The airlock door slides open. Three figures in lightly dusted pressure suits enter, and what appears to be a long-legged dog-like robot right behind. In a movement both dramatic and awkward, helmets are removed. Standing to the side, a crew member with a bosun’s whistle pipes the short, shrill traditional ceremonial Naval greeting. The tall, blonde man standing in the front of the trio smiles and raises his hand in greeting.
“Take us to your leader!” barks a shorter man in a crewcut behind him.
“Pipe down, Specialist!”
“But I’ve always wanted to say that!”
“Lt. John Grader of the Space Marines, requesting permission to come aboard.”
The colonists, all nervous smiles fidget a bit. “Chief Engineer Preston Pence. Let us be the first to welcome you to Mars.”
“It’s good to be here, and great to feel real gravity again. This is Specialist Hernandez,” Grader indicates the dusky man with the crewcut to his right “and Specialist Hwang.” Indicating the Asian woman with the regulation crewcut to his left. “And, of course, our assistant ‘Bippie'” indicating the dog-shaped robot. “Might you have a place where we could discuss our mission?”
“Why, of course. You’ve already met The Spock.” Pence winces as the photographer’s flash goes off in his face. “We’ll do more introductions in a moment. Please accompany us to The Tiki Bar where we can discuss this momentous occasion.”
Eyebrows raised, “Tiki bar?”
“Ah, yes. We had a standard conference room, but it was hulled by a meteor strike so we converted it to storage area. Explosive decompression is not pretty.”
Word of a new set of visitors has gotten around, and as the small group wends down the corridor doorways are crowded with crew hoping for a quick look at the new arrivals. Lt. Grader takes careful note of the condition of the colony hab.
“Seems like you’ve been successful keeping the place up while out of connection with Earth.”
“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had some close calls. We lost some people. It’s a credit to the ‘can-do’ spirit of the crew that we’ve managed to hang on. It’s been… complicated at times.” There’s a “NOPE” sign on the hatch to The Tiki Bar, the kind of sign where you move the “N” to the end to spell “OPEN”. “We’ll have the room to ourselves, except for our bartender, Marigold.”
“We look forward to sampling what Mars has to offer, after our mission is complete. Meanwhile, you wouldn’t have any fresh orange juice, would you?”
Light chuckle. “No, I’m afraid not. We’ve also been out of Tang for longer than you want to know. We make due with what we’ve got.” The group steps into the bar, the Spock’s Red Shirt takes a security position outside the door.
“Welcome everyone!” Marigold snaps his bar towel and gestures to the largest table, which is also mostly level. “Have a seat. Can I get anyone anything?”
The Marines slide into their seats, taking in the cobbled together Tiki decor cleverly made of colony cast-offs. Marigold has some Martin Denny playing quietly. If you ignore the lack of bamboo and thatch, squint a bit and use some imagination, you might for a moment believe you were back on Earth.
“Water for us, please.” barks the Marine. “I’ll have a Mars Fizz, virgin of course.” from Pence. The Spock waves Marigold off with a clear “no thanks.”
“Let’s get down to business.” Pence places his forearms on the table and leans forward. “What can we do for the Space Marines?”
“The great AWIS, whose rein is just and prosperous, has sent us to retrieve some research that was performed here at the colony, assess the situation and report back.”
“What research would that be?”
“I’m afraid that’s on a ‘Ned to know’ basis only.”
“Don’t you mean ‘need to know’ basis?”
“No, I mean Major Ned Collins, commander of this mission. He and one other crew member remain in orbit observing and awaiting our return. I myself do not know what we are meant to retrieve. We need to get ‘Bippie’ here to Hab 7, plug him into the system there and he does the rest.” Grader indicates the german shepard-sized robot standing quietly next to the table.
The Spock pipes in. “Yes, I am curious about your, ah, robot ‘assistant’. And what is this ‘AWIS’ that sent the mission?”
Grader smiles and settles back in his chair. “AWIS is short for Amazon World Information Systems. There has been…” he pauses, “significant chaos on Earth. Somewhere along the line Amazon Web Services, which was pretty much running most of the large-scale computing systems on Earth anyway reached some kind of quantum singularity… thingie… no one claims to know how, exactly, and became sentient… and took over where the humans had failed.”
“Someone somewhere crossed the proton beams” adds Hernandez with a nod.
“AWIS determined that Earth needed something only developed here on the Mars colony. With communications inoperable the Mars Expeditionary Force was organized to put boots on the ground. We are the second group.”
The Spock’s eyebrows go up with curiosity. “We have had no contact from other official Earth missions.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. The first mission was lost en-route. It appears that about four months into the journey someone on board decided to convert some of the environmental systems to create a ‘Slushy’ machine. That effort failed. Something went wrong that lead to a catastrophic mission loss.” The Lieutenant looks sad. “Brave men died for those Slushies. It’s our job to succeed where they failed.”
Hwang joins in. “That’s where ‘Bippie’ comes in. Fully autonomous when needed, all-terrain, can recharge off its solar panels, carry cargo, doesn’t need air or air pressure and is packed with far more knowledge than the human brain, including finding the research we’re looking for. Say something for the nice people, Bippie.”
Bippie lifts its solar panels and in a smooth android voice replies, “Greetings Mars colonists. I contain a complete copy of Wikipedia.”
Hwang chuckles, “What a showoff! Our job is to get Bippie to the hab that is, or was, conducting the research and he’ll do the rest.”
Pence waves one hand about, “…and how, exactly does that work?”
Withdrawing the solar panels Bippie answers in a mock German accent, “We haff ways of making you talk.“
“Ha ha!” laughs Hernandez. “What a card! Don’t mind him. We all watched a lot of movies on the trip out here. Specialist Hwang and I get the IT systems operating and let let Bippie plug into them one at a time until he finds what he’s looking for.”
Pence does not look amused. “Hab unit 7. That presents a problem.”
“What kind of problem?” Grader wants to know.
“You see, the breakdown in communications with Earth lead to a breakdown of communication between the groups in the different habs. There was panic, chaos and even violence for a time. For the most part we’ve reached a détente, a sort of stability with our circumstances, but some habs have gone dark and some we don’t hear from very often.”
Pence pauses, “and there are rumors about Hab 7…”
Marigold is re-filling water glasses. “Cannibals!” he hisses.
“It’s just a rumor. We don’t know if it’s true. Hab 7 appears to be occupied, but we have no intel on their status or what they’ve been doing.”
“We’ve come equipped with everything we might need to gain access and retrieve what we need.” Grader cracks his knuckles. “That includes force, if needed.”
“You’ve brought weapons?”
“AWIS sent the Space Marines, not the Space Hippies!” Grader looks as if he’s about to spit on the floor, but manages to restrain himself. “Yes, we have weapons, tools and two weeks of provisions on the lander. More can be dropped from orbit if needed. When can we leave?”
Pence consults a tablet. “Hm. This is a concern. Weather report indicates a dust storm is forming. If we want to go over land we’ll need to wait for that to pass. Sometimes these things last for a week or more.” He pauses and shifts his gaze to The Spock. “Or, we could…”
“Take the tunnels.” The Spock finishes for him.
“Is that a problem?”
“Hard to say. We know the tunnels have pressure, heat and air. But we don’t know what we’ll find in them. That’s where some of the violence happened.”
“Hell, it can’t be worse than Iwo Jima! When can we get started? I’ve got a microwave pizza and a Mexican Coke that I’ve been hiding under my bunk on the orbiter waiting for a celebration.”
“So that’s where that went!” exclaims Hernandez.
“You lost that fair and square, Specialist. A full house beats two pair, as you know. We’ll need to unload the lander.”
“I’ll assign crew members to assist. Let’s get that done before the dust storm hits. Follow us.”
The group stands up to leave. On the way out the door Hwang ask, “So, what’s up with the ears and the Star Trek getup, ‘Spock’?”
“Ever been stranded on another planet millions of miles from your home? Knowing that the basic facts of entropy will eventually lead to your demise? You might be surprised what you’ll resort to in order to keep mind, body and soul together.”