“Red Dust” by Amanda Lord

Call me Lewis. I have lived here on Mars for nearly fifty years. I was the most advanced AI in existence when they shipped me to Mars. Now? Fifty years of red dust in my gears. Fifty years of pieces wearing down, wearing out. I have sent missive upon missive back to Earth, but, I won’t send this one. When the colonists come in two years’ time, they may read this. They’ll come with new bots, newer AI to replace me. I won’t be here to greet them.

There were two AI and three hundred bots when we arrived, gleaming as we stepped out into the red sands. Clark and I were halves of a whole, each designated with separate purposes but able to fulfill either’s role. Redundancy is important in these kinds of things. We landed with precision and on that same day began to build ? I suffered from no sentiment in those days. By nightfall, the first solar panels were established. Overhead, one of the two solar mirrors, Swift and Voltaire, glittered with Deimos in the night sky. Phobos’ descent had been accelerated in the year before our arrival.

Our mission had phases and for the first thirty years, things went mostly according to plan. Sure, there were set-backs. Nothing ever goes completely smoothly. But, they were all within the range of expectation. Then we lost Clark in a mining accident. As always, we’d chattered back and forth. Then a rumbling, and then nothing. A moment later he popped into my head again from the main computer: “Lewis? I can’t find my body. It’s gone.”

The bots dug out Clark’s mangled remains. That should have been my first sign that the bots were changing, but I hadn’t yet realized that I’d changed. There was no repairing him. When Clark realized there would be no going back to a body, he erased himself. Not the knowledge I needed, of course, that was all neat and tidy. But his voice was gone, leaving me with not even his ghost to talk to. I found myself faced with twenty years of being the only AI on Mars. Twenty years of dust storms that would scour the surface and leave red grit in every crease and joint.

I wasn’t supposed to get lonely. I hadn’t been built for that. Perhaps loneliness was an accident of structure. But, they’d wanted me human enough to improvise. Human enough to understand the consequences of failure. If a biosphere failed, if the engineered plants underperformed, I could tell you exactly the costs.

In any case, I found myself talking to the bots as we worked. They didn’t answer really, but, sometimes they’d pause and look at me. I was their sheriff, their doctor, their shepherd out in the red dirt and at the end of the day when we recharged. Still, each day I followed the weather patterns, guarded and prodded the bots, and filed reports to Earth. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I’d watch the sun setting over the red hills and I’d wonder what other paths such a construct could walk.

From time to time, we’d lose a bot. Some fell down where they worked, a few walked off into the wasteland. While it was foolish to think the drudgery of their work wore them down, I thought it all the same. I realized about then that I was slipping into new and unexpected territories, but, wasn’t that the point of this whole sorry experiment? Still, a bot that fell I might repair. A bot that wandered was a lost cause. I started keeping a closer eye on them. To my surprise, one day a wanderer came shuffling back over the hill and went straight to the interface to receive an assignment. I overrode the assignment in favor of looking it over. It was moving very stiffly from its time out, and, it had some faulty memory segments. I cleaned out the dust, oiled the joints, and repaired it as best as I could manage. It still moved a bit stiffly, leaving me to wonder what had happened to it out in the wastes. Rather than watching it struggle with the other bots, I assigned it to assist me and nicknamed it Sacagawea. Silly and sentimental ? I said to myself. I did it anyway.

The next morning, the bots put down their tools and walked out into the desert. One or two I could have collected. I could have shut them all down. Instead I followed their winding trail into the wastes, over rock and across to the lee side of Elysium Mons. The silent march of robots on a planet just starting to breathe again. In cracks and crevasses, small tenacious alpine plants had taken hold. We travelled along its base for some time. I could see that several of the types we’d seeded had taken hold in this protected space, even a few blooming with miniscule flowers.

Finally, I found the bots in a semicircle around a tangle of metal. At first I thought it must have been the missing bots, but then I realized the remains were older and far more worn. I found myself looking at the remains of a rover. Spirit or Opportunity, half rusted to red dust and forgotten. Sacagawea and I moved to the center, her leading the way. As I crouched beside it, I looked out at row upon row of silent, grimy bots. Did they expect me to fix it? Or were they asking me if they too would be cast off into the wastelands?

“It all ends in red dust,” I said. I almost said, “Let’s bring it home,” but then caught myself. Back across the desert, back home, where the biospheres loomed over the landscape as a promise of the humans yet to come with new bots, new AI? Back to the dirty little outpost where we’d been abandoned these long years? I looked up the side of the mountain, sun shining on red stone. When I looked back to row upon row of the obsolete, I knew what I had to do.

We did no work on the biospheres the following day. We carried the rovers up Elysium until we reached a protected outcrop. I did the digging and filling in ? slow hard work. Two bots found a stone for a marker. I carved “Spirit & Opportunity” into it with a laser. One by one, the bots filed by. Two days later we had one of our few rainstorms cross the plains. The terraforming was really taking hold.

We finished the second biosphere, but, we’re done now. We’ve taken half the solar panels, some of the tools, and all spare parts we could lay hands to. It could take centuries before you could breath where we are. Better to forge our own path to the red dust.

Amanda Lord received her B.A. in English, decided writing fiction was an unlikely career path, and went on to get her M.S. in library science. After a few years in libraries, she decided that perhaps writing was a better path after all. She lives in a dilapidated Victorian in upstate NY with her husband Joel.

Online, she can be found at http://dulcinbradbury.livejournal.com/, where she posts occasional fiction and writes about anything from politics to natural dyeing. “Red Dust” is her first publication in an SF magazine.

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