Free Mars

By Royce Day

Note: A Miracle of Science is copyright Jon Kilgannon and Mark Sachs, and used here without permission.

* * *

The rain had pounding the windows of Benjamin’s hospital room for hours. If he could believe the weather report on the government’s holovid feed, it would keep going for another two days at least. Typical Venusian moisture transfer patterns. Perfect.

He reached over to the side table with his working arm, grabbing the small com link that connected him with the Qin Shihaungdi, the Martian cruiser that still floated some hundreds of kilometers above in orbit, waiting for Caprice and him to come back aboard.

Except of course, that according to Mars, Caprice was dead.

“Qin, you there?” he subvocalized.

Yes, Benjamin, came the reply over his subdermal implant. How are you?

“My arm’s healing,” Benjamin told Qin. “As soon as I can shake the sedatives all the way out of my system, I’m going to try and infiltrate Haas’ manor.” And get forgiveness from Nyerere later.

Good. For obvious reasons, Mars’ interest in bringing Dr. Haas to justice has become immensely personal.

“Same here, Qin, same here.” Benjamin paused, wishing that he felt steady enough to get up and pace the room. “Qin, you’re connected to Mars, the same as Caprice was -- is rather. Right?”

Of course. Do you wish to speak to Mars directly?

“Not right now. I want to ask you though, did you feel it, when Caprice’s connection to the collective was lost?”

Not directly. I’m an Engineer like most AI’s, not an Artisan. The shock was relatively muted. It was still a shock though.

Benjamin took in a breath. “I’m just wondering, how do you, Mars I mean, handle death?”

The pause at the other end was long, at least for an AI. Not terribly well. Mars’ use of semi-sentient nanotech has implications that have been hidden from the rest of the Solar System. Essentially it is capable of repairing damage on the cellular level, or even smaller if need be.

“So everyone on Mars is basically immortal?” Good gods.

Or as close as Mars can manage. Accidents, and other events, can happen. A person’s nanos can heal a great deal of damage, but they aren’t invulnerable to harm. Every death comes as a surprise and shock. Everyone who cared for that person knows instantly. Including Mars, which feels all of their emotional pain.

“Ouch.” He could scarcely imagine what Caprice’s parents were… Oh, hell, her sister was going through. Oh, shit.

Indeed. That’s why Doctor Haas’ plan to ‘benevolently’ rule the world with robots is so disturbing to Mars.

Benjamin straightened up in his bed. This was new. “How do you mean?”

Mars is not perfect, Benjamin. During the period of the Awakening, when its consciousness was just coming into being, it had a great debate with itself. The arguments between its Artisan and Engineer halves became quite heated.

“Over what?”

Whether it, Mars as a whole, should ignore the rights of the individuals that formed its gestalt. Every death brought pain. The only way it could see to prevent those deaths, to protect itself and Martians from this searing hurt, was to provide a perfectly safe environment for the humans that made up its component parts.

If your idea of Utopia is sterile clockwork... Caprice’s voice echoed in his head. “Create a nanny state,” Benjamin concluded. “Make sure everyone has a slew of personal robots to attend to their every need and protect them.”

We’ve got that now, Benjamin. No, what Mars was considering was far less benign. Not a nanny state, but putting everyone into very comfortable, very soft prison cells. No one would be allowed to travel beyond Mars. No one would be allowed to leave the assured safety of their own homes, in fact. Ever.

Benjamin felt his stomach grow queasy, and it wasn’t from the drugs pumping through his system. Suddenly Venusian paranoia about Martians didn’t seem all that paranoid just now. “Mars was going to do this?”

Mars considered it. The debate went on for a good twenty minutes! Then it came to the very logical conclusion that to cut off humans from risk, even extreme risk, was to deny them the right to be human. And if they weren’t human, then Mars’ personality would likely alter itself fundamentally, in ways that would probably be something less than benevolent.

“A little pain for itself, to prevent a lot of pain for humanity as a whole,” he finished.

That’s right.

“I’m, uh, really glad Mars decided to do that.”

As am I. Everyone locked away, not allowed to have any fun. Talk about boring. There was a pause in Qin’s transmission. It doesn’t change the fact that losing Caprice hurt.

“She’s not dead, Qin,” Benjamin said firmly.

Benjamin, there is absolutely nothing in the universe that can disrupt a Martian’s radio implants, except for the mind that controls them going away. She’s dead. I wish she wasn’t, Benjamin, but Caprice is dead.

“You’re forgetting, Qin, Haas is a Mad Scientist. I’m starting to think he might even be smarter than I was when I was suffering from SRMD. If anyone could find an unexpected way to jam Martian FTL radios, he could.”

Do you really believe that, Benjamin?

He shrugged, and felt he shoulder move in ways it probably shouldn’t have just yet. “It’s a hope. I’ll admit it’s a small hope, but it’s all we got. And if Caprice were really dead, why would Haas’ henchmen take her body with them?”

I can think of several reasons, all of them ugly, Qin answered, but I think I like your scenario best. I hope you’re right.

“We humans are pretty good at hoping, Qin,” Benjamin said.

That’s one reason Mars loves you so.

The End