2042, February 2nd, 05:12 am
On the undercarriage, ice crystals have nestled to hide away from the sun while a temperature sensor inside reads minus 43 degrees centigrade. Rays of sunlight shine down from a pinkishly red sun in the dirty yellow sky, hanging high above the horizon. The view feels layered, nothing moves in this classroom-like diorama where the hills in the foreground feel disconnected from the mountains in the distance. The sky is just a haze, and below it, nothing is happening, nothing changes. It is calm out there.
Suddenly the quiet scene is disturbed by a loud whizzing noise coming from behind a dune. Six metal wheels spin rapidly, scraping over rough-faced stones, crushing previously undisturbed sand granules, flattening them as the wheels’ profiles grip the sand in search for traction, trying to get up a slope. A rover is making its way between the rocks and dunes spread around the barren, hilly, surface of Mars. On this windless day, it takes a long time for all the particles to slowly settle back down, giving the rover a long layered tail of dust weaving its way through the landscape, leading to where it began today’s journey.
As the machine rushes forward a small, sleek, black camera, attached to the front of the speeding vehicle, continues to analyze the terrain coming up. Its lense closing and opening to focus on different aspects of the ground, combining the detailed sensory input with stored satellite imagery to find the optimal route to take. As the routes get calculated, new ways are being found, and the followed path followed gets adjusted. The many sudden changes make it feel as if it is in a hurry, impatiently rushing towards its destination. A little further to the back, under the reddish dust coating covering the outer case, stylised letters read ‘Curiosity VI’. Not much from the original Curiosity rover is recognizable in this latest design with smooth lines and curves. Its similarities with the original ending with the presence of the six large wheels churning their way through the upper layer of the Mars surface. It was not long after the original Curiosity model, launched in 2011, had stopped responding in 2020, that NASA decided to call all future rover models destined for Mars Curiosity, in honor of their successful progenitor. After all, it had lasted well over seven years beyond its original two-year mission to the red planet.
The rover had been driving towards this area, a pre-determined open space on Isis Planitia, for a couple of days until a sudden dust storm coming in from West of the plains had forced it to interrupt its journey and anchor itself onto a rock surface. Little drills had to find their way quickly into the sand and underlying rock surface, making sure it would remain stable in the onslaught of incoming gusts of wind. This delay could have caused it to miss its window for communicating with Earth via a relay satellite in orbit around Mars. Luckily the storm blew over as fast as it arrived allowing the rover the pull the drills back in its body and continue on its way.
The whining of the electrical engines powering all six wheels increases. Time is running out. Only twelve more minutes were left until the orbiting satellite would be able to contact the rover. Finally reaching the top of the steep slope, the vehicle abruptly comes to a halt and extends a sleek antenna from a previously concealed part on its body. Near the base of the receiver, a green light appears, and a small display below it reads:
<AWAITING RELAY CONTACT>
A single snowflake drifts across the silent white slopes of the Shantilllak mountains, slowly settling down in the corner of one of the misty glass panes in a rattling window. Every other night, the sky above the mountain range was magnificent. The view containing tens of thousands of pinprick-sized light of stars and swirls of galaxies many light years away, their light traveling through the dark and empty void of space until the light arrived in the sky above the planet. However, today something hung in the air, like that feeling you get right before a thunderstorm on a sweltering summer’s day, but the cold version of that. Were you to go outside, the cold air would cling vehemently to the inside of your lungs as you breathe in, trying to hold you in its icy grasp, not releasing until it has slowed you down enough for you to close your eyes and start thinking about letting go. Gina is standing inside her home, watching the snowflakes tumbling about on the incoming fiercely cold Northern winds. In the background, the sound of the screen and the weather reporter can be heard from the other corner of the messy room. Beside her, her phone occasionally lights up, messages coming in. The previews, showing before the phone goes dark again, display parts of messages wishing Gina a happy birthday. She doesn’t respond to any of them.
Gina looks upward but the view is obscured by low hanging clouds, slowly rolling in from beyond the ragged peaks to the North. The weather channel on the viewscreen is showing satellite images of a gigantic swirl of clouds slowly moving South towards the region. The pictures from the time-lapse show how they aren’t stopped by the shape of the landscape and the rock formations of the mountains. The clouds slowly slip over the peaks like a fog machine at one of those fancy clubs in town, relentless, unstoppable. Other overlays show a deep blue hue following the mass of incoming clouds and reports of dropping temperatures, and the view of the nimbostratus clouds have the weatherman keep up a front of confidence, accentuated by a forced cheerful note in his voice. However, everyone watching right now could see how he is giving worried looks to the map on the green screen while talking about the incoming blizzard. It is going to hit the region very soon. An occurrence that in and of itself was not unusual, but it had appeared suddenly, escaping all their predictions and models.
Standing there in front of the window, in the dark, only illuminated by the reflected light of weather maps in the glass of the window, Gina looked down. In her hands she is clutching a small locket, holding it open in her palms. Inside of the golden-colored metal trinket, there are two pictures. The left half shows Gina, the photo a couple of years old by now. On the right, a picture of a girl, golden blond hair adorning a smiling face, freckles on her cheeks. She looks quite young, fourteen at most, just a teenager at the time the picture was taken.
Gina glances at the kitchen clock, glowing in the dark. The dials of the old-fashioned analog clock show that she only had five more minutes. Gina breathes out, a long sigh, the air passing through her lips very softly as she studies the photo of her sister. Oh, Becky, I wish you were here right now. I miss you so much. The thought of her baby sister tugs at her heart, as she closes the trinket and looked outside at the snow-covered slopes leading into the clouds. Soon, even more snow would be coming.
It had been such a strange day, last summer, standing there in the hospital while looking at Becky, bed-ridden in the previous few months leading up to that very day. A very aggressive form of acute leukemia had snuck in their lives like a thief in the night, no warning, no nothing. Once a beautiful, lively girl, she was now a shadow of the person she once was. Her cheeks were fallen in, her hair had lost its shine, and her weak arms were resting on top of the white hospital bed sheets. Around her neck, a small locket hung, and she reached for it occasionally.
Gina still remembers the monotone words of the doctor explaining everything about the T-cell prolymphocytic leukemia that had taken over Becky’s body. They had received the news the day after a teacher found Becky unconscious in the playground, collapsed to the ground unexpectedly. Sitting in the doctor’s office, in the comfortable leather chairs it felt like the diagnosis just went straight through her, the mouth of the doctor moving, his eyes avoiding hers, but no sound of his words reached her ears. The news given was in stark contrast with the weather outside as her eyes drifted to the view from the office, an unfocused gaze out the window. It was sunny, warm, not a cloud in the sky, an otherwise perfect day. How was I supposed to deal with this? I was still a kid myself. Only twenty-six years old, having to take care of my baby sister. It was a moment she felt so utterly alone in the world. Oh, how she could use someone to share this burden.
As Gina walked through the bleak reception area, to get out of the hospital building, a muted tv-screen showed a documentary of the launching of the most significant Mars project to date. Six rovers were sent out to Mars simultaneously, to do surveys for a Mars base location, ahead of a human-crewed expedition. Pausing for a moment, Gina looked at the color-faded screen, 3D animations explaining how each rover was constructed. It was very obviously aimed at children with, what were supposed to be brightly colored graphics and concise explanations. Gina’s brow furrowed as her eyes as the muted presenter moved on to the brain of the machines, containing the latest computer hardware able to accommodate an independent AI, able to communicate with the other rovers while on the planet, making low-level decisions if the command center on Earth could not be reached. Maybe there is still something I can do. The muscles around her jaw clenched. Not a moment later Gina walks out of the hospital, her stride revealing purpose.
Only three months after hearing the diagnosis, Gina was in the hospital, in the sterile-looking rooms, staring once again outside at the palm trees lining the avenue, their green leaves slowly moving in the breeze coming from the ocean not far away. Behind her Becky opened her eyes and slowly turned her head towards Gina, lifting a finger with tremendous effort, coughing from exhaustion. Suddenly shaken out of her thoughts Gina reached for the bed and her sister lying there, practically helpless. The only part that was still truly Becky were her eyes, gentle and warm, looking at Gina’s with compassion. Gina reached for the outstretched finger with her hand, encompassing the delicate finger in the palm of her hand. Her own warmth spreading into that of her little sister. It was not Gina who was comforting Becky. It was the other way around this time. Knowing what had to be said was already said Becky asked “How is she doing Gina,” Becky asked with a whisper.
It was not long after having finished her internship at NASA, two years prior, that she was hired as a programmer for the Artificial Intelligence Group. She was now a team member tasked with updating the existing rover AI to a new version able to do more independent work and decision making. The work she was doing in this field would help to relieve the control center having to look after hundreds of drones and just carrying out an oversight function. Gina thought back to her work terminal, still running back home, ready to start compiling the latest version of the AI code she has been working on.
“She is doing fine Becky. She is coming along quite nicely I’ve got to say. It won’t be long before we can upload her to the new rovers on their way to Mars right now,” she said proudly. She could not help herself, Not easy, considering the situation in which they had found themselves. Becky smiled hearing Gina’s response. “Tell her hi from me,” she whispered as her eyes closed again. Gina didn’t want to let go of that small hand inside hers. I will Becky. I will.
It was that same evening she received the news that her sister had taken a turn for the worse and that there was not much time left. Only a few hours after she arrived in the hospital Becky passed away, her body unable to keep her going any longer. It was dark outside; the world was asleep. Everything that came afterward happened in a haze. The nurses were comforting her by putting their hands on her shoulder, a hug from the ones she had gotten to know well over the past few months, and token heartfelt words from those she hadn’t. A doctor came in and pronounced her death. Becky was taken away for a final memory scan. It felt so surreal, to be truly alone in the world. A blanket of loneliness started to wrap Gina slowly, her throat thick and tears no longer able to be held back. A friend sat with her that night, no words were spoken. Nothing anyone could say could have alleviated that feeling pressing down on Gina. Her hands were holding on to the disc on which Becky’s last scan resided. On her desk her workspace was still open, terminals open, message notifications blinking. After her tired friend decided to go home, with reassurances from Gina that she would be fine, Gina returned to her seat and inserted the disc into the tower’s drive. She still had some work to do before she could send the last update to the command center for review. Occasionally looking at a picture of her and Becky together at the beach, Gina’s hands fly over the keyboard, adding new parts to the code already assembled. The disc with Becky’s memory scan, buzzing in its drive.
At her home in the mountains, Gina turns around and raises her hands to put the locket back around her neck. She walks away from the view of snowflakes hitting the window. They are getting thicker and stick to the window before slowly melting and sliding down, joining the rest of them at the bottom of the window pane. It wouldn’t be too long before there are going to be so many that are going to form a thick crust around the house. Passing the tv-screen she mutes it with a gesture, the sound immediately dropping away, now only illuminating the living space with the bright colors of the news studio where updated satellite images are shown by the weather reporter, and talked about with the local news anchors. The ticker at the bottom of the screen continues to show updates from around the region. The temperature keeps dropping everywhere. The blizzard has arrived.
Sitting herself down in her comfortable work chair Gina turns towards the wide viewscreen in front of her. With a gesture it springs to life, showing her the remote login screen of the Artificial Intelligence Group. It takes only a moment for the system to recognize her and log her in automatically, her image and eye scan taken in the background. It was time for her to check up on the rover assigned to her, Curiosity VI. On her left screen, a popup shows the one-way time light to be seven minutes, 14 seconds. The time it will take for a message to arrive from Mars, and for it to return.
At 05:31 the center console shows that a connection is established. The rover had connected to the relay satellite around in orbit seven minutes earlier and the satellite was forwarding the reports from the rover. Data keeps pouring in over the connection, traveling through space. At the end of the message, a sound file is attached. Gina checks the logs to be certain, but no attachment is registered as having been transmitted to Earth. Downloading the file to her personal workspace Gina makes sure that updates rover instructions are being uploaded before disconnecting from the remote access.
Gina starts playing the sound file. It starts off with white noise, a static sound like the snow blowing through the air outside, as if herded by the howling wind, piling up against the walls and windows of the cabin. After a couple of seconds, a female computer voice starts singing the first line of ‘Happy Birthday’. After the first line, a second voice joins the first one in the background. It’s very soft and Gina really needs to focus, turning up the volume of her headset. As the song continues Gina’s eyes widen as she recognizes that voice. By the time the song addresses Gina directly Becky’s voice comes through louder, the computer voice now pushed back.
After the song finishes the voice goes quiet. The TV-screen is still showing images of the blizzard going on out there. But it seems like the world is silent. Nothing from outside seems to come through the insulated walls. The audio player closes of its own accord and is replaced by a text message.
<I hope you have a great birthday.>
<Wish we could be together.>
<I miss you.>
Gina stares at the screen in front of her. She had not dared to believe it would work. I miss you too little sis. I miss you too.
Far away, on the dusty world, the antenna slowly retreats into the body of the rover. The camera at the front swivels up, looking at the sky, before turning back to the landscape in front of it. Right now she could only wait for the next window to see what Gina would respond. With a whizzing sound, the electrical engines start powering the wheels once more and with a careful turn the rover started heading down the slope of the plateau. It had somewhere to be, a mission to complete.