The Aging Man felt content as he looked out over the red sand dunes of Mars. That way, to the west, lay virgin territory, untouched by man or his machines. For a moment the Aging Man felt twenty years younger, recalled that first glance of the Red Planet as he disembarked the lander. A view forever etched in his memory. And for that moment, the Aging Man felt like a pioneer. An explorer opening up a new world for all of humankind.
In reality it had been but a small step. His applications filed, he had been incredibly lucky to be selected from the tens of millions of applicants. The prep time had been grueling but exciting. Other than liftoff and Mars descent, the seven month journey had been uneventful. He had not been the first to make the trip, nor the second, nor even one of the first hundred. Didn’t matter to the Aging Man. Nor did it matter that he had given up a great career, friends, and family to become an interplanetary construction worker. Leaving Earth, going to space, to Mars – that had been a childhood dream. And he had new friends, and a new family. A new life.
Right here on Mars.
The Aging Man turned his attention back to the Eastern viewport. His small army of machines was busy scuttling across the desert. Small robots sampled the soil. Large tracked vehicles drilled here or there, probing the ground. His command and control vehicle, itself the size and shape of a large tank, slowly traversed the vast empty space, coordinating the actions of the other machines. So far the AI had not been satisfied with soil conditions. If not today, then tomorrow. The Aging Man was patient, and the project still on schedule. Once the AI had identified a suitable location, the Aging Man’s robots would build the core of what would become a new outpost, a new settlement.
The machines would do all that work, and once they were done, the Aging Man would be relieved. Well in time to be with his wife for the birth of their second child. Until then, the Aging Man would wait and oversee his robotic workers. Ready to intervene if his robotic workers ever needed intervention. They never did. And so he would dream of Martian adventures and a life as an explorer.
There was a loud noise, almost like an explosion. The command and control vehicle quivered; the noise had been transmitted through the bulk of the tank, not the thin Martian air. The command and control vehicle came to a halt. Red lights flashed on the console in front of the Aging Man, but the AI fed him a complete status report, and the Aging Man ignored the console. There had indeed been an explosion, on the tank’s port front track. The AI had no information on the cause. All systems had been fully functional, and then… something had happened. The AI speculated that the explosion was external, but that was, of course, impossible. No collision had occurred, and this was an absolutely empty region.
While the AI continued to chatter into his brain, the Aging Man was already suiting up. It had become second nature even before he had left Earth. Anything unusual happens, he suited up. It was like a reflex. Always suit up. Don’t worry about anything else until you’re in your suit and breathing air from its tanks. You can’t worry about anything else if you’re suffocating. Don’t be a hero. Suit up.
The AI continued chattering and speculating. It dismissed a micrometeorite impact and volcanic activity. The explosion had happened out of view of the robotic workers, and the AI had lost control over them. And it had lost contact with HQ. And the port side security cameras of the CNC tank were no longer functional.
The Aging Man finished donning his helmet as he stepped into the airlock. He was as confused as the AI, maybe more so, but he didn’t need machine slaves. He stepped out on the rear deck of the tank. He immediately noted a thin plume of smoke rising from the side of his vehicle. He climbed off the deck. Once more his boots created the first human footprints in a new region of the Red Planet.
The damage was extensive. The metal of the outer hull scorched and bent. The track had snapped and lay in pieces. For a moment the Aging Man was so amazed at the damage he did not notice that the AI chatter was gone. He pondered this development. Glancing up he saw that the antenna was still attached to the tank. Radio interference? What an odd coincidence. He decided that the radio link had priority over the snapped track. Getting the command and control vehicle mobile again would do him little good without a working radio.
The Aging Man turned around to return inside the tank and stopped dead. He couldn’t believe his eyes. There, in the distance, were two humans. They had evidently just crested a sand dune and were now running and skipping towards him, their boots kicking up little dust clouds as they approached. There were no people out here, the Aging Man was sure.
What was the meaning of this?
The projectile struck the Aging Man’s helmet at five hundred meters per second. It punctured the material as if it wasn’t there. A tiny fraction of a second later the projectile penetrated the Aging Man’s head, which ruptured like a ripe melon. The bullet then left the Aging Man’s head, passed through the rear of his helmet and hit the side of the CNC tank.
The Aging Man’s body fell to the ground without making a sound.
Moments later, the two men arrived at the side of the vehicle. They looked down at the Aging Man’s body. One of the two men shouldered a rifle he was holding and poked the dead body with his boot.
“Yeah, he’s dead, dead, and dead,” the man with the rifle said.
“Obviously,” the second man said, his eyes on the mess inside the Aging Man’s helmet.
“You see his head go ‘pop’?” The man with the rifle made an exploding gesture with his hands for emphasis, and chuckled.
“You’re enjoying this a little too much,” the second man replied.
“I take pride in my work,” the man with the rifle said. “C’mon, take the sample before this shit boils off.”
The second man shrugged. He took a small glass vial from a pocket in his EVA suit and scooped up a sample of the Aging Man’s blood.
“Alright,” he sighed. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
He pushed a button on the side of his EVA suit. There was a flash of light and he was gone.
The man with the rifle looked down at the dead body of the Aging Man.
“Until next time, motherfucker,” he said. Then he, too, disappeared.