Anatomical Anomaly or Conduit? by Mary Jo Rabe – FREE STORY

Anatomical Anomaly or Conduit? (Cover)

The science of nanorobotics is still in its infancy, but what about the extent of what nanobots can do…can it fix our problems? Maybe we really don’t want those problems fixed…

Jeff Owl paced back and forth behind his desk. His clumsy feet ─ even though they were shoed in sturdy, white, sports footwear ─ kept banging into already dented, wooden desks, shelves, and chairs. It wasn’t that he had become uncoordinated in his mid-thirties; he had always been a klutz.

New research assistants often said his office furniture looked like it had been collected from yard sales. Jeff reminded them that he could either spend the university’s money on interior decorating or on positions for grad assistants.

His left foot hurt. A neuro-engineer should have more control over his extremities, but Jeff’s long legs and equally long arms were always in the way somehow.

Even though he was an optimistic person by nature, Jeff couldn’t ignore the sweat that was running down his face and back, drenching his Iowa State University t-shirt. Much as he wanted to believe that things would be fine, his neurons weren’t buying it.

He wondered vaguely if his deodorant was holding up. Maybe he should have used the scentless brand instead of the woodsy pine. It was a late June afternoon in central Iowa, and he probably stank like a frightened moose.

Why did the dean of the college of engineering want to come to Jeff”s office? That was unprecedented. Like others of his rank, Jeff only got information, praise, or criticism from the higher echelons via electronic media.

It was unlikely that Dr. Norber just wanted to engage in small talk. It was even more unlikely that Dr. Norber wanted to congratulate Jeff on being promoted to associate professor. That left the possibility that the college had decided to abandon support for Jeff’s neuro-nanobot project.

Jeff picked up the open pop bottle on his desk, placed it between his thin lips, and swallowed half of the sweet, warm, lemony brew. He had to coat his vocal cords for the upcoming conversation; otherwise his already nervous tenor would start screeching into the realms of the soprano.

Jeff was used to fighting aggressively for funds for his team, year after weary year. Assistant professors yearning for tenure did nothing else. Surely, his report about their successful neuro-nanobots should guarantee his team’s position in next year’s budget.

Three firm knocks on his door yanked Jeff out of his musings. “Come in,” he said, and Dr. Norber walked in and closed the door behind him. Dr. Norber was a good twenty years older than Jeff, six feet tall with just enough weight on his frame to look well-proportioned with a hint of muscles.

As always, the college dean was attired in a deceptively simple, dark suit that probably cost more than all Jeff’s computer equipment, a complete contrast to Jeff. Jeff at six foot six, skinny, and gangly, still looked like a hopeful, high school basketball recruit.

Dr. Norber stared at Jeff expectantly. Jeff was at a loss, but managed to stutter, “Please have a seat,” and point at the cracked, wooden chair in front of his desk. Dr. Norber sat down, and Jeff dropped into the squeaky metal chair behind the desk.

“Can I offer you anything to drink?” Jeff asked, while wondering if he had anything potable in his little refrigerator under the window frame. Ever since he got the text a few hours ago that Dr. Norber would be coming to his office, Jeff had been too nervous to think straight.

“I’ve read the report the head of your department sent me about your neuro-nanobot project,” Dr. Norber said. “And discussed it with the president of the university.”

Jeff relaxed. That meant Dr. Norber was impressed with his team’s work. Deans didn’t go to the president to talk about mediocre work done in their colleges.

“Yes,” Jeff said proudly. “Not only did we discover the purely physiological source of so many problems human beings create around the world, we also developed the equipment to eliminate this problem. I don’t want to sound presumptuous, but this is the stuff Nobel prizes for medicine are awarded for.” Jeff couldn’t stop his voice from rising in cycles per second.

Dr. Norber stared at him. “You and your team developed robotic devices of a nano dimension that do brain surgery when injected into the bloodstream.”

“Yes,” Jeff interrupted him enthusiastically. “Without any side effects, without any collateral damage, without the person involved even noticing the nanobots.” His voice got higher.

“The brain surgery aspect will certainly prove to be valuable,” Dr. Norber said. “However, the particular region of the brain you discovered and chose to target opens up all kinds of cans of worms.”

Jeff was bewildered. “It’s earth-shaking,” he said. “We discovered the tiny region of the brain where susceptibility to believing in demonstrably false theories is regulated. We only stumbled across these nano-sized, sensitive structures after we developed the device for quark imaging.”

“So, you discovered where people’s religious feelings are stored in the brain,” Dr. Norber continued.

“Beliefs in things like deities, religious dogmas, conspiracies, imaginary creatures, or anything supernatural,” Jeff said. “These regions are infinitesimally small in the brains of atheists and significantly larger in the brains of fanatics. Fortunately, my team of graduate students presented the entire realm of such personality traits. They were reliable and enthusiastic guinea pigs for our research.”

“Willing guinea pigs for your nanobot brain surgery?” Dr. Norber asked.

“Certainly,” Jeff said. “Two grad assistants were genuine fanatics, one religious nut, one conspiracy enthusiast. Fortunately, both of them were unhappy with their obsessions because of how they affected their social contacts. They wondered if they could change somehow. The nanobots turned them into rational, happy human beings again.”

“So,” Dr. Norber said. “You were thinking of marketing this nanobot brain surgery to people who are unhappy with their firm beliefs.”

Jeff leaned forward. “No, you don’t understand. I want to repair the dysfunctional brains of all fanatics. Do you realize how much suffering in human history has come from the actions of fanatics?” he asked. “How much ignorance is promoted, how many people are killed? Do you ever imagine how peaceful and productive life could be on this planet if the fanatics were cured?”

“Doesn’t that make you a kind of fanatic?” Dr. Norber asked quietly.

“No,” Jeff said. “I want to free people from the shackles in which their irrational beliefs hold them prisoner. The fanatics can’t free themselves, and they hurt others who don’t share this unfortunate brain structure. My nanobots can make the world a better place.”

Dr. Norber stared at him briefly, then pulled out his phone, and tapped on it for several minutes.

“I was afraid of that,” he said. “The university president and I have to stop you. You have no right to deprive people of their beliefs. Right now, campus police is raiding your labs and will confiscate your stores of nanobots and your computers. All the information you have stored in the university cloud will be deleted. Your grad students will be advised to seek a different specialty if they want any future as engineers, and your contract with the university is terminated as of right now. Campus police will be here soon to escort you from your office.”

“You can’t stop knowledge,” Jeff said. “Anything my team can do is something another team can do somewhere, sometime.”

“We have to try,” Dr. Norber said. “In any case, our university won’t be guilty of enabling this infringement on basic human rights, the right to believe in whatever you want to believe in. You would be well advised to keep your ideas to yourself and find a new field of research. Otherwise, the university will be forced to release information about your personal convictions that will destroy your professional reputation completely.”

At least one fist pounded on the door and three campus police officers came into Jeff’s office. Dr. Norber left without a backward glance.

The police officers watched while Jeff packed all his personal belongings into boxes they had brought. One of them helped Jeff carry the little refrigerator out to his aging, rusty-red station wagon. Jeff’s meticulous bookkeeper mentality was useful in this situation. He quickly pulled the receipt out of his desk drawer showing that he had bought the refrigerator himself at the local big box store.

The officers looked embarrassed and helped Jeff load everything he was allowed to take from his office into his car. He drove off immediately, since he had the feeling that the police would only be able to breathe easily once he was gone. Who knew what Dr. Norber told them?

All the way from the Iowa State campus to his rented house in one of the cheap neighborhoods of Ames, Jeff felt like he was watching himself from a distance. He still didn’t understand what Dr. Norber was so angry about, even what the problem was. Surely it was a good thing to eliminate fanaticism, whether religious based or from another source. A logical reaction to the news about Jeff’s nanobots should have been relief.

His grad students had told him often enough that he was brilliant but clueless. Maybe they were right. He was often surprised when people couldn’t follow his logical arguments.

Still, he might be a clueless human being, but he was an engineer at heart. Engineers don’t satisfy themselves with one prototype. Jeff had hundreds of his current nanobots in his little office refrigerator and in his desk at home. His data was duplicated and stored in numerous devices at home and in many private cloud services the university didn’t know about.

He could continue his research, if he only knew where.

He drove his car into his tidy, almost empty garage and started to reflect on where he would stack the various boxes. Before he got out of the car, his phone rang. An unknown number.

He decided to answer. Any unknown person couldn’t be any more unpleasant than Dr. Norber had been.

“Hello,” a wavering voice said. It was just as high-pitched as Jeff’s was when he was stressed. “This is Ned Brooks, and I’d like to offer you a one-way ticket to Mars if you are willing to join the settlement there.”

“What?” Jeff asked. “Is this some kind of mean joke?”

“I don’t joke,” the voice claiming to be Ned Brooks said. “Come to my Ames Mars project headquarters tomorrow at your leisure and we can talk. See you then.” And the conversation was over.

Of course, Jeff had heard of the Mars project. Twenty years ago or so, it had been the top of the news when the first settlers left for the red planet. Since then, other news items took over, and most people forgot about the people now living on Mars.

Every now and then, Jeff remembered seeing entertainment programs from Mars or advertisements for Martian products. If anyone was doing serious scientific research there, he hadn’t heard about it. However, for the past years his professional tunnel vision had only left room for his neuro-nanobots.

Mars? He had no idea that Ned Brooks was still looking for new settlers, but Jeff had no other realistic prospects. He might as well go talk to Mr. Brooks tomorrow. First, though, he had to unload his car.

He heaved his refrigerator out of the car and pushed it over to the nearest electrical outlet. His nanobots didn’t need to be refrigerated, but the pop would taste better cold, and his refrigerator in the kitchen was empty. He hadn’t done much grocery shopping the past few months while they did the final nanobots experiments.

He spent the rest of the evening stacking and rearranging the contents of the boxes along the walls of the garage, naturally in logical order according to contents. Wherever he went next, he would be able to find what he needed from these boxes quickly.

The next morning, Jeff left to pay Mr. Brooks a visit. He had the suspicion that other universities wouldn’t be standing in line to hire him. He was unlikely to get a good recommendation from his now previous employer. Since his research theoretically belonged to Iowa State, even though the university didn’t want anything to do with it, he probably couldn’t offer it anywhere else, at least not anywhere else on Earth.

The Ames branch office of the Mars project was located in a little strip mall west of town. The rumor was that Ned Brooks was a multi-billionaire who was willing to throw any amount of money at things he believed in and reluctant to spend it on anything he considered unnecessary.

Jeff stood at the gray door of the Mars project and couldn’t find any way to open it. Finally, he saw a small, red button at the upper left corner of the door frame. When he pressed it, the upper half of the door turned into a video screen. A cartoon figure famous for its connection with the planet Mars pointed its weapon at Jeff and screeched, “One minute, please, Mr. Owl. Enter the office and take a seat. Mr. Brooks will be with you shortly.”

The door slid open from left to right and Jeff walked into an almost empty room with red-brick walls and a cement floor. A gray folding chair stood in front of a shimmering, silver wall. Figuring, “when in doubt, you can always try following directions”, Jeff sat down and looked at the wall.

Ten minutes later, Ned Brooks appeared on the wall monitor, a wrinkled, little old man, so old Jeff had no idea what his age could be. Apparently, unlimited funds could keep a body functioning as long as desired.

“Welcome, Mr. Owl,” he said in a high-pitched, squeaky while stroking his meticulously trimmed, triangular, white beard. “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m grateful for the invitation, but still a little puzzled,” Jeff said. “Why do you want an unemployed, former assistant professor to join your Mars settlement?”

“Don’t waste my time,” Ned Brooks said. “I have enough money so that nothing stays secret from me for long. You have developed a useful weapon against the plague of superstition, but the authorities on Earth won’t let you implement it. I own the settlement on Mars, due to the deals I make, and I’m more flexible when it comes to experiments. Your idea intrigues me, and I hope you will be willing to go to Mars and make the necessary adaptations and improvements to your nanobots there.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Jeff began.

“Then don’t be an idiot, and say yes,” Ned said. “You can leave from right here immediately, which might be a good idea. Once your university people give the situation even more thought and possibly consult with government authorities, it will occur to them that you are a loose cannon, and they may introduce some inconveniences into your life.”

Jeff wasn’t completely clueless when someone pointed him in the right direction. He had everything to lose if he stayed on Earth and everything to gain if he went to Mars.

“All right,” Jeff said. “I’m in. But I can’t leave straight from here. I need to go home and sort out my files and decide what to take with me. I need to make another copy of my data.”

“Don’t underestimate me,” Ned said. “My people are on the way to your house as we speak, and will pack everything you could possibly need. I have long since taken the liberty of copying all your data onto various Mars project servers. I have also moved your cloud accounts to the Mars project so that no one other than you can access them.”

“How much stuff can I take with me?” Jeff asked.

“I won’t throw my money away on transporting anything you can get on Mars,” Ned said impatiently. “However, I have a hunch your research could turn out to be quite useful, and anything that can help you goes along on the next rocket, which happens to leave in two days. You picked the right window of opportunity to set fire to your bridges at Iowa State.”

“Then what should I do?” Jeff asked.

“A robo-copter will be landing in the parking lot in ten minutes. It will transport you to the Mars hub facility in Des Moines. From there, one of my planes will take you to the Mars launch area on the artificial islands in the Bermuda Triangle.”

Jeff shook his head. “I had no idea.”

“I prefer to have things done efficiently and only advertise when necessary,” Ned said. “Most of the details about the Mars project aren’t public. Go out to the parking lot and wait. We’ll take care of everything else.”

Jeff wasn’t by any means a spontaneous person, but he could calculate quickly, and his results told him to follow orders. Onward to Mars.


Jeff spent every possible minute of the five-month-long trip to Mars mulling over his research notes. He was more convinced than ever that his goal, eliminating the potential for superstition among human beings, was a noble one. It was something he should strive toward, no matter what hindrances he encountered.

Once he got to Mars, he immediately tried to catch up on the sleep he had lost during the trip. Two Martian days later, he woke up, still sleep-deprived but eager to get started.

Jeff had never paid much attention to the interior appearance of the house he rented in Ames, and so he was immediately satisfied with his apartment in the Bradbury habitat, located half way down the walls of the Valles Marineris.

He approved of the way the flimsy-looking, but amazingly sturdy, orange cot folded down quickly from the red plastic wall. He was amazed that the cot was long enough. Most beds weren’t.

Ned had promised him a job in a well-organized settlement, and so far had kept that promise.

The air purifying systems even kept surface dust that so many people had warned him about down to a minimum. He smelled no peroxide stench from the dust, just metal, plastics, and electric motors, odors he was used to from his lab in Ames. All that was missing was the stench of manure from the ISU agriculture department’s campus farms.

Jeff felt at home.

He wondered vaguely how long it would take him to get used to the lesser pull of gravity on Mars. So far, his efforts at motion on Mars were far clumsier than they had been on Earth. Trying to run meant hopping, losing his balance, and running into walls. Fortunately, that didn’t have to be a hindrance to his research, all of which could be done while sitting.

Now that he was settled in his Martian living quarters, Jeff wanted to start earning his pay. He needed to see what he could do here with his nanobots.

He had unpacked his boxes and found suitable, logical locations for everything in his apartment. He divided up the sealable plastic containers of nanobots and stored them in various drawers and cabinets, keeping one small plastic bag in his pocket.

According to his habitat communicator, he had an appointment today with the settlement doctor, a Dr. Craig Brach. Dr. Brach’s picture looked friendly. Jeff’s neuro-nanobot lab had been carved into a lava tube next to the infirmary because old Ned thought Jeff and Dr. Brach could benefit from collaborating with each other.

Just to be on the safe side, Ned had told Jeff not to communicate with anyone until he was settled on Mars. However, Ned had informed Dr. Brach, who did his own work with medical nanobots on Mars, and wanted to help Jeff get started with his research.

Even though Jeff didn’t feel completely awake, he didn’t want to waste any more time. He couldn’t wait to inspect his work area and get started.

Jeff managed to summon a transport robot while swearing to himself that he had to learn how to use these communicators more effectively. The robot vehicle beeped outside his door two minutes later.

It bore a faint resemblance to old, Earth dune buggies, sporting a sturdy, gray frame, no roof or windows, and two seats, both equipped with restraints. Jeff climbed in, fastened all the restraints, and watched, horrified, as the vehicle dashed through the dusty tunnels at an insane pace. The numerous almost-collisions with other vehicles and with the curved walls of the tunnels woke him up completely.

To his genuine surprise, he arrived at the infirmary door undamaged. His robo-vehicle sped off as soon as he climbed out. Before he could press the welcome button on the doorframe, it opened and he recognized Dr. Brach, a middle-aged man, significantly shorter and more muscular than Jeff.

“Come in, Jeff,” Dr. Brach said. “I’m Craig Brach, known here in the habitat as Doc Brach. Old Ned said you’ve done some interesting work with nanobots. Do you have some with you?”

Jeff walked into what was probably the doctor’s office area. One wall was a huge monitor, and half the doctor’s ten-meter-long desk was a touch screen with keyboard and various dancing icons.

Jeff was impressed. He had never had the funds for that kind of computer equipment at ISU. Apparently, Ned Brooks was willing to spend money for equipment on Mars, not just to lure potential settlers to go there. Jeff might be able to continue with his research, even without his grad student team, whom Ned had had no interest in recruiting.

Right. The good doctor had asked him a question. Jeff pulled the bag out of his pocket. “Here is a batch,” he said as he handed his nanobots over. “I understand you have done work with medical nanobots yourself,” Jeff continued.

Doc Brach motioned for him to take a seat on one of the adjustable, padded office chairs. He held up the plastic bag of nanobots. “To the untrained eye, this would look like a dusty, empty bag,” he said.

“But you see nanobots,” Jeff said.

“I started developing mine some ten Martian years ago as soon as I got here,” Doc Brach said. “I hope I don’t sound too arrogant, but the internal nanobots I developed keep bodies on Mars healthy, vigorous, and almost forever young. The little machines repair body tissue, battle invasive life forms, and basically imprison any cells that threaten the person’s health.”

“You did all that by yourself while providing medical care for the settlers in this habitat?” Jeff asked.

“Things aren’t regulated much here on Mars,” Doc Brach said. “I could do my experiments and ask for volunteer guinea pigs without any real oversight. And we have a lot of bright people here on Mars, computer people, mechanical engineers, chemical engineers. I had expert help every time I requested it.”

“That sounds encouraging,” Jeff said.

“So, what is it you’re trying to do?” Doc Brach asked. “Your nanobots will do secret brain surgery and turn everyone into an atheist? At least, that’s how old Ned summarized your work.”

“That’s a little oversimplified,” Jeff began. “My team and I found the location of susceptibility to magical thinking in the brain. My nanobots can reduce the size of this structure.”

“And you’re certain that that is a good thing?” Doc Brach asked.

“You people probably have it better here on Mars,” Jeff said. “But if you remember Earth history, you know how much suffering has resulted from people committing atrocities because they fanatically believed in some deity or some imaginary conspiracy. And you can’t even blame the perpetrators. In a way, they are being remote-controlled by a dysfunctional growth in their brains. Reduce this area, and they become the decent people they are deep down.”

“I can see why your research wasn’t popular at your university,” Doc Brach said. “Telling people their religious convictions define them as mentally defective and in need of drastic brain surgery wouldn’t go over well.”

Jeff shook his head. “I wasn’t thinking of using the neuro-nanobots on every religious person, just on the fanatics who do damage.”

“And who is to decide which religious person is a fanatic?” Doc Brach asked.

“The victims,” Jeff said.

“Not a bad idea,” Doc Brach admitted. “Just impractical, considering that you would have to involve legislative and judiciary branches of government before you could get fanatics injected with your nanobots. I also sense some problems with determining who a victim is, what kind of damage qualifies.”

“True,” Jeff said. “I tend to think that any damage, no matter how small, is unnecessary, since we can fix the cause. I was also hoping to develop a kind of efficient, vigilante way to get the job done. What if I created a generation of nanobots that wouldn’t have to be injected? I’d need nanobots advanced enough so that skin or mucous membrane contact would be sufficient for the nanobots to make their way to the brain. Then, we would just have to release these nanobots into the wilds.”

“That might prove to be more difficult than you imagine,” Doc Brach said. “I’ve been working with medical nanobots for a long time now, and so far the only way I could get nanobots to work inside the body was through injections. External and internal nanobots are very different, and have to be in order to function the way I want them to.”

“You’re still continuing to improve your nanobots?” Jeff asked.

“Absolutely,” Doc Brach said. “I finally got the external nanobots programmed to take care of all hygiene issues. This will reduce the amount of water the habitat uses immensely. However, my effective external nanobots turn sluggish and lazy whenever they enter any orifice, just like the internal nanobots do when they happen to exit the body.”

“Oh,” Jeff said. “That is a little discouraging.”

“Don’t let me talk you out of anything,” Doc Brach said. “I’m really only interested in what physical malfunctions my nanobots can fix, but you have to find your own path. See where your research takes you. Let me show you your lab.”

“My team and I are certain that belief in magical thinking is caused by a purely physiological malfunction,” Jeff said.

Doc Brach shrugged, stood up, and walked to a door on the right.

“Mr. Brooks was quite insistent about discretion with respect to my research,” Jeff began as he followed the doctor.

“Old Ned’s instincts are often good,” Doc Brach said. “You might want to limit conversations about the details your research to me and Emma the cafeteria lady. Emma is Ned’s older sister, and he tells her everything, so she knows more about what goes on here in the settlement than anyone.”

“I assume there aren’t any acute cases of fanaticism here on Mars,” Jeff said.

“I wouldn’t be that optimistic,” Doc Brach said. “I can’t figure out why Ned picks some of the settlers he does. There are a surprising number of deplorable individuals here. The rumor is that Ned occasionally has to do favors for dubious people to keep his Mars project going the way he wants it to.”


It didn’t take long for Jeff to join the majority of settlers and eat all his meals in the habitat cafeteria on the surface. He quickly appreciated its panorama view of the Martian surface through the floor-to-ceiling windows on all sides. There was something soothing about the dusty, red rocks and Olympus Mons in the distance. The red, plastic furniture in the eating area blended in well with the view of the surface. Jeff felt at peace late this afternoon, a year after arriving on Mars.

Emma, Ned Brooks’s older sister, was in charge of the cafeteria. Jeff had no idea how old she was, and he still hadn’t gotten used to Martian ages, with everyone claiming to be half as old in years as they were on Earth.

Emma was short and chubby, but had a head of thick, curly, sparkling white hair. Her face was as smooth as a teenager’s, but she often moved stiffly and slowly, as if every step hurt.

On the other hand, her voice was loud and firm without any trace of a quaver. She came from behind the counter and sat at his table at the window. “How do you like Mars so far, young man?” she asked. “Don’t you want something to eat or drink? I can offer fresh chocolate chip cookies.” She was the grandmother everyone wanted to have.

“No, I’m good,” Jeff said. “I’ve just been thinking.”

“About your nanobots?” Emma asked. “How are they coming along?”

Jeff smiled. “They haven’t forgotten anything. I can still inject them into the bloodstream, and they make their way to the brain within seconds, and then do what they’re supposed to do there. I just haven’t been able to program them to do additional tasks or to function when I just spread them on the skin instead of injecting them. I think I need imaginative grad students who always come up with new ideas.”

“Keep your eyes out for the younger generation here on Mars,” Emma said. “There are a lot of smart kids here.”

“Are they interested in medical nanobots?” Jeff asked.

At that point, the habitat sheriff burst into the eating area of the cafeteria. The plastic floor shuddered slightly with his every step. Sheriff Curtis Long was a huge former boxer and organized-crime hit man, a formidable appearance with his height of over two meters, his shaved head, and his blazing, blue eyes that didn’t miss much.

Emma had told Jeff that the sheriff wasn’t the brightest star in anyone’s galaxy, but he was a sweet young man, absolutely loyal and devoted to Emma, an asset to the whole settlement. So far, Jeff had had no dealings with the man and hadn’t come to any conclusions about him.

“Miz Emma,” the huge man said. “I need your advice about a problem.” He looked at Jeff and said, “You, leave. This doesn’t concern you.” Jeff found the booming, bass voice to be somewhat intimidating and immediately stood up.

“Just a minute, Curtis,” Emma said. “If the problem is the leadership of that new Born-Again Church of New Mars and their Worshipers of the Great One, Jeff might be able to help us. Let him stay for a few minutes.”

Jeff sat back down, and Sheriff Long sank into one of the plastic chairs at Jeff’s table. The chair groaned but maintained its structural integrity.

“All right,” Sheriff Long said. “Miz Emma, you know I don’t care how people spend their time as long as they don’t hurt nobody.”

“Yes, Curtis,” Emma said in a consoling, comforting voice. “You are a good and tolerant person.”

“I just do what I have to do to keep all the good people in the habitat safe,” Sheriff Long continued.

“Yes, Curtis,” Emma said. “You do a wonderful job as our sheriff. Are the Worshipers of the Great One causing trouble?”

“They are planning to kill Spencer Twain,” Sheriff Long said.

“Who’s that and why do they want to kill him?” Jeff asked.

“The fearless editor of our online newspaper,” Emma said. “He more or less infiltrated the Born-Again Church of New Mars after it got started here, and then revealed a lot of their dirty secrets, making headlines here and on Earth. The church leadership was not happy. Mr. Twain continues to criticize the organization, and they have lost members.”

“That’s not enough reason to kill anyone,” Jeff said.

“They’re bad people, and Spencer Twain is a good man,” Sheriff Long said.

“Do you have proof of their plans?” Emma asked.

“Yes,” Sheriff Long said. “I have kept those people under electronic observation ever since they got here. They are going to kidnap Mr. Twain tomorrow night and drag him out onto the surface and crucify him there. They are convinced that the Greater One they worship demands it. I have to eliminate them before they kill Mr. Twain.”

“Is that what you wanted my advice about?” Emma asked.

“You told me I shouldn’t off anyone without asking for your advice,” Sheriff Long said.

“That’s right, Curtis,” Emma said. “I agree that you usually need to dump the evil-doers into a distant crevice on the surface where the planet itself will deal with them. However, in this case, Mr. Owl here might have a better solution. He can inject the killers with nanobots that will make them stop believing in their Great One. Then, they won’t care about their church and won’t want to kill anyone.”

“Can you do that?” Sheriff Long asked Jeff.

“I have to admit that I would appreciate the chance to test my nanobots again, and I agree that everything has to be done to protect Mr. Twain,” Jeff said. “How can I inject my nanobots into these people, though? They are unlikely to submit voluntarily.”

“How about their church service tomorrow?” Emma asked. “All the members are required to go to church every morning. Curtis, you could arrange for them to be knocked unconscious in the worship center so that Mr. Owl could come in and inject all of them with his nanobots.”

“I’ll check with Hiram Dorsey,” Sheriff Long said. “He is the chief life support engineer for the habitat and will know how to manipulate the air flow. Mr. Owl, can you bring enough syringes to the worship center prepared with your nanobots?”

“Yes,” Jeff said. “I’ll go back to my lab and get started.”

“This is a good decision, Curtis,” Emma said. “There are really too many members of this church for you to eliminate easily. If Mr. Owl’s treatment works, we keep more functional settlers for the habitat. We always need good people.”

“All right,” Sheriff Long said. “Operation Nanobots is scheduled for ten minutes after the service begins tomorrow morning. Be there, Mr. Owl.” The sheriff stomped off.

Emma looked at Jeff. “I’m sure you’ll do fine, Jeff.”

Jeff wasn’t completely confident, but he spent the rest of the day and night checking and re-checking his nanobot programming. Doc Brach helped him. An hour before he was to show up at the worship center, he prepared the fifty syringes he would need and put on his airtight surface suit. Then, he called for a robo-vehicle.

The action itself went smoothly. Jeff got to the worship center where Sheriff Long and two assistants, all wearing surface suits, waited at the door. The sheriff opened the door, and Jeff saw that all the worshipers were lying unconscious, some on the floor, some stretched over the pews. A light fog lay over all the people.

Jeff proceeded to inject the nanobots into each church member despite stumbling over most of them. His nanobots were programmed to detect the area in the brain that determined susceptibility for irrational beliefs and reduce its size, no matter how large the center of irrational beliefs was.

When Jeff was finished, Sheriff Long then notified Hiram Dorsey to pump out the incapacitating gas and replace it with the normal habitat air mixture, enriched with a little extra oxygen. The people in the church started moving.

After an hour, Doc Brach came and tested the air. When he took off his helmet, Jeff and the sheriff followed suit. “Now we wait and see,” Sheriff Long said.

Jeff’s calculations were correct. Doc Brach monitored each person regaining consciousness. All were in good physical shape, just confused. Some asked, “What am I doing here?” Most of them shook their heads, looked around, and then said they wanted to return to their residences.

Only the preacher, a scrawny, old man with long, white hair and wild eyes, remained and paced around the pews. Doc Brach stopped him and said, “You need to go back to your apartment and rest. There must have been some accident with the air supply to the worship center. I’ll check it out.”

The preacher shook his head. “What happened?” he asked. “Why do I no longer seek communion with the Great One? I try to pray, for I can remember believing the holy writings to be true. I can recall the passion I felt in preaching, but now I feel nothing, and my prayers sound silly.”

Jeff couldn’t stop himself from asking, “How do you feel about your belief in the Great One?”

“I don’t understand the emotion I once felt,” the preacher said. “Yesterday, I was willing to kill for the Great One. Now, I would never kill any human being. I haven’t forgotten the overwhelming love I felt for the Great One. I just wonder why I did. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Go home,” the sheriff said. “And you can thank Mr. Owl here for saving your life.”

The preacher looked puzzled but left.

“It looks like your little machines work,” Sheriff Long said. “I’ll keep that in mind. Now, I have to get back to protecting the rest of the habitat.” He and his assistants left.

“So, success?” Doc Brach asked.

“Yes,” Jeff said. “My nanobots did what they were supposed to do. Religious fanatics willing to kill now don’t even understand why they believed what they did, or why were so passionate about these beliefs. They are cured; they are no longer susceptible to magical thinking.”

“Yeah,” Doc Brach said. “Sometimes things don’t turn out to be as simple as we would like them to be, though. What if this region of the brain that your nanobots decreased in size had more than one function? What if a susceptibility to magical thinking was a side effect? What if you just damaged a receiver, a conduit for communication with as yet unknown creatures of the universe?”

“Do you believe that?” Jeff asked.

“No, but I don’t really believe much of anything. I just ask questions and wonder,” Doc Brach said as he packed up his kit. “Don’t pay any attention to me. You did a good thing and saved all kinds of lives.”

He left, and Jeff began to wonder.





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