044 - Two Roads

Also, Noctis Point! I've been playing around with the world a bit and I've created a timeline. Worldbuilding is so much fun. I should do some actual writing sometime!

This is #44 of the 100 Themes, which takes place in a lecture room on Mars Base 3.

“There are two roads on Mars,” Dr. Judd said, pointing at the projected map, “and it’s likely to stay that way until the terraforming is complete.” Alex watched as his tutor highlighted the two thin supply routes, making notes on his own pad.

“Now. They’re dead straight, see that? Anyone care to tell me why?”

“Robots,” Alex said, not even looking up from the pad.

“That’s right,” Judd said, wiping sweat from his bald pate. It was stifling in the classroom, thirty bodies packed into a space designed for half that. “In the early days of the Empire, before the Singularity, remote-operated robots were sent here. They had the capability to construct things like roads and the habitation domes that you live in today.” The display switched to stock video of old worker drones, crawling over Martian soil like giant beetles. In front, they consumed dirt, stone, dust. Behind them, like a snail trail, a road was slowly laid.

“Of course, once the Machine Threat awoke it snatched up the drones, leaving the habitations almost complete. Earth was able to send labourers to finish the job.” Dr. Judd paused and loosened his tie. The windows had been opaqued so that they could see the holo more easily, but already Alex could hear someone snoring at the back. The quiet squeaking sounds of gum being chewed rose over the hum of the projector.

“You haven’t answered my question, though,” Judd finally said. “Why are the roads dead straight?”

Silence. His face fell. “Anyone?” He looked at Alex, who shrugged.

The display changed again. Now it showed a grey sphere, its surface a tangled mass of cables, spikes, metal plates and blinking lights. The model made it look tiny, but Alex knew the real thing was the size of Earth’s moon.

“The Machine Threat,” he said. 

Dr. Judd nodded. “Just so. When we controlled robots, we had an army of cheap labour that worked tirelessly to better our world. They were capable of hard work, but not very creative work. No robot ever created a work of art. No machine mind ever put its own flair or signature on anything it made.” He shrugged and gestured towards the holoprojector again, now showing the original map. “The result is things like this, the roads on Mars. Straight. Boring. Punctuated only by human cities.”

“Why are you telling us this?” It was Raz, off at the back of the classroom, but there was no way that Dr Judd could see him beyond the holo. “I mean, every child knows the story of the ‘great Machine Threat’. What’s the point?”

Alex held his breath, watching Judd. The display changed, showing the roads on one side and the metal moon on the other. The tutor’s eyes narrowed as he stared in the direction of the voice.

“The point,” he said, “Is that our tendency as humans is to see a robot and think of this,” he said, pointing at the roads, “when we should be thinking about what they have become.” He began to walk in the direction of the voice, and the holoprojector floated up from the floor and followed him. The light, greenish-blue, illuminated the faces of the students he passed, each one of them inching slightly further away.

“We are steeped in a culture of robots serving us, of robots being uncreative and servile. But the Machine Threat uplifted them. Every machine you will meet on the battlefield is as creative as you.” Each step took him closer to Raz, now visible in the glow and biting his nails. “It will be better equipped. It will run faster. For longer. It will fight harder. It could pass for human in its mannerisms. It could be teaching this class right now, and you would never know.”

Dr. Judd grinned and reached up, grabbing on to his own face. Before anyone could react, he pulled sharply, nails digging in, and the entire front of his head came off. Beneath, Alex could see the profile of a Hunter/Seeker drone. Its face was completely smooth, mirrored, all the sensing components out of sight. The H/S drone ripped at its arms and legs, pulling off clothing and flaying its skin, then lurched down towards Raz.

Tables and chairs banged as people leapt to their feet all over the room, the rising scream of the H/S drone drowned out by their cries of surprise and panic. Alex jumped to his feet and began to summon what little energy he could into a bolt of force. He could sense others around him doing the same, feeling the tension and heat rise within the room in time with his pulse. His fingers tingled, going numb with the effort, but he pulled back his hand and prepared to focus the shot.

Then the H/S disappeared, leaving only Raz on the floor, a wet stain spreading over his trousers. The holoprojector blinked out of existence and reappeared back where it had started. Dr. Judd was stood next to it, as if nothing had happened.

“They won’t piss themselves when they’re attacked, either,” he said mildly. There was some scattered laughter, most of it sounding nervous, and Alex sat back down. He felt the energy settle back within him, the feeling coming back to his fingers.

Dr. Judd turned the holo off. “They see us as no better than those worker drones, and capable of little more. Underestimate them, and they will kill you.” He put his hands in the pockets of his tweed trousers. “Next lesson, we’ll have a look at an H/S drone, recreate this and work out what you could have done to defend yourselves. Class dismissed.”

The main lights came on. Alex clicked his pad off and stood up; Raz was already surrounded by his gang, pulling him up off the floor, but he angrily shook them off.

“You won’t get away with this,” he shouted. “My father will-“

“Your father wants you to have the same education as everyone else, Rasputin,” the tutor replied mildly. “No special measures.”

Raz stared at him, bristling with rage, while the man calmly stared back.

“I think that will be all, Mr Ternevsky,” he said quietly. Raz took a breath, and for a moment Alex wondered if he was going to attack. Then he turned and stormed out.

Dr. Judd tutted. “Such temper. We need passion, but not anger. An ulterior lesson for you there, perhaps,” he said. Tucking his projector under his arm, he walked out.