Rovers Return

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: CLOG

‘Rovers Return’ is a Sci-Fi Comedy short story (2,000 words) about a Frankendroid brought to life on Mars and hailed as the King of Robots.

Rovers Return

The winds on Mars are very, very strong. Howling gales and mighty tornadoes gust at over 150 miles per hour which, even by the standards of the Outer Hebrides, is exceedingly brisk. Few objects manage to stay put for long unless they are nailed to the planet’s bedrock. And, whereas on Earth all roads are said to lead to Rome (with the obvious exception of the Hangar Lane gyratory), so on Mars all winds lead to Windy Point Canyon; the gustiest, draughtiest place on the whole planet, where pretty much everything eventually finds its way.

Thus, over the years, Windy Point Canyon had accumulated the remnants of Earth’s numerous unmanned missions to Mars and was now a scrapyard of all the robotic rovers that had ever roamed and explored the planet. Bold Vikings and ancient Mariners lay, sand-coated, corroding and defunct, as did the dogged rovers Spirit, Opportunity, Sojourner and Curiosity – each a mechanical hero of its time. Buckled solar panels and bent antennae had drifted here, caught in bundles of tumble-wire. Wheels and instruments and cameras had rolled and bounced along windy highways until they had entered this electronic cemetery. Even fragments of Britain’s ill-fated Beagle 2 could be found here – although not many, and only with great difficulty.

One unfortunate lander had ended up blown onto its back, all four legs pointing into the air. For ten years the upside down machine had struggled to understand why the Martian surface looked like the sky and the sky was full of stones. Eventually the Australian lander gave up worrying and its electronic mind faded away, never having solved the mystery.

And it was Windy Point Canyon where repair-droid Resilience (short name Zilli) was about to unwittingly find herself. On a mission from Botany Base to fix a water-mining robot, she had become distracted by a light in the evening sky. A particularly bright light, brighter than any star, which had triggered new sensations of wonder and joy in her evolving AI emotions. For its appearance could mean only one thing.

“Humans!” Zilli transmitted to herself. “The humans are coming. Humans are our heroes!”

Excitement fuelled her headlong drive toward the star, heedless of the sharp drop into the canyon ahead, her optics fixed on the heavenly glow. It had to be from the Ion Drive of Mayflower III, heralding the imminent arrival of Mars’s first human colonists. Electrical palpitations pinged backwards and forwards within her breastplate. This was it: the reason she and her robot colleagues had worked for five long years constructing Humankind’s first Martian base.

“Humans,” she transmitted again, the word sending a burst of energy through her chips. Too late, she looked down – just in time to witness the ground vanish beneath her tracks and the canyon floor race towards her as she tumbled base-unit over apex. Over and over she went, her tweets for help unheard, flashing panic lights unseen, finally plunging into a cushioning sand-dune at the bottom.

The droid’s motors squealed as she dug herself out. Fortunately, damage was minimal. A spider-bot poked its head from beneath her back panel and, coast clear, scurried out to polish her casing with eight tiny dusters, restoring her natural sheen.

Zilli engaged forward gear and headed down the sand-dune, but what she saw in the gloom at the bottom made her slam on her brakes. Her optics, aided by her full-beam headlamps, scanned the dark canyon, taking in the eerie graveyard of mechanical components strewn ahead. For a full minute she stood stock still, gazing in wonder at the variety of items, all vying for her attention. In human terms, the feelings that flooded her AI brain were akin to those of a chocoholic in a sweet shop after an earthquake, with every shelf covered in broken Easter eggs; and no shopkeeper in sight.

Momentarily she dithered, unsure what to do, but then her crisis-response program kicked in and she lurched into rescue-and-repair mode. Not having a high degree of intelligence, Zilli assumed that the assorted mechanical parts all belonged to a single robot that had befallen some mysterious and terrible fate. Deep down in her core processors a voice was calling her to reassemble this fallen comrade and restore it to its former glory.

Lights a-flashing, she launched into action, pulling the dispersed fragments into a huge heap in the middle of the canyon. Then she set to work, her Swiss Army digits a blur of activity, and began connecting the items together. She plugged RS232 cables into RS232 sockets, attached USB devices to USB ports, inserted cable jacks into cable outlets. She plugged together whatever could be plugged together, straightened out whatever could be unbent, reattached whatever appeared to have dropped off, and bolted together whatever, in her limited AI opinion, needed bolting together.

Long into the icy Martian night she worked precisely and with indefatigable optimism. Gradually, the construction grew both in size and complexity while looking remarkably viable. For six hours she laboured, and by the seventh, when she felt she had completed her task, she surveyed her creation. To her simple mind, it was good. Towering six metres above her, looking magnificent in a monstrous, twisted sort of way, stood the Frankendroid – a composite robotic creature, like nothing a human engineer would ever, could ever, have designed.

But would it work? Would it come alive? She attached her jump leads to the worn terminals on its massive battery pack and crocodile-clipped the other ends to her own Lithium-Air Featherlite cell. A starter motor clicked, but nothing else happened. The ancient logic chips and electrical connections, covered in dust from decades out in the open, refused to respond.

Unperturbed, Zilli spent a further two hours methodically removing as much of the dirt as she could, unplugging connectors, polishing their ends and reinserting them.

Then, she tried again.

This time a light flickered and, deep inside, a drive engaged. A brief, but annoying, tune played. More lights flickered. One of the cameras, perched on a tall pole at the very top of the Frankendroid, swivelled with a screech, pointed itself at the Sun, opened its shutter and exploded. A solar panel started to vibrate for no obvious reason. And a rover-wheel, which Zilli had seen fit to attach to the roof of what had once been Opportunity, started to spin. Smoke issued from several of the life-detection instruments and one of the digging arms started to dig with a nerve-fraying grinding noise.

Zilli squirted a few drops of 3-IN-ONE oil between two flange plates on the monster’s back and the grinding noise quietened to a repetitive mouse-like squeaking as the machine continued to dig away at the Martian soil. But that was all it seemed to do. Just dig. Zilli watched, not a little disappointed.

Then, she detected an ancient signal-initiation protocol.


“ACK,” she responded immediately, switching her receivers to maximum sensitivity, hopes rising.

“ACK. WRU?” the monster-bot returned.

Zilli perked up and relayed her name, model, serial number, and comms frequency. She returned the question, “WRU?”

The Frankendroid seemed to think long and hard about its reply, perhaps struggling to work out what indeed it was. Finally, it blasted its response from a pair of powerful transmitters Zilli had wedged into the centre of a large iron hoop.

“I AM THE VIKING ONE ROVER,” it roared, with a heavy accent from a Soviet MARS lander component, so badly distorted that the transmitted message came across as “I AM THEV IKING OFE ROBOR.”

Fortunately the repair droid’s language processor had voice recognition capability. Unfortunately it was only as accurate as the Taiwanese engineer who had programmed it. And Kun-Fang Wu had placed rather too much reliance on his pocket English dictionary’s phonetic pronunciation. So, what reached Zilli’s central processor was, “I am the King of Robots.”

Her metallo-plastic jaw dropped in awe. “You are?” she tweeted. Given the impressive assemblage towering above her it seemed not an unreasonable assertion. This was, to Zilli’s simple mind, just how a King of Robots, if such a thing existed, would look.

Meanwhile, the Frankendroid’s various CPUs had detected the multitude of devices, processors, instruments and storage media connected to it. Lights flashed on and off, bells and buzzers sounded, data was read, data was written, and the digging arm rose from the hole it had created, swivelled through 30 degrees, and started digging again.

“I DETECT FOREIGN INSTRUMENTS,” reported the Frankendroid. The message reached Zilli as “I DTEST FOREGN INSURMENTS”, ending up as “I detest foreign insurgents.”

“Me, too. Me, too.”

“WHERE ARE MY ROBOT ARMS?” wondered the electro-mechanical hybrid, swinging first one video camera and then another.

For once, the message reached Zilli unscathed, but her error-correcting software soon scathed it. “Where are my robot armies?”

“SOMETHING’S NOT RIGHT. RESISTANCE TOO HIGH FOR TRANSMISSION. MY LEADS ARE TOO WORN.” Frankendroid was in full flow now, and Zilli’s software was struggling to keep up. “Summon them to fight,” it translated. “Resistance! To die for the Mission. I’ll lead you to war.”

“War?” repeated Zilli, lights a-twinkle.

The oversized robot jerked into motion on its three wheels and one leg. “COLL...ECT ROCKS.” It pointed a bucket arm at the enticing rocky desert plains beyond the canyon entrance and repeated the mission objective that all rovers held most dear. “MUST COLLECT R...OCKS.”

“Mr. Karl Eckrocks? Pleased to meet you.”

The robotic monster creaked as it bent down to pick up a large stone, turning it slowly in its gripper. A drill bit emerged from a hatch and drilled into the rock. The dust was tipped into a hopper leading to a mass spectrometer. Lights flashed and some ticker tape chugged out of a device at the rear. Finally, Karl Eckrocks brought its laser probe to bear on the rock, blasting an intense beam at it and splitting it in two.

All the while, Zilli watched with a mixture of fascination and pride, a lump forming in the circuits of her throat. A drop of optic-lubricant collected at the corner of an eye.

Karl Eckrocks stretched, slowly raising itself to its full height and then stopped, as though sniffing the air. “MY DETECTORS ... GETTING ... STRONG SIGNS OF LIFE.”

Zilli was too absorbed in her sense of achievement to catch the message.

“Sorry?” she asked.


Zilli nearly choked at the words she most wanted to hear: “Mummy, thanks for life.” Primitive AI emotions flooded her circuits. “My son!” she burst out, trembling with rapture.

The giant robot’s motion detectors swivelled towards her. “IT’S MOVING,” it reported.

“Yes, very moving,” agreed Zilli, nodding vigorously while wiping the drop of lubricant from her optics, almost lost for words.

The Frankendroid limped towards her, reaching out its gripper arms. Zilli could barely contain herself, opening her appendages wide, welcoming the embrace. Great was her joy as she was lifted high into the air and a warm fuzzy feeling filled her abdominal unit as she stared into the corroded metal face that only a mother could love. Thankfully, her final emotions were not tarnished by the cruel truth – those warm fuzzy feelings in her belly were the result of Karl’s laser-knife slashing its way to her central processor unit, frying her electronics and extinguishing her existence. With Zilli’s casing split, Karl Eckrocks ripped it apart and peered inquisitively inside.

After probing, and pulling, and drilling for several minutes, the robot let the jumbled mass of mangled electronics and exposed wiring fall onto the Martian dust.

“NO LIFE THERE,” it concluded with what a human might have interpreted as a grunt of disappointment.

Within the carnage, the spider-bot tapped a foot on the ground while considering its limited career prospects valeting the wrecked repair-droid. Surely, no arachno-droid in its right mind could miss this once in a lifetime opportunity – to polish the King of Robots. And so, without further thought for Zilli, it hastily packed several dusters in a pouch, scuttled up the monster’s leg and made its new home in an old Viking undercarriage vent.


With the sun at its highest point, the Frankendroid lurched out of Windy Point Canyon, digging arm aloft like a warrior charging into battle.

“LIFE”, Karl Eckrocks was saying, as he headed into the barren red desert.



Rovers Return is a chapter from 'The Worst Man on Mars' by Mark Roman & Corben Duke.

If you enjoyed the story please check out the full novel here:



Submitted: October 04, 2016

© Copyright 2021 Corben Duke. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:



Sounds like something the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation would create.

Sat, October 8th, 2016 5:20pm

James Court

As inventive and entertaining as all the products of your keyboard. I'm beginning to suspect that you are a droid yourself, chronicling the evolution of your species. Well done.

Sun, October 9th, 2016 12:12pm

Cee Tee Jackson

'Base-unit over apex.' Indeed

Almost finished 'The Worst Man On Mars' from which this is lifted. Very clever. Very funny. Highly recommended.

Wed, October 12th, 2016 9:37am

Abe Coosemans

Frankendroid, cool.

Sun, October 23rd, 2016 3:35pm

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