The martian outback extends in every direction; a vast, bleak stretch of red soil, like Oklahoma without all the yellow grass and pump jacks. I'm really starting to hate the color red. I've been out in this God forsaken Dust Bowl replica for three days (martian days, mind you) and I have no idea where I'm going. Taking an escape pod off of a space resort on Phobos was a stupid idea. Doing this with a slightly broken back was stupider. At the time it still seemed better than remaining on casa de monstrousa while waiting for help from Mars.

When we first contacted them the martians' reaction was predictable disbelief. After we managed to convince them that we were in fact under attack from monsters that had some how appeared on the station the martian authorities on Olympus began collaborating with us on a plan to get us off this hell hole. And then we got a message from Earth that we were to stay put and that a rescue was being launched from Earth. It would take a week to arrive but they'd included top notch medics and free fall trained marines. We'd get the best help possible on such short notice and all we had to do was hold out. Since we had ample food and none of the things seemed like they could get through locked doors it seemed like our best bet. Of course all of this ignored the fact that our rescuers would need to use an antimatter catalyzed torch drive to make it here in a week. I don't know what the exact market price of antimatter is but I know that it's way more than anyone is going to spend on about two hundred people on the edge of civilization, particularly when the Martians could actually get there faster. I especially doubt that they made all of those decisions in five hours. I was an intelligence analyst during the blackout wars, I know a predetermined plan when I see one. If there is something on its way from Earth I doubt that it's carrying humans; much less medics. I certainly didn't plan on being there when it arrived. So, I did what any red blooded American would do in this situation. I stole one of the escape pods. It took some doing but I even got the thing to land in the martian out back instead of Alba Mons landing field so that they couldn't find me. In retrospect, I'm wondering if the pain killers I was on after getting my back put together had paranoia as a side effect. Death by starvation on Mars was not really an improvement over being eaten by monsters on Phobos.

My back spasms for the umpteenth time today and I lose my balance. Laying in the rust I consider just how much agony I would be in if not for my decision to shut off pain. Not the only time learning self hypnosis came in handy. The self adjusting, smart, medical back brace had let me function in the micro-gravity of Phobos with little danger of me injuring myself. Reentry had almost certainly damaged something but I had thought that the brace would fix it. That and all the walking hadn't done my spine any favors, not that I have much choice. My suit has at least one more day before it gives out and the CO2 builds up and kills me so it's important to keep moving.

And yet I continue laying here. The one silver lining to all this; if you want to call it that, is that as long as I've been walking I've had one clear radio signal. It's not an emergency band or anything useful. No, it was music. In fact it was music to die on Mars to. Every song was about death, failure, and how much life on Mars sucks. As far as my addled mind can deduce, the songs are on a fifteen hour loop that's just repeating the same two hundred-ish songs endlessly. Oddly, most of the songs are upbeat despite the depressing lyrics.

♫♪Red Planet, Dead Planet
Gonna kill me, God dammit ♫

After three more songs I decide that this is not the barren patch of dirt I want to die on and get up. I check which direction I was heading and take off in what I hope is a straight line.

Four hours later I'm staring at the ground hoping that what I'm seeing isn't a hallucination. A pair of tracks travel in a straight path as far as I can see. I drop to my knees and then my stomach to examine the tracks. Not being able to bend at the waist sucks. The tracks are about three quarters of a meter apart and the wheels look to be fairly small so I don't think they were left by a personal vehicle. That leaves an autonomous device. Pushing myself up I consider what to do. I can't tell which way the whatever was going so I pick a direction and follow it.

* * *

Four hours later I'm jogging as fast as my failing body will go through the martian night. My suit helpfully informed me that it had fifteen hours of battery life left. They could have used fission batteries that would've lasted years but of course who would be stupid enough to end up in the airless Martian dessert for more than a few hours. Either your escape pod gets you to help or you're dead anyway. You should never even need the suit; it's probably just their to fulfill some insurance requirement. So why am I out here again? Oh, right I'M INSANE.

It's worth mentioning I got the battery warning two hours ago. Normally I'd just pass out on the ground when it got dark because I have a much higher chance of wandering past help at night and I still need to sleep. Now neither of those facts seem very important. The tracks typically go about five hundred meters before taking a right angled turn to the right or left. The consistency lends credence to my idea that whatever it is it isn't controlled by a human. Hazarding a guess I'd say it was some kind of mostly autonomous exploratory rover; probably trying to cover as much ground as possible which would explain the frequent turns. I'm considering how quickly I could expect to pass out if I just depressurized my suit when it starts beeping at me. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to realize that I'm receiving a call.

"this is claim guard 945 for the Autonomist Association. you are trespassing on claim E9029. this action carries a 1.50 hong coin charge." The voice is mechanical, no question that I'm talking to an AI.

"Um ... okay ... I've been lost out here for ... like … days." I respond lamely. I hadn't used my voice for two days and it sounds thin and reedy. My blood must be like syrup.

I keep walking until I arrive in front of the rover. It was wider than I'd imagined, a three meter wide wheeled lily pad of photo-voltaic panels radiating out from a center sporting a thin bundle of cables that disappear into the night sky; undoubtedly attached to sensors and comm equipment hanging from a vacuum balloon or the like.

“are you in need of assistance? this claim guard can provide directions and/or guidance for 5.25 hongcoin per hour plus 8 hongcoins per kilometer and subject to other fees.”

I must admit it took me a while to form a response to that.

“You're charging me to save my life?”

The rover took it's time in responding, in turn. It's hard to guess just how wide a range of responses would be programmed into a claim guard.

“this claim guard is offering services for which you would be charged.”

“Who creates a bot that can save people and programs it to charge them money?!”

“the Autonomist Association was formed by like minded early martian settlers disillusioned by the corrupt welfare state that the nations of Earth were becoming. they chose to form a small governing body aimed at the prevention of coercion and the enforcement of contracts with all other services usually attributed to government left to the private sector. this–”

“I remember now! The Autonomists were a bunch of rebranded Objectivist. I thought they collapsed.”

“the Autonomist Association draws its philosophy of government from many sources other than the writings of Ayn Rand.”

My God, I'm speaking to a literal Randroid.

“Okay, don't care about the Autonomist. How far is the nearest human habitat?”

“the distance estimate will cost you one hong coin.”


“this claim guard will require your credit information before we can engage in any transaction.”

“I don't have credit info for Mars.”

“then your name will suffice.”

“John Jacob Jinglehymer Smith.” I'm not giving this evil machine my real name.

“very well mister Jingelhighmersmith, the nearest habitation is forty three kilometers north west of your current location.”

Damn, I have maybe thirteen hours to walk all that way in the dark. No, I need a guide.

“Take me there.”

“this entails a fee of –”

“I'll pay! Let's just get going.”

“– 5.25 hong coin per hour plus 8 hong coins per kilometer and subject to other fees.”

It was rolling before it finished its spiel.

Let's see, five and a quarter times forty three plus not more than thirteen times eight equals … I don't know how I'm going to eat.

Then the perfect song for this moment started playing.

This is a sequel to Playing DOOM on Phobos

SciFiQuest 3016: Stuff What Hasn't Happened Yet and a nodeshell rescue

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