The Ghosts of Mars
by Dominica Phetteplace
My mother was born in a place where your age and the number of trips you took around the Sun were synonymous. That changed for her once she set foot on Mars. She was thirty-two.
On her fifth sol on this planet, there was a drone that went rogue for an extended period of time. Instead of collecting rocks and performing seismographic tests like it was supposed to, it drove aimlessly at a moderate velocity. It went forward, backward, and sideways. It even did a few donuts. The drone was stationed at Gusev Crater. Too far away from the base to do a manual reset and too dangerous to approach, besides.
Eventually, the rover stopped. It rebooted itself, then resumed normal functioning as if nothing had happened.
There wasn’t a good explanation, but social media abhors a narrative vacuum, and so a narrative was launched: Mars was haunted.
If you followed the happenings on Mars closely (In those days you could! There were multiple livestreams across multiple platforms.), then you were aware of how frequently things malfunctioned. The rogue drone was anomalous only for the duration of the glitch, not its instantiation. Still, it became a common joke among the colonists.
According to my mother, after that, every time something broke or malfunctioned at the station, you blamed it on the ghost. No one ever believed it, but after my father died, it seemed disrespectful to continue invoking the Mars ghost, even as a joke. So it became taboo to mention spirits at all. No one really talked about my father, either.
If the lights flickered on and off in a pattern that resembled a Morse code message, you didn’t try to analyze the feeling, you blamed it on a faulty switch. Or if the printers that were making the newest transparent greenhouse panels started etching strange, repeated symbols into the plates, you didn’t look at them too closely. You tossed them right in the recycling bin and printed them again from scratch. You would never try to fit the bugs into a pattern. You would never try to suggest they might be an attempt at communication from the spirit world. That’s not what scientists did. That’s not how they thought.
Of course, I’m different. I didn’t choose to be scientist. Science chose me. I’m a scientist because I was born here and grew up here and there’s almost nothing else to do here besides science.
The “glitches” seemed to get worse once I was left alone here. Mom, Raj, and Lily were all sick with cancer. They needed a real oncologist who could administer real chemotherapy in order to have any chance of survival at all. The improvised techniques and treatments we cobbled together weren’t effective enough. So they took the last remaining ascent vehicle into orbit. Once there, they docked with a larger unmanned craft that would take them the rest of the way to Earth.
We all cried when we said goodbye, knowing there was a good chance none of us would ever see each other again. They couldn’t survive if they stayed, I couldn’t survive if I went with them.
I don’t think I’ll ever see Earth, and I can’t tell you how much that bums me out. Earth has animals! And an atmosphere! But despite all the painstaking genetic engineering Mom and dad arranged for me to have as an embryo, I have bad bones and a malformed heart, and sol to sol existence is difficult enough. The gravity on Earth would kill me.
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful for my genetic upgrades. They’ve protected me from cancer, which is the thing that killed nearly everyone else here. They’ve protected me from depression, which is what killed my dad. I owe my life to these upgrades, despite the pain etched into my body by my crooked spine.
I was an experiment. Humans, in their current form, aren’t meant to live anywhere but Earth. True exploration requires taking extraordinary chances. They gambled on me. I didn’t ask to be a test subject. But since I am one, I’d like for the experiment to be a success.
* * *
After goodbyes, I made myself a cup of tea. Of course I was sad, but I also have to admit it was a little thrilling to finally be by myself. The freedom! It made my heart race a little.
I sat down in front of the tea and waited for it to cool. It didn’t. The quantity of steam increased as the water heated up and then it began to boil lightly in the cup. What could I do but find a pair of tongs and toss the cup and what tea remained in the recycling bin? And what could this be, if not a ghost?
I didn’t mention the incident in my first message to my mom. She made a rule: I had to message her every day she was away from Mars. And I do mean days and not sols. On the Fortitude, her ride home, Mom would be keeping strict Earth time to better coordinate with Mission Control. I would remain on Mars time because nearly everything here is solar powered and I needed to keep track of the Sun. The difference between a day and a sol is only nineteen minutes, but you’d be surprised at how quickly that gap adds up. I sent Mom a picture of Camembert, a quadrupedal drone, doing a backflip. She responded with the view from her window: stars everywhere and Earth just a very bright point of light.
I did send a video of the self-heating tea to NASA, and they put me in touch with a Quantum Physicist. Her name was Maria.
“Listen, there really is a ghost here. Perhaps it is made of neutrinos??? Also, I’m never drinking tea again.”
And she replied: “I understand why a liquid that does not appear to equilibrate to room temperature might seem spooky. There could be something else at work here, though. What kind of additives did your tea contain? Perhaps something unusually volatile? Was it real or synthetic tea?
“Also, a liquid heating up like this does not actually violate any physical principles. It’s just extremely unlikely. Could you run a test on the atmospheric pressure regulator? The engineers here are wondering if perhaps there was a localized vacuum.”
I wasn’t going to dignify the words “localized vacuum” with a response. Why would that be likelier than a ghost? You have to understand that, because of the time delay, video conversations with people on Earth aren’t like real conversations. You kind of just end up talking past each other. Which, okay, now that I think about it, maybe is like a real conversation actually.
I replied: “I want to know why my father died. And if he left a note? Mom says he didn’t, but she has lied to me before.”
Maria replied: “A temperature of a substance is just the measure of the speed of its particles. A hot liquid will equilibrate because that is the likeliest outcome of all of its interactions with other particles. Other outcomes, like heating up spontaneously, are possible, just incredibly unlikely.”
And then she added: “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss. I feel a little out of my depth here, perhaps you could discuss it with a counselor?”
Me: “No, I mean, what if my father witnessed phenomena such as these? Like a cup of tea that heats itself?? And, like other things that violate the laws of physics, or seem to anyway. Maybe he saw worse things than this??? Maybe that’s what drove him to make his, uh, decision. Could we look at his logs?”
So Maria said she’d put me in touch with someone in IT.
I’d been trying to hack my way into my dad’s logs for four years already.
I somehow knew without being told that I wasn’t supposed to be doing this. This was confirmed the first time I got busted trying to break into his files. I was in even bigger trouble than I thought. All the grownups gathered in one room and told me that I was not, under any circumstances, to go looking through anyone’s stuff, especially not my dad’s.
Especially not my dad’s.
And that’s how I knew that they were all keeping a big secret from me. My dad’s stuff should be the least important out of anybody’s, him being dead.
And so security was enhanced. Firewalls were erected. Everyone, especially my mom, kept a much closer eye on me. So once everyone left, of course I was lonely. Of course it was spooky. But I was also thrilled. This was my chance to finally solve this mystery for once and for all.
* * *
I woke up the next morning to my usual overstuffed inbox. I decided to have coffee before anything, and instead of my usual tea. It didn’t boil away, which made me feel the day was off to a good start.
Each of the printers and drones had a notification for me. The robots were always breaking. Oftentimes they could fix each other, so it paid to wait some alarms out, but on this particular morning, a dozen drones were complaining about the same thing, so I decided to take a peek. I used a camera-mounted helicopter to view the site from my workstation.
One of the larger robots had raked a perfect rectangle into the plain, about 30 by 10m. I rewound the footage to identify the culprit: Bertha, who was modeled after an Earth animal called an ox, only with six legs. Bertha had taken care to remove all large rocks from the area and then had dragged a blade across the surface to make it level. This had happened overnight. Now several drilling robots were at work boring holes at locations seemingly chosen at random.
It was possible that there was some elaborate experiment set up for today by Earth scientists that no one at Mission Control had bothered to tell me about. I wasn’t even supposed to be here, technically. I had ignored a direct order from the president to evacuate.
Just then Mom called.
She looked better than she had in a while. Zero-G plumps the face, so her eye sockets looked less sunken, her cheekbones no longer overly defined. She had lost so much weight during her last round of cancer treatment. On Earth, they had immunotherapy. They were preparing a personalized treatment, which her Earth doctors promised would wipe her cancer right out.
The problem was that grownups often lied to me. They treated me like a child. Not that there’s any excuse for their behavior, but it didn’t help that I sorta looked younger than I was. The low gravity on Mars combined with my various bone deformities had stunted my growth. I was four feet tall on a good day, on a day when I could stand all the way up. I was shorter in my walker and even shorter in my wheelchair. Some people think I am intellectually disabled as well. When I suspect I am in the presence (or telepresence) of such a person, I find myself using big words. Agglomerative. Dimensionality. Dendogram.
Despite my sesquipedalian exertions, the way the doctors described immunotherapy to me made it sound like magic. I could research the treatment myself well enough to see that it didn’t always work. Mom was pretty sick when she left, and the voyage would take six months.
If they even made it back.
Space travel is deadly. And this trip was hastily arranged by some glitchass robots, three very sick cancer patients, and me. Not exactly what anyone would call The Right Stuff.
Of course I didn’t have to tell Mom that. She was not only the first person on Mars, she was the lone survivor of the mission that brought her here. When I said I didn’t want to make the journey with her, she didn’t push. It’s your decision, she said, but I could read the relief in her face.
I’ll bring you back something nice, she told me. By something nice, I hoped she meant stem cells. Pluripotent, preferably, but it’s not as if I could afford to be picky.
Apparently there were mice on Earth that were already growing osteoblasts engineered specifically for me using my genome. These could be injected right into my bones, and then I’d supposedly be fine forever. Other mice were hard at work fabricating new heart tissue for me. The production sites looked like giant tumors on their backs. I feel kind of bad about it, actually.
“Ma, you look great!”
Mom was only 18,000 km away at this point, so the message delay wasn’t too bad.
“Hija, there’s a slight mutiny to the east, I sent you a map with the location marked. Why don’t you go out there and break it up?”
“But I just woke up.” I hated suiting up first thing in the morning.
“Do it now, call me back when you’ve finished.”
The protocol for this was to do a manual reset on the smaller, misbehaving drones. Then you were supposed to send out small, compliant drones to manually reset the big ones. You didn’t want to get too close to anything that was out of control and taller than your ankles, especially Bertha, who weighed 5,000 kg.
“Do I have to? The robots will sort it out themselves eventually. Or Mission Control can attempt a mass reset. They’re probably doing that already. I have other stuff to do.”
“Like what?” The way she asked this question made it clear that she knew that I was trying to access my dad’s logs right at that very moment.
I didn’t answer. I wondered if the whole “mutiny” was just a conspiracy by Earth scientists to saddle me with busywork.
“Go do it now and call me back when you are finished.”
* * *
I checked the outside conditions and then I put on my suit.
Our base is located in Arcadia Planitia. Planitia means “plain” in Italian. Lots of stuff on Mars has Latin or Italian names because the first guy to draw a halfway decent map of the planet was Italian. Never mind that he thought he saw liquid oceans and rivers, this was centuries ago when telescopes were not very good. His name was Schiaparelli and he chose the name Arcadia because it was another Earth word for paradise.
I wouldn’t exactly call this place paradise, but there are reasons Arcadia Planitia was a good place to put a colony. For starters, it’s very flat here. Flat is good because that’s easier for the robots to navigate. It also means that there are no geologic features that will shade our solar cells.
There’s also lot of water in Arcadia Planitia, though it’s hard to tell at first. The water is frozen into glaciers and buried under a layer of dirt. That dirt is the only thing that keeps the water from sublimating away into space, thanks to the low pressure of the nearly nonexistent atmosphere.
Despite the cold, this plain was the warmest place on Mars that had water in abundance. Zero degrees would be considered a warm day. It wasn’t nearly that warm when I went out. My suit was heated, but I still felt a chill on my face, where the glass of my helmet met the thin, frigid air of the outside.
I hopped into my rover, drove a bit, and then stopped to check on the glacier mining. We had bots that dug through the dirt until they hit ice, then drilled and chopped the ice to prepare it for processing. Using the AR overlay through my visor, I could see how efficiently (or not) the bots were working. Dead bots would show up as black and could be grabbed by a robot arm and chucked into my rover’s trailer for drop-off at the repair station. Of course maintenance bots would also automatically retrieve the dead for me. The workload on Mars was so great that redundancy was built in to every task. But it’s that same redundancy that slows everything down. It might take a maintenance bot days to find and repair a dead comrade.
Nothing is faster than bots and humans working together. Some chores that can take me thirty seconds might take a drone an entire sol. The robots are extensions of us, but they cannot keep the station in good, habitable condition by themselves. This is why we cannot abandon this planet to robots, the way so many on Earth argue that we should.
A long time ago, this planet had oceans and an atmosphere. I can’t help feeling I was born too late. The popular saying goes: The best time to colonize Mars was a billion years ago. The second-best time is now.
Since the weather was “good” that day (-20 degrees and not much dust blowing around), the water bots were hard at work extracting ice, melting it down, and then filtering it for potability. I already had an abundant supply of water, but I liked to keep all the tanks topped off. What if I were to get visitors?
Because aspiring astronauts and Marsheads liked to track my progress using satellite pictures, I moved the gauges marked full to the very tops of the tanks, visible to all who cared to look. I wanted people on Earth to know that there’s plenty for them to drink here. There’s plenty of everything here except people, and that’s merely the fault of their own stupid governments. I didn’t get to vote, but they did. This was my way of convincing them to vote for Mars.
There was plenty to do, and I couldn’t do it all by myself. Trace organics found in the dirt suggested there might have been life in Arcadia Planitia at one point. We’d yet to find indigenous life or fossils, but we hadn’t looked very far. There were unexplored mountains a mere 500 km from the base. These were the Erebus Montes, and at the base of those mountains there had once been plans for a second Mars colony. That mission was canceled before I was even born.
Whatever was done can be undone, I practiced saying to the president. Erebus Montes would be a good place to live and explore. Colonists could shelter in the mountains and tunnels, safe from radiation, and spelunk in search of life. I’ve stared at those peaks my whole life. They are spiky and dark against the ochre plain of Arcadia Planitia. It’s stupid that I’ve never been. It’s even stupider that I may never get to go.
After I finished checking in on the waterbots, I drove to the plain that Bertha had raked clean. Three dozen drones of various sizes seemed to be having a party within the rectangle, whose perimeter was demarcated by a thin trench. Some robots were spinning around in circles; some were doing backflips.
People on Earth really seem to like videos of our bots doing backflips. It’s not all that impressive, as far as tricks go. The mechanics of it are simple, especially in Mars gravity, and the technology predates electricity. There are ancient windup toys that can do backflips, powered solely by energy stored in springs. But if people on Earth like it, if they think it is cool or even magical, then we can exploit that ignorance to attract interest to our colony.
That’s why the first batch of Mars robots was programmed with backflip capabilities. The later generations of robots learned it by copying, as they are equipped with vision-based learning. I parked the rover a safe distance from the mutiny. Once I stepped out of my ride and felt the ground underneath my feet, I did a little backflip myself.
The flip felt good. Normally, I wasn’t allowed to do backflips. I might break a bone. Disobedience seemed to be the prevailing spirit that morning.
Among those who declined to have a master: five small digging bots that were extracting and refining dirt in the rectangle. They ignored my pings as they took turns feeding the refined dirt to mobile printers. The mobile printers ignored my local override commands as they fashioned the refined dirt into bricks. I admit I didn’t try very hard to get them to stop.
And then there was Bertha, the largest bot of them all. Bertha was stamping the ground in a strange rhythm using its six hooves. It almost sounded like music. I tried to place the song. It reminded me of the old hymn about Margaritaville that some of the grownups sometimes sang. If I were more online, I could have turned Bertha dancing it into a gif. I almost texted my Earth friend Zetta to ask her to do this for me, but I decided not to. My mom said it was important that we always looked like we were working hard so that the people of Earth didn’t think we were wasting resources. She blamed the mission cancellations on too many videos of our robots backflipping.
It was probably best not to broadcast this massive glitch, though the public would surely find out about it eventually. I didn’t trust myself to correctly communicate the spirit of the thing. Sure it was a glitch, but not, like, a haunted and spooky glitch. It was like a giant bot party. Looking at them dancing, singing, and working, I felt less alone.
I double-checked the Mission List. This was not an officially designated Region of Interest. Or at least it wasn’t before. Now almost all normally scheduled scientific exploration at all the other Regions of Interest had halted as the engineers on Earth tried to bring these thirty-six drones back under their command. This was quite the mutiny.
I checked the maintenance list for the station. Life support looked good. Solar cells were operating at a high efficiency. The station appliances were all normal. The pizzabot was ready to make me lunch. All the stuff I needed to live was operating, as it should be. These weird robots were a problem, but they were not my problem. They were merely a distraction from other stuff that was more important to me.
I got back into the rover.
Help me understand why I should intervene, I said to myself. How does this help me survive here?
I was practicing my negotiations. It would be easy to get someone really important on the old videophone now. On the drive home, I felt myself rooting for the mutiny. It was harmless, but it looked like a mess. I even considered programming more bots to join them. The more fucked up things seemed on the ground, the more leverage I would ultimately have.
* * *
I didn’t head back to the living quarters right away—I checked the adjacent greenhouses first.
The tomatoes were wilty, so I adjusted the sprinkler. The corn had splotches on it, and I had no idea why. I ran a pestilence identification algorithm and waited for a result. Half the pea seeds had failed to sprout. I pinged Lily for advice. We were looking at a long winter here if my crops failed. Eight months of MREs left and none on the way. Nothing was on the way.
It wasn’t all bad news. The Lupines were blooming. This was one of Lily’s experiments. Isn’t it funny for a botanist to be named Lily? Or maybe that was her parents’ plan all along. On Earth, I heard some people named their kids Mars in the optimistic hope that their kids will get to come here one day. Not just Mars, but Jezero and Gusev and Eberswalde and Becquerel. This in addition to all the crazy names Schiaparelli came up with. I would love to say Welcome to Mars, Mars! to a new arrival one day.
Lily’s Lupines were not just beautiful, with bright red petals that were black at the very tips, they were an experiment in terraforming. The fungus on their roots was a special nitrogen-fixing bacteria that could theoretically live outside the lab. Of course, we weren’t supposed to unleash our experiments on the landscape.
In the twenty years of the mission so far, we had only been contaminating our environment accidentally, never intentionally. One day, we hoped to terraform in a manner that might make this place more habitable for our fragile selves.
Such an undertaking would require a lot of creativity, which was another reason to let the robots have their robot parties. Many breakthroughs are the result of what started out as play. That’s what the grownups kept telling me. Even though I had tons of chores and studying to do each day, there was always time set aside for me to do unstructured play.
Why should I deny the bots what I had been given? Maybe if we let the bots get creative enough they could figure out how to restore the magnetic field.
Aside from magnetism, there was only so much you could accomplish with batteries and transistors. Biological materials were more efficient and resilient than anything designed by humans. We needed to learn new ways to deploy organic lifeforms to help us. The future of Mars was here, in this greenhouse.
So, I let the robots “mutiny” while I tended to Lily’s Lupines and filled out her data logs and completed all her outstanding checklist items. Priorities.
Then I cut some blooms to put in a vase for my room. Beauty should also be a priority.
* * *
I started to feel a little dizzy once I got back to my room. I put in a request for an anti-nausea pill. Since my dad’s death, the pill printer only printed one pill at a time, and only after it received authorization from an Earth doctor. I set my timer for an hour, the shortest interval in which my pill might appear.
My inbox was stuffed with messages from authority figures. Mentally, I was ready to negotiate. Physically, I really needed to lie down.
The lie down lasted three days. Many of my bones were malformed, and that included the tiny bones in my ears that helped me to balance and stay upright. I would often have bad headaches, nausea, dizziness, and vertigo. The only thing to do was to stay as still as I could until it passed.
The butler bot brought me chicken soup MREs and ginger tea. The tea was iced so that it would take longer to boil away, if that’s the route my beverage particles decided to go.
While down, I managed to read some of Hillier’s Robot Uprisings, a book that had been downloaded many times by the colonists. I like to read what the grownups are reading. I’m practically a grownup myself. We measure ages on Mars in Earth years (which is fine! If we measured it in Mars revolutions I’d only get half as much birthday cake). My age is sixteen Earth revolutions. Adulthood begins at eighteen, so you see how I am within the rounding error of maturity, especially when you consider temporal irregularities, relativistic effects, and the entire scale of cosmic time.
Hillier’s book predicted a technological singularity, which meant that there would be a time when robots and humans would be indistinguishable. To arrive at the singularity, bots would have to evolve. Perhaps that was the true purpose of the mutiny. What looked like partying to me might actually be the dawn of a new civilization of fully autonomous bots. Did they have a right to self-determination? If that’s what they were doing, did I even have a right to interfere? I made a mental note to message the author when I felt up to it.
When I get one of these tired/dizzy spells I have to meter my energy very carefully. Like this, the only person who I communicate with is my mom. We have a code, and when I lie down like this, I’m supposed to ping her every twelve hours that I’m still alive. As long as I do that, she knows to leave me alone and otherwise trusts me to ask for what I need.
I spoke to her as soon as I well enough.
“How’s life on the Fortitude?”
“You need to call the president.” She didn’t specify which president. I asked her to clarify because I had trouble keeping all the important Earth people straight.
“Those robots are still in full mutiny. It’s considered a security breach. You need to take care of it. But eat something first.”
After breakfast, I took a freshly printed anti-nausea pill and then suited up into the VR rig. I tele-operated a squeegee robot that cleaned dust off the photovoltaics. Yes, there was an automated drone that did this, but contra Hillier, if you wanted something done efficiently on this planet, you had to do it yourself. The robots would not save you; they could barely even save themselves.
As soon as my squeegeeing was done, I took a look around. The landscape of this planet was beautiful, even from the confines of a VR rig. Not just red, though there was plenty of that, but also brown and gray and black and all the colors in between, too.
Our robots and solar farms and habitats and 3D printers and ground-based telescopes and rovers all looked like clutter. A blight against the pretty geology of this planet. I hoped the next generation of colonists would give greater thought to the aesthetic impact of their choices, especially if they were going to terraform. A field of Lily’s Lupines would be perhaps the greatest thing we could possibly add to this place. What a triumph that would be. I needed to live to see it.
I zoomed my sights until I could see the cross that marked my dad’s grave. It was knocked over.
We never let the bots adjust fallen grave markers. We fix them ourselves. It’s the closest thing to a religious ritual that we have. I added righting his cross to my checklist.
My dad was raised Catholic, but he became an atheist long before he became an astronaut. According to his old faith, his manner of death would have condemned him to hell. Instead his afterlife is here. He took a handful of pills, then walked outside and took his helmet off. And now we call his resting place Planitia John, after his first name. He died before I was born. I’ve lived here longer than he did.
His was the stupidest way to die on a planet full of stupid ways to die. In the absence of information, I’ll probably never forgive him. That’s why I need to know more. Perhaps there’s something in his logs that will make it make sense.
I once asked Mom why his grave marker is even a cross at all, if he didn’t believe in God.
“It’s an Earth ritual. It matters to the people on Earth that we maintain their traditions.”
“So we’re pretending he believed in God to make the people on Earth happy?”
“Yes, we are. And we are also pretending we believe, too. Don’t ever tell anybody on Earth you don’t believe in God.”
“Because they pay for all of this.” She gestured to our surroundings.
“Yeah, but they get knowledge in exchange. We learn things and then we tell them.”
“I wish that were enough. It isn’t. They also want to see what the future looks like. And if the future looks too different from what they expect, then it will frighten them. And if we frighten them, they will abandon us.”
I was quiet because she answered a question I never knew I was asking. Now I knew why she never let me appear on transmissions to Earth on my “bad” days, on the days when I had to use a walker or wheelchair, on the days where one side of my face drooped a little and made me lisp my words. She didn’t want me to scare anyone. She was terrified about being abandoned again.
* * *
I walked backed to my main terminal in the habitat and called the president.
“As you are no doubt aware, the mass glitch event at the Northern Quadrangle is a serious matter and is being closely investigated for interference by outside agents. We understand you have been ill, but to the best of your ability we need you to do what you can to contain it. No action is too small, and we have attached an action checklist for you to complete. . . .”
I checked my inbox; they had already sent me a dozen updated copies of this checklist, each one slightly longer than the next. The latest version had 1,300 items on it.
The president kept talking and talking. There didn’t seem to be a pause for me to break in, so I interrupted.
“Outside agents? Do you mean a hostile government? Why is that only a certain set of robots are, ahem, glitching?” I didn’t want to jinx it by noting that no drones related to my life support were misbehaving. We had two classes of drone here. One was expensive and hard to replace, the others were fabricated onsite from 3D printers using mostly local materials. The only expensive drone misbehaving was Bertha, a bot I didn’t need anyway. The rest were cheap. It was a mutiny that almost seemed polite. If it were organized activity, it almost seemed organized around the principle of not interfering with my sol-to-sol life.
I turned off my video, calculating that it would take the president fifteen minutes to receive my interruption and then he would need to stop talking at a certain point and craft a response, which would also take 15 minutes for me to receive. While I waited for that response, I used my tablet to check on the adjustments I had made to the greenhouse’s sprinklers and lightly sprayed the corn with a mellow fungicide. The tomatoes were still dying, despite my best efforts.
The president’s response was nothing interesting, just repeating what he already said, but slower and louder, as if I were stupid.
Even though I had been rehearsing a brave and tough negotiation, I felt myself wither. The courage left my body and the truth came out when I responded.
“I need help.” I said it in the most pathetic voice possible, and I hated myself. “I’m all alone here. . . .” And then I stopped talking before I could embarrass myself further.
My mom had this plan. She would get to Earth, make a miraculous recovery, and then convince the Earthlings to send her back at the next launch window, even though there was no mission scheduled. None even being prepped. I mean, she’s pretty persuasive, but I don’t think her maternal guilt was that powerful. That’s why she needed my negotiating skills, to help her. And here I was, shrinking like the cowardly and unintelligent child the president thought I was. I had to wait over thirty minutes to hear the president’s chudly response.
“If you had obeyed the evacuation order, then you wouldn’t be in this predicament. . . .”
I hated him. Yeah, if I had obeyed the order, I’d be on the shuttle and just as incapable of doing anything about the mutiny as everyone else on the Fortitude. Raj, Mom, and Lily were all trying different methods of instantiating a stop-work order. Clearly, it wasn’t working.
If the mutiny was such a bad breach and a “threat to national security”—whatever the fuck that meant (like, there are no nations on Mars, my dude, my president, speak English)—they should be grateful to have a person on the ground to fight what they were insinuating was some kind of opening act to a weird war.
“You need to send people. You need to send my mom back.” It sounded like a plea, and the self-loathing washed over me like nausea. Launch windows were kind of a beast. The optimal path between both planets only occurred every twenty-six months. The trip took another six months. Thirty-three months sounds far away, but it had to be much closer than the TBD of the next resupply, which we all understood to mean never. I clenched my fists and pretended I was Batman, to deepen my voice.
“Send people,” I repeated in my Batman voice. Finally, I sounded like a real adult. “I need, uh, a biomechanics expert . . . someone preferably trained in massage and, um, acupuncture.” Of course I had robots (expensive ones!) to administer my manual therapies, but you couldn’t beat the human touch, and our last massage therapist had left four years ago. Her immunotherapy had been successful, and she was now cancer-free, which meant she was probably ready to come back!
“And send an expert in organic chemistry,” I added. The chemists tended to be good cooks. I stopped myself there. I also wanted to ask for a poet, preferably someone good looking and my own age. Also, why not a nail tech or a tattoo artist? A fashion designer? A filmmaker? I was only asking for a fraction of what I wanted. I was being reasonable
“No one is coming. Your country needs you.”
And that was the end of the president’s transmission.
* * *
The next sol, I suited up again to observe the Robot Party in the area that was now being referred to as the Northern Quadrangle. Two of the smaller robots had died, and five were in the process of self-charging, with their solar panels angled to soak up rays from a faraway sun. This left twenty-nine robots of various sizes to party. Today, only two were doing backflips. The brickmaker had assembled a stack of bricks taller than I was, and a construction bot was stacking them in a spiral pattern.
A small bot skittered close to my feet. I picked it up, cracked open its panel and initiated a hard reset. After ten minutes, it scurried back to a maintenance station, reducing the mutiny by one, yes, but also reducing my precious leverage. The president was scared of something out here. I regretted resetting the bot at all. At least I knew I could turn a bot off manually if I wanted to.
Once I got back to the station, I called the Fortitude. After small talk with Mom, I asked her to put Raj on the line. He was a machine-learning specialist.
“How likely is it that the robots in the Northern Quadrangle have achieved sentience?”
“Have you been reading Hillier?”
“Everybody’s been reading Hillier.”
“Well, take him with a grain of salt. He’s overly alarmist and too fantastical, but he’s good for thinking about the ethical uses of AI, which is honestly more of an Earth-based issue at the moment.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you haven’t been following the Earth news. It looks like there might be a war. The AIs deployed might end up killing a lot of people.”
“Is that why the president looks like he’s ready to kill me every time I talk to him?” I asked.
“The president’s a weirdo. I would minimize the time you spend talking to him. Let me and Lily and your mom handle him.”
“That would be amazing, thank you. So are you worried about the robots at all? One is making bricks and another is building a tower.”
“Yeah, I’ve been watching them through the feeds. You know, they used to be under Kip’s supervision.” Kip was a mechanical engineer who was also a construction expert. “You know, while Kip was super sick he was still coding like crazy, and a lot of his code is black box stuff, you know? Like impossible for people other than Kip to parse. His bots also relied a lot on deep learning, too, and so what I think is that . . .”
“Kip is controlling his robots from beyond the grave,” I interrupted. I expected Raj to laugh, he didn’t. He was silent for, like, a full minute before he continued. “I think that some of the code that was intended to help the bots work autonomously after he died has bugs in it, that’s all. Did you ever see his shielding for our station?”
I hadn’t, so Raj sent me the blueprints.
The station was built with some extremely strong anti-radiation shielding. But what happened was that the dust blown by the wind outside began to introduce microtears into the shielding that weakened it over time. There were repeated modifications made to fortify the shielding in response to this. For a while, the radiation seemed manageable. Manageable enough for my mom and dad to go ahead with having a baby, but still dangerous enough so that they gene edited me to give me extra cancer protections.
Everything would have worked out okay, except for the giant solar flare. It zapped the planet. It happened when I was a baby. Everyone but me got cancer from that event, just not at the same time. At that point it was clear that the station design was flawed from the start because it couldn’t protect the colonists from that kind of catastrophic event. Ultimately, the station was retrofitted with extra shielding to protect against another one of these freak flares, even though it might be a billion years (or more! or never!) before another flare of that magnitude occurred. Safety first. The modifications were drab, like everything built here. A beige wall glued on top of our existing beige walls.
Kip had an alternate plan for more stylish shielding that was never implemented. He drew up blueprints for an external frame made out of regolith bricks that would support a textile-based radiation shield. It looked like a giant tent, but with fanciful embellishments, like decorative folds and ornamental engravings in the frame. He had received design assistance from an Earth-based architectural firm.
Certain similarities jumped out at me when I looked at footage of the robot party while also glancing over Kip’s plans. The brick-making robot seemed to be compacting the dirt with binders in a manner consistent with Kip’s instructions. The bricks had the same holes and extrusions in them that Kip had described in his specs. These details turned the bricks into Lego-like pieces that would help them adhere without any additional cohesive material.
There was a notable difference. Kip’s design had twelve pillars, but in the quadrangle, they only appeared to be building one. I toggled between onsite cameras. There was a brick mound that might be the beginning of a second pillar, but it was hard to tell.
The first pillar was a meter-and-a-half high at this point, and it deviated from Kip’s plans in that it was already too wide. It seemed to be hollow in the middle, whereas Kip’s pillars were solid. And the bricks were being laid in a spiral pattern. That was different.
“I think a lot of the discrepancies can be chalked up to the strangeness of machine learning.”
I didn’t totally understand what Raj meant by that, but I did get that he was giving me permission not to worry about or interfere with the mutiny.
“I mean, I guess it might seem wasteful to people on Earth who might be watching?” I asked.
“I think we’re past worrying about respectability. Just try to thrive.”
“But I don’t have to worry about the quadrangle being a theatre for an Earth war, right? Like the different countries aren’t going to go all Battle Bots on my turf, are they?”
“I don’t think so,” Raj said.
“Good, because I’d really like to use my time here to investigate why my dad died.”
“No. Absolutely not. Last time you tried to hack into the database, you deleted a lot of important stuff.”
“I did? I don’t remember that.”
“You weren’t the one who had to fix the things that broke.”
“But why is all his stuff even encrypted at all? It makes me feel like his death was part of some giant conspiracy. Like, what if he was murdered? What if he saw something he shouldn’t have?”
“He wasn’t murdered.”
“So he committed suicide and didn’t even leave a note?”
“He left a note.”
“What? You lied.”
“So what did the note say?”
Raj looked away. He was silent for so long I thought the feed had crashed.
“Your mom made me promise not to talk about it.”
“She doesn’t have to know.”
“But . . .”
“But I have something I need you to do first.”
Copyright © 2023. The Ghosts of Mars by Dominica Phetteplace