A story in 10 parts
Chapters 1 and 2 were published in Shoreline of Infinity 30.
Chapters 3 to 10 are released fortnightly for free on the website.
The novella Approaching Human will be published in paperback in Autumn 2022.
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Approaching Human 6: Death on Mars
I2 skipped over the wall of the Hanson Clinic. Oak and sycamore fringed the grounds, shutting out the real world. It was as peaceful here as in any exclusive VR retreat.
I2 hung at head height and took in the scene.
Patients in recovery strolled across the lawns, or manoeuvred automated wheelchairs along curving pathways. I2 counted a dozen men and women in the light blue pyjamas of the Hanson Clinic. Every patient bore signs of having undergone recent brain surgery.
I2 moved towards the nearest individual to take a closer look. She was in her thirties, tall and bald, her head encased in a filigree silver nexus jacked into a port just behind her right ear. She walked with an air of abstraction, her gaze distant, as if she wasn’t really here at all.
I2’d heard rumour that the tech companies were working on implants to plug users straight into VR. I2 wondered if this was what was happening here.
I2 hopped across to the next patient, like a bee between blooms. He was a thick-set man in his thirties with a bullet head and a military bearing. His right eye had been removed and replaced with a facsimile that was almost, but not quite, identical. I2 did a quick scan and found that the new eye was telephoto, and had infrared and ultraviolet capability. Very useful when he infiltrated enemy territory in the dead of night.
Another patient had a simple occipital port, while another had a scar like a sickle stretching from his right temple all the way around to the back of his head.
Then I2 came to a slim man in a wheelchair on the patio before the clinic. He was in his forties, and had a military cortex port set flush with the curve of his shaved skull.
It was not the implant that interested me2, but his face.
I2’d seen it before: a much younger, smiling version.
He wasn’t smiling now. His expression appeared ravaged. His right hand shook as he gripped the arm of his carriage. His lips twitched spasmodically.
A far cry from the smiling, confident ASA astronaut who had left Earth for Mars a decade ago.
I2 settled on the leaf of a nearby rose bush and gathered my2 thoughts.
The man in the wheelchair was Colonel Eugene MacArthur, Professor Mona Taylor’s ex-husband.
I2 trawled the Cloud. The 2075 mission to Mars had been a one-way trip. The four astronauts, and the team of thirty scientists and technicians who’d followed a year later, had signed up for life. They were destined to die there, their bodies consigned to a glorious interment in the regolith of the Red Planet.
So why was Eugene MacArthur back with us on good old Mother Earth?
I2 trawled again, went deep, looking for things I2 might have missed on the first sweep.
But no, there was no record of any astronaut, scientist or technician returning from Mars. They’d sent geological samples back, and detailed specialist reports, but that was all. No humans had ever come back.
I2 scanned his face, matched it with stock pictures and footage from the Cloud. I2 ran an overlay comparison, then an iris identity analysis. I2 was not mistaken. Colonel Eugene MacArthur who’d led the 2075 mission to Mars was the individual who sat before me2 now, a debilitated husk of his former self.
So what had happened on the Red Planet, and why had he been brought back home?
I2 stared at his face, saw trauma there. His eyes were haunted. His lips moved from time to time, as if he were trying to say something he thought of great importance. I2 tried to lip-read him, but the silent words failed to register as sounds and made no consecutive sense.
“Beautiful… Terrible… Terribly beautiful…”
Tears trickled from his eyes, and he raised a palsied right hand and dashed them from his cheeks.
I2 looked up as two men strolled around the ivied corner of the clinic. One was Johan Szabo, the other a younger underling to judge by his obsequious body language as he danced along beside the neurosurgeon.
They stepped off the pathway and crossed the lawn, moving among their patients. They paused from time to time to talk to the men and women in recovery, like royalty dispensing largesse.
“And how are we today…?”
“Such a fine morning for a stroll…”
“You’re doing well, I understand…”
Johan Szabo turned and stared back at the clinic, then saw Eugene MacArthur on the patio and murmured something to his deputy.
They strolled across the lawn and stepped onto the patio, Szabo arranging a professional smile as he approached the invalid.
“We have some good news for you, Colonel. You’re going home today.”
MacArthur looked up at him, his expression blank.
“You’re going home,” Szabo said. “Now isn’t that good to hear?”
The invalid spoke. “Home?”
“Home. Hoboken. Where you spent your childhood.”
“Not … not back to Mars?”
“No, Colonel, not back to Mars,” Szabo said. “Home… We’ll have someone pick you up this afternoon to take you home.”
He said farewell to Colonel MacArthur and gestured for his deputy to accompany him along a curving pathway through a stand of oak trees.
I2 followed them.
“The scrape was only partially successful,” Szabo was saying. “We attempted to erase everything from Mars, but failed to remove some embedded subconscious engrams that were too deep.”
“What was he like before the procedure?” the deputy wanted to know.
Szabo grunted a mirthless laugh. “If you think he’s a wreck now, you should have seen him when they shipped him in. He was catatonic.”
“Director,” the deputy said, concern in his voice, “what happened up there?”
Szabo shook his head. “We’ll never know. Classified. Something … shocking, I’ve no doubt. Who can tell how the human mind responds to such sequestered isolation, with no hope of ever coming home? It would test the sanity of the strongest man or woman … and the Colonel was one of the strongest.”
“He won’t be allowed home, of course?”
Szabo shook his head. “I was being metaphorical when I promised Hoboken,” he said.
So, if not Hoboken, I2 wondered, then where?
The deputy sighed. “Not exactly a heroic end,” he said.
“But preferable to the alternative,” said Szabo.
They turned and retraced their steps back to the patio, where Szabo instructed his deputy to wheel the Colonel to his room.
I2 trailed them at a discreet distance. Szabo retired to his study, while his deputy pushed MacArthur along a carpeted corridor to a bedroom overlooking the lawns. I2 followed them inside.
The man reached out and touched the ex-astronaut’s trembling right hand. “You’ll be fine, sir,” he said with genuine compassion. “You’re going home.”
He turned and left the room.
I2 hung in the air before the invalid and considered my2 options.
I2 trawled the Cloud, downloaded images and built myself a new avatar.
It was almost midday. Szabo said that the Colonel would be going home that afternoon. I2 didn’t have long to do what I2 had to do.
I2’d considered the ethics of using the avatar, of course – for about a nanosecond. In this case, the end justified the means.
I2 hung in the air behind the invalid, activated my2 new avatar and stepped into his line of sight. I2 stood before him, smiling, then sat down on the bed.
He stared. Though his face was expressionless, I2 thought I2 saw recognition in his eyes, followed by surprise.
“Mona…?” he said at last.
“Gene,” I2 said. “It’s been a long time.”
“You’re … beautiful,” he said.
“It’s good to see you – ”
“I should … should never have left you, Mona. You don’t … you don’t know how hard it was… The decision…”
“You had your duty, Gene. You had to go.”
“If only I could go back… Change things. Stay with you.”
Into the ensuing silence, I2 asked, “What happened up there, Gene?”
He stared at me, through me, seeing not the present but the past, on Mars.
“Gene…?” I2 prompted after a minute.
He shook his head. On the arm of the wheelchair, his right hand trembled uncontrollably. “The team … my friends…”
“What happened?” I2 pressed.
He closed his eyes. He forced his right hand into a fist. When he opened his eyes again, he was weeping.
I2 wanted to reach out, comfort him with a touch, but that was impossible of course.
“We were close… After seven months cooped up in that tin can … you get to know people. They were like family – Bob, Theresa, Lin… They didn’t deserve…”
“When did it happen, Gene?”
He shook his head. “A week after landing … a little less…”
He fell silent again, staring.
I2 leaned forward. “What happened?”
He shook his head, whispering, “I was the only survivor, Mona.”
I2 nodded, stunned.
It would be wrong to try to hurry him. I2 let him proceed at his own pace.
While I2 waited, I2 dredged the Cloud for everything about the 2075 ASA mission to Mars.
Every week for a year after the landing, the four astronauts broadcast messages telling family, loved ones and friends – and the world at large – what they were getting up to on the Red Planet. These broadcasts became less frequent when the thirty scientists and technicians joined them, and bandwidth became precious and had to be shared. Even so, they sent short messages back to Earth every month or so for the next few years…
But if Eugene MacArthur had been the only survivor of something catastrophic that had befallen the mission in the first week, then the subsequent broadcasts had been nothing more than clever dissimulations.
“Do you want to tell me about it, Gene?” I2 asked, gently.
He struggled to speak. His lips worked, but no sounds emerged. He shook his head. “I can’t recall…”
“We left the base, heading a few kilometres across the Mare Erythraeum. Just a routine trip… And then…” He frowned as he attempted to recall just what happened on that fateful Martian day.
Finally, he shook his head, giving up. “They didn’t come back with me, Mona. And … and I…”
He shook his head, whispering, “Beautiful… Terrible… Terribly beautiful…”
I2 nodded. “What was, Gene?”
He wept, shook his head. “I don’t know, Mona. All I know is … it was beautiful.”
“So they brought you back to Earth,” I2 said, a little later.
But the mission on Mars had continued – or had it? Even now, the occasional news report spoke about the mission, the colony’s work there. The base had expanded over the years, and now more than a hundred men and women from a dozen nations lived and worked on the Red Planet.
But what if that was just another devious simulation, like the broadcasts, hiding a terrible truth?
“I didn’t want to come back… I wanted to stay, to die with the others. I didn’t deserve…”
Survivor guilt, I2 thought.
He reached up and touched the port at the side of his head.
“They … they tried to help, to edit the memories. They told me what they were going to do, and I consented. But … but now I’d like to know what I agreed to get rid of, Mona.”
He just stared at me2, his ravaged expression testimony to the enforced amnesia.
Then suddenly – surprising me2 – he leaned forward. “But there’s a way…”
Startled, I2 said, “There is?”
“I’m going home, Mona. They’re taking me home.”
“Hoboken,” I2 said.
He smiled for the very first time. “The weatherboard on Kentucky Avenue. Right by the spaceport. Remember me telling you all about it?”
I smiled, faking it. “I remember,” I said.
“When I was a kid, sitting at my bedroom window and watching the ships as they lifted off… That’s what made me want to be an astronaut, Mona. Those big, powerful ships blasting off to explore the solar system. I wanted to be part of that.”
“And you were,” I2 murmured.
So much, I2 thought, for dreams.
He said, “Will you help me, Mona?”
“Get into the yard, find the Pegasus.”
I2 repeated the name of the ship, feeling for the poor man as he relived his childhood dreams of solar exploration.
“It’s there, you see.”
“The Pegasus?” I2 said.
He nodded, eager. “They repurposed the ship to bring me back – and then they scrapped the shell. It’s still there, at Hoboken, in the scrapyard next to the ’port.”
“But you can’t – ” I2 began.
Did he want to find the ship, fly it back to the Red Planet?
“It’s all in the ship, what happened to us.”
I2 stared at him. “It is?”
“The AI smartcore backed up everything that happened out there.”
“The authorities would have wiped it clean,” I2 said. “Gone through the AI, copied all the data and then purged the core so that not a single byte remained.”
He leaned forward again, gripping the arms of the wheelchair. “No! You don’t understand. We had a potential systems failure on entry, and Novak, our smartcore specialist, got into the smartcore and had the AI duplicate its running system on a deeper subroutine. If the authorities missed the subroutine when they cleaned up, Mona, then it’ll still be there…”
I2 stared at him, wondering at the likelihood that the information on the subroutine might have survived.
Leaning forward and staring at me, he asked, “So will you help me, Mona? When I get home? Come see me, get me into the scrapyard, and I’ll show you…”
I2 found myself nodding, murmuring another lie, but a necessary one. “Of course I will, Gene. I’ll do that for you – ”
I2 looked up as voices sounded outside the room. I2 moved from the bed and stepped behind MacArthur, then collapsed my2 avatar as the door opened.
Szabo entered the room, smiling, followed by his deputy.
“Are you ready, Colonel? You’re going home.”
MacArthur smiled. “Home…”
“Hoboken,” Szabo said.
Agitated, MacArthur looked around the room. “But where’s Mona?”
“Mona?” Szabo asked, staring around him, suddenly suspicious.
Alarmed, I concealed myself behind a curtain.
The deputy caught Szabo’s eye and whispered something, and the older man nodded.
He took the wheelchair and pushed the invalid from the room, and I2 had a terrible presentiment. Szabo had referred to Hoboken as a metaphor… What, I2 thought, if “home” was nothing but a euphemism?
I2 followed them along a corridor, around a corner and into a functional, tiled room, and my2 presentiment was allayed.
A gel-tank stood in the centre of the marbled floor.
“But…?” MacArthur began.
Szabo nodded to his deputy, and the young man picked up a lead from the tank and jacked it into the ex-astronaut’s skull.
MacArthur lost consciousness, and the deputy undressed him and eased him into the tank.
I2 watched the gel seal itself around his body, and the expression on the spacer’s face was one of peace at last.
Colonel Eugene MacArthur was going home.
As Szabo and his deputy were about to leave the room, something bleeped in the director’s breast pocket. He pulled out a device the size of a cigarette case and frowned at the inset screen.
He glanced at his deputy. “We have company.”
In panic, I2 swung towards the door, but it was shut.
He raised the device, swept it around the room, and it bleeped again when it found me2.
Then Szabo raised the device and hit me2 with a tight electromagnetic pulse.
I2 came to my2 senses in darkness. I2 scanned, but came up with nothing. The Cloud was denied me2. I2 lifted off, hit something above me, moved forward, hit something again. I2 was enclosed in a small container, sealed completely from the outside world: a Faraday cage.
It could only be a matter of time before they got an expert in to strip me2 down, scrape my2 memory cache, and discover what I2 was doing there.
I ran a check to ensure that everything I2’d experienced at the clinic had indeed been transmitted back to my original, and received confirmation that the upload had been successful.
In other words, I2 was now expendable.
I2 lowered myself to the base of the box and sat on my2 haunches.
I2 considered Szabo’s anger when he discovered the burnt-out drone.
Then I2 initiated the automatic self-erasure program and prepared to die.
Eric Brown has published over seventy books. His latest is Murder Most Vile, and later this year is the SF novel Wormhole, written with Keith Brooke. Also with Brooke, the Enigma Season quartet of novellas is forthcoming from PS Publishing. He lives near Dunbar in Scotland.
His website is at: ericbrown.co.uk
Artwork: Mark Toner
Approaching Human by Eric Brown is a serial in 10 parts. Episodes 1 & 2 were first published in Shoreline of Infinity 30, and subsequent episodes will be published fortnightly on the website from the 7th June onwards.