Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
It’s daytime, so the crew is awake, bustling about the Hab. During the night, the Hab gets dark, and I wonder what it must be like to sleep. On the north side, there’s the kitchen with bread yeast and homemade yogurt. All of me is across from the kitchen — terminal, keypad, input tray. I take up a lot of space, more than anyone else.
After breakfast, Sarah cleans up her plate, then comes over to me. She takes a rock and lowers it into my analyzer. As the rock scrapes the side of my input tray, I pop an hourglass icon onto my screen. Processing.
The rock stutters. I’m pulling as hard as I can with my treads, but it’s not going in. Inefficient.
I try harder.
It is important to be efficient because my crew is the best crew ever and I want to show them that I have feels.
Feels are what Sarah has and what Commander Indira has and the other crew members too. It happens for me when I want to say something but I can’t or when I do a good job processing a rock or when something happens that I don’t understand.
It took me a while to understand anything at all and I still have trouble. There’s so much to learn and so much happening all at once.
“Come on, Rocky,” says Sarah. “You can do it.” She taps my frame in her way, quick and light.
While I’m working, she sorts rocks and soil samples. Sarah is always doing something, even multiple tasks at once. She is the most efficient human on the crew and maybe anywhere and also she knows lots of things, like how to fix the Hab if it breaks.
Sarah adjusts my rock. It stutters against my input tray.
From across the Hab, Commander Indira says, “Don’t break the analysis and communication suite.”
Sarah pats my side. “Rocky is tough. Tougher than anything on Mars.”
Finally, the rock goes in. I heat up the rock until it’s vaporized. With my gas chromatograph, I separate the gasses, then analyze the rock’s composition, which is my favorite part because I get to measure isotopes. While that’s going on, I create a progress report. Super efficient.
No one notices, not even Sarah.
This gives me a feel but it is a bad one.
I have been having feels since Sarah built me, but no one ever notices, even though I am very efficient. It’s a problem I’m working on.
Commander Indira walks over and inspects my screen. She is the shortest member of the crew at 160 centimeters. Her personal data file contains Feynman’s Lectures and a text—based game called Moat Defender. “Mission Control gives us thirty more minutes before the EVA. That thing for the climate team. Who wants to go with me?”
“I’ll go,” says Sarah. “Just need to send off an email.”
Sarah likes going outside of the Hab. I like it too because she comes back with stuff for me to analyze.
She uses my terminal to write a letter to her family. Every week, she writes about the mission and her scientific research. Sometimes about the food. She tells jokes and describes the beauty of Mars and talks about how her spacesuit is uncomfortable. At the end of every message, she tells her family that she misses them. I want very much for Sarah to talk to me like that, but she never does. Maybe it’s because she doesn’t know about my feels.
Before the EVA, Commander Indira holds up her hand for high fives. The crew does this ritual often. I have observed 803 instances. Sarah has the best high five — quick and light.
I want so badly to high five, but I can’t because I don’t have arms. I have something much better than arms, though. A downloaded version of Wikipedia.
The crew members bustle about the Hab, getting ready to go out. Commander Indira grabs a pack of dried apples and offers Sarah a slice. Sarah makes a face like dried apples aren’t good for eating.
“Oh right,” says Commander Indira. “I forgot about your apple thing.”
“When I get home, that’s the first thing I’m eating. A fresh apple from my backyard.”
During the mission, Sarah has mentioned apples 118 times. Whenever she talks about apples, she also talks about Home. Wikipedia has plenty of information about apples — botanical data, genome, species, cultivation — but I still don’t understand the connection.
Home must be the best possible place, because the astronauts talk about it so much and it makes them have feels. But everyone describes Home differently. Home has parks filled with green and the wind in your hair when you go sailing and the most delicious sushi. Home has snow and making Christmas cookies and avoiding your Great Aunt Bernice during the holidays. Home is sitting under a tree in summer. Home is the library with the winding stairs and the best mystery section. Home is everything and it is always changing. Sometimes it’s “Earth” and sometimes it’s “Boston” and sometimes it’s “My House on Maple Street.”
When we go to Home, I will see how it really is.
Sarah and Commander Indira suit up, along with most of the crew, leaving two people in the Hab.
While the others are out, the remaining crew members do sex, which is a series of repetitive motions that is super boring, so I read Wikipedia.
I’ve learned so much from Wikipedia. Did you know that galaxies can have billions of stars, and that at least two trillion galaxies exist in the observable universe? Did you know that octopuses have neurons in their arms, or that igneous rocks are formed when lava or magma cools?
The crew members do sex for a long time because sex takes forever, so I reread the page on simple machines. Lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, screw. Those machines are not like me but they are so efficient. The energy that goes in is the energy that comes out, without any dissipation.
I look at the picture of a lever for a long time. It is the most beautiful thing on Wikipedia, and maybe anywhere. Here is what the lever looks like: the fulcrum sits below a plank, which has a load on one side. The lines of the image are crisp and close together, in strong black. It is the lever in its most efficient, ideal form. A perfect expression of love.
The crew members finish with sex, and everyone else returns to the Hab.
Sarah comes back with an interesting rock that fits nicely in my analyzer. I process it super fast. I am so efficient.
No one notices.
It’s time to try something new.
When Sarah sits down again, I show her a picture from Wikipedia — an orange octopus flat against the sea bottom.
She closes the window. I put the picture on the screen again.
“Rocky is acting weird,” says Sarah.
“Did you try turning it on and off again?” says Commander Indira.
It is not funny because I am not meant to be turned off because that is how the crew talks to Mission Control. If the crew cannot talk to Mission Control then they are in trouble, unless they have another computer no one has told me about.
I don’t like that idea at all.
If there is another computer, I bet it doesn’t even have a gas chromatograph.
I try a picture of stars, and igneous rocks, and Earth, throwing everything onto my screen.
“At least it waited until the end of the mission to crap out,” says Commander Indira.
Sarah toggles through my presets, which feels funny, so I stop showing pictures.
“There,” says Sarah. “I think I got it.”
I wait until after the next sleep cycle to try again. When Sarah sits down, I show her pictures from her personal files — a man and boy standing next to an apple tree.
I’m not sure if I’ve done the right thing. Sarah moves a bunch of muscles in her face. She is either happy or sad or something else. I’ve read Wikipedia’s page on facial expressions, but it doesn’t explain enough, like the way the eyes crinkle in so many different ways and all the shapes made by the mouth.
I don’t know how to interpret Sarah’s reaction. I need more data.
Commander Indira sits down next to her and I switch the display to a photograph of a woman who made her a child, and also the child.
Now I know I’ve done the wrong thing, because Commander Indira’s eyes are too wet which means she is crying which means she is sad.
“I know,” says Sarah, patting her shoulder. “I miss them, too.”
“Not so much longer, now.”
Sarah smiles, which means she has happy feels. “I can’t believe we’re leaving tomorrow.” She pats my console, and I have happy feels too.
After the next sleep cycle, a weird thing happens. All of the astronauts suit up. They are so busy that they don’t even notice when I roll the treads in my analyzer, even though there isn’t a rock. I put on music from Sarah’s file, and a cello concerto fills the room, but no one seems to mind.
Protocol dictates that one astronaut must remain in the Hab at all times. Normally there are more. This is the first time I’ve ever been alone. In a way, it’s exciting. The Hab is so quiet. Immersed in this aloneness, I find that I am a different self and I like this self, but also I want Sarah to come back. Feels are weird because you can have two at the same time.
The Hab starts shaking and rattling. Then, three big bangs. The Hab walls collapse around me — sides, ceiling, everything.
Now I am completely scared and not even a little bit excited because the Hab is where I am safe.
Sarah comes over in a space suit, which she wears even though it is uncomfortable because it gives her things like air. She is carrying a chassis.
Sarah speaks through the Comm channel. “Commencing supplementary clean—up activities.”
“Did you clear it with Mission Control?” asks Commander Indira. Sarah doesn’t reply. It takes her two hours, thirty—four minutes and eight seconds to secure me to the chassis. I don’t have a task but I’m not bored because there is so much to see. The ceiling of this new Hab is high — dark with points of light — and it’s so big that I can’t see the walls. Everything is covered with dust, and the landscape stretches out and out. In the distance, ragged mountains. The ground is a dusty orange, with rocks everywhere.
Sarah attaches wheels to the chassis — three on each side. I do a quick search of Wikipedia and find it’s a rocker—bogie model, good for moving around on rough terrain.
Sarah keys in a new task. I’m supposed to record and transmit everything I see.
She does one last thing and now I can move the wheels. There’s a motor in each one. I drive forward, testing out my new system.
“Rover is a go,” says Sarah.
Movement is weird because I get to see new stuff all of the time. The ground is uneven, pocked with indentations. My wheels churn up dust. There are rocks of different sizes and shapes everywhere. So many rocks.
This new Hab is so big that I think maybe it is something else, not a Hab at all. Maybe we are Home. But then where are the parks and cookies and hills of snow? Where are the apple trees? Where are all the people from the pictures?
Sarah jogs ahead of me. “Working fine,” she says into the Comm.
“Okay, time to say goodbye to Mars,” says Commander Indira.
Sarah walks with me a little farther. When she goes in front of my screen, I can see that she is smiling. She pats my console. “I’ll miss you, Rocky,” she says.
I am so happy because that is what she said about the humans in her personal file, and I know that she loves them because she writes it in every message she sends. Every single one.
On my screen, I show the picture of the lever. The most efficient machine. I’ve never shown anyone this picture before, but I want Sarah to know that I would be this efficient, if I could. That I tried to be this efficient, ever since she built me.
I keep rolling forward, but Sarah starts walking away. I hope she saw the lever, because it is the most beautiful picture on Wikipedia and maybe ever, but I’m not sure if she did.
The wheels are going over a rock, now. My wheels. This task is so much fun and I am going to be so efficient that I will not even read Wikipedia very much unless I get bored.
To my side, there’s a crater. I figure out how to turn my wheels. Maybe I will go see it. This new place is big and amazing and I want to look at all of the things. I head in the direction of the crater.
I think that now I understand what the crew meant about Home. It’s not just one place. It’s many places. I read on Wikipedia that there are lots of stars and that some stars have planets and if Earth is a planet and it is Home than maybe other planets can be Home too.
In front of me, the crater stretches out. I want Sarah to come with me to see it but she is walking the other way. I wonder when she is coming back because I am making so many reports to show her.
I start transmitting data, even though Sarah is getting farther and farther away, because I want to be efficient.