“Today’s the day?” Travis stood as still as he could while the technicians checked his heart rate and blood pressure, but he was shivering with excitement.
“Yes, Travis. No more drills. Lethe is in proper alignment with Earth, so we can complete the transfer. You’ll have three hours to gather as much information as you can before we bring you back. We’re especially interested in the forest this time.”
Doctor Halloran’s voice was deep and calm. Just the facts. He hardly ever smiled or looked directly at Travis, but that was just his way — he had a lot on his mind. Travis had known him for a long time, and Doctor Halloran was the closest thing to a father he had. He tried to focus on the mission. Doctor Halloran liked it when he stuck to business.
“Right. It’ll be cold, and the air will be thin. I need to concentrate on the plants and animals, but not get too close or touch anything.”
“You have a good memory, Travis. That’s why we chose you.”
“It’s too bad you can’t send anything metal through the portal. It would make this so much easier. I could just take pictures.”
“You’ll take in odors and tastes and sensations a camera can’t record. Don’t worry. Your training will carry you through. You won’t even have to think about it.”
“Will I get to leave the hospital after I come back?”
“There will be many tests, and the project leaders have to review all the information.” Doctor Halloran flipped some pages on his clipboard and scribbled a note. “Once they’ve finished, you won’t have to stay here anymore.”
“I’m looking forward to that. It’ll be like going to Lethe all over again. I mean, I’ve watched television and movies, but I’ve never actually seen my own world with my own eyes, or walked on the grass, or smelled the air. It’s funny, isn’t it? Earth is just as much of a mystery to me as a planet millions of miles away.”
Doctor Halloran sighed. “I’m sorry. I know it’s been difficult for you. Lethe is the first habitable world we’ve discovered beyond Earth, and it’s very important that we learn as much about it as we can.”
Travis grinned. “It’s okay. Knowing that I’m doing something really important makes it all worthwhile. I’ve got the whole rest of my life to explore Earth. I can wait a few more days.”
“That’s the spirit.”
He led Travis onto the transfer platform and gave him a final check-over, tightening a bootlace, fastening a toggle on his parka, adjusting the straps on his rucksack. Travis knew it wasn’t necessary, but it felt right, somehow.
Doctor Halloran stood up and patted Travis on the shoulder. “You’re ready, son. I’m proud of you. Bring back some good memories.”
“I will. See you in three hours.”
For the first time Travis could remember, Doctor Halloran looked right at him, eye-to-eye. His were green, like Travis’, and in that moment he seemed very sad and tired.
“Goodbye, Travis.” Halloran stepped back and motioned to the technician at the control console. The air crackled and a brilliant light enveloped the platform for an instant. Travis was gone, and the acrid tang of ozone hung in the air.
A tall man in military coveralls emerged from the shadows to stand behind Halloran. “Another one out the door. A few more iterations, and we can shift our focus to the desert plateau.”
“This is wrong, Colonel,” Halloran murmured.
“Oh, come off it, Doctor. It’s a clone. They’re all clones, grown from skin cells.”
Halloran’s fingers tightened on his clipboard. “They’re little boys. The transfer strips them of their higher brain functions, and they arrive on Lethe as zombie cameras, wandering about on trained reflex until we pull them back again to suck the sensory images out of their heads. Then we dispose of them and send another.”
“They’re biological machines. Lethe is our future, and millions of very real little boys and girls will have to live there someday. Once the physicists find a way to protect metal from slagging in the portal, we can tackle the problems with human transfers.”
“We can’t put this program on hold just to salve your conscience. Besides, it will take twice as many clones to complete the human trials. How does that fit into your ethical calculations, Doctor?”
Halloran flung his clipboard to the floor. “There has to be another way!”
The colonel smiled. “I think you’ve become emotionally attached to your subjects.”
“They’re mine. I’m responsible for them.”
“Your cells were convenient because you were already connected to the project, and you have eidetic memory. We have enough material to grow thousands of clones. Your continued participation is a courtesy, Doctor Halloran. Recover your objectivity, or I’ll have you reassigned.”
Halloran swallowed hard, his lips taut and quivering, eyes locked with the colonel. After a few moments, he dropped his gaze. “I understand.”
The colonel picked up Halloran’s clipboard and handed it to him before departing. “The next transfer window is in six weeks. Have the clone ready.”
Halloran stood there for a long time, staring at the platform. He checked his watch. Two more hours. Other men would collect the mindless thing that returned from Lethe.
He turned and walked slowly toward the medical wing, where another green-eyed boy named Travis waited for him.
Fred Warren writes science fiction and fantasy. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of print and online publications, and his first novel, The Muse, debuted in November 2009. Fred works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, where he lives with his wife and three children. You can find links to his other stories in print and online at http://frederation.wordpress.com/publications.