Looking back, I wonder if I missed a sign. Had I caught it early enough, could I have prevented the whole thing?
I was having dinner and Ash was recharging when he first mentioned tin foil.
“They call it tin foil, but it is actually aluminum foil,” he said. I put down the nourishment packet and considered my companion.
Ash is actually A.S.H., the letters stand for Android Simulating Human and we have shared this outpost for two years, five months, and 22 days. I am Lara Blackmar, chief engineer and geologist, an average height and weight human female. Where I am covered in fragile skin and muscles, Ash is sheathed in a flexible polymer compound in a soft grey color. I have two brown eyes, and Ash has a vision input screen that wraps around the top of his robotic head. He is humanoid, with limbs that end in a careful approximation of feet and hands, except they are more dexterous than my flesh and bone appendages. He talks, sometimes too much in my opinion, through a mouth that is frozen in a sort of half smile. His gently parted lips give a glimpse of the polished white rectangles meant to resemble teeth.
“Interesting,” I replied and waited to see if he would continue. Ash performs all of our data processing. He maintains our solar generators and tracks the routine operations that keep our habitat up and running. He does not chit chat.
“In the past, they packaged meals in tin foil, but it gave the food an unpleasant taste. Tin is the 49th most common element on Earth,” he told me.
“Yes, I know,” I gestured toward my forehead. “Geologist here, remember?” Ash has never been to Earth. He was constructed by our employer, the Interplanetary Mining Company. We were stationed here together on an exploratory mission that was supposed to end four months ago, but our communication systems went down in a dust storm. I hoped to patch up the mangled tower but so far the stubborn wind continued to blast over the barren rust colored landscape. It howled and wailed, shaking the sides of the dome that is both home and laboratory for us.
“Would you like music?” Ash asked.
“Sure, something calm,” I said.
“Vivaldi? Four Seasons?”
“That will work,” I replied as I finished squeezing out the rest of my dinner and the sound of bright cheerful strings filled the air.
“The first phonograph recording was made using tin foil,” Ash said.
“Oh yeah?” This was something I didn’t know, and I asked Ash to explain. We lapsed into what would pass as after dinner conversation. Ash described the process by which Thomas Edison wrapped a grooved cylinder with tin foil and placed indentations on the surface to record sound.
“The recordings did not last. The indentations wore down with each turn of the cylinder,” Ash said.
“Oh,” I remarked, thinking how sad to lose those sounds. I wondered if the inventor knew of their eventual loss, the smoothing of the surface a sacrifice each time the recording played. I asked Ash to set our sound system to auto-play, and the concerto continued on through Autumn and Winter while I slept. Outside the harsh wind beat against our habitat, an unwelcome visitor hammering for admission.
The next day I suited up and took the rover out to the tower site. The wind, while still whistling and gusting, had died down and I hoped to get a better look at the damage. I would record video to review with Ash back at the base. The rover was enclosed but as I bumped along over rocks the size of toasters I had to keep clearing a fine skim of powdery red dust from my face plate.
When I finally reached the tower I could see it toppled over, the metal struts sheared off on one side and cables whipping about like black snakes. I circled the mess and recorded what I could as the wind pushed against me. I decided to head back to base while I could still see to navigate the rover.
As I topped the last rise I saw the rounded hump of our dome, and a figure standing outside it, leaning into the wind. It was Ash. His hands shielded the sides of his vision screen and he reminded me of some ancient prairie woman watching the horizon.
“Damn it,” I cursed and clicked on the communicator. “Get inside now!”
Ash does not need the delicate balance of oxygen and nitrogen that I do, but I worried that the invasive dust would damage his circuitry. I hurried through the airlock and decontamination port behind him, and then instructed him to run a performance scan.
“Why were you outside?” I asked. The lights over his data ports flashed but Ash did not reply. I left him alone to finish the scan while I downloaded the tower video. As I settled into the rolling chair in front of the wall of computer screens in the lab, I noticed small twisted bits of silver scattered across the floor. I picked one up and saw that they were pieces of shiny foil, probably shredded from the emergency reflective blankets we had stocked in our supply closet.
“You were gone three hours and thirty-eight minutes.”
I jumped, startled as Ash glided up behind me. It isn’t easy to sneak around in a 1200 foot space, but he had managed to do just that.
“What do you think of this?” I asked, motioning to the video cycling across the screen in front of us. “What options do we have for the repair?”
“Tin foil was used in early human dentistry, to fill cavities. Tin resists corrosion,” Ash answered.
I didn’t know if Ash was suggesting we use tin foil to repair the communication grid, or if he had somehow got stuck on a loop. Either way I didn’t see a good outcome for us. We stood there, silent except for the wind outside. After a minute or two I got the feeling we were waiting for something. The wind whistled and sighed sounds that almost sounded like words, like someone hissing a drawn out “here.”
Later, after I collapsed into bed, I heard Ash rustling around by the computer console, sweeping up the bits of foil. As sleep dropped over me I heard the little beeps that sounded as Ash shut down for the evening.
The nights on this mining planet are longer than Earth nights, and the day light hours are shorter. Even after a good nine or ten hours of sleep I wake up in darkness to the noise of Ash rebooting for the day. This time I woke up to crimson tinted light streaming in from above. I flung off the covers and put my feet down onto a cold floor. My chest heaved as my heart raced, and I wondered if somehow the wind had knocked out a filtration screen.
“Ash!” I called out. I stumbled through the dome and found Ash sprawled out on the floor next to the supply closet, one of the foil reflective blankets clasped in his hand. I shook him, as though he were a human man I could wake up with a touch.
“Ash!” I shouted again as, with some effort, I turned him onto his side so I could reach the control panel on his back. I opened it to find his circuitry covered in a fine red powder dark as blood where it rubbed off onto my fingers. I closed the panel and left him there, figuring I better inspect our habitat systems. If I couldn’t get the air filtration back online it wouldn’t matter that Ash was down.
My next shock came when I opened the supply closet. Over half of my nutrition packs lay empty. The packs were torn apart, with their shiny heating elements scattered about the floor. I recalled Ash moving around while I drifted off to sleep the night before. If I couldn’t find where he dumped out the contents I would have to ration out the remaining packets and hope they lasted until Interplanetary sent a rescue team.
The air filtration system kicked on, then died with a rattle. I felt dizzy, drunk, and I remembered these were symptoms of nitrogen narcosis. I stumbled over to lie down beside Ash.
“I wish we had Vivaldi,” I said as I pulled at the survival blanket. I thought of that tin foil phonograph, winding down, the sound fading. The more it played the fainter it grew until finally, completely smooth, the music stopped. I wrapped the foil blanket around my head and covered my ears but it didn’t help. I could still hear the wind.