by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Symbol of a Nation, June 2017
The moon stretched out in front of Jenn like an unhatched egg. Full of possibility. Full of portent. In a few moments, the four pod capsules, including hers, would be ejected from the USS Fledgling, and the final competition would begin. The winner would secure the continuation of their genetic line and be the first live astronaut to Mars. All of them were uplifted birds, designed especially for this purpose, but only one would win.
A human voice crackled to life over the radio: “This is Houston. We are mission go. Good luck to all four of you, and remember, no matter who wins, you’ve all made America proud.”
Jenn shrugged her tiny wings in the cramped pod capsule, repositioning her feathers against the ultra-light spacesuit coating them. All the birds had practiced flying with their spacesuits on, and it would be easier in the moon’s gravity — but she knew it was still her weakness. Chickadees are small songbirds. No matter how she exercised, Jenn would never be able to keep up with a bald eagle, raven, or even Rick the turkey.
Still, she had a knack for electronics and a head for programming. She’d simply have to prove that those skills were what really mattered on a mission to Mars. Or the moon, as was the case today. She might not make it to the broken terra-forming robot that she’d been assigned fastest, but she intended to fix it fastest. Then maybe, after she’d won, she’d help her three competitors fix theirs. This was a real mission to fix the lunar atmo-dome, in addition to being a competition, after all.
With a countdown from Houston and a final kathunk, Jenn felt her pod capsule release, and she took over the manual controls, working them with her dexterous talons. She steered the pod capsule toward the bulging globe of the abandoned, malfunctioning atmo-dome. It looked like a bead of water on the moon’s silver face.
Jenn watched the other three pod capsules drop down to the moon’s surface and park on the near side of the dome, where the airlock entry-hatch still functioned. That made sense. Kiley, Gus, and Rick would be able to enter through the working hatch and then fly rapidly through the remaining wispy atmosphere to the broken terra-forming robots on the far side.
Since Jenn couldn’t win a race of wing power, she stayed in her pod capsule longer, flying it all the way over the twenty mile atmo-dome to the other airlock — the one with a broken entry-hatch.
“This is Houston,” the human voice crackled in her helmet. “Officer Jenn, is your pod functioning? We see that you’ve overshot the entrance.”
“This is Jenn,” she chirped. “I’m going to fix the broken hatch on the far side airlock.”
“Bold move,” Houston answered. Jenn heard the sounds of whistling and cawing from all the other birds who hadn’t made it to the final test nattering in the background of the control room back on Earth. “Proceed if you can.”
Jenn tried not to think about the cardinal and the bluebird, the seagull and the peacock — all of them gossiping and judging her. She knew they all expected Kiley the bald eagle to win. Jenn expected that too.
And why shouldn’t she? Kiley’s species had been the official symbol of the nation for three hundred years, since long before any birds had been uplifted. She had the force of history behind her. It was hardly fair.
No, Jenn wasn’t being fair. That bird had worked hard since the day they’d all hatched. Kiley was a force to be reckoned with, and it would take everything Jenn had to compete with her.
Jenn fired the right thrusters, turning her pod capsule to come in for a landing. She settled the pod beside the translucent wall of the atmo-dome. Before she got out, Jenn couldn’t resist magnifying the image on the viewscreen.
On the magnified image, she saw her three competitors in the distance, already winging their way through the atmo-dome. Kiley was in the lead, of course. Between the distance and their spacesuits, Jenn couldn’t make out their features very well, but Rick’s bulky turkey body was unmistakable, even in a spacesuit. He was way behind. Gus, smaller than Kiley, was keeping up surprisingly well, despite his raven wings being far less powerful than her eagle ones.
Jenn shut off the viewscreen, popped the roof hatch, and then unfastened her myriad safety belts with her gloved talons. She had work to do.
The atmo-dome was forty-year-old technology. The entire installation — atmo-dome, terra-forming robots, and everything — had been constructed before the economic crash of the 2040s. The dome should have been lush, green, and beautiful on the inside by now, but hackers on Earth had managed to remotely shut down the terra-formers, leaving them dormant during the long recession. At least, that was the theory. Most United States Space Administration scientists didn’t believe the terra-forming robots’ hardware would have broken down from natural causes so much earlier than originally predicted. Or so suddenly.
Jenn would be the first to know if the theory was true.
The entry hatch to the atmo-dome airlock loomed over Jenn, a magnificent and huge archway designed to accommodate not just the humans who had genetically uplifted her but also their vehicles — moon buggies that had been envisioned but never built, or at least, never shipped to the moon.
Jenn spread her wings and hopped toward the entry hatch’s control panel far above her head; she sailed giddily through the light gravity and landed, talons clasped, around a lever. It should have been the manual override, but it was useless to her. With her tiny bird body, she didn’t have the leverage that a human hand, attached to a strong arm, would have. She’d have to do this the electronic way.
So, Jenn held on to the lever with one talon — it was easy to balance in the light gravity — and used her other talon to remove a multi-tool from her spacesuit’s tool belt. She removed the screws from the control panel’s face plate, removed the face plate, and bared the electronics underneath.
If the problem was hackers, then a hard reset should fix the airlock’s hatch. That was easy. If the problem was mechanical decay… Jenn would have to get replacement wires and resistors, perhaps a replacement motherboard, from her spacesuit backpack — supplies meant for fixing the broken terra-forming robot that she’d been assigned. She’d have to hope that she had enough extra supplies that it wouldn’t interfere with fixing the robot as well. And that the pieces could be cross-wired to fix this hatch…
Jenn’s tiny bird heart raced and skipped at the thought of all the ways her plan could go wrong. Or maybe it was simply from the low gravity? She needed to focus.
To Jenn’s utter delight, when she found the right button, buried beneath a shock of wires, the entire panel lit up with little twinkling green lights. She whistled a snatch of song in celebration, and Houston crackled to life over her radio in response: “What’s that Officer Jenn? Please repeat. We aren’t reading you clearly.”
“I fixed the hatch,” Jenn answered, forcing her bird tongue to pronounce the mundane human words, in spite of the excitement that made her want to sing in tripping, lilting melodies.
Jenn pressed the appropriate button, and the outer door of the now-functional airlock rolled open. Easy. She flapped her way down, landed inside, and waited for the airlock to cycle.
In spite of her luck and speed, Jenn entered the atmo-dome to find her three competitors already closing in on their assigned robots. She hadn’t won herself any extra time — she’d simply kept herself from falling behind due to her small size and relatively weak wings. Frustrated, Jenn took to the air — thin though it might be — and flew as fast as she could to the nearest terra-forming robot.
The mechanical being was vaguely humanoid — bipedal, boxy, and four-and-a-half meters tall, slumped over like it had simply lost the spirit to keep working. Jenn knew that the robot had a store of genetic data and a 3-D printer in its belly, ready to produce all variety of seeds. Its hands were complex clusters of tools — claws to dig, shears for trimming, and spouts for the water it could recycle through its other belly. It had multiple mechanical stomachs. Like a cow. A mechanical bipedal cow.
Jenn flew straight to its oblong head, perched on its shoulder, and immediately removed the metal plate where a biological cow would have had its left ear. Inside the robot’s head, Jenn got down to the work she was really good at: she hooked a small computer from her spacesuit backpack up to the robot’s hardware brain and started hacking.
Of course, with the robot, a hard reset wasn’t enough to fix it. The broken airlock hatch had been a side effect of the forty-year-old remote electronic attack on this atmo-dome. The actual target had been the terra-forming robots. So, the machine code that had been transmitted to them was still chasing itself around the robot brain’s CPU, even after a complete shutdown and restart.
Jenn was just starting to get a handle on the algorithmic traps between her and winning when Houston’s voice crackled to life over the radio.
“Congratulations, Rick!” Surprised tittering and squawking filled the airwaves behind Houston’s human voice. “Terra-forming drone #3 is operational and online — this means that the turkey will be the official astronaut on America’s first live mission to Mars!”
Jenn was stunned.
She’d done everything right, and she knew that she was better with computers and robots than Rick. The turkey was an idiot. Being beaten by Gus? Maybe. The raven was uncannily smart, although weirdly unpredictable. Being beaten by Kiley? Well, Jenn had expected that. She didn’t think the bald eagle was as smart as her, but Kiley had worked hard. Maybe her studying had paid off.
But Rick?? He hadn’t studied computers at all. He’d been playing poker with Jesse the peacock for the last month, ever since Jesse had flunked out of the space program.
Jesse didn’t care about going to Mars; he already had a lucrative offer to be a model or spokesbird or something else demeaning for some TV network. His genetic line was secure.
The more Jenn thought about being beaten by that bulky lug of a small-brained bird with his ugly blue-skinned head and bright pink wattle, the more it burned her up. Rick could not be the first bird to Mars. It simply couldn’t happen that way. In fact, she didn’t know how a bird that stupid had made it into the final round of four.
With a chirp of surprise, Jenn realized that she did know: he must have cheated. And there had to be a way to prove it.
Jenn left her backpack and supplies, except for the small computer, on the terra-forming robot’s shoulder and took to the air. She flew past Kiley, still hard at work on her own robot, and then past Gus, perched idly on his robot’s shoulder, staring pensively at the gibbous Earth hanging in the sky.
She flew to Rick’s terra-forming robot which was ambling along, leaning down now and then to scratch at the lunar dirt. Rick was flapping his wings, shaking his butt, and waddling about in a rude dance at the robot’s side. It might have looked more impressive if his fan of tail-feathers wasn’t hidden inside his spacesuit. Or maybe it would have looked more ridiculous.
Rick didn’t notice the tiny spacesuited chickadee land on his terra-forming robot’s shoulder. In order to hide from Rick, Jenn crawled all the way inside the robot’s still-open head. Rick hadn’t bothered to close the metal carapace after finishing his work on the brain. Sloppy.
Once inside, it was easy to see that Rick hadn’t fixed the robot by himself at all. He’d merely installed an extra processor, a piece of hardware that must have been given to him back on Earth before they even left. Jenn hooked her small computer up and verified her suspicions: the processor contained a machine code antidote to the hacker’s original virus hardwired in. Someone was helping Rick to win. Someone who had broken these robots in the first place, decades ago. Based on the coding style, she suspected the work was Russian.
“Houston,” Jenn whistled over the radio. “We have a problem — I’ve found evidence that Rick may have been working with — or at least assisted by — Russian hackers.” She took a few pictures with her helmet cam and transmitted them back to USSA control in Houston.
After an achingly long silence, Houston’s voice crackled to life: “Officer Jenn, we’re turning on video streaming from your helmet cam. Please show us what you’ve found.”
Jenn walked Houston through everything.
“Thank you for uncovering this, Officer Jenn,” Houston said. This time, there were no bird voices behind his. “Officer Rick is disqualified and must head back to his pod capsule and then the USS Fledgling immediately. We’ll have a lot of questions for him when you all get home. As for the rest of you, the competition is back on.”
Jenn’s heart fluttered as she realized what Houston was saying — she needed to get back to her own robot and fix it on the double. She still had a chance to win!
Jenn was halfway back to her own robot when she saw Kiley replacing the metal plate on the side of her robot’s hide. The bald eagle flapped regally into the air, lifting off from her robot’s shoulder, and the mechanical beast lumbered to life beneath her.
Birds don’t smile, but there was a happy twinkle in Kiley’s eyes and a cheery ruffle of the white feathers on her head, visible through her spacesuit’s faceplate, as the bald eagle’s terra-forming robot took its first steps in forty years. Moments later, Houston announced Officer Kiley the competition’s new winner, and the bald eagle the official first astronaut that would be sent to Mars.
Jenn felt like Houston’s words were an arrow, shooting her out of the sky. Lightheaded, the little chickadee landed on the closest perch — the other shoulder of Gus’s still-immobile terra-forming robot. As far as Jenn could tell, the raven had made no effort to fix the slumped mechanical thing.
Jenn switched her radio to a short-range broadcast that only Gus would be able to hear. “It’s so unfair,” she chirped. “I should have won.”
“Did you really want to?” Gus cawed.
The two of them, chickadee and raven, watched as Kiley flew over to Jenn’s abandoned robot and diligently began working to fix it. The bald eagle was nothing if not a hard worker. She’d been the first to hatch, and she’d used every second of her life to study and train.
When Jenn was brutally honest with herself, she knew that she hadn’t worked half as hard. None of them had. Partly, Jenn hadn’t needed to work hard — so much of this work came naturally to her. But she was easily distracted too. Jenn had spent a week inventing a game that was a cross between go and chess, but she’d lost interest before finishing coding the computer version. Then there were the days when she’d done nothing but read history books.
“Kiley will be a hero,” Gus cawed. “A trailblazer. But she’ll live a lonely life, tending robots on Mars, preparing that harsh world for a decade before any humans finally come to it.”
“She’ll have other eagles with her,” Jenn chirped. “Her genetic line is secure, and the whole brood of them — all those bald eagles — will be the first Martians.”
“I don’t want to be a Martian,” Gus said. “There’s far more to do on Earth. And trust me, neither you nor I will be short on offers from corporations when we get home that can secure our genetic lines.”
Jenn supposed that was true. There were a lot of things that uplifted ravens and chickadees would be good for. She had certainly proved her intelligence on this mission.
“I intend to find a job for my descendants,” Gus cawed, “that’s much easier than astronaut. You can too.”
Jenn looked up at the sky and found the bright star that was really Mars. It gleamed like a possibility. But it wasn’t her possibility any more. It was Kiley’s. Jenn’s possibilities were back on Earth now, tangled up in that gibbous jumble of blue, white, and green. Her future had hatched, and the inside was infinitely more complex and compelling than she’d ever have guessed.