Jeremy Diggitt pulled free a shard of crumpled metal from the Martian dust. He huffed out a disgusted sigh and surveyed his ruined crop field. Something had crushed every one of the 312 steam vents, leaving nothing but piles of tortured metal. Although wind had scoured away most of the evidence, traces of tracks remained in the red dust in too precise a pattern for a human driver to have made them. He scanned the grid of imprints and a match came back from the Mesh: a late model Turtle cargo transport drone——the same kind of vehicle that his neighbor Moses Clayburn owned.
“So that’s that,” Diggett said, tucking the tortured metal into his tool satchel.
Automated Cargo drones don’t aim for obstacles——and certainly not more than three hundred of them. Someone must have hacked the drone. Diggitt knew from his own rover that drone pilot programs are over-sensitive. Even after upgrading to the most forgiving terrain algorithms, his rover’s AI took almost twice as long to navigate to the next village, avoiding every potential hazard, including every rock larger than a boot.
A dust devil danced on the horizon. The vanishing tread marks were proof that intentional malice had been at work here. Moses Clayburn was the only one who had a motive——harassing Diggitt to sell his land. The field of Winchester terraformation pylons was the only thing keeping Diggitt’s family from going back to the zero-credit retraining centers. He had lived like that back on Earth, working minimum wage, dressed in an orange duty suit. An image of his wife and daughter wearing those same overalls flashed through his mind, and his face swelled with rage.
Mars was supposed to have been his new start, but troubles had followed him from Earth. He had done everything he was supposed to——followed the rules, paid his dues. All for nothing.
‘Help us breathe life into Mars’ the ads had said. After the war in Guatemala, Diggitt had no life to come back to in the States——his parents, his sister and her boys had died during the famines. The Seyopont Conglomerate had offered to subsidize the cost of his move to Mars. They had promised him a good job, and if he married, Seyopont would give him a family living unit, the first year of air, and a parcel full of Winchester steam pylons, which earned credits for every cubic meter of steam vented into the thin Martian air.
The anemic wisps of water vapor streaming out of the crushed pylons were the last dying breaths of his dreams. Diggitt clicked into the com relay and blinked over to talk to his wife, Milla.
Ethel, the stock clerk at Buncha Farms and long-time friend of Milla Diggitt, arced her finger through the air. “And that cricket went right into the batter.” She poked 6-year-old Ginny Diggitt on the nose.
They all laughed. Milla placed a bag of green beans into her cart as Ethel arranged a tray of cupcakes in the display case.
“Did you get it out?” asked Ginny, squeezing her plush toy cat.
Ethel yes-grunted in the Martian manner and laughed.
“I had half a mind to poke him right down in there and cook him up, he gave me so much trouble. But yeah, I got him out.”
Ethel held a cupcake up to Ginny’s nose. “Or did I?”
Ginny giggled and dodged the pastry. “Ewww.”
The wind outside rained pebbles onto the domed roof with a loud grating hiss.
“Storm season’s coming,” Ethel said, looking up. “They say it will be worse this year.”
“I saw that too. Air’s getting denser,” Milla said. “I guess all that steam we’re pumping into the air is working.”
Ethel coughed a yes-grunt. Milla’s blinkstick bleated. She reached down to her hip and pulled the device to her face. The earpiece chimed softly, confirming the connection.
“What’s up, babe?” she said.
“Where are you?” Jeremy couldn’t keep the distress from his tone.
“I told you I was picking up some food at Buncha Farms today. What’s wrong?”
The wind scraped another wave of pebbles across the roof, bathing the market dome in white noise.
Ginny looked up at her mother. Milla patted her on the back.
“Nekochu, I’m scared,” Ginny said to her doll.
The AI box in the blue cat purred and said in its iconic stuffy-nosed-girl voice, “There’s nothing to be a-scared of, Ginnypoo. This dome is made by ExoTerra, the only hab to grab. They’re built to stand up to worse than this.”
“All the crops?!” Milla hissed.
Ethel turned, concern cracking across her face. Ginny grabbed the doll tighter.
“Okay. We’ll see you back home in about an hour.”
Milla blinked off and sheathed the blinkstick.
“What’s wrong?” Ethel asked, wiping her hands in her apron.
“Someone smashed our pylons,” Milla said, rubbing her temples. Her other palm stabbed angles in the air. “Tire tracks all over the field.”
“Looks like we can’t afford any of your cupcakes today,” Milla said.
Milla tightened her lips into a white line and looked down at her cart of groceries.
“Oh, sweetie,” Ethel said, reaching out and embracing her. “Let me know what we can do.”
Milla yes-grunted and sniffed back her anger.
Orbiting high above the planet in Red Island One, a communication facility built on Mars’s closer moon, Phobos——Reginald Jost floated in a harness over his work station. His belly swelled out from between the straps as he drank from a sipper of Strawberry Smilk. On his screen, a shiny beetle-like object treaded toward a chasm. The image wavered as a cloud of dust passed under the satellite camera. Reg activated a filter to enhance the image. It was important that he confirm what happened next. The drone had completed its task, smashing those pylons, and now evidence needed to be deleted.
Warning lights blared. The blinder hack he had slapped onto the cargo drone’s AI was fragging.
“Ten more meters. Come on.”
The Turtle transport’s AI kept squirming through his hack to request GPS data. The drone knew it was headed for a cliff, but it couldn’t confirm just how close it was. It had no control over its movement——Reg had locked it onto a straight path. The only thing that could stop it would be a built-in auto-brake if the AI confirmed the cliff edge. Reg juggled between shrouding the terrain map from the drone’s systems and denying it access to satellite imagery. A wink of terrain data snuck through when the drone summoned a weather request. Reg hadn’t thought of that.
The drone slammed its brakes and it dragged to a halt, half hanging over the abyss. Wheels spinning in reverse, the Turtle wobbled in place, grinding up a cloud of dust. Reg ran some metrics on the weight distribution of the drone, the traction ratios of the wheels, and the geologic properties of the rock ledge. The numbers came back in his favor. He sipped his Smilk and waited. Wheels continued to spin. A gust from the impending dust storm tore across the vehicle, wiping away the amber cloud that had obscured it.
“Come on. Come on.”
The drone rocked forward in one slow arc, then careened downward into the chasm, bouncing once off the cliff wall before it was lost to the dark.
Reg clicked off the recording and took a moment to roll up the Smilk bag. He emailed the video to his contact and tossed the empty sipper over his shoulder. A vacuum scoop fixed to the wall sucked the bag away to be recycled.
“Reg?” a woman’s voice crackled over the intercom, “You patch Meringula Eight yet? I’m still getting black over Burroughsville.”
“Working on it, Gretch,” Reg said, smiling. “The patch was corrupted when I got it. Have to wait for them to resend. Something broke the feed mid-stream. Asteroid, or something.”
A pause followed as Gretchen Anderson checked the navigation charts. Reg clicked over to his hack of her system and watched her screen pop up with the orbit data of asteroids. He had checked the charts. The mining colony Ida had passed precisely between Mars and the base on Earth’s Moon approximately an hour earlier.
“Okay, Reg, our supply ship docked twenty mils ago. I’m gonna go confirm inventory, but blink me when you get Eight back online. Readback?”
Reg smirked and switched over to his account, waiting for the payment promised him. He stretched out to order another Smilk sipper from the dispenser and heard the pressure door to his cabin open. Rolls of skin bulged as he twisted in the harness to see who had entered.
A blaster shot slammed square into his side.
The catches on Reg’s harness clinked and rattled as his body convulsed, smilky froth spewing from his mouth. In the microgravity of Phobos, the pink liquid coagulated into globs,then crawled down the wall like a slow-motion snowball. Reg’s rattling and kicking slowed and stopped.
The assassin, wearing a grey exosuit, holstered his weapon and pulled himself over to the bloated corpse. He unlatched Reg from his harness and pulled back his head. Boiled white eyes. Dead. The grey assassin pulled the body by its collar out the cabin door.