Red Rover, Red Rover

A Sci Fi Short Story by Pat O'Malley


by Pat O’Malley



Pat O’Malley lives in New York where he loves to write the kind of quirky and weird type of fiction that he and his friends would love to read. So far, his work has been published on webzines such as The Weird and Whatnot, Teleport Magazine, Dark Fire Fiction and more! You can read and follow him on Medium and Instagram.



In the pale yellow sky, the sun lingered, warming the universe until the day it inevitably cannot. Far below, a tall-bulky shadow stretches tall on the dusty amber ground. A mechanical whirring sound echoes in the carbon monoxide filled valley as a metal robotic claw extends and picks up a small copper-colored rock. Cameras that serve as eyes capture the images, transmitting it millions of miles away for analysis.
Its body is the size of a golf-cart, a square metal base beneath two dark glass solar panel wings. Six grey tubular appendages ending in large black tires branch off underneath the wings. Above in the front is an elongated gray pole that holds twin cameras while a gray antenna stands tall on the backplate transmitting and receiving signals from another planet. Printed on the machine’s rock abrasion tool is a small red-white-and-blue square.
It was built to survive on this alien planet. So far, it had.
The analysis and photographs are interrupted when the blinking light on its antenna changes from secure evergreen to hostile scarlet.  The mechanical whirring sound of its arm is soon drowned out by the piercing noise of the three repeating beeps emitting from its antenna.
The rock falls from the claw, its wheels shift direction and push it forward. Its 348-lb frame rolls and bobs on the gravel-covered slopes, maneuvering around the large open red craters and scattered boulders in its path. It is a single speck accompanied by the sounds of tires humming as it treks through the familiar desolate terrain.
There was much to be done.
Despite its isolation of this alien world, it had never been lonely. From the moment its journey began, it had been accompanied by the voices in its head. These were the digital words appearing on its screen coming from its programmers from back home sending and receiving data transmissions. Throughout its voyage to this world, the voices had been very clear on the importance of its excavation of the planet. In the years that followed, it had done its best not to disappoint.
Its continued survival on this distant planet was due to a pair of twin solar charge lithium batteries that rested within its mechanical body. As per its careful design for the mission, each day it would drive to a location for peak sun exposure and extend its solar panels like flowers of a petal. Solar energy would be soaked up by the panels and afterward, it would switch to Sleep Mode to conserve battery power. Lately, however, recharging the batteries had not been as simple as it had once been.
The layers of dust covering its mechanical body and legs were evidence that even machines weren’t immune to the harrowing effects of time. It was no longer the pristine shiny rover it had been when it first landed all those years ago. Now, only five of its six wheels still rotated. One had become worn down and stuck some time ago, reduced to dragging itself in the dirt.
What was more concerning was how the technical errors in its internal clock had gone from sporadic to seemingly permanent. The messengers back home had sent ongoing commands for it to reset its internal clock but despite its best efforts, the clock had not improved. Currently, it could no longer accurately tell the time. Nights, when it should have entered deep sleep mode, were spent exploring the planet.
With its internal clock broken, it was beginning to burn through its battery much faster.
When it had first arrived on this world, t’s main objective had been to gather minerals for analysis of any possible historical evidence. The overall purpose of its mission was born from an effort to determine whether or not the planet’s climate could have ever once provided suitable conditions that would be have been favorable for life to exist. At first, the study of the climate and land conditions did not look favorable at all. How could this empty world have ever possessed the spark of life? It was as barren as desserts could be, zero oxygen, no fauna, no life no matter how microscopic. Needless to say, the odds of any future ground-breaking discoveries were implausible at best.
Yet somehow, against those odds, it had been successful. It had discovered proof of life having once existed on this planet. The discovery itself had almost seemed like an accident. After sending transmissions of hundreds of rock formations and other various findings, most notably the mineral hematite, response from Command indicated that its data had been incredibly successful. The hematite provided data that was sufficient enough to verify the lingering presence of water. It was official, there was water on Mars.
 Somewhere in the past, large oceans of water had once filled these canyons and splashed along red Martian shores. It was Command who proposed the idea that with careful machinations, this world could once more house large bodies of water. However, despite its finding and the breakthrough that came with it, its work on this world was far from complete. Answers only lead to more questions. If this dusty, gravel-filled landscape had once been home to water, where had it gone?
 Years passed and it continued to drive around the planet. Down the sloping rocky red canyons, excavating anything worthwhile for data analysis to provide any further revelations. It was quiet and peaceful in its daily routine in the hopes of one day fully completing its objective. It had been content in its life of endlessly gathering data and images. All it took was half a nano-second for that calm to disappear and be replaced by the silent blaring alarm of urgent danger.
Just a few moments ago, it had been the piling a stack of orange rocks when it had received the urgent transmission from Command. Transmissions normally were strictly related to data requests and programming objectives. This transmission was different.
There had been dust storms in the past. Its footage on its cameras would be obscured by large blasts of gravel. The wind would pick up to a shrill cry and gusts of rock-filled wind currents would blast and dive cracks into its mechanical frame. It had survived these past storms due to careful protocol that had it drive to the nearest immediate location that would shelter it for the remainder of the storm. From there it would enter Sleep Mode and reactivate once the storm had passed, which usually took less than twenty-four hours.

This time however there was no telling how long the sun would be blocked by this oncoming dust storm. From what the transmissions read, the storm was spreading at a rate where it was predicted to be the largest dust storm the planet had ever experienced in the time since the rover had landed. The situation was critical; If it didn’t recharge its batteries while it could, there was a large chance that it would be cut off from the sun longer than its batteries could handle.
Exploration and excavating had been indefinitely sidelined. Its top priority now was to travel to the nearest optimal peak in the canyons to recharge as much solar energy as it could before the storm became unbearable. Then like with previous storms, it would enter hibernation mode until it could safely come back online.
There was no time to lose. It increased its speed.
Its luck on this world hadn’t run out yet. Just two miles away was the perfect location for it to absorb heavy dosages of sunlight to last for the foreseeable. It was the rising, rocky plateau that eclipsed every other canyon in size. Command called it “The Olympus Mons,” it wasn’t just the largest mountain on the planet, it was the highest mountain and volcano in the solar system. Obviously, with time as dire as it was, there was no way it could It hardly needed to climb its way to the top, it only needed to reach a high enough flank to catch enough solar radiation.
The towering mountains framed the horizon as its awkward metal body drove on. Sands was trickling down the wrinkled edged of several high mountains. The increasing wind current was only making the dunes rise almost as if they would swallow up the mountains themselves.
 By the time it reached the base of the Mons, the winds had begun to howl. Shade was spreading across the hot desert. Its wheels spun and pressed forward as it wheeled its rocking mechanical body uphill one of the mountain slopes. The gargantuan mountain of the Olympus Mons peered down at it, its skyward body hidden by the dark rubbing clouds. In front of its small six-wheeled body, the uphill levels of the Olympus awaited, basked in sunlight that was slowly disappearing.
 At this rate, it had to settle for going up the closest ridge that would have the best path to the sunniest side of the hill. In the far distance of the sky, dark billowing clouds loomed, oozing towards the sun. The shrieking winds picked up sharply as it wheels were briefly lifted off the ground on its right side.
It had arrived at foot of the Olympus Mons. Soon, so would the storm.
The shaking rover struggled as it pushed against the rising winds, driving up the unstable, billowing slope of the Mons. Traction on its tires increased to its firmest gear. If the wind kept it from reaching a higher point on the slope before it could recharge it was over. Powerful waves of sand spilling off the slope pushed against its wheels but it hadn’t survived on this planet for this long for nothing. Finally, after much struggle against the elements, its shaking mechanical frame had reached a high enough point on the Mon’s slope where a fair amount of sunlight shined down.
Careful but firmly, it wheeled itself higher into the area of the large red slope that was still catching the sunlight. Its circuits and gears shined as it pulled itself directly under the sun’s warm rays.  Right away, its solar panels extended and its batteries began to recharge. Even with the dust swarming, it was still able to receive a clear blast of the sun’s fading energy. The battery percentage on its screen steadily ticked upwards. That damaged internal clock was making it harder than normal to recharge at a fast rate. If it could only hold out for a little while longer in this sunlight then it might just have enough energy to survive hibernation.
Time passed and the sun shrank. After recharging over half of its battery life, instructions came in from Command indicating that it should head for safety. Its monitor received a targeted area located about a half-mile away down the Olympus. The sheltered spot was a shallow, unaffected crevice in a nearby canyon that would be out of the storm’s primary disaster range. It was just as well, the patch of sand where the rover stood grew dark as the fading sunlight shifted towards the right side of the incredible mountain slope. The journey to the cavern’s entrance alone would deplete a decent amount of the sunlight it had managed to recharge today.
The cameras on its long eye-stalks whirred and clicked as it stared up the red rocky cliff. Its mission depended on gathering as much sunlight as possible. The opportunity made every risk worth taking. With not much time to debate, Command didn’t deny its action. Against the tumultuous winds of the oncoming dust storm, it pushed up the slope, towards the last remaining sunlight.
Its tries spun tightly as they rolled uphill through the sandy dirt. Steadily it made its way towards the elevated plane near the edge of the hill. Eventually, the rover slowed itself towards a patch on the edge glowing with sunlight. Once again, it extended its solar panels and felt the warm solar radiation recharge its batteries. It didn’t take data analysis to confirm that it had conquered the odds again. Soon it would have an ample supply of battery power to survive the storm.
 Not long after it began recharging for the second time, it was hit by a powerful draft of air. Its metal body was pushed forward and began sliding down steeper parts of the sand ridge.   Delicately, working against the current, it tried to maneuver itself back to towards the sun without losing its grip on the loose gritty surface. It was at this moment, its defective fifth wheel lost its footing. Unbound, the roving traveler was sent spiraling down the sand ridge uncontrollably and it was gaining speed.
Bright lights and red warning symbols flashed loudly on its monitor screen. Error signals indicated that the tires had lost friction to the ground. A whirlwind pushed the falling vehicle like a shopping cart in a hurricane. Its odometer was going haywire. Five wheels scrambled, clicking and spinning against the grinding dirt as it struggled to regain control. Dry particles of the earth, the sharp pebbles that made up these high winds knocked cuts and dings into its metal body. Following protocol and deploying the emergency brakes wasn’t helping. What was the protocol for the unforgiving force of nature?
It skidded down the slope, kicking up dust as its wheels tried to press into the malleable ground. Several times, the stormy winds nearly knocked it on its side, sending it crashing down to the rock field at the bottom. If the wind flipped it over, the damage from the tumbling fall would be too critical for it to recover. Blinding copper winds masked the optics on its camera feed. Emergency brakes had entered maximum traction and were pressing as hard as they were programmed to.
The small, swerving vehicle skidded and steered wildly down to the bottom of the mountain. Yet somehow, its large metallic frame had managed to keep steady, preventing it from flipping over. Unfortunately, that didn’t account for it still spinning out of control towards the foot of the hill, its inertia greatly increasing. It was close to the bottom now. The momentum from its fall sending it spinning about a few feet more before its descent was finally ended when it collided into the bottom of a large dune.
Its screen blinked. Once its monitor screen came back online it was able to receive the dozens of alarmed responses from Command inquiring about its status. It reaffirmed its safety amid the dust storm. The damage had been minimal. Miraculously, the dune had cushioned the impact. With that crisis averted, it needed to resume its priorities and immediately drive itself to the designated hibernation spot before anything worse happened. The mission wasn’t over, it may never be over but it must continue exploring and discovering.
Trying to regain its footing, it began steering itself in the direction of the safety location.  Tires whirled and sprayed a large torrent of sand. It attempted to drive forward but a large pile of sand weighed it down. Driving at full force, its tires failed to extricate itself from the ridge it landed in.
 More heaps of sand blew onto its frame. The metal-framed body was unable to get any movement out of its current location halfway submerged at the foot of the dune. It was lodged tightly and the sand was growing deeper. Ironically, the soft cushion surface of the dune that had saved it from crashing was now creating a larger present danger. The small roving machine was at the bottom of an hourglass with a steady trickle of red sand slowly burying it.
It was trapped.
Even if its battery power lasted the duration of its hibernation mode, it was unlikely that the thousands of pounds that kept it weighed down and trapped would blow over. From where it was, soon it would be completely buried in the red sand. At the rate of how powerful this dust storm appeared it was even more likely that it would eventually be buried hundreds of feet below the surface.
Wheels twitched desperately underneath the growing mound, but its strength was no match for the heaviness of the sand. It kept trying and trying to drive itself out of the thickness it had landed in but each time it was unsuccessful and the sand just kept on rising. Even the combined force of its solar panels and sturdy metal frame shaking and rocking was unable to rescue it from being immobilized by the massive red sand. Its wheels were fully submerged and couldn’t push out or gain friction on the soft ground underneath all that sand.
 Cameras watched helplessly as they recorded the sky becoming an enveloping black dust cloud. It was strange that only a moment ago it had been in peril from moving too fast, now it seemed doomed because it couldn’t move at all. The once shining sun was quickly shrinking from a large ball of fire to a tiny pinhole of light. In a few minutes, there would be nothing to charge from. There was no intel on when the dust storm would pass.
 As it continued to struggle for an escape it received a transmission from Command. They were having issues maintaining communication.
Command explained that the thickness of the storm clouds was likely to severe their communication signal. At the rate of how powerful this storm looked to be, the loss of communication was unavoidable, there was no question about it. Prominent among the frantic, final words from Command was that the dust storm had expanded so much that it reached a category of “planetary wide.” Every digital letter seemed filled with a dire urgency as it prepared it for communication to drop any second. The dust storm had nearly consumed the entire planet’s atmosphere. Command repeatedly told it to enter hibernation mode. Even if it ended up buried beneath hundreds of feet of sand, its only option left was to gamble that it would have enough battery power to escape once the storm passed.
It sent one final message back to Command before communication went completely dead. A flimsy status report of its current situation. From that moment on, there would be no more words on its screen from Command. It didn’t know if it would ever resume contact again. An ERROR message with a large red X appears on its screen but it minimized it and turned back to its live camera feed.
Any chance of discerning a clear visual for its immediate surroundings was impossible but one thing was clear; the sun was gone. The tiny glowing pinhole had disappeared into the gloom. The day had turned to night. The dust storm was the master of this planet.
 For the first time since it landed on this planet, the small machine was alone.
The storm thrashed like the fury of an angry god. Heaps of sand blew onto the trapped rover as it continued trying to escape. The more it struggled, the faster its battery power drained. It wouldn’t be long now before it was fully submerged beneath pounds of orange dust. The only part of it left that was visible was its long mechanical neck and camera that awkwardly poked out of the ground rising beneath it. It had been compromised. In all likelihood, communication with Command would never resume. All evidence indicated that it had reached the worst-case scenario.
This crimson pit would be its tomb.
With what little battery power it had left, it booted up the POWER tab on its settings and scrolled to HIBERNATION MODE. After ten years it looked as though it had reached the end of its exploration. What was Command thinking now? Dozens of worried men and women in blue shirts scrambling around controls trying to re-establish the connection through a planet-sized barrier of dust.
Maybe this was a positive outcome. It was possible that being buried deep beneath the Martian desert might bring it closer to the hidden minerals that provided further evidence of drinkable water. In the long-shot chance that it ever woke up, maybe it would see the sun again. It would drive itself out of the sand, its solar panels would shining like butterfly wings. Then it could show its friends its discoveries. Then, the mission could continue.
For now, it would be up to others to continue where it had left off.
It didn’t feel fear. It never felt anything, least of all triumph or failure as it entered its final moments. In the beginning, when it launched it had a twin that accompanied it on its journey through space. When they reached the planet’s stratosphere its twin was destroyed upon landing. If it was possible for the small roving vehicle, perhaps it may have wondered why it had survived and not its twin? How differently would the mission had gone f it had been the one to be destroyed and the twin was the one who survived instead? More questions but never any answers.
As it drifted off,  the rover saw the planet as it really was.
Water, there was so much water everywhere, the rover was drowning. Large bodies of shimmering lakes flooded the amber canyons. Miles of plants and fauna bloomed from the cracks in the dry earth. The conditions to sustain life on this planet returned with a powerful force. They created an ample supply of drinkable water and an ocean that was safe to sail on. The sand that had been pouring from the mountains of the canyons turned into a blue waterfall that fell into the rivers below. 
It saw the day, years, decades from now when Command would arrive. A ship descending from the sky to carrying pioneers to begin colonization of this carefully studied world. Men and women in helmeted suits building societies until the day they were able to oxygenize the atmosphere. Cities would be built near the red canyons. Boats would set sail on the shimmering lakes of Mars.
They would finish what Command had started, exploring and discovering the mysteries of the planet. There would be all sorts of fossils to find. Someday, during their digging, they may even come across a small ancient machine that had been buried deep within the earth. Perhaps they would recognize the small red white and blue insignia on its side.
Red sand took the rover. Its lights powered down as thin needles of sand began clogging its circuits. Its camera feed caught one final look at the world as it was consumed by darkness. The screen went black, its body sank deep into the dune as more sand piled up covering it completely. In the throes of the planet-wide storm, the Martian desert was reduced to a screeching hailstorm of sand and dirt.
It would take a week but eventually, the storm dispersed. A pale yellow sky returned as thin rays of sunlight peaked through the thinning black clouds. Sunlight shined on the storm-ravaged, crater-filled terrain. Dunes that curved and sloped among towering burgundy canyons were quiet. The rock fields and valleys were empty once again. It was impossible to tell that there had ever once been tire tracks that stretched for miles across the desert. A breeze scatter of red dust was scattered into the air and there was no one there to watch it. 
Millions of miles away, in a large room on another planet, dozens of technicians and engineers in blue shirts worked tirelessly to regain signal with Mars. They were surrounded by dozens of computer screens flashed the same Error message. They brainstormed and did everything they could to re-establish communication but each attempt failed. Soon, some of them began discussing plans to launch a replacement.  Others began discussing the legacy the rover’s progress would leave behind. The rest of them just listened silently while they stared up the large monitor screen. It was still displaying the final recorded transmission they received from the rover shortly before the storm swallowed the planet. 

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