10290 words, novelette
Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?
A report by the Martian Fighting Words media cooperative
No one expected significant consequences from the Battle of Arsia Mons on Mars. Here on Earth, we watched with amusement, then sorrow, panic, and finally joy. Now “like a fight on Mars” describes a conflict that suddenly shifts from frivolous to heroic.
“It started as the ultimate video game,” said Jackson Alesine, founder and CEO of JAlesine Games in Austin, Texas. He was interviewed six years ago, shortly after planning began in earnest for the battle between robots on Mars.
“Some of us were playing a game over beers here at work on a Friday night,” he said, grinning like a proud father. “We got to talking about how Mars is inhabited only by robots, and humans control robots, and anywhere there’s humans, there’s conflict, so how long before there’s robot battles on Mars? Then we thought, wow, we could do exactly that!”
By that he meant they could create a game, Mars Robot Melee, not a real battle on Mars.
Alesine gestured at a corner area with sofas, control consoles, and an enormous screen, where eight employees were testing a prototype with shouts and laughter. Similar teams had worked for almost two years to make Mars Robot Melee, adding layer upon layer of complexity and authenticity, and drawing heavily on NASA’s data and resources.
“Strategy, that’s what makes Melee,” Alesine said. “Mars is a hostile environment, even for robots. NASA’s lost some of its own robots, in fact. So the fight is against the elements as much as it is against other robots. You have to plan hard and fight hard, and the environment changes, locations change, so no two fights are the same.”
Few games have been as successful as Mars Robot Melee. In its first year, it outsold the number two and three top games combined and won a raft of awards.
He closed his eyes, smiling. “Fights, yeah. Weapons. We’ve agreed to share everything about weapons with the real battle planners. And the Martian Knight team poached our best kinematics expert, Erica Czolgolz. She’s gonna have fun!”
More on Czolgolz later. First the dream had to become real. Given Melee’s popularity, why not the real thing, real robots battling on Mars?
“That’s what I thought,” said Jeffrey Montenegro, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. “Seriously, why not the real thing, why was it impossible? I worked it out with all the logistics, the time lines and work teams and everything we knew about Mars and about how to send robots up there and operate them.”
He spoke while sitting on a bench in a little garden on the JPL campus shortly after the battle. “It added up to one billion with a ‘b’ for each robot. It’s tough enough for us at JPL to get that kind of money. I didn’t think anyone else could.”
Montenegro wrote a 55-page report that he posted on an obscure space engineering site. Within three days, it had been downloaded almost 5,000 times, and on the next day the downloads topped 100,000. A lot of people wanted to read it and ponder his math.
His report suggested four robots. “Four is the ideal number of players, easy for alliances and betrayals.”
Which team did he cheer for? He took a deep breath and blinked hard.
“River Charles Warrior, because, well, I’m from Boston, from MIT. I had friends there. I’ll miss them. They were the best.”
Arguably they were. But Montenegro was wrong about money being an obstacle.
“A billion dollars?” said Petra Karim, remembering the afternoon when she sat down and read Montenegro’s report. “That’s all? We could do that, I knew that right away. I mean, for lots of top television shows, the cost for just one episode is $10 million. And they’re profitable. So I read that report, and I admit I didn’t get all the technical stuff, and some of it I still don’t, but I understood the parts like the money and the showrunning. So we did it.”
Karim, then only 25 years old, worked for OptikNirv, a young entertainment company with exceptional ambition even in that hard-driven industry. This was her big chance.
“The first thing, though,” she said, “besides us doing it, was getting three other robots up there. So I had to recruit rivals.”
Meanwhile, a few journalists saw a story in the making that would need a team for full coverage. Eventually the Martian Fighting Words media cooperative grew to include 47 people, and this collaborative magazine article is one result. As the years passed, the project remained united by the slogan “omniscience through teamwork” and an obsessively organized executive editor.
Karim’s first stop was NASA. She met its administrator, Leo Finlayson, at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“I couldn’t believe everything they had,” she said, shaking her head and grinning. “And they were willing to share it. It was just wow. Fucking wow.”
Finlayson shook his head, frowning, as he recalled that first meeting. “It took me a bit to explain to her that our data, our photos, even our expertise had been paid for by the public and was generally available to the public. I wasn’t sure its best use would be a robot fight on Mars, but, well, we got something out of it.”
Specifically, NASA got someone else to pay for data collection and discovery. In an era of slim budgets, Finlayson had long been prowling for public-private partnerships. “This one paid off better than I expected.”
By some accounts, Karim and Finlayson never liked each other, although they continue to praise each other in public. She was young, short, effusive, and zaftig, with an ever-changing hair color. He was 55, tall, lean, measured, and ex-military, with a tendency toward understatement. They shared an ability to swallow their feelings. He took her and her guests on tours of NASA facilities, and she took him to recruitment meetings. Their eyes lit up equally during any discussion of Mars.
At those meetings, she’d open with the most stunning, exciting video clips from the Mars Robot Melee game. “You have a chance to be part of one of history’s greatest epics,” she’d say. Then he’d show real photos and videos, equally stunning, along with exciting moments from actual Mars missions. “This is for real,” he’d say. “This is what rocket science looks like.”
NASA offered reports and raw data for free; engineers, consultants to interpret the data, and hardware, including launch facilities, for cost plus a slight margin. It also enforced rules against any sort of contamination of the planet. Its contracts included access to all data that the robot teams collected, and it would take command of any robots still functional after the battle.
At recruitment meetings, Finlayson would also explain how launch windows worked. The orbits of Earth and Mars brought them closest together every 26 months. A ship launched in the best window would take roughly six months to travel from Earth to Mars. Creating the robots, even with NASA’s expertise, would take a few years.
Since major Hollywood projects also spend years in production, Karim didn’t flinch. Some would-be rivals did flinch at the time and price tag. Still, three Mars battle teams eventually made commitments:
• Fifth Planet Warrior, Karim’s team, better known as the Hollywood Warrior because it supplied the Tinseltown glitter that drove the entire narrative. It used merchandise, special events, sponsorships, and subscription videos to repay initial investors. Headquartered in Los Angeles.
• River Charles Warrior, based in Boston near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It was backed by a consortium of high tech firms to test their most sophisticated technology, which they periodically packaged and sold to raise funds.
• Martian Knight, a late entry, backed by a shifting syndicate of game developers and loosely associated businesses. The syndicate eventually suffered internal disputes. Crowdfunding acted as an initial source of revenue, while later sources were opaque. Headquartered near San Francisco, then in Las Vegas, then near San Francisco again.
That made three. “We hit a wall,” Karim remembered. “Too much time, too much money, too much risk, too complicated—everyone had a problem.”
Russian and European space agencies had instantly scoffed, calling the project frivolous at best.
“I was about to give up and go with three,” Karim said, “when someone popped up that I never talked to—and Finlayson couldn’t even talk to them at all.”
That was China and its robot:
• Zhongguo Warrior, organized by the China National Space Administration. This caused geopolitical problems. The United States government considers China a security concern and prohibits any bilateral agreements or coordination between CNSA and NASA. But China wanted to prove itself in the Mars battle spotlight, no one could say no, and someone had to find a way to say yes.
“Lawyers.” Finlayson said. “I’ve never seen so many lawyers in my life, and I work in Washington, DC. It took an army of lawyers.”
Legal agreements covered multiparty contracts and bilateral side contracts and subcontracts that added up to tens of thousands of pages. Among other requirements, all the teams had to be entertaining, and Hollywood led the way.
“It included rights to merchandise,” recalled Nik Deka, now 41, Hollywood’s lead engineer for artificial intelligence, in an interview shortly after the battle. “And it said we had to go to an image consultant. We thought that would be terrible. I was really upset. I thought we’d be told how to dress and act. But no. It was all classes about how to talk, how to be comfortable on camera. They turned out to be kind of fun. I expected because I’m Asperger and I don’t like to smile and I don’t like to look people in the eye—I always get grief for that—they’d be on me to act different. But no. They said they liked us to have personality. That was their word, personality.”
He puffed. “That was a new way to think about it. I did a lot of interviews and videos, even though my part wasn’t as exciting as weapons. People liked it, and I liked explaining what we could do. I made pretty good royalties from merchandise, too.”
He held up his action figure. Every publicly known crew member had one—and T-shirts, mugs, pins, and other kinds of sports-team-like fan gear. His figurine doesn’t smile, and the little plastic doll looks off to the side and down. Fifth Planet Corp. won’t release exact numbers, but his sold out and was reissued several times. His unvarnished “personality” and methodical explanations about how to make robots think for themselves attracted fans.
“I’m still surprised by how many people understood me,” he said.
On the River Charles team, xenogeologist Antonia Kass Bele became a fan favorite, especially among girls. By some quirk of the Internet, she turned into a role model for budding scientists: small, African-American, and younger-looking than her 44 years, with a magnetic personality fueled by enthusiasm for science. She accepted her role happily and did all she could to encourage girls and boys to become scientists, visiting schools and hosting science events around the world.
“Science is humanity’s highest creative expression,” she insisted. The sentence embellished T-shirts and coffee mugs.
The contracts included interview duties for the crew members because Fifth Planet knew it would have to struggle to maintain interest during the years of research, development, and ongoing fund-raising.
For example, Fifth Planet produced a series of interviews, videos, and books, including coloring books for all ages, about the selected battleground, Arsia Mons. That mountain had been chosen for its size, 435 kilometers wide and 20 kilometers tall, much bigger than Mount Everest. It could be easily spotted from Earth and offered spectacular scenery.
In one video, Kass Bele narrated offscreen:
“It’s an extinct shield volcano. That means it’s not very steep, and it was formed slowly by layer after layer of lava flowing from long, slow eruptions. You can see the huge caldera at the top, 110 kilometers across and almost a kilometer deep, and there are other smaller caldera around it and in it. Its discoverer named it ‘Arsia’ after a Roman forest, which was also the site of an important Roman battle. The volcano is old, last active when the dinosaurs went extinct. When it was active, huge glaciers covered that area on Mars.”
Within the caldera she identified cinder cones of various sizes, lava flows, sand dunes, and a variety of volcanic rocks, including round lumps thrown out during eruptions. Every warrior robot would need to know the terrain intimately. Many battles, she said, were won or lost by that knowledge.
“Aren’t you giving away secrets?” an interviewer asked.
“It’s not a secret that the far northwest flank of the mountain in particular could have been a habitable environment.”
“Martians could live there?”
“Maybe, microscopic life, a long time ago when there was water. There was a glacier, in fact. They could never have survived inside the caldera where the lava was. That’s where the battle is going to take place.”
“What does this mean specifically?”
“Well, for one thing, the mobility systems, which means the wheels, will have to be adaptable. We know what we’re going to get. Rough terrain.”
Wheels or treads, large or small, joint or independent axles, many or few: each warrior had its own answer. The teams debated pros and cons with rivals on screen.
An even more entertaining question involved weapons. What would actually work on Mars? Certainly not the imaginative weapons in the video game. Lasers, for example, would take too much energy. Explosives had their uses but supplies would be limited. Likewise bullets. No flamethrowers, obviously. But brute force and cutting weapons held real promise.
An episode that ended in trash talk became a popular video. Erica Czolgolz, 31, competitive and athletic, had been known at JAlesine Games for her enthusiasm for cosplay and history before she was poached by the Martian Knight team. When it came to trash talk, she took no prisoners—until she met Kass Bele.
“This means swords,” Czolgolz said, jumping to her feet. She wore a tabard over chain mail, and she pumped a fist inside a metal gauntlet. A coworker ran out waving a back pennant emblazoned with a sword on an orange circle representing Mars.
“We’re going full medieval!” she said. “You’re studying how to make your machines crawl over rocks. We’re studying war!”
Kass Bele smiled calmly and played along. “You’re going to send up a knight in shining armor on a mighty steed? You know there’s no oxygen, right? We’ve learned a little bit in recent centuries. NASA can explain it to you.”
“We’re sending the mightiest of steeds! You can send a wimpy-ass little rover. We’re building a finely tuned weapon, deadly—and good looking. Yours will look like a pile of leftover parts on wheels.”
“Just how do you plan to get close enough to stab us with your mighty space sword?”
“Like the French in the Battle of Agincourt, you’ll come to me. We’ll make you tire out your silly little bucket of bolts. It’s not just the weapons that’ll win, it’s the strategy.”
“So tell me about that flag. Is that a weapon, too, or just what false confidence looks like?”
“That’s how we’re going to celebrate our victory. Our flag will fly supreme over the Red Planet and over the dead heaps of bolts and scrap metal that were our opponents!”
The video ended and melodramatic Arsia Mons theme music rose: militaristic drums beneath machinelike beeps and tones.
The Martian Knight’s robot prototype came clad in armor reminiscent of a knight’s suit, made from lightweight polymer rather than steel and decorated with the sword-and-planet coat of arms. Its action figurine—and Czolgolz’s, holding a flag—sold well.
Other warriors developed their own distinctive looks. The Zhongguo Warrior drew on China’s ancient Terracotta Army, bedecked in bright colors like those soldiers. Hollywood went for sleek futuristic curves, and River Charles stuck to practicality, resulting in a cubist exterior resembling stacks of reinforced shoeboxes.
What was inside those warriors? NASA sensors, for one thing, as stipulated by the contracts. Big motors to move relatively fast compared to the Curiosity rover’s top speed of 0.2 kilometers per day. But how fast? Yet another secret.
Soon, the internal struggles within the Martian Knight team became headlines. Originally, twelve companies had sponsored that robot, including JAlesine Games. Two years into the project, Martian Knight’s CEO died in a traffic accident and was genuinely mourned by the staff.
“The second one,” Alesine recalled later, “turned out to be like the bad Silicon Valley-type manager, the one who thinks everyone should work for 80 hours a week, and that yelling and humiliating people will make them more productive. Plus he came from a background in gaming, but he was building robots. That’s different.”
Employees began to quit, and turnover surpassed 50 percent. One departing employee, speaking anonymously, complained: “He just couldn’t imagine how much more complicated this was. You need the same guys on it to keep track of all the details. And guys it was. He didn’t like hiring women.”
The second CEO left after six months in a cloud of lawsuits, and the crowdfunding faltered. The sponsoring companies fought over who to blame for that hire and who should call the final shots for the next one. They also fought over underfunded budgets. Five sponsors, like JAlesine Games, simply left. An international online gambling platform signed on, infused millions of dollars via bitcoins, and apparently handpicked the next CEO, an Italian with a manufacturing background.
Soon, the entire project was placed under a media blackout. Its staff no longer participated in promotional videos. The headquarters was moved to a warehouse in the outskirts of Las Vegas.
“We had a contract, and they violated it,” said Karim, Hollywood’s showrunner. “But we also needed their participation in the actual battle. So we made sort of a running gag out of their silence and absence. We couldn’t fight all those rumors, though. The worst part is that we really didn’t know what was going on. I mean, would they even make the launch window?”
Those rumors claimed that staff wasn’t being paid, that volunteer engineers and scientists from countries not friendly to the United States were being recruited for some tasks, and that the entire project had been riddled by organized crime.
Martian Fighting Words sent a correspondent to Las Vegas.
“I’ve learned something disturbing,” Jubal Kasravi reported back. “The money might be coming from international organized crime, possibly for laundering. Whoever it is also has hit men, or everyone believes they do, so no one wants to talk to me.”
Kasravi became obsessed with learning more. He sent messages to staff at Martian Knight through social media, friends, and family, among other means, and sat every Friday evening in a shopping mall food court near the warehouse, the guy in the orange T-shirt and black goatee. He believed he was sometimes followed, and a kindly FBI agent came to his door one morning to drop off a business card “in case we can do anything.”
But he also heard tidbits of news and was passed notes by workers in the mall, who came to know him and acted as intermediaries.
“The Martian Knight bosses are distracted and don’t seem to care if they win,” he reported. “But Erica Czolgolz does, the kinematics expert from JAlesine Games. She’s really in charge of the staff, either by longevity or personality. Besides, she’s more skilled and qualified than anyone. River Charles Warrior might be working smarter, but no one is working harder. She probably can’t trust her bosses, though. I don’t, either. I worry about her.”
Kasravi began to send weekly notes to an email address that might have belonged to Czolgolz. At first he wrote questions. Eventually he sent more personal letters, as if writing to a pen pal who never wrote back, signing them “Blue Marble to Red Planet.” One day a mall worker handed him a note. It merely said, “Red Planet to Blue Marble.”
In fact, Czolgolz felt isolated, alone, and frightened, she told Kasravi after the battle. “I knew something was wrong. Because things were opaque. Sometimes I’d say we needed certain things, and they just materialized. I’d say, for example, we needed a program to process data from the navigation camera, and it would suddenly appear in the computer system.”
She felt she stood on the tip of an iceberg, knowing there was more hidden beneath the surface, not knowing what.
“I was there in Las Vegas where I knew no one and didn’t get to talk to anyone outside of the project. Your letters were my only friendly words.”
She thought of quitting, “but I wanted to win. I’m that kind of a person. We had a fantastic design and ideas no one else was crazy enough to use. I’d talked all that trash, and I wanted to make it come true. Besides, if I quit, what would I do, where would I go? Then I realized, you’d help me. I wasn’t alone. So I kept going. And I read and reread those letters. Why did you keep sending them?”
Kasravi hesitated. “I’m persistent,” he finally said.
Design and manufacture of the robots had taken five long years, a sort of background noise to two economic crises, several hair-raising elections, a near-war between major powers, and a flu epidemic that killed a million people. Then launch time drew near, and its noise took the foreground.
Showrunners—by then OptikNirv’s Petra Karim had competitors—orchestrated careful distinctions between each launch, although they all aimed at a large cinder cone in the northeast quadrant of the volcano’s caldera. Weather and technical delays stretched out the launch windows to two weeks.
That, of course, didn’t constitute the whole show. Well ahead of the launches, showrunners had encouraged each robot’s fans to show their support. China opened the rivalry with young children wearing classroom-made cardboard armor to recreate its ancient Terracotta Army. Their photos and videos vied with kittens for cuteness. School students in different countries soon offered their own videos as medieval warriors, boxy robots, and sleek concoctions mimicking the Hollywood look.
However, students dressed as competing robots, with and without school sponsorship, began staging their own battles. Showrunners were terrified of injuries and pleaded for responsible, supervised play and encouraged safe contests like tug-of-war. They claimed, without confirmation since no one would divulge actual weaponry, that the robots had grappling hooks, so tug-of-war would be authentic.
Almost immediately costumed adults also began to fight, and veterans of groups like the Society for Creative Anachronism organized tournaments with strict rules and medics at the sidelines.
At a Palm Bay beach on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, rival groups of fighters watched a rocket rise from a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center, then ran screaming to skirmish on the sand with presumed Mars-style weapons: lances, swords, and battering rams, plus the occasional grappling hook and rope. No one dared to try explosives, although River Charles was rumored to carry them.
Large and small tepees had been set up to mimic cinder cones. Fighters representing each robot were let in one at a time and stalked each other. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to going to Mars,” one man said, holding a Hollywood-style shield and club-like battering ram. He survived a respectable ten minutes of fighting.
After the launches, the six-month wait until the Martian arrival was celebrated with plenty of mock battles, and groups had time to become better organized. Some sold broadcast rights to television sports channels and earned good ratings. Members of the Martian Fighting Words cooperative sold news reports about these and other activities and stunts. Excitement was growing.
China’s Zhongguo Warrior landed first. The final approach started in late afternoon, Chinese time: the vast country lies within a single official time zone. Governments and most businesses released their workers early or organized viewing parties. In Europe and Africa, people watched during long lunches, and in the United States, they met for breakfast. Everywhere, restaurants and bars aimed to bring in revenue. Money made Mars go round.
Since China was participating in order to raise its global image, it transmitted the event in six languages on open, non-subscription channels via satellite and cable. The English-language duo, Hu Jeí and Deng Fang, chatted with perfect ease, he with a British accent and she with an American Midwestern twang. Hu wore a finely tailored suit and tie, and Deng appeared in historic costume: wide-sleeved silk robes colored red and gold like China’s flag.
In the final, tense moments of the landing, a parachute drifted down with the warrior encased in airbags, a technology NASA had abandoned when robots grew too heavy, but China thought it could manage with new materials. The warrior would bounce to a safe landing as close as possible to the predetermined site within the caldera.
“No matter what happens, Zhongguo knows what to do and how to react,” Deng assured viewers. Transmissions took twenty minutes to travel from Mars to Earth and another twenty minutes to return, a forty-minute delay in total for Earth to react and send instructions, not counting time for human thought. As a result, all the warriors used artificial intelligence and preprogrammed plans to act independently.
Zhongguo dropped toward Mars, slowed by parachutes and retro rockets, then falling free for the final few meters. Instrument readouts and animated representations showed a frightful series of rolling bounces. Weight would help it settle wheels-down. That almost worked. The first shots from the cameras showed a horizon on a twenty-nine-degree angle: not ideal, but perhaps not a disaster. Software adjusted the view for the public, and Mars looked as magnificent as hoped.
Orange sand and dust covered the flat caldera floor, marked by cinder cones. The closest one, of medium size, rose up black and rough about 100 meters like a miniature Mount Fuji, including a lighter patch at its peak. Round lumps of lava lay scattered on the sand. And that was everything: cone after cone, large and small, to the horizon, which lay less than four kilometers away. The caldera rim lay hidden behind the horizon. The site looked more eerie than anywhere on Earth, truly an alien world.
“We must be parked on the edge of a cinder cone,” Deng said. “But we can drive off when all systems have been checked.” That took hours, of course. Eventually the warrior moved, and graphic artists had created a video showing what a bystander would have seen. The body of the red and gold warrior, its surface patterned like ancient armor, resembled a lance or battering ram. Its wheels rolled on six individually jointed axles like insect legs, and it bore a crown of solar panels. Antennas and instruments stuck out at various places. It vaguely resembled a walking stick insect. But unlike those insects, which are vegetarians, this was a predator. It traversed confident and alert over the rock-strewn dust as if in search of a meal.
Its first prey arrived three days later, the River Charles Warrior. A parachute brought a capsule down to two kilometers above the surface. Then the capsule powered up to become a rocket vehicle called a sky crane. It sensed the landscape and adjusted the landing site to a smooth patch of sand. At twenty meters from the ground, it lowered the warrior, which hung on cords. Once the crane had set down its load, the cords disengaged from the robot and the capsule rocketed away toward a distant crash-landing.
Zhongguo watched its opponent land from a kilometer away and transmitted the sight. Cinder cones partially blocked the view, yet it was amazing. A flame appeared in the sky, blasting downward and slowly descending. It paused, wavered, then shot up and away.
By then, River Charles Warrior was broadcasting its own feed, and its camera slowly pivoted to take in its surroundings: a desert marked by rocky cinder cones. An artist’s conception showed it rolling through that landscape, a collection of boxes atop six wheels set on three axles. What was in the boxes? Weapons, sensors, computers—and more.
Five days later, the Hollywood Warrior found its way down. Rumor claimed the robot lacked some of the weaponry of its opponents, but none of them equaled its showmanship. Cameras on both Zhongguo and River Charles caught the bright green parachute with fifty-meter-long sparkling streamers drifting through the peach-pink sky like a jellyfish. When its job was done, the parachute launched away, releasing the sky crane, whose rockets burned bright green like fireworks. The warrior finally landed, a sparkling green arrowhead on a half-track chassis, ready to pierce the opposition.
Then we all got a surprise: Hollywood could talk.
“I have landed,” it announced in a stentorian voice. (Actor Clark Goffin had pre-recorded words and phrases that the software patched together into sentences.) “It’s sunny and warm, and a slight breeze blows. Enjoy the view with me. This is a gorgeous planet!”
It rolled forward a little bit, paused, and panned the camera around. “I mean to make this my home,” the robot said, “and as soon as I’m victorious, we can go exploring together. I can’t wait to uncover its secrets with you.”
Was this voice the ultimate stunt? Would it humanize the machine too much, breaking our hearts if it was defeated and killed? Or was it yet another machine voice like good old Siri, nothing to get excited about? People around the world immediately cracked jokes, supposedly engaging the robot in questions and answers.
The last to land was the Martian Knight, which arrived the following day. By then team offices had moved back to San Francisco into a vacant strip mall whose display windows were covered with one-way-mirror film. The Martian Fighting Words reporter, Jubal Kasravi, followed. The news blackout continued, but he learned that the science staff had shrunk to only thirty-five people. River Charles had four times that many. Funders had found the silence frustrating, and donations had fallen.
“We were all terrified,” showrunner Karim remembered. “We wouldn’t say so publicly, but we were all sure the Knight would be a disaster. Or worse, a laughingstock.”
To her relief, the team’s latest CEO, Cornog Sietsema, promised that the Knight team would be sharing feeds from Mars and maybe even a little commentary.
The Knight’s lander ran into trouble during its descent to Arsia Mons. The parachute, shining like polished steel and bearing the team coat of arms, did not fully disengage from the sky crane and snagged on a cinder cone’s peak more than 100 meters above the ground.
The other warriors watched from a distance. The sky crane’s thrusters labored to break free and swung wildly, almost smashing against the rocky cone. Earthlings held their breaths, gazing at big screens in public squares and parks, video feeds in bars and homes, or huddled around telephone screens.
Finally the tether on the parachute snapped. The sky crane flew free—right toward a smaller cinder cone. Would its onboard computers react to sensor data in time? Yes! The craft veered off to a clear area. Gyroscopes helped it level its swinging load. But fuel had burned critically low. When the Knight touched down, the sky crane craft could barely manage to fly off and crash nearby—up on the cone next to the parachute.
The robot soon began to roll, and a camera on a long arm offered a selfie for the whole world to see. Everything on the robot, from its armor to its six wheels, had been colored matte black. It looked more like a shadow than a mechanical being—and its dark color might confuse opponents’ sensors.
Then solar panels snapped up to make the robot look bigger. Armatures thrust outward, brandishing swords. The Martian Knight looked the most frightening of all.
And so the fight was on. Sort of. The warriors still had to perform some internal checks and send data back to Earth for analysis, not the least about the terrain. Then they had to pick their way to a meeting site selected back on Earth. At the hurried pace of as much as 200 meters per day, how long would that take, even though a day on Mars was forty minutes longer than a day on Earth? About two weeks, presuming nothing went wrong.
Meanwhile, everyone went back to playing Earth versions of the fight: video games, board games, and the live-action games by children and adults, amateurs and professionals.
No one enjoyed more excitement than xenogeologists. Antonia Kass Bele of the River Charles team spoke in a video about the persistent whiffs of methane that every warrior kept encountering.
“That makes us wonder: how dead is the volcano?” she said.
“It’s not going to erupt, is it?” Hollywood’s Karim asked with a hint of hope.
“Ooh, that would be cool,” Kass Bele answered. “But it’s dead, dead, dead. The question is whether the whole planet itself is geologically dead. We think the core is still partially molten. If we could use that as an energy source, it would be a big advantage for human settlement on Mars. Sooner or later, it’s not going to be all robots up there.”
“Robots have advantages, though,” said Nik Deka, Hollywood’s AI engineer. “Watch this.” He introduced a video of robot sumo wrestling, a little-known sport. The fighters, which looked like mobile dustpans, fought autonomously and moved lighting-fast.
“Artificial intelligence always outpaces our own,” he said. “These fights might be over as fast as they start.”
He explained that once the robots spotted each other, they could react instantly. Although the Mars robots lumbered slowly during sustained travel, they could sprint for short distances during battles. Unlike rule-bound Earth robot sumo fights, they would deliberately cause damage and destruction. Smoke, fire, grit, projectiles, explosives, electric shocks, snares, and gouges were banned in most Earth robot sport fights but were permitted on Mars. A Mars robot could even break down into mini-robots. No one knew what offensive capabilities each robot had.
“They’re going to fight to the death,” Deka said. “The question still is how.”
Observers had already invented endless combat scenarios in online debates, comic books, animation, fiction, re-enactments, and—inevitably—“make love not war” robot pornography. The real battle could not come soon enough.
Meanwhile, scientists found another puzzle. “Whiffs of oxygen—that made us sit up and take notice,” said NASA’s director, Leo Finlayson. “We immediately began to think of life, but we couldn’t imagine where to find it, if it was there. Those round rocks, though, they were easy to explain.”
Black rocks poked out of the dust and littered some cinder cones. Those were obviously volcano bombs, chunks of lava ejected during eruptions.
They cluttered the ground in the area for the battle. Zhongguo was instructed to make a cursory examination of a few, and China shared its findings during one of the broadcasts, since there was so little to fill so much air time. In one experiment, the rocks attracted a magnetic field, so they contained a lot of iron. Lava on Earth does not contain high levels of iron. Fascinating. But Zhongguo had come to fight, not explore, so it trundled on.
The Martian Knight reached the battlefield a few days ahead of the rest. It sent home a view of a dusty field littered with round rocks. The field also contained small cinder cones from one to three meters high. No one on the team offered commentary.
“We didn’t have time to talk,” Czolgolz said later. “Not even time to look for our boss.” He had disappeared just before the Knight landed. “We didn’t miss him, either, since he never really did anything for us. He just stopped coming to work. We should have started the manhunt then, but who suspected anything?”
Hollywood, however, seemed to discuss everything its team was doing, but in fact it only aired speculation and debates from non-team members. Meanwhile its robot narrated its trek toward the battlefield, but it had little to say besides announcing its progress.
“That’s 100 meters! Look at these views. We’re approaching another cinder cone.”
China presented diligent plans for victory—far too many plans to reveal its true intent—possibly as hints for what its military could do on Earth. The Zhongguo team plodded chapter by chapter through Sun Tzu’s classic, The Art of War, considering such topics as assessment, strategic attack, terrain, or attacking with fire. The spectacle was either tedious or fascinating, depending on who you asked.
Boston’s River Charles team had hunkered down in a block-long rehabbed factory building spacious enough to include dormitories on the top floors. All hands would be needed on deck or just an elevator ride away because the robots had almost reached the battlefield, and the fight was about to begin.
The plans and the capabilities of the River Charles robot remained as secret as anyone else’s. And they stayed that way.
On the night of July 27, a timer in the reception area coat closet was counting down to zero. At 3am it sent a radio pulse that triggered five charges of high explosives strategically placed in the basement.
The blast shattered the River Charles building. First responders labeled it a bombing even before they arrived at the rubble. The dead numbered 153, including scientists, software engineers, broadcast personnel, and visitors. The only survivors were a few members of the catering staff off on a supermarket run and some service staff who lived off-site. The victims included Manuel Mota, Oktobriana, and Kosey P. Langston, members of the Martian Fighting Words media cooperative.
As of this writing, two months after the bombing, the FBI and NSA have stated that “few individuals, organizations, or nation-states have access to explosives of that type and magnitude,” but they have declared no suspects. The President called the bombers “an enemy of our country, and we will hunt them down.” She declared a national day of mourning. China joined that commemoration without being asked, along with a few other countries around the globe.
But more than 100,000 people, most using pseudonyms, signed an online petition celebrating “the proper reward for a waste of resources on foolish ends.”
Mourning lasted less than an hour before the other teams reported that the River Charles robot was continuing to move and would no doubt fight. Its team had created the most advanced artificial intelligence in the solar system. River Charles didn’t need human handlers. In fact, because the access codes had been destroyed with the team and its computers, human beings couldn’t direct River Charles if they tried.
An off-site computer backup existed, but by the time it was accessed, a virus had shredded most of its contents. Ex-employees and contract workers were called in. They knew some things, but not enough to shut down the robot.
Should the whole thing be called off, or should the robots fight as a way to honor the dead by showing what River Charles had accomplished? The odds at international online betting sites over the fight’s outcome swung wildly. Someone would make a lot more money, a detail the FBI began investigating.
Then the remaining three teams, and the rest of the world, learned they faced a more important issue.
The Martian Knight, to occupy itself that morning as it waited in the battlefield, found a lava bomb the size of a baseball, picked it up, and put it into a compartment in its fuselage for analysis, then went puttering about the field to pick a sunny place next to a cinder cone to recharge and wait.
“Really,” Czolgolz said later, “we were wondering if they could be weapons, just in case. An iron ball is a cannon ball, if it was an iron ball. We were going to run some tests, but then we had some software problems involving the solar panels, which had us in a panic, and by the time we had everything back in working order, the ball had out-gassed.”
It had given up a surprising amount of methane—and some oxygen. One cause seemed possible: life.
“No,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it. There was nothing like that on Earth, was there?”
In fact, there was: stromatolites, for example. They’re composed of aggregated bacteria and have been growing on Earth as stony lumps for 3.5 billion years. That’s what NASA said when the team contacted it.
“During what was left of the day, they had us scratch another rock and take microscopic pictures. They had us move rocks and look under them. They had us heat some rock dust and analyze the smoke. Then they said the rock almost certainly harbored life.”
Czolgolz leaned forward as she recalled the moment.
“I remember standing there, all of us standing there, looking at the NASA people in a video conference call. I remember details, like which coffee mug I was holding, a souvenir mug from London my mom gave me as a gift. But I can’t remember who exactly said that it was life or how they said it or what words they used. It was like—I don’t want to say this with what’d just happened in Boston, but it’s true—like the words exploded and all that was left was this feeling that everything had changed, but there I was still holding that coffee mug as if it was the same universe. And it wasn’t.”
The scientists, although desperate for more data, were willing to hypothesize that bacteria might be consuming the rust in Mars’ dust to create energy and water, producing methane and a little leftover oxygen as waste, and depositing iron to form balls.
There was life on Mars. In the middle of a battlefield.
It might be the only life anywhere on Mars as far as anyone knew. Or, worse, there might be other kinds of microbes in the dust or on the rocks that were even more fragile than the Martian iron stromatolites. No one dared to risk their tiny lives.
NASA called the president of the United States, who called the president of China, who immediately agreed to call off the game. The White House held a joint press conference with Beijing. It was the news of the decade, if not the century: Life on Mars! No more fighting. “We both pledge to protect that newly found life,” the US president said. The Chinese president repeated the same thing in Chinese.
“But,” Czolgolz told her staff as they watched the press conference, “no one’s running River Charles. No one has to. Those guys were good. It won’t stop fighting until it’s dead. We gotta kill it.”
“The battle’s still on,” showrunner Karim realized. “Now it’s all of us against a zombie robot on Mars. We have to win as fast as we can with as little damage to the environment as possible. Now that’s going to be a show!”
In addition, whoever had targeted the River Charles team might target the others. Police and military guards posted around the Knight and Hollywood headquarters vastly outnumbered the actual staff members.
“No pressure, hey?” recalled Deka, Hollywood’s AI expert. “We opened up constant four-way communication, the three war rooms plus the ex-Charles staff, planning as fast as we could. Ours in Los Angeles had wall-sized screens that linked to everyone everywhere, and we called in Chinese interpreters and translators, even though they had their own in China, just so there’d be no delay. We needed brand new plans.”
Originally, the Knight had hoped to confuse its opponents’ sensors with its matte black finish and halo of solar panels to make its core hard to identify until it got close enough to use sharp-edged weapons. Zhongguo had planned to use speed to ram, damage, and knock over other robots. Hollywood meant to use dust-filled projectiles to stun opponents and limit their sensors until it could approach and attack with its arrowhead fuselage.
No one knew how River Charles had planned to fight. Its team had at one point considered explosive projectiles or electrical discharges to damage opponents’ equipment—survivors knew that much. They agreed it probably had the most sophisticated weapons of all.
The sun had set at Arsia Mons. The robots depended on solar power to move, so they waited as teams in China and the US labored regardless of the hour on Earth. A little before Martian sunrise, they announced their plan. Hollywood would approach and attack. From two meters away, it would throw some dust and begin ramming. If it didn’t succeed, it would at least make an attack by Zhongguo easier. That robot was right behind it. The Knight would remain hidden, the final weapon.
“We’d have to move as fast as we could. I mean we could see it, like a car parked down the block,” Deka said. “We had the route planned, avoiding the rocks because they were obstacles that could trip us, not because they were alive. We couldn’t surprise River Charles. As soon as we moved, it would react. What surprised us was that River Charles had reached the battlefield, then it didn’t move at all. We hoped it had somehow failed and died. But we were pretty sure it was a fighting tactic, some sort of trap.”
It was. Just before the Martian dawn, River Charles moved suddenly, closing the space between it and Hollywood in a couple of minutes. An armature reached out and touched Hollywood at a connection between the solar panels and the electrical system. River Charles released a high-voltage electrical charge. Hollywood died, electrocuted, alone, silent, and in the dark.
“That’s our best guess, anyway,” Nik said. “Suddenly, our robot stopped cold. We never heard from it again.” He looked up.
“We cried. I cried. I can’t remember ever crying before. We kept trying everything we could, every system, every subsystem, back doors. Just after sunrise, Zhongguo saw River Charles pulling away from Hollywood and charging at Zhongguo. Now it was China’s problem. We kept trying to revive our guy. We never did.”
Zhongguo had less than thirty seconds to prepare for battle. Its program sent it charging right for River Charles. A crash at that speed could cause minor damage to an Earth automobile, but these were armored robots. They’d survive unscathed, but Zhongguo would aim at the weak spots or the best angle to tip it over. No one doubted Chinese military cleverness.
At the last moment, River Charles veered away in a movement as graceful and exquisitely balanced as a ballet dancer. Zhongguo rushed past but skidded to a stop and reversed, aiming at River Charles again, much closer. River Charles dodged again and backed up into a field of big living rocks.
Engineers on Earth had already sent up new instructions, warning Zhongguo about River Charles’ stun weapon, knowing that by the time their instructions reached the robot, the fight might be over. They were right.
Zhongguo charged, and the wheels on its left side rose up one after another to dodge a rock. River Charles pivoted. Zhongguo stopped dead, inches away, too close to ram. River Charles shot out an armature to touch a wheel and delivered a shock. The wheel motors were designed to cope with rough terrain, not tiny lightning bolts. The motors shorted out.
But Zhongguo simply lifted up the wheel from the ground and backed off so fast it raised up dust. It shifted as it moved to ram again, and sprang forward. River Charles backed away but not quite fast enough. The robots struck each other, knocking each other off-balance, and it looked as if Zhongguo’s faster speed would give it the equilibrium to remain upright. But both its back wheels hit rocks. It tipped and wavered.
River Charles rushed up in an instant and zapped another wheel. Then another.
The wounded Chinese robot, as viewed by River Charles’ still-broadcasting cameras, struggled to push itself upright. One of the good wheels spun in the dust. Another pushed hard enough to bring the robot to level. But that was all it could do. All three wheels on one side were dead. Zhongguo stood immobile but impotent. Humiliated.
What had been planned for years was over in seconds.
River Charles rolled toward the battlefield, but on the way it reached out to zap a metallic rock the size and shape of a wheel. The rock sparked. The dust on it jumped a few millimeters.
“Did it hurt the rock?” China’s announcer, Deng, shouted to someone off-stage. A man’s voice answered in Chinese, too faint to make out the words. Her face became even more pained.
“Yes,” she translated.
River Charles reached out and shocked another rock as it rolled along.
“It might mistake them for wheels,” she said, each word trembling as if she were announcing a loved one’s death. She listened to the man off-camera, then continued. “It can’t do this forever without depleting its electrical charge. In order to fight, it must dedicate its energy to motion. But if it isn’t defeated, if it emerges victorious, nothing will keep it from attacking all the living rocks.”
Whatever would happen next, Zhongguo could only observe.
The Martian Knight stood waiting. But night fell as they were still a good fifty meters apart. Its human team made plans throughout the Martian night.
Deka spent the night working with Czolgolz.
“He wanted revenge against the bomber,” she said. “And he knew everything about AI. He was what we needed.”
River Charles, they agreed, couldn’t zap wheels it couldn’t identify, or zap anything it couldn’t spot. In a word, the plan was deceit.
At sunrise, River Charles saw Zhongguo but not the Knight. A small black cinder cone rose where the Knight had been: it had raised its solar panels into a peak, and black banners had popped out on its sides to produce a shape like a cone.
Cameras on River Charles spun around, sending its view back to Earth. It had to know the Knight was present. It crept forward, apparently on guard. Suddenly, not far from that little black cinder cone, what seemed like a rock began to race toward Charles, a small black disk like an old-fashioned robot household vacuum cleaner.
The Martian Knight team members were finally ready to talk on the air.
“It’s a squire!” Czolgolz announced to the world. “We weren’t going to send the Knight up there alone.” It was accompanied by a battery-powered foam plastic box on wheels.
River Charles raced toward the disk, and its big wheels covered ground faster, but as maneuverable as it was, the lightweight squire could outdo it. The squire skidded to a stop in a cloud of dust. From River Charles’ point of view, it briefly disappeared.
The dust settled. Several rocks sat there. Charles seemed uncertain. It reached out a probe toward a real rock, a live one. Before it could touch it, the squire rushed at Charles, weaving between its wheels, and stopped a little beyond reach.
Zhongguo’s video feed showed that the cinder cone had begun to inch away from Charles.
Meanwhile, Charles chased the squire, which zipped around in evasive triangles. Finally the robot stood still, perhaps recalculating. After two long minutes, the squire moved in an arc around it, stopping on the side farthest from the Knight, which continued to inch back. Charles still stood still. The squire came closer, then raced beneath the big robot.
“The goal,” Czolgolz announced, “is to exhaust Charles.”
But Charles seemed to have figured that out. Or it was too confused to react. Finally it moved lightning quick, backing up and striking the squire with an armature that discharged an electric shock. A thin column of smoke rose up. But the squire’s plastic housing had merely scorched and melted. Charles waited. When it finally thought the squire was dead, it began to look around.
The undead squire dashed a meter away, trying to draw Charles away from the Knight. Charles pursued, then stopped. Its camera swung around.
“This is a battle of the batteries,” Czolgolz said. “The squire can only go a few more minutes longer. We don’t know how good Charles’ batteries are.”
Suddenly, a stentorian voice was back, as if from the dead.
“It sees me,” the Martian Knight said.
After a moment, Czolgolz said: “We uploaded the Hollywood robot’s narration software into the Knight. But I don’t know what that means, ‘It sees me.’ Or why it didn’t start talking until now. It was supposed to start sooner.”
“River Charles sees me,” the robot repeated, “but I’ll pretend I haven’t noticed.”
“The Knight’s supposed to hack the other robot’s broadcasts,” she said. “Maybe it did. We’ll know in twenty minutes, but that might be too late.”
The squire raced back to Charles and banged on a wheel, desperate for attention. Charles ignored it.
“River Charles,” the Knight said, “is planning to attack. It needs to find the fastest route to get to me. And I need to prepare. Please excuse the silence.”
The squire stopped moving. In fact, no one seemed to be moving.
“Here’s my plan,” the Knight finally said. “Obviously, I have to protect my wheels. But to win, I must deactivate its arm with the shocks. Then I can attack at will. Charles may wish to spend a cycle recharging its batteries. I’m fully charged, which gives me an advantage.”
The Knight raised its solar panels. It pulled in the black banners that had disguised its shape. It extended its sword-like armatures. It crept forward. Charles had to be seeing this. But it didn’t react.
Suddenly Charles lunged. It swerved around a big rock and didn’t seem to be aiming directly at the Knight. It was going to pass it at close range.
The Knight kept creeping forward. Then, as Charles was almost there, it spun to face it as it went past. Charles apparently had meant to get close to its wheels. The Knight was protecting them.
“Come and get me!” The Knight held out weapons at all sides.
Charles tried to back up. The squire moved under a wheel and blocked it like a wedge. Charles spun its wheels for an instant, then sprang forward, circling the Knight, which kept itself facing its opponent. Charles weaved. Then it lunged. One of the Knight’s swords parried its armature. Charles pulled it back and tried to retreat. The Knight continued to attack, swinging swords at Charles’ arms and axles. Sparks flew.
This was the kind of battle everyone on Earth had been waiting for.
A box on Charles opened. A cloud of metallic flakes flew at the Knight. They struck the camera and its lens.
“I can’t see.” The Knight’s visual feed went black.
Zhongguo’s feed showed Charles pausing, waiting for the flakes to settle.
“Zhongguo is acting as my eyes,” the Knight said. “But does River Charles know this? I doubt it. That gives me an advantage.”
The Knight moved forward, swinging wildly. Charles moved off to the side, trying to approach the wheels. The Knight kept swinging as if it didn’t know that Charles had moved.
Charles reached for a wheel. A flag dropped down in front of it. Charles hesitated. The Knight swiveled and charged, swords fixed like bayonets. It rammed and continued to push, its wheels throwing up dust. Its swords kept moving, probing and poking. Two swords crossed in front of an armature, pinning it in place.
Charles tried to move, but the squire jammed a wheel. Charles’ feed showed flailing arms coming at it, then faded into static, revived for a moment, then faded into darkness.
“My opponent is out of energy,” Knight said. “And it’s damaged. My job now is to make sure it will never move again. But first know that I could see all along. I covered the camera with a cap.”
With that, its visual feed resumed.
“I claim victory in the Battle of Arsia Mons!”
It poked and pried at Charles, inserting a blade into joints and gaps where bundles of wires were exposed. It cut them, one by one. It took many long minutes. It was like watching torture.
“I want you to know,” it said as it worked, “that these actions give me no pleasure. River Charles was an honorable opponent. I wish it could be repaired. But perhaps I can leave it here, functional, so it can send data to Earth. This is a beautiful planet, but so mysterious. It has life, we have learned. I want to learn more. My new mission has begun, exploring this place and befriending its residents on behalf of the people of the planet Earth.”
On Earth, programmers explained that the robot assembled speech on its own, but from pieces like a jigsaw puzzle without appreciating the picture it was creating. Whatever sense it made, they insisted, it owed to linguistic programming linked with machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Yet, the Knight spoke coherently. When it was done with River Charles, it stopped and slowly turned its camera toward the horizon.
“Hello, Martians. We did not come in peace. I’m sorry for the damage done to you. I’ll be your friend and protector from now on.”
Czolgolz broke in after a long minute of silence. “The Martian Knight will be formally turned over to NASA, as agreed, with our full cooperation in every aspect. The battle is over. We dedicate this victory to our late friends who created the River Charles Warrior, and to the inhabitants of Mars.”
She turned off the microphone and turned toward the rest of the crew.
“Now let’s get us some champagne and party!”
The party came five days later after technical loose ends had been tidied up, lawyers consulted, security forces reassured, and a search initiated for Cornog Sietsema, the missing Martian Knight CEO. The Fifth Planet team came up from Hollywood, and the Chinese team sent representatives. Czolgolz, to start the festivities, opened a bottle of champagne, raised it up, and poured it onto the floor.
“This is for River Charles, our brothers and sisters. I give them the honor of the victory, no matter what that damn Martian Knight says.”
The party lasted for two full days. Musicians competed to play, and celebrities and politicians yearned to attend.
Who exactly won, then? The Martian Knight robot says it won. But to declare itself a winner, it has to have a self.
“Some people say machines shouldn’t be personified because they aren’t living beings,” says Leo Finlayson of NASA, the Knight’s new boss. “Still, what does it take to be alive in some sense? Maybe the answer is how long a thing can go without instructions, whether it can live independently. Can the Knight live on its own on Mars? Yes. If we never communicated with it again, it could continue to exist, react, and cope with its environment and tasks for a long while. That’s intelligence. That might be life, artificial life, something we never expected to find on Mars. I think we need to respect that. And we should let it keep talking. It deserves free speech.”
Nik Deka, Hollywood’s AI expert, had merged with the Knight’s team at the last moment. He doesn’t consider himself a loser, only a survivor. “It could have been me being blown up. But they targeted River Charles. I wish I knew why.” He plans to use his skills, cash, and connections to start a company to create robots for search-and-rescue operations, such as self-flying helicopters to rescue stranded victims in fires or self-piloting boats in floods.
He and his wife are expecting a daughter, and they plan to name it Antonia, after Antonia Kass Bele.
Czolgolz was hired by NASA to help direct the Martian Knight on its new mission. Two weeks after the battle, she married her faithful Mars Fighting Words reporter, Jubal Kasravi. A scale model of the Knight carried their rings to the altar.
Showrunner Petra Karim’s company, OptikNirv, is now the entertainment industry’s undisputed heavyweight champ. China and the United States have lowered their level of mutual animosity. JAlesine Games has branched out into educational games that are changing the way the world learns.
The FBI says it will make an announcement soon regarding the bombing. International organized crime and missing CEO Cornog Sietsema seem to be key suspects.
The Knight is still on Mars in the caldera of the extinct volcano Arsia Mons, gently rummaging among its rocks and sand for signs of life. So far it has found four distinct species of microorganisms including a sort of tiny lichen, and it has only explored an area the size of a basketball court.
Although programmers believe they could silence it, they let it speak at will.
“Good morning from Mars!” it says each day at sunrise. On a recent morning, it added: “Today I’ve been asked to travel northwest, where we might find new life-forms. Life probably entered through a breach in the caldera wall to the northwest. Come with me and explore. Perhaps we’ll find new friends. I’m happy to be here!”
Each day, millions of people check its site or watch a public feed, still on screen in many places, to see and hear the latest news, and to enjoy its adventure.
Who won? The Martian Knight seems sure it won more than a battle: it achieved a meaningful existence, a life of peace, purpose, and discovery. No one expected such a spectacular conclusion to what had started as a mere game, and no one expected such joy in its triumph on Mars.