We’d gotten a vehicle to Mars for Christ’s sake, and this is what they choose to celebrate? Curiosity, out there all on his—its—own, humming to the frequency of “Happy Birthday”? Mics up to max, an ear-numbing static filling our large control room, some of the more senior staff sing loudly over the noise while eating crumbly cupcakes over their consoles. Normally I might put a stop to it, but they’d been working so hard.
“Good job,” I shout over the din after the last whir fades, “Back to work.” The Martian wind had picked up anyway, and the room is deafening. A few glare in my direction before pulling their volume knobs to the left painfully slowly until only the main speaker remains, broadcasting smaller snippets of static back into our room. Much better.
“Nathalie, can you-”
All of us stop. There’s a sound. A crunch? Then, an echo. What sounds like a-a delayed echo. But it isn’t… it’s more bass-heavy; Happy Birthday drummed out on…it sounds like a garbage can, completely unlike Curiosity’s tinny grinding. Then, even the wind and static drop from our primary mic.
We’d been cut off. We’d lost our audio.
The main screen in front of us flickers in greyscale, then in colour. The landscape hadn’t shifted since we last booted up the lens: just a scene filled with rock and iron dust. From behind me, I hear the clinking of Ross’s heavily-ringed paws across the keyboard, booting up our analytics programming. The interns just stand around staring.
“What am I looking…for?”
Almost as I say it, something leans in and out of the frame—something big, dark, square… headless, but humanoid…and metal…all metal.
“Pan left!” Ross growls.
But Nathalie’s fast; she’s already shifted the control stick. The same sounds they’d just been celebrating—the mechanical shills of Curiosity’s circuitry—must have caught the…the thing’s attention. Brought it over to investigate. We’d scanned this area three times already and hadn’t seen a thing. Now, the thing steps closer and closer, moving in and out of the frame, before everything goes black.
A second more, and a little red dot lights up the right corner of the dark screen.
With a jolt, I realize we hadn’t been recording.
“Why’d you make me pan?” Nathalie hisses, smacking Ross in the arm.
“What do you think that was though?” says another voice, one I don’t recognize. I follow Nathalie’s line of sight toward a young, brutish-looking teen in a fluorescent safety vest.
“Who are you?”
“Community service. Been here two weeks. Sorry, I couldn’t help but see.”
“It was a shadow. Nothing but a shadow.” The boy rolls his eyes and begins emptying one of our overflowing garbage bins, the purples and greens of his tattooed arms clashing against his orange safety vest. Kids these days.
“For the last time, it’s Stern.” But my voice trails off… the screen ahead of me is no longer all black, instead chalk full of our usual analytics. Consumption is up, RPM’s running wild…much faster than Curiosity was used to on ground.
“These numbers match Threshold Testing,” says Nathalie, “It’s almost like it’s…like that thing is holding it up and…making its wheel’s spin.”
We all watch the mileage rise with mouths wide. Then Nathalie:
Ross’s loud fingers crack across his keyboard, booting our 3D map onto the screen space. Indicators all over the scan blink out Curiosity’s distance from home base as well as its elevation.
“We don’t want to move blind…” mumbles Ross in my direction, as if I didn’t know. As if we hadn’t just seen…
“Just watch it, and let me know if anything changes, okay?”
I have to see Kinsella.
Back in the break room, I have Kinsella in my lap, feeding him a bit of carrot from my lunch. Petting the lab rat always makes me feel…like I can be the leader these people need. I’m top of command…he’s just a rat.
There in the doorway stands the kid from earlier, his vest shining in the fluorescent lights. I don’t answer, just watch as he slowly shuffles to and from the lunch room’s empty recycling bin. He’d almost made it to the door again when suddenly he turns around, brow furrowing into the bridge of his large nose.
“I’m here ‘cause I worked over some flat-earthers, you know. I’m on your side.” His stance is powerful, but his eyes are pleading, like he’s looking for approval or something.
“I’m just saying, you don’t have to look at me like that.”
I get up and put Kinsella back in his cage, thinking maybe it was time to give it a clean. Passing the kid without looking at him, I promise myself that I’ll tell Nance off for hiring ex-cons to work around the equipment.
Back at the main deck, Nathalie, Ross, and their interns hover around several computers off to the left of the room, near our collection of discarded equipment heavy with dust. Blue and red lights flash across their faces from the main screen, and from the smaller monitors ahead of them. From what I can tell, Curiosity is moving again.
Everyone in the room suddenly covers their ears, protecting them from the wailing sirens suddenly blaring from the walls. Ross motions for me to come to him, and points at the smaller stats on the big screen, mouthing something that might have been “elevation” or “television”. Turning, I see what has his eyes bulging: Curiosity’s mileage has stopped, but the elevation has sky-rocketed. The thing’s moving damn fast and…and it’s off-planet. Off-Mars.
“How’d it get…”
I begin to recognize the siren’s pattern. Not for fire. Not for gas leak. For incoming. Like get out now.
“Unidentified object entering atmosphere,” announces the automated voice over the intercom. We’d only heard that announcement a few times before, when broken satellite parts fell back to earth. Watching the screen, I know this is something else entirely.
“It’s coming…it’s coming here!” I barely hear Ross confirm. Over the siren an automated voice begins walking us through our evacuation procedures. Stay calm. Don’t panic. Danger is imminent. On the big screen, our map blanks, replaced by another routing our room to the closest exit.
“Let’s go!” I yell, motioning for the others to follow. Taking the first right out of the room, I try to remember our last fire drill: we need to head to the West Exit.
We had only just turned the corner. I saw a few of our team who were just coming on shift ahead, including Nance, running with their passes clutched in their hands, waving them toward the scanner on the next door. Then there was the first explosion.
The hallway becomes…longer. I can’t see or hear very well. I can’t tell what the hell I’m looking at until something else takes me, lifting me and pushing me in the opposite direction of the crash. I can hear blood rushing in my ears. I can feel my consciousness wavering before me. But still, as I move, I manage to catch a glimpse of corrugated metal and oil.
Next thing I know, I hear a foggy voice calling. I can barely lift my head, but know I’m sitting down. The sirens had stopped blaring. We are back at control. But the person shouting at me isn’t Nathalie, or Ross. It’s the kid in the vest.
“Hey! Hey! Your friend looks pretty bad!”
I turn to see Ross in another chair, blood pouring from where his ear’d been blown off. I’d seen worse overseas, know how to patch him, but can’t seem to lift my arms.
“I’m gonna go get the others, you stay here, right?” I finally hear, moments after the kid had already gone.
It wasn’t a second, though, before those same doors shot back open, the kid wild-eyed, looking around the room for…
He starts moving desks; starts putting desks in front of the door. I want to shout at him…the windows! But before I can even try and talk, something big crashes through the glass—and the reinforced concrete holding it in place.
It…it’s tall. Three metres at least. Our ceilings are four. And no discernible “head” either. Just all four of its “arms” on the ground for support, still and silent as the dust settles all around.
“Curiosity?” I mumble dumbly.
I hear my own voice echo back at me—if it were deeper and more mechanical–but can’t pinpoint where the noise is coming from. Nothing on it seems like a speaker, or a mouth.
“Curiosity?” it echoes again. Gears shifting, the machine moves onto two of its limbs and walks like a biped to the centre of the computer lab, pulling a small beacon-item from a tangle of wires on its “front”. I soon recognize the emblem on some of its metal. The red and blue planet. The white lettering. The stars. It’s Curiosity, but riddled down to a circuit board or two, manipulated into…some kind of homing device, leading the thing straight to us.
“No WAY…” mumbles the kid from across the room, the creature standing between us. For a moment, flashes of alien monster movies scroll through my head. Bring me to your…
“…databank.” It’s difficult for the thing to speak, like it has to use the sounds from my single word to create the sounds of the others. Takes me a moment to realize that it had said “databank” at all. Did that mean our databank? Certainly, I wouldn’t risk…
“Think it wants access to the Internet? Can you give it the Wi-Fi password?” The kid looks at me, and then adds quickly, “I can like, plug my ears or whatever.” In response, the machine grumbles the word “internet”.
“I-I don’t know it. I’ll have to find it.”
“Find it.” The voice again. I manage to stand. My face is charred, my back bent and bruised from the fall. Inching along, I can’t help but feel it’s somehow…looking at me. That it’s following my movements toward the administration desk on the other side of the room. I remember seeing the password in our training manual…how many years ago? Surely, Nance would have kept it up to date.
My mind racing, I wonder if crash-landing on our base could be considered a threat of violence. Still, it having access to our general Wi-Fi (our regular, guest network) shouldn’t be any different than the many times those humans who might try to gain our intelligence had “logged in”. I only hesitate for a second more, running through the Universal Protocols Manual in my head. Article T-31B states that we respond positively to the demands of extra-terrestrial nations, within reason. Looking at the kid, then at the machine, I read the password aloud. As I finish the last digits, the thing’s legs contract into its “body”, leaving the bulk of it standing not far off the ground. Its arms contract next, causing it to drop the beacon-item, it’s fall echoing across the room. Without another sound the thing…the robot…comes to a stand-still.
“What’s it doing?” the kid mouths. Both of us just stare, the sounds of footsteps echoing from outside the mutilated wall.
“More of them?” he asks, louder this time.
“No, that’ll be security,” I say, my voice shaking. ‘This way,’ I hear someone else order. In no time, 12 men take position at the new entry point, some of them with guns, some of them without. The ones with guns are pointing them at us. Three to a person.
They hadn’t noticed the machine.
“What happened here?” demands one of the men without a gun. Habitually, I respond with the stipulated specs, in order of importance. Unidentified, English-speaking object from Mars, explosion on impact, casualties in the West Wing. I point to the thing, and all guns turn to follow. One of the gunmen’s arms shake, his eyes wide through his helmet visor. Then…almost too fast…
Our computers are still functional, humming. That sound is normal. What wasn’t normal in that room was the suddenly loud beat of an old-fashioned printer starting up.
It must have just scared the guy at the door. Like he’d seen one too many alien movies and didn’t want to take any chances. When he starts shooting, the others follow suit. I duck, but before I can cover my ears, I hear two voices: one, the commander’s Cease fire! The other, a strangled No! Stop!
I don’t see it when the kid runs to protect the machine, but I know from when I turn around and see him lying on the ground that that’s what he’d done. Lucky for him, all but two bullets had missed: one in the leg, and one grazing his head, taking more than skin with it. He’s down, already damaged from earlier. He looks bad. Maybe dead.
I go, kneeling beside him as the officers at the door—with the exception of the first shooter, who stays kneeling, shaking with his eyes closed—go back down the hall, one of them calling for medical services over their radio. Along the kid’s bloodied arms, tattoos of Captain Picard, ET, and Dana Scully gaze up at me. I feel suddenly small under their gaze.
Backing away, a nauseous feeling in my stomach, I almost bump into the dark, boxy thing that’d been the cause of it all. It hadn’t moved since I’d given it the Wi-Fi, and certainly didn’t look as if it had just undergone a barrage of gun fire. That’s when I notice the sheet hanging from the top of it. Like the kind from those copiers in the 70’s, with the perforated holes on each side.
I tear at it, only one of the EMT’s turning to look before going back to work on the kid. Something in me almost doesn’t want to read it. This is an alien telegram. A message. I would be the first to read it. Bracing myself for the worst, I read:
-----Thank-you for calling/ringing.
-----We are glad you telephoned/called.
-----You are very hard to contact/locate.
-----We would like to tell you.
-----Your atmosphere/ yard/ home is disgusting/ messy.
-----It is very ugly/unsightly.
-----Please be a neighbour/ friend/ associate and
remove/ get rid of your trash/ garbage.
-----If you do not clean it up soon, we will call/
ring the landlord/ police.
-----They are big/ giant and mean/ angry.
-----Thank-you. Goodbye/ Farewell.
Almost as soon as I finish reading, the machine boots up again. None of us move while the thing extends its limbs, turning to go back the way it came, stopping only to “look” at an overflowing garbage bin near the door.
“Gross,” it whirrs before disappearing out of sight. Not long afterward a sound like a jet engine erupts from the hall, smoke tumbling over the broken glass, another explosion of concrete sending grey dust flying around the room.
From my left, an EMT asks, casually, like nothing had happened: “Got anywhere I can throw this gum away?”
Header Image Copyright Jessica Barratt
Note: Curiosity, I’ve learned, has no speaker functionality. But if you’re looking to hear wind on mars, look no further: https://pix11.com/2018/12/07/nasa-just-heard-the-first-sounds-of-wind-on-mars-you-can-hear-them-too/