“Maisie, I think something’s burning – could you check the stove?”

“Sure thing.” I motioned to Birungi, hoping she would turn back around and pay attention to the decorations she was trying to hang, instead of craning her neck to look back over her shoulder into the domi’s kitchen and making the stepladder teeter under her. I could have told her her shiitake stroganoff was at risk a couple of minutes ago – just because I don’t smell the way a human does, doesn’t mean I switch off my olfactory sensors altogether when I’m not at work – but Bee was frazzled enough as it was, and I’d figured we had a few minutes before things went critical.

“Thanks, honey, you’re a lifesaver.”

“I’ll add it to my bill.” Chuckling softly, I switched off my vac-finger and hurried over to turn down the heat under the pan, cranking up the heat sink a notch just to be on the safe side.

“Is this even, do you think?”

Birungi was holding a mass of what looked like pink lace up to one corner of the large viewer in the living room. The viewer was set to its default, the view outside the domi; it had been a beautiful Martian afternoon, but even though the sky would still be bright for a while, the evening dust devils were starting their wander through Bradbury.

“It looks fine to me, though you might want to adjust the color filter on the viewer – unless you see both those pinks as the same?”

Birungi leaned over for a look. “Oh, damn. You’re right.”

She stuck the lace to the wall, where it dangled amid the hearts and what I’d been told were “cupids” that festooned the domi. I spotted an eddy of dust in a corner of the kitchen, and reactivated my vac to take care of it while Bee fiddled with the viewer settings.

“Oh, thanks, Maisie – damn the dust.”

Damn the dust was a form of verbal punctuation among human and android colonists alike. Almost 75 percent of the first human generation on Mars had succumbed to lung diseases no one had ever seen before, before the colonists realized exactly what they were up against. Androids – like me – were part of the solution; we didn’t need to breathe, so we were better suited for outdoor work. And the humans’ domis were made as airtight as they could possibly be… but even the best airlocks couldn’t keep up with the damned dust entirely.

“No problem – say, did you get the ‘lock fixed?”

“Not like I could just let that go!” Birungi laughed. “Maintenance was by this morning. Does this look better?”

“That’s much better.” The sky was actually still at least half a nanometer to the cool, but I was fairly sure humans couldn’t see that, and Bee’s intended dinner guest was definitely human.

Birungi set down the remote and turned on her heel, looking around the room. “What do you think, Maisie? Good?”

I followed her gaze around the room – lace, cupids, hearts and all. “You know human holidays aren’t my thing, but I think it’s very pretty.” I wasn’t lying – when it came to aesthetic judgments, I was more than happy to let my programming supply a “normal human” response as if it were my own.

“I wonder why people stopped celebrating Valentine’s Day.” Birungi folded up the stepladder and tucked it back into its niche next to the airlock door. “It’s not like people stopped loving each other, you know?”

I shrugged. If human holidays were outside my wheelhouse, human religious crusades were on another planet entirely, and I wasn’t about to pronounce on a crusade that had ended a hundred years before my component metals were synthesized. “I don’t know, but I think you’ve hit on the perfect theme for a romantic dinner. What time is Donal supposed to get here?”

“He said he’d be here at 1700 – oh, and here it is almost 1650!”

I couldn’t help smiling at Birungi’s sudden alarm, the way she started tugging at her clothes, smoothing her springy foam of black curls that wouldn’t be smoothed by anything short of a clothes press. “You look wonderful, and he’s going to fall for you like Phobos fell for the carbon miners.”

“You think so?” Birungi’s hands didn’t settle much, but she smiled.

“I know so. Trust me, androids have a sixth sense about these things.” It helped to be able to smell pheromones with a sensitivity well beyond the human olfactory range, of course. Donal didn’t stand a chance. “And I think I’ll leave you to it, unless you have anything else you need help with?”

“Oh, no – thank you so much, Maisie, I don’t know what I would have done without you!”

I waited until I heard the doorvac sucking the dust-laden air out of the ‘lock before setting out for the edge of Bradbury, just to be sure Maintenance had down their job properly. Once I saw dust spilling out of the catch, though, I turned and sprinted for the garage. I had an errand to run, and this afternoon was the perfect time for it.

I could have run all the way out to the edge of the canyon, of course. I’m built for it. But as my human friends are fond of saying, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Even an android has to worry about dust in her joints, and buggybubbles keep the worst of it out, even in a sandstorm.

I had a map – a handheld antiquity so old it was a 3-D transcription of an actual 2-D, but the landmarks I’d been able to verify all checked out. I juggled to keep it upright with one hand and steered the bubble with the other, as mostly flat land gave way to scattered boulders, and gradually to dunes.

When I’d been assembled, the dunes had been well to the west of Bradbury, but the bow wave has crept closer over the years. Another century or so and we might have to abandon the colony, at least for a while.

But if I was lucky, the bow wave had passed what I was looking for.

When the map told me I was close – “told me” the old-fashioned way, I had to look at it – I shut it off and sensored it the rest of the way. I thought I recognized a boulder halfway to the horizon; the survey photos gave it an odd shape, like the snapped-off blade of a wind-turbine, only with an ear, or maybe a nose. And what I was looking for was probably somewhere on its leeward side.

Finally, I switched off the bubble and went on foot. There was some dust – though surely I was imagining that I heard my servos cursing as I slogged through it – and as I got closer, there were times when a footstep actually crunched on bare rock.

Suddenly inspired, I switched on my metals sensor. I usually used it for iron mining, but a few tweaks set it hunting for titanium and aluminum, metals not normally detectable on the Martian surface.

Bingo.

Whatever that meant.

Now that I knew what to look for, I could see flat surfaces that had to be dust-coated solar panels, and a stalk with a rectangular growth at the top, set with circles. Lenses.

I worked quickly – I was losing the light – but I had to be careful as well as quick, and by the time I’d uncovered the relic, it was nearly dark. I had to switch on my forehead lamp for the last bit, reversing my vac-finger to blow dust out of crevices that probably hadn’t seen any kind of light in hundreds of years.
And when my light hit one of the solar panels, and I heard a faint, grinding whir…

…and when the lenses finally tilted down to look at me…

Don’t let anyone tell you MA-Cs don’t have feelings.

“Hello, Granddad,” I choked.

And as I’d planned, I started to sing.

“Happy birthday to you…”

Advertisements