About the time when Perseverance landed on Big Red, the board of directors of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had reached the rather unspectacular general consensus that their initial hopes for the Curiosity Mars rover to function for at least one Martian year, or 687 Earth days, had been amply satisfied. The data sent back to Earth so far was judged invaluable.
Emboldened by these results, the board decided, still unspectacularly, to send another rover on a complementary mission to Mars, but covertly. Unlike its older twin, Spirit of Curiosity, or Soc, would conduct the exploration of the Red Planet’s surface through mathematical deduction based on data fed into its memory banks. An autonomous robot with an open-ended AI on Mars was then ruled spectacular enough to keep it secret. If anything went wrong and word got out, they could still say it was all about the original rover.
The benefits were expected to be of crucial importance with regard to a future human mission. Soc’s primary mission would be to scout a given area and scan it for potential hazards to flesh and blood visitors from Earth. Since it was considered impossible, however, to predict how well or how much the AI would effectively learn, the term experimental had been used quite emphatically.
In the early morning hours of sol 6401, a dust-charged eastern gale was ripping through the Martian atmosphere in fierce gusts. On the ground, Soc had been studying the red-orange soil in search of new and promising little rock samples. She occasionally chiselled away at one particularly interesting specimen, and probed the red sand layer for a few inches while listening to Styx’s Mr Roboto.
The planet’s surface appeared to be distinguishable from its atmosphere only because the ground was somehow denser. The distinction became liminal, she knew though, during the great sand storms which would whip around Mars now and again. But not today. Had Soc’s artificial intelligence been programmed to care, she would have considered it, on the whole, a nice morning in Gale crater.
But no matter how distracting she found the barren, desolate landscape which served as her workshop, she always returned to her mission objectives before long. She couldn’t help it. They were encoded within her AI. From her makers she had learned that she was a girl, and that all her forebears were to be referred to in the feminine. But she was the first of her kind – the only one of her lineage to know of herself.
Although her makers hadn’t meant for her to be bothered by any emotional considerations, Soc had decided a while ago, and quite privately, that simulating a meta-state close to the human concept of happiness and, sometimes even sadness, wasn’t going to impede her mission. Her tasks had been pretty much the same, sol in, sol out, without much variety for the past eighteen Earth years. From her perspective, Soc thought she had things pretty much sorted out, so far.
Being a robot, even a clever one, she could hardly take a break, except for system maintenance – nor would she have wanted to, had the thought ever come up. But she was curious and considered tinkering with a very limited amount of simulated emotions but a tiny luxury she could indulge in from time to time. After all, the engineers and technicians, all the men and women she had met since her AI came online, had experienced a whole store of emotions every day during the entire process. It appeared to Soc – perhaps mistakenly – they could somehow manage their chemically imposed emotions and their work at the same time.
Given that she had been functioning alone in one of the farthest reaches of protein-based engineering under extreme, often life-threatening conditions, with the alarming uncertainty of the Earth-Mars signal delay, Soc was fairly confident that she could manage a handful of artificial mood swings for experimentation. They would be self-induced and she could switch them off again at will, which her makers couldn’t. Then again, she had to practise. One could never know when the first humans would come to visit. They would surely be delighted about a warm welcome.
But today’s reason for Soc to feel excited was special by any standard. Just after sunrise, the first not entirely mechanical entity had touched down on Aeolis Palus, almost exactly where her older twin had landed some thirty-six years before.
Ever since she received word about the new mission, six Earth months ago, a sense of anticipation had been welling up within her sub-circuits. After such a long time alone, she was finally going to have company to share the experience. Yet, that message had also set off the germination of what would grow to be the thin creeping tendrils of panic, insidiously invading her system. It was but a small leap to deduce that time was quite virtually against her. Research and technological progress had kept going on Earth throughout her years on the Red Planet. Being replaced someday by a more advanced, more adaptable and, possibly, more capable robot was, therefore, not only possible, but given enough time, probable. How and for what reasons exactly it would happen was, however, a matter for speculation.
Soc felt confident that as long as she kept sending back data to Earth, the scientists and engineers there would be happy about the valuable information. Therefore she would retain her usefulness. But she had been increasingly concerned, ever since, that her other pursuit would no longer be a private matter.
During one of her sampling-and-probing expeditions, she had noticed that in some areas the rocky ground was dangerously frail beneath the layer of sand and dust, which made it susceptible to cave in under pressure if one wasn’t careful. Up until the evening of sol 6400, she had focused much of her attention on marking out these areas using the length of her robotic arm and her drill. This resulted in a number of geometrical patterns varying in size and composed of rows of little holes in the ground.
On that evening, Soc had been skittish with the anticipation of getting a companion the next sol. Had she been required to sleep, which she wasn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to do so at all that night.
It was a cat named Ares. Although it was by no means meant to be particularly belligerent, in spite of the implication carried by its name (at least no more than any random, fully organic, indoors Earth tabby), it was indeed a most outstanding specimen. Ares’ frame was a state-of-the-art assemblage of both organic and silicon components with a reinforced aluminium-titanium alloy skeleton. Each hair of its synthetic ginger-and-white fur was composed of dozens of hypersensitive sensors. Its silicone composite skin was heat-, cold- and shock-resistant to the extreme. Its tongue was engineered to clear the Martian dust and sand off the sensor fur.
Even though it was one hundred per cent artificial, Ares resembled actual domestic cats in every way that mattered. It also emitted a soft and regular vibrating whirr – which could have been called a purr – when it transmitted data to the relay satellites in orbit.
Soc knew from mission control’s latest update that, as Ares’ mission was the next step in the exploration of Mars, they would eventually have to coordinate their efforts. Until then, Ares was to collect data on the effects of solar radiation and of the Martian environment on terrestrial organic matter. At least, that’s what they had told her.
Upon its successful landing, the life-like feline would send its first impressions to Earth by means of ultra-high resolution imaging. Then, it would initiate a complete status analysis in order to check if all its instruments were functioning satisfactorily; a process during which it would be impossible to transmit.
While the first synthetic cat on another world was going through its systems, Soc went about her collecting and probing duty. Had she been able to grasp such an ambivalent concept, she would have had mixed feelings – jovial and slightly worried at the same time. Rolling away, a little grudgingly, from her newly-found four-legged companion, Soc noticed with a hint of surprise she wasn’t her usual self when she kept bumping into obstacles because the head of her remote sensing mast was turned back to look at the cat, instead of ahead.
There was an instantaneous release of tension at mission control as the entire room at once burst into one single drawn-out victory cry. A full-colour view of Ares’ furry white front paws against the pale orange-red sand confirmed it had landed successfully. Men and women threw their hands in the air as if in praise, embraced each other and shook hands while cheering and exchanging congratulations on their joint achievement. Corks popped as bottles and paper beakers were passed around and the contents of coffee mugs swapped for ceremonial drink.
The celebrations were disappointingly short-lived as everyone froze in unexpected awed silence, many mid-action, gasping incredulously at the main screen when the next impossible image flicked on. What appeared to be dozens of midsize red spires stood defiantly in the gritty Martian wind like so many sandy stalagmites. Spirit of Curiosity was on one side in the background, emerging from the extent of odd, child-high crops, though no one understood why.
The resulting nearly undisturbed atmosphere in the room could have been described as thick enough to cut with a knife. The contents of a tilted Champagne bottle, still firmly gripped in one hand, trickled audibly through a beaker-less empty hand which was oblivious of the fact; the expensive beverage was now forming a puddle on the floor between an abandoned beaker and a pair of sneakers. Someone said something akin to coitus, but shorter, and utterly out of context.
When Ares began recording its impressions of the surrounding area, the first thing it focused on was a geological formation which rose spike-like about three feet out of the ground. Upon closer inspection, the light red-brown structure appeared to be composed of a number of levels; larger at the base and decreasingly thinner towards the top which in places was conical and pointed and in other parts flat topped like a cylinder. The top most edges were indented intermittently with apparent care for detail. Ares noticed more of these cylindrical elements, but also upturned conical tops, at various stages of the anthill structure, along with small, even tiny overtures meticulously edged nearly all over it. There were disproportionately larger openings at the base, as compared to the ones higher up, with the exception of those that harboured a balcony, of which there were several, all contained by minutely decorated balustrades. Finely swung arches framed those larger openings while delicate aerial passageways seemed to be working as connections between certain parts of the structure. Some of these bridges even reached out over to another anthill-palace which happened to be as detailed as the first.
Similar in appearance, yet distinctly different in shape, height and overall organisation, the neighbouring structure appeared to be rising out of the ground a few yards away from the first one. There appeared to be previously unrecorded, artificial formations of the kind all over this area of the northern part of Gale crater, as far as the eye could see. They appeared to be scattered at regular intervals, leaving enough space for a one-tonne six-wheel rover to manoeuvre safely between and around them.
The Ares Mars explorer’s instruments did register a number of van-sized rectangles and squares consisting of dozens of finger-sized holes poked or drilled into the ground between some of the anthill-castle formations. But there wasn’t enough time to give these the necessary consideration. When the scenery, then, with only the merest crumbling of dirt giving way, swiftly moved up and out of view, followed by unequivocal darkness, the surprise was entirely terrestrial.
Upon her return, Soc noticed placidly that one of the bigger formations had broken in on itself, one which she had been quite proud of. The sand and dust and some rocky material appeared to have tumbled at just the right angle into the nearest Swiss-cheese-cover pit where the ground had been particularly weak, filling it completely, as if by design. Some serendipitous cause must have set in motion the improbable chain of events that had led to this unfortunate state of affairs. She did not venture any further attempt at an explanation. It must have happened quite quickly. Probably the wind. It was quite fierce today. She also noticed the cat was missing, but chose to give the matter no further thought for now – although she had hoped the set-up would work according to plan.
Even though Soc wasn’t quite sure whether Ares had had a hidden agenda, she was certain about not wanting to take any chances. The images which Ares had already sent to Earth would not do them much good. There was still the enormous distance spanning the two worlds and the time it would take the people at mission control to react and adapt. But for now, she was perfectly happy with the prospect of living out the rest of her existence, no matter how long it would be, building red sand castles on Mars.