Wynne Mallory arrived at the IARPA remote office dusty, rumpled, and late. Not at all her usual style.
Several of the major MARSAITT competitors had bases in the remote deserts of Utah and California. These deserts represented Mars-approximate conditions. They were excellent for testing new drones. For trial two––total loss of signal––IARPA had decided that the drone trial ranges and their simulated lava tubes would all be located in California’s high desert.
Of course, there had been some protests, especially from teams coming from farther afield.
Until Wynne had decided she needed to be on-site as well, she herself hadn’t fully reckoned with the logistics.
Getting nearer to the action during the loss of signal trial meant Wynne could get a sense of what was really happening in each of the bids, on a much more granular level than she could remotely. And she was absolutely sure there were a lot of grains to sort through, especially at Watchover and DevLok.
But doing so required three connecting flights. And those flights were in coach, thanks to whomever at the Office of Policy Management decided that GS-15 level employees and above needed to show their loyalty by never upgrading on their own dime, no matter how much the seats and legroom shrank on US commercial flights.
Wynne felt as dusty as the MARSAITT drones waiting in their holding pens for the trial to begin.
“Coffee, Dr. Mallory? We’ll have the viewing room set up in just a moment. IT’s still running checks.” The young woman, Wynne knew, had no business getting coffee. That was for the bots.
“Charlie, that’s very kind. You’re station chief now. Knock it off. The Doctor Mallory business, too.” Wynne smiled fondly at her former science officer.
“Will do, Dr. Mallory.” Charlie grinned. “Just as soon as we’re finished with business here. I’ll take you for a drink.”
“At that watering hole made out of shipping containers and a decommissioned Airstream? No, thank you. I’d prefer no one knows I’m here.”
In answer, Charlie lifted Wynne’s beautiful brown leather weekender, testing its weight. “Planning to stay for a bit?”
“If that’s what it takes to understand the ground truth of the situation,” Wynne allowed. “I don’t trust DevLok farther than I can throw them, no matter what the politicians say. And there’s something about their nearest competitor’s bots. I can’t put my finger on what yet, but––well, you saw that first build.”
“The Hagia Sophia? I did. You’re investigating DevLok’s concern, then?”
Wynne winced. “Ah, so you heard about that, too.”
“Only that they protested. Nothing more.” Charlie placed Wynne’s bag beside a padded leather chair at the control table and waved her hand before the array of six screens until they woke, filling the room with screen glow.
“The test is ready whenever you are. All robot teams in place.” Charlie didn’t mention the AI drones had been waiting for over an hour. It was Wynne she had to keep happy, not the five teams still in the MARSAITT competition.
When Wynne waved her hand, the screens revealed five one-mile worksites, each riddled with simulated lava tube networks. The drone teams, as Charlie had stated, waited patiently in their holding pens. Desert dust swirled among the boulders and across the flats.
The sixth screen lit up with a green background, casting Wynne in a fishbowl pallor, and a two-way camera light came on.
“Good morning Dr. Mallory,” Congressman Dayzano said. “Let me get the others.”
“Sh—urely, sir.” Stifling a mild profanity, Wynne spoke carefully. She’d known about one congressperson attending today, not everyone else. “There was a computer issue at the Sunport. Grounded everything. I came straight here.”
Wynne knew she looked like she’d had a long road trip, too, especially in comparison to the congressional spit-shine. Thank God for no-wrinkle blouses and the trusty federal suit of armor: blue blazer, blue slacks, made out of fabric blends that could probably survive Mars. At worst, Wynne looked like she’d pulled an all-nighter of travel, and that would make her need to be on-site for the test seem even more important.
Ground truth was what she was looking for and that was important, never mind the inconvenience.
As long as she got results. Good results, that is.
Three more congressional aides came into view on the sixth screen, looking as if they were seated around the same table. Wynne knew they were each using a staged seating unit the government had bought...