A shiny object gleamed in the dull light when Frederick stepped up into the supply ship. It flickered and rushed toward him with such speed that he barely had time to recognize it before it plunged through his suit and into his chest. The realization took a moment as he watched the knife slice through him like he was nothing of substance. His body gave way as if it were an inflatable cushion that had been punctured.
It happened so fast yet so slow. The motion of the knife penetrating his chest and pulling back reminded him of some of the slow motion videos he had done of his kids when they were younger. He followed the bloody blade back to its owner and stared wide-eyed at the bot that had accosted him. Warm fluid seeped down his chest, but only a tiny starburst of blood showed on the outside of his white suit. He tried to touch it with his shaky gloved hand, but the ship started to spin. His heart thumped in his ears and each contraction sent rivulets of blood down into his suit. He felt weak and slumped to his knees still in shock. He tried to say something, but he only gasped warm air onto his face mask. He winced, lazy-eyed and woozy.
He stared at the emotionless bot and the others that stood behind it watching him struggle. They registered no sense of concern or dismay about what had just happened. As the ship started to spin around him, he wondered where the bots had come from. Were they already on the supply ship? How did he and Sanjay miss them? Sanjay! He tried to say something to Sanjay who was somewhere down below him near the rover. He had to warn him about the bots. Nothing but blood and air bubbles escaped his mouth. The ship spun faster. His mind stuttered and blackness flickered revealing a void that soon would swallow him. He fell to the floor. Images of his family and his former life reeled before his eyes as his breathing became labored.
Daddy, when will I see you again?
Soon, I promise.
Why do you have to go?
Sweetie, our time on this planet is limited. If I don’t do this, you may not have the opportunity to grow up into the wonderful young woman that you will be.
He looked lovingly at his eight-year-old daughter, the youngest of his four kids, the only girl. He smiled.
It’s a long story, but we’ve made a mess of this planet, and now we have to find somewhere else to live if we want to continue to thrive.
Is Mars like earth?
Is it beautiful like earth used to be?
He sighed. He thought of the pictures he had seen of earth when he was a child. The sunsets were so beautiful and surreal compared to what he saw everyday. He had never truly experienced the earth he knew from pictures, but he knew it was glorious then. A solemn sadness came over him.
Everything is beautiful in its own way, dear.
I can’t wait to see it.
You’ll see it soon enough. I’ll help get everything ready for you.
How long before I see you again?
It’ll be a few months, but I won’t leave you again after that.
Yes, I promise.
He scooped his daughter into his arms and hugged her tiny body close to his. He inhaled her youth and all of the promise that it held for her. He ignored the lump in his throat and forced back the tears that threatened to spill over. He had to be strong for her. He had to do this last mission for her even if it meant risking his own life. There was no other way to preserve a future for his young daughter.
Sanjay stepped up into the ship and stared at Frederick’s body on the floor. He grimaced and then shot a look at the bots.
“What the fuck? Why did you do that?” he addressed the lead bot that stood in front of him with the bloody blade still in its grasp.
“It was time,” the lead bot replied coldly.
“No! It wasn’t!” Sanjay yelled. He bent down and rolled Frederick over to see his face. His eyes were shut and a trickle of blood appeared at the corner of his mouth. “Frederick!”
Frederick didn’t respond. Sanjay shook him briefly before he touched the screen on his suit to check his status. His heart and breathing had stopped. Sanjay frowned and shook his head angrily before he turned his attention to the bots.
“Don’t do anything again without my orders! Do you understand?” He gave the lead bot a hard stare, but none of the bots betrayed any response. “Do you understand?” Sanjay repeated forcefully.
“Yes,” the lead bot replied.
Sanjay looked at Frederick’s body strewn out at his feet and frowned. The sight of his slain colleague pained him more than he would have expected.
“Take him outside and bury him. You might as well get the crew out of the cockpit here and bury them too. I need to think about how we’re going to deal with this,” Sanjay ordered. He walked past the lead bot into the cargo hold of the ship. He paced a few moments before he sat on one of the crates near the back wall.
The bots shuffled around near the front of the ship removing Frederick’s body and extracting the crew from the cockpit while Sanjay took deep breaths and played through scenarios in his head. After much angst and deep thought, Sanjay looked up. He could only see the shadows of the bots’ movements. They were oddly silent, and for a moment, he feared they were communicating privately to plan a mutiny. He didn’t fully trust the bots, but he had been assured that they’d be loyal to him.
He stood up and hurried to the door to confront them. He was in control, not them, and he wanted to remind them of it, but when he reached the edge of the cargo door, all of the bots had left the ship. Two of them were carrying the last body of the crew between them and were walking slowly toward a grave two other bots were digging near the aft of the ship. Sanjay stood at the entrance to the ship and watched them. He heard nothing on the private comm channel they used. Panic gripped him.
He hadn’t planned on mounting the revolt so soon. Now, the rash actions by the leader bot had forced a change of plans. The Captain kept calling Frederick and him on crew comm. He snapped the control for the comm off to clear his head. She’d learn soon enough that she was no longer the leader of this fledgling colony.
He hadn’t wanted any of the crew to get hurt. That hadn’t been the plan. Sure, there likely would have been some resistance, but he had been confident that he could have taken power bloodlessly. Of all the crew, he liked Frederick the best, if only because his clear-eyed logic had been the counterbalance to the Captain’s stunted emotional leadership. She clearly had something to prove, more to herself than anyone else, but Frederick had been rock solid and reliable throughout the whole mission.
Thoughts shuffled through his mind in rapid succession. He had carefully planned everything only to have it mucked up by a hapless bot. Suddenly, a divergent idea struck him. Maybe the bot didn’t just happen to kill Frederick because it had no other option. Maybe that was part of the plan that hadn’t been shared with him. What else had not been shared with him? A chill wormed its way down his spine as everything seemed to lose its gravity. Suddenly, he no longer felt so sure of himself and his plan. Something had gone awry and he had failed notice it.