Next up is author George Ebey...
George's three words are: halcyon, surreptitious, nemesis.
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The Arrival of Ares-Two
Minutes after touching down onto the dusty surface of the planet Mars, a rover unit named Ares-Two rolled off of the transport pod’s entrance ramp and into a barrage of swinging hammers and piercing drills.
Ares was neither the first nor the last unit to exit the pod. There were two others ahead and two more behind, leaving Ares smack dab in the middle of the melee as it rolled out of the now-opened pod bay doors and into the dull sunlight of a brand new Martian day. It had no time to admire its surroundings, no time to pause and wax poetic on the miracle of modern technology that had allowed it to be shuttled here from the other side of an ocean of space. At this moment, there was only one priority: escaping this place before the swarming parts-cannibals stripped every last sensor and gear from its lithe metal body and turned it into a shell of scrap on the rocky red ground.
Its enemies were rovers themselves, hard-won veterans of the Martian terrain who knew how to move fast and hit hard in this strange new environment.
The hostile reception had been somewhat expected.
In this desolate place where not many robotic parts were actually manufactured on the surface, hardware from Earth was at a premium. A fresh fuel cell or new solar panel could be taken from one unit and reinstalled in another, thus increasing the recipient rover’s overall speed, strength, and efficiency. Worn tools and limbs were also interchangeable - thereby turning any recently arriving transport pods into prime targets for would-be robo-thieves. It all made Ares long for the halcyon days of the cargo ship that brought it here.
Still, there was always hope that the landing would be a smooth one.
Ares’ pod was not the only one to be sent to the surface in this wave. There were at least a dozen others, all dropped in unison from the large orbital platform that hung just above the planet’s thin atmosphere. Once dropped, the salmon-colored sky was soon dotted with twelve different sets of parachutes, each carrying its own pod that held five new units inside.
If there were only a handful of parts-cannibals in the vicinity, then there was only a one in twelve chance that they would come after your pod once it landed. Or better yet, maybe there weren’t any in the vicinity at all.
For Ares-Two, neither of these choice scenarios would end up panning out.
Maybe its pod was the one out of twelve chosen for attack, or maybe there was a horde of these metal-flesh hungry menaces about, enough for every chute in the crimson sky. Either way, one thing was clear: if Ares wanted to make its way out of this vicious robo-gauntlet, it would have to fight its way out.
This wouldn’t be easy.
Strapped in tight, it had less than a minute before the pod doors popped open, which meant that it had less than a minute to prepare itself. Anything even resembling a weapon was stored in the small trailer that was currently tethered to its backside by a heavy industrial magnet. One minute would not be enough time to detach the trailer, crack open its top hatch, and dig out something that it might be able to use to defend itself with. Unfortunately, this fact was not surreptitious. The attacking rovers were well aware and would certainly try and use it to their advantage.
No, its only chance was to make a roll for it and hope that it could get away without sustaining too much damage.
The first rover out the gate bore the brunt of it. Saddled with the unfortunate name of Rolling Thunder stenciled in bold letters across the rear of its trailer, the rover rolled right into a thunder of another kind. The moment its wheels touched down on the dusty surface, it took two savage blows from two separate rock hammers held by two separate enemies. The attackers continued to follow closely as it tried to stumble away, neither of them relenting as they hammered dent after dent into Rolling Thunder’s metal frame.
By now, rover number two – or Eat My Red Dust as its trailer stencil noted – tried to make a break for it, only to get snared by a third attacker who promptly rammed a spinning drill-bit into its plated chest. The drill must have been modified for optimum power, because it didn’t take long for the bit to pierce the solid chest plate and plunge its way into the robots innards, chewing and tearing up the precious bot-tech inside. Seconds later, Eat My Red Dust slumped over in defeat, its Martian odyssey over before it had even begun.
Ares was determined not to let that happen again as it took its turn out of the pod doors and onto the fray. As far as it could tell, the enemy force consisted of only three attacking rovers. Not bad odds if its pod-mates had seen fit to work as a team rather than flee into dawn in an every-robot-for-itself fashion. Ares briefly considered the idea of recruiting the two units to its rear to help even up the odds. But the thought passed quickly. There was no time to effectively communicate with them and no time to devise any kind of serious defensive strategy. Like the others, Ares would just have to take its chances alone against this new formidable nemesis and hope for the best.
As soon as its own wheels touched the surface of Mars, the two attackers who had taken on Rolling Thunder quickly broke off that assault and turned on Ares.
Right away, Ares was taken aback by the strangeness of their appearances. All robot-rovers were initially constructed in much the same way. From the waist down, they were a strong platform frame on top of six wheels supported by a flexible suspension that allowed for maximum maneuverability over a constantly-changing terrain. From the waist up, though, they were more human-like in appearance: a torso, two arms, a head, all shrouded in an armor of metal that glistened cleanly in the faded sunlight.
These enemy-bots were something else.
Though once as clean and fresh in appearance as any other to ever set wheel on Red, months and even years of operation on the harsh Red Planet had dulled their sheens, turning them into faded and scratched up versions of their former selves. But more than that, they looked as if they had been altered in ways. By cannibalizing parts of other rovers, their frames now appeared bulkier than normal, their torsos, arms, and heads reinforced with the plates and appendages of their victims, giving them a sort of robo-Frankenstein appearance that added to Ares’ sense of impending doom.
There was no time to ponder any of it, Ares knew as it shot forward in a desperate attempt to break free of the gauntlet and survive this first Martian trial intact.
With Rolling Thunder now bent over and motionless - a panel in its head popped open, spilling wires and electrodes everywhere - the two freakish attackers made a move on Ares, swinging rock breakers at its torso with a metal-crushing force.
With only seconds to react, Ares raised its metal arms to deflect the breakers. One of the hammers grazed its left shoulder, but otherwise the robo-judo move worked, at least for a moment. The blows now successfully deflected, Ares spun its wheels ninety degrees to the right and moved swiftly in that direction, eager to get out of the way of another volley of jacking hammers. The dodge put a few needed meters of distance between it and the enemies, but that wouldn’t last long, Ares knew.
At this point, the fourth rover exited the pod, followed quickly by the fifth.
This was just the break Ares needed. Since the hammer enemies were closer to the door than they were to Ares, they chose to turn their collective attentions from Ares to focus on rovers four and five. The two remaining pod mates didn’t stand a chance. Unaccustomed or unprepared for the prospect of hand to hand combat, they were sitting ducks as the enemy hammers went to work on their exposed frames.
For a split second, Ares considered jumping in to help them. But the thought just simply did not compute. It had been lucky once, but outnumbered and weaponless, it knew that its chances of avoiding the hammers would be much smaller the second time around.
Pivoting its wheels, it picked an empty segment of the vast Martian horizon and hit the accelerator.
But nothing happened.
Its wheels spinning, it should have been moving at a nice clip away from the metal carnage behind. But something was holding it up, something that had its entire frame ensnared, preventing its escape.
Endowed – as all rover units were – with the ability to swivel its neck a full 360 degrees, Ares spun its head around to see what it was caught up on. What it saw was the third enemy rover, the one with the high-power drill, gripping the back of Ares’ trailer and using its considerable might to hold Ares in place. The drill enemy must have been seriously modified and reinforced in order to possess the heft needed to hold an entire unit down all on its own.
Even more astonishing was the fact that the enemy was doing it with the strength of just one robotic arm. In the other arm, it held the same drill that it had used to put down Eat My Red Dust. Helpless, Ares watched with glassy mechanical eyes as the enemy aimed the tip of its drill at Ares’ back. If the weapon was strong enough to pierce Eat My Red Dust’s chest plate, it would surely have no trouble breaching Ares’ back and scrambling the vital components with in.
Ares knew that it only had one chance left. Ditching the trailer would be the only real panacea for this dire situation.
Giving the internal code, it deactivated the magnet that bound the trailer to its rear section. With the trailer no longer tethering the rest of Ares’ body to the drill enemy’s strong metal arm, Ares shot forward, kicking up a plum of red dust as it sped away from the trailer and the deadly enemy who still clutched it.
With its head still facing its rear, Ares watched the scene intensely, waiting to see if any of the enemies were preparing to give chance.
For a brief moment, the drill enemy watched as Ares sped away, giving a cursory nod before lowering its drill and turning its attention back to the others.
Clearly the leader of the pack, it must have decided that five trailers and four disabled units to cannibalize was a good enough score for this day.
Ares kept his head focused in their direction for the next few moments, watching as the parts-cannibals dove greedily into the remains of its pod mates.
Once it was convinced that its enemies were not going to follow, Ares returned its head to the forward position stayed on the move. Up ahead was an outcropping of Martian boulders, as good a place as any for it to hole up for a while and get its bearings.
Behind it, the parts-cannibals continued their nasty work.
In front of it, the unknown awaited.
- - - -
When the words came up on the screen, Horton Oliver removed the virtual headset and placed it on the desk before him. Next to him, a team of anxious designers stood by, waiting for his initial reaction to their latest creation with nervous eyes and fidgety hands.
Truth be told, Horton didn’t really care much for video games. He always thought of them as kid’s stuff, the sort of thing his eight-year-old grandson, Max, would get a kick out of.
As far as he was concerned, it was all pretty silly. Fighting rovers? Parts-cannibals? Come on.
But then again, this sort of thing really wasn’t his field. His company, MARSCORP, was busy working on the technology that would eventually get a fleet of real and functional rovers to the surface of Mars to do actual and important work. A majority of that was still years away, though. In the meantime, they needed to stay relevant in the public eye, and the board decided that commissioning a new and exciting game would be a good way to pique people’s interest and gain some much needed publicity for their cause.
Still, as the founder and CEO, nothing was going to move forward unless he signed off on it, which is why the designers were now hanging so intently on his next words.
Turning to them, he paused for a brief moment before cracking a faint smile.
“Seems good to me,” he said.
The group before him let out a deep sigh of relief. Now they could put all their hard work to good use and get started on the designs for the next phase in the game.
Standing from his chair, he said, “I want to see the final specs by next month.”
The designers all agreed to get right on it, freeing him up to exit the room and return to his own office where the real work remained. The reality of what they were doing here went far beyond this corny, evanescent game that had no basis in reality what-so-ever.
Fighting robots on Mars?
Over my dead body.
Putting it out of his mind, he made his way to his office and got back to work.
Somewhere deep inside the digital files of the MARSCORP computer mainframe, Ares-Two and its kind waited.