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ACIN: A Candle in the Night, the Final Mars Lander

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      ACIN’s wheels crunched through the rough and rocky red soil beneath its carbon fibre tires. With two of its cameras pointed ahead, staring and scanning, a third watched where it had been, as the tracks from the heavy rover became less distinct in the Martian wind.
     Determined to find its next target, ACIN continued to scan the horizon, waiting for its system to recognize the glint of metal.
     The WAS Believers on Earth would claim ACIN was too advanced in its autonomous decision making. That is, they would say that, if they had any clue that ACIN even existed. ACIN’s creators, however, were worried that ACIN would not be trained well enough to be able to survive its mission to navigate Mars alone, without more than the occasional life-signaling beep to its home planet, disguised as a wayward signal from the Mars Odyssey orbiter, far above ACIN’s head. Yet, ACIN could dodge the rocks ahead of his path with ease, no human calculations or careful radio frequencies required.
     While it was true that maneuvering it’s large body through the soft soils of the red planet was not the most ideal mode of travel, ACIN made do with what he was provided. Being the length of a semi truck, but nearly square, he was an odd being of a rover. With his cameras all positioned far above him, or within his payload bay to stare down his quarry, and large heat radiators extending from his slightly shorter sides like vestigial wings, he may not have been the prettiest sight to see, but, for his prey, he would be a sight for their sore, weary eyes.
     As ACIN drudged through the dust, his equipment churned, always whirring, always on, always thinking of his next move. The oxygen pipes that poked out at low angles from his rectangular body hissed as they always do, reminding him that his ever-important payload bay remained clean and sterile.

     Just as he approached the last known whereabouts of his intended target, ACIN caught a glint of glass through the red dust. An internal beep signaled to him that his carbon collection tank was full. The loudest whirring slowed to a stop as oxygen no longer could be broken from the CO2 in the air and the carbon saved for his replicator. Perfect timing, he seemed to think, if a robot like him could have a unique thought.
     As he meticulously cataloged a panoramic view of his location, he checked the file for this particular target.

          Location: Ares Vallis
          Target(s): Multiple; Rover (Sojourner) and Lander (Mars Pathfinder)
          Last operational: 1997 BTE
          Lander: Standard Oxygen Scrubber upgrade, and blank Earth signal to UW Mothership
          Rover: Standard Scout upgrade.
          Expected damage:
          Lander: Communications failure
          Rover: None. Possibly lost in soil around the lander instead of docked.
          Rover Target size: 65 centimeters; 11.5 kilograms
     Detailed upgrade program to follow, memory bank transfer to begin once target is within the upgrade bay...

     Since the lander required likely communications work, and the sun was beginning to waver towards the horizon, ACIN thought it best to find the missing little rover.
     As he began to gently nudge the Martian soil with one of his front wheels, ACIN wished again that his creators would have given him the ability to upgrade himself, instead of just the sleeping husks of the robots that had come before him. Right now, he knew he could crush the littlest rover on the his search list with his tire, but he had no better way to shift through the soft soil and rocks.
     Finally, his wheel met resistance, and he nudged out the dirt from a shape similar to the rover.
     ACIN crawled over the rover, careful to test the soil to avoid accidental contact with the unfortunate lander while he helped its previous payload.
     Once positioned above the rover, as a bird would to sit on the egg in its nest, ACIN opened the doors on the bottom of his body that lead to his payload bay. Four small arms descended, carefully grasping the tiniest rover on the planet, shaking gently to dislodge it from the red soil. Once free, the vibration increased, releasing the majority of the pesky dust from the prize. Then, slowly, the arms raised Sojourner into the bay to begin the long process.

     It would take ACIN long into the night for Sojourner’s repairs and upgrades. Even though it was so small, that did not imply ease. If anything, it implied difficulty in shrinking the upgrade parts small enough so the rover could still maneuver easily.
     Measurements confirmed by a quick laser-scan, ACIN set his 3D printed to converting the stored carbon into useful components for Sojourner. His bay began an automated cleaning regimen for the rover, blowing air across its frame to remove the rest of the Martian dust and sterile the bay once more.
     ACIN pondered briefly what would be useful for a scout, and settled on upgraded wheels with an additional two in the center for a total of six, on the same tilting axel he had himself. New solar panels, along with a battery capacity like Sojourner’s original designers could only dream. Additionally, he had in his storage, neatly stowed, a new sensor set and upgrades communication system, so Sojourner could send him messages through UW Mothership. Both of these were specially designed for Sojourner by ACIN’s creators’ as they would not leave the most important components to chance.
     On this thought, ACIN realized he was past his daily log update transmission to UW Mothership. As he composed the day’s log and the upload began, he was grateful for the Undercover Watch Mothership that had brought him to this planet. Like himself, she was autonomous, but not nearly to his capabilities. It still pleased him to know, on the loneliest nights between the jobs, that there was a friend up there, drifting pass far above his sensors.
     The completed upload notification removed him from his thoughts, and his processors turned back to the prime directive.
     Pulling apart the littlest rover was easier than his instructions implied. Once the wheels were removed, it was easy to open the body and clean out the remainder of the red dirt. Once clean, the rover’s internal system was nearly gutted and replaced with the prefabricated components sent from Earth.
      Its body closed and sealed well from the elements by ACIN’s superior caulks and greases, ACIN began to make his own adjustments to the rover.
     He added stalks of his own design to mount the two new cameras on.
     His optimized, carbon-fiber wheel rack was added in place of the lightweight wheels with which Sojourner was originally equipped.
     ACIN worried about Sojourner’s small stature compared to the other rovers, so he added an additional arm to its top that extended to nearly double the littlest rover’s length, both to help lever the small body should it become stuck in the rough terrain, and to act as a versatile way to interact with its environment in a way most of the other rovers already enjoyed.
     After securing the solar panels in place, ACIN added what he liked to think of as a brush that could be used by the new arm to clean the martian dust off of the panels. Honestly, ACIN was never sure why the humans never previously gave these solar-powered robots the ability to clean themselves sooner, rather than waiting haphazardly for a passing dust devil. While analyzing the upgrade logs for practice during the twelve month journey, ACIN realized this, and began to model his first autonomous upgrade for his charges.
     One final physical change came in the form of a small plate welded beneath the windworn old flag on Sojourner’s body. The old metal patch may be almost too worn to read, but the new panel looked crisp in newly printed carbon, showing two simply figures: IF .
     Finally, ACIN gave Sojourner his final parting gift. An umbilical wire slithered between them, connecting the massive tank to the tiny, original Martian explorer, as if it was merely a child in the womb. Then, as all mothers do, ACIN passed to Sojourner all of his knowledge.
     Once complete, the transfer gave Sojourner the ability to learn autonomously, and know what ACIN had already learned. Yet, like all children, Sojourner would go off into the world alone, and learn different things that ACIN would never experience. This was the true goal of his creators, to give the gift of autonomy and pass along knowledge forevermore, whether it be to human or robot.

     Upgrade complete, ACIN felt his machine’s begin to whir to a soft hum. The sun was beginning to rise on the bright Martian day as his bay doors opened once more.
     The four tiny arms lowered down the new rover, allowing it to be reborn onto the planet it would come to love as much as ACIN.
     Sojourner was already looking around, taking in the world, before her wheels ever touched the red soil. She chirped happily at ACIN, as if to thank him for this new lease on life.
     As a final thought, ACIN sent a information transfer to her. A location, someone both far, and yet close, to where they currently rested.
     With another chirp, Sojourner looked eager to begin. “6.084°S 239.061°E”, she sent back, to confirm her adders were working properly. He hummed an affirmative, and she spun in a circle.
     A few more beeps back and forward between the rovers commenced, as Sojourner adjusted to her newfound abilities. During this period, ACIN began the tedious work of turning the buried Pathfinder lander into an oxygen scrubber.
     By the time he was complete with the secondary upgrade, there was no point in further delaying the inevitable. She sent him a final beep of farewell, of well wishes, of thanks, before disappearing over a dusty ridge, onto her own Martian mission.
     Immediately, he almost wished she would return, loneliness setting in before the sun even completed its rotation through the heavens.

     ACIN waited a few more moments until Sojourner was further from his radio communication.
     He sent his single beep, a glitch in the code, to the Mars Odyssey Orbiter. His note to his home.

          One more complete.