The Immortality Option
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Earth's news media were sensationalizing about the "intelligent" planet of the future and running endless features, interviews, and articles by overnight experts speculating on the "total responsive environment" already in the making. Accompanied by an illustration showing the world with a face on one hemisphere and part of the other peeled back to reveal a cortex, the cover of the current issue of Time proclaimed: MOTHER EARTH IS BEING GIVEN A BRAIN.

Essentially, the hullabaloo was really an update on a trend that had been quietly moving forward for many years: the steady integration of all the various industrial, commercial, scientific, educational, and other communications and computing networks into a vast global complex. The key word being pushed to sell the undertaking was "responsiveness." It didn't mean simply that any information would be instantly available to anyone (suitably authorized) anywhere, or that the act of purchasing a plastic toy in San Diego or a dinner in Amsterdam would carry immediate voting power to help determine the next week's production schedules at automated factories in Nicaragua and Taiwan, or that a complaint about a software product typed into a terminal in Vancouver could find its way onto the agenda of a management meeting held two days later in Tokyo. But all the social problems that had remained to plague humanity despite successive ages of enlightenment, industrialization, affluence, high technology, and the various other solutions that had been promised would finally disappear as the true cause of all the ills—society's indifference an consequent unresponsiveness—was made good by worldwide automated "electronic sensitivity."

"Electronic communism, more like it," Burton Ramelson grumbled at the others gathered in the library of his family's mansion in Delaware. "Central planning all over again, wearing a new disguise. They're saying that the theory was sound all along, but the reason it collapsed back in the eighties was too-long delays in communications. Now they're wiring up the planet with a faster nervous system, and that's supposed to fix it."

Actually, Ramelson didn't have any special objection to the notion of centralized control, so long as he and those who owed allegiance to him ranked influentially enough with the controllers. But the pattern was changing. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, prosperous corporations in Japan and Eastern Asia ha been acquiring controlling interests in most Western industries, making them direct, on-line subordinates to the places where the real powers were concentrating. It so happened that the Ramelson family was the leading stockholder in a diversity of industrial and financial enterprises that included General Space Enterprises Corporation. And the only direction left pointing away from Earth's shifting power structure and all the attendant inconveniences was out.

"It occurred to some of us, as soon as the Osiris mission revealed the situation on Titan, that if even a part of the productive potential out there could be turned to useful ends, we could have an answer to the whole problem," Ramelson said.

He was small in stature almost bald, and of sparse frame inside his maroon dinner jacket, worn over sild dress shirt that was open with a cravat at the neck. But his sharp eyes and tight, determined jaw as he spoke, standing with his back to the fireplace, were sufficient to make his the dominant presence in the room.

"In capacity alone, properly organized, Titan could dwarf the output of all the nations of Earth put together," he went on. "In addition, ther are technologies up and running that scientists here are only beginning to dabble in, as well as others that are completely new . . . Greg?" Ramelson nodded at GSEC's chief executive officer to elaborate.

Gregory Buhl, stockily built, with a craggy face and curly hair that still preserved its dark color, looked up from sipping a brandy in one of the leather-upholstered fireside chairs. "For one thing, they've identified working nuclear bulk transmutation: conversion of elements on an industrial scale—the alchemist's dream. There's fusion-based materials processing, with all the energy you dreamed of tapped off as a by-product. What we're talking about here is totally obsoleting primary metals extraction, materials flow processing, every kind of chemicals processing: oil fuels, plastics, lubricants, fertilizers . . ." He threw out a hand. "Self-replicating learning systems, holotronic brains, all methods of forming and fabrication, total waste recycling—as Burton says, get it properly organized and you could obsolete everything back here as totally as steam and electricity obsoleted waterwheels and windmills." Which, as everyone present understood, meant turning everything between Kamchatka and Karachi that had been causing all the problems, effectively into junk.

The others present were Robert Fairley, a nephew of Ramelson, who sat on the board of a New York investment bank affiliated to GSEC; George Issel, senior publishing partner of the New York Times; and Brenda Jaye, an executive with NBC. People who bothered to think about such matters often wondered how it was that all the various news media seemed to work themselves up into the same frenzy—whether it was over some crime that had been commonplace for centuries, rapture at another rediscovered formula for living, or hysteria over this month's doomsday-imminent scenario—invariably using the same words and phrases, all at the same time. Whichever way the public turned, it found itself inundated by the same chorus being chanted in unison from an industry that had once been renowned for its healthy and vigorous diversity of opinion on anything.

The reason was that a cental committee of representatives from all the major networks and press groups met periodically to update an Index to Correct Opinion giving guidelines to the approved slant on all persons and subjects of any note, which was then circulated to the newsrooms. The process operated subtly. No actual directive for conformity was ever issued, but as observers of the system quicky noted, dissenters and mavericks tended not to do so well in the promotion and career stakes. The next review meeting was due in a couple of days, which was why Ramelson had called the group together.

He made a pained parody of a smile. "I assume that you don't wish me to be reminded of how attempts were made to shape events on Titan by direct intervention and failed."

Brenda Jaye made a sign for him to halt for a moment. "I've heard the rumors but never made it my business to ask," she said. "Are you saying that the GSEC people and their politicos on the mission did try to bribe one of the Taloid states into becoming a client, and it backfired?"

"A couple of people went over the bounds on their own authority," Ramelson replied. "Maybe something to do with the isolation out there affected them. It wasn't authorized policy." It was a flat lie, but Ramelson wasn't about to go on record as admitting anything else.

Robert Fairly broached the point at issue from where he was standing, hands in his pants pockets, by the bookshelves to one side of the fireplace. "But nevertheless, the episode has left the public suspicious of anything that might smack of deliberate intervention. There are still enormous potential benefits to be reaped from Titan. But for the reasons that Burton has just alluded to, being seen to initiate any involvement is precluded. Intervention could come about only as a result of our responding passively to the pressures of events."

George Issel had been around for a little longer than Brenda and read the code for "We need to be perceived as being dragged into it involuntarily." And of course, the classic way of being drawn into complications was by responding to threats that endangered one's kind or one's interests, or at least were believed to.

"Such as incidents that might require action by our security forces there," he murmured, as if he were figuring it out for the first time in his life.

"It is a hostile and totally unknown environment," Ramelson pointed out, "inhabited by alien machines of unknown history and disposition. Who knows what might happen?"

Brenda Jaye looked from one to the other as the message sank in. Naturally, any action that might prove necessary would sit more easily with a public prepared in advance to accept the idea that unfortunate things might happen.

"Stress the nonhuman," she pronounced, noting it in the pad resting on her knee. "Minds not comparable to our own. Complex alien response programming, devoid of genuine feelings. Tiny group of humans surrounded by unknowns. Play up the professional military constantly on guard." She looked up.

"A splendid assessment," Ramelson agreed, beaming. "My own sentiments entirely." Issel nodded to himself, satisfied. Nothing more needed to be said. Brenda had passed muster as a full member of the club.

Ramelson had been assured that whatever else the superficial arrangement with NASO said, the first loyalty of Colonel Short and the U.S. Special Forces commander of the military unit on Titan, was to sympathetic departments of the Pentagon underworld. And when the right opportunity arose, Short would know what to do. Apparently, his officers were old hands at that kind of thing.

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