Der-shing Helmer’s Mare Internum is an ongoing hard-SF webcomic.
Doctor Mike Fisher is one of the elite few chosen to explore Mars, now in the initial stages of colonization. Or rather, he was. Bitter, alarmingly hostile, and socially isolated, he was fired after the loss of his artificially intelligent LEVi robot in the mysterious catacombs under the Martian surface. As soon as transportation is available, he will be sent back to Earth.
Before he goes, however, newly arrived Doctor Rebekah “Bex” Egunsola would like to take advantage of Mike’s EVA skills. Initially reluctant to venture back into the Martian caves, Mike allows himself to be talked around. It’s just one quick foray into the labyrinth. What could go wrong?
Separated from Bex after the cavern ceiling collapses, Mike’s situation should be dire. He is trapped in a nearly airless cavern with little air left in his suit. Luck is with him; he is swept deeper into the complex, into a heretofore undiscovered cavern with air and water.
And life. Not just simple lifeforms but complex organisms analogous to Earth’s plants and animals. Conditions within this pocket are not exactly Earth-like, but they are close enough that Mike can survive. That is, once the local commensal organisms take up residence on and in his body.
At first, Mike is inclined to think that this sub-Martian complex is a hallucination. It must be. How could such a vast structure have survived for billions of years since the Martian atmosphere thinned? How could it have eluded decades of intensive exploration by humans and their cunning machines. And how is it that one of the local lifeforms insists on talking to Mike?
Mike decides it isn’t a hallucination after he realizes that he could never imagine the rich and weird diversity of life he has found. It’s all real, and that means that the amiable behemoth Kallakore is real as well. At least Kallakore is able and willing to provide what local history Kallakore knows.
The complex is a relic of a civilization that occupied Mars billions of years ago, in an era when Earth was a lifeless, battered rock useful mainly as a Martian garbage dump. That high civilization has long since decamped for worlds that aren’t dying, leaving the self-contained habitat as one of the few artifacts to survive. As far as Kallakore knows, and it has searched, there is no escape.
The one slender hope is that the Processor, the vast intellect that has watched over and maintained the bubble of life, might let Mike (and Bex, who also survived and who had her own adventures before encountering Mike again) escape to the surface. If any entity can do this, it is the Processor.
Encountering the Processor is a risky venture. Kallakore believes it has appealed to the Processor in the past and in consequence been killed and revived. Perhaps the Processor will allow the humans to leave. Perhaps it will reshape them into forms suitable for an eternity within the complex. Or perhaps it will just kill them.
Poor Processor. Four billion years of carefully husbanding resources, diligently maintaining an ecosystem, keeping it running far longer than Earth has ever managed between mass extinctions — all this work threatened because the Martians in the early years of the Solar System couldn’t be bothered to police their biological waste on Earth. Let this be a lesson for every space-being who doesn’t want their homeworlds invaded by the highly evolved descendants of space poops.
Readers may be curious how the humans overlooked the complex despite intensive exploration efforts. There is an explanation provided in the story. Beyond assuring readers that it is a reasonable one, I am not going to spoil the story.
There are questions for which answers do not appear to have been provided or if they were I missed them. For example, how it is that Martian lifeforms evolved from simple organisms to civilized sentients so much faster than comparable organisms did on Earth? Why didn’t the Old Martians Mars-o-form Earth and Venus rather than heading out into interstellar space?
Perhaps I’ll find out in later episodes.
As for the characters.… Well, we only meet three humans (and one of them only briefly). Based on this small sample, it would seem that the selection process for the pioneer colonists has emphasized skills and intelligence over psychological health. Colonists and scientists have to be willing to discard all their kin, friends, professional networks, etc., which must select for a certain ruthless solipsism. If Mike is any example, some of them must be psychologically damaged. Damaged to the point of being a danger to their fellow pioneers and researchers.
(There are reasons for Mike’s problems.)
The intelligent Martians seem a more sensible crowd. But then they’re supporting characters and not as fleshed out as Mike and Bex. Nor do we know much about what is going on with the Processor. Which is just as well, because I suspect that it might be waking up to the threat posed by the Terran infestation. This could end badly.
Mare Internum is just the sort of webcomic one binge-reads in a single sitting. Binge-reads the archive, that is. The comic is on-going; it is updated once or twice a week no matter how often I hit refresh.
Mare Internum is available here.