Author : Bob Newbell

A thin cloud of red dust trailed behind Orton’s motorcycle. I’m running out of time, he thought to himself as he rode across Cydonia Mensae. The temperature was already down to -40 degrees Celsius and continued steadily dropping. The sun would be setting in less than an hour and it wouldn’t be safe to be outside after dark. Even after almost two decades of economic malaise, political disintegration, and finally open warfare, Orton had a hard time believing how seriously the situation on Mars had deteriorated.

It hadn’t always been that way. After the Nanotech Revolution of the twenty-eighties, space travel finally became cheap, fast, and safe, and while habitats in Earth orbit and on the surface of the Moon had their appeal, Mars was the true frontier. The cycle from flags and footprints missions to destination for wealthy adventurers to scientific outposts to genuine communities had progressed quickly, catalyzed by inexpensive and reliable space technology and the promise of a new beginning.

Orton slowed his motorcycle to a crawl and looked behind him. No sign of pursuit, he thought. A sensor sweep would have been much more accurate and comprehensive, of course. But a scan would have given his position away instantly. Even with the motorcycle’s stealth devices operating, it was a miracle he had eluded detection this long. He could just make out the dome in the distance. It would be so easy to simply upload the information he was carrying. It would be equally easy for any number of rival factions to intercept, decode, and quickly act on that information. He thumbed the accelerator and made for the dome.

A United Mars, he thought as he cruised across the rough terrain. That had been the dream. A global republic? A confederation of domed city-states? A true and literal democracy? It was strange how the past’s vision of the future seemed so unforgivably naive. As the sun descended deeper into the horizon, Orton noticed tiny flashes in the distance. In the thin Martian air, nearly microscopic machines were surveilling and, when opportunity presented itself, attacking. All the major factions had fleets of these innumerable, artificially intelligent drones. The flashes were drones being destroyed by a rival’s countermeasures. This microscopic, airborne war raged round the clock, as the tiny, flying robots fought, were destroyed, and were replaced minutes later by new models with revisions and upgrades based on their predecessors’ failure. It was this front in the vast, internecine conflict and not the engagements of men and their bulky vehicles and weapons, some argued, that would determine the outcome of the war.

Arriving at last, Orton piloted the motorcycle into the dome’s narrow airlock and breathed a sigh of relief. In ten minutes time, the data he carried would be scrutinized by military intelligence. Would it make any difference? Time would tell. The interior door of the airlock opened with a click. Orton stepped through. The atmosphere was only marginally different from that outside the dome. He took off his respirator and inhaled tenuous air into lungs engineered to extract oxygen directly from carbon dioxide. He withdrew the translucent, nictitating membrane from his eyes and hurried to deliver his report.

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