MASA took two days to consider the parade. And Albert considered MASA’s proposal: While the food lasted, he could program Jim to perform more autonomous projects, observe his ability with tasks and fine-tune his skills, and write reports that would serve space travel for perpetuity. Albert spent his career making robots more like humans so human tools would be interchangeable, but now he saw the future was in making them, humans and robots, interchangeable. No one would suffer; no one would complain.
He retired from the robot bay to the cabin and found Omar ransacking the medicine cabinet for an unremarkable pill bottle, which he clutched as he fled toward the toilet. MASA did not speak, did not try to reason with Omar, and then Albert noticed Omar had covered all the cameras in the pod.
He found Omar standing over the open toilet, unscrewing the bottle’s lid. “Gonna dump ‘em in?” he said and leaned against the door frame.
“I promised to maintain life.”
Albert rested his head against the wall and crossed his arms over his chest. He felt tired. “Want me to ask them what they want?”
“I do not.” He dumped the pills without removing his eyes from Albert.
Albert watched the pills fall; their escape from the torment of sickness and starvation, hopelessness and fear disappeared. “I hope we don’t regret that,” he said and moved through the cabin, uncovering cameras.
MASA did not inform the crew of the parade’s broadcast, but it flickered onto all the screens as Omar returned from the toilet. Melancholy chords -- the first music they’d heard in four days -- filled the cabin while Omar roused the others. Bill looked at the screen, at the poppy wreaths lining the streets and spectators dressed in black, and said, “It’s a funeral procession.”
“We had to make a statement,” MASA said into Albert’s ear, but he did not repeat it. “It is easier this way.”
It was one hell of a parade, Thanksgiving morning mixed with a ticker-tape extravaganza like Albert saw in the movies. A balloon of IMP1 floated by the cameras, and its handlers wiped their eyes instead of waving to the folks at home. There were long clips of the President, the MASA Administrator, and the astronauts’ families: Albert’s parents and brother; Omar’s wife and daughter, his little girl holding her mother’s hand and saluting in a JFK, Jr. sort of way. Omar cried. Vladimir stared above the screen and said nothing. Hayes smiled and croaked commentary on the floats, the marching bands, and how pretty his wife looked in that dress. He asked Omar to help him sit up, and he clutched the bar by the emergency exit to stay upright. His mouth moved when a choir sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The parade wound to Times Square, where the cameras shifted to the convertibles that were intended to bear the seven astronauts. Albert expected silence, but the crying spectators cheered, people waved flags, and groups sang loud enough to drown out the marching bands. The cars stopped at the stage, and the President stepped to the podium; he blessed them, and praised them, and remembered them as heroes.
“There is nothing like hearing your own eulogy,” Hayes said and did not let go of the bar long enough to wipe his eyes.
The President sat, and soldiers in dress uniforms marched onto the platform and raised their guns for the three-volley salute. The first shot rang off the buildings and through the eerily quiet streets and shook inside Albert’s belly. His breath caught when they fired the second shot. The soldiers raised their guns for the final shot, tucked them against their shoulders, and squeezed the triggers, and behind the waiting astronauts, a shot exploded. Hayes had found the emergency kit’s flare gun and sent himself off with a one-gun salute.
Albert and Jim cleaned the cabin during the night while Omar worked in the cockpit. Bill and Vladimir faced the walls and did not speak. MASA, too, was quiet. Albert wiped away the last poppy-red smear and asked Jim to re-mop the floor. He dropped the dirty rags beside the overflowing refuse bin. What did it matter? They could die by sickness now or starvation later. Hayes figured out the fastest way to end it, but Albert knew it wasn’t the only way. He could start walking and remove his helmet; stay out in the Martian night; ingest the engine’s detritus. When he became an astronaut, he knew there were a million—a hundred million—ways to die in space, and he accepted the risk, because their mission was to advance life; it was bigger than him.
“We’re ready to fly,” Omar said as he stepped out of the cockpit. He strapped in Vladimir, then Bill. Jim put down the mop and moved to the robot bay.
MASA spoke in Albert’s head, “Your death will accomplish nothing.”
“You know we cannot make it home,” Albert said to Omar.
Omar tightened the strap around Bill. “I have to try.”
“And accomplish nothing, just like Hayes,” Albert said. “Let us stay here. Work together on the mission.”
“The mission died in the explosion, like Katya.” Omar flung the words over his shoulder as he walked to the cockpit. “Buckle up.”
Albert leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest.
Omar paused by the medicine cabinet and filled a syringe—they’d long been out of sterile ones—with the last of the sedative. “Use proper safety precautions or I’ll strap you in.”
Albert pulled the harness over his shoulder and scowled.
Satisfied, Omar locked the syringe in the cabinet and settled into the cockpit. Albert unbuckled his harness and eased it off his shoulders: quietly, slowly. He slid his hands into Jim’s controls. He viewed the cabin through Jim’s eyes. He did not mourn; he was Jim now. Jim walked from the robot bay to the cockpit, and his hands circled a fleshy, thrashing neck. He squeezed. It only took a moment.
Jim was exceptional. He repeated the procedure on the other two astronauts without Albert’s help. Jim learned to dig pits to bury the biological waste, a task he could repeat when Albert’s time came. Albert would write to MASA about it, and they would publish it in the best journals, so everyone would be proud of him and Jim for what they accomplished.
Jim helped Albert into his suit, and they stepped into the Martian dawn. Driving dust covered the scraps of their engine and turned the burial mounds into gentle dunes. It looks like home, Albert thought. He pressed his hand to Jim’s shoulder. “Thank you,” he said and Jim nodded. They began their mission.
“Someone is sending data,” a MASA technician cried. Tears ran down his cheeks. He’d been in the office since the engine exploded six days ago, trying to communicate with the astronauts in the pod. He was at his desk when Administration reluctantly announced the astronauts were assumed dead, and he broadcast the memorial parade; a silly gesture, some called it, but to him, the tribute mattered. Now there was a report: “Soil and Atmospheric Conditions on Mars, Before and After Nuclear Explosion.” Now another: “The Capability of Robotic Astronauts to Learn and Repeat Tasks Unassisted.” The technician skimmed the report. “Dear God,” he said.
The data continued for weeks, months. The technicians calculated the time of starvation, even if only one person survived, and they noticed the communications’ tone changed after the projected date, as if someone new wrote the reports.