United States of America
Beads of sweat began to form on his prominent brow. His oxygen suit lacked proper ventilation, and no amount of use seemed to make any difference on his stubborn body, but he knew that without it he would run the risk of suffocation, the atmosphere far from habitable.
Yet, Caleb thought. The project was taking longer than anticipated, but the end result will be worth it.
He steered his MTX-5 crawler over a particularly rough patch of terrain and felt the entire vehicle groan. It was a far cry from his truck back home, but driving it was one of Caleb’s favorite parts about living in the colony.
Sure, the air sucks and I can’t take a piss without it being a five minute ordeal, but nothing beats the view.
Despite living in the new colony for nearly a year, he still awed at the immensity of space around him. His former home was reduced to merely a dot, surrounded by slightly smaller dots in a vast sea of twinkling lights. With no buildings yet besides the colony and only the very beginnings of what would one day be an oxygen rich atmosphere, he was able to see for miles. It made him feel completely insignificant to stare at his old planet, but it also gave him a sense of purpose. He left that tiny dot for a reason, and his family was much better off here thanks to his opportunity to be one of the early pioneers.
As he steered his way across the dusty terrain, Caleb thought back to the long scenic drives he used to take back on Earth. The rest of the population became so obsessed with the new affordable flying cruisers that the highways of old were quickly being left abandoned as the sky was the new safer route. He could lean back in the seat of his dad’s old pickup, take a slow drag of his cigarette, and just forget the world around him as he sped down I-29, not another car in sight.
Glimpses of abandoned houses, crumbling at the brick with the roofs collapsed in, would whip past his windows as he drove entranced in his serenity, despite the glaring remnants of chaos around him. Evidence of the rapidly changing climate was hard to ignore, as his drives often took him through flooded areas that were once staples in his childhood.
His old school was now completely covered in water, barely recognizable as anything more than a massive dark shape below the surface. The beaches once flocked with tourists and fishermen were erased as if they had never existed, with abandoned backyards now forming new beaches of green and brown with swampy grass for sand.
It all happened so fast…
He was rudely shaken back to Mars when his crawler hit another rough patch of terrain. With the atmospheric generators running constantly for months, the new Mars was beginning to form, slowly but surely. The ground surrounding his living complex was moist and muddy in areas thanks to the increased oxygen gas, but where he was headed was filled with dusty rock formations the size of elephants before the great extinction, and uneven soil that could crumble away into craters without warning.
He realized he better be careful, crashing his crawler would mean months of labor within the colony to cover the cost, not to mention the possibility of death without a relatively quick method of returning home. The atmosphere was still unforgiving, and the UV rays from the sun could fry him to a radiated crisp if he was out too long, even within the relative safety of his suit. Silt storms were still a constant threat as well, with winds gushing up to 120 miles per hour and stirring up so much silt it could damage the machinery in the only thing protecting him from the harsh environment.
His attention turned back to the landscape in front of him as he navigated his way across the outskirts of his colonial territory. CO2 towers were the only man-made structures out this far, and he was on a mission to reach the most remote equipment. An alarm was tripped at the tower far across the immense canyon that would hopefully one day be a flowing river that could be fished and lived upon. But for now, the canyon was a literal pain in Caleb’s ass as he bounced sporadically in his seat while his crawler navigated over the rocky surface.
He knew the alarm was most likely nothing, a sensor tripped off by a particularly violent silt storm or simply a loose wire. But he did as he was told and took the trip out to investigate. As the outermost tower appeared over the horizon, he noticed the red light flashing on the side. He sped up to reach his destination, then parked his crawler next to the ten foot high tower. Leaving the engine running, he stepped out and approached the device designed to make this giant hunk of rock inhabitable.
“Ranger 6 to Comm, I’ve reached tower 184,” he said into his headset. “Beginning my assessment now.”
“Roger that, Ranger 6. Complete your objective as quickly as you can, there’s a storm coming within the hour.”
Why the hell would they send him out if they knew a storm was on its way? He knew it wasn’t intentional, but still the fact that they valued this machine over his safety as a crude reminder of the fragility of the new colony. The faster the planet was completely inhabitable, the better off his country and family would be.
He pulled his tool case from the back of his crawler and found the drill he needed to remove the protective metal panel covering the internal hardware. He hooked up his handheld scanner to the diagnostic board, and the lights flashed a reassuring green back at him. The diagnostic programs on the scanner were designed to detect even the smallest of errors, so the fact that it found nothing was odd.
So why is the tower flashing its alarm?
“Ranger 6 to Comm, there’s nothing wrong with the tower besides a faulty alarm light. I’m getting the hell out of here now that I risked losing my life in a storm to relay that message.”
No reply. He inspected the communicator attached to the left wrist of his suit and saw his signal fading in and out. It was better this way, Caleb thought, now he can give Commander Lane an earful in person.
He gave the tower a final inspection and then a kick for good measure. This faulty light bulb was not worth risking his life over and Caleb was ready to get back to the safety of the colony. He tossed the tool case back into the trunk and swung himself into the driver seat. As he reached for the gear shift, he noticed a black shape on the horizon.
He squinted through the clear dome around his head, trying to make out what it could be. Whatever it was, it looked as if it were coming closer – and quickly.
It couldn’t be someone else from the colony, he thought, it was coming from the wrong direction. But then again we are the only people out here…
“Ranger 6 to Comm, there’s an approaching unidentified object near tower 184, requesting information?”
Whatever it was, Caleb decided it was probably best to avoid it. After all, there was a storm coming and he wasn’t about to get stuck out in the middle of Mars with no way of finding his way back. He shifted the crawler into drive and started to pull away from the tower when the vehicle sputtered and came to a halt.
What the fuck?
Caleb put the crawler in park, and tried restarting the engine, but nothing happened. Suddenly, all of the lights in the vehicle went black and the only light he could see was the flashing red bulb atop the faulty tower… and two approaching headlights.
What was originally light perspiration turned to a full on sweat, as Caleb’s heart pounded away. He tried turning over the engine again, but his efforts were met with a dull cranking noise, and then silence – save for his thundering heart.
With the headlights about 100 yards away, Caleb began to panic. He could run, but where? Without his crawler he’d surely be dead once the storm hit. He checked his communicator again and found the signal completely gone. Whatever he was about to encounter, he would do it completely alone.
He quickly searched his crawler for anything he could use as a weapon, but found only a first aid kit and some light food rations. Quickly, he got out of the crawler and opened the trunk to grab his tool case. He pulled the heavy wrench out, and stood beside his vehicle, bracing for whatever was to come.
The headlights approached faster and faster, until it appeared as if they were about to run him over. He could make out the faint outline of a crawler similar to his, but it was much larger and completely black.
I’ve never seen anything like this at the colony…
The vehicle braked suddenly, sending a cloud of dust up into the air so all he could see were the glow of the headlights and the red tower bulb, still flashing in the background. As the dust settled, he could make out two figures dressed all in black sitting in the vehicle.
They had on body suits similar to his, but theirs were much lighter looking, with the material seeming to cling tightly to their bodies. Instead of a domed helmet like Caleb was wearing, they each had black masks over their heads, with reflective black glass where the eyes should be. A small black hose ran from the mouths of their masks to the chest plates of their suits, directly over their hearts.
If they had hearts…
He assumed they were human, but then again they were the only colony on Mars as far as he knew, and even that was top secret. No one on Earth had any idea they were there, save for select government officials and engineers. To the public, the launch into space was simply a routine tourist shuttle that was supposed to return after a week of orbiting the Earth and Moon. A tourist shuttle that had faulty thrusters, causing the shuttle to explode as it broke through the atmosphere - little did they know.
The two sets of reflective eyes stared at him, but all he could see was his own figure. He could clearly make out the panic in his eyes and see the wrench moving, gripped in his trembling hand.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Caleb called.
Immediately he realized they couldn’t hear him though his protective dome. They both began to rise out of their seats and climb out of the vehicle towards him. He backed up into the side of his MTX-5 and raised the quivering wrench. The pair stopped about 10 feet from him, looked at each other, and nodded.
Before Caleb could even think about his next move, the pair brandished what appeared to be tiny guns from holsters around their waists. Pointing them directly at Caleb’s face, they both pulled the trigger, but no bullets shot out. Instead, each released a continuous thin red beam that hit the outside of his protective dome.
His heart was racing, but he was too petrified to move. He watched as two red dots lingered on his dome, connecting it to their guns. After what seemed like an eternity, the black figures released their triggers and lowered the weapons. Caleb breathed a sigh of relief.
Then he noticed two tiny holes in his dome. His eyes widened in surprise as the sweat on his face began to freeze, and he felt all the remaining air in his lungs pass from him as if it were sucked from him by a vacuum. He tried desperately to catch a breath, but oxygen escaped him. He felt his body slowly rising away from the ground and up towards the stars.
Frantically, he tried to reach for the small emergency oxygen tank attached to his leg, but his efforts were futile. As his hand reached the tank, he felt a searing pain in his chest as if his lungs were on fire, and then nothing.
His body floated upward toward the bright dot he used to call home.
The dot vanished, and all that remained was black.