The slight, balding India man waves the group forward with a smile. “Come in, come in. I am Dr. Sanjay Banerjee but you can call me Sanjay.”
The rest of the group is quietly waiting, shooting glances at the Lieutenant, weapons at the ready and uncertain what to do. Grader is coolly assessing the situation. “Well, let me just say that this is not what I expected.” He lowers his weapon a notch. “I am Lieutenant Grader of the Space Marines and this is my team. How did you know we were coming?”
“Oh, you set off the motion detectors and the security cams came on. They’re watching us back in the lab.” He waves emphatically at something unseen in a nearby wall. “Hi Bobby!” Turning back to the group he asks, in a very friendly manner as if greeting visitors to an Air B’n’B, “Won’t you come in and join us for a cup of tea?”
The group slowly and cautiously enters the airlock, which opens to a second airlock and then into the same kind of antichamber as the other habs have. Looks normal. José wonders out loud, “Two airlocks, that’s unusual.”
“Oh yes, this structure was built for scientific research and some special precautions were taken with construction. Our heat and air systems are functioning well, please you may be more comfortable during your visit without your pressure suits.”
Grader gives the group a quick nod. “I think that sounds alright. I hope you understand, Doctor that while we are on duty we are expected to retain our arms.”
Sanjay shrugs. “If you wish. It has been a long time since we’ve had visitors. I hope we have not gotten rusty with our manners.” While the team removes their suits, Sanjay asks, “I hear you have a tiki bar.”
“Um, yes.” Answers Beth. “It’s a bit rough, but comfortable.”
“How nice! If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to our dining area. It’s just standard issue, but we do have tea. It’s just down here.” The corridors seem clean and well-ordered. José notes that there seems to be fewer staff about than the other habs he’s visited. “And here we are, let’s have a seat. I’m looking forward to hearing about your mechanical friend.”
The dining area is indeed standard-issue, a carbon copy of the others José has been in. Yet, it’s empty except for a woman with a blonde ponytail and a lab coat. That is not so usual. Where’s everyone else? The group takes a seat at the table with her. There is a steaming white pot and teacups already set out. “This is my fellow research scientist Dr. Ellen White. Perhaps we learn your names and what brings you to our home?”
“I am Lieutenant John Grader, leader of this mission.” He tips his head towards each member of the group in turn. “This is Specialist Hernandez, to his right is Specialist Hwang. We have two others in orbit with our return ship. If you haven’t already guessed we are Space Marines. With us is Beth Smith and José Alvarez from the Engineering Section joining us as guides on Bradbury Base. And this is our metal assistant, “Bippie.”
“Very interesting!” Both scientists take a moment to peer closer at Bippie who replies, “Pleased to meet you. I bring copies of the latest research journals from Earth.”
Sanjay claps, “Excellent! Much appreciated! Surely you are here for something more? And why send the Marines? Also I do not see the insignia of any country on your uniforms.”
“Much has happened on Earth since communications were lost. For the moment I’ll keep it short. AWIS – Amazon World Information Services, what you used to know as Amazon Web Services stepped in and re-established order where there was chaos. Yes, the countries as you know them are still there, but now the AI is in charge. That’s who sent us.”
Ellen’s turn. “Curious. I can’t wait to hear more about how that’s working out. Yet you came straight here to us when you arrived. What is it that we can do for you?”
“We were sent to retrieve a set of research, assess the situation, aid in any way we can and then return to Earth. What that research is, is classified and as such I don’t know what it is myself. Part of Bippie’s job is to access your systems, copy what AWIS (whose rein is just and fruitful) requires so we may bring it back to Earth.”
“Really, that’s astonishing. This robot dog can do that?”
Bippie pipes up. “I’m good with computers.”
“We didn’t know what we would find when we arrived. We needed to be prepared for the worst. We are glad to see that Bradbury Base has managed to carry on without assistance from the home planet.”
“You have probably already been informed, at least somewhat, of the chaos that happened across the base for a time. There was even violence, as you must have observed by the barriers we were forced to build. There were some who wished to take supplies from others habs by force. Thus we decided here to largely cut ourselves off.”
José leans forward nervously. “There have been rumors… certainly not true, of…” he hesitates “cannibalism.”
Ellen remains composed. “Those were terrible times of gripping uncertainty. No one knew if the base would be able to be self-sufficient long-term without regular inputs shipped from Earth. To answer your question, no. We did not eat anyone. However, we did resort to something a bit… unorthodox.”
Sanjay follows up. “Let me explain. Three of you are completely new here. What is our most constrained resource here on Mars?” He raises his eyebrows.
Hwang chooses to respond. “It seems to me that the base is doing OK for air and water. Perhaps spare parts and other items the base is not yet capable of manufacturing?”
“Good answer. A shortage of spares is an on-going challenge and I imagine you must have seen more than a few ‘creative’ repairs. There have been some close calls, but humans can be very resourceful. Let me tell you, the number one thing Mars lacks is biomass.”
Hernandez seems confused. “Biomass?”
“That’s correct. Mars has many mineral resources that can be found and obtained. Yet the only living, or formerly living items to be found on Mars are those that came from Earth. We can get the metals and minerals we need out of the ground here, but when we need to make more food we only have the organic mass brought along with us. And we can’t just run to Home Depot for bags of mulch.”
“Right, how a new tree grows off a fallen tree.”
“Exactly, Sanjay: perhaps we should show them where our research has been leading us?”
“Indeed.” He rises from his chair and with a wink, “Friends, you won’t believe your eyes!”
The group is lead down another white corridor and enters a room filled with… bugs. Clear plastic containment units in rows fill the room for quite a distance. Each filled with large-ish insects.
“This looks a lot like our cricket farms” murmurs Beth.
“Indeed, this is a good place to start in the bio food cycle. You see, as we assessed our food production situation we felt we could use some of our research to, as you say, ‘turbo-charge‘ what we were growing. These are very similar to the cricket farms originally developed on Earth. We feed these with the organic materials from the end of the cycle and they in turn feed the next stage.”
“You mean, you don’t turn them directly into the ‘Mars Brand Cricket Bars’ we’ve been eating?” Wonders José.
“Oh no, not usually. We’ve found a better way. Come, let us show you where the magic really happens!”
Ellen is grinning. “Sanjay always loves a chance to play ‘Willy Wonka’.” The group walks more rows of insect farm to the further set of doors. Here Sanjay pauses and addresses the group.
“You may be a bit surprised by what you see next. It is an exciting development, and the next step in Mars food production in that not only do we get high-quality protein for humans, but also high quality fertilizer for our plant food production.” He opens the doors with a flourish.
“OMFG, what are those?” Hwang’s jaw hangs down as the group advances to a catwalk over a large open area of pens filled with…”
“We like to call them ‘Tyranno-Chickens’.” Sized more like a pig and clearly chicken-ish, yet freakishly also reptilian the creatures strut about their pens and the air is filled with the sounds of clucking and feathers rustling. “And very good eating!”
“Those eat the bugs, right?”
“Ah, yes! We feed mostly waste to the insects. Then we feed the insects to the Tyranno-Chickens who provide us both with food and organic fertilizer compounds for our greenhouses. Perhaps you’d like to try one of our chicken burgers?”
Beth is incredulous. “This is the secret you’ve been hiding? Why haven’t you shared this with the rest of the base?”
Ellen explains, “We were waiting until we were ready for what’s called a ‘Product Launch’. We couldn’t just trade some Tyranno-eggs and call it a day, it’s a process we are still perfecting.”
José butts in, eyebrows raised “And the cannibalism?”
Sanjay nervously knits his fingers together, “Ah yes, you see. Biomass. We didn’t eat the dead. The insect farm did.”
Grader finishes the thought. “And the chickens ate the insects.”
“And you eat the chickens.” A serious look from Hernandez.
“Yes, and our waste plus other organics from the greenhouses goes back to the insects. That is the cycle.”
Hernandez shakes his head. “Now I’ve seen everything.”
Ellen also shakes her head, “Oh no you haven’t. We are working on a Mars pig so we can have bacon again. Won’t that be nice?”
Sanjay’s tablet buzzes and starts talking, “Dr. Banerjee, we have a disturbance in the lab. That robot dog-thing is here.”
With surprise the group looks around. Sure enough, Bippie is not with them. “Your little metal friend seems to have wandered off into the Chocolate Factory. We’d best go find him.” They follow him back through the doors, noting that this time Dr. Ellen brings up the rear. Sanjay hurries down the corridors and through an airlock into a lab crowded with beeping and flashing scientific equipment. Three visibly angry and upset men in lab coats are waving their arms and shouting at Bippie who is clearly jacked into the wall with an apparatus extending out from under his neck area.
“Bobby, what’s happening here?”
A dark skinned man with a goatee turns to Sanjay, “This… this thing got in here somehow and is now doing something!” The small group is fuming.
Sanjay isn’t so friendly now. “Lieutenant, what is the meaning of this?”
“Looks like Bippie is just doing his job.”
An angry Sanjay turns to the three men. “Well, what are you waiting for? Just pull him away from the wall. भोसड़ीके, गू चोद !”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” growls Bippie. “Touch me and I’ll fry all your egg salad recipes.”
“He’ll do it, too.” adds Grader.
“This is outrageous and unacceptable!”
“I admit, Bippie can be rude, but he is a robot. He’s just doing what the AI instructed him to do. None of us told him to ‘go rogue‘.”
Bippie retracts his network interface and announces, “Research extraction complete. We may return to base.”
“Well there you have it, looks like our work here is done.”
“चाट गधालंड !” Sanjay looks like his eyes are about to boil. “You are NOT leaving here with this THING!“
“Oh?” Grader raises his eyebrows. “Who is going to stop us?”
Ellen has her arms crossed and replies cooly, “You’ll find all the airlocks closed.”
“That’s OK.” Hernandez has a sly smile and hooks a thumb towards his partner. “Hwang and I ain’t ‘Specialists’ for nothing.”
Sanjay’s eyes continue to bug out. “We have other ways of stopping you.” he hisses.
Grader casually leans his rifle against his shoulder. “Dr. Sanjay. Stop and think for a moment.” Grader casts his eyes skyward and then focuses directly on the scientist. “Have you ever had anything dropped on you from orbit?”
“You heard me. You are at the bottom of a gravity well, my friend.“
“हरामखोर कुतिया कुत्ते ! You’d breach the hab? मादरचोद, you need oxygen too.”
Bippie repeats Grader. “Bippie does not need atmospheric pressure of any kind.”
One of the scientists heaves a heavy sigh. “Who are you people?”
“The Space Marines. If you have any complaints, take it up with AWIS.” He turns and waves the crew to leave.
“Wait. Bippie promised a present.” Bippie’s stub tail raises a few centimeters, and from beneath something that looks like a USB drive dongle pops out and falls to the deck. “Current research journals from Earth. AWIS thanks you for your assistance.”
… Later …
Returning through the tunnel in full pressure suits Beth asks Grader, “You can’t really nuke us all from orbit, can you?”
“Nuke? No. But you would be astonished what some falling metal rods can do.”
“So, you would have killed us all?”
Grader shrugs. “Eh, maybe some of us would have survived. You don’t go to Mars if you aren’t willing to stare Death in the balls.”
“But wouldn’t that have prevented Bippie from returning with the whatever the heck it is?”
“Not really. All we had to do was stall them. He’s been transmitting the data he collected to the geosynchronous communications satellite we placed over the base this whole time.”
Beth shakes her head, unbelieving. “I can’t believe you manipulated all of us.”
“Since when haven’t we been friendly? We could have cut through this place like a bulldozer through butter. Those Hab Seven people got off easy. Who’s to say they weren’t planning on feeding us all to that insect farm ‘circle of life’ thing of theirs? Hold on, I’m getting something from Chief Engineer Pence. Grader here.”
Pence’s voice comes through his comm. “Glad to hear everyone is returning safely. Let the team know that we’ve got good news too. We finally got José’s cargo ship open. When you get back, we’re having a Hamdinger party!“