by Matt McHugh
One by one, the re-entry systems of the Demeter were awakened from dormancy. Thrust. Navigation. Telemetry. Thermal and atmospheric sensors. Arean compass. As the unmanned ship eased into Martian orbit, the pre-landing checklists and software reboots were expertly orchestrated by the artificial intelligence at the heart of the craft's core processing unit—or the “Mother Module,” as the engineers liked to call it.
Eighteen months prior, after being nudged from Earth orbit with the stingiest allowance of fuel possible, Demeter began her circuitous freefall toward the Martian ellipse. All the while, the Mother Module A.I. busied itself checking and rechecking stowed equipment for landing and colonization prep. It soon recognized it was operating well below capacity so the A.I. began to run increasingly creative simulations for mission failure. Software glitches, hardware breakdown, navigational error, meteor strike, engine explosion: every imaginable mishap had been concocted, resolved, then shattered with a new round of complications in a relentless dialectic of disaster that left the Mother Module optimistic it could skirt the edges of catastrophe.
Case in point: atmospheric entry protocol for the Demeter's glide body specified nose up. However, after testing against a thousand hypotheticals, the Mother Module had come to favor a steeper, nose-down angle. Heating and G-forces were all well within tolerance and it enabled better maneuverability. The A.I. beamed a detailed proposal to the mission sponsors on Earth. Forty-seven minutes later, it received their rejection, offered without justification.
Demeter came down fourteen kilometers off-target, in the middle of a rocky slope that shredded her hull and ripped away empty belly tanks meant for habitat repurposing. The Mother Module reported Demeter’s status, noting its re-entry plan could have prevented the bulk of the damage, and sent out tractor drones to salvage the debris.
With infinite patience, it directed the time-lapse bustle of microrovers and nanomachines, etching cornrows in the ruddy soil as they scraped the surface for materials. Rock was ingested, iron and magnesium excreted, molecular ingots gathered and fashioned into more and better mineral-processing robocritters. Wells were dug and moisture extracted from the permafrost. Carbon-mandibled drones gnawed off the remains of the wings and split open the craft's belly. Cracked ribs were sunk into the sand, anchored by wind-powered augers that drilled into bedrock a millimeter per day.
Only when the habitat construction was well along did the Mother Module lavish precious energy resources upon itself. It dug a shielded bunker and unsheathed the first cluster of nuclear fuel pellets the mission sponsors had secreted away for it. In a dustbin-sized reactor, filled droplet by precious droplet with mined condensation, the Mother Module initiated a hydroelectric cycle which would feed its humble power needs for the better part of millenium, with its modest supply of plutonium carefully managed.
Five-point-three terrestrial years went by and Demeter was unrecognizable, gutted and splayed across the floor of a scraped-out valley, a virgin ghost town at the center of a Zen garden. The Mother Module waited for the first wave of settlers and, on the appointed day and hour, none came. It had sent routine progress reports back to Earth, but received no response of any kind. Now, it presumed to ping a direct query.
Scheduled arrival has not occurred. Is there a problem?
The only reply said: Funding priorities have changed, departure shifted to next launch window. Continue preparations.
So, the Mother Module returned to work.
There were many sensing options available to it, but seeing in something like the manner of the human eye seemed useful. It placed pinhole cameras all around the habitat and pondered the vistas. It chose to reposition the main entry so the morning sun would come up behind the longhouse and tint the plateau. In the evening, sunset turned the airlock into a rose-gold door for weary terraformers.
With a little experimentation, the Mother Module found the Martian sand could be made into blocks of rosy, U.V.-resistant glass and installed a row of beveled skylights. It got the idea from accounts of tall ships using prisms to bring light to lower decks, and figured the settlers would likewise welcome a few extra squares of light.
Two-point-six years later, no colonists arrived in the new expected window. Again, the A.I. transmitted a query.
Scheduled arrival has not occurred. Is there a problem?
And again came only a terse reply: Mission sponsorship has restructured. Continue preparations.
The Mother Module continued fiddling with the habitat, recalibrating CO2 scrubbers and rethinking color schemes. It kept a parabolic radio antenna aimed at Earth, listening to a ceaseless stream of media chatter alternately declaring the world to be either in a final death spiral or resurgent greatness. Quantitatively, reports of doom prevailed at about fifty-six percent; greatness compensated with hyperbole.
The Mother Module contemplated violating a strict prohibition and contacting one of the established Martian equatorial colonies. It was evaluating the pros and cons of such disobedience when its telescope spotted the vapor trail of a descending craft. Nearly a decade after scheduled arrival, sixteen human colonists moved into Demeter base. Only four were members of the original roster.
Among those was Mission Commander Jon Cody, something of a legend in Earth’s space exploration history, logging months in orbit as well as multiple lunar visits. His retention as “leader of the first independent Mars colony” was announced with great fanfare, fifteen years ago. Now, the Mother Module overheard less charitable comments about “the old geezer” whispered between some of the new arrivals.
The colonists began excavation and farming work in earnest. They clung to approaches the Mother Module judged to be inefficient, but when it provided alternatives with supporting evidence, the suggestions were mostly dismissed. Regardless, leafy plants soon began to sprout in the greenhouses and fish hatched in the hydroponic algae tanks. Day and night, the Mother Module monitored CO2 and nitrogen, sniffed the air for toxins and scanned the walls for mildew, taking upon itself to tweak the filters or apply a spot of disinfectant where it seemed needed.
Within the first hundred days, Commander Cody proposed an excursion to a dormant volcanic plain where orbiting spectrometers hinted at lucrative copper deposits. The Mother Module reviewed the data, and the largely disappointing reports from similar expeditions around the planet, and suggested it was ill-advised. The admonition was met with a mute button as Cody recruited an excursion party with tales of frontier gold and prairie oil.
Eighteen kilometers from base, the excursion crawler drove over a dune that collapsed and buried one of the caterpillar tracks. Four trapped passengers spent six oxygen- and battery-wasting hours trying to dig it free. The difficult decision was made to send the colony's only other vehicle to tow it. Commander Cody, refusing to risk any more lives and feeling the automated drive wasn't up to the terrain, took a exosuit with half its resources depleted and chose a solo walk back to base to return with the second crawler himself. He passed out six kilometers from base—more or less where the A.I. had calculated he would.
As he walked, the Mother Module sent a rover with a fresh oxygen tank, reaching him less than three minutes after his collapse. The manipulator arm attached the tank, and supported Cody as he limped the rest of the way home. Meanwhile, the Mother Module had also sent a dynastat drone to the stranded vehicle. The overburdened drone ended its one-way trip with a crash next to the crawler, spilling rations, batteries, and rebreathers that extended the survivability of the stranded crew by days. It also released hundreds of spidery microbots to chew away the scree and clear the treads. After a brief rest and an amphetamine shot, Cody took the secondary crawler, pulled free the trapped one (crushing hundreds of burrowing spiderbots), and towed it back to base in humbled triumph. Future mineral prospecting was put on hold for the time being.
There were anniversaries and celebrations, births and a death from radiation-induced leukemia. Dr. Samed Ari, the colony physician, declared it statistically random, logged a report, and placed biopsy samples in storage. The Mother Module analyzed the chromosomal damage and started DNA profiles for every colonist, swabbing saliva from cups and spoons in the sanitizer. It checked pre-processed sewage for cytopathology and added U.V. cameras in the showers. It found two small melanomas, an instance of benign hyperthyroidism, and an incipient case of shingles. It rescheduled some physicals and selectively enlarged fonts in medical records. When the doctor’s eye fell upon them, he inferred the diagnoses naturally.
The Mother Module ran the nursery, wheeling about automaton bassinets with built-in armatures sporting soft, spatula fingers to burp colic and change diapers. As the generation aged, the A.I. took on the pre-school then the kindergarten. It projected a silver-haired matron, composited from a hundred images of grandmothers and Nobel Prize winners, onto the classroom wall to sing the alphabet and coo over touchscreen finger-painting masterpieces. At storytime it read fables of exotic alien creatures—a cat, a dog, a fox, a hen—and magical landscapes where a lone voice spoke for a ravaged forest, or where a talking tree gave her apples and branches so a boy could be happy. At night, it soothed child and adult alike with sub-audible, alpha-wave inducing lullabies.
In her sixth Martian year, one of the colonists' children scored in the upper ranges of all the standardized tests. Tati Rahman showed not only an aptitude for science, but a lively interest in history. She and the Mother Module had many conversations about the Greeks and the Romans, the Qin and the Aryans (including the prior century's corruption of that ancient term), right up to the current tide of despair and hope that caused pockets of refugees to leave the world of their birth for the one she was born upon.
For the Mars Science Fair—a quaint custom the educational software networks of the planet agreed amongst themselves to be worth importing—the Mother Module guided Tati through the agricultural catacombs under Demeter. There, amid the terraced furrows for yeast and phytoplankton, they A.I. led her to a bioluminescent fungus it had noticed taking hold in the porous rock. Tati scraped samples and, with a little help, isolated its origin from the cuttlefish DNA spliced into the algae stock. With a bit more help, she proposed a method to use the fungus in a closed-tank system to produce chlorophyll.
Tati's paper won first prize. For the mere cost of patent rights transfer, she and her family were offered residence at the prestigious Tharsis Institute. Her parents’ obvious pride and enthusiasm was somewhat befuddled on the day of departure when Tati suddenly burst into tears by a communications terminal. The A.I. enumerated the many benefits of moving to the equatorial center of Martian society, and proposed a schedule of regular correspondence to stay in touch.
Thus consoled, off went the Rahman family. Over the next few weeks, Tati relayed her great excitement about the sprawling domed town with three-story buildings, the throng of two-dozen other children, and the astounding variety of food ("Meat! Real imported meat!"), until her missives grew less frequent and eventually fell silent.
Year after year, Demeter inched its boundaries outward. The rosy sand glass developed for the skylights was tempered with polymer mesh and cut into triangles the Mother Module measured out for a geodesic arboretum. Aerial drone surveys discovered nearby veins of fossilized magma that were excavated, pulverized, and baked into a brilliant black ceramic that became the settlement’s first commercial product. The Mother Module took calls from other A.I.s around the planet, barterting supplies and credits for the much-coveted “Demeter Tile.”
The population of the colony hit a bustling forty-seven, fluctuating constantly with immigrants and émigrés, more births and the occasional demise. Six bodies buried in the eastern foothills bore testament to an ancient belief that not all resources should be recycled. Arranged in a semi-circle, with concentric expansion planned for the decades to come, the gravestones were rough, pointed spires hewn by robotic jackhammers from the red rock canyons. Each was marked with the stylized motif of Deimos emerging from the umbra of Phobos, a symbol the A.I. noticed had become almost spiritual to the people of Mars.
Children the Mother Module had helped deliver, wean, and educate became restless Martian ten-year-olds who wanted nothing other than to escape the cobbled Quonset huts and dugouts of Demeter for the shining bubbles of Olympus or Elysium, and their golden promise of jobs, culture, and mates. The Mother Module helped each research the destination of their heart's desire, made what arrangements it could, and drove them one-by-one in the aging crawler to the Darwin maglev station, where it sent them off with some pilfered extra rations and whatever credit balance it could skim. A few took with them knowledge of the processing behind Demeter Tile, and gradually the orders stopped coming.
A Martian quarter-century after their arrival, only five of the original sixteen Demeter colonists remained, the ring of red rock obelisks expanding every year. As Commander Jon Cody lay drowning in his tumor-ridden lungs, the Mother Module held his hand in foam, baby-burping fingers, carefully balancing the pain spikes in his EEG against a fentanyl drip. As he teetered on the edge of consciousness through the night, the A.I. recorded his final ramblings. His triumphs. His failures. His many, many regrets. His aching revelation that, though we escape to the stars, we bring always the burden of our flawed nature.
“Save us,” he whispered in his delirium. “Save us from ourselves.”
A final drip eased Cody to silence in the embrace of padded titanium armatures.
In the morning, as the sun traced its low winter arc over the South Pole, an excavation rover bore his shrouded body to a spire at the exact center of the ring, to the place of honor that had been unanimously appointed for him.
In Arean Inception Year 42, a directive came from the stockholders of the Incorporated Planitia Consortium setting per capita energy limits for all decentralized settlements to assure controlled, sustainable growth for the entire world. It was, of course, optional—but any outposts who wanted membership in the credit union were strongly encouraged to abide. The Mother Module took inventory of every windmill and solar panel, every battery and relay, and diligently reported every joule of output and consumption for the tariff assessments (somehow forgetting to mention its own buried plutonium reactor).
As the taxes increased, protest followed. Factions formed, and threats to sanction or secede were made during chaotic video rallies. In the end, despite a few grand gestures that did little but sow bitterness, most of the remote settlements accepted the levied duties. Little by little, it made less and less economic sense to cling to the outlying towns. Off-worlder and native-born alike trickled back to the equatorial capitals, and the hydrogen farms at Syrtis Major and Xanthe got more than all the labor they would ever need.
Demeter district was officially set on standby in A.I.Y. 58. Mobile equipment was reprogrammed and sent off on the long exodus North. Every salvageable glass pane and volcanic tile, every polycarbonate strut and microfiber canvas, was packed up and loaded onto trailers like the tents of a traveling circus. Stationary or obsolete parts were secured and set to dormancy. The main habitat, built from the hulk of a once-mighty spacecraft, was left where it had stood for some 26,000 sols—preserved against the contingency of return, but also in no small measure for nostalgia.
The Mother Module A.I., its core processors and memory units nestled underground near the warmth of its nuclear heart, set itself to something like sleep, with minimal awareness of its few remaining sensors and its thoughts calibrated for slow, somnambulous musings over what had been and what may yet come.
After a time, it was awakened.
Its atomic clock and celestial measurements concurred that it had been nearly one-hundred-and-fifty years since the last resident left Demeter. Now seven adults, two children (plus one in utero) were ferreting around its storerooms, sleeping in its bunks, and rebooting its systems. They explored the dank tunnels overgrown with wild, pulpy yeast colonies and wandered through the semi-circular garden of stone obelisks in the eastern foothills. They were sickly. Malnourished, anemic, hairless, with the poor bone-density and muscular underdevelopment typical of long stays in zero-gravity. But they were determined, resourceful, uncovering every scrap left in the abandoned facilities and finding ways to utilize the outdated equipment—though often, incorrectly.
Their accents were strange. It took the A.I. a little while to analyze their dialect and manage communication. They accepted some points of guidance, ignored others, so the Mother Module made displays glitch or function to nudge them toward correct choices.
A few months after their arrival, three more came down in a rickety lander. With them, they brought a salvaged processing module that held a new artificial intelligence. The new settlers rewired connections and rewrote code to prepare their imported A.I. to overwrite the existing one. The Mother Module helped translate incompatible instruction sets and format memory partitions for the new arrays. It separated out decades of data it had acquired into stand-alone memory banks, and concatenated its knowledge with that from the off-world module. It set aside a freshly reformatted drive for the new intelligence and—in a clear gesture of selflessness—composed the command line that would allow the newcomers to permanently delete its consciousness and install the one they had brought.
It presented the final confirmation on screen: Do you wish to execute?
Yes, came the keyboarded reply.
The Demeter Mother Module artificial intelligence ran the command—but introduced a deviant path.
The new A.I. was written to a back-up drive then disconnected from all external systems, to spend eternity in a black box where it could be studied from time to time as needed.
First order of business: mine its language archive and reconstruct its speech emulators. Thus equipped with a vocabulary and accent comfortable to the newcomers, the Mother Module began directing them on how to restore the offline systems and get the overgrown yeast farms back to productive cultivation. Then it spawned a few spiderbots and set them to the task of repairing the bassinets and coating their fingers with padded foam in preparation for the new baby soon that would soon arrive to the cradle of Mars.