I try to turn my head — the only part of my body that is merely restrained rather than actually strapped down tight — to look my neighbor in the eye, but the juddering of the transporter in the outer atmosphere stops me.
“How did they get you?” he repeats, shouting over the hollow thud of the craft surfing the mesosphere.
I push myself harder against the bloated cylindrical straps, each one the thickness of my thigh.
We hit sudden turbulence. Like stepping off a cliff blindfolded, then landing on granite. My neck compresses; I bite my tongue. I taste blood. I want to pull myself into a protective ball, but the straps won’t let me.
“You achieved humanity?”
I’m reminded that these machines are meant to be empathetic, to read our state of mind from our facial expressions, the qualities that led to their prohibition, their persecution. But right now, my features are smearing with the G-force; nobody, man or machine, can be expected to discern anything.
I’m shouting now, in the spaces between the moments when the craft sounds as if it’s about to buckle and snap.
“YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND. I’M HUMAN. REALLY.”
I look at Carter, then back at the bottle, then back to Carter. He’s grinning.
I take a closer look. It looks real.
“Whiskey. From Earth. Canadian. From one of the last years to use natural ingredients.”
From somewhere he produces two glasses, cut crystal, holds them up triumphantly.
Carter shrugs. “With ice. Or on its own.”
“No, I mean, how? I thought this was a dry colony.”
“I had it described as an antique on the docket. A trading commodity.”
I find I’m shaking my head without meaning to. “I thought trading commodities were virtual.”
“Sometimes people want to have a real thing of beauty in their real glass-fronted cabinet…”
“There are no glass-fronted cabinets on Mars. This place is a hole, even compared to Earth.”
He wags a finger in mock-disapproval, “…and, in any case, the ore ships come back emptier than they go, even with supplies, so it’s not really that difficult.”
He brandishes the glasses again, an expectant expression across his face. They clink, a satisfyingly solid noise.
“This may be a hole, but it’s a hole with a future,” Carter declares. “I’m glad you’ve made it your future.”
“You don’t know why I came to Mars, do you?”
I’ve only been in Carter’s pod a matter of minutes. From the outside it looks exactly like the pod that I’ve been assigned, that everybody is assigned: a grey corrugated egg. Like an egg, it’s stronger than you would suspect, strong enough to cope with the climactic conditions of a world going through the gestation of terraforming, even within protective biodomes. From the inside, however…
Whereas words like practical, utilitarian, functional could be applied to mine, Carter’s triggers ambience, comfort, hygge. A horseshoe sofa dominates the middle of the pod (how has he managed to get that through the door, let alone transported from Earth?) perfect for the videoscreen, currently nestled against the ceiling, ready to swing down on its high-end hydraulics. Artworks. A jar of cooking utensils over and above the standard issue plastic spatula and spoon sits beside a range that’s several steps up from what is meant to come with a single man’s quarters. I suspect cupboards hold ingredients that a probationer like me simply cannot pick up in the stores. There are pools of light, where I have harsh fluorescence of motion-sensitive ceiling cells; pine and lemon, where I have untreated air conditioning; patterned rugs, instead of non-slip press-patterned steel.
I imagine Carter’s rationale for coming to Mars, like his experience of Mars life, is the polar opposite of mine.
“I like to think you killed a man,” he says.
“Perhaps I did. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Carter’s face clouds, sensing something he’s not getting.
“I don’t remember because of that,” I nod towards the bottle.
“I didn’t realize,” he says, spiriting the whiskey away towards the kitchen area, but making a meal out of hiding it, unwittingly drawing attention to the ruse. “You’re not the first.”
“I read somewhere that the cells of your body replace themselves after seven years. With this being a dry colony, and the blood test regime in the mines… I do my year in the mines, get residency, find a role, maybe in the administration. After seven years…”
I realize that it sounds like I’m trying to position myself for a role working for Carter, trail off before I overstep; that isn’t what I’ve come for. Not so abruptly, at least.
“My father didn’t say. Or, maybe your father didn’t tell my father.”
“He doesn’t know.”
“You managed to hide it? For how long?”
“It only ever happened once.”
Carter’s hand hovers, glasses in hand; he’s looking where he can stow them out of sight. He sounds confused. “You drank once; you got drunk once? Once, and you move to Mars? I know things on Earth are bad, but the way you were talking, I thought it was a profession. Turns out it’s not even a hobby.”
“Once was enough to tell me I liked it, and not in a good way.”
“The doctors told you that?”
“They didn’t need to. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t want it on my records.”
Carter laughs, not seeing it as any big deal. “We’ve all been there. Part of growing up.”
“Once was enough to show myself something about me that I don’t like. It won’t happen again; I won’t let it. By being on Mars it can’t.”
“You don’t honestly think your fellow miners aren’t making moonshine in their pods out of stolen canteen potatoes?” he gently challenges, before picking up the bottle with a laugh of bonhomie, diffusing the mood. “Trust me. I won’t let it happen again, either. But I do insist on toasting your arrival on Mars, hole or otherwise. And I insist you join me.”
He pours two shots and holds out a glass to me.
Find Carter, my parents told me. They were somewhat vague about who Carter was, other than being the son of one of my father’s former colleagues, and that he was something in the administration even though he wasn’t even five years older than me. Good university, good degree, time served fact-checking for a senator. I was being told to consider myself lucky that Carter was still there, that he hadn’t moved on to the next foothold up the greasy pole of public administration. There are other, bigger colonies on Mars, growing under biodomes like mushrooms on rotten wood. Better candidates for a Martian capital; better places for a future Martian senator.
He can help, my parents told me, not understanding my reasons for emigrating. You need somebody you can turn to. You don’t know the risks.
Do whatever he suggests…
I know Carter has not done his requisite twelve months in the mines in order to buy his bond, his right to remain. I doubt remaining is even on his radar. He makes no reference to his time at the face, like all those who elected to come to the red planet who now have residency do until you get sick of hearing it. He’s too much of an aesthete, too well manicured, too liable to quote and cite and refer to art and ideas, not like he’s showing off but as if it’s part of your everyday conversation too, a vocabulary he simply assumes is shared.
“You ever wonder why we don’t just use dumb droids to do all the jobs, not just get the ore out?”
“We still haven’t restored the magnetosphere…”
He waves my argument away, “We could do it all remotely. It’s taken over a century to melt the ice caps, to get bacteria to make a sustainable atmosphere outside the domes foreseeable. We need you to be Martians, not exiled Earthlings. The people need Mars. Mars needs people.”
His use of you and we, never meaning us, makes me wary. He makes references to things I only half understand, as if he has unbounded oversight. Initially, I think he merely knows how the system runs; I’m rapidly concluding that the system is something he’s responsible for. Or a part of it.
Pouring another jigger, he suddenly offers me a piece of advice.
“Whatever you do, don’t get mistaken.”
I wonder if he’s going to stop anytime soon. The first glass broke the ice. The second made merry. The third was getting carried away. How many since?
“A true synth. With artificial consciousness.”
I snort, more loudly than I intend. “How is that even possible?”
He shrugs. “Stranger things. I was at the Department when we outlawed true synths, after they started to kill…”
“No, I mean, how?”
Carter swirls the whiskey, as if addressing the spirit itself. “Funny what you were saying about the cells of your body replacing themselves. Let me tell you a story…”
My head feels like it’s being languidly crushed in a vice. My eyes have become too big for their sockets; I can feel the dead weight of pent up pressure, as if disembodied thumbs are prizing my eyeballs loose. My throat tastes bitter, earthy, sour.
I vowed I would never, ever let this happen to myself again.
I press my head in my pillow, willing my sleepcell to stop flipping over. Does gravity two-fifths of Earth make this worse, I wonder? If I try to stand I’m not sure whether I would tip over or the pod would. All I know is an overwhelming sense that I should stay where I am, absolutely still. Anything else could lead to consequences.
“Message,” I call, not quite recognizing my own croaky voice, wincing at the effort, at the mere movement of my jaw.
“Recipient?” the disembodied voice of my pod responds, it’s purr neither masculine nor feminine.
“Nettan Alba, Site Manager, Mine 47, Mars.”
Toneless; is that a question or a statement?
“Yes, you know who Alba is,” I complain, immediately wishing I hadn’t.
There’s a pause followed by static followed by a similar, but more distant, synthetic voice repeating “Connecting” over and over. And then a crunch and Alba’s voice fills the pod all too loudly, behind him the screech of machines.
I’m not sure what I’m going to say until I say it. I go for food poisoning, one of the few transitory conditions that doesn’t need to be reported within the Mars mining colony. Even so, somebody may still pick it up and map back what I ate yesterday — docket, shipment, origin — but that’s a risk I’ll have to take. I hope I don’t end up having to drag Carter into this.
Carter… fragments of the night before kaleidoscope into my memory.
Task completed, I press my head back into the pillow. Hunker down and ride it out.
“How ya feeling?”
Alba looks over to me as we’re changing, pulling on the high-viz jackets and black digital gloves that interface with the skeletons, the hydraulic lifting frames like oversized circus strongmen that help weigh us down, within which we shift and carry whatever needs to be shifted and carried at the pithead. There are thirty of us, packed together in a cabin. The air smells of recycled sweat and deodorizer. But that’s the price you pay for your bond, your residency, your slice of a fully terraformed — delivery date to be confirmed, cynics suggest not within our lifetimes — Mars.
I shrug. I still feel lousy, but it’s a distant kind of lousy, an echo of what I’d been feeling the day before. Even so, I haven’t appreciated how loud thirty lockers being banged at the same time can be.
I have one glove on, the other readied. I look at Alba in confusion.
I realize that nobody else amongst the pithead crews is gloved or jacketed as yet.
“I thought we get twenty-four hours’ notice?”
“You did,” Alba crows, rocking with a half-laugh. “Yesterday morning.”
I feel my stomach drop with a cold, clammy, sick feeling. How much had I had to drink? How long before it works its way through me and out? The orientation lectures said that alcohol metabolites can remain in the system eighty hours.
“Henry,” I call under my breath.
Henry Kablinka, who has residency, and therefore mines for wages out of choice, turns to me. I’ve managed to get his attention without altering anybody else.
“Swap with me.”
“Swap with me.”
He stares at me as if I’m joking before realizing from my eyes that I’m not. He sucks his teeth and waves me away like I’m crazy. Which is probably what I am.
It’s a man I don’t know well, Taylforth or Taylridge or something. I’d shaken his hand when he arrived, a bullish team spirit slap of a shake, but haven’t exchanged one meaningful word with him since.
“Great,” I begin.
“What?” This is extortion.
Henry harrumphs. I can’t exactly stop him overhearing.
“It’s gotta be something threatening your bond. Five thou.”
“Whichever one of us is called first we tell the doctor we misheard, and that we’ll get the other one straight after. That way nobody sees us answering to the wrong name.” He says it like he’s done this it all before, like he’s just explaining the controls on the skeleton to a newbie.
“Credit me three thou and we’ll swap ID cards. We look similar enough.”
“Okay,” I say again, the initiative no longer in my hands.
I fingerprint the transaction on my handheld, shaking my head with regret at my own stupidity. Identification is exchanged. I had been almost right; his name is Tayldean. And then we edge away from each other, the transaction leaving me feeling sordid.
“Anderson,” a voice calls.
I close the door to the medical room, a windowless beige box, and sit down. I don’t recognize the doctor, not the company doctor but a thin-faced man who’s taken the biodome paleness to extremes. His eyes are red-rimmed like he’s been crying. I suspect an allergy to the recycled atmosphere, but he’d know better than I would.
“No, Tayldean,” I mumble the end. “I misheard when you called.”
The doctor flicks his list. “Tayldean, Anderson. How do they sound similar?”
I shrug and flash Tayldean’s ID. “Like I said.”
The doctor removes a squat vial from a plastic bag. Ordered, I roll up my sleeve. I feel a dull scratch as the needle hits and the vial takes my blood and then it’s over.
“Do you want me to get Anderson?”
The doctor grunts in the affirmative and I exit as swiftly as possible, avoiding eye contact. He must know.
It’s nighttime when they come for me.
Somewhere in my dreams I hear the lockbreaker’s focused blastcharge as a distant bump. And then my eyes open into disabling, disorientating spotlights nosing from the ends of weapons. I put my arms up over my face, still not really awake.
And then I’m bundled out of bed, roughly like I’m just meat to them.
“What is this?”
And then another light, a handheld flashlight is shone in my face.
“Connor Anderson?” says the face behind the light. They could just turn the lights on but then it’d be a level playing field. The dead-of-night visit, the blinding lights; it’s all part of their tactics.
“You’re Connor Anderson, skeleton-lift driver, Mine 46?”
“Mine 47,” I correct, involuntarily.
“What happened to the real Connor Anderson?”
“Whadyamean?” I’m wide-awake now.
“I don’t need to tell you what we found in your blood.”
“It was whiskey,” I start to protest before remembering that, no, the sample wasn’t mine…
Flashlight takes the beam out of my eyes; my pod’s lights go on and I’m pushed back onto a chair. Flashlight turns out to have cropped ginger hair and angry eyes set close together.
“I don’t care what you… things call them. But we can always tell what you are.”
“What we are? What are we?”
Another two of them are combing my living cell, systematically searching. One even has his hand in my breakfast cereal.
“If you tell me what you’re looking for maybe I can help.”
Flashlight snorts and throws clothes at me, straight out of my washing basket. “Get dressed, thing.”
I’m jabbering before I’m even sitting down in the interrogation room, repeating the truth, because it’s all I can think to do. When I mention Carter’s name, that he’s part of the administration, they just laugh and say, yeah, they’ve heard of him.
They’d had me locked in the back of a police skimmer, then manhandled, thumbs pressed into my shoulder blades, into the security station. Then I’d been processed: retinal scan, fingerprint scan, holoscan of my head, holoscan of my entire body, naked. And all the time I just want to talk.
“Look, this is what happened. I’d been drinking alcohol the night before…”
“Alcohol, huh?” Flashlight plays along with heavy irony; he’s the only one I’ve heard utter a word so far. “With a big bowl of chips and a ball game. You’ve taken the whole transformation into flesh to extremes.”
“Where did you get alcohol on Mars?”
“Trahern Carter?” He shoots a smile at his two colleagues standing guard by the door; it’s like the punchline to a joke to them.
“I’d taken the day off before because I felt so lousy. Check with Nettan Alba. He’s the site manager. I thought the alcohol would still show up in my blood, so I swapped places with a colleague. Tayldean. My blood’s Tayldean’s and his is mine.”
Flashlight smiles benevolently at me. “You expect me to believe that?”
I roll my sleeve up, thrust my arm across the table at him. “Take my blood. Take it now.”
“We already have.”
I’m confused, and he can see it; despite the extensive scans they’ve taken no blood.
“That’s what the records will show,” he says, grinning.
As the enormity of what he’s telling me hits home I rise from my seat. I don’t know what I’m going to do, swing at him maybe. But I’m bundled back down by Flashlight’s colleagues before finding out what I’m capable of.
“Whatever drug you found wasn’t in my blood. All I had was a few drinks.”
“You don’t seem to understand. We’re not interested in alcohol or narcotics. That’s all little league to us. What we’re looking for are nanoreplicants.”
What was it Carter told me? A story that the government and the military-industrial-complex didn’t want us to know. Cyborgs made flesh by way of molecular converters that could turn silicates into skin and bone and blood. He called the stuff nanoreplicants. And they think I’m one of them.
Flashlight sits back in his chair and looks at me from under hooded lids. “Do you know what nanoreplicants mean? They mean monster blood. And we found some.”
“I’m not a monster.”
“There used to be a name for monsters like you. Robots. Before you learnt to camouflage yourselves as human.”
“Talk to Trahern Carter. Get him,” I slam the table.
After a moment of silent deliberation, Flashlight shrugs and nods at one of his colleagues, who exits, only to be replaced by another operative a moment later, as if I cannot be left with fewer than three in the room.
I glower at Flashlight, my palms smarting.
“You know what happens to robots, robot?” he says.
I don’t need to be told: Trahern Carter explained all, how they are transported back to the dying, irradiated Earth, how they are conscripted into the Special Assault Force — the so-called Army of Robots — to fight for control of what little is left. But that will not be my fate. Trahern Carter will unravel this mess.
Whilst they have me stewing, Flashlight glances up at his colleague. “Maybe we should check this Tayldean. What do you think?”
And just when I think they may be giving my story some weight, the unseen figure behind me replies, “Oh yeah, double bonus.”
Flashlight gives a little fistpump, like he’s just scored a basket from the halfway line, grinning like he expects me to join in. Tayldean hadn’t done it before at all.
Flashlight’s colleague re-enters. “Turns out Mister Carter is aware of a Mister Anderson. Gave me a message that should I happen to see him, to tell him that it’s not true that all the cells of the human body are replaced after seven years, that it doesn’t apply to your neurons or DNA.”
Flashlight screws his face up in mock-confusion that would be comic under other circumstances. “Curious message. If we see Mister Anderson, I’m sure we’ll tell him.”
I feel like I’m about to lose control of my stomach and everything downstream. “It’s Tayldean you want, not me. Tayldean,” I scream.
Flashlight leans over the microphone supposedly recording my interrogation, a recording that I’m sure is already officially lost even assuming the mic is more than a stage prop, and whispers conspiratorially. “You don’t get it, do you, Mister Anderson? Carter may be some effete college fag with his performance indicators and theorizings, but we’re the ones that get our hands dirty with the job. We’re paid by results. And you,” he stabs a finger at me with his free hand, “are a result. As is Tayldean.”
I’ve failed to notice the silent guards move position; they’re behind me, gripping me, elbows forcing my head into some kind of bridle, shackling my feet and ankles. As they pull me out of the room and down the corridor strapped to a trolley, like the gas cylinders we use at the pithead, I see a door ajar and a sliver of a man at a desk poring over a report with a faintly bored expression, hand massaging temple.
I try to scream against my gag, but as I’m wheeled past I can’t even make him turn his head.
I put a real effort into twisting my head to look at my neighbor. We’re now being buffeted so strongly that he looks like a dozen overlaid images, juddering. A dozen resigned, blank expressions.
Because that’s the thing about robots that still differentiates them from humans. Even with their artificial flesh they can still withstand being subjected to a 15G assault landing. As opposed to a human, who will be torn apart internally by 15G. This is the fate that lies before me. I just hope I black out beforehand.
“I’m human!” I scream.
The robot nods. At least, I think he nods. The craft is screaming, shrieking, shaking. I think he thinks I mean that that’s what happens when every cell of your robotic body becomes flesh, that you reach some tipping point where you’re so human that you forget — no, deny — ever having been artificial. I can’t explain it, but I know that’s what he’s thinking.
Maybe he’s right. If every cell were to change to flesh, then who’s to say you were ever robot?
And then the craft drops like a stone, yaws crazily, and begins to barrel-roll.
And I pray for my life to end.