The Maretian

by Kris Overstreet

Chapter 137: Sol 233

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[10:42] WATNEY: Engine test completed. Rock sample scale read as 483 kilograms on loading. We activated the engine and gradually ran up the throttle until the scale read 183 kilograms and did some fine adjusting until it held at that reading for ten seconds. We then eased down the throttle to zero and dismounted the engine from the cradle. Throttle setting for nine hundred kilograms of thrust is just above six percent of rated thrust. Test ran for one hundred and seven seconds on a single magic battery which began at 100% charge and ended at 11% charge. Sorry I can’t give you any more power consumption data than that.

[11:01] JPL: Thanks, Mark. It’s good to see you’re back on the job. Can you tell us how much “just above” six percent the setting is?

[11:27] WATNEY: Less than half is the best I can do. The one percent marks on the pony throttle controls are smaller than a millimeter. Analog readout.

[11:58] JPL: Okay. We’ll treat that as seven percent and make sure the MAV ascent program remembers to correct for excess thrust. We’ll let you know how that goes.

By the way, could you take Sojourner with you? If you’ll take it inside the cave, we can take some photos of Dragonfly with it and then let it roam around the interior. Rover 2’s computer can run the probe automatically and provide data dumps through Pathfinder when you return to the Hab.

[12:24] WATNEY: Sure. Or I could use one of the hand-held cameras. That I still have.

Sojourner had three cameras, but it didn’t really see with them. The cameras weren’t video cameras; they were digital still shot cameras, two black-and-white and one color, all with a rather low resolution. Insofar as the little rover “saw” anything, it saw with four infrared laser emitters and receivers that detected obstacles in its way. One of those emitters had broken during its forty years of slumber, but the other three worked adequately enough, and Sojourner’s software supplemented them with the occasional still shot and very recently updated object-recognition software stored on the rover computers.

Thus, although the little rover only “blinked” its eyes once every minute or so, filing the images in the half of its mind that currently resided in Rover 2’s computer, its lasers told it that it was being held up in the air, and that it should not run its wheels at the moment.

It had no thermometer- all environmental tools had been mounted to Pathfinder, and they remained in Ares Valles where the thing that held Sojourner had left them. Thus, it did not notice the warmer temperature and higher air pressure as the cave’s airlock filled with air to let the astronauts inside.

It had no microphone or sound-detecting equipment of any kind. Its builders had reasoned, with justification, that a robot on Mars needed ears about as much as it needed pontoons. Thus Sojourner did not hear Mark say, “Good morning, Dragonfly. We brought a visitor.”

But at the one-minute interval, its aft camera, the only color camera of the three, took a photo of the cocoon. And the pattern-recognition software in the rover interacted with the navigation software hard-wired into the probe body and came up with a deduction that represented the absolute limit of the robot’s reasoning skills.

I don’t know what that is, but it’s not a rock.

“NASA wants Sojourner to poke around the cave for a few days,” Mark said. “It’ll sleep at night and wake up in the morning. If you hear strange noises at night, it’s probably the robot sniffing at the cherry trees.”

Sojourner didn’t hear any of this, but it knew when it was set down.

The bottom of the cocoon sat about a foot off the cave floor. Sojourner took another photograph as it began planning its exploration of the cave, but its updated software decided that nothing could be more interesting than that non-rock object. It adjusted its wheel bogies, angling the chassis of the rover, trying to lift its tail, with the color camera and the spectrometer, up towards the cocoon.

Mark took a photo of what looked, at first glance, like Sojourner staring up at the cocoon.

The right image, at the right time, can change the world- or prevent it from changing.

The next day NASA released Mark's photo, in reduced resolution to save bandwidth, along with a handful of others selected by Mark from Rover 2’s memory. The image caught the eye of several news editors, but it was USA Today who made the connection that the being inside the cocoon was responsible for the rover’s reactivation.

And thus, although most news outlets ran the photo, the headline that defined the meme ran on USA Today’s front page: “THANK YOU – Pioneering Mars rover given new life by alien.”

Within days the little probe became the symbol for Dragonfly’s fans and apologists around the globe. Art of the probe standing watch over the cocoon, or bringing valentines to it, or guarding it from green antennaed Martian interlopers, popped up everywhere. When xenophobes tried to fight back by turning Sojourner into a zombie probe mind-controlled by a sinister disembodied alien menace, Dragonfly’s fans fought back with adorable minion Sojourner, zombie Sojourner taking lessons from not-that-long-dead Opportunity, and one editorial cartoon that swept the world: zombie Sojourner holding a sign that said She Lost Her Mind Giving Mine Back to Me.

Most of the voices which had questioned the wisdom of welcoming the aliens to the Hab after Dragonfly’s collapse went silent in the overwhelming wave of support. The xenophobes, though of their own opinion still, had discovered that, to paraphrase the Bible quote, perfect cuteness casts out fear. In the end support for the rescue of Mark and the aliens increased, and years later multiple students seeking a doctorate in the communications sciences and arts would base thesis papers on one grainy photograph of a probe looking up at its savior.

And as the myth blew up that Sojourner loved Dragonfly for fixing it, and as this myth was relayed to Mark from NASA, the marooned astronaut decided not to mention to anyone the fact that, no matter how far Sojourner wandered in the cave, no matter where in the farm chamber it was placed, it was always next to the cocoon when the castaways arrived for their visit in the morning.

It might just be coincidence. After all, the cocoon was next to the entrance, where the cave walls were at their thinnest and where radio signals from the rover outside were strongest. And then again, it might be another thing touched by pony (or bug-pony) magic.

But that was in the future. For today, after Mark took the picture, Sojourner approached as closely as it could to the dangling cocoon, not quite able to reach, and took an inconclusive reading with its spectroscope. It then rotated, lifted the other end of its body, and took a grainy stereo image in black and white of the structure, or as much of it as could fit within its narrow frame of view.

And the only thought or feeling Sojourner chose to reveal to JPL and humanity at large was: Nope, still not a rock.

Meanwhile, the wind produced by the test of the dismounted Amicitas main engine joined the feeble, uncertain Martian trade wind, swirling first northwest and then southwest along an atmospheric boundary line. It blew up the fine, talcum-like surface dust of Mars and sent it high into the sky. More air gathered in the wind, as the weak summer sun heated the air and gave it more energy.

Magic thrusters in an alien environment had unpredictable consequences.

Author's Notes:

Only wrote one chapter today, keeping a buffer of 1- too much work and household chores to do today. But wow... yeah, I'm looking forward to your reactions when I post it tomorrow.

I could have stretched out talk of reactions to the Sojourner pic for days, as I have with other things, but this felt more right when I was writing it. And anyway, other concerns will pop up soon enough to fill chapters.

As the last two paragraphs probably already told you.

Next Chapter: Sol 234 Estimated time remaining: 15 Hours, 14 Minutes
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