“That…That is a monster.”
He was right.
He did what anyone would do when faced with a monster. He took out his smart device and started recording a video. Through the porthole window of the connector tunnel, the creature appeared totally surreal, impressive, terrifying and unique.
On Mars we were used to 3D printing organs for the hospital, meat and veg products for meals, but a monster. This was something new. In truth, it was my job to be a little paranoid and I had been half expecting some kind of sabotage, with the escalations and current affairs back on Earth, but this, hacking our bio printer to create a designer monster to attack us, this was unprecedented.
It was large, mammalian and muscular, upright like a standing bear in stature, but grey skinned, with blubber for the cold, almost prehistoric looking. Its face was a bizarre mix of beast and human, our best guess was they injected DNA from a soldier into the mix but this thing, it was unmistakably born of some nightmare. It possessed an armament of sharp teeth and claws, together with a thick rubbery tail that swayed in long sweeps menacingly, when it walked. It had a level of human-like intelligence; for one, it was wearing a stolen breathing mask. Its demeanor and gait had an element of a man to it, like a bruiser wanting a fight after hours at a bar, that unmistakable swagger of a predatory male looking for trouble.
Our printers, on the outskirts were reserved for making parts for the base, replacement organs and food products, so this, this was the most innovative attack in history. The monster seemed to cope with Martian temperature, and was tearing up the biomes one by one, systematically, with its huge swinging arms.
“How can we stop it? That is the only question.”
I was Security Chief and to be honest, I did not have a clue how to handle this. It would take thinking outside the box. No manual on colony security ever stated: ‘in case of attack from a monster, read Appendix C’.
The monster had torn the shielding off the medical dome, like it was targeting our only means of repairing ourselves, before it would no-doubt attempt to rip us all to pieces.
“I know we don’t have weapons…” I began, “But have we got many sharp things? We need sharp things.”
“Drills,” began Henry, my best friend on Mars, the guy who knew where all the tools and inventory were stored. “Also, we could drive one of our rovers into it, but they don’t have much speed, as you know… Apart from that, just knives from the kitchen I guess, saws from the workshop…”
It felt like a pitiful list.
The base was not that big. We had twenty habitat biomes, materials processing tech, a solar farm, a green house, a launch and landing pad, some vehicles and that was it. We wasted nothing on Mars and made the most out of our environment. We grew plants and clean meat, we mined, we recycled. Our routines had become almost ritualistic, almost religious in their repetitive importance, and then this happened, and we were in absolute awe and bewilderment. For some shadowy government agency to hack our bio printer, that was truly new ground, a new low in sabotage. I was having a problem processing the situation and the direness of it.
So far, it had killed two of Mars Team. The first death was Bill, who was literally asleep in the bioprinter biome when the thing appeared, and Mike, who had responded to the alarm. Mike had been so autopilot in response, he kind of switched to protocol and training that was not appropriate to this weird and awful scenario, he had no idea there was an imminent mortal threat and the thing ripped his head off clean, so clean it was still inside its helmet as it bounced on the red sand.
I was relatively indifferent to Mike – we knew each other very well but we would argue frequently. Bill however, he was like family up here on this red rock. I had always had a lot of time for Bill, he was cool, he was alright. This thing, this crude invention of life, it had to die for what it did.
“It’s attacking the medical dome. Can we set up an explosion in there? We have gas in there, lots of gas?”
“Yes. We can do that. Do we want to?”
I paused and thought about it, the unpredictability of a gas explosion on a Martian base, and looked up again at that monster with its curved tiger-like claws, tearing into the metal.
“OK, I have an idea. Dial Seb, I’ll need him on the mainframe.”
Henry patched me through to Seb on his device.
“Where are you, Seb?” I asked loudly into the device’s mic.
“I’m OK, I am in the rec room with all the others now. Simon is still out there collecting samples on the ridge. I’ve warned him to stay back, but the rest of us are all inside here, for now. I saw your alarm and the tunnel connector here is shut and sealed. Also, we are getting into our suits in case it breaches the wall. Can you see this thing? It’s smashing up our hospital!”
“Seb, I am glad you and the others are safe. Now, listen up. Can you hack the big printer remotely to make a gun? I know it’s not easy as there is the ethics coding to override but can you do it if you download a print pattern from the archive?”
Seb was silent for a moment.
“Frank, the components printer is down, it’s seriously hacked. It’s kind of guarded by a new program already. The bio printer remains on, though. It looks like printing that thing out there took up half our organic ink! We won’t be able to make the annual run of meat and veg – that’s for sure. I can see the code for the monster, it’s really something, a genius made this creature, or maybe some AI program.”
I blew out a long-held breath, thinking hard, staring at the near-mythical animal rampaging outside, ripping open layers of the metal. It finally breached the medical dome, unleashing a blast of pressurised air which caused it to stumble a couple of steps backward, like it had been punched in the jaw. I swore I could make out its face light up in a moment of delight behind the roughly crammed-on visor.
“I have an idea. Seb, can you insert a part of new code into the existing print instructions you can see?”
“What bit are you talking about?”
“I had a full brain scan two months ago when I came out of the storm with a concussion. Do you remember?… Can you replace the brain map on the code for the beast and reprint it, fully…”
Seb was silent for a second and then laughed.
“You are mad!”
“Can you do it?”
“Technically, yes, I think so. But Frank, you’ll be making a monster with your brain in it, you really think that’s wise? The code from the human in the current design has been shredded of most of the donor’s memories but your copy will have all your memory markers intact. And besides all that ethical stuff around that freakshow nightmare, we’ll be using all our organic soup up. We’ll have no food printing again until the next shipment. It’s suicide for us all.”
“I can tell you, we are going to die if we don’t do something now. How long would it take to reprint?”
“Pheww…” Seb was alarmed. “…I guess ten minutes to replace the brain code, an hour to print out… You’ll need to reset the printer manually you realise, which means going outside. Your brain code will have memories up to the hospital scan, not beyond obviously, so you’ll have to communicate the situation to the new… Monster you…Jesus…”
I stood back and turned to Henry and we both shook our heads in disbelief at the new plan, but at least, we had a plan.
“Just do it, Seb,” I ordered, “Get started… It’s a chance at least, that thing will tear through about five more biomes in that time I reckon, we do not want to die today… Maybe tomorrow it will be inevitable…. But not today. Let’s buy some time.”
The beast inserted itself clumsily into the ragged hole it had created and from inside the dome began punching the walls out with its huge fists, which was quicker and more effective in destructive pace. Gas bottles flew out of the hole, as did surgical instruments, a computer and a range of white towels. It was almost comical, the steady stream of objects being tossed out onto the Martian ground, so irreverently. The monster was nothing if not thorough in making a mess of our little medial facility.
I pulled on my spherical helmet over my neck and let the latches find and connect to each other, I would need to sneak outside without being witnessed, a life-or-death challenge, I realised.
Henry checked my suit over to ensure all the right places were sealed and I walked to the airlock facing away from the scene of debris where the creature was raging. I’d need to circumnavigate the colony’s biomes and solar plants in a wide arc and find my way to the bioprinting pod, without alerting the monster.
The wind was skidding over the sand, scooping up little drifts and tossing them into the air. It was only when the airlock opened that I really felt vulnerable. The massive expanse of the copper coloured Martian landscape had never worried me before, it had always been so devoid of life. You could second guess a threat from weather, although it could be frightening when a sudden storm erupted, but a monster out there on the sands, in the base itself, that was beyond anything I could have imagined I would need to deal with.
I stepped gingerly outside, careful to crouch low. With each step I felt the burden of accountability for saving this situation. I would take the long route around the base’s connected domes, away from the monster’s position. I glanced up as I staggered forward, to catch the surprising sight of a grouping of anxious faces in space helmets looking out of the window of the rec room. I offered a feeble wave but they did not wave back. There was fear in their eyes.
As I rounded the rec room dome, I could still hear the sounds of grunts and snarls from the monster and could sense it entering the base tunnels, smashing open the doors it encountered. Trying to keep momentum, I jogged around the peripheral base structures until I had double backed fully to the printer room. It only took a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I had evaded the senses of the animal.
I stepped over some of the debris that the beast had jettisoned from the medical dome, until I arrived at the bloody orb in the sand that was Mike’s severed head in a helmet. I had to stop, as it demanded acknowledgement. Poor guy. I dragged my gaze away and burst into the bio printing chamber. Trying to shut the door behind me was futile, it was in tatters, hanging off its hinges and crumpled. Two great silver storage tanks sat flush to the wall, and in the middle of the room, rooted by thick cables and feeding tubes was a transparent cube, where the biological printing occurred.
I found the control panel and began flicking switches to green. Seb was waiting for the signal. It impressed me that he had already completed the code change to the design, as I could see the computer was ready to begin. Robotic arms with a well-orchestrated combination of small and large spray guns swivelled to precise positions, spewing out the relevant tissues from the ground up.
The creature’s bones were fashioned first, followed by the organs and skin, held in frame by a series of temporary, dissolving scaffolding, printed simultaneously. Lastly, the blood, chemicals and liquids of life, worked up from carbon and stem cells, made to measure, bespoke and with every hair and dimple accounted for. Watching the process, it felt God-like. There was nothing we could not manufacture. Some 3D printers began with blocks and chiselled them down to the design, but this one was something else, it was more than artistry, it was like conjuring life, building up from nothing.
I watched as the large, clawed feet took shape, growing vertically into bulging calf muscles, thick tendons and layers of fat for insulation. I tried to imagine and place each part from the animal world, this was like species alchemy, a taking of all the base element of lifeforms and making a true apex predator. I made sure I was out of sight in the room, slumping into a shadowy corner. Time moved slowly as it was intricately constructed.
I spoke quietly into my helmet’s comlink.
“Hey, Seb, I’m watching this thing coming to life, it’s unbelievable. I can see my facial features, my eyes, my cheeks and a bit of my jawline. This is weird shit. I didn’t realise my brain code affected the outer features like this in the program.”
“Frank… Got some bad news.”
“Henry, the thing saw him looking out, and filming it, from the tunnel you had been in and well, he’s dead now.”
“…Shit,” was all I could muster, and I closed my eyes tight in frustration. I had been talking to him only moments ago.
“Damage report?” I demanded.
“It’s fast… We’ve lost the research lab and the sleeping quarters.”
“OK… Hang tight…The printing is going well, the machine remembers the pattern so it’s faster than a new design.”
The creature before me began to twitch to life as the final squirts and injections of liquid finished the process, and sure enough, its dead eyes began to glisten with consciousness.
I stood up sharply and held up my palms in a kind of surrender plea. I saw the moment it recognised me, saw it visualise the person it presumed was itself, and then there was the flicker of pure, undiluted panic.
The computer began advising me at the same time.
“Air supply needed imminently for lifeform to sustain.”
I reached out and grabbed a breathing mask from a hook nearby.
The creature began to choke as the walls of the print chamber descended to release it. It held its throat with its massive paws and then grappled for the mask I had extended to it in offering, almost ripping off my hand in the process. I pulled back and knew I had to fill in the blanks quickly.
“Don’t panic, you are OK, don’t panic… I know you think you are me, I know the last thing you remember is going to the doctor with a concussion when you hit your head on the beam in the storm. I know…”
The creature managed to fumble on the mask over its oversized bulging human eyes, my eyes, its wide monster mouth and extended nostrils, inhaling the oxygen in long lungfuls to survive.
“You have to help us. My brain, I printed it out in your new body because you are the last hope to save Mars Team, or what’s left of us. Now, I know you’ll want to do anything to save lives, you’re me after all… Can I call you Frankie, let’s start with that, an introduction… Let’s ground ourselves for a second…”
The monster climbed off the print platform, it was massive up close, intimidating. It took two steps toward where I stood, looming directly over me – I could sense its natural instinct to kill and attack and I knew it could decapitate me in one swipe. There was also something accusational in its glare. Had I made a terrible mistake?
“I’m sorry. But listen, you can save people today. You are our only chance. You can fight the other monster. You can fight it and beat it.”
When I said, ‘other monster’ the creature snapped its head around to take in the smashed door to the chamber.
“Yes,” I said. “We must be at war on Earth, as expected. They are trying to kill us all, someone on Earth invented this animal to do it for them – and I am sorry. I had one option to make a weapon out of myself, and that was to make you.”
The animal turned slowly back to me, nervous and disturbed now, its mood changing with contemplation, at last, its intelligence winning over its design to slaughter. I could see the humanity of myself coming through, rising to the surface in its eyes.
It nodded. That was the strangest thing. It didn’t have the means to speak, no vocal chords like mine, but it knew at that moment, that I had created it to fight for us.
It lurched around the chamber in circles and it paused in thought, staring at me in disbelief, and then, taking me totally by surprise, it just ran through the wall. A growl, no, a roar, and it tore out half the structure. It was like the wall was paper, the way it barged through without a scratch or resistance or a moment of hesitation. A tremendous crashing sound and it was away, striding away into the red desert, running. I was lost for words, like a gambler losing his last hand in the poker game where literally everything was on the table.
In my helmet, Seb was pleading for an update back from me.
“…Seb, get everyone out of there. Just run…”
I punched the ground. What was I supposed to do?
“Too late, Frank, it’s already outside our doors!” yelled Seb. I could feel his sheer terror and I could hear others screaming in panic in the backdrop of the rec room. They were trapped.
There was a fire extinguisher in the corner, so I grabbed it and ran out of the bioprinter room. Mars was staring back at me as my feet splashed up dust. Mars was as sterile and judgmental as it always was – a filthy rock. The quiet distain of a barren landscape will always shrink your ego to nothing. You want to make the land listen to your thoughts, but the land is beyond your ideas, your dreams and your aspirations, it will still be there when you’re dead, and it won’t remember a thing about you.
For now, it was just up to me. I leapt through the torn remains of the medical dome to save time and ran down the tunnel. Door after door had been trashed, ripped, split open or tossed aside. This thing was determined and committed. I logged subconsciously each wrecked biome, weighing up our chances of surviving even the day, without enough resources or shelter. By the time I reached the tunnel leading to the rec room, I was panting with the cocktail of effort and fear. There it stood, a hulking thing with its claws scraping down the edges of the doorway that was blocking it from the Mars Team.
“Hey, Bigfoot!” I yelled, my adrenaline spiking. “Hey, you! Come over here…”
It swung around and zeroed in on me. My arms began to tremble, they felt like thin twigs with no muscle as it turned about and we were face to face. It was almost too big for the tunnel, its head stooping low, its bulk the breadth of the space inside. I knew that to my right and left the walls were so compromised and messed up I could leap outside but after that, it would be a matter of a few steps till it caught me. This was it.
“Seb,” I instructed. “In the next ten seconds, you’ll need to open the door and run to your right, get everyone through the gap in the connector. Go to the launch pad. The ship is the last space you can use to hide. It’s not fuelled, obviously, so try not to attract attention to yourselves, you will be stuck there.”
The beast charged. I snapped the head of the fire extinguisher and a massive cloud of white foam erupted into the tunnel, spraying all over the animal. I threw the cylinder at it as it floundered for a moment and I heard it connect with a soft thud before bouncing off its ribcage, into the tunnel.
I could hardly run but just made it to the gap in the wall when the thing reared up and I fell back, collapsing awkwardly on the floor. It raised one huge claw high in the air and I closed my eyes, I knew this had to be my last moments – I was out of options.
Then it happened, Frankie happened. The other me came from behind the beast, a huge swipe of its arm and four long gashes opened-up along the back of the monster in front of me. It did not expect that. How could it expect that?
“Yes!” I yelled. I experienced a euphoric feeling, of being saved by stronger version of myself, it was a strange emotion.
Frankie toppled the beast over and ripped its arm off in a single sweep. The rage of the thing it was killing turned to squeals and fear and pain, like it was learning these experiences for the first time – they were not in its programing. Frankie would not be put off, he had a job to do, and he was made to do it, to finish it. The scene I witnessed was like something from a gory horror flick. I could hardly dare to watch. Looking at Frankie dismember the animal alive, I couldn’t comprehend I had that level of violence in my DNA. It mashed and crushed and beat and tore. There were intestines and brains and strips of meat. So much blood, pumping out of severed arteries and slashed organs. The monster was dead long before Frankie had finished with it. I sat on my backside in the debris of the tunnel and was totally speechless when Frankie finally stopped his rampage. The blood on the ground was trickling into streams.
It looked at me with my own stare, but to my astonishment, I did not see violence in it anymore. The resentment was still there but I recognised that look from a hundred times checking myself in the mirror, it was sadness, it was finding yourself in a place you didn’t expect.
I swear, it sort of sighed. Then without warning or ceremony, it lifted the breathing apparatus off, over its thick grey head and it sat down hard, so the ground vibrated, facing me all the while. Despite choking, wincing and spluttering for lost breath it perfectly held my gaze. A few moments of hurt later, it hurt no more, and smashed backward onto the ground, a giant felled, starved of oxygen.
The remains of Mars Team were standing in the sands beyond it, like statues spaced out in the desert, halfway to the ship on the launch pad. They had seen what had happened and turned back to watch the spectacle, to see how fate dealt its cards for us all.
Seb was there at the edge of the damaged tunnel.
“You OK, man?”
“Yeah… Yeah, sure,” I lied, shaking.
“Seb, grab some containers, get the guys together and collect up all this meat for the processor. We should have near a full tank back after we put this offal in there. After that, we need to evaluate what’s left of the base and supplies. Make the rec room the command centre…”
Seb was astonished I was still thinking ahead, still able to form strategy in the moment. It had been an ordeal unlike any other. I could tell he was impressed but I felt no pride, just a vast emptiness inside myself, like I had never been real.
As he helped me up on my feet, a new voice crackled through the comlink open channel and our shredded nerves made us all jump back in fright, like we had been zapped by electricity.
“Hey fellas, I guess you don’t want the samples from the ridge then?”
“No Simon… I think we’ll take some time off official duties. Good to see you are alive!”
The small dot of white light in the inky blue sunset was low to the horizon. Night was approaching.
“From now on, no comms or hook-ups with Earth until we figure out who is attacking us, exactly, and how they did it. We’ll need to study the code they sent us. Maybe we can work out how this happened. We’ll look after ourselves from now on. The garden dome is intact, so we can do it. Might be alone here for some time, so best to get to work…”
Seb grabbed my shoulder as if to arrest my movement, to make me pause.
“Frank… What was it like, looking at yourself, inside a monster like that…?”
I brushed off strings of flesh that had landed on my space suit and considered an honest answer.
“In truth… It made me feel like we’re all just designed meat, I guess. Some bits and pieces following a blueprint. Kind of terrifying but, well, it takes the pressure off too. We’re just who we are because that’s how we’re put together.”
Seb smirked and shrugged. “Sure thing, Frank. As long as you are OK?”
We shook each other’s hand, like a new formal introduction after a life changing event, and beyond us, the wind began to blow hard across the Martian landscape, tossing the debris across the sand as if trying to sweep it away.
“If people on Earth can’t even live together in paradise, what chance have we got here?” I remarked. I meant it.
Seb smiled in his helmet as if he knew the secret all along.
“The problem is they have it too easy, a bit of hardship, a bit of real living, it keeps people together.”
“Seb, that’s the only thing that’s made sense today. Thank you.”
Simon hovered nearby and coughed to interrupt,
“You two getting all philosophical? Work to be done, lads.”
“Dick…” said Seb with a smile.
We grabbed hold of the two containers he had recovered for us, and together we began to pick up the remains.