The world had gone to hell in the past hundred years. The human population, already approaching breaking point by the 21st century, had nearly tripled to over twenty billion by 2154. Starvation, poverty, these were traits shared by the masses with only the privileged few able to meek out any more from their narrow lives. Humanity had spread like a cancer to all corners of the planet and even beyond, the far side of the moon and Mars already showing the firsts scars from human habitation.
The Earth was terminal with not a single forest remaining upon its surface. Cities covered entire seaboards as humanity stuggled to eek out an existence in its last days. We are survivors, but this could hardly be considered living. The algae that is processed from the fish-less oceans constitutes the primary source of food for the worlds mouths. If you’re lucky you can afford some spices to add some taste to it.
Josh Sully moved awkwardly through the crowds, buffeted by waves of pedestrians returning to their tiny domiciles or leaving for another day of mindless work for a few measly bucks. He had a right to moan against it all though, paralysed from the waist down as the result of a petty war no-one even remembered anymore. Obesity was a relix of the past, with the rationed levels of synth-carbs and protein available most people looked more like skeletons with grey flesh stretched over their bones than human beings. Not like the pictures of old. Not like Earth as it once was.
Josh pushed himself onwards, the old wheelchairs squeak lost in the drone of so many people moving along the covered streets. Most ignored him, one more angry vet, still wearing his old army jacket and feeling hurt by their lack of gratitude. They never asked him to fight for them, they’d always think in their heads he knew. One more mouth to feed to a man who can’t even do his job anymore.
Entering his code, Josh pushed himself the last few metres into his apartment, the stale odour of a single man rising to meet his nostrils and making him long for somewhere with a breeze and not a fake window to the world beyond. Stretching his shoulders he could nearly touch both sides of the narrow room at once. The single fluorescent light hummed to life brightly above, casting a sterile glow over the disorder below. An unmade bed, piles of clothes that hadn’t been washed for months. Nothing to show a person lived here, only another human being.
The wall flickered to life, a seven foot TV screen that panned between views of Earth and the latest news reports on its great surface. Josh left the sound on low, the monotonous reporter pausing between updates as if taking another breath before more bad news. Rinsing out a cup Josh carefully measured a quarter-scoop of powder into it whilst waiting for the water to boil.
“In breaking news, a fire swept through a Boston subway this afternoon leaving over a hundred passengers feared dead and many more requiring medical aid. Officials said that the fire, the third so far this month, was most likely caused by mechanical faults on the line that were scheduled for upgrade within the next few weeks.”
Josh snorted disdainfully, stirring the steaming broth in his cup while avoiding the stench it gave off.
“Over five hundred are being treated for smoke inhalation at local hospitals while work continues into the night to clear the subway ready for the morning rush hour. Asphyxiation is being blamed as the cause of death for those who were trapped underground before emergency services could evacuate the station. An inquiry will be held next month.”
Wheeling over to a gap just the right size between the couch-come-bed and bathroom sink Josh sank back in his chair, shrunken legs hanging uselessly before him. Scratching at his knee he watched the reporter continue, no emotion or empathy flashing over her plastic features as she switched stories.
“And finally, the last lion outside captivity has died in Kenya. Okyo, who had been born only four years ago, was the only one of its kind protected by Inter-Governmental remit. Her death marks the latest in a string of extinctions following others such as all species of whales and other land mammals. Government experts have warned…”
Josh tuned out the TV, hoping to spare himself from further despair. A second window showed the latest reports from Pandora, purple forests flying beneath a thousand different beasts. No human had seen such life on Earth in living history. Their planet was dead, they just refused to see it. The views of Pandora were the most popular non-news channels available, Josh doubted there wasn’t a home in the country that didn’t watch them alongside the death of their own planet.
There were constant reminders of what life was like then and now; the national parks didn’t exist anymore. Yosemite was a god-damned upscale housing project. Every coast had been turned into a mari-culture processing facility and you’d have to go a thousand miles inland to see un-concreted ground.
A harsh toned pulled Josh from his gloomy train of thought, the utilitarian phone hung by the entrance pulsing in time to the beeping. Pushing himself forwards Josh answered gruffly, not bothering to check the caller ID.
“Is this Mr Josh Sully, ID 244-89-325832?” the voice asked quickly.
“Yeah,” Josh said unsurely, hoping this wasn’t the Force letting him know his pension had been cut once again.
“I am sorry to report that your brother,” the voice said, before going away a second to check a bit of paper, “Thomas Sully, was killed in a transit fire accident today in Boston. You are required to clam the body by 1200 tomorrow. Please acknowledge receipt of this message.”
Josh grumbled a quick yes before hanging up and feeling his upper body shake at the sudden news. They’d never been close as kids, even less so as adults. Tom went off to University and Josh joined the marines, chalk and cheese their parents had said before passing on themselves. A few phonecalls a year and now this? He couldn’t even remember when they’d last talked, Tom had been so excited about some trip he had coming up but was all hush-hush about the details.
Rolling over to the bed Josh left his cup half un-drunk, lying himself out flat on the bed and staring at the cracks in the ceiling. He didn’t sleep, too many memories kept on surfacing, some happy. Most not.
The building was drab, all clean lines and functional form. Just like every other public service building the world over Josh thought to himself, taking the narrow ramp up towards the Boston Municipal Crematorium. A pleasant young woman took his details at the front desk, asking him to take a seat in the waiting area before catching herself. She looked away quickly, but hadn’t said anything Josh hadn’t heard a hundred times before.
There were others present, either grieving quietly at their loss or sitting too still to be anything but statues. Patient young men and women would come and take each in turn, never gone for more than ten minutes at a time before returning for their next charge. All too soon Josh found himself called up, a young gentlemen leading him down endless corridors filled with others in the same situation. Every now and then a sob could be heard from a side room but many simply accepted the hand that fate had dealt them and moved on.
Sitting next to a thin cardboard box Tom looked in at his brothers face, the identical features staring back at him. He looked peaceful, someone had at least bothered to take the time to scrub away the soot marks and make him look more presentable. Josh felt a stab of humanity before moving back as the attendant covered the box over.
No one else was there and for that Josh was grateful. He felt his heart catch in his throat, watching the efficient machinations of the young man as he bound the box with two plastic straps before rolling it into the great furnace on silent runners. As the flames began to lick at the cardboard Tom rubbed a sole tear away before leaving the room forever.
Tom was not the first and he wouldn’t be the last Josh knew, but he was the last person he had a connection with. Wishing to get out of the place as quickly as possible he moved angrily down the corridors. As he moved towards the exit he heard his name called from behind and looked back to see two men in suits hurrying to catch up with him. After a lifetime of dealing with other people Josh felt his tensions rise, suspicious of the pair. Had Tom left behind a debt, one he would be forced to pay?
Despite his best efforts, he soon found himself corralled by both men with nowhere to go. The older of the two reached into a breast pocket and handed over a small business card, his name emblazoned beneath a large RDA logo.
“My name is Andrew Wilkes Mr Sully, we would appreciate it if you could spare us a moment of your time.”
“What for?” Josh asked, looking around to see if anyone else was watching them.
“It’s about your brother. He represented a very large investment for ourcompany, one that you can hopefully help us recover.”
“Me? You’ve got the wrong Sully, Tom was the scientist” Josh remarked incredulously, making a show of pushing his chair forwards and forcing the two men out of his way.
The pair followed him like vultures to the street, before guiding him towards the open door of a limousine, patiently waiting for him.
“May we give you a lift to the airport?” Wilkes asked, the driver stepping around the car to offer his services if needed.
Josh weighed his options, not wishing to ride the subway if he could help it but at the same time untrusting of these company execs. Finally deciding he could just ignore all they had to offer he rolled up alongside the vehicle before hauling himself in without assistance. The driver carefully folder his chair up and placed it in the boot of the limo before returning to his own seat. As they pulled into the midday traffic Wilkes launched into his speech, his partner remaining silent beside him.
“The RDA, Resources Development Alliance,” he clarified, “represent a consortium of the largest corporations on Earth.
“We’re responsible for every technological breakthrough in the past decade. We developed the technology used in all algae farms, set up the first lunar installation and were the first to discover and set foot on Pandora.
“I’m telling you all this Mr Sully, because your brother was involved in our Pandoran operations. Tell me, do you know what your brother was working on for the past year?”
Josh studied the man carefully before answering, aware that their conversation was most likely being recorded along with everything else the RDA did.
“We hadn’t spoken in a while and when we did he could never say much, too many contracts and non-disclosure forms,” Josh said. “Mentioned something about working in space, but that was it.”
“Good to know at least some people can keep secrets,” Wilkes murmured, turning to face his partner slightly for a moment.
“Your brother was destined to work on Pandora Mr Sully,” Wilkes continued. “I assume you’ve heard of it?”
Josh snorted, looking out the window at the people taking cover from the continual rain. “Of course, who hasn’t?”
“Well then, what you might not know about is the Avatar program. Your brother had signed a ten year contract to go to Pandora. We’d like to offer you the same deal.”
“Why me, why not someone else who’s more qualified?”
“Because you’re the only one who can replace your brother, you have an identical genetic structure and that makes you worth a lot to us.”
“Twenty million dollars to be clear,” the silent partner finally chipped in, sitting forwards and finally partaking of the conversation.
“How about we continue this discussion over dinner?” he said, ordering the driver to pull over at an upscale restaurant on the corner that looked like it would cost more for a drink than most people made in a year. “We’ll charter a private flight for you if you decide to return to North Carolina,” the man said to Josh before he could argue.
The restaurant staff cleared a private table for them towards the back of the establishment, leaving them after taking their orders. Josh tugged awkwardly at the napkin on his lap, the two men before him seemingly in their element sitting at the table.
“As I was saying,” Wilkes continued, taking a sip of wine, “Your brother was a member of the Avatar program. Are you aware of the humanoid aliens that inhabit Pandora?”
“The vami?” Josh said awkwardly, only having seen flashes of the tall blue aliens on the vid screen.
“The Na’vi,” Wilkes corrected, his partner giving a slight chuckle. “As you may know, the atmosphere on Pandora is toxic to humans. The Avatar program is quite simple to describe, something else to develop. In effect we take the DNA from one of the local inhabitants and mix it with human DNA in a genetics lab to create one of our own hybrids. This embryo is then grown in-vitro on the flight out to Pandora, ready for the original human parent to control when they both reach Pandora. Think of it as a virtual reality suite with an actual alien on the other end, connected through a psionic link. As I said, very hard to develop but worth the cost.”
Josh was given time to mull over this as the food arrived, a mouth watering steak placed before him. The last time he’d eaten any meat was nearly a decade ago in the Venezuelan bush and that had been because their rations had run out. This was something else and without prompting he dug in, tearing off a large chunk and chewing greedily. His two hosts were more reserved, letting him finish his first mouthful before continuing.
“The resultant embryo’s are often quite unstable,” Wilkes explained, placing a thin strip of fish in his mouth and chewing carefully. “Maybe one in twenty survive past the initial growth stages, which makes your brothers Avatar all the more valuable. And you just as much.”
“Because we have the same DNA,” Josh stated matter-of-factly, looking up from his meal.
“Exactly,” the silent partner said, his own food untouched.
“You can pick up where your brother left off so to speak, the next shuttle leaves in three weeks, enough time to give you a crash course in basic training. Just think; ten years, very good pay and the chance to see alien worlds,” Wilkes finished, his grin consuming half his face.
Josh set his knife and fork down, belly full and mind made up.
“Well, the only point you’re missing is the chance to serve my country and you would’ve been the spitting image of my old army recruitment officer,” Josh said. “I may have lost my legs gentlemen, but the army did give me one thing and that was the sense to look past all the bullshit they sold me and see the real deal.”
Wilkes eyes didn’t waver but his jaw clamped shut as Josh placed his napkin on the table before them.
“Thank you for the meal, but you can both take a hike.”
As Josh pushed himself out from under the table the silent partner stood slowly and moved around to his side. Kneeling down beside him he leaned in close, his mouth close to Josh’s ear and playing their last card.
“Just think Josh, you’ll get your legs back as an Avatar. Long powerful legs. You can even go running again. Freedom, that’s what we’re selling you.”
Josh felt his hands trembling, mind racing through the possibilities. To run again, he’d given up dreaming about that so long ago. Looking up into the jackal-like face of the company exec Josh felt his options falling away to leave just one choice.