Hot metal shards pierced the red sand. Dust stirred in the thin atmosphere as it mixed with burnt wisps of propulsion fuel. Broken and bloody people screamed and thrashed where they had fallen.
Liam Richter woke into this fury. Pain surged from the void where his legs should have been.
“What happened to me?” he bellowed.
“You’ve been in an accident,” explained the ambulance robot, meticulously attending his wounds.
Three more of the spindly creatures surrounded the first. Metal spiders with bulbous bodies were furious in their mending. Two cut at the hull fragment pinning Liam to the rocky desert. The jagged protrusion had sliced him in three, and not cleanly.
An inert woman lay next to Liam. From where he lay he could not ascertain the extent of her injuries. Absent of attending robots he guessed that she might be dead, until she raised a desperate arm towards the red sky. Her gesture might have been a call for help, or a plea not to die alone, but was probably both. Liam wanted to hold her hand, to give comfort and receive the same in return, but when he stretched an arm towards her she remained just beyond his reach.
“Your shuttle failed to ignite its primary engine before you reached orbit Mr. Richter,” explained an ambulance robot as it sliced through the pinning metal with a laser knife. “Your pilot robot did well to bring you out of your dive, ensuring that at least some of you survived the impact.”
Metal was pulled from his leg. Liam screamed as a new surge of pain exploded from his lower body. “My legs! My legs are in agony.”
“We know,” the machine’s tone was expressionless. “Would you like a sense-numb injection? I ask only because if I do give you one, you might lose consciousness again. Then your probability of survival decreases by seventy-four per cent?”
Liam flailed his arms and bit his lips. “Drugs please.” He didn’t wish to believe the robot’s statistics. His pain already felt severe enough to kill him.
“Very well then.”
A needle pierced Liam’s vacuum suit and continued into his skin. Its hurt was inconsequential to his shredded legs freezing solid in the subzero Martian temperatures. Desperate not to face his pain alone, he searched again for the distressed woman but he could not see her. He wondered if she was in as much agony as him.
Too late to know. Euphoria, and then nothingness, found him.
“Can you hear me Mr. Richter?”
Liam’s eyes fluttered briefly and then snapped open. He felt confused. He didn’t know where he was.
His view had changed into a world of reds and oranges leaping up and down, over and over. Eventually Liam realized why. He was being carried from the carnage on a stretcher.
He looked again for the young woman, but she was nowhere to be seen.
One of the lifting ambulance robots leant over him. “Can you hear me Mr. Richter?”
“I can hear you.”
“How are you feeling?”
“It’s just that you’re doing better. You’re chances of survival have increased by fifty-three per cent. I wanted to know if you feel better too, because you should be.”
“That’s good, isn’t it?”
“It is Mr. Richter.”
Despite the news his eyes failed to focus. His stomach was not coping with his nausea. When he vomited—a half-digested sandwich bought from a steward robot minutes before boarding the shuttle—it came up in thick lumps. Some got caught in his throat, and suddenly he was choking.
A nano-edged blade emerged from the robot’s body to pierce his face plate. The hole it bore was tiny so only minuscule vapors of his precious oxygen escaped. Then it penetrated his throat, and this hurt too. The blade was immediately followed by a tube forced inside to suction the remainder of Liam’s lunch. A second tube descended into his lungs, and finally he could breathe again.
“Please don’t speak Mr. Richter. Your air passages will be cleared momentarily. This is only a temporary setback.”
He struggled, fought against the smothering intrusions.
“Very well Mr. Richter. If you insist on resisting, we have no choice.”
His world went dark again.
“Mr. Richter, we have some bad news.”
When Liam woke, he felt as if his eyes were plastered to a video screen rapidly switching between information channels, each presenting one terrifying news-feed of atrocities after another, but what he saw was worse. It was reality.
Then he remembered that his body was mangled.
Still within the midst of carnage and again in motion, he was held aloft by two machines carrying him with speed across the red swirling desert. Panic rose in his throat yet he managed to hold off further urges to vomit. He had no wish to experience suffocation a second time.
“We had to amputate the remainder of your legs Mr. Richter. There was nothing we could do to save them. They were frozen from prolonged exposure to the Martian atmosphere.”
“I can’t feel my body!” he wailed.
“We understand that. Do not be alarmed, this is only the drugs you requested. However, we must tell you your injuries are far more severe than just severed legs.”
“I thought you said my situation had improved?”
“We were wrong. Most of your internal organs are failing. With this in mind, we wish to seek your permission to place you on artificial life support?”
“I have a wife and two daughters,” was his only blurted response. Only now when he was fighting for his life did he appreciate how much he missed his family.
“Do you agree?”
Despite his rising panic, Liam managed to nod his head to the affirmative. Then his irises dilated and his ears compressed, and he passed again into a deathlike state.
When Liam woke for the fourth time, he felt strangely calm. His pain had vanished. He imagined that he was floating, in an ocean rising and falling with the gentle roll of waves. Had the shuttle taken him into the heavens as the Martian Spaceport charter promised? Was he safe in orbit and away?
When his eyes focused all he saw was the orange-red. It took a moment to understand why. He was caught in a Martian dust storm. He was still trapped in the midst of a terrible disaster.
“Mr. Richter, how are you feeling now?”
“Better,” he answered, hoping to project calmness in opposition to his screaming mind. “What’s happening now?”
“We had to build you a temporary robotic body.”
“It was your arms and legs that were the problem.”
“I’ve lost my arms as well?” he moaned.
“You were in a bad state, Mr. Richter.”
“Am I going to survive this?”
“You have a much better chance of survival now.”
Liam’s mind did somersaults. Losing limbs couldn’t be good despite the machine’s reassurances. “This is insane.”
“Please Mr. Richter, there is more. You need to understand your circumstances. Allow me to explain?”
“Am I...?” Before he blurted further banal remarks Liam stopped himself. These machines were working hard to save his life; the least he could do was hear them out. “I’m listening.”
“Good. Your vacuum suit had sustained far more damage than we first suspected. Both your arms suffered severe frostbite so they had to be amputated. As a result your blood was poisoned with dead tissue. We were limited in what else we could save.”
He gulped. “What did you say?”
“Mr. Richter, there was only enough uncontaminated blood to keep your head alive.”
“And the rest of my body?”
“We had to abandon it Mr. Richter. This is why we repaired one of the steward robots recovered from the wreckage, to give you your own mobility.”
As if in a deliberate gesture by Mars itself the dust abated for a few seconds. He saw that he was nothing more than a head fixed upon a spindly machine. Not yet fully in control of his new body, two ambulance robots aided his stride by holding him upright.
Liam’s face tightened. His teeth clenched. His new spindly limbs danced madly. “I have a wife and two daughters!” he pleaded even though he was not sure what the robots could do in response.
“Please, Mr. Richter, we are trying to deliver you to proper medical facilities.”
Liam wailed. In all likelihood he would never again kiss his wife or hug his children good night.
Sensors attached to his neural paths must have alerted his escorting ambulance robots to his changing mental state, for they spoke quickly in their machine-generated calm. “Everything will be fine, Mr. Richter. You just have to stay focused, stay positive.”
“Will they be able to grow me a new body?”
“Yes Mr. Richter, I’m sure they will. That is why we have maintained your brain above all other bodily organs. Without a brain—a mind—you cannot be you. Saving your brain is our priority.”
Liam felt oddly relieved and peculiarly special. Of all the victims of the shuttle catastrophe the machines had chosen to save him. They believed in his worth, that he was somehow elevated above all others. Perhaps they already knew about his wife and two daughters from his personnel records. The robots would understand his family’s devastation if he never came home.
When the dust storm lulled, Liam finally witnessed the full extent of the carnage. He wished that he had not.
Human bodies, torn and rigid, were littered everywhere, thrown thousands of meters from the impact crater. Many had hit the rocky desert so hard they were little more than pancakes of shattered bone and tenderized meat. Where blood pooled it had frozen solid.
He remembered the struggling woman. She had been in pain, trying to lift herself from the carnage. Had the machines tried to save her too? He could only remember her being alone.
“How many are dead?”
“How many still live?”
“Hundreds Mr. Richter, and we are doing our best to save them all.”
“What about the woman next to me?”
“Ms. Sachiko Yano?”
“Is she okay?”
“Mr. Richter, her injuries were far more severe than yours.”
“You left her to die?”
Desperately Liam scanned the fields to ascertain deeper detail. He spied a couple more of the ambulance robots identical to the two that carried him, but that was it.
“Can’t you get more of your kind out there, to help?”
“I’m afraid we can’t. The dust storm hasn’t completely abated, hampering our attempts to fly in more rescue craft with fresh medical teams.”
Liam did not wish to say what he feared, but he did. “You’re... you’re only saving a few of us, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. Richter. Yes we are.”
When his next question popped into his head, embarrassed, he almost didn’t ask it. “Why... why did you choose to save me?”
“You were in the top five per cent Mr. Richter. When we first assessed the carnage, we understood we could only save five per cent of you. That is why we chose only those with the best chance of surviving their injuries.”
“My injuries aren’t that serious?” He couldn’t believe what they were saying. His injuries had been serious enough to leave him as little more than a head.
His thoughts turned to Sachiko, alone, hurt and dying in a lifeless desert. Her last memories would have been of him and the ambulance robots abandoning her to her death. She deserved to live as much as he did.
“Is it really that bad out there?”
“It is Mr. Richter, but this is not something you should concern yourself with right now. Your priority is to stay positive and focus, so together we can maximize your likelihood of survival.”
Liam didn’t feel positive. He felt miserable, and selfish. He wasn’t the only struggling survivor today who had a family and loved ones depending upon him.
A new pain tore at his mind, worse than any hurt he’d already experienced in this field of horrors.
“Yes, yes!” He struggled to orientate himself. He didn’t want to lose consciousness again. His dreams were terrifying.
“It is very important that you listen to me. We have critical news. Your brain is in serious danger of dying.”
As if a light bulb had just been switched on, Liam peered again through his suit’s visor at the Martian landscape still passing him by in its perpetual bobbing motion.
“Dying, what does that mean? I mean, why are you even bothering to tell me?”
“It means we can’t save your brain, not here in this Martian valley. But we can freeze your brain, and hopefully revive it when we deliver you to proper medical facilities. In the meantime, we need to ask your permission for a memory download.”
“A memory download?” he parroted. “How does that help? Will I still be me?”
“No Mr. Richter, you will only be a recording of you. For the time-being we can recreate you as an electronic sentient observer, but you will not be you. However if we save your brain and a download, later you can be remade again, as you are now. More complete in fact, as we re-grow your body.”
Liam became teary. “I have a wife and two daughters.”
“You said so before Mr. Richter. Would you like to leave them a message, before we freeze you?”
He cried afraid of every possibility that his future held. Even if he achieved the best of all outcomes today, years of further physical and mental anguish would follow while his body was remade. Would he become a burden to his family? Would they come to resent him? Or would they support him through the next series of horrors that loomed so darkly?
In that moment he understood that they would, that their support would always be unconditional. He’d stayed away too long, on Mars where he thought making money in a booming economy was more important than time spent with his learning and growing children on struggling Earth. They loved him, they were family, and he didn’t want to lose them.
But neither would anyone else out there want to lose loved ones, dying as they were in the frigid Martian desert. He wanted to ask the machines to save someone else in his place, but he wasn’t brave enough.
His next words would be clichéd, but they were important to him nonetheless. “Just tell them I love them...”
“Wait! If I don’t make it, then also tell them that I was truly sorry I didn’t make it home. That I didn’t come home earlier.”
“Thank you Mr. Richter. We will.”
In the instant following his memory scan his brain was put to death.
“I apologize, Mr. Richter, but your brain didn’t make it. None of your flesh did.”
Liam didn’t feel emotions anymore, he just was. He was a metal spider with a bulbous body, identical to all the other machines busy rescuing victims of the accident. He didn’t hurt anywhere, not physically or mentally, even though his memories were clear in what these hurts had once been, and of the losses he had once suffered. He was now nothing more than a sentient tool, although one with a history.
“There is no point in returning now, is there? I’m not him anymore? I’m like a picture of him. I mean, there is nothing real left of Liam Richter?”
“No,” responded an ambulance robot, “nothing but his recorded memories. We couldn’t save the brain after all. With that in mind, what do you want to do now?”
Liam no longer required external support to stand. At last he was able to control his new robotic limbs with superb precision, because that was what machines did. So he turned, preparing to trundle into the heart of destruction.
“I’m going back,” the Liam-Machine’s answer was matter-of-fact. “It is my duty to help now. Mr. Richter was not the only victim here today to need help.”
He might no longer be emotional, but his dying principles—that he was no more special than anyone else—were now hardwired into his artificial mind, driving him.
“Liam Richter was not the only survivor. A woman out there is fighting for her life, maybe to see her family again too. I want to ensure she gets that chance.”