something different,” Tito said.

“I’m going out further,” Jerry said, surprised at his sudden decision. “After Jupiter, they’re talking about Poseidon One to Neptune. I’d like to be on that one.”

“The band’s gonna break up,” Serena said. She was able to add something very like a sigh to her voice. Not all tonal inflections sounded quite right yet, but the sigh was pretty good.

“Not until after Jupiter. NASA doesn’t have enough RPAs to go around yet,” Jerry said. “And anyway, beyond Ares Four NASA probably won’t send anything but RPAs to Mars. The new interface connections promise to be really good. Real-time senses.”

“You’ll believe anything, Jerry,” Brian said.

“Yeah,” Jerry said, thinking about the improvements just since his own conversion. “I suppose I will.”

He gazed back at the other NASA astronauts and their families. The flesh-and-blood astronauts mostly did near Earth missions and the Moon. But accidents could happen and one of the FABAs might find their life saved with the new technology. As it had with him.

The problem with new technology boiled down to two things: the early adopters and lack of upgrade paths. To put it bluntly, Jerry was like version 1.0 of a program. And his friends, benefiting from years of technical advances before the interfaces were woven into their brains, were like version 3.0. There wasn’t really an upgrade path from 1.0 to 3.0 -- he’d never quite have the range of senses they did. He could benefit from none of what his friends were talking about, Jerry simply was making polite conversation.

It was okay. Really. He thought about it in terms of the difference between black & white and color TV. Sure, you missed the transition to the Technicolor wonder in The Wizard of Oz, and you didn’t get the smell of the popcorn, but you still got the rest of the story.

Idly, Jerry wondered which of the human astronauts here at this barbecue would be next to join their little fraternity. And be freed from their fragile bags of flesh to head out to the deep deep space, where the action was.

It really was a whole new world out there.

END

 

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©2008 · Dr. Philip Edward Kaldon

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