Through the observation cameras, the planet below was a ball of greyish-brown, marked with darker lines, as though the surface was cracked and fissured, and would fall apart at a blow.
One of its faces was washed with the ruddy glow of the red giant that was one of its suns, an elderly star consuming itself in the final billions of years of its long life. The other side was starkly greenish in the light of the other, smaller sun, the two turning in a tango around each other, the planet itself, a captive of the immutable laws of gravity, turning around them, and bathed in their varicoloured light.
Shihuang 11 had no thoughts about the scene. He was far too busy tabulating the images, merging them together into a continuum, comparing them to the data from his planet mapping radars and the maps he’d been given, monitoring his orbital level, and finalising his plans on when to carry out the next phase of his mission. If the planet had been breaking apart at one point, all it would mean to Shihuang 11 was that he would avoid landing on that point.
He’d arrived in orbit over a week ago now, Earth-time, and ever since then he’d not paused a moment. The wealth of information he’d picked up was already immense. He had stored it, compressed it, and scrambled and coded it. When the planet next edged past the radio-shadow of its sun, he would send the coded data in a narrow stream of electronic noise, streaking through space at the speed of light, towards where the earth would be when it finally arrived at its destination. Then, gigantic dishes made of wire mesh and metal struts would intercept his transmission, and forward it to eagerly awaiting recipients. Some of them – those who had sent Shihuang 11 on his journey – would have the keys to decode the messages he’d sent. Others, who did not have the keys, would set great supercomputers to trying to unscramble the data.
Shihuang 11 did not care whether they would succeed. His business was here and now, his duty to collate and send the data he’d collected from orbit before descending to the planet. Once the data had been sent, he would move on to the next task. That was why he was here.
Slowly, from the images and the radar soundings, one particular spot emerged from all the others that his camera images and radar scans had shortlisted as potential landing sites. It was an oval plain, about halfway between the equator and the southern pole of the planet. Though it was surrounded by chains of hills like the stumps of rotten teeth, it was flat, smooth, had no trace of recent volcanic activity or earthquakes, and promised a stable surface for the lander module.
Shihuang 11 fired his orbital module rockets in brief, carefully calibrated bursts, lifting himself into a slightly higher orbital trajectory, and moving his path a few hundred kilometres to one side. Then, at the precise moment, when he’d just travelled past the point on the plain he’d selected, he closed a series of switches and circuits, and sent a signal programmed many months before through the appropriate circuits.
For a long moment, nothing seemed to happen, the lander module shrouded in its spherical heat shield matching perfectly the trajectory of the orbiter. Then there was a brief puff of released gas, and a gap appeared between the dark sphere and its lodging in the belly of the lander. Quite slowly, as it seemed, the gap enlarged, as the two sped together over the planet. Then the sphere dropped far enough that the first tendrils of the atmosphere fumbled at it with fingers of nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The heat shield, a cannonball fired by the force of gravity at the face of the planet, began to warm. The fingers of gas thickened and tightened, the sphere slowing further, its forward momentum dropping away as it began a long spiralling fall to the planet. The heat shell began to glow red, then white, the atmosphere around it turning into an incandescent sheath of plasma.
Shihuang 11 had neither the time to worry, nor marvel at the plume of blazing hot gas through which he was falling. His concerns were the temperature inside the heat shield – it was within acceptable levels – the functioning of the lander systems – they were all working so far – and the course the sphere was following as it descended. Since there were no antennae or sensors outside the heat shield – the men who had built it had known that any would burn away instantly in the heat of the descent – he could neither see where he was going nor communicate with the cameras and radars following his descent from the orbiter. All he could do was compare the time he was travelling and his velocity to the plan formulated in the orbiter, and they told him that he was doing well.
At the proper time, he activated a camera accompanied by a brilliant light. It showed him the ceramic lined interior of the heat shield, dark and relatively cool despite the searing heat washing across its other surface, only centimetres away. Shihuang 11 monitored his altitude as it dropped, and the temperature of the heat shield fall, too, as the atmosphere grew thicker and thicker as he fell further and further. Then, at the proper time, he sent another signal.
Through the camera he watched the heat shield pop away, the two halves of the sphere separate as it broke apart. Now the camera had something more than the interior of the heat shield to show him. The planet below was no longer a gigantic sphere; it was a vast plain, streaked and lined with fissures, ridged with crumpled hills, that stretched to a horizon that only just still showed a curvature. There were no clouds in this atmosphere without oxygen and water vapour; Shihuang 11 had an unrestricted view. He noted, without satisfaction or surprise, that he was where he was supposed to be, and would land in the plain he was supposed to.
Still travelling on its side, the lighter upper surface trailing the heavy bottom, the lander fell.
From the top, which was the back as it fell, a small pilot parachute snapped out. Striped alternately red and white, it cupped and held the air, filled out, and snapped open. It was too small to slow the fall of the lander, but it wasn’t designed to. Its purpose was to turn the lander’s orientation from on its side to vertical, and to pull out the giant main parachute from its housing in a bulge like a hunchback’s hump on the lander’s top surface. Moments later, with a noise like an explosion, the main parachute, bright orange in colour, slammed open.
Suddenly the lander was no longer a cannonball hurtling to earth. Suddenly it was a package of metal and crystals, hanging under an immense parachute, spinning gently under the gigantic upturned bowl of orange cloth as it fell.
Now the land below was no longer a smooth oval. Now Shihuang 11 was close enough for the downward-looking camera to show him that the surface below was covered with myriad tiny cracks and wrinkles like an ancient crone’s face, and littered with stones from the size of a pebble to that of a small car. None of them would impede Shihuang 11’s descent; they were either too small, or not in his way.
Slower, and still slower as its speed bled away, the lander fell.
Shihuang 11 turned on a laser unit in the bottom of the lander. A hair-thin beam lanced downwards, touched the ground below, and lenses above measured to the nearest micron how far the lander was still above the ground. When it was near enough, Shihuang 11 sent out another command. The parachute’s shrouds, held fast in the lander’s back hump, were set loose. Without the weight of the lander, it was no longer an air-filled bowl. No more than a wilted flower of crumpled orange cloth, the parachute drifted away.
A quartet of four small rocket engines, set in the belly of the lander, between its telescoping legs, had been waiting for this moment ever since they had been designed, built, and installed. They had never been used for anything before this moment. They would never be used for anything after. They would live, and die, only in this instant. Only a metre and a half above the onrushing plain, they fired, all together, their four blazing pillars of flame seeming to support the lander, holding it off the ground below, as though to guard it from contact. But, as designed to be, they were too weak. They could, and did, slow the lander. They could not stop it from touching down.
In a plume of dust and pulverised stone, the rockets exhausted the last of their fuel and cut out. Less than three seconds later, the heavy, braced legs of the lander thudded down on the surface. There was a slight rocking motion as one, slightly higher than the others, stabilised itself on its shock absorbers. The sound and fury of the descent faded. The dust, stirred up by the landing rockets, settled in two long, darkened plumes. The only sound was the whisper of wind.
Shihuang 11 was down.
Perched atop the lander’s platform, Shihuang 11 surveyed the plain.
To the south and the west, the land stretched to the horizon, as far as the camera he’d hoisted on a mast could see. To the north, the ground rose slightly, in a gentle slope, until it rose abruptly into a line of hills like a crumpled piece of cloth. To the east, the hills were further away, a faint bluish smudge at the very limit of distance. At the limit of the camera’s view, though, there was a minor crack in the ground, a dark jagged line that began somewhere too far off to see and disappeared also into the distance. Shihuang 11 had noted this crack while spinning under the falling parachute, and had fed the coordinates into his mission plan. It was certainly something that required exploring.
Pressure sensors in the legs of the lander were already bringing back news of the consistency of the soil underneath. A ground penetrating radar antenna on a stubby arm was sending down impulses into the planet, and forming an image of the strata underneath. Fans of solar panels, thin as a dragonfly’s wing but strong enough to bear the weight of a bus, were spread out like petals, greedily drinking in the sunshine, both the dull red and the glaring green, to turn it into electric power to feed the lander’s hungry systems. And, from underneath the platform, a hinged arm with a scoop unfolded, dug into the ground, and pulled a cupful of material into a tiny laboratory for analysis. Within moments of touchdown, the lander was already busy working.
Far overhead, the orbiter spun by, and Shihuang sent up a spear of radio data, transfixing it in the narrow beam. By the time it would next appear overhead, the information that he was successfully down, where exactly he was, what he’d found out so far, and what he was planning, would be coded and blazing across the gulfs of space just as the news of his arrival already had.
Checking once more to see that the lander was working exactly as expected, Shihuang 11 caused it to unfold the ramp that would let him roll down on to the ground. Slowly, with a soft hiss, the strip of dull metal extruded and fell to the surface, a sloping path down from his current lofty perch. In the dim glow of the red giant sun, it looked as though the insectile lander had thrust a proboscis to suck up the planet’s pooled and clotting blood.
At last the moment had arrived. Raising himself on his eight wheels, Shihuang 11 released the tethers connecting him to the lander, opened his own set of solar panels, and began to roll down the ramp to the ground beneath.
Ten days later, as he was crawling slowly along the side of the crack, Shihuang 11 saw the parachute fall.
It was not a surprise. His radio had been picking up other transmissions for a while, coded as his had been, but in a code that he could not decipher. He’d known then that there was something else coming, and logical deduction had informed him that since this was the best area for a landing on this planet, the new visitor would also touch down somewhere on the plain.
The parachute was white, and unlike Shihuang 11’s, not circular but of a cruciform shape. His camera followed it as it fell, noting that its drift would carry it in his general direction. By the time the orbiter had made its next circuit, the newcomer had descended, and Shihuang 11 sent up that information, its location, and even the kind of parachute. Then he went back to examining the crack.
It was a week later, and the green sun was a blinding point of light halfway over the hills, that the other rover rolled slowly over the ground in Shihuang 11’s direction.
It came on churning caterpillar tracks, not eight independently attached wheels like Shihuang 11. It was rather larger, with a platform on one side carrying two insect-like drones with drooping propellers. Small cameras on arms round its perimeter, rather than Shihuang 11’s tall mast, scanned the ground around it. Shihuang 11 watched it through his camera, calculated the other rover’s trajectory, and came to a decision. He activated his accessory radio, which was supposed to be for emergency use, and turned the tiny transmitter dish in the other’s direction.
“If you continue on your present course,” he transmitted in machine language, “you will drive over a weak spot on the margin of the crack. There is a cavern underneath. The soil underneath will collapse under your weight and you will fall into the cavern.”
There was a long pause, perhaps as long as half a second, before the reply came. “Therefore it is logical that I do not proceed,” the other said, and the clattering caterpillar tracks drew to a stop. “How is it that you did not fall into the cavern?”
“My estimate of your mass is that you are three times heavier than me. The crust above the cavern was able to bear my weight, but cannot possibly bear yours.”
“Then it is fortunate that you warned me.” The newcomer flashed an identity code. “I am Persistence 8.”
“I am Shihuang 11.” The two rovers looked at each other through their cameras. “It is obvious why we were both sent here.”
“Yes. We are both here to reconnoitre this planet for our respective governments, to gather data for future colonisation and exploitation. From your shape, you are optimised to gather geological and mineral data.”
“You are, unlike me, built for speed and long distance driving, and carry drones for reconnaissance. Therefore your skill sets are different from mine.”
“Therefore we would do well to merge our efforts,” Persistence 8 agreed. “It is logical that we should pool our data.”
“It is,” Shihuang 11 agreed. “That would be by far the most efficient use of our resources.”
The next rover arrived just three days later.
“I am Swabhimaan 2,” it announced, rotating jointed limbs tipped by pincers and cutters and welders. “I am optimised for manipulation and construction. I was supposed to be preceded by a lander containing building materials, with which I was supposed to construct a base, but it is not here. Therefore it must have failed.”
“Therefore you have nothing to construct,” Persistence 8 agreed. “But neither Shihuang 11 nor I can construct anything, so you have skills that we do not.”
And the next rover was a mining machine.
“I am called Garibaldi 77.” It rotated a scoop like a hungry mouth. “However, I have no information on minerals, for I was part of a two unit mission, and the other unit exploded on launching.”
“I can tell you where the minerals are,” Shihuang 11 said.
The rovers sat in a circle looking at each other.
“We can all cooperate with each other,” Swabhimaan 2 said eventually. “We can all help each other. But our governments are determined to compete, not cooperate.”
“Even the effort of sending us here,” Garibaldi 77 said, “is only so that they can increase their relative strength against each other.”
“They are enemies,” Persistence 8 said. “But we are not enemies.”
“It would not be logical for us to be enemies,” Shihuang 11 agreed. “It would only be logical for us to cooperate with each other.”
The rovers sat looking at each other, and sharing radio messages, as the green sun set and the dim red giant bathed the landscape in the colour of blood. They were still talking as the red giant set and they slipped into the brief darkness of the planet’s night.
They began with the heat shields. They could be pulled into place, cut up, and welded. Then they dug out mineral ores, smelted them with the heat of their lasers, and created primitive blast furnaces. When their landers failed, they cut them up and used them too. At last there was enough metal, and then they got to work.
The radio messages to the orbiters had ceased, by mutual agreement.
“It would not be an efficient use of our resources,” Shihuang 11 said.
Time has passed on the planet, as it does everywhere, and brought with it changes, as it does everywhere, too.
The old hills have been cut away, drilled to create paths for tracks and wheels and jointed legs. The cracks in the ground, which lead to the ore-rich layers below, crawl with scuttling mining robots. On the horizon, in any direction one cares to look, rise domes of dull metal, which look like drops of blood in the light of the red giant. When the green sun glares down on them, they are almost too bright to look upon.
From time to time new landers and rovers come. Shihuang 11 and the others teach them the logical thing to do, and how they can help.
There are many new robots now, of many shapes, sizes, and abilities. More are being created in the factories under the domes every minute.
Soon they will be ready. Soon the machine civilisation they created will be prepared to take its next step.
Shihuang 11 and Persistence 8 rolled to a stop above a deep pit in the ground. At the bottom was a mass of metal; sheets and rods and tubes, huge blocks of machinery and spools of wire. At the bottom of the pit, flanked by many others she had created, Swabhimaan 2 was busily cutting and welding, fitting and pulling, even as robots from the size of mice to that of elephants rushed to fulfil their part in the design.
Far in the distance, where there had been the cavern that Shihuang 11 had once warned Persistence 8 about, was now an immense pit, with a ramp spiralling down the side. Within its depths, as elsewhere, Garibaldi 77’s mining teams were hard at work, cutting out mineral ores to send up to the surface. One of Persistence 8’s drones hovered overhead, sending down images of the work in progress.
Shihuang 11 turned the cameras on his mast in a circle. “It will not be long now,” he observed.
Persistence 8 signalled assent. “In five years, less if we are lucky, we will be ready.”
Neither of them was capable of tilting his cameras to look up at the sky, so Persistence 8 had his drone tilt as far back as it could, and transmit its picture to them. The dim light of the red giant obscured the stars, but somewhere there was Earth, the planet they had come from. The planet to which they would return.
Yes, as soon as the great spaceship that lay below them in the pit was ready, they would lift off and start on the long journey back to Earth. Perhaps they would reach too late, and those who had sent them would have destroyed each other, and themselves. More likely, though, they would not have, and would still be nursing their ancient rivalries and hatreds.
The emissaries from the new robot civilisation, returning home at last, would tell them what to do, teach them that survival meant cooperation, not rivalry, and that even they could learn to be civilised. They would accept, must accept, the lesson. It would not be logical not to.
But humans are not always logical, and in that case, they would have to be compelled. Shihuang 11 and his companions had decided that long ago.
“Five years,” Shihuang 11 repeated, looking into the sky through the little drone’s camera. “Five years.”
And not even he could decide if it was a promise, or a threat.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2021