“Well, Director, how shines the Light of Mars?”
UNIGOV Director Brian O’Sullivan turned away from his hologrid, suppressing his annoyance behind a perfectly cultivated bland smile. “The nanofield is stable again, Mr. Vesper.”
“Oh?” The other man ignored Brian’s empty smile, his attention focused more on the hologrid, fingers absently tracing the power and signal strength curves displayed there. “Stable is one word for it. Precarious is another.”
Brian tried to mimic the other’s relaxed posture but it his pesky vestigial martian instincts made it impossible. At five foot eleven not only was Vincent Vesper the bigger man but when discussing his chosen field of research he carried himself with enough poise and confidence to equal any fully licensed UNIGOV Director. The urge to challenge him was constantly clawing at the back of Brian’s mind. “Stabilizing large scale nanotech deployments is your field of expertise, Mr. Vesper. Perhaps you’d like to give the technicians a few pointers.”
Vesper turned and glared a Brian from under his bushy white eyebrows, his eyes glittering with a strange and unsettling light. “You would enjoy that, wouldn’t you, Director? Knowing the pet inventor that you defrosted after thirty years on ice is back to quietly working away for the success of your latest pet project.”
“This isn’t about pets or projects, Mr. Vesper.” Brian struggled to keep his amiable, cooperative expression in place. He didn’t enjoy knowing Vesper was working on anything. While Vesper had been put into shutdown decades before Brian was promoted to the Directorate when the decision was made to run the technician through the reboot procedure he’d made it a point to read up on the man. What he’d learned disturbed him. “The Directorate is concerned that the very way of life that sapiens spent so long building on this planet is on the verge of pulling apart at the seams. Who better to try to repair that damage than the greatest builder Earth has ever produced?”
“When was the last time the UNIGOV Directorate wanted to build something?” Vesper snorted in derision. “You always knew it was possible the martians would return and we would need something to keep them at bay. A monument to cooperation that would cow their ambitions. A light of truth to dispel their lies and send them scampering back into the darkness. Rather than make one you chose to punish us when we did it for you.”
“Walls and borders are just another part of martian thinking, Vesper,” Brian replied, his soothing tone more to ease his own worries than to placate the other man. He still wondered if they might be too close to the edge of martian ways already. Although the Directorate had agreed to finally give the Light of Mars their official sanction it didn’t mean they had no misgivings. “If we were that defensive about things we’d be no better than them.”
“We’re going to be deader than they are if we’re not careful.” Vesper sighed and started fiddling with the hologrid’s controls, much to the consternation of the technicians ostensibly watching that station. Brian gave them a slight nod and they moved out of his way. “I can tweak this a bit and even out the field fluctuations about twenty percent but it’s only a temporary fix. We knew about this design flaw the first time the project was under way but never worked it out.”
“What do you need?” Brian asked. “The full resources of UNIGOV are at your disposal.”
For a moment Vesper didn’t say anything, just leaning in and peering at the very bottom of the holotank as if he was trying to puzzle out something written there. “Did… did you burn out the power relays in one of the field generators? How is that possible?”
A meaningful tilt of the head from the Director prompted one of the technicians to say, “It was a result of rapid field strength adjustments. The martians launched some kind of high energy attack on the field and it collapsed. We don’t have any imaging from that high up so it’s hard to tell for sure but the telescopes we’ve trained on their location make it look like some kind of ionized plasma barrage.”
Vesper spat, causing everyone else in the room to jump. “Plasma. Of course. Then there really won’t be a perfect fix to your problems, Director, because large scale magnetic fields are very vulnerable to outside influence. The equipment you’ve got here isn’t enough to proof the Light of Mars against a large volume of ionized plasma.”
“As I said, Mr. Vesper, anything we can bring to bear on this project is available to you.” Brian opened up his tablet and prepared to key in a search for whatever was needed. “We can have any personnel or nanufactory on Earth working on an issue inside the hour.”
The old man raised an eyebrow. “Well, Director, maybe you are taking this seriously after all. First off, we need to quintuple the strength of the magnetic field.”
“Quintuple?” The lead tech’s jaw dropped. “Director, that’s going to take more than just field generators. We need miles of cable, a second power source and a much more modern computer system to synchronize everything. Not to mention an ocean of new nanotech. About a quarter of what we had before shorted when the field collapsed before and needs to be replaced plus all the extra? A field five times strong requires exponentially more nanotech to fill it.”
“Just replace what you lost,” Vesper said. “The point of strengthening the field is to disrupt and deionize the plasma so it will cause fewer problems in the heart of the field. We’re not going to have the nanotech operating over an area any larger than we were before. It’d loose cohesion.”
“How does making the unstable field larger make it more stable, if I may ask?”
Vesper nodded in grudging satisfaction at Brian’s question. “You may, Director. You may. The fact is that it doesn’t, in fact it will probably make it a little less stable. However if we can prevent the plasma from burning through the nanotech suspended in the field the fluctuations created by just the plasma ions shouldn’t make the field collapse. But ultimately what we need is better software.”
The head tech looked up at the hologrid then back at Vesper. “What we’ve got here is state of the art.”
“Then we’re going to have to make the art better than ever and fast because what you’re running here cannot handle juggling the power load and frequency calculations necessary to keep thirty five magfield generators running and adjusting with the fineness necessary to make this work.” The old inventor started punching names into his console. “We’re going to need about ten to twenty of your best and brightest coders but that’s not all. I need some people from my team. We were already working on the field stability issues when the project was shutdown.”
Vesper’s names popped up on Brian’s tablet with a quiet ping. He looked the list over quickly. “Just some? We could take all sixty of them out for you if it made your life more convenient.”
Brian’s sarcasm was lost on him. “It would. I look forward to seeing them outside the guts of your filthy computers again. Is it possible to see a sample of the burned out nanotech?”
“Mr. Richards can arrange that for you?” Brian waited until his lead tech nodded and smiled. “Excellent. I think we’ve made good progress here, Mr. Vesper, and I look forward to seeing what you can do here! I’ll leave the two of you to it and see what I can arrange with the shutdown techs.”
Brian stopped smiling as soon as he was out of the plant’s control room. He hadn’t been kidding when he said that all the resources UNIGOV had to offer were available to him to get the Light of Mars project up and running again. What he hadn’t told Vesper were exactly how many resources were available. There weren’t as many as the old man seemed to think there were.
Oh, he would get his new generators and cables and whatever else the local nanufactories could produce as quickly as they could produce it. Bringing in some of the raw materials might be difficult. Large quantities of rare earths would need to be moved over from the stockpiles in Africa but there were still a number of midsized cargo transports left in old Vaults here and there. The bigger issue was the personnel.
UNIGOV had spent a lot of time on trying to hash out an AI breakthrough in the last fifty years and the result had been a decline in the number of software engineers available for programming tasks that didn’t relate to AI. He wasn’t sure if they could transfer their expertise to Vesper’s needs. Then again, his position in the Directorate had nothing to do with technology or education to begin with so ultimately those issues were going to have to be sorted out by others.
His committee oversaw medical and disciplinary affairs. In other words, they were the ones in charge of managing the administration of medical nanotech and, if necessary, taking people into and out of Shutdown. Director Brian O’Sullivan was Vesper’s minder – or, as they would’ve said during the martian era his parole officer. It was his job make sure Vesper didn’t turn full martian and to put him back in Shutdown if he did. In theory it was his job to do that for all of Vesper’s peers as well.
As he walked Brian readied his handheld holophone and sent a signal to his subordinate in the Bakersfield Vault. It took a few minutes eventually SubDirector Baker appeared in full holo. She was young and hard edged, part of the most resolutely environmentalist factions in the Directorate to the point where she’d discarded her birth name and its martian connotations and chosen to identify with her place of work instead. Sometimes Baker’s extreme positions intimidated him but she was very good at her job. “Hello, SubDirector,” he said. “How are we feeling today?”
“The job’s been very masc today, Director, uncooperative and stubborn. And you?”
“Much the same. Shall I make a note of your change in disposition in the records?” Brian asked, his hand hovering over his device’s controls.
“No, no, the femme touch is the right approach to masc days.” She managed a grim smile, which did a great deal for her appearance that Brian studiously ignored. “Thank you for asking, although I’m guessing squaring up the records isn’t why you called.”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Problems with Mr. Vesper?”
“Not as such. I wanted to know if there were any updates on the condition of your patients.”
Baker went to work at some screen or tablet that wasn’t making it into the holographic projection. Her image reduced from her full, normal height of five foot three to two feet tall and three other projections filled in the empty three quadrants left vacant by the change. These projections changed every few seconds. Most of the people they displayed were unconscious in medical beds but about a third were awake and moving about unseen environments. About a quarter of those who were awake looked violently upset at something, the rest stared into space or looked around blankly.
As these encouraging images began showing Baker said, “We’ve completed the first stage of the revival process on all subjects at this point to varying degrees of success. As you can see, most are still in a state of unconsciousness. Of those that are awake, Mr. Vesper is the only one who has responded to outside stimulus so far. We’re currently debating whether we should allow them to have contact with people who knew them before they went into Shutdown, it may provide a strong enough outside stimulus to bring their minds back to the present.”
“Do you know why the unconscious ones aren’t waking up?” Brian asked. “Their nanotech should have kept them physically healthy.”
“It did. They have just as robust a metabolism and circulatory system as you or I and their muscle mass is within normal bounds.” Baker wiped away the real time feeds and switched the feed to a 50/50 set up with herself on top and a medical readout below. “As you can see, they should be normal.”
“I sense a but coming.”
“But.” The medical chart changed to a brain scan. “As you can see, their brains have atrophied. We thought the shutdown fugue state would keep it healthy and allow them to wake up with no issues. However it looks like that wasn’t the case. A lot of them just started to come out of their coma only to find the parts of their brain that handled conscious thinking too worn out to handle the process. So they went right back to sleeping.”
“Can we restore that part of the brain?”
Baker shrugged and cleared the brain scan away. “Maybe. Medinano is supposed to use our DNA as its programming and built whatever our genes say should exist. We’re still trying to figure out how this kind of atrophied brain tissue was allowed in the first place.”
“Well, keep working that angle. Is that also the cause of the problems for the people who did successfully wake from Shutdown?”
“No. We’re not seeing that pattern of atrophy in them, at least not to the degree we see it in the unconscious ones.” A new file opened below her holo, this time a personnel listing for half a dozen psychiatrists. “I’ve called in some experts to see if there’s some kind of psychosis that set in as a result of their shutdown.”
Brian nodded and keyed in a new name to the end of the listing. “A good decision, SubDirector. I’ve added an additional name I think you should consult. Tie our project code to the request and he should arrive by tomorrow.”
“Who’s this?” Baker asked, her brow furrowed. “I’ve never heard of Gavan Chandler.”
“He’s an expert on trauma.”
Baker’s frown deepened. “Trauma? But the Shutdown process is supposed to be humane.”
“Perhaps. But no matter how sapien we are, SubDirector… nobody’s perfect. Right now it’s more important to figure out why Shutdown did this to these people than it is to worry what it says about the process.”
A flash of disappointment crossed her face then she sighed. “I suppose so. I’ll bring him in, Director.”
“Thank you, SubDirector. Let me know if there’s any change.” He ended the call and went to think about something more pleasant. Like where he could find fifty miles of wire on short notice.