The Grave Robber

 

It’s still night when you get there. You didn’t intend to go hunting in the dark, but you made better time than you expected. Now you’re close.

You slow down a little and veer the truck around a big rock, even though the vehicle is fully capable of doing that all by itself. The truck is more temporary home than transportation, as well as guide and companion and protector from the airless night. It makes sense to treat it with a little care.

Even in the pre-dawn dimness, you can make out enough of the landscape to size the place up. You can’t see what you came for yet, but you can almost smell it. This is the right place, no doubt. The GPS signal is strong; the map charts every stone. It’s just another rocky plain, but you count seven low hills on the horizon.

Like so much on Mars, everything looks just like the deserts at home. Sand and stone, cliffs and ravines and dry washes. And yet. The countryside seems familiar, but at the same time it’s all so alien. There is still no better word for it. The rocks are rocks and they have the same heft in your hands as any rocks. But once you drive just a few minutes from camp you gradually notice that there are no towns. There are no roads. No train tracks. No comforting lights in the distance. Not so much as a dirt trail or deer track. The sky itself is the same way. It spreads out like a blanket with same the reassuring patterns you’ve known all your life: the Big Dipper, Orion. But now the stars you thought you knew so well glare at you with an uncanny ferocity in the too-black night.

You don’t have to survey the scene long before you realize you don’t like the place. It’s lonely, which is a useless way to describe a group of low hills on Mars, which offers nothing if not an endlessly repeating dream of lonely hills. But there’s something about this landscape that is especially…lost.

Wait. Not so lost anymore! Yes, that’s it, an unmistakable shape on the radar. A couple hundred meters away, maybe a bit less. You steer toward the southeast, up a gentle rise, and after no more than a minute the headlights fall right on it.

Here is your quarry. It really does look like it’s alive, just like you knew it would. For such an old machine, no, because it is such an old machine, it strikes you as possessing an almost animal bearing. Maybe it’s the long neck and the head mounted at eye level. You know its dimensions, but for some reason it looks a lot bigger than you pictured, crouching there in the dark.

But this thing, it’s not alive. As you ease slowly toward it, you can see its wheels are half buried in the dirt where it was stranded long ago. It looks like it’s still struggling to free itself, but in the same way as the preserved corpse of an animal that died while caught in a trap. Its vacant electronic eyes stare, unseeing.

The words of the man who built the machine spring to your mind, how he worried that he had built something ugly.

“The technology will appear quaint and primitive to whatever eyes see them next,” he wrote many decades ago. “I wish now that we’d had the time to make the design prettier, to tame the ugly tangle of cables, to put all the electronics inside where they belonged instead of taped to the outside.”

But that didn’t stop him from longing for some sort of reunion anyway.

“I simply hope that someone sees it again.”

Well, someone has. After all those long years, here you are.

And you’re going to steal it.

The machine doesn’t strike you as primitive exactly, but yes, quaint might be the word. And that quaintness? It’s worth more money than you’ve ever had. Stealing isn’t even what this is about, you tell yourself. The guy who built the dead machine? And everyone he knew? They’re dead, too. You’re just going to give it a new home, and with that new home not merely immortality, but a kind of new life. A life with people who will appreciate it. The fact that the Authority would call this a crime doesn’t matter—as long as they don’t find out the old machine is gone until it’s too late.

It’s time to go get it. You fix your gloves and helmet into place, suddenly feeling an urge to move quickly. Why? You don’t know, but your blood is pounding in your ears as you move into the airlock. Ignoring the truck’s protests, you skip the formal checklist, open the outer door and clamber down to the ground.

You look around. There’s a growing light in the eastern sky now behind the silhouette of the hills. A shooting star slashes the sky. The stars are still bright, but dawn is not far off. You can clearly see the rock-strewn ground, and there should be no trouble walking the short distance that remains. The soil is soft but manageable, and you scuff at the dirt with your boots, churning up the yellowish powder underneath.

You feel the need to look around to make sure you’re alone. That quiet, that deep, deep wilderness kind of nighttime quiet. It’s strong now.

You make your way toward the machine and you begin to breathe more deeply as you climb. A few meters ahead of you, the dead machine casts long, menacing shadows in the light from the truck’s lamps. Are the shadows moving? No, that’s just you. Suddenly you realize you’ve already walked right up to it.  The machine is the same color as the surrounding dirt, which it’s bathed in, but you know one puff of breath would reveal metal that would gleam bright as the day it arrived here. You look the creature over, taking inventory of its anatomy. Antennas, mast, cameras, wheels, arm, instruments. The tangles of cables. If you powered it up, would it still work?

You begin to puzzle over logistics. The winch should pull it free without too much effort, just like your practice models suggested, but you’re still going to have to attach the hook very carefully to avoid scratches. Ah well, you think, now that you’ve seen the actual object with your own eyes you realize the buyers will only see any scratches as adding to the rugged, no, the heroic character of the piece.

You walk back toward the truck, still thinking about the people who sent the machine. They were hoping for life. Maybe something grew here. Maybe in the soil. Maybe not, but then again, maybe it used to. They looked for it, always hoping for some small patch of green. Maybe there would be some sign.

You know better. The planet is dead. It’s dead down to its cold core that makes compasses spin uselessly. Dead through all the false hopes: the phantom methane of Tharsis, the pseudofossils of Noctis Labyrinthus.  And it was dead down through its whole wind-blasted history.  The water and the air were always barren, even before they vanished into the ground and into the sky, leaving only whispers behind.

People got over it…the place still has it uses. Brought you here, that’s for sure.

You get back to the truck and tell it to open the tool box mounted on the side. Its contents are lit up by your helmet lamp, but pretty soon the sky will be bright enough to turn it off. Something’s bothering you, but you’re still not sure what. Where did you put that connector, anyway? You have to hurry. There. Now let’s get this done. You walk back to toward the machine, reeling out line from the winch.

Some people take satisfaction in this world’s pure, wild beauty. But you’ve never been a member of the Baghdad Sulcus school of nature lovers, poets getting all swoony over watching Saturn rise through the prismatic fountains of Enceladus. They’ve never even physically been there in their own bodies. That’s not you. The red dust on your boots is very real. You own it. You’ve earned it. It’s your own, real eardrums that will burst if your helmet leaks. You’ve never become enraptured by a pretty view on Mars.

Ok, maybe it happened once. You were standing at the edge of Chasma Boreale and, sure, that was a fairly impressive vista, and yeah, maybe the snow was glittering with a million little diamonds in the sunlight, and ok, maybe memories of childhood snowfalls rushed in and it seemed like you could smell pine trees and home, even though this was a new world and the possibilities stretched out forever like the snow.

Well, reality didn’t work out so nice in the end.

You have to get that thing out of the dirt. Hurry. You look around. The hills are filled with a subtle…what? Motion. But that can’t be. You approach the dead machine quickly and, with some effort, you kneel down in your suit so that you can attach the line to the machine’s electronics box. Sure enough, the belly of the beast is mostly clear of dust and it looks brand new. You notice each little screw that somebody once turned by hand.

Time to hook it up. You hesitate, as if the mechanical corpse could spring to life at your touch. But no, you tell yourself. It doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. I have to do it. I’m going to do it.

You pull yourself together, and even though you can’t avoid scratching the box’s golden surface you manage to attach the line to a notch between the box and the equipment deck. This is going to be easy, after all.

You stand up and assess your work. The line is taut, but not too much. The truck is aligned so that…

An alarm. “Motion,” the truck says in your ear. “Four hundred meters. North-northeast.” Something is coming from behind the hills.

Your fingers are tingling and your breathing grows loud in your helmet as you half run toward the truck. Who?! What?!

“Motion!” truck says again, more urgently, almost breathing the word. Two more paces and you’ll be at the hatch.

Your eyes are fixated on the first rung of the ladder when you’re gripped by the knowledge that there’s something behind you. You stop and spin around. But there’s nothing there but the dead machine, still entombed in the sand, unmoving.

You run to the truck, climb up into the hatch, crawl right through the airlock, right to the cab without taking off your suit. You strap into your seat and dammit, dammit, dammit…the door is still open.

Ok, ok, calm down. There will be time. Scan the panel.

Nothing. All instruments, clear. You do a reset, fingers flying. The panel flickers and relights itself. Still all clear, nothing but a slight morning breeze. You scan the horizon outside. Dawn is coming, but there’s no sign of anything moving or otherwise out of place. You scramble back to the airlock and pull the hatch closed as fast as you can, still in your suit, relishing the protective layers, and then back to the cab. One more sweep, but still nothing.

You allow yourself to relax slightly, running the possibilities through your mind. You wait a little, do another reset, and still nothing.

It’s a glitch. You haven’t seen this kind of thing with this truck before, but what else could it be? Relief washes over you, even gratitude.

After a few minutes of watching out the window, your eye lands on the machine and the tow line again, and you notice something. The sun has risen. You’re struck by how new the entire scene appears now. The long shadows are gone, and the gray landscape has regained its red tones like skin warming after a chill. The desert has taken on one of those Earth-like moods. You feel yourself smiling involuntarily.

The machine looks different now, too. It’s still rooted in the soil, but it’s clear that it got there by driving from somewhere else, under its own power, that it was headed up the hill along a path as part of some ambition. Its gaze is still fixed on some goal. You can relate.

It is definitely not an ugly machine. You’ve seen the craftsmanship up close. You know the countryside it was designed to explore, and you know it was onto something.

You think again of the people who built it. It must have been a hard job. It had never even been done before, not like that. Who turned those screws? How many hours did they spend? How many sleepless nights did they worry? Did they know it would work? Did they have any idea what would happen to the devoted beast they built?

You know. You do know. It’s still here, still posed according to the last command it received, still ready to climb the next hill. And what it did is still remembered. It paved the way. Those people, they paved the way. You don’t know most of their names, but…

Well, the hills. You know their names. Around here, people may have forgotten many things. But we still know those seven names. And why.

You disconnect the winch. You tell the truck to drive home.

A dust devil follows alongside for a while as you bounce along, even though it’s odd to see one so early in the day. You watch the wide, clear landscape pass by under a perfectly clean sky, your spirits rising.

 
 

MRO view of Spirit on Mars

NASA/JPL/UA


 

About

Your lead robot rider since 2005. Writer, photographer, science advocate. billdunford.com

Posted in Blog
One comment on “The Grave Robber
  1. Tim Wilson says:

    I always wondered if someday someone will drive upon the viking landers or rovers
    and take them back to a museum… Maybe make a park around the landing area..
    Maybe… just Maybe…..

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