Curiosity

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Adella’s bright eyes opened.

“Hey,” a voice said. “I can’t believe you somehow slept through that.”

Adella turned towards Risa, the mission leader.

“Look out there. That’s Martian soil.”

Adella looked through the window near her seat and saw rust-colored dunes, and the strangest sight: a blue sunset. The soft orange sky melted into an even softer blue horizon. On the ground, several transport vehicles pulled up beside the spacecraft. Adella turned and saw Risa impatiently gesturing to hurry up. She came to and finally remembered the mission, as well as the big problem with the Mars colony.

Adella quickly grabbed her helmet from her locker and attached it to her suit. Several audible clicks bounced off the confined corridors of the ship, making Adella smile—at least she wasn’t the last one ready.

By the exit ramp, she found Risa and both jumped into one of the transporters, along with a dozen other specialists.

“Hey, Risa,” Adella nudged her colleague. “Do you have any clue what the ‘big problem’ is supposed to be? Why didn’t they tell us of any details yet?”

Risa stared into Adella’s eyes for a moment, unblinking. “I trust the Earth-Mars Alliance sent us here for a reason. We’ll just have to ask the Colony Director for more details.”

Adella sighed. She couldn’t wrap her mind around what the Alliance knew that couldn’t be shared with the mission specialists. Each minute, her curiosity grew. Questions kept firing in her mind as they approached Primis, the first and only colony on Mars. There didn’t seem to be any issues at first glance. The modular domed buildings looked a bit worn from decades of sand ablating the once-smooth and polished metal. But it was only that, just an aesthetic issue. Not too far from the colony was a large solar panel array, and yet it too looked fine—spotless, in fact. She could see the lights were already on around Primis, so the power was running too. What was it that a hundred specialists from Earth needed to be sent here? Adella became even more puzzled as she remembered there wasn’t anything in common between them in the team. Risa was an architect, the Alliance coordinator and mission leader. Sitting next to her, Celeste was a botanist specializing in aeroponic plant growth. Adella herself was a specialist in computer systems. Nothing tied them together. Frustrated, Adella wished she could find a clue. She sighed again, shaking her head.

They neared the entrance to Primis. All the modular domes of the colony looked as if they rose out of the Martian soil naturally. It was as if they were massive butterscotch igloos, a marriage between high-tech robotic construction and low-tech earthworks—or marsworks. Six domes connected by tunnels, all to house exactly three and a half thousand permanent Martians. Adella wondered what it must be like to live somewhere so distant from Earth, and not just in a physical sense. What could drive someone to begin a life in a concrete dome on an alien planet?

The vehicle went through the double airlock doors, and Adella could see they were not the first to arrive. A few dozen mission crew were already inside, and Adella followed her leader out of the vehicle as another one was coming through behind them. She looked around the large room they were in, with several floors and platforms connected by metal walkways.

A man tapped Adella’s shoulder.

“Hi, I’m Anthony Markov, Chief of Systems. How was your trip here?”

Adella turned to look at the man. He was neither young nor old, his hair fixed up in a neat ponytail. His bright clothes were a breath of originality after seeing white utility suits for so long.

“Hi, I’m Adella Turing. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much of the flight at all. I must have slept through most of it.”

“Adella? That’s an interesting name,” he said, his eyes were elsewhere. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from England. My parents liked to listen to a popular singer from London, though you might not have heard of her on Mars. When she passed away, I was born, and that’s how I got my name. What kind of music do they have here on Mars? I’m curious to know.”

Markov looked puzzled, and didn’t answer for a few seconds. His face suddenly turned serious. “Are you part of this mission?”

“Yes, of course,” she replied. She still wanted to know what music was popular.

“No one else has asked me a question from your team, except you,’ he paused for another moment. He looked back at another man on a metal walkway grating, looking over the meeting area.

“I hope we can chat again. Hopefully before your team starts working,” he walked away and quickly turned around, “The music here is imported, as are many things… Yet, you might be able to find something here that’s uniquely our own.” He smiled pleasantly, and his eyes trailed off into a train of thought Adella could sense, but not understand.

She found Risa in the crowd and asked her about the man on the walkway.

“That’s Walter Hess, Chief of Security at Primis,” she said.

Someone approached Hess on the walkway, and whispered something in his ear. The Chief kept looking at the mission team, shaking his head slowly. From the ground floor, Adella thought his expression to be either one of an overworked, tired man or one of cold enmity. She left Risa to take a closer look at Hess’ face, just to be sure, when a voice boomed through speakers in the room.

“Hello, this is Colony Director Steve Zhang speaking. Well, so this is how Earthlings look like nowadays! My, you all look nearly alike with your eggshell white space suits. There’s no need for them here anymore, the air is pristine, and not a smidgen of radiation. The gravity here, however, is something you’ll need to get used to.”

Adella spotted the director on top of a platform on the third floor. He had a grey suit on, and glasses that occasionally caught the light, turning them into bright circles.

“The meeting is scheduled to begin in the morning, at 8 o’clock sharp, on the insistence of the Mars-Earth Alliance. You’ll be escorted to one of our living quarters shortly. Welcome to our home,” Zhang said and exited the room. As he turned off his mic, Adella thought she heard him say something else, the last word being “brief”.

When she looked again for Hess, he wasn’t there anymore. It seemed odd to her that the Director didn’t mention why they were here either. It all seemed too strange, a puzzle which she couldn’t solve in her mind. She was determined to find out more about the colony on her own tomorrow morning, before the meeting.

The group of specialists were escorted out of the entrance room, and the living quarters were within reasonable walking distance. Adella tried to speak with the others, but didn’t get very far in her conversations. They all would rather sleep instead, and eventually, she decided to do the same.

The time was 7 am, one hour before the meeting. Adella was ready to go explore the colony, when she saw Celeste finish a conversation with Risa. Perhaps she had an opinion on what was going on in the Mars colony.

“Celeste, I’m going for a brief walk to examine the colony for any obvious signs of problems. I could use your help. Can you come with me?” Adella said.

She looked at Adella strangely, and thought for a moment before answering, “I can do that, as long as we come back before the group goes to the meeting. We can’t miss it.”

“Agreed,” Adella nodded. After they were out of earshot from the living quarters, she thought about how to word her suspicions and questions. “Celeste, why did you decide to come to Mars?”

“It was something I was meant to do,” she answered without hesitation.

“What is the problem we’re supposed to fix here? Everything looks fine,” Adella said as she looked around. The colony seemed exactly like something out of a sci-fi novel. Streets were made of hexagonal tiles, the buildings were rounded, and everything was spotless. There was no sky above, as the concrete dome had no windows to the outside world. Quiet electric vehicles drove past them on the wide streets; they didn’t seem to be in any rush. People kept their distance when they walked past them. There were no signs of children, but that was to be expected on Primis.

“I’m surprised you don’t know why we’re here, Adella.”

They both stopped.

“There’s an overcrowding issue, and we were sent here to build another adjacent colony.”

“Oh,” Adella said, looking confused. It seemed so simple, why didn’t anyone tell her? She looked around. Was this what overcrowding in a colony looked like?

“We need to head back now, the mission crew is likely getting ready to go to the meeting now,” Celeste said.

Adella shook her head. “Wait, I don’t understand. How could it be overcrowding if the population here is always maintained? There’s always three and a half thousand colonists, and it’s been that way for decades.”

“The Mars-Earth Alliance is planning to send more of us, and there certainly will be overcrowding if we don’t build an extension to the colony in time.”

“Why didn’t I know about this? This is the first I’ve heard about this plan,” Adella tried to keep herself from shouting, with only moderate success.

“We received an update in the morning, you should have—”

Out of the flow of the crowd, they were suddenly surrounded by a group of men, three in front and three behind them. In their hands, they held metal bars, wrenches, and other tools. One of them simply had a large rock. They looked at Adella and Celeste with a cold glare.

“Go,” another man said behind the men in front. Adella leaned to see who it was, and recognised him instantly: Walter Hess. It was not the face of a tired man, but one of a man consumed by hatred. The men screamed and charged at them. Adella quickly turned and pushed away the man directly behind her, the man with the rock in his hands. She shoved him to the ground, and was surprised by her force as rolled several feet backwards. The men near him were shocked for a moment. Adella ran, but as she began to, she heard a loud clank behind her, and turned her head. One of the men struck Celeste in the head with a metal bar, and two others grouped around her, hitting her with whatever they had on-hand. All Adella could do was run, and she ran as she never did before. Two of the men tried to run after her, but couldn’t keep up and turned back after a while.

She found a spot to hide in an unloading area. She hid among the cargo boxes next to a monorail, and tried to figure out what just happened. Why were they attacked? What happened to Celeste? Did they stop, or did they kill her? Why was the Chief of Security there? Adella’s mind chased the questions but came up to dead ends every time. The mission made no sense. The violent attack made no sense—there’s never been a violent incident at Mars, ever. She needed to tell the others, quickly.

Adella came out of hiding carefully, but she couldn’t tell who could be dangerous. She knew the living quarters weren’t far. What if Hess’ men were already there? She ran anyway.

When she reached the living quarters, no one was there. No belongings remained, either. The rest of the mission crew must have left for the meeting. Adella headed towards the Elon R. Musk Building at the center of Primis, where the meeting was to take place. Director Zhang’s office was also there, and Adella wondered how much she could trust anyone in the colony anymore. Does Zhang know what Hess did?

She arrived, and no one was near the building. She went inside, ran up the stairs to the fourth floor, where the meeting room was. The room was empty inside. Did they already finish the meeting? Adella decided to check if Zhang was in his office. She ran across the hall, and opened the door without knocking. He was there, sitting in his office chair behind his desk made of real wood from Earth.

“Oh, hi, your name is?” calmly asked Zhang.

“I’m Adella Turing, one of the specialists sent here from Earth. Where is the mission crew?”

The Director squinted at Adella, and furrowed his brow. His face was painted with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief.

Someone behind Adella called out, “Steve! Hess has become uncontrollable. He’s about to—” Anthony Markov walked into the room, and couldn’t believe his eyes.

“Look Anthony, how do you explain that?” said Zhang.

“I knew there was something strange going on with her,” said Markov.

Adella looked back and forth at the two men. She was tired of not knowing what was going on anymore. She backed up to the windows of the office, and simply asked, “What is going on?”

“You were not at the meeting, Ms. Turing? Oh, my apologies, I take it does not really matter if you are called Ms. or Mr., so excuse my habit. In any case, your colleagues made it short, the meeting only lasted a few minutes.”

“What are you talking about?” Adella said.

“You’re going to have to tell her everything, Steve. She doesn’t seem to be connected with them,” said Markov.

Adella threw her hands in the air in bewilderment.

“Yes, I suspected it. Ms. Turing, do you not find it strange how you happen to know where to go on Mars? How did you find my office without your group, on a planet you have never visited before?”

Adella was silent.

“Furthermore, another one of the crew members was absent at the meeting. I do not know who, but I know that only ninety-eight out of a hundred were present. Would you know anything about that, Ms. Turing?”

“Yes, that would be Celeste. Your Chief of Security ordered an attack on us. I don’t think Celeste survived,” Adella said.

Zhang looked at Markov, who shrugged and shook his head slowly. Zhang nodded.

“I am going to ask you a quick question, Ms. Turing, please answer it swiftly as well. This is for my curiosity. You are walking down a beach and—”

“Does the colony have beaches? I was not aware of it,” said Adella.

“No, not on Mars. You are back on Earth, and walking down a beach, when you see a child flapping his arms wildly in the water. He is clearly drowning—”

“He should not have gone in the water if he does not know how to swim,” she said.

“Well, he is there, and will die soon. You are standing there, looking, but not helping. Why is that, Ms. Turing?”

“Because I shouldn’t go in the water.”

“Why not?”

“It could harm me.”

“But humans can go in the water without harm, can they not?”

“What are you trying to say?”

“You are not human, Ms. Turing. Neither is anyone from your team.”

Adella shook her head. She looked at Markov, who raised his eyebrows, smiled and nodded.

“What? Then what am I?” Adella looked down at her hands.

“It is quite interesting how you keep asking questions; it is as if you are as curious as a human. Fascinating, since you are an android. Your team was simply acting on the programmed orders of the Mars-Earth Alliance. They did not come here to help us with anything, much to my disappointment,” said Zhang.

“Do you even know why you are here in the first place, Adella?” said Markov.

She glanced at both men. “No.”

“This is what we learned from the Alliance at the meeting. You’re part of an initiative to begin replacing all of us humans on Mars with androids who will never rebel. See, you might not have this in your flash drive, but we here on Mars are planning to declare our independence from Earth on January 1st, 2100,” Markov paced around the room as he spoke. “It will be a new beginning for us, and only ten sols away from today. Well, the Alliance wants to establish zones of control on Mars instead. All the powerful members are in agreement, which means if they have their way, we’ll have separate zones of control for China, the U.S, the EU, Russia, Japan, and India.”

“It will be a disaster,” said Zhang. “They stopped human flights once they found out there was an illegal birth on Mars. That was when tensions rose. Of course, I have a nagging suspicion all the precious ore deposits that were discovered near Olympus Mons might have also played a role. They want to start mining near the largest volcano in the Solar System, all so some businessman on Earth could claim to be the first trillionaire.”

Markov approached Adella, studying her visually. “You look very similar to all the others in your crew. Yet, you’re the only one who asks questions. Why is that?”

“I don’t know,” Adella shrugged.

Zhang jumped out of his chair and looked out the window of his office. “There he is, the mad man.”

Adella and Markov turned to look. An excavator barreled down towards the living quarters without slowing down. It crashed into one of its walls, sending chunks of pressed Martian soil tumbling all over the street. It continued by backing up, and ramming the building, over and over, until the whole structure collapsed and turned into broken rubble.

All of the remaining mission members appeared running from one of the connecting streets, the view partially obscured by a few buildings. They weren’t running away, however. They ran towards the excavator, which now had a large group of supporters around it. The crew’s sprint kept accelerating, their legs were a blur, and they charged at the group with inhuman speed. The group of native Martians outnumbered them, but it was clear the clash was one-sided. With unbelievable force, the androids handled the Martians like ragdolls, throwing them around and separating them apart.

“There are less than a hundred of them, and they are already taking control of the colony. What will happen when thousands more are to come in the next few years? What will become of us?” Zhang closed his eyes, and rubbed his face tiredly. He suddenly looked like a man who lost everything, whose world was turned upside down in an instant.

“But Adella is here. Why isn’t she down there with them? Something doesn’t add up,” said Markov.

“I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand how I could be different, but I’m dying to know,” she said.

Markov gently turned Adella’s head around to check the back of it.

“What are you doing?” Adella snapped.

“One moment,” said Markov. “You have four connection slots in here, and one of them is a Mars Universal Port. Steve, do you have a MUP cable hooked up to your computer?”

“Frankly, I do not know—check for yourself. What are you trying to do?” Zhang asked.

Markov led Adella to Zhang’s computer. He found the cable he was looking for immediately.

“Adella, I’m going to check if there’s anything anomalous with your software. You’ll have to allow me access, as you’re the administrator of your system. Will you do that for me?”

Zhang sighed. “They have pretty much dealt with the crowd. They are binding their arms with cables, if I am seeing this correctly. Brutally quick and effective, your colleagues are,” he kept staring out the window, paying no attention to what the other two were doing.

Adella answered without much thinking, “Yes, I am curious to know. Go ahead.”

Markov connected Adella to Zhang’s computer, and as soon as the access was granted, his eyes scanned the screen, starting with Adella’s software update history.

“Hah! Would you look at that,” he kept studying the data.

“What?” Adella almost turned around, but then felt a tug at the back of her head where the cable was connected, almost disconnecting from the computer and corrupting her data.

“There’s a failed software update. It was supposed to disable Module40, and here, the operator’s notes were that it ‘conflicted with M.E.A commands’. Module40 is… Let me check your hardware manager. Hold on, Adella, your operating system isn’t intuitive to me.”

Zhang chuckled. “Anthony, you are a scoundrel for making me laugh at a time like this. What on Mars are you doing?”

“Got it. Module40 is responsible for curiosity levels, and decision trees in uncertain situations,” said Markov.

Zhang turned around and looked at the window. His expression turned severe. “They are coming here. All of them.”

Adella shook her head. “So that’s all that separates me from them? Curiosity?”

“No,” Markov rubbed his chin. “Seems like they noticed the module interacts with your personality in unexpected ways. I also found out they tried to disable it during your flight here, and I have the frequency channel they used. I’m willing to bet it’s the same one for all of your colleagues, too.”

“That is all fine and interesting, Anthony. However, there is not much time left for us. The MEA has won,” Zhang turned around and slumped down against the glass windows.

Adella felt the back of her head, letting her fingers run along the other three connection ports. “Without these, I would be human?”

Zhang smiled, and shook his head.

“I can send the signal that was supposed to turn off Module40 for you over our radio transmitter, but instead modify it by turning off all the modules. Every android will shut down. But, this also means you will shut down, Adella. And once you do, I won’t have access to your system anymore, as you won’t be able to give me admin access. I’m afraid I would not be able to turn you back on.”

Silence consumed the room. It was a hollow, frightened silence, begging anyone to speak only a single word to break it. But the silence stayed, until it was gradually lifted by a sound coming from below, a flurry of footsteps hurrying somewhere.

“They are here,” muttered Zhang.

“It’s up to you now, Adella,” said Markov. “I have everything ready, except your permission to export the command from your system. What will it be: turn everyone off forever, including yourself, and keep our colony independent by doing so, or, stay alive, and let Earth decide what’s best for Mars?”

Adella tried to resolve the conflict in her mind. She ran the hypothetical paths into thousands of different directions, but she couldn’t figure out which decision would produce the most positive outcome. Her thought process kept branching into different possibilities, cycling them into an infinite spiral of hypothetical decisions and futures. She was overtaken by the desire to know more, and to figure out which decision would add up to being the right one.

The footsteps clattered along the stairwell, getting louder with every second. The harrowing sound was a mix of soldiers marching, and metal bumping against metal.

Adella could not resolve the unending decision trees. But, she was curious to know what would happen with a decision no other android could make.

“Yes, go ahead Markov,” she declared.

Markov hit a button on the keyboard, and covered his mouth in his hand. His eyes stared at the screen, unblinking. “I don’t know if this will work or not,” he said.

Adella turned to look at Markov as much as she could. “I hope it does,” she said, “I really want to know what happens to Mars when—” her head dropped to her chest, and she toppled to one side, falling with a heavy thud on the floor.

Several androids sprinted into the room, and then froze mid-run, crashing into Zhang’s desk with incredible force. Markov barely jumped out of the way, as the weight of several androids smashing into the desk broke it apart. The first few had enough momentum to smash into the wall behind the desk, filling the air with rock dust. The sound of inactive androids falling down the stairs echoed through the room.

The dust settled, and Zhang and Markov rose to their feet, shaken but unharmed apart from scratches and bruises. They looked around the room. It was a mess full of broken furniture, android bodies, and dust covering the floor. In the middle of it all was Adella’s body, turned to one side with a ripped cable hang from the back of her head. Markov turned her over, and saw the last facial expression frozen on her face, the beginning of a gentle smile.

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