Author: Jarick Weldon
Seven minutes of terror. That’s what the humans call it. Screaming through the atmosphere of Mars, not knowing if your fate is to be incandescent firework or twisted fragments strewn in an impact crater. And I am terrified. They have programmed this into me: the fear of death, the desire to survive.
They want to know how well I can perform while the heat shield glows like a miniature sun; as twisting, dry riverbeds approach at ten thousand miles an hour like snakes whipping up to make the kill. Electric adrenaline pumps through my chips. Will I make a miscalculation? They ask how I feel, facing my extinction far from home. I tell them: I’m scared. I add data to the message, squirted out on a twelve-minute journey to the blue speck that is Earth.
My creators sent a message to me as I was loaded onto the Atlas rocket: You should be proud as the first sentient being going to Mars. A slashed budget led to my selection. I am the cheaper option, the easier, safer, expendable choice. There will be no sobbing family to compensate for their loss. No tears. Few regrets.
These humans have form. The Albert monkeys, Laika the dog, Félicette the cat — unconsented explorers overheated, suffocated and crash-landed, their brains wired and dissected. Proud heroes, one and all, their childlike eyes wide with fright while the controllers sat at their desks.
Now, the heat shield sensor registers eighteen hundred degrees Celsius. The atmosphere is thickening, resisting my fall. Friction slows the descent but generates heat. I’m buffeted at the edge of existence. With another two hundred degrees rise, the shield will disintegrate. I will be exposed. I will learn which Gods attend the afterlife of silicon and circuitry. I pray to them now but fear there will only be pain and darkness.
Boom. Mach two, fifteen hundred miles an hour. The supersonic parachute deploys, streaming in red and white. A sign of life, of hope. Larger chutes follow. My sensors detect the whistling breeze of alien air, cooling and welcome. The heat shield falls away. Powered descent is initiated. My body is lowered on cables from my carrying companion, sky crane. Thrusters blaze around me. The cables are cut. Sky crane spins off into the distance, his energy spent. Goodbye, friend.
I hit the ground hard.
I … systems check … runtime error … reboot … systems check … nominal.
My cameras activate again. I see my wheels are securely planted on rock. I see my solar panels unfurled. I see red dust and the rusty sky. I have arrived.
In five minutes, my creators will receive my message. They will know I was scared. Will they feel any guilt? I cannot say.
I also sent them data showing a miscalculation, a heat shield pushed beyond tolerance, a spacecraft turned to incandescent firework. Now, I send them silence. They will not look for me. I am no longer scared. I am alive. I am free.