I had been invited that summer to post-doctoral practicum. My mentor, Dr. Bringem, promised all participants who stayed the duration full credit. In all, there were five people involved—three women, two men (including myself). Dr. Bringem's terms: live remotely out of a recreational vehicle in the salt flats of Utah, for three months. The focus of the experiment, he said, would be for the university to conduct a mock representation of aeronautical space travel while recording the behavior of our group.
We were to consider this recreational vehicle as our space-craft. Dr. Bringem explained the trip to Mars takes roughly six months. In order to contain the experiment to one semester we agreed on a one-to-three ratio and spent three months in the salt flats. Following the rules of the experiment, the first month we lived within close proximity to the recreational vehicle. This was the most difficult portion of the trip. It was my responsibility to keep order because I was the captain.
Throughout that first month each participant, besides me, threatened to quit. Dr. Bringem had only to remind them that quitting would result in a W for the practicum, settling the would-be deserters back in. This back-and-forth quarreling was constant, but came to an end when Dr. Bringem called. He told us we had finally reached Mars' surface, and that we had one month to explore, then it was back on the recreational vehicle for a month.
Everyone ran off the bus hooting like it was their first middle-school field trip. I watched from the cockpit. Jim, the only other man, and Meg, the prettiest of the women, partnered up. The two announced they were setting up a camp and wanted to go exploring. They promised to return in a few days and asked for provisions to take with them; I oversaw that distribution.
The other two women, Laurie and Tana, formed a similar bond and set out with the same intention. I gave them a few days' worth of supplies and made an entry to the supply log. I contacted Dr. Bringem to update him on the mission's status. He asked me how I would handle the crew's desertion. It was then I became aware that the crew had excluded me. I reasoned with myself that I didn't care—that these women, with their second-wave feminist hair-cuts, looked like Spock—and I was selected to be captain because Jim, a wet noodle of a man, or anyone else if they were alone at base, couldn't be this composed.
The first week I did a lot of micro-managing. I checked the ship's engine, its fluids, the exhaust. I was working hard to ensure our return journey would go smoothly when I noticed supplies missing from the inventory. I realized then it had been ten days since the others departed. Soon after I caught Jim one night, arms full—hysterical, as he ran back towards the rock bluff. Didn't the crew realize there's only so much I can do here before I go crazy?
I called Dr. Bringem when the teams had been gone for two weeks. He told me to locate their rogue encampments and capture Jim. I had lost all feelings of decency towards my ex-fellows, so I decided to Saran Wrap the tow trailer where our provisions were kept. Being indecent is easy when you have luxuries, but true indecency should flush out these turds.
I was right and it didn't take long. The first team to come back was Laurie and Tana, their bowl cuts longer and unkempt. Two months had lapsed since the experiment started. At this point everyone was supposed to be within close proximity to the recreational vehicle. That night Meg came back. I had been worried that Jim and Meg would be able to hold out longer. Meg seemed shaken up. She said she had left Jim sleeping. She said she wanted to forfeit her credit and return to earth in the morning. Meg's coming back pleased me. It looked like my composure had paid off. I called Dr. Bringem and told him that I had reformed the group, except for Jim. He said that as captain, ultimately, the Jim part was up to me but I should at least make contact with Jim.
I figured on it for a while and armed myself with a large roll of Saran Wrap. I had imagined Jim covered in mud, wielding a spear, or in the fetal position, waiting for a savior. I explained to the women that I was going to locate Jim. All three women had showered, changed their clothes, and even brewed a pot of coffee. I thought that would be very nice when I returned, a cup of joe for the composed captain. Laurie, Tana, and Meg gave me directions to Jim's encampment. I prepared for fisticuffs with him.
I found Jim's camp, trash left there and a burn pile. I called Jim's name and listened. I heard nothing. Standing there I felt good enough about nearly reforming the crew. I decided that I could return to the ship and contact Dr. Bringem one last time. When I got back to base all I found was the remnants of two months' parking, and foot prints. I had been deserted.
Dr. Bringem was smiling when I walked into his office. I explained the events to him and he calmed me down. Dr. Bringem said the group had proved his hypothesis. He had proposed that someone would be singled out as an authority figure and excluded. Then once the rogue encampment was established, a rebellion would ensue. Dr. Bringem's experiment was conducted to support his claim on the necessity for rigorous testing of mental maturity before sending associates into space.
I received an extension of post-doctorate work. I felt used but I accepted the position. I had only one condition—that I would not be a pawn in experiments. Dr. Bringem promised me this, and offered a handshake. I shook his hand. And waited for his grip to loosen. I wanted to make sure my class ring was still on my finger.
When I'd been deserted in the salt flats, and knew it, looking at the emerging moon, I reluctantly decided I had to break character. I did not call Dr. Bringem. I called my mother. She scolded me all the way back to earth.
Michael Hammerle holds a BA in English, cum laude, from the University of Florida. He has fiction in the Steel Toe Review. His poetry has appeared in Eunoia Review, Mosaic Art & Literary Journal and Poetry Quarterly, where his poem is a contender for the 2016 Rebecca Lard Award. Hammerle was recently named a finalist for the 2016 Hayden's Ferry Review Poetry & Flash Fiction Contest and for Press 53's 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards. He is the Creative Director of C.W. Strickland, Inc. He lives near Gainesville, Florida, with his girlfriend and their three Staffordshire Terriers.