So. Just to recap. Two hours ago I arrived at the rim of the crater, stopped and waited for the local Security AI to quiz my intentions, but there was only silence. Still, it was always polite to wait a few minutes before barrelling down. My Martian buggy is one of the Executive Utility models, making it quite large and, in general, farmers out here just don’t like visitors in big vehicles descending on them. “What exactly makes it the Executive Utility?” Well, it is still styled like the ubiquitous buggy, with the two occupant cab and tray top, but in between I opted for the four-occupant living cab, that’s four bunks, tiny kitchen with food fabber, shower recess, and communal living area, allegedly. It’s something of a joke really, four people could not live comfortably in it… well actually, if they were neotenics, they might, but nothing else would put up with the cramped conditions. Six balloon wheels make it a smooth ride though, and really it is just me and Rabbi, it is tight for just the two of us, and Rabbi takes up so much space by herself. “Rabbi is the cat?” Yeah, a partially uplifted, transgenic, African Cheetah. Her size boosted to three times the mass and twice as large as the earth-based cat was. The scientists that worked on the project had boosted her brain wattage until she had a working vocabulary of about 200 words, they were just experimenting with adding the neo-cortex and transgenic voice-box when their lab took a hit by someone they chose not to identify and … well, I was there on contract to upgrade their recycling systems, when they decided to … uh … euthanize the adult stock and move the cubs to a new, more secure lab. I asked them if I could look after Rabbi, and they argued about it for some time before they agreed. “That seems a little unlikely, you are a low grade contract-tech. Why would they give you a smart cat worth millions in unfinished research?” I got some pull on the RNA, not many on Mars know it, but I do have a Masters in cryptography, at least four peer reviewed papers that have been commended and a few others that are just page fillers. On top of that, I also have a Bachelors in nanotechnology, not that that means anything really, they print those on the back of feedstock wrappers these days. Anyway, while I was waiting, I looked over the farm. It was a shallow crater with three secondary craters, two kilometres in diameter with the settlement right in the middle, it looked like a single, solid dome with maybe half a dozen rooms, just right for a small family unit. Other than that, there were four soft, inflatable, greenhouses linked to each other with pressured access tubes. That much tells you how long the farmers had been here and how valuable a crop they were growing. The farm was maybe four to five years old, the Martian dust still fairly poor and taking a lot of effort to turn to soil; the crops, probably just beans or that new variety of cabbage that everyone seems to be growing now. As for the rest of the crater, there were six tiller-bots working the dust, measuring the success of various bacteria, worms, and chemicals in creating life-giving soils, although the pH is always the hardest to control. There were also two chem-bots, they were the ones seeding the bacteria and chemicals in the hopes of creating decent soil. In one of the secondary craters, I could see a line of restriction markers that kept the bots out, planted on one edge of that was a different seeder-bot, designed to propagate lichen and moss into the more useless dust that fills up some craters. Most of the bots were carrying on with their tasks, ignoring me, there was one, about half way to the settlement that wasn’t moving. Nothing unusual about that, the tiller-bots spent more time in the workshop than out in the field, most farmers were mechanics and one member of the family was always the electronic technician. “Chase the bots by day and fix them by night”, that was the farmers motto, or so they tell me. But, I had a contract to get on with and sent a signal to the buggy to continue down the path, we hadn’t even gone fifteen metres before the Security AI sent its customary warning and a strident request for our reason for visiting. Sending my contract details shut it up quick and it sent details causing the buggy to slow to ten kilometres an hour and an AR crumb trail of where to drive ‘til we got to a place to park. As we drew close to the non-functioning tiller-bot, I stopped the buggy and waited, the buggy rocked a few times, then a big, stompy robot with eight legs tracked across the field, raising small puffs of dust at the impact of its feet as it walked. It was a large bot, five hundred kilos mass, armoured, and quite intimidating, but it was quite dextrous and stopped next to the tiller-bot, blackened scorch marks in the ground and tiny glass-like beads on the surface of the dust indicated a lightning strike, rare but completely devastating to a bot like this. Yeah, the optical-based computer and AI were probably fine, but the servo motors and wireless coms were probably fried. In front of me, a twenty centimetre high sprite resolved, a blonde woman in a white t-shirt and denim over-alls, a massive wrench in her right hand that, if they had both been corporeal, she would never have been able to lift, much less twirl like a cheerleader’s baton, as she was right now. Vivid blue eyes were watching the two bots in the field, then she turned to me and made her normal pronouncement, “It’s fucked”, there was a heavy accent there, but I was so used to it I didn’t pay much attention to it. She had been a gift from an associate while I was a student at the Titan Autonomous University, one of the senior programmers there had taken a basic technician AI and stream-lined her technical algorithms then tweaked her so that she could access a few skill-softs, plus a few special mods deep down where nobody knew where to look. He also gave her a Finnish accent, which I had softened a little, but it was still mostly intact. I told ‘Enikko, my tech, to fix up the wireless comms and then investigate what else might be wrong with it, she shook her head and responded with, “It would be easier to break it down and build a new one”, but she knew we might not have time for that, so she dissolved and I knew she would focus on the bot – she helpfully activated a progress bar in my entoptics, amongst a few other status notes hovering on the periphery. It was disquieting, though, a quick check on the mesh confirmed a category three dust devil had been through here three days ago, it would have spat out a few lightning bolts, and maybe wrecked a few other things, but the farmer would have checked as soon as the devil had moved on. So, yeah, I was getting a bad feeling about things at that point. Then Rabbi started to tense up, her nose and eyes were much better than mine, and I had proved my ears were much better than hers, but that was merely worthless point-scoring on my part. As I said, Rabbi has a small vocabulary, but ninety percent of the time, she uses just one word – Tuna – letting me know when she is hungry, and I don’t believe I would have heard her use more than a dozen different words over the last few years. This time, she almost strung together a sentence, “Blood. Bad blood. Rotten blood” “She can speak?” No. Not really, she doesn’t have the voice-box for it, but she can communicate over our meshed comms. And it took her several months to get used to that, vocally, all she does is growl or chirp, echoed over the mesh with what she wants to convey. I continued down the path to the settlement, at the same time sending an alert to the nearest Ranger station and streaming video to their mesh-interface from my coterie of gnats. An officer was quick to respond to the video stream and asked several questions before letting me continue. It would take a patrol an hour or so to divert to my location. Ordinarily, they would be too busy for this sort of thing, delegating it to some other bunch of wage slaves, but they must have been having a slow day. After giving orders to the small squad of gnats, I sent them surging in front of the buggy, quickly getting to the settlement and scouting out the building, they confirmed my basic suspicions, the family were dead, all four of them in the main living area. Of course, the details of the deaths were more gruesome than any I had seen before. On the dining table were the two young boys, maybe six and eight years old, the tops of their skulls sliced off, grip-taped in a chair near the table was the mother, her skull likewise sliced open. The father was grip-taped to the wall, he had put up a fight, one arm was obviously broken, he had bruises on all limbs, his face and upper chest, and his left foot was gone, severed about mid-shin, blood everywhere around him, but not so much around the others. And the top of his skull had been neatly sliced off as well, so he had suffered the same fate as the rest of his family. No other evidence of burglary, vandalism, or other crimes anywhere in the main building, or even the greenhouses which were still fully stocked with plants, completely undisturbed in their neat rows. If this had been opportunistic, anything of value would have been stolen, but whoever murdered the family, wasn’t after produce or tech. All the electricity in the main settlement was off, only the greenhouses had power and I sent a gnat off to find the wireless power interface to see what had broken. That was when you arrived, officer, I’m still scouting for the break in the power. “Okay. And you have not entered the settlement?”, the Martian Ranger asked, her uniform crumpled and wrinkled and she seemed completely uninterested. Her cruiser was nearby, the radio spitting out nearly unintelligible bursts of static-riddled transmissions. She nodded as she considered the next move and called for the forensics team to descend and get what evidence they could from the scene, then remove the bodies and try to ascertain if they could be recovered. After the forensic team had gathered what trace evidence they could find around the bodies, it was time to get a closer look at the bodies, most had no indication of wounds anywhere else on their bodies – it seemed that only the father had an opportunity to fight back. Then the next gruesome discovery, all of the family had had their brains removed, but it was not a brutal, reckless removal. The spinal cord showed a clean cut in all four cases, this was with surgical precision, a gnat was sent closer to investigate and this only confirmed the skulls had been cleanly sliced open leaving no bone chips in the wounds, and probably not doing any damage to the meninges. It was then that I realised the scalps that had been removed were not in the living room, and the gnats I had in the settlement scanned every room, not finding them anywhere, which was certainly upping the creepy factor. The gnat outside finally found a shattered wireless distribution receiver on the roof of the settlement, smashed by something quite strong and very precise, the information was passed on to the second repair bot on my buggy and it lumbered toward the building, carefully climbing up the wall – ‘Enikko in charge as she surveyed the damage. I did not need to wait for her report, already guessing what she would say. What she always said. The forensics team announced they were leaving, with the good news that the preliminary prognosis for the bodies was positive – the bodies could be revived. The cortical stacks were present, so re-instantiating the family would be no problem, what was a problem was the lack of a brain, until one of the forensics officers suggested bolting in a cyber-brain and they might be back on the farm in little more than a week. Notwithstanding psychological damage, of course. Once the fault was located, it didn’t take long for the repair bot to restore power, everything in the dwelling blinked on, refrigeration units began to hum, environmental systems shrieked for a moment as fans and pumps all started at once. Lights flicked on, AR tags erupted from nowhere and mesh IDs were listed for each piece of electronics in all rooms of the settlement. Curiously, there were two fabbers in the dwelling, most farmers were only able to afford the basic food fabber located in the kitchen, but there was another in the workshop, a gnat quickly locating it, as well as another tiller-bot spread out on a bench in several pieces. The ranger followed me as I went to the workshop and scanned the fabber, it was specialised for electronics and robotics parts, an unusually expensive option for a start-up farmer still in the first few years of getting established. It would also have been the one thing I would have expected to be stolen, probably the most valuable unit on the farm, besides the food. Then I noticed that the power access had been jury-rigged for an external source, normally it would be hard-wired into the workshop’s power system, but the cable had been cut, insulation bared and the conductors twisted, dangling off the bench as if it was wired into something else, like a battery or portable generator of some kind. I could imagine the perpetrator of this crime swearing heavily as the fabber could not be powered with the distribution network down, realising he or she had caused this set-back with its own actions. A few moments later and the repair-bot that had repaired the distribution box was working on restoring the fabber – this unit had obviously been used at some stage of this gruesome crime. However, several minutes later when the repair bot had finished and the fabber was able to respond to my queries, it could not give me any real data, but there was a little trick I could use here, and I shoved a blueprint into its menu and ordered it to begin building, it reported a two hour cycle to completion. “You taking advantage of this crime?”, the ranger asked, noting the fabber suddenly bursting into life. I explained to her about a one-shot chance to get some info out of the fabber, but to do it I had to queue a project, she glared at me and was obviously not going to believe me. I shrugged and looked around the workshop, it was relatively tidy apart from the main bench, and there was no evidence of violence or a struggle in here. Shelving units bolted to one wall held a variety of hand-tools; spare and broken parts for the tiller-bots; broken toys; boxes filled with kitchen utensils and crockery; plus some broken furniture slated for resource recovery. After a few minutes, I decided there was nothing more I could do until the fabber had finished, and I still had a contract to complete, it didn’t matter that the farmers had been murdered, the contract had to be completed or I would face certain penalties and a loss of reputation from a hypercorp that just didn’t care. Making my way to the recycling installation, two repair-bots already present and a boxy automech studying the AR log-book of past servicing and repairs, which were, unsurprisingly, scant. The ranger followed me and kept me under guard, I was unsure of whether she thought I knew more than I was admitting to about this crime, or maybe she thought I needed protection in case the criminal returned, but she exuded an air of suspicion. Cleaning the filters in the recycling unit was quick and easy, taking about an hour and a half, there were only a couple of filters and the impellor pumps were likewise in good condition, no need to even disassemble the housings as the inspection windows were clear enough to see the pumps – that saved me at least a day of labour. It would be the life support system that would be the challenge – Martian dust was pernicious and so fine it could penetrate the best filters. The AR log-book was updated and the bots relocated to the life support bunker, a heavily reinforced, partially buried facility about ten metres from the main dwelling. When the hyper-corporations wanted to save money, they built these cheap, pre-fabricated, and rapidly assembled settlements, and the cheapest life support unit was a noisy facility and was always built away from the living areas. However, I went back to the workshop and waited for the project in the fabber to finish, the Martian ranger still shadowing me, I wondered if she had nothing better to do, but engaging her in conversation at any time had failed at each attempt. A three tone chime announced the completion of my project, six ectos were waiting to be initialised and put to work, but I asked the fabber for a report on the job, which it dutifully supplied, listing all the resources consumed, the exact time for completion and the remaining amount of each feedstock available. Smiling, I selected the remaining feedstock and asked for the previous project’s consumption, the fabber responded immediately and filled the AR screen with more lines of data – most importantly including the times the last project was initiated and completed. Stepping back through even more projects, I discovered that the last four projects were all brain boxes, made nine hours apart starting five days ago, and before that was a replacement part for the tiller-bot, almost six days ago. The blueprints for the brain box were not standard for the fabber and had been removed from memory after each project had been completed, as was normal procedure for these units. The ranger frowned as I relayed the information to her and sent a copy to the forensics team, “Why make them nine hours apart?” I could only guess that they were made as needed, the brain box took three hours for the fabber to make, but, a quick mesh search revealed it would take nine hours even for the best surgeon to successfully secure the brain in the brain box without the brain dying or suffering debilitating damage, the brain would also need to be medically stabilised with medichines. There were nanites in the bodies of the farmers, preserving the bodies in medical stasis long enough for potential revival, but I doubt that a newly established farmer would have the resources to be able to afford medichines for the whole family, so the murderer must have brought them. The brain boxes could have been queued one after the other, but the surgeon chose not to do that, maybe not knowing if all the family would survive well enough for transplantation, or maybe the surgeon expected other complications. The callousness of this crime grew worse, each member of the family was operated on when each brain box was completed and ready for its cargo, and my belief was that the children were first, with their parents forced to watch. At one point, the father managed to break loose, I had found the wreckage of one chair – although it took me a while to connect it to the assault – taken into the workshop and carefully put onto a shelf where it would be inconspicuous, but one leg was missing, possibly still taped to the farmer’s missing foot. That was when the father had fought for his own life, only to end up taped to the wall, beaten savagely, and then operated on. Why take the brains at all? That I had no answer for – could not even speculate – but the brain boxes would provide life-support for a considerable time, enough to transport living brains to any place on Mars, or an orbital location. But still, the question remains – why?
—Your definition of horror is meaningless to me....... I. Am. A Bay12'er.