A robot on Mars

(You should probably read Robot 55 first.)

A wavy plain the color of rust stretched all the way to a not-so-distant horizon, dotted with rocks big and small. Farther out, low outcroppings barely cast a shadow in the tiny, pale sun; high up, the air was thick with dust.

Something foreign stood in that empty vastness: the statue of a human being, thirty meters tall and covered in shiny armor plates painted red and white, that gave it an angular figure. On its head was a helmet with hard edges and a smooth faceplate attached. A pair of eyes burned in the gap between them. The giant appeared to stare into the distance, at bright lights chasing each other in the sky. After a while, it lifted a foot and started walking.

Inside the cockpit, numbers and diagrams danced across big screens that showed a panorama of the landscape. A young man in a red and white flight suit frantically pushed virtual buttons, straining against the cushioned harness he was strapped into.

"At least I made it down in one piece," he muttered, before zooming in to better see the celestial light show. "I hope they can hold the line without me."

Right on cue, the image of a muscular young woman appeared in a window on his helmet visor, flanked by thumbs-up symbols. The digital avatar winked at him, then vanished.

"Thanks, Hikaru," the young man said belatedly. "Let's see, if I got this right, the old research outpost should be... roughly this way."

Two hundred kilometers up, five more robots faced off twice as many bone-white spheres with spiky protrusions, most of them smaller, though one or two dwarfed the humanoid machines. One of the latter, locked into a space plane configuration, darted back and forth, thrusters flaring. Bright particle beams missed it repeatedly, as two spheres almost collided trying to follow. From farther away, a short and squat robot fired two missiles. The smaller sphere was rocked by explosions and tumbled out of control towards the planet, but the second missile crashed into an invisible barrier. Its target sputtered, then resumed shooting more weakly.

Hikaru's avatar flashed inside four other cockpits, flanked by a zero and a rocket symbol. Three of the robots kept their distance, taking potshots at their mobile enemies, with little success. Only the spaceplane turned and accelerated towards the damaged sphere.

"Violet, no!" Hikaru keyed her microphone. "Robot 33, get back in formation!"

An image popped into her field of view. Violet looked the complete opposite of Hikaru, tall and thin, her delicate face now hard with determination. "Negative. We have to get in close. And I'm the fastest."

Sure enough, her robot shifted its stance and spun around, firing at close range from emplacements on all four limbs. The larger sphere sparked brightly and went dark, but two more changed direction, approaching from behind.

"Here we go," muttered Hikaru, taking aim. "I hope Roy is doing better down there."

The giant robot marched across broken terrain, its armor not so shiny anymore. Inside the cockpit, dials dipped briefly into the yellow with every step. Soon it reached a ravine. The machine bent its knees then jumped, thrusters taking over halfway up. Hydraulics groaned, and the fuel gauge went down noticeably.

"No way I'm getting back in orbit without a good pair of boosters," concluded Roy. He nailed the landing and stood for a moment, watching a meteor streak across the sky. Then he noticed the plume of dust rising from somewhere ahead, and started running.

It was a smattering of round buildings on a valley floor, some with transparent walls; solar panels stretched along the nearby hillside. Spider-like machines, reaching up to the robot's knees, milled around the compound. A couple busied themselves drilling a hole in the ground next to a tower. Two more noticed the intruder and headed his way on thick legs, shooting blobs of light. Roy crouched down, flaps on his forearm unfolding into a small shield to deflect one. The other flew over his head, giving him time to answer with a laser beam from his opposite hand that send the other machines scrambling. One left a severed leg behind.

"Mechanoids," Roy stated the obvious. "What do they want? Place is abandoned."

Skeletal scorpions approached from another direction, emitting beams of their own, and he ducked behind a pile of huge boulders.

A glancing blow made Hikaru miss, leaving the two Mechanoid spheres to pound Violet's deflector shields, while she struggled to get her bearings. Then another robot swooped in, guns blazing. Its pilot laughed, eyes and teeth gleaming.

"Yee-haw!" he shouted, before his expression turned to horror as a stray particle beam got through his defenses. "I'm hit! I'm hit!"

"Fall back, I'll cover you!" It was a middle-aged woman, with deep lines on her face. "Big guy, go."

"On it." This latest pilot had a bushy red beard, and a heavy robot. His missile struck Violet's remaining opponent, blowing it up, and she straightened into a spaceplane again before zooming away from a deadly web of light at the last moment.

"I'm running out of power," she announced. "There's just too many of them."

"Me too," confirmed Hikaru. "Everyone, pull back. All power to shields."

"Which way is back? I can't... sensor damage!" The transmission was cut short.

"Away from them!" replied the big guy. His on-screen avatar froze and turned blurry.

From her cockpit, Hikaru watched in horror. "That's it. All hands, abort the mission."

"Wait." Violet turned to point at a region of space that twisted in on itself. A large saucer-shaped vessel burst out from the vortex, spraying beams and missiles. "It's the Orion!"

One moment, mechanical arachnids fired beam after beam, keeping Roy pinned behind cover. The next, they slumped to the ground and stopped moving. Time passed, then his radio crackled to life.

"Robot 55, this is robot 22, what's your status?"

"This is robot 55," he answered. "All clear, I repeat, all clear."

The End

Felix Ple┼čoianu,