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A Hero’s Reward

by Terry J. Larson

part 1 of 2

“NSA Operations, this is Nav Com1 of Galaxteer III reporting. According to our navigation and communications officer Nav Com2, we are about 35 light-minutes from home.

“We are on space flight schedule and have no major operational difficulties. Several minor problems have surfaced, as reported by Mech1, but they have been solved. One problem was gravity fluctuations within occupied compartments, causing difficulty in body locomotion. Mechanic Mech2 easily corrected it. Among others was a fold-down table that got stuck in the wall. Again, Mech1 corrected the problem.

Over and out.”

Space Mission Officer Oni Sakamoto, with a wry smile, sat back in his controls room chair and sighed. “Big deal, huh? A chair stuck in the wall. Nav Com1 reported the problem as if it were a serious one. If we had a human crew, you would have heard a chorus of laughter when he mentioned the table.”

Android Care Officer Jerry Wells chuckled and said, “Hey, let’s not make fun of our androids. They’re just doing their job according to their programmed instructions.”

The Media Dispatcher got up from his chair with a shorthand copy of Nav Com1’s report and excused himself. “Got to run, guys. The reporters are waiting.”

* * *

Today was a special day for NSA (National Space Agency). It marked the time of the launching of a spacecraft with an entire crew of androids. There were several reasons for now manning flights with mechanical beings rather than with humans. The main one was safety. Too many astronauts had died, beginning with the shuttle disasters and ending with the two terrible space mission tragedies in the last three decades.

Galaxteer I was fatally damaged by what was surmised as a meteor while surveying asteroids for minerals in the vastness of the Oort cloud. Eight years later, communication with Galaxteer II was mysteriously lost soon after it had landed on a planet suspected to be harboring intelligent life.

Another reason was the limitation of man’s endurance on long space trips. Over two hundred years of history since the first lunar mission with Apollo proved that man’s space flight endurance without some adverse and sometimes permanent effects was not much more than two years. Freezing bodies for long space flights had been often suggested but never proved to be feasible or even ethical.

Space Officer Susan Collins was surprised when she returned to her office to find sitting at her small conference table Chief Mildred Jacobson. Susan had expected that Mildred would be in the controls room, especially with the first radio transmission scheduled that morning.

“What did the androids have to say, Susan?”

“Nothing of real concern.” Susan then recounted the minor problems, including the reactions over the table being stuck in the wall. She expected Mildred to laugh over this last problem, but sensed something was wrong when Mildred only smiled warily and shrugged her shoulders.

Even though Mildred was Susan’s supervisor, the two were the best of friends and often confided in each other. Susan studied Mildred’s classical Swedish face with the stunning blue eyes and naturally wavy blond hair before asking if anything was wrong.

Mildred peered back at Susan’s ordinary but friendly face with extraordinarily intelligent-appearing eyes and answered, “How did you know that something’s not quite right?”

“I know you. Is it John?”

“You do know me. Yes, it’s John. He notified me he’s leaving the state. I guess you know how upset he’s been lately? He can’t get over having all the qualifications of being a pilot astronaut with nowhere to go. I never could talk to him about it. He hadn’t even told me where he was going.”

Susan was astonished. The two of them had seemed happy together and were engaged to be married in a couple of months. The only complaint that she had ever heard from Mildred about John was his dissatisfaction over her lack of assertiveness with other people. Susan knew that John Nicholson was unhappy ever since the announcement that if the Galaxteer III mission was successful with its android crew, manned space flight was as good as over.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Mildred. Maybe all he needs is to get away from Edwards Air Force Base for a while. He’s got too much talent to go off the deep end. I bet he’ll be back.”

“Enough about my personal life, Susan. Let’s review the Galaxteers’ missions with androids.”

“Okay, good idea.”

They had often discussed the engineering and scientific specifics of the space craft but not much about the missions. The first of these took place on Galaxteer II in response to the reporting of obviously intelligent signals received by ESETI (the Extended Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program. Located about a light-year from the closest star to our own sun, Proxima Centauri. The planet, referred to unofficially as Mystic, was approximately 3.4 light-years from Earth.

The mission, which included a couple of androids, took seven years to get to Mystic. A radio message was received on Earth corresponding to the day the ship landed, but the ship was never heard from again.

Arguments still existed whether or not the crew had been destroyed by beings on Mystic. Mildred and Susan had debated several times about this.

After a myriad of national debates, NSA decided that another mission was mandatory. This time, the crew would be entirely androids, as the chances for success were judged not to be high enough to risk the lives of a human crew. It would be another two years before an all-android crew would be designed, constructed, programmed and tested before being deemed qualified and assigned to the mission.

After a few minutes of discussion Mildred glanced at the clock and said, “We got to wind this up and get back to work. This is going to be a historic day: the launching of a spacecraft with an entire crew of androids.

* * *

Three months had past since the launching of Galaxteer III from Edwards Air Force Base. Henri Metzgar, the project communication officer, had provided much material for the media during that time. The one thing he hadn’t provided them was an analysis of the performance of the android crew, other than that taken during their training for the mission. Therefore, he had made a one-on-one meeting with Jerry Wells, the Android Care Officer to get this information.

“Have a seat, Henri. Sorry about the mess,” Jerry said, as he glanced around his small office, laden with stacks of newspaper and magazine articles.

Henri, a man about to turn 30, with a boyish face and small frame, gave him a typical apish grin before sitting. “No problem, just shows you’re a busy man. You should be proud of all those articles about the program that I know are in all those papers and magazines.”

Jerry peered over his thick glasses and smiled. “More jealous than proud. If I could write as well as some of those guys I gave information to, I wouldn’t be here. It’s amazing how they can make dull stuff intriguing. But to get down to business, what is it you need to know about the androids?”

“Anything interesting that you can tell me, Jerry. You know: their performance, their quirks, any humorous things they’ve done, their reliability, characterizations, personalities... I just need some things to relay to the public for making good stories.”

Studying the lined face of this man that was old enough to have retired at least ten years ago and who always was dressed in a suit and tie, Henri realized that this was a personage much different from the technological people he was used to working with.

“Well, as you have heard and seen, I and the rest of the control room participants only have two sources of information as to how the androids are performing: the daily radio transmissions and limited video coverage.

“One could say that the oral information could be tainted, full of lies and misinformation. I can say with certainty that what we hear is the absolute truth. The androids, unlike humans, are incapable of lying, exaggerating, or cheating.

“We have tried to program a little levity in their sayings, but only to be exercised during specific situations. We don’t allow any of that in their 24-hour transmissions. Therefore, the androids’ performance as reported is truthful and to the point.”

Jerry continued with his performance analysis of the androids for a few more minutes before saying, “I think I’m telling things you already know, Henri. I could go on and on, but at this point I’ll just ask you if you have any other questions.”

Henri hesitated a minute before asking, “Do you have evidence that any of the androids exhibit particular differences from others that are similarly programmed, that is do any of them show any kind of what might be called personality, independent of their programming?”

Hesitating while stroking his chin, Henri answered, “Not really. We have such limited contact with them other than indirectly from the communicators, that our assessment can only be based on their operational performance of their tasks.”

At this point, Jerry hesitated and looked down for a moment before saying, “Now there is one thing, and I hesitate to tell you this, but since I trust you not to relay this to anyone, I will. I have some suspicion that Nav Com2 is keeping something from us.”

Henri with a look of surprise said, “But you say that they aren’t like thinking humans, capable of lying and giving misinformation. What you are saying now is that they can withhold information. That seems like almost the same thing. What is the difference?”

“I wish I knew. I don’t know this for certain. Maybe it’s just my own suspicious nature or fear of something like this happening because I am responsible for the androids’ performances. Let’s hope I’m wrong about my suspicion.”

* * *

John Nicholson had now been in space for five months. At first, it had been naughty and nice. John Nicholson had always been a perfectly behaving person. Raised in a wonderful family in upstate New York — his father a Presbyterian minister, his mother an intellectual librarian, his two sisters with successful careers and marriages — John was driven with an insatiable desire to be either an exploring astronaut or, better yet, an astronautical pilot.

Recently engaged to a beautiful and talented woman, he had attained all his goals, but one. That one became next to impossible when the U.S. government made the manning of space flights of over one month illegal. They now had to be manned — or perhaps the right word was androided — by androids.

John had been told, that the law would only be temporary, that testing of android crews might show their inferiority to human crews. From his own consultations, such as with Jerry Wells, that would be a long shot, at least for the exciting missions beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

He had never thought twice about not volunteering to be a command pilot for the planned Galaxteer III mission to Mystic even though it meant being absent from his fiancee Mildred for fifteen years. She, being more of a space nut than he, was agreeable about his participation.

But now he was on the mission, not as an assigned crew member, as humans were now disallowed on these flights; hardly that. He had sneaked on board past all the security guards, first making certain that he would have adequate food for the mission. He had learned earlier that a full supply of food would be included as part of the payload, just in the most remote of cases that the androids would find the crew of Galaxteer II somehow alive on Mystic.

He now sat, contemplating how much his thinking had changed since he had made that impetuous decision to stow away on the ship. It was difficult to think how he even contemplated destroying the ship or taking over the controls to fly it somewhere else. His mind had been murderous, suicidal.

Now, after months of not having much to do, other than to observe the workings of the crew and to study the heavens with the use of the star maps, his mind was almost rational again. He had even convinced himself that the use of an android crew had some distinct advantages. Just comparing himself with them, he was almost ashamed how inferior he was in deportment.

He had fully expected that the communication androids would have reported his presence as soon as they learned that he was aboard. That was the reason he had remained hidden in one of the aft storage rooms for three days after blast-off. He didn’t want the possibility of the mission being scrubbed, which might have happened if his presence had been learned by NSA earlier.

When he did show himself to the crew, they merely looked at him and made courteous greetings and then ignored him. Thank God, the programmers had allowed them to recognize crew members with their NSA uniforms and treat them with respect.

What really surprised him was that neither Nav Com1 nor Nav Com2 ever reported him as being aboard. The programmers must be blamed for negligence on that one, he thought. If it had been otherwise, he probably would have done something rash, such as he had originally contemplated.

Instead, he was content to sit back and observe their operations. Probably, to help salve his conscience, he even decided to record their performance, even though he had no expertise in anything he should be looking for. At least he could record what they did and in many instances record their skill in accomplishment.

Amazing to him was how coordinated their teamwork was, even though they had little dialogue amongst themselves. The ones that did the most communicating were the commanders and the navigation and communication guys. That was to be expected. The others had little to say unless when asking a question or pointing out some discrepancy.

John had tried to make conversation with all of them, but had little success. They would answer his questions if they knew them but would never ask one themselves. It were as if their curiosity and capacity for new learning were both nil. They only acted on what they already knew and were programmed to do.

As he sat there now, he realized for the first time since the beginning of the mission that he was really a traitor to the whole world. Maybe he could make amends. He could at least apologize. If something happened, like a meteorite hitting them, perhaps, no one might ever know what had happened to John Nicholson. The world wouldn’t know that he was a traitor, but maybe it deserved to know that he was. Perhaps if he made his presence known and asked how he could enhance the mission, he could at least partly make up for his idiocy.

And, perhaps most humane of all, he could let Mildred know where he was. It must be hell for her to not know if even he were alive. They could break their engagement in order that she could marry someone else. Such a beautiful woman waiting for someone that wasn’t due back for fifteen years was plain lunacy, anyway. Being too much in love with his career was no excuse. By confessing, he would at least make his conscience feel better.

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Terry J. Larson

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