After those halcyon days, fixed in her memories for all time, Julia Barth found herself returning. Not to home, because home was that red planet where she found life, and felt alive. Instead, she and Viktor were flying back to the imperturbably green warmth of Earth. It had taken them another four years of research, but she had made such significant strides in studying the Mars-mat that they were wanted at home. No, not home, wanted on Earth. A crew had arrived, collected her new samples, her expanded research and herself and rose into the velvet darkness of the sky, pricked with the light of stars she would never see again from that dusty ground. After the requisite glad-handing, photographs, and speeches at universities so numerous they became a blur in her thoughts, Julia was tired. A weary, bone-deep exhaustion that seemed so much more pronounced now that she had no one left. Viktor was visiting his family, and she was visiting hers. Her father had passed not a month after she told him of her decision to stay. Her mother, in sorrow had wasted away, and just 3 months ago fell asleep and never woke to the dawn's light. Their final resting place was more precious now that she could touch it. Hadn't that been the point of all of this? She wanted to touch, to feel, to trust her own intuitions and feelings, and not relegate the important work to mechanical hands that had a wholly different mind behind them. So she stayed on Mars, and they passed on, leaving her with joy and regret in mixed measure.
Her months passed in the same manner. Viktor never came back, choosing to stay home in Russia, and she was left to pore over samples, to re-titrate, re-calibrate and remember. Mars never lets you forget where you are. Or were. She had heard rumors of new advances in robotics since her return to Earth, but assumed like so much of what Axelrod let through that it was made palatable for TV by a team of expert psychologists. After working in her lab for the remainder of the summer, the heat had finally stopped feeling strange. She was warm now, warm in a way she had thought she would never again experience, and perhaps it was that warmth that prompted her attendance at the lecture series at the University. Some scientist was supposed to be there, preaching about the great changes in the world, the way robotics would change everything about everything. Julia scoffed to herself, musing that no robot could have done what she did, could have discovered what she did. Although if they had, perhaps she wouldn't have had the terrifying memory of that dash across the Martian landscape, lungs feeling as though they would burst within her. It still woke her sometimes, that gasping need for air, and the certainty that this was the end. Maybe there was something to be said for not dying due to your own limitations, although sacrifices are made in the name of science. At least that's what Axelrod had told her when she wept over her father's passing. Some Iron Girl, indeed.
When she arrived at the lecture hall, the room was packed, sweltering and buzzing with ideas. She felt a little out of place, but determined to listen with open ears - perhaps this would assist a return to the land of her citizenry, because it didn't look like it would happen anytime soon. Mars was growing distant, like a dream, and she didn't want to wake up. The speaker took the stage, and Julia was surprised and by turns elated to see another female scientist observing the hall. Susan Calvin began her lecture, and Julia found to her surprise that while she expected a man to take the stand and speak, she certainly had not expected the thin, pale woman, lips pinched thin when she wasn't speaking in a low, toneless voice. This was the face of someone who had looked into the darkness of the future and not come away unscathed. As she heard the stories of the positronic brain, Cutie, and robots that danced in formation, she was surprised at the humanity to be found within the stories. Entities she had long believed to be incapable of thought and feeling suddenly showed themselves as just as lively as herself. With a jolt, she sat upright in her chair and saw her life's work flash before her sight. "That's it!" she cried to herself, "It's life, and it's no different than the Mars-mat, or even us!" With those thoughts in mind, she determined to meet with Calvin after the lecture. Later on, wading through the press of people, the few who recognized her and the many who didn't, she made her way to Susan Calvin. Waiting for long sweltering minutes, she was finally able to capture Susan's full attention, and began to ask the questions that plagued her.
"Dr. Calvin, my name is Julia Barth, and I've recently returned from a Martian expedition devoted to finding life forms and data on that planet. Your robots have made great strides in the realm of space exploration, and I was curious as to the future you foresee for them. Should we be treating these robots as separate, thinking entities, with motivations and impulses not unlike our own, or do you feel the three laws can reign those impulses in? Is there any difference between us and them?"
Julia finished with a rush, her questions and thoughts tumbling out like so many uncontrolled drops of water in a waterfall. Susan smiled, a thin smile that held no promise of mirth but was filled with understanding.
"Julia, it is a pleasure to finally meet you. As you can probably imagine, I am familiar with your work on Mars, and understand the connections you're making with my work through your own. As I firmly believe in the strength of the three laws, I cannot completely give "personhood" as it were to these robots. They are controlled and constrained by the laws we have put in place, and thus are not subject to the same motivations. In many ways, their brains are both superior and inferior to our own, with the capacity to work through complex problems, and the inability to understand the nuances of human communication. By the same token, I do believe there is a strong-self preservation instinct within them, that causes them to shutdown when faced with stimuli they cannot process."
Julia nodded, the connections solidifying in her mind. "Then in some instances, it is not unlike a hibernation period?"
Susan, a corner of her mouth lifting at the biological reference, responded easily. "Well, yes. In some cases, though not all, it could be seen as a hibernation until conditions improve."
Julia again nodded, breathless at the implications. Susan was ushered away by the University, and Julia sat down in the nearest chair, working through what this meant for both herself and her future. If robots were thinking on some level, self-preserving until conditions improve and able to communicate, then what difference did they have to the Mars-mat? Would she need to return to Mars at all, or would Calvin's robotics be of sufficient interest to pursue? She knew she was no roboticist, but perhaps her research could be used right here, right now. Could the cell relays she witnessed help improve the positronic brain? What other applications did her studies have in this place? With these questions whirling through her head, she resolved to do two things. One, she was going to arrange a meeting with Susan Calvin first thing in the morning. Surely Axelrod could assist with that. Second, she was going to do some self preservation as well. Pulling her wallet out of her bag, she took out her phone and keyed in Viktor's number. She loved him once, and he loved her as well. Maybe returning from Mars sped up a process, but she wasn't ready to lose him for good. No more hibernation, waiting for things to improve. She was going to improve them now. The future beckoned her through the doors of the auditorium, and pulling her bag higher on her shoulder, she walked out to greet it.