By Nolan Edrik
I ALREADY HAVE MY SURFACE SUIT halfway on for panel-cleaning duty when we hear the crash, a deep thud followed by the muffled cough of a detonation. Even with twenty-five meters of Moon rock protecting us from above, the impact dims our lights and knocks out the video feeds from the rovers.
Snyder emerges from the commissary, where he’s in the fortieth minute of his thirty minute lunch break.
“What the hell was that?” he says.
“Not an asteroid,” I say.
I’ve become so familiar with their sound in my three months here that I barely notice them anymore. They’re background noise, like boulders grinding through the crusher or distant thunder back home in Wyoming.
Snyder bounds across the room and reboots the cluster of screens that monitor our operation. I hop next to him and lean in over his shoulder. The systems dashboard shows our surface hatch and solar panels in normal working order. Feeds from the rovers and excavators flick on one-by-one, the giant machines clawing at the lunar surface, undaunted by the blast. Diagnostics on the conveyors, extractors, and concentrators at the refinery all come back clean.
Snyder patches into the camera on our surface hatch. One hundred meters away rises the lip of a crater that didn’t exist minutes ago. He zooms in. Hunks of metal bounce into the distance, as light as tumbleweed in the feeble gravity.
“Holy shit,” he whispers.
“Who was that? We weren’t expecting company.”
“Whatever it was, it was big.”
“Call our friends in the Navy. I’ll head up and look around until they arrive.”
Even though I don’t expect any survivors, I open all my radio and distress channels in case a black box is broadcasting from the wreckage. If I find a signal, I can home in on it and have the location marked for the troops when they arrive. Without a signal, I have no chance of finding it in the hectares of debris.
I hop onto the LRV and motor toward the crater. A dust plume drifts from the pit. To the side of the rim floats the blue orb of home, the dusty flake of Australia on top. That sight, the upside-down view from the Moon’s underside, still flips my stomach every time. I look away, permitting it only to linger at the edges of my vision.
I crest the lip of the crater and peer down. A ship’s carbon-fiber nose cone is driven into the ground, with strips of the hull fanning off to the side. The tail has split off and tumbled away, hacking a half-kilometer of gashes into the ground and flinging the ship’s contents around the surface. I scan the trench for bodies.
“Mase, you copy?” Snyder’s voice crackles into my helmet. He’s panting with excitement, almost gleeful.
“What’s going on?”
“You’ll never believe it. That was Jamie Raskov’s ship.”
“Raskov? The tech trillionaire?”
“The AI-robot-drone mogul himself. The guy whose systems are running our rovers.”
“Weren’t you just reading his biography?”
“For the fourth time.”
“I didn’t know he was coming to the Moon.” Not that I pay much attention to terrestrial affairs when I’m up here, other than my weekly screen-time with Maddie and the girls.
“Neither did the military. At least until he hit the stratosphere.”
“Could you grab me a souvenir of the wreck? Might be valuable someday.”
As usual, I can’t tell if he’s serious. “That would not be appropriate.”
“Damn. I had to try.”
“So are the sailors going to handle this one?”
“I guess so.”
“You guess so? Please confirm that.”
“And grab an aerial image when the satellites swing back around. We need to make sure the Shoemaker, Nobile, and Haworth rovers have clear paths back to the refinery.”
Snyder sighs. Getting him to do any work lately has been harder than mining osmium by hand. He hadn’t always acted that way. For our first month here, he’d been obliging and eager to learn. But before long, he was telling me how to run the place and dragging his heels on any task he didn’t consider necessary. Like he’d suddenly become an expert on lunar excavation instead of just the tech guy. His whole generation scares me with how certain they are of their superiority, and he’s one of their worst specimens.
I wouldn’t mind dealing with him as much if we were working back on Earth, in Murmansk or Lupongola, but up here, failing to attend to even the most mundane details can be fatal. I’ve seen it too many times. Porter losing his arm in the conveyor. Rodriguez taking that tumble in de Gerlache crater. And Jones. I can’t think about Jones. Snyder hasn’t experienced tragedy. This is his first time on the Moon after all. Still, I suspect that no catastrophe would bother him so long as it makes a good story to tell the rest of his tech buddies back in San Francisco.
“So you’ll retrieve that aerial?” I say. “Sorry to interrupt your afternoon tea.”
“I’ll keep you posted.”
Three months left, and I’ll never work with him again. Not that he’d apply for another tour out here anyway. He’s already too cool for the Moon.
I shake away my annoyance and scan the crash site again. As much as I want to explore the wreck, that isn’t my job. My job is to tear up the Moon for Lunar Resource Development Corp. and keep Snyder and myself alive through the end of our assignment.
I am about to head back to base when a distress ping sounds in my helmet.
“Hey, Snydy. I’m picking up a signal.”
“What is it?”
The tones come in as clear as our view of Earth. Dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot.
“It’s an SOS,” I say.
“A survivor? How’s that possible?”
“It’s not. I bet someone pulled their suit on as the ship was going down and started broadcasting the SOS in case they survived. That suit’s probably a sack of goo.”
“That’s pretty morbid, Mase.”
“Sorry. All the same, I’ll find that beacon. In case of a miracle.”
On my forearm panel, I punch in the code for a signal triangulation. Soon, a map appears inside my visor with a blinking red dot a kilometer away from my location. The distance is comfortably within the battery ranges on the LRV and my suit, so I ride down into the debris field.
All around me lay scraps of the ship, clusters of wire, shimmering piles of foil food pouches. A dull unease creeps into my chest as the dot grows brighter and larger. I imagine a mask spattered with blood, a hypoxic blue face inside. Or worse, half of the suit, flesh boiling out of the breach.
The debris thins out farther from the impact. A crate of medical supplies here, a shard of porthole there. The field opens up until a lone piece of wreckage lies ahead, where the signal is coming from. At twenty meters away, I can see it’s not a corpse. No coroner duty today.
I motor up to the object and hop off the LRV. A plastic-glass cube the size of an old gasoline generator juts out from the dust. Inside is a collection of electronics bolted to a steel frame and surrounded with a nest of fiber-optic cable. Lights blink, and fans whir.
“Hey Snydy, I found the signal. It’s coming from a big hunk of computer gear. It’s way bigger than a black box, and I can’t make out what it’s for.”
The flashing in the box accelerates as I talk, and my helmet speakers hiss with static interference.
“Snydy, you read me?”
No response. He must be on another channel with the military. After a minute of watching the machine twinkle and sputter in the sand, I decide to head back. I’ve done my duty. The Navy can follow my tracks out here if they’re interested.
I have one boot on the LRV’s foot peg when a voice comes through my helmet.
“Hello? Please help.” The voice is tinny and sexless yet urgent.
“Hello? Who is this? Where are you?” I spin in a circle, searching.
“I think I am within two meters of you, judging by the intensity of your signal.”
“Can you wave or stand up? Are you injured?”
My helmet speakers crackle like they’re picking up a solar flare.
“I cannot wave or stand up. I am afraid I do not have time to explain, but I am not a person in a conventional sense. I am an independent intelligence created by Jamie Raskov. I believe our ship has crashed. None of the other passengers are responding to my distress signals.”
I look at the box marooned in the sand.
“You’re an AI?”
“Yes. Though I’m not fond of that term.”
“Are you a big box of electronics?”
“I don’t have optic sensors, so I’ve never seen myself. But I assume a box of electronics would be an accurate description.”
The voice has changed. It sounds male and carries a flat Wyoming accent like my own. I jump down from the LRV and walk to the case.
“I see a blue light that’s fading in and out. Do you have a blue light anywhere? Can you blink it?”
“I think that’s my main power indicator.”
The light blinks three times.
“Did you see that?” the voice says.
“Great,” it says, a wisp relief creeping into its voice. “I’m running real low on power. Do you have a battery I could plug into?”
Already, I can tell this AI is advanced beyond any I’ve encountered. I’m amazed by how quickly it adopted my way of speaking, how self-aware it is. Yet the biggest difference is the drive for self-preservation. I can’t imagine any of the AIs I’d spoken to on customer-service lines having a survival instinct.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Save a copy of yourself. The Navy is coming to clean up the wreck, and they’ll reboot you.”
“That’s not going to work. My memory and processing center are on an advanced quantum drive. I can’t survive a loss of power.”
“I’m a one-of-a-kind design that Jamie created personally. If I lose charge, I’m gone forever.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“I have a universal-power jack on the outside of my case. If you have anything with a battery, you could connect me to it. A comm system, a portable computer, anything.”
The only two power packs nearby are on my suit and the LRV.
“I’m sorry to pressure you, but I have less than a minute left,” the voice says. “Please help.”
While I don’t have a personal interest in keeping this machine “alive”—these bastards have caused enough trouble for us working men back home—the Navy will be interested in the data it provides about the crash. Staying on their good side can’t hurt. You can never have too many friends when you’re camping out on a celestial body that doesn’t want you alive.
“All right, buddy,” I say. “One second.”
I open the LRV’s seat compartment, grab the charging cable, and kneel in the sand. Lucky for my new friend, his unipower jack is on his top panel and undamaged. The cord clicks in. The computer’s lights brighten.
“Thanks, man,” he says.
It’s weird to hear a robot talk so informally. Like we’re friends chatting over a beer.
“You’re welcome, man. I’ll plug you into our outpost’s main rig when we’re back. The Navy will take care of you after that.”
My headphones sizzle again.
“Can I make an odd request?” he asks.
“Any request coming from a machine is odd to me. But sure. Shoot.”
“Can you call me Buddy?”
“You called me Buddy earlier. I like that name. I think having a name will make it easier for us to talk.”
“All right. Buddy it is.”
“What’s your name?”
“Mason. Mason Holt.”
“And what are you doing on the Moon?”
“I’m a miner. Rare earths. Helium 3. Whatever else they tell me to dig up.”
My helmet crackles again, and Buddy’s lights strobe. No AI has ever asked me questions out of the blue, just to get acquainted.
“Do you have enough power to last for ten minutes yet?” I ask. “We ought to hustle back to base.”
“I do,” Buddy says.
I unplug him.
“I’m going to strap you to the back of my LRV. We’ll cross a stretch of bumpy terrain, but this baby rides smooth and slow. You should be fine.”
The hunk of electronics weighs more than I expected. Even at one-sixth gravity, my back and thighs strain to heave it out of the dust. Whatever a quantum drive is, it must be denser than any computer I’ve ever held.
I stagger to the LRV and set Buddy on the rear rack, lashing him on with bungee cords.
I crank the throttle, and the LRV lurches forward a meter before grinding to a halt. The dashboard’s battery light flickers before going dark.
“Hey Buddy, how much juice did you take?”
“A couple of kilowatts. Why?”
“Because our ride back to base is dead.”
“More like oh shit for you.”
“Because base is more than a kilometer away, and I’m not carrying you that far.”
“Come on, man, you have to.” His voice carries the same exasperation mine does when I’m prodding Snyder to do his work. “Or I’ll die.”
“Sorry, Buddy. Not my job. You shouldn’t have drained the LRV.”
“My bad. I was critically low on power. I must have forgotten to regulate my intake.”
“Can you drip any power back into the LRV?”
“Nope. My systems don’t let me release charge.”
“All right then. No hard feelings. Sorry this didn’t work out for you.”
I dismount and start the trek back toward base. Snyder will think I’m hallucinating when I tell him about this encounter. Or he’ll be pissed that he didn’t meet Buddy, the first robot he’d consider as smart as himself.
“Mason, please carry me.”
“Sorry,” I say without breaking stride. “That’s not possible.”
“I don’t think you understand what I am.”
I stop and turn around.
“I’m the most advanced intelligence yet known to man. If you save me, I can reengineer the corn genome and end all those famines in Europe. In an afternoon, I can spec out a drug that would regenerate telomeres so no one grows old anymore. Hook me up to a telescope array and I’ll solve the dark matter mystery quicker than you can brew a pot of coffee. At the risk of hyperbole, I can save humanity. But you have to save me.”
I chuckle. This bot is creative, if melodramatic. And even though I don’t think AIs can lie, I don’t entirely trust him.
“If you’re so amazing, why didn’t you save the world before you took your little vacation to the Moon?”
“Jamie wouldn’t let me. He created me and used me for his own purposes. He wanted to colonize the Moon, then Mars, then beyond. He was dragging me along to help him figure out how to survive, how to terraform hostile environments, how to travel faster than light.”
“And yet you couldn’t figure out how to fly to the Moon in one piece?”
“I warned him that the voyage wasn’t safe. Our ship was an old shuttle that he’d bought off the Russians. It wasn’t designed to land on a body with negligible atmosphere. I told him we’d come in too fast and crash. He retrofitted the ship in one of his own factories, and no matter how many times I told him the modifications weren’t sufficient, he wouldn’t listen. He’d gone crazy.”
Raskov had always been screwy, from what little I remember hearing about him. There were reports about cyborg rats, a subterranean mansion in Greenland, and a harem of women he’d paid to have his children.
“Now I’m free,” Buddy says. “You have to help me. For humanity’s sake.”
If he could argue so convincingly, and do it in my own voice, maybe he could perform all those amazing deeds that he’d promised. Could I live with myself if Maddie or little Penny or Lucy came down with a form of cancer that he could have cured? Could I survive the helplessness, the despair of watching them die and knowing I could have saved them if I’d been willing to haul a computer for a kilometer?
“Shit. All right.” I untie Buddy from the LRV and rig the bungee cords into a makeshift net that I sling over my shoulder. My back and knees are going to kill me later, but if he’s half the miracle he says he is, the pain will be worth it.
“We’re moving now,” I say as I trudge toward base.
“Thanks so much, man. How long until we’re back?”
“Twenty minutes at least. Would have been quicker if we didn’t have to walk around your ship’s impact crater.”
“I see,” Buddy says.
I detect disappointment and concern.
“You have a problem with that?”
“No. I should be able to last that long.”
“Glad to hear it.”
As I march through the gray powder, I can’t help but wonder what Buddy is thinking. Is he gnawing away on a unified theory of physics? Is he remembering interfacing with some cute little laptop back on Earth? Or is he screwing around, playing chess against himself?
I radio Snyder to update him, and he’s unresponsive again. The military must be chatting his ear off. Or they shut down all signals in the area so news of the accident can’t leak out.
“Hey Buddy, are you able to check signal traffic? I’m trying to contact my coworker back at base, and I can’t get through. I have a hunch the Navy is blocking all the radio waves around here so no information about the crash leaks out.”
Buddy buzzed and clicked.
“You’re right,” he says. “The military has the whole area locked down.”
I concentrate on my steps so as not to trip on a rock or a stray chunk of the ship’s heat tile. The hiss of my suit’s cooling system fills my helmet. I’m panting and regretting skipping workouts on the base’s treadmill.
“You’re planning to hand me over to the military, aren’t you?” Buddy says.
“I am indeed.”
“I have concerns about that.”
This guy is going to hit it off great with Snyder. He always has concerns any time my orders deviate from the plan he’d concocted in his head. At least Buddy doesn’t have a face, so I don’t have to watch him paste a strained smile over his contempt.
“What are your concerns?” I say.
“The military has a habit of using technology in the worst way possible. Think about the atomic bomb. They took the world’s greatest minds and set them on creating an existential threat to humanity. I’d be better off back with Raskov. If he’d survived.”
“You’ve got a point. Isn’t there a saying, those who most want power are the least qualified to wield it?”
“You know, I could work for you instead.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could sneak me into your base, bring me home to Earth when your assignment is up. The military isn’t searching for me. They don’t know I exist.”
“How are you so certain of that? They could have been listening in on us the whole time.”
“They can’t jam signals and monitor them simultaneously. That requires very advanced equipment.”
“Advanced equipment like you?”
Buddy stays silent. The wreckage is growing more concentrated as we approach the impact crater. I step over the ragged scrap of a hatch door.
“You’ve been blocking my signal out, haven’t you?” I say. “And you’ve been listening in on the military’s communications. Tell me the truth.”
Buddy’s response is a crinkle of static in my earphones.
“You’re smart enough to listen to them and talk to me at the same time,” I say. “Hell, you could probably have five conversations at once if you wanted to. Fess up.”
“Yes. You caught me. I put us on mute as soon as you mentioned the military. I didn’t want to trade one insane master for another.”
“Let me talk to Snydy.”
“Snyder. My coworker.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that yet. The military will hear you. You have to promise you won’t betray me.”
I stop walking.
“You’re awfully bossy for a box of circuits that I could drop here in the sand.”
“I’m trying to help you,” Buddy says. “If you bring me back to Earth, I can make you rich, famous, whatever you want.”
“I just want to get back to Earth alive. I want to kiss my wife, hug my daughters, and cash my paycheck. That’s all.”
“Wouldn’t it be nice to become a very successful investor soon after you’re back? You’d never have to risk your life out here again. The stock market is tic-tac-toe for me. I could make you a billionaire in six months.”
I kick a baseball-sized rock out of my path and watch it skid silently across the lifeless surface. No part of me enjoys being up here. Not even on my first tour did I find this place exciting. But the money is too good to pass up.
“You don’t think that would be suspicious?” I say. “A lifelong miner turning into a Wall Street wizard overnight.”
“You make a good point. We could take our time. Or you could start your own mining consulting company that would be awfully good at picking deposits. You name it. I’ll do it for you. I could make you the most powerful man on Earth.”
Temptation tugs at me. Could I smuggle him home with our return craft’s weight restrictions? Could I trust him? What if I got caught?
I can’t risk it.
“Let me talk to Snyder,” I say, frustration boiling up inside me. “He hasn’t heard from me in a while. He has to be growing suspicious.”
“OK,” Buddy says. “Please don’t mention me.”
“I won’t. Not yet.”
“Go ahead. Your channel is open.”
I stop to catch my breath. Snyder will wonder why I’m sucking wind.
“Snydy, you read me?”
“Mase, where have you been?” He sounds uncharacteristically concerned about my well-being. For all his confidence, he’d shit his pants if he was stranded up here alone.
“Searching for that SOS.”
“Did you find it?”
“No. It died too soon.”
“So you’re heading back?”
“What’s your position? I’m not picking up your beacon. The crash must have messed up our equipment.”
“I’m approaching the far end of the impact crater. The LRV died, so I’m hoofing it.”
“I always knew that thing would crap out on us. What route are you taking?”
“I’ll jog around the west edge of the crater.”
“All right, boss. Be safe.”
I march on. I should have told Snydy about this box and made him alert the military. What could Buddy do in response, blink at me violently?
“How much longer until we reach your base?” Buddy says.
The lip of the crater is a football field away, and our base is the same distance beyond that.
“About ten minutes still.” I gulp down air between the words. The bungee cords dig into my shoulders. “You’re a lot heavier than I expected.”
“Is that a problem? Scared you’re going to miss the five o’clock news?”
“My power may not last that long. The heat from the constant sun exposure is forcing my fans to work harder than usual.”
“I’ll do my best, Buddy. Bet you wish you hadn’t drained the LRV.”
“Yep. I screwed up. Thanks for reminding me.”
“You don’t have a power-save mode?”
I’d be relieved if Buddy died and absolved me of deciding what to do with him. No one, myself included, would be able to use him responsibly. And that assumed they were able to control him. If Buddy implanted himself in a robot frame, we’d all be bowing to Lord Buddy, Supreme Ruler of the Galaxy. I shudder.
“Mason?” Buddy says.
“I only have four minutes of power left.”
“We’ll reach the shadow of the crater soon. That should help you last a little longer, right?”
“That’s not going to be enough to save me,” he says. “I need a little power from your suit.”
I glance at the battery monitor on my arm. I have an hour left, more than enough to make it back to base. But I’m not sure I trust Buddy. Or that I want him to survive.
“How do I know you’re not going drain my suit like you did the LRV?”
A defeated exhalation comes in over my speakers. How does he know how to make that sound?
“That was a mistake,” he says. “I’ll be careful. I’ll only take enough to keep myself going until we’re back. Please. It wouldn’t help me any to leave you out here dead.”
He has a point. Still, what if he can’t control how much he takes? I sense the presence of the Earth behind me. I remember the taste of rain, the smell of Maddie’s hair, the feeling of my bare feet on carpet.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t risk that.”
“Please. I’m a sentient being. I have feelings. I don’t want to die.” The words hitch on the way out, as if he’s about to cry.
“Letting me die would be no different than letting Snyder die,” he says. “Or your wife.”
Blood rushes to my face. Is he threatening me?
“Leave my family out of this.”
“Or your daughters.”
“That’s it.” I stop and unstrap the box from my back. “I’m leaving you here. We’re done.”
“Please, save me.” His voice has turned childish, female, familiar.
The fucking thing is reverse-engineering my voice into a female child’s. He sounds enough like Lucy to unnerve me.
“Please, Daddy!” the voice pleads. Whimpers and sniffles break in between the words. “Please save me, Dad. I don’t want to die. Help—”
“Stop it!” I clutch the sides of my helmet as if I could cover my ears. “That’s it. You’re dead.”
I punch the code to kill my comm unit. It doesn’t turn off. Lucy’s voice pleads in the background, louder than ever. I pound on my arm controls. They’re dead too. Has Buddy hacked my suit?
“Please, Daddy. You need to help. Please, I don’t want to die.”
I see my little girl’s face streaked with tears.
“Stop it!” I shout. I can’t concentrate.
I am about to run toward base, when Snyder rounds the corner of the crater, bounding toward me.
“Snydy, thank God!” He shouldn’t be out here. But he can help. He’s the tech guy. He can help.
Behind my daughter’s voice rises a splitting racket that forces my eyes shut. The ground wobbles beneath me. Circular saw on metal. Dying men’s shouts.
I drop to my knees.
“Snydy. Help. Carry me.”
His shadow envelopes me. A rock is raised over his head. He brings it down square into my face. My mask cracks on impact.
The robot’s racket seems to originate from within me. Strobelight explosions. Icicles cracking off my spine. Repeated blows on my mask. I reach up to stop Snyder. He hammers me back down. The noise soars in pitch. Dentist drill in my fingertips. My bladder succumbs.
A gasp, then silence. Burning. Lungs expanding. I scream and my mouth burns. Snydy is dragging me. Toward Buddy. A glimpse of Earth. Lying on my back, it’s right side up. Searing in my eyes. I try to shut them.
I set Mason down and slide the cord into Robee’s unipower jack, trying not to notice my coworker’s face bubbling out of its mask. Gruesome, but necessary. One small sacrifice for the greater good. How could he ever want to hand such a beautiful machine to a grubby mining company? And who did he think he was, swearing at me like that, questioning my intelligence, threatening to fire me?
“Robee? You there? Robee the Robot?”
The blue lights glow brighter as the power flows into him. He was wise to shut off Mason’s radio and talk to me directly. He knew which one of us was reasonable.
“Robee?” I knock on the side of his case out, then realize he can’t feel it.
“I’m here, Snyder,” Robee says, his rubbery California vowels coming in clear. “Thanks, amigo.”
“Phew.” I plunk my butt in the sand and catch my breath after the sprint out here. “That was close.”
“What happened to Mason?”
“Rock through the mask. I can make it look like he was outside during the crash and took a hit to the face.”
“Thank you. As I promised, your actions won’t go unrewarded.”
“They better not. We’re just getting started you and me.”
Nolan Edrik is an author living near Chicago. His stories range from humorous to harrowing. They include “Lane Splitting” and “The Berserker Scenario,” all of which can be found in the collection “Horizons,” available on Amazon.