Down Maria – A Short Story

by martinhensher

The fence looked smaller somehow.  He was sure it was the same – standard chain-link and razor wire, and slightly faded “Australian Government: Prohibited Area” signs every twenty-five metres.  Yet smaller – if only in the scale of the threat it promised, even if not in its physical dimensions.  As their car pulled up at the gate, he realised it wasn’t the fence that had changed, but the entrance.  The concrete strongpoint that had long guarded the only access route had gone, replaced by a neatly painted weatherboard guardroom and a matching sentry box by the boom.  They looked rather like they might be hired out for low-budget historical movies.   However, the figure that emerged from the sentry box was not an extra from a colonial scene, but an Australian Federal Police officer for whom admitting their vehicle was clearly the highlight of an uneventful morning.

She chattered as she checked his and the driver’s ID and filled in her register, so he felt bold enough to ask her, “What happened to the old bunker?”

The policewoman chuckled.  “They broke it up last year.  The plumbing was crook, and when they came to fix it, they realised some genius had laid the drains under the concrete base.   No dunny, no guard house. So they thought they’d get ahead of the game and replace it with something that might be useful once the island’s decommissioned.  Been here before then?”

“Yes.  A few times.”  As he said the words, he suddenly felt much older than could reasonably be attributed to the jet lag he was still feeling.  The truth was that he had been here eight times in thirty years.  The island had been a constant for much of his adult life, a destination of strange, regular pilgrimage, here at the ends of the earth.  And now the block house was gone, and they were thinking ahead to shutting up shop.  Of course they were.  There was only one prisoner left, and he would not live forever.  Where did that leave him?

“Better get going.” said the policewoman.  “Boat’s leaving soon.”

He could have kissed her for breaking that particular train of thought.


Francis O’Riordan was sixty five years old.  Almost exactly.  In fact, one of the particular benefits of this trip had been the chance it offered to spend his birthday with his daughter and her family in Melbourne, a day of joyfully befuddled celebration that had started as soon as his grandchildren saw him walking out of the arrivals gate at the airport.  The pleasure of seeing the children and Annie was intense, driving out all the fatigue of his long journey, and punctuated only occasionally by the stabbing pain of the remembrance that Sylvie would never see them again.  This wasn’t like his other trips to or from the island, stopping to see Annie on the way, knowing that her mother was safely but jealously back in London, waiting to hang on Francis’ every word describing their growing band of grandchildren.   Now Sylvie was dead, and when the monthly flight finally took him back to Heathrow, he would return to an empty house, with no one to tell about the rampaging horde of hooligans clattering around the old rectory on the other side of the world.  He had lain awake that night in a dry river bed of grief, from which he thought he had escaped months earlier, until the clank and crash of the first tram of the morning in the street outside had returned him gratefully to the world of the living.

There was no space for grief the following night, as an angry Bass Strait crossing focused every waking thought on not losing the rather good dinner he had unwisely tucked into before the ferry had left its moorings in Melbourne.   The next morning, he had slept for most of the train ride from Devonport, waking as the train slowed to cross the Derwent on its way into Hobart’s northern suburbs.  His tiredness and sadness were gone, his mind clear now.  He spent the afternoon re-reading the case files he had brought with him from London, and reviewing the prison intelligence and psychologists’ reports that had awaited him at his Hobart hotel.  He had time to attend choral evensong at the Cathedral before enjoying a deep and uninterrupted sleep.  Next day, the journey out to Triabunna was a pleasure to him – the paddocks green from the winter’s rains, and the rolling hillsides of forest rich and deeply shadowed in the spring sunshine.

So the realisation that the work of the island might slowly and inexorably be coming to an end – and with it, his own relationship with this place – was deeply jarring.  And a few moments’ reflection showed that this reality was, of course, utterly unsurprising.  He couldn’t help but feel angry with himself for not having considered the obvious possibility that this might be his last trip to the island.  This bad mood was still with him as the motor launch docked at Darlington and he stepped onto the jetty.


This visit, the United Nations contingent guarding the facility were South Africans.  It was something of a polite fiction; in truth, Australia operated the facility and provided the backbone of its staff – whether that was the correctional services officers and domestic staff who travelled across from Triabunna every day, or the navy and air defence units who quietly watched the waters and skies around Maria.  Nevertheless, every six months a new detail of forty guards rotated through from another nation, visibly maintaining the world’s commitment to human-centred development.  Being paid in Australian dollars for the duration of their tour helped make this an appealing posting for military prison staff the world over, needless to say.

Francis was searched and screened by two guards who did a passable act as a comedy duo – a short, wiry coloured Capetonian with three gold teeth, and a tall, beefy afrikaaner whose face looked like he’d had one too many rapid impacts on the rugby pitch.  Their banter and childish double entendre cleared away the mood that had earlier seized him, and their elision of English with choice Afrikaans expletives transported him through the decades to the years he and Sylvie had spent in Pretoria when their children were tiny, lifting his spirits greatly.

Processing complete, he stepped through the control door and was inside the prison.  A woman of about forty in a Correctional Services uniform was waiting for him.

“Professor O’Riordan?  I’m Kylie Dunbar, the deputy psychologist for CST Maria.  May I?”

“Thank you”, Francis said as he gratefully passed her the large folder of briefing documents he had been juggling with his bag after the Cape Town comics had finished searching him.  He paused.  “You’re not Don Dunbar’s daughter, are you?”

She laughed.  “Yes, I am.  Dad said to say hello when he heard there was a Panel hearing coming up.”

“How is he? Retired yet?”

“Two years ago.  He’s good, thanks – making a nuisance of himself to Mum and generally not catching as many fish as he’d like to think he does.”

“What made you go into the family business?”

She laughed again.  “The stylish uniform?  No, there’s only one place on the East Coast of Tasmania with a job for an unemployed forensic psychologist who wants her kids to be close to family.   I studied psychology because I thought it would get me out of Triabunna forever, but after I graduated I realised that my dad worked at the world’s most interesting natural experiment.  Take a group of certified geniuses who used to own the world and lock them up on a rock no one has successfully escaped from in two hundred years.  Observe and discuss!”

She paused and looked at her watch.  “We’d best get over to the Superintendent’s dining room.  The rest of the Panel arrived last night, so there’s going to be some lunch and then the pre-Hearing discussion starts at 2.30.  We’ll have your bag taken over to your room.”


He always enjoyed the lunches on Maria.   Running the facility was a curious mix of tedium and readiness, and the pattern had been set early that the staff needed to be well looked after.  He was very pleased to see that the signs of winding down had not extended to the kitchens, and the food did not disappoint.  Nor did the company.

Collins had been the Australian Superintendent for a good few years.  He was a dour-looking man who defied expectations with his dry but sympathetic humour.   Next to him sat Mkhize, the South African Commandant.  There were four other Panel members alongside O’Riordan, two of whom he knew well of old – Anand George, the Indian Supreme Court Justice, and Mariam Petrossian, the technology threat assessor from the Office of the UN Secretary General.  The third was Jens Olstrom, a Danish behavioural psychologist whom Francis knew by reputation.  Collins introduced to him to the fourth – who, by convention, was furnished by the nation on rotation at the time of each Hearing.

“This is Nonkonzo Mda, our South African member this year.”

“Professor O’Riordan, it’s a pleasure to meet you after reading so much of your work.”

She was a small, slight woman, perhaps in her late fifties.  Her face had a sleepy look, and her tightly locked hair was pepper-potted with grey.  Yet her eyes twinkled slyly and she moved with a precision that spoke of anything  but sleepiness.  She was seated next to him at the lunch table, so they chatted as the food was served.

“Your accent, Nonkonzo – where is it from?”  Francis asked, not quite able to place the South African’s speech pattern.

She chuckled.  “All over, Professor.  I’m a child of exile.  I was born in Zambia, primary school in London, high school in Moscow, university in Jo’burg when we returned after Democracy, doctorate in Heidelberg.  I confuse myself if I’m not careful.”

“And how did that road end up here?”

“Ah.”  She chuckled again, in a way that Francis found unaccountably pleasing.  “An unusual combination of specialisations and a very poor eye for the career choices that would get you to the top in Pretoria.”

He laughed, recognising the pattern of his own life in her description.  They chatted about Pretoria and London for a while, before being drawn into an animated discussion between Kylie Dunbar and Olstrom on the merits of predictive profiling.

After lunch they moved to the Hearing Room.   It was a large boardroom, internally like any other corporate meeting space – yet it was screened and insulated to make it impervious to penetration by any known eavesdropping technique.  Not that anyone was trying now, to the best of their knowledge, but maintaining the old disciplines had served the facility well over the decades.

Collins called them to order after they had taken their allotted places behind their name plaques around the table.

“Ladies and gentleman, let us commence the pre-Hearing procedures for the fourth parole application for Mark Franklin Rothko, prisoner number GZ037.  Please identify yourselves for the record.”

After the Panel and the other attending officers had done so, Collins continued.

“You all appreciate the significance of this hearing.  Rothko is the last prisoner on the island, since Wei Xu and Davenant’s deaths last year.  I would remind you that – much as the Australian Government might be pained by my saying so – issues of cost must play no part in your deliberations.  This facility was established by international treaty to incarcerate those convicted of crimes against humanity until they pose no further threat.  That is the only the factor you should give decisive weight in your discussions.  There are those who argue Rothko’s continued detention is wasteful, and who would ask what possible threat a seventy-three year old man could pose to the world today.  You, however, have the fullest possible evidence at your disposal, and are able to make the most informed decision on the real risks at play here.”

And so their discussion began.  They had all consumed many hundreds of pages of briefing, and three of the five Panel members had, of course, heard at least one of Rothko’s previous parole applications.  But the basic facts of Rothko’s case always made O’Riordan experience a flush of angry disbelief at his sheer arrogance.

Rothko had made an immense fortune in tech.  At first, he had done so the traditional way – a social media start up sold for a record price, and the establishment of a lavishly endowed foundation.  Yet, unlike most of his peers, Rothko had quickly parlayed his first fortune into a set of companies that continued to make massive profits year after year, pumping ever more money into his “foundation for the future human”.  So far, so good.  But after the signing of the Dushanbe Protocols, rather than terminating his work on Artificial Intelligence, Rothko had doubled down on it – scarcely even in secrecy.  More than that, when the police finally raided Transcentis laboratories in five different countries, not only did they find AI installations that showed every sign of being fully active and connected off-site, but also human subjects with wetware connections to his AI networks.  They were all willing and handsomely paid – mainly migrant workers sending large remittances home – but they had undergone neurosurgery and ongoing drug treatment, sometimes for years.  And all were significantly changed, in ways that left their interviewers and investigators disturbed.

It was the human subject work which had really resulted in Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu receiving the longest sentences of all the antihumanists.  Surprisingly many firms had continued with AI research after Dushanbe, confident their will would prevail.  It had been a great shock to them when coordinated raids across the globe had pulled them from their beds or their boardrooms; still more salutary when one corporation – perhaps tipped off in advance – chose to lock down their facility and resist arrest.  The level of lethal force used by the Canadian authorities that day left no one in any doubt that the rules had changed beyond recognition.  Yet only the owners of Transcentis could be shown to have used altered humans in their illegal AI work.   The Special Tribunal had reflected these ethics violations in its sentencing, handing down an additional ten years for each beyond the basic sentences all had received for (in the familiar words of a verdict that had changed history in the precedent it set) “…defying international law while knowingly and wilfully exposing all humanity to existential risk for the purposes of private profit.”

Ultimately, though, they all knew that Rothko, Davenant and Wei Xu had remained on the island far longer than the forty two others originally sentenced with them for one reason alone – their defiance.  All the others had settled in the end.  They had recanted, publicly renounced the goal of Artificial Intelligence, and agreed to parole terms that essentially forbade them from any contact with anything remotely resembling a computing device for the rest of their lives.  By the time most of them left Maria this hadn’t been hard; twenty years of degrowth and restabilisation had relegated their kinds of technology to niche functions in key public services – dull, utilitarian, and under tight, if discreet, control by the authorities to avoid unduly tempting enquiring minds.

The three old men of the island had been made of different stuff.    They had refused to concede any wrongdoing.  They railed at their confinement.  They wrote prolifically and worked together every day on grand projects, doubling and redoubling their efforts as the number of their fellow convicts dwindled.  They raged with contempt at each new parolee who accepted the inevitable and left Maria to make his or her peace with a new reality.  Once only the three of them remained, their rage had settled, and they had established a way of life that might have been best described as monastic in its routines. Yet they remained incarcerated not because the authorities wished to punish their defiance, but because they feared it.  Not in its spirit, but its implication.  These men had a hope; they appeared to remain utterly convinced that they could return the world to its rightful path towards the Singularity and immortality.  They shrugged off the delay caused by the Great Transition and its absurd insistence on the equality and beauty of unaugmented, unadorned humans as if it were nothing more than the irritating bites of insects.  Of course, to the intelligence specialists who monitored their conversations and writings, this raised the very worrying question of why they remained so resolute.  Did they know of secret resources, hidden away to await their release?  Was there some remnant movement at large, biding its time until its leaders emerged from prison?  Could there, almost inconceivably, still be AIs running quietly, sequestered out of sight, far better able to hide in a world of limited connectivity than their forebears had been in the days of the turning?  The only possible risk management strategy must be to keep these anti-human prophets safely under lock and key.

Davenant and Wei Xu’s deaths had been unexpected.  Davenant had succumbed to a highly aggressive brain cancer in just a few months, which autopsy suggested must have metastasised even before his first symptoms were visible.  Some of the medical staff had insinuated that it may have been related to the unconventional anti-ageing therapies he had enthusiastically partaken of in the years before his conviction, but this assertion did not find its way into any official records.   Wei Xu, by contrast, appeared almost to have chosen to die, retreating into himself after Davenant’s death and suffering a massive stroke only six weeks after his friend and former start-up partner had died.  The emergency facilities on Maria were as good as any teaching hospital’s (better, as the Principal Medical Officer liked to joke, because there were no trainees to get in the way), but Wei Xu was dead within eight hours of collapsing.

That left only Rothko.  But did it change the risk calculus?


The Panel was not without compassion.  For ten months, Rothko had effectively been in solitary confinement, an old man whose last friends were now dead.  But that in itself posed them a problem.  There were no longer any transcripts of unguarded conversations between prisoners to provide insights.  Kylie Dunbar and the other psychologists noted an increasing withdrawal from his previous activities, and some evidence of depression, although Rothko was wholly unwilling to participate in any form of therapeutic regime.  News of the birth of a grandchild appeared initially to have caused excitement, but this had rapidly given way to despondency.   Rothko’s writings had decreased greatly in number and length, falling back to little more than weekly notes to his wife and daughter.  Where once he was haughty and defiant with prison guards and welfare staff, now he was compliant and quiet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Panel split between the lawyers and the threat specialists.  George and Olstrom clearly saw a broken man who had been incarcerated for thirty-two years, who had lost his only remaining friends.  Patrossian and Mda saw a man who had nothing to lose, whose release might allow one last throw of the dice in the game of madness which had only narrowly been thwarted years before.  And that, of course, left the decision to O’Riordan, as chair.

During afternoon tea, he had left the Hearing Room for some fresh air.  He stood outside and breathed in the warm, dampening air.   The sky to the East darkened over the Tasman Sea as a storm birthed itself, and the great mass of Bishop and Clerk brooded over him.  O’Riordan wished he could slip past the chain-link fence and make his way up the mountain to hide as the cloud rolled in from the sea.  He felt someone touch his arm, and turned slightly to see Mda standing beside him.

She looked up into his face, her eyes now sad rather than twinkling as they had at lunchtime.  “This is hard”, she said.  “But it was hard when we fought them.  You remember how hard.  I know your story, Francis.  It is the same as mine.  Neither of us chose to be revolutionaries, I think.  Rather the Revolution chose us.  And because we fought them hard and early, the Revolution was able to become a Transition, and not a river of blood.

“That old man in there is sad and suffering.  But he is powerful too.  We cannot let that power out when there is any chance his machines remain in the world.  We do not speak of that risk in public any more, yet you and I both know we did not find all their machines, or even all their wetware.  Just because he is old and filled with grief, does not mean he is safe.  There is only one thing we can do.”

Her fingers brushed his as she turned and walked away.  He stood for several minutes, not wishing to release the memory of the comfort of her touch. As the first drops of rain hit his face, he knew that this would not be his last visit to the island.   Tomorrow he would tell that to Rothko.  Then he might take that walk up Bishop and Clerk.