Construction had finally wrapped up on the artificial habitat that stood alone in the massive rocky field. It was little more than a white canvas tent fifty feet in diameter, secured to the ground with large titanium bolts, but it was the only mark of human civilization in the entire world. The three astronauts that had built it were now seated outside the Hab in their spacesuits, gazing up at the foreboding brown-gray sky. Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, cast a gigantic shadow over their new home.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” one of them said, “Welcome to Ganymede.”
His companions didn’t respond. They were all tired from the long day of setting up the Hab, and knew they had a very critical and potentially dangerous mission ahead of them.
Although it was officially a team of three equals, Sawyer, the former Space Marine, considered himself the leader of the group, and he was not above communicating it to his teammates. He stood up, looked at them, and pointed at the Hab.
“We still haven’t finished transferring all of our supplies from the ship. There are still a lot of instruments in there. After dinner we should finish getting everything into the Hab.”
“Sawyer, we’re not commencing every experiment right away,” Engineer Kazi answered. “Some of the equipment we won’t be using for weeks. There’s no reason to put all our eggs in one basket. What if something goes wrong with the Hab?”
“I checked it eighty bloody times. It’s as secure as any other manmade structure in the solar system.”
“We’re the first humans to set foot on this surface. Ganymede is the least-known of Jupiter’s big moons. We don’t know much about the climate, or the propensity for dust storms, radiation in the air, or surface stability. Literally anything could go wrong.”
“Then we will begin our first assignments by morning,” Sawyer insisted. “We’ll have no time to waste if this planet’s really as hostile as you say.” He gazed around the tan, cratered surface, throwing his arms up into the air. “This, shall be the next colony of humankind!”
Kazi got up and walked toward him. “That will be for the Interplanetary Congress to decide, AFTER we conduct our studies and report back to them.”
“There shouldn’t be any problem. The human race has already put up colonies on Mars, Luna, Europa, and Callisto, and has manned space stations everywhere. What’s gonna keep us from terraforming and building cities on Ganymede?”
“You’re forgetting something,” the chemist, Gwan, interjected. “Those other colonies took decades to establish. Humans attained the means to send large populated spaceships to other planets by 2050. But Mars didn’t reach a population of a million until well into the 22nd century.”
“Yeah yeah I know, Rome wasn’t built in a day. But they all got started and now they’re booming. Some of them are better off than the humans still on Earth, may God have mercy on them.”
Kazi walked back toward the Hab. “After dinner, we will all take a much-needed rest and then we will begin atmospheric studies. It is very important that we find out the precise levels of radiation here before we all get cooked like a microwave pizza.”
“And after that, soil and rock samples,” Gwan smiled. “Look for traces of water and precious minerals. Maybe we’ll find traces of other life forms, perhaps even evidence of a civilization?”
“Gwan, look around you, we’re not gonna find any cool ruins here,” Sawyer told her. “This will be a rock for humans to leave their print on.”
The three of them retreated into the safety of the Hab, their suits and the thin atmosphere preventing them from hearing the mechanical hum of a drone circling several hundred feet above them.
* * *
“The hole is now two meters deep, it should be enough.”
“We need three meters to put the pole inside and keep it secure in the ground. You need to drill down further.”
“Kazi, this ground is solid rock. Drilling is a real pain and we’re gonna ruin the bit.”
“We have lots of spare parts including bits. Keep drilling.”
Sawyer grunted in frustration, then did as instructed. The drill shook the ground with tremendous force, and small pieces of rock flew up in a storm of debris that nearly blinded the astronauts. After much more mechanical digging and human swearing, the hole was finally the required depth.
“Good job. Now we can get this ion detector planted in. Gwan should be here with the cement to plug the hole.”
Sawyer collapsed butt-first onto the ground. “Whew, that was rough. The people who liked to say ‘Drill baby drill’ obviously never did it themselves.”
“They also never had any consideration for the planet they lived on. That’s why humans had to leave Earth and go ruin other planets.”
“Oh here we go again!” Sawyer threw up his arms. “Can you spare us the hippie nonsense for once, please?”
“There’s nothing nonsensical about it. Climate change and excessive use of fossil fuels is why humans decided they had to start leaving Earth. By 2040, many parts of the planet were becoming uninhabitable, and there were droughts, floods and natural disasters everywhere.”
“Wrong. The human race was always destined to seed the species across the solar system. We were the most advanced species on Earth and we could not be contained on that one small planet forever.”
“Actually, that was really just propaganda the Earthlings were taught by their governments.” Gwan stepped in carrying a tank full of wet cement that was insulated to prevent it from freezing in Ganymede’s atmosphere. “The need for humans to leave Earth was urgent. It would never have been able to sustain nine or ten billion people forever. And we needed resources from other planets.”
“We screwed up our home planet so bad, and now we’re messing up others,” Kazi sighed. “Including maybe this one. I’m always astounded at the time and resources we expend learning enough science to spread ourselves throughout space, and yet we never learn from our mistakes as a species.”
“Are you saying the colonies should never have been erected?” Sawyer glared at his teammate. “What are you even doing on this mission then?”
“Well, how can I say it’s a good thing for us to be sinking our claws into these pristine, celestial bodies, building factories, carving out landfills, and polluting their atmospheres with our toxic chemicals and fumes? What do humans do for any of these planets? I swear, it’s like we’re all a cancer on the solar system. I’m just here because I got ‘volunteered’ by one of the assholes on the Exploration Committee.”
Sawyer stood up and pointed his finger at Kazi in a fury. “We’re a ‘cancer’? You take that back! The human race is what’s making this system worthwhile in the first place!”
“Worthwhile to whom? I don’t think the craters on Mars or the glaciers on Europa care too much for human wit or wisdom.”
Sawyer started removing the drill from the hole he had just created. “They were all just big empty rocks until we came along! We brought civilization! Science, philosophy, law, medicine, art, architecture, engineering, music, INTELLIGENCE! We’re a lot more than just sacks of flesh shitting out garbage, you know!”
“I don’t think the unicellular organisms we found on these planets have been helped in the slightest by our law or medicine, or by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Face it Sawyer, there’s no benefit to us being out here, except to ourselves, and even that’s questionable.”
“Well Kazi,” Gwan interjected, “We don’t know for sure that there isn’t other intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy. I think we humans have made mistakes, but we would have a lot to teach these other lifeforms should we ever cross paths with them.”
“Yeah!” Sawyer exclaimed. “But first we have to make our mark on this system! This is ours! And we’ll fight anyone who tries to take it!”
“Humans expanding to the rest of the planets was often compared to Manifest Destiny, the expansion of the United States across the North American continent,” Gwan continued. “But this time, no indigenous peoples were decimated as a result. We used our ingenuity to save our species from an unpleasant fate, and we flourished. Out here we’ve discovered minerals, resources and scientific principles we never knew existed before. Our race has evolved into something better, more enlightened.”
“You’d never know that from talking to this guy,” Kazi motioned to her teammate. “Gwan, go fill that hole with the cement. I think Mr. Starship Trooper needs to take a breather to let his head return to normal size.”
“And Ms. Down With People here needs to go back to the Hab and get the surgical tools so she can remove the metal rod from her ass,” Sawyer retorted as he hustled back to their base, keeping his distance from Kazi.
* * *
Gwan headed out early the next day to begin scoping out locations for obtaining soil and rock samples. Her teammates were still sleeping, and she relished the opportunity to work in solitude without another argument blaring around her. After putting on her EVA suit, she exited the Hab through the airlock door, and carried her sonar equipment to a randomly-chosen spot less than ten meters from the tent.
She dug into the softest patches of ground that she could find, placing the sentiments into small glass tubes. For the harder rock, she took out sharper digging tools that could cut through it and allow her to obtain samples to find the concentrations of elements and minerals that made up humanity’s prospective new home. It was mind-numbing and tedious work, but also exciting, because she knew it would help shape the destiny of her people.
The atmosphere as thin as it was, Gwan could not hear a single sound. But her sense of sight still worked, and it helped her notice that the small amount of ambient light on the planet was changing rapidly. She paused her digging and looked upward. At first she saw nothing out of the ordinary, and resumed her work. But something was still gnawing at her, and she looked up again. This time, she swore she could see movement. Gwan stood up, squinting her eyes and taking a scan of the sky. In front of the gas giant that hung above, she noticed what looked like a black object spinning quickly.
Unless there are birds on Ganymede, which would be amazing, something’s not right here… she thought.
Then, a strange object materialized right in front of Jupiter. It drifted slowly downward, and Gwan could soon see it for what it was – some type of small aircraft. A drone. Heading right in her direction.
She backed away slowly, then got down on the ground and began crawling, trying to make herself as hard for the gizmo to see as possible. Did the Interplanetary Congress send this to spy on them? No, that was ridiculous. They weren’t going to spy on the scientists they trusted with a critical mission, and certainly not using an instrument as easy to detect as a low-flying drone. The IP wasn’t the incompetent government that had been commonplace on Earth – these people knew how to run things.
The drone continued to drift lower, until it was only about a hundred feet above the surface. A small tube extended out of the front of it, and it flew closer to Gwan’s position. Then the tube started firing a stream of bullets in her direction.
“Shit!” She screamed as the bullets pounded the ground around her, kicking up debris that nearly blinded her. She scrambled up and ran as fast as she could toward the Hab. Soon realizing that a fabric tent was essentially worthless as protection from bullets and that their home would be pulverized, she turned around and dashed toward the ship that had brought them to Ganymede.
Gwan switched on her suit’s comms link and radioed in to the Hab’s interior. “Kazi! Sawyer! Mayday! I’m outside the Hab and I’m being attacked!”
The bullets continued to spray toward her, thankfully the drone had poor aim and all the projectiles were missing – so far. Gwan reached the ship and frantically threw the door open. She jumped inside, slammed the door shut and crouched in the entrance stairs as bullets pounded the outside hull.
“Kazi! Sawyer! Wake up guys! Mayday! There’s a drone outside attacking me! I’m hiding in the ship, but the drone is shooting it, and I don’t know how much longer it can withstand the assault!”
By this time her teammates had finally awoken, and were scrambling to put their EVA suits on to assist their colleague. Sawyer grabbed a small pistol that he kept among his belongings, made sure it was fully loaded, and ran out the airlock of the Hab.
“Sawyer! Do you know what’s going on?” Kazi ran outside of the Hab to join him, not sure what to do. She had no combat experience and did not expect it to be an issue on a peaceful mission like this one was supposed to be.
Sawyer ran toward the ship and was able to quickly assess the situation. “Gwan, stay where you are! I’ve got a gun and I’m gonna take the drone out!”
He held his pistol up to where he could make out the drone, though it was difficult because the flying menace was dark in color and blended in well with the portion of the sky where it hung. Sawyer had to rely on the stream of bullets and the flash of the drone’s muzzle to locate it. When he was able to get his sights onto the body of the flying robot, he fired several rounds in quick succession. Most of the bullets missed, but one of them hit the drone square on its bottom side. It bounced off and the machine continued its assault without missing a beat.
“I don’t think that’s gonna work!” Kazi yelled. “You may have to hit it on one of its less protected parts!”
Sawyer grimaced, finding it hard enough to locate the flying scourge. He still had plenty of bullets remaining, and decided to simply fire on the drone wherever he could, hoping to damage it as much as possible. By this point the ship was starting to take some significant damage and he worried that Gwan might be hurt, but all he could do was focus on his target.
Ten more bullets flew at the drone before one of them hit its sighting lens, sending off sparks and a plume of smoke that could barely be seen by the humans. Another volley of rounds pummeled its body and perforated the mechanism exposed by the broken sighting. The drone started hovering erratically, and stopped firing at the ship. A burst of sparks erupted, then the contraption rotated its body and began flying away from the ship.
“Oh no you don’t! You’re not getting away that easy!” Sawyer re-aimed his gun and fired several more rounds at the retreating menace. Most of them missed, but the few that connected hit with enough force to finally down the drone, which quickly tumbled out of the sky and crashed onto the ground about half a kilometer away.
“Gwan,” Kazi yelled as she and Sawyer began running toward the wreckage, “You can come out now. The drone is dead. Our Space Marine Guy finally did something useful with his training.”
“I don’t think this thing was created by anyone from Earth,” Gwan stated as the three of them surveyed the crashed device. She picked at the wreckage with one of the tools she had been using to excavate soil samples. “These kinds of metals have never been used by any human civilization to build mechanical objects or robots.”
“How can you be sure?” Kazi asked.
“I can do a chemical analysis of these parts to be certain, but they’ll surely confirm what I’m saying. We don’t even know how to work with these metals. Also, look at the insignia here, and the set up of the internal mechanics. None of this is used by anyone in our civilization.”
Sawyer was perturbed. “So… this thing was sent by another race of beings?”
“Sure looks that way. The question is, why would an alien race send a drone out here to attack us?”
Kazi looked at Sawyer briefly, knowing that he would not appreciate what she was about to say. “If I may venture a guess, maybe we have a reputation out here, based on our history on our home planet and elsewhere.”
“So what are you saying?” Sawyer asked her belligerently.
“Maybe there are other beings out here that don’t want us spreading throughout space, because we tend to start wars and wreck up the places we inhabit.”
“’Scuse me, if this is a war, they’re the ones who started it. This was an unprovoked attack on civilian scientists. Whoever these hostiles are, they need to know whom they’re trifling with. This is all the more reason we need to set up a colony here on Ganymede, and all over the solar system.”
“Yes, more warmongering will always save our species. Thank you for being a perfect representative of your kind.” Kazi headed back toward the Hab, shaking her head and muttering to herself. “The cancer always spreads.”
“We need to report this to the Interplanetary Congress immediately,” Sawyer told Gwan. “We need a full investigation, and security needs to be enhanced at all human-occupied colonies and outposts. I foresee the Space Armed Forces receiving a hundred-fold budget increase very soon.”
“For sure,” she answered, shaking her head sadly. “Normally I’d be thrilled at the prospect of meeting some extraterrestrial neighbors. But a welcome basket of fruit this isn’t.”