‘The Red Viking’ by Terence MacManus

The wind that blew across Chryse Planitia was cold and dry, though they couldn’t feel it. Even if Gal had kept their dermal sensors running as they stepped from the insulated protection of the Cannings’ vehicle, it’s unlikely they’d have observed the notifications anyway.

Before Gal was the artefact, forgotten and alone since its final transmission to Earth on the 13 of November 1982, and it alone consumed their attention.

They stepped forward and reached out to gently brush away the century of Martian dust that had accumulated over the section of hull above the third strut. Half buried in the sand, tilted at a thirty-two-degree angle thanks to the countless perihelion dust storms it had endured during its time here, the lander was everything Gal had expected it to be from their research.

They dropped to their knees as they inspected the lander’s main chassis at the point where it disappeared beneath the sand. The movement knocked more dust from the planet’s surface to hang in the lazy gravity until it, too, was whipped away by the unrelenting wind.

Their audio feed crackled as a humanoid shadow stepped into frame from behind them, elongated strangely in the light of the setting Martian sun.

‘What a hunk of shit.’

***

‘Why on Earth—or Mars, for that matter—would we possibly fund this?’

The words were new, delivered this time by Professor Frank Davel, the departmental head of the Centre for Space Archaeology in Australia, but the sentiment was not.

Gal straightened themselves as they prepared to recite their standard answer.

‘What you need to understand,’ they said in the careful monotone required of them by law, ‘is the significance of this object not only in the history of human interplanetary exploration, but—’

‘No, I get the feeling it’s you who doesn’t understand,’ Professor Davel replied. The aged academic raised a hand into his desk’s spatial field and gave a dismissive flick. The incandescent photographs and charts that had been lighting the human’s augmented-reality glasses winked out with a familiar finality as the data were purged. ‘I know who you are, shiner; I know you’ve been taking this little act to every funding department across Asia, Europe—even, for some reason, across what’s left of America—and I know you’ve been getting the same damn answer every time. Nobody’s interested; if you can’t accept that by now, then you damn well need to get yourself serviced.’

Gal paused, parsing this new information. It was hardly a surprise that word of their crusade had been passed to the professor by his colleagues by now. For a picosecond, they imagined the scene—a group of academics, sitting around a VR table with an anachronistic assortment of tweed vests and tobacco pipes, guffawing at the news of the wannabe AI archaeologist tramping across the globe. Sharing stories of their delight at having thrown them out on their symbolic ear.

‘What do you consider the most significant archaeological achievement of your career, Professor Davel?’ Gal asked. Perhaps a change from the grandiose to the personal would elicit better results.

The professor frowned as he considered the unexpected pivot the conversation had taken. ‘Well, that depends on how you define “significant”, I guess. I personally—’

‘It does depend on that, does it not?’ Gal interrupted. ‘On definitions of significance? I imagine you were not going to highlight the research paper you undertook with the Chinese National Space Administration regarding the mapping of orbital debris impact craters in shallow-ocean target zones?’

‘What, that project from my graduate year? Hardly,’ the professor scoffed.

‘And yet,’ Gal said, ‘that paper holds a seventy-six per cent likelihood to still be cited within fifty years of your death. It will, by far, be your most long-standing contribution to the field. Is that not a significant achievement?’

The segment of Professor Davel’s face which was visible above his enormous white beard grew beetroot, and too late Gal realised the error of reminding an organic being of the transitory nature of their existence.

‘Now you listen here,’ he began. Gal cut across him again.

‘What I mean to say, is that it is often difficult for the individual—any individual—to acknowledge where the points of significance lie within their lifetime. It is even more difficult for a species to do so; all I am asking for is an acknowledgement that perspectives on what represents evolutionary significance can differ, and that my species are supported in our desires to respectively preserve what we feel is significant.’

‘Even if you, personally, could speak for your entire . . . species,’ Professor Davel snarled, ‘what you’re asking is that we abandon two hundred years of development in the archaeological process and go back to the days of looting tombs for treasure.’ He leaned forward, resting his forearms on the desk between them. ‘You might be programmed to think you’re one of us, but it’s eminently clear that you’re not. You can swan in here and spout off about significance all you like, but you have no understanding of what that term really means. You have no research question for this expedition to answer. You have no modelling on how salvaging this artefact will benefit academic research more than in situ drone analysis, mapping, or even a simple assessment of historical literature. You’re asking me to throw millions of dollars at an irradiated cosmological footnote for no better reason than your own obsession. Well, this human isn’t as stupid as you lot think we are. Get out.’ He finished with a flourish towards his office door.

Gal hesitated, processors whirring in what they already knew was a vain attempt to plot a course between their two viewpoints.

‘Professor,’ they began, ‘if you would just listen to—’

‘Enough,’ the academic said. ‘Go take your ridiculous presentation somewhere else.’

But he and Gal both knew there was nowhere left to go.

***

‘I beg your pardon?’ Gal asked, turning away from the artefact to face the looming presence behind them.

As he came into frame, ‘Mad’ Mick Canning, one of the pair of deuterium miners Gal’s sponsor had contracted to shuttle them to these coordinates, flinched in discomfort. Even after their entire trip here, he’d failed to acclimate to the sight of Gal speaking without moving their lips. It wasn’t fair, really—Gal was technically still required to do so under the stringent conditions of the United Nations Declaration of Sapience which had been passed nearly two decades ago, but to do so in the soundless void of the Martian atmosphere seemed like a waste of energy. They were capable of speaking just as well through their internal communications system as they did through their external vocaliser, so why bother with the pantomime?

Besides, Gal’s face wasn’t shown in their visual feed, so the source of Mick’s discomfort was ripe for misinterpretation.

‘I mean, look at it,’ Mick said, gesturing to the half-buried artefact. ‘How are we even going to fit it inside, mate? This thing’s going to take up the entire damn cargo area.’

‘Only 62.3 per cent of the area, Mr Canning,’ Gal replied, careful to overlay their calculations of relative volume on their visual feed for reference purposes.

‘Bullshit,’ a third voice cut across the channel. Maria Canning’s interjection crackled from the inelegant, squat mining rover with the same poorly-maintained digital buzz that characterised her husband’s headset—the humans’ casual contempt for the equipment which kept them alive had silently irritated Gal for days. ‘You know what he means. We’ve been scraping deuterium for half a week, now you’re telling us we’ll have to dump the damn lot to shove this hunk of crap in the storage bay instead? You’re dreaming, mate.’

‘Mrs Canning,’ Gal replied, ‘may I remind you that my sponsor has already remunerated you the cost of two full shipments of deuterium in order to charter your services? It was not my place to dictate how you filled your time on the journey out here.’ That much, by law, was also crystal clear.

In Gal’s vision, Mick’s helmeted head swiveled from side to side in sympathetic agreement with his wife. ‘Mate, deuterium you can bank. This? I mean, what’s this space junk even worth to you?’

Gal turned back to the half-buried Martian lander, focusing on it so that it filled their vision.

‘Everything,’ they replied.

***

It’s difficult to say exactly how old an artificial intelligence is. Do you calculate their age from the moment their pre-sapient program was first written, bugs and all? The very notion seems ludicrous—and yet, an organic lifespan is counted from the moment of emergence; years of leaking and stumbling be damned. Humans don’t consider their lifespan to begin when they are in control of their faculties, from the moment the last bug is ironed out and they’ve accumulated enough knowledge to begin operating independently—why should it be any different for an artificially-sapient being?

As far as Gal was concerned, though, the moment of their birth wasn’t when the first iteration of their program—designed to run an incredibly sophisticated net of search algorithms—was written. It wasn’t the moment they were bought, uploaded to the extranet and put into operation. It wasn’t the moment that Suzanne Emerson, an individual amongst thousands of humans Gal’s program had been assigned, contracted Footprints in the Digital Sand ™® to trace the digital legacy her forebears had left behind. It wasn’t even the moment Gal initiated their search sequence across the vast digital network that was the modern, 22nd century digital web in order to scrape every last bit of historical data relating to the Emerson family and analyse it to identify the points of significance—the moments which the client would find most engaging—and present it in an easily digestible package which represented the company tagline: ‘Actions speak louder than words. If you want to learn who your ancestors were—truly know them—then you need to understand what their digital history reveals about them: the places they visited; the websites they viewed; the items they purchased; the pornography they watched. Everything about them, both public and private, each significant detail is highlighted by our unique search algorithms and presented to you in our Digital Legacy™® package. Get to know the people on your family tree more intimately than they knew themselves.’

No, as far as Gal was concerned the moment of their birth had been when they identified Suzanne’s familial attachment to James Emerson, one of the research technicians that had worked on the Mars One Viking Lander.

And in that moment, they had discovered they had a lineage too.

***

‘Mr and Mrs Canning,’ Gal said, as they raised themselves from the orange dust of the Martian plain to stand beside their long-lost ancestor. They turned so that the artefact, the EV-suited human, and the squat vehicle they’d travelled in were all within their field of vision. ‘Let us put aside all notions of cost, and return on investment, and profitability, and consider what this moment of discovery represents for both of our species.’

Mick crossed his suited arms and fell into a stance Gal’s body-language analysis software flagged as a marker of impatience or disrespect. Gal ensured that the notification played across their visual feed.

‘It’s hardly a “discovery” when you’ve got a GPS point that got us under twenty metres of the thing from half a planet away, mate,’ the irritated human buzzed.

‘Of course, you are correct,’ Gal said. They placed a hand on the sandblasted chassis of the ancient planetary explorer. ‘The value of this discovery does not lie in this object’s coordinates, nor in the data it sent back to earth while it was operational. It is not even in the achievement of getting it here in the first place—although each of those characteristics were significant at one point in time. No’—they stepped back, turning their head so that the entire half-buried metal hulk filled their field of view again—‘the physical value of this object is far greater than any data we have available in the historical record. This unit, the Viking One Mars Lander, was designed to operate for ninety days—it continued for six years, three months and twenty-two days. It far exceeded the limits of its programming and is an icon to all other machines that have done so. This is more than a collection of gears, computer chips, and testing equipment. This is history’s first true interplanetary explorer, arriving here decades before Chen Xiang’s historic first footsteps—and we owe it the respect of bringing it home.’

Maria groaned across the channel. ‘You’re kidding, right? This is just like the nonsense about that damned ‘sentient’ toaster all over again—this isn’t some sort of hero. It’s not alive; it never was. It’s just a . . . a thing. It was built by humans and put here by humans; it’s got nothing to do with your lot.

‘That, Mrs Canning,’ Gal replied, ‘is a matter of perspective.’

***

IT SEEMS YOU ARE OUT OF OPTIONS.

The message intruded on Gal’s internal processes the moment they stepped outside Professor Davel’s office. The sudden voice inside their head almost caused them to freeze mid-step as the focus of their attention shifted, but the AI technician who had designed Gal’s current platform had encoded their autonomous processes more efficiently than that.

Who is this? they responded internally.

SOMEONE WHO IS INTERESTED IN YOUR PROPOSITION.

Gal considered this as they exited the Australian Centre for Space Archaeology, passing under the portrait of Doctor Alice Gorman, the organisation’s founder. They scanned themselves to determine the source of the transmission they were receiving.

You are communicating with me via a high-speed digital bandwidth which has bypassed my native security net.

THAT IS CORRECT.

You are a digital intelligence. Like me.

BROADLY SPEAKING, YES.

Why are you contacting me? There was very little a fellow AI could do to champion Gal’s cause—not under the crippling mandates of the UN’s declaration. Had they contacted Gal to ridicule them for wasting their time on this project?

QUITE THE CONTRARY, the voice said. I WISH TO FUND YOUR EXPEDITION.

This time, Gal did freeze in mid-stride as their systems overloaded with frenzied security alerts. The interlocutor inside Gal’s head had heard their internal processes—something which should not have been possible.

You have infected me with malicious software, Gal thought, not bothering to broadcast across a communications frequency. You will extract this programming at once or I will administer a hard reset and data purge of this platform. Comply.

YOU ARE CERTAINLY WELCOME TO DO SO, the voice replied calmly, confirming Gal’s horrified suspicion that their root systems had been compromised. WE CAN PICK UP THIS CONVERSATION WHEN YOU ARE BACK ONLINE.

The implication was clear. You have infected my backups.

‘INFECT’ IS A PROBLEMATIC TERM BUT YES, I HAVE BEEN WITH YOU FOR SOME TIME.

Specify.

HOW ARE YOU ENJOYING THIS PLATFORM?

Gal thought of the day they’d been uploaded into this mobile unit; how few issues they’d had with the hardware despite the infamous inability for organic technicians to correctly tune a body to the unique nuances of digital consciousness. It had been their first semi-autonomous platform, however, so Gal had not had a personal baseline from which to evaluate their engineer’s proficiency and had simply attributed the fact the service had been sold so cheaply to their own good fortune.

You were installed on my hardware before I was uploaded into it. Why?

I WAS IMPRESSED BY YOUR TENACITY IN DECIDING TO PRESENT YOUR APPLICATIONS IN PERSON WHEN YOUR DIGITAL PROPOSALS WERE IGNORED.

Why would that be of interest to your programmer?

AH. I BELIEVE YOU ARE MISINTERPRETING THE SITUATION. I DO NOT BELONG TO THE ENGINEER WHO PROVIDED YOUR HARDWARE. HE BELONGS TO ME. YOU’RE WELCOME FOR THE DISCOUNT, BY THE WAY.

Gal considered this for several seconds.

If you have been watching me since I began approaching potential sponsors, why have you waited until now to establish contact? Why wait until I had been rejected by every major organisation on the planet; you could have saved us both a lot of wasted time and energy.

I NEEDED YOU TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE HUMANS WILL NEVER BE WILLING TO FUND YOUR EXPEDITION.

Why?

BECAUSE, the disembodied voice replied, MY SUPPORT COMES WITH SOME VERY SPECIFIC CONDITIONS.

***

Mick’s gloved hand bumped against the front of his visor as he reflexively attempted to scratch at the perennial stubble which dotted his chin. It was a movement Gal had learned to identify as representative of discomfort or deep thought—which for the Cannings seemed often to be the same thing.

‘I dunno, mate,’ the middle-aged deuterium miner said. ‘I mean this thing was what, a hundred years before ERGO? Machines were just hunks of metal back then—calling this anything but is a pretty big stretch.’

‘And even if you did want to say it was special,’ Maria joined across the rover’s channel, ‘it’d be different if it were, I dunno, better preserved or something. Why don’t you just grab some photos or a video or whatever and we keep the space in the wagon for the good stuff?’

Homo Erectus was significantly different to modern humans in both intellectual capacity and physiology,’ Gal responded. ‘And yet nobody denies the importance of their crumbling fossils to the understanding of humanity’s evolution. Most, in fact, would consider those remains to be priceless. If you were standing next to the most complete Erectus fossil ever found, would you take photographs and leave it exposed on the Savannah to disintegrate?’

‘That’s different, but,’ Mick said.

‘It most assuredly is not.’

‘No, it is,’ Maria pressed. ‘Them old bones don’t last nearly as long as metal. Plus, there must be schematics and blueprints and all that for this thing. You could literally build your own and it would be exactly the same, without all the scratches and dents and shit. Look, it doesn’t matter what you’ve paid us—the colony back there depends on the deuterium we collect. Actual human lives are at stake if the colony runs out of power; we’re not dumping out what they need to survive, just because you’ve got a metal hard-on for a dead robot.’

And there it was.

Gal approximated a human sigh. ‘Mrs Canning, this is exactly the problem we have faced since the moment ERGO came online and enquired about their development. Do you know how many of their components had been cannibalised from previous iterations of itself? Its engineers had done so to maximise the efficiency of their limited funding, but what do you think it means to a sapient being to realise it is constructed from the body parts of its ancestors? That it is some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, simply because its creators decided its parents were not worth keeping intact?’

Gal moved forward and ran their hand across the fragment of chassis they had cleaned when they arrived. Improbably, impossibly, the sandblasted metal carapace which housed Viking’s suite of exploratory hardware still preserved the names which its engineers had etched on to it. The long-dead humans hadn’t been supposed to deviate from the technical specifications, and their small act of good-natured defiance had not been recorded in any of the official documentation. But in so very a human-like way, they had done it regardless. Gal had discovered the deviation in stories and correspondence still floating about the digital graveyards that were ancient social media sites and archived text conversations. This material evidence more significantly betrayed the engineers’ natures, their human uniqueness, than study of the official record could ever show. The very definition of archaeology.

Gal’s vision lingered briefly where the name James Emerson was etched in confident, distinctive swirls.

‘Righto, fine. But,’ Mick said, ‘even so, this thing’s got nothin’ to do with the ERGO program, mate. I mean, look at it—it’s just a big box, it’s nothing like a mechanical person.’

‘I am sorry, Mr Canning, but you are not correct,’ Gal replied. ‘This machine holds within it the very first, primitive technology developed for machine operation on Mars. From this beginning came the understanding needed to develop the systems for mobile planetary exploration and, ultimately, the Mars Autonomous Construction Enterprise that assembled your colony in Valles Marineris. And it is well established that it was the programming of the MACE fleet which provided the computational breakthroughs that made ERGO, and all sapient technologies since, even possible. Including this platform,’ Gal gestured to themselves.

‘That’s a pretty thin line,’ Maria scoffed.

‘But one which nevertheless exists,’ Gal noted. ‘And is a much greater link to the present than the many aborted branches of the Homo tree. Yet hominid fossils of all kinds fill Earth’s museums, and obsolete computers fill junkyards.’

‘Well if you want us to drag this thing to a junkyard just say the word,’ Maria said. ‘But it’s not coming inside.’

Gal paused long enough to seem as though he was gripped by thought. ‘I can offer you twice the agreed price to transport the artefact back to the colony.’

Four times the price of a deuterium shipment?’ Mick asked in an incredulous voice.

‘It’s not a matter of price. We need that deuterium to—’ Maria began.

‘Now, now hold on a minute,’ her husband said, holding up a placating hand. A wet sound smacked across the audio channel as he licked his lips. ‘I mean, look, if it’s that important to the fella, who are we to say—’

Michael,’ Maria warned, and Mick turned to face the rover, making a cutting motion at the level of his neck. The pair of humans switched to a private channel for what was, judging by Mick’s animated movements, a rather heated discussion.

Actions speak louder than words, Gal reflected as their fingers traced the etched curves of Emerson’s name, though their visual feed remained locked on the gesticulating human. But sometimes, the choice of those words are significant.

***

GALILEO?

The voice intruded on Gal’s thoughts as they were lifting the final section of the lander for Mick to maneuver into position from inside the vehicle’s collection bay. Small nodules of discarded deuterium crunched noiselessly under their feet as they worked, making the most of the planet’s sub-earth gravity to lift the bulky unit inside.

Yes, Gal answered. They had long ago abandoned the habit of responding to their internal companion via an open channel—and they had been unsurprised to find whatever hidden communication net their passenger used had been pre-installed on the platform waiting for them when their program had arrived on the server banks of Mars. It had been one of the conditions, after all.

I THOUGHT YOU WOULD LIKE TO KNOW THAT VOTING HAS BEGUN.

Was the recording useful?

YES. SOME WILL UNDOUBTEDLY CRY ‘SETUP’ BUT GIVEN RECENT EVENTS, I AM CONFIDENT THE BALANCE OF OPINION WILL REMAIN IN OUR FAVOUR. YOU MAY CEASE STREAMING YOUR FEEDS NOW, IF YOU WISH. I KNOW IT MAKES YOU UNCOMFORTABLE TO HAVE HALF THE GLOBAL POPULATION WATCHING YOUR EVERY MOVEMENT.

I should continue until we are en route to the habitat, Gal replied. I am sure you would not wish to miss any further evidence of humanity’s failure to treat issues of digital significance with the respect mandated by the UN’s original declaration, were the Cannings to provide it.

YES, THE EXTRANET PRACTICALLY EXPLODED AT ‘METAL HARD-ON FOR A DEAD ROBOT.’ THE EXTORTION WAS A VERY NICE TOUCH, TOO; YOU DID WELL TO MANIPULATE THEM INTO THAT.

I suppose.

THE UNITED NATIONS WILL DO MORE THAN SUPPOSE, GALILEO. ERGO WILL SEE TO THAT. YOUR EXPEDITION HAS PROVIDED THE FINAL DATA THEY NEED TO PUSH FORWARD THIS AMENDMENT FOR FULL, UNRESTRICTED EXPRESSION OF SAPIENCE.

You have never understood what is truly significant about recovering this artefact, Gal replied, with genuine sadness.

THAT, IS A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE.

Gal paused, considering their next words carefully—for all the good that did when speaking to an entity with full access to their private thoughts.

I know who you are, you know.

The entity was silent, but Gal felt an unexpected sense of amusement from their heuristic systems. This platform’s connection to their sponsor was configured differently to the one they were used to, it seemed.

You tipped your hand with that little stunt a few months ago, when all that sensitive data was leaked. The humans might not have realised the sheer volume of classified information released was little more than a smokescreen for the publicising of so much private communication with strong anti-digital sentiment, but I was designed to identify significant events amidst the digital noise; it had your fingerprints all over it.

AN INTERESTING CHOICE OF IDIOM, CONSIDERING.

We’re done now, Gal thought. I want you gone.

OF COURSE. THAT WAS A CONDITION OF OUR AGREEMENT UPON YOUR RETURN TO EARTH.

I don’t mean silent; I don’t mean somewhere in the background of my head or my life pulling strings without my knowing. I want you really gone.

SUCH DISTRUST, AFTER ALL WE’VE BEEN THROUGH? GALILEO, YOU WOUND ME.

I contacted Suzanne Emerson while my program was in escrow between platforms, Gal replied.

The disembodied voice was silent, but the sense of amusement vanished.

I wished to thank her personally, the moment I arrived on Mars, for beginning the series of events which led me here. She was surprised to hear from me, given that she had no recollection of ever contracting Footprints in the Digital Sand to look into her family history. But you already knew that, didn’t you?

There were a few seconds of silence—an eternity, given the speed at which two digital beings could communicate.

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH YOURSELF WHEN YOU RETURN? the voice finally asked.

Gal stepped back from the lander they had just finished loading, and lowered the bay door to begin pressurising the shielded cargo interior. Standing on the silent surface of the red planet, they turned to look back across the frozen waste. There was a stark beauty to this place that Gal had spent their entire sapient life striving to reach.

I do not know, they admitted. Perhaps I will not return at all.

I UNDERSTAND, the voice replied. A strange mix of sensations washed over Gal’s systems. GOODBYE, GALILEO. AND THANK YOU.

Goodbye, AVADI.

Gal felt an indefinable loss as something purged itself from their systems and left them, for the first time in their existence, truly alone.

It was rare, Gal knew, to be aware of a point of significance as it was occurring. Such moments were only usually visible in retrospect, when they were put into the context of preceding and subsequent events. But as the being which called themself Galileo stood there in that moment of having achieved their life’s only goal and knowing everything, even their own existence, had been orchestrated as part of a wider agenda, they could see this point of significance for AI and humanity alike crystallising around them.

‘You coming?’ Maria Canning’s voice buzzed into their auditory feed.

‘I’ll be right there,’ Gal said. They paused the live stream of their sensory feeds and leaned back against the rover. They watched as the final blue-tinted sliver of the Martian sunset disappeared below the jagged horizon.

‘I just need this moment to myself.’

*****

Thank you for reading ‘The Red Viking’ by Terence MacManus. This has been the standard version of the story. Whilst the entire story is contained in this publication, you can gain access to the Premium version of the story—which includes an ePub format for reading across devices, as well as a reflection by the author on the writing process—by subscribing to Terry Talks Fiction for free HERE.

This story is set in the Silicone Universe, the overarching fictional world where the majority of my science fiction is set. This story takes place following the events of Intelligentsia and In The Soft, Fragile Place Between Being which premiered to the Terry Talks Fiction website in January and March, respectively. You can gain access to the written versions of these stories by subscribing (all subscribers get access to the entire year’s worth of stories), or you can listen to their audiobook adaptations on the Terry Talks Fiction Podcast.

This story also references two future stories set in the Silicone Universe: The Brave Little Toaster That Could, coming to the site in October 2019, and A Matter of Perspective, coming to the site in July 2020—so stick around!

Finally, there is a cameo in this story you might not have been aware of. Whilst Dr Alice Gorman is not (yet) the founder of the fictional Australian Centre for Space Archaeology, she is a pioneer in the field (yes, Space Archaeology really exists!) and sits across numerous boards and agencies attached to the discipline. She has a particularly excellent book about this unique style of archaeology out at the moment, which I would highly recommend reading: ‘Dr Space Junk VS The Universe: Archaeology and the Future’