Tales From New Terra

Tales From New Terra are a set of vignettes written by J. Steven York to supplement the novella. The vignettes were originally contained in the Outpost 2 electronic help manual that shipped with the game were placed in the structure/unit detail pages.

The vignettes are separated into two sections, structures and vehicles. A couple of units do not have their own vignettes. See the notes at the bottom of the page for more details.

From his observer's seat on the overhead mechanical arm called, for some reason Jix Oltion had never figured out, a tractor, he looked out through the huge, curved, plexan windows that lined the side of the Agridome. Below him, steel disks at the end of the arm, guided by automatic controls, cut a furrow in one of the long trays of black soil that ran the length of the building. The tractor hardly needed his attention as it glided along on its overhead track. His mind was elsewhere, on the pH balance in the hydroponics tanks, flow rates on the irrigators, on next cycle's seed stocks, and on the Scout that rumbled past the window every morning like clockwork.

The bulbous craft rounded the corner on fat tires, dodging a big Cargo Truck taking a load of wheat off to storage, and slid to a halt just outside the window. As was their tradition, Duncan waved from inside the vehicle's cockpit and Jix waved back.

“Your move, partner.” Duncan's voice came from the comm-link on Jix's collar.

Jix visualized the four-level dynachess board. “Crew to Boss-level-four. Checkmate.”

He could see Duncan slump in his seat. “Frag, you did it again.”

Jix laughed and turned his attention back to the plow. “You big-shot scientists think farmers aren't so smart. Thank the fates I am smart, Duncan. If it wasn't for us, you lab-jockeys would be eating rocks for breakfast instead of oatmeal.”

“Evac Transport away! The chairman's transport is away!” Karen ran across the “pit,” the circular nest of consoles that was the heart of the Command Center. Everywhere she looked, red tell-tales and warnings glowed.
Somewhere in the distance another explosion boomed, and in response, another screen of indicators went from yellow to red. She tapped the young technician facing the console on the shoulder, and gestured him toward the emergency lock.
Through a view port she could see another Evac Transport backing in to dock. She shooed two other techs toward the lock, and instructed one of the handful left to shut down all the Tubes leading into the Command Center. She blinked. There was really nothing left to do, nothing left to command, and the lava flows were closing in fast. A magma bomb crashed down just outside the port, narrowly missing the now-docked transport.

“That's it,” she shouted. “Everybody out! Good job people; now go join your families.”

She paused to shut down a few more systems, before admitting to herself that it was pointless. What could be done was already done. She hesitated at the lock for one last look at the deserted Command Center, sighed, and ducked through the door into the transport, quickly dogging the hatch behind her. She thumbed her comm-link. “Let's roll!”

The transport was crowded, but people ignored her. They had their own problems and traumas to deal with. She fell into a simple web-backed seat and sighed. The job wasn't done. Somewhere ahead of the convoy, a ConVec was carrying a kit to build a new CC, and the job would begin again. “It'll be over when it's over,” she said to nobody in particular, and she couldn't even guess how it would end.

Pavlo Cortez skillfully guided the disaster truck down the tunnel. Except for the constant wail of the siren and the honking of the horn as he cleared a bike or pedestrian out of the tunnel, the truck was silent, moving smoothly on a cushion of magnetic force.
Out of the corner of his eye, he could see a chrono display counting up from the moment the alarm had been sounded. One minute, 12 seconds - not bad. He again focused his whole attention on driving.
Ahead, two parallel tunnels made the final connection to the Spaceport. The one on the right had been widened for a Piazza, a public market, but it would be nearly deserted this hour of the morning. That was the path he chose.
He felt one of the other Grubs move in behind him, Wasner, he thought. As they'd often practiced, Wasner quickly pulled his visor down for him and sealed it so Pavlo wouldn't have to take his hands off his controls. They were almost to the Spaceport now.

Ahead of them Pavlo could see that the emergency lock was closed. Flashing lights warned about the disaster on the other side, but instead of flames, he could see frost on the bulkhead windows. What was that about?

He slowed the truck. Something was wrong about this, but what? Then he saw the bulkhead starting to buckle outward.

The magnetic brakes stopped the truck as though they'd been grabbed by an invisible hand, throwing them all against their restraining straps. Pavlo moved the tillers to spin them around, but it was too late.

The seam at the top of the bulkhead cracked like an eggshell, vapor under incredible pressure sprayed out of the crack and along the peak of the tunnel roof, and suddenly the top of the tunnel flashed into white-hot flame.

The truck turned, too slowly, their suits were already charring, melting from the indirect heat, and Pavlo could see that even the rocks were burning.

The tunnel flickered away. The truck hovered in the middle of the simulator dome, the Grubs on the truck shaking their heads like sleepwalkers waking from a dream.
The door cracked open, and Captain Fifield stepped trough. She put her fists on her hips and looked them over disapprovingly. “People, we don't even have a Spaceport yet, and one just killed you! Spaceports mean fuel, cryogenic gases, and in this case, liquid oxygen. Never approach the Spaceport along the side where the cryo tanks are buried.”
She looked at Pavlo. “That means left tunnel, Pavlo.” She clapped her hands twice. “Let's run this one again people, and see how far you can get before you're killed next time!”

Jem Estes stood by the window of the Arachnid Factory's programming center and watched the four 'bots, two Spiders and two Scorpions, as they lined up neatly outside, waiting for commands. She heard footsteps behind her. It was Koto Uhla, her apprentice.

She crossed her arms and nodded in greeting. “It's final exam day, Koto. You need some music?”

He smiled nervously and held up a data-slip. “Brought my own.” He stuck the slip to the control console's input pad, called up his control program, patched in the audio feed, hit the “start” icon, and stepped back with his mentor to watch the show.

It was piano music. It sounded very old, something from the Earth cultural database she assumed. She thought perhaps the style was called ragtime, but she wasn't sure. As the music started, the 'bots began to move their feet in time, swaying first left, then right, in perfect unison despite the uneven ground.

They broke into two pairs that circled each other, formed into a line again, and then the whole line began to turn. The tempo of the music increased, and their feet moved faster and faster, their weaving and bobbing more intricate, until finally the piece reached its climax and fell silent.
The robots froze, pointing out at the points of the compass, beam rifles of the Scorpions turned so they were almost touching, a foreleg on each raised toward the sky.

She turned to Koto, whose wide face was split by a unrestrained smile. She put out her hand to shake his. “Congratulations. You pass. You're ready to program solo.”

She'd taught him well, but until now, she'd never been sure how well. She's always said, “nobody gets trusted with my bugs unless they know how to make them dance.”

Gloria Watt sat behind the counter of Eden Emporium leaning far back in her chair, her feet crossed on top of a couple of stacked crates. She was intently reading from a ClipCom, oblivious to everything happening around her, which was a lot.

Outside, through the transparent storefront, people were racing up and down the tunnel, some on foot, others on vehicles. They raced past the windows without so much as a glance at the displays of toys, clothing, and decorative glassware stacked there. Everyone was in a hurry. Everyone was carrying something. Nobody was coming into the shop. Gloria kept reading.

Milo Berggren, her partner in running the store, was busy stripping only the smallest and most valuable merchandise from the shelves and packing it all tightly into crates, most of which would get left behind for want of space anyway. Finally he looked up at her, stopped what he was doing, and sat down heavily on one of the crates. He gave her the evil eye and shook his head when she ignored him.

Finally she gave up and made eye contact. “What?”

He frowned in a big, showy way. “Gloria, we have a colony evacuation scheduled in 12 hours. How can you just sit there?”

She put the ClipCom down in her lap and shrugged. “My personal stuff is packed.”

“You could help me.”

“Milo, they won't let us take any of it unless we can fit it into our personal allowances, which you will. Last time we relocated, you were ready to sell trinkets the day we arrived, but you had to wear the same underwear for a month. It is not a pleasant memory.”

His shoulder sagged slightly. “I still have nightmares. Okay, you're right.” Then he looked up, a little of the old determination in his face. “But I just can't sit here and do nothing.” He stretched his neck up to see over the counter. “What are you reading, anyway?”

She held up the ClipCom for him to see. “You and I are the first people to run a retail store in over a century. I figured it was stupid to reinvent the whole process, so I'm doing some research about old Earth. I found some things in the cultural database that are very interesting.”

He gestured toward the people running by outside. “Like we're going to be selling anything any time soon anyway.”

Gloria lowered her feet to the floor, leaned forward, and smiled. “No, what I'm reading may actually be applicable to our current situation. Those old Earthers thought of everything. Ever hear of something called a “going out of business sale?”

Brook Panati sat on the railing of a catwalk overlooking the factory floor. He watched as the automatic machinery below busily produced a new Agridome kit.
Meg O'Halloran walked up and leaned on the rail next to him. “Been looking for you. Pardo said I could find you here. He said you come here all the time.”

He nodded without taking his eyes off the activity below. She looked down to see what was so interesting.

He glanced at her for a moment. “I never get tired of watching this. It's like parlor magic.” He pointed at the big smart-composite extruding machine in the far corner. “It's making a floor truss right now. You can see the truss feeding out of the machine, that huge beam coming out of that little box, and then feeding into this other machine, the folder, and just vanishing again. Of course, the folder is packing it back into a compact form so it can be put in the structure kit, but it seems to be vanishing.”
He climbed back over the railing and smiled at her. “From nothing into something, and back into nothing again. It's a metaphor for life. We can learn a valuable life lesson here.”

“What lesson, Brook? All I see is a factory.”

He shook his head sadly. “You have a profound, but common, lack of vision. Things aren't always what they seem. Would you like to learn a valuable life lesson?”

She looked down at the beam, which was now being removed from the folder in the form of a compact cube, and shrugged. “Sure.”

“Do you have a ration credit?”

She dug in the pocket of her jumpsuit and pulled out a yellow plastic token. She handed it to him.

He fumbled and seemed to drop it. “Whoops,” he said. She didn't hear it hit, and assumed it must have gone through the grate floor of the catwalk. “Not a problem,” he said. “I know how to get it back.” He reached behind her right ear. She felt something, and when he pulled his fingers back, he was holding the token.

She smiled in amazement. “How did you do that?”

He shook his head. “Magic. It comes out of nothing …” he held up the token in his hand and did something with his fingers, so fast she couldn't see, and then he opened his hand. The credit was gone. ”… back into nothing.“

He cocked his head as though she should read some meaning into this, but she didn't get it. He turned and started down the stairs toward the factory's main airlock.

“Wait,” she called, “when do I get my credit back?”

He half-looked back over his shoulder. “You don't.”

Annoyed, she raised her voice. “Wait! What's my life lesson?”

He turned, but continued to walk backward down the stairs. He laughed. “Never hand Brook Panati a credit you plan to get back!” He turned and ran, laughing.

Kimberly Cole, Rashad's supervisor, waved to him from the landing outside the control room. “Come on, Rashad. The transport's waiting. We need to roll.”

Rashad didn't look up from the Vehicle Factory's master programming panel. He rotated the master schematic on his screen for one last check. Everything had to be right, as there would be nobody here to fix it if it went wrong. “Coming,” he said. “I just have to get this last vehicle assembly started.”

Cole took the last step into the control room. She looked curiously over his shoulder. “What vehicle? We're bugging out, Rashad. The Blight waits for no man or woman.” She studied the schematic more closely. “What in blazes is that thing? Did you design it?”

Rashad grinned. “I did the pattern and programming, but nope, I didn't design it. Found it in a book of Earth vehicles.”

She stared at him. “Rashad, we're leaving, bugging out. There won't be anyone left here when this thing is finished. You aren't planning on staying, I hope.”


“Good, because that thing will barely be finished before the Blight hits, and from the looks of it, I don't give you much chance of driving out in it. I don't suppose you expect it to autodrive out after us.”

He just laughed, even though she didn't get the joke. He tapped the “run” icon and climbed out of the chair. “That does it; let's go.”

Below them on the factory floor, the robotic machinery was already in motion, sparks flying as it fabricated parts from raw metal stock.

They walked down the stairs, along a corridor, and down a ramp to the tunnel toward the CC, where the Evac Transport was waiting.

She looked at him. “What was that all about?”

He shrugged. “Something I've wanted to build since I found it in that old database, but never had the chance. Well, the factory isn't doing anything now, and any resources that aren't on a truck are toast anyway, so I figured, why not?”

“You'll never see it.”

“I'll know it was built. That'll be something. Maybe it'll even survive the Blight, and somebody will find it someday.” He chuckled. “It'll make them crazy figuring it out.”

They said nothing for a while, but as they climbed the ramp to the CC, she finally asked the question. “What was that thing, anyway? I've never seen anything like it.”

He smiled. “It's called a 1957 Chevy.”

Emma sat in the rickshaw, and despite Councilor Kozu's extended hand, had no inclination to get out. She looked up at him pleadingly. “Couldn't I just go dive into a magma vent? Attempt to stomp out the Blight with my bare feet? Maybe go clean the GORF with my tongue?”

Kozu tilted his head disapprovingly. “Now, Elder, you promised. You even agreed that it's important in these difficult times for well-known leaders such as ourselves to appear at public functions, to participate in the culture of the colony.”

She help up an index finger. “I know, I'll volunteer as a practice target for the StickyFoam tanks!”

“Elder …”

“You only said we'd be going to the Forum. I thought perhaps we'd hear a chorus, some chamber music, a little classic acid-rock. You didn't tell me it was poetry night!”
“Would you have come if I had?”

“Of course not.”

“My point exactly. Come on.”

The Forum was packed. Plymouth residents loved their poetry, and they tried to compensate for any lack of quality through increased quantity. Perhaps to them it was wonderful, but to Emma's ear, trained in another time, another place, another culture, it was sheer torture.

A round-headed man with long yellow hair and a neatly trimmed goatee walked up to the podium and was greeted with enthusiastic applause. He placed a large stack of paper on the podium, cleared his throat, and began. “Ode to the Blight.” He cleared his throat once more and began to read. “Oh, Blight, oh wicked unseen bug of naughty intent, I spend the hours obsessed with your nature, and dread the caress of your unhealthy touch. My inner eye can see you, invisible friend, on these long nights of woe …”

Emma sank into her seat and hung her head back, staring blankly at the huge light platform over the stage. “Long nights of woe, indeed. Maker help us, it begins.”

”… are you tinier than my empty thoughts? Nay! You are huge! You are legion! It is we who are small …“

Then the vortex alarm sounded even at the building began to shake. The audience was immediately on its feet, calmly but quickly heading for the exits.

The building shook hard, and Emma could hear a sound like a GORF trying to digest a too-large hunk of rubble, and the lights suspended from the ceiling began to sway. Emma could see the would-be poet running for an exit, his poetry still stacked on the podium.

Then the whole building shook, hard enough that a few sensitive people actually screamed. She paused and looked back at the stage. There was a snap, followed quickly by three more, and the light platform broke loose from the ceiling, fell flatly, and swatted the podium like a great hand.

She turned back toward the exit and smiled. “There is a Maker.”

Penny Hill sighed as she entered the Garage. Sometime during the night, there had been a war. It was obvious enough why Tolo had called her in four hours before her regular shift. Every bay was full, the Robot Assist Mechanics busy in every one, and on three of the bays the yellow lights flashed, indicating that human assistance was needed. Worse than that, on the way in she'd seen the line of vehicles waiting outside, running all the way around the building.

Before zeroing in on any one of them, she waved at Tolo as he poked his head out of a Tiger's EMP turret, and made the rounds of the building. Most of the damaged vehicles were combat units, carrying a full menu of battle damage: Laser damage, acid burns, craters from Rail Gun projectiles, EMP-fried electrical systems, and the characteristic jagged cuts created by the Thor's Hammer weapon.

Finally she turned her attention to an EMP Panther, so pitted and scarred by acid its armor looked little thicker than tissue paper. Perhaps she could write it off as a total loss and open the bay up for a more readily repairable unit.

As she climbed up its scarred flank, she sighed. Whoever said that automated combat didn't produce casualties wasn't a mechanic.

Ellen Vogle lifted her safety goggles to her forehead as she entered the Geothermal Plant's normally unmanned control room. Sweat trickled down her forehead and dust outlined where the goggles had covered her eyes, giving her a masked appearance, but she was smiling broadly. “That flaky cooling duct is sealed. That's the last of it,” she said to Johnson, the junior tech who sat in front of the master computer console.

Johnson was a small, cerebral-looking man, whose hands showed little sign of physical work, yet it was clear that Ellen was the one in charge here. “Sure thing, Boss,” he said. “Want me to bring the plant online?”

“Bring the plant up, 10 percent power till we work the bugs out, but let me connect it to the broadcast unit.”

Johnson raised an eyebrow, but began the power-up checklist.

Ellen walked over to the observation window and looked out at the salt turbines that had been preheating for the last 30 hours. A rumble went through the floor under her feet as they began to spin. She walked back to the console and put her gloved hand on the master connect switch. All the rest of the plant’s switches and relays were computer controlled, but this was the manual cut-off, a mechanical switch connected to the master relay.

“This is what I live for, Johnson. Everyone has to have a purpose in life, and this is mine. This is my baby. I was here to guide the GeoCon in next to the fumarole. I've shepherded it all the way through setup. I made the final adjustments, and now, I get to throw the final switch.” She grinned at him. “Sorry, but rank has its privileges.”

“We've got positive salt flow through the system. All indicators are green.” He looked at her, his expression unreadable.

“You think I'm a little crazy, Johnson? Maybe so, but this switch is power. Hear it? Feel it? The people hunger for it, as much as they hunger for food or thirst for water. They need it, and I'm the one who gets to give it to them. I think it was Archimedes who said give me a lever and a place to stand, and I'll move the world. Well, I don't have a lever, but I have this switch, and that's close enough for me.” And with that, Ellen Vogle moved the world.

“They want to recycle what?” Elton Bree stared at the man who'd just arrived at the Spaceport with a truck.

He shrugged and passed Elton his ClipCom to examine. “It's all there. We're desperately short of metals for vehicle manufacture, and I'm supposed to haul the Skydock kit to the GORF for immediate recycling.”

Elton couldn't believe what he was hearing. His beautiful Skydock, finally ready for launch, was to be turned into Robo-Dozers and trucks? “This has got to be a mistake. It will take us months and months to rebuild this kit, even if we could get the metals, which of course we can't.” He waved his arm at the bay where the kit was stored. “This is the foundation of the whole starship program. Without the Skydock, we can't even begin construction. What can the Council be thinking?”

But then his stomach tightened, and he realized exactly what the Council was thinking. The program had fallen too far behind. They were giving up. Sending his Skydock to the GORF for recycling, and with it, his dreams.

Elton signed off on the man's form and immediately left the building, moving like a sleepwalker. He needed a drink, possibly several. There were dark days ahead. Dark days indeed.

Guard Post

Emma steered the already damaged Scout around a boulder just as it exploded from the impact of a Rail Gun shell. It had been an uneventful trip back from a mine where she'd been collecting rock samples, until she'd picked up an Eden Lynx somewhere a few kilometers back. A few more kilometers and she would have been safely back to Plymouth. Now she couldn't seem to shake her deadly tormentor.

The Scout was unarmed, nearly defenseless. Speed was all she had, and the damaged Scout provided that only under protest. She expected something critical in the drive to explode at any moment.

She zigged and zagged in what she hoped was an unpredictable pattern. Another shell struck just in front of the Scout, sending her headlong through its cloud of dust, and bouncing through its crater. Too close.

Ahead, two hills rose up on either side of a narrow passage. She had no choice but to go that way, even though it would make her a sitting duck while she passed through the cut. She kept the unit below its top speed until she was in the mouth of the opening, then hit the safety overrides and threw everything the Scout had left into one burst of speed.
As she emerged on the other side of the cut, she heard one of the drive motors scream and die. In her rear-view screen, she could see the Lynx right behind her, its turret swinging into firing position.

Then it exploded, hit by Microwave beams, RPG fire, and EMP grenades, all at once. She'd led it into the gauntlet, a little valley flanked by Guard Posts at the outer rim of Plymouth's defenses.

She slowed the Scout to a crawl to avoid causing further damage. She watched the turrets on either side of her, scanning for other targets. She'd be fine now.

He heard the voice in the distance, “Calvin, you in there?”

Dr. Calvin Anthony stood in the dark, empty, and stripped lab.

“Keep talking,” said the distant voice. “I can't see you and I'm following your voice.”

“Little bitty electron, went down the quantum slide, didn't reach the middle, but came out the other side …”

A light came on in the hall outside, and Dr. Mark Johnson stuck his head through the doorway. “Enough! I found you already. What're you doing here, Calvin? They're demolishing this place tomorrow. It's practically GORF-chow already.”

Calvin sighed. “That's exactly why I'm here. If you had a sentimental bone in your body you'd have been here, too.”

“I am here.”

Calvin grimaced. “You know what I mean.” He spread his arms. “Don't you feel it? We did our first real science here. Even before they'd let us out of the University full-time we'd come here. This was the place back then, the place! Remember?”

“I remember when your cool-fusion thesis experiment nearly holed the pressure hull. I remember equipment that didn't work, and never having enough space or power. I remember wondering how the designers back on Earth expected us to do real science with Bunsen burners and third-rate electron microscopes.”

“It's more than that! It's, it's …”

“GORF-chow. Come on. I got some ration points left. I'll buy you a brew, and then we can go look at our shiny new lab.”

Calvin sagged, defeated, and walked heavily to join his friend.

Mark put an arm around his shoulder as they walked out. “Later, I'll strap you into the new auto-dissector, and we'll see if it can cut your sentimental bone out.”

“Fah!” Calvin chuckled. “Only if we can attempt a transplant.”

Calvin Anthony grabbed fellow scientist Mark Johnson's arm as he sprinted past him in the corridor. “Run!”

Johnson ran, as fast as he could. If he'd learned anything from his years of partnering with Anthony, it was to run when Anthony said “run.” He didn't look back. He didn't want to.

As they passed through the emergency airlock, Anthony hit the emergency close button. The doors hissed shut behind them as they passed into the tran-station outside.

“Stop running!” said Anthony, coasting to a stop. He bent over and propped his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. Then he turned and looked back at the lock.

Johnson looked too. All he could see through the windows in the bulkhead was a solid green mass.

“It works,” said Anthony, “only about a thousand times better than I thought it would.”

“What in frag is that?”

“Aerogel, or as we call it in technical terms, high-tech glop.” He took a step toward the window and put his hands on his hips. “Cleaning this up is going to be a problem.”

“I'll say. Why didn't you test this in containment?”

Calvin glanced back over his shoulder and grimaced. “Like I said, it worked a lot better than I thought it would.” He scratched his head. “Good thing I haven't laced it with Buckytubes yet.”


“Now, I wonder if I can open the lock without it expanding more.” He turned. “Say, Mark, could you evacuate the tunnel, just in case?”

“Couldn't you have become an agritech instead of a scientist? Developed man-eating soy beans or something?” He glanced at the window behind Calvin and blinked in surprise. “Maybe cleanup won't be as much a problem as you thought.”

Calvin turned to see that the green mass was evaporating, large voids opening in the mass as it collapsed in on itself. “This is disappointing,” he said. He glanced at his chrono. “Maybe long enough to be effective, though.”

Mark walked toward the lock, wondering if it was safe to go back inside. “What was that, anyway?”

Calvin smiled. “A new weapon. A really, really, messy weapon.”

The Advanced Lab was located on the edge of the colony for a reason, thought Dr. Landis as the outer door of the test chamber opened, and the mouth of the rocket engine pointed out into the wilderness beyond the colony.

She glanced down at the bank of instrument readings on her console. Everything was ready. Jensen looked up from his own panel. She nodded at him.

“Countdown begins at 10 seconds,” he said. Frosty mist vented from the engine as the turbopumps came up to speed. “Five, four, three, two, one, ignition!”
The engine bucked, belched fire, and then a solid column of nearly transparent hydrogen flame. Despite the safety containment, the whole building vibrated. “Looks good,” she said. “Throttle up.” “Throttle up,” echoed Jensen. The engine bucked again and began to vibrate visibly, causing the whole building to tremble.

Then it exploded.

The floor moved under their feet.

The images on the screen disappeared as the cameras were vaporized. Then it was quiet. The pictures came back as replacement cameras slid into the containment chamber. A few twisted shreds of metal were all that was left of the rocket engine.

Jensen shook his head sadly. “Not much to show for two weeks’ work.”

She wasn't discouraged. She ran her fingertip over her console, reviewing the readings displayed there. “That's just hardware. We've got numbers, good numbers, and that's what counts. We'll go again in a week, and it will work this time. I see the problem, and I can fix it.”

She looked at him and gave him a little smile of encouragement. “Remember that, Jensen. Hardware is nothing. It's all in the numbers.”

Megan Jones stood at the big Agridome window, looking out into the fading twilight. As she watched, the Light Towers began to flicker on across the colony, turning night back into day.

Jix Oltion walked up next to her and leaned on the handle of his weeding tool. “What'cha looking at?”

“The new Light Towers,” she said.

He nodded. “Yup. I feel a lot safer with them out there.”

She shook her head. “That wasn't what I was thinking at all.” She looked up sadly. “I was thinking, I miss the stars.”

Duncan Loo stared into the angry face of the engineer. Duncan had been at the remote Magma Well mining station only a few hours, and he'd already managed to cause a problem, though he couldn't for the life of him figure out how. He bent down to pick up the geologist’s hammer he'd dropped on the metal walkway. As he did, he could feel his face warmed by radiated energy from the massive magma conduit near him.

He stood and looked at the engineer, Clute, he thought the man's name was. He was a short, broad-shouldered redhead, with a bushy fringe of beard framing his livid face.

Duncan smiled uneasily. “Sorry about the hammer. No harm done though, see?”

Clute just scowled. “It's not the hammer. It's not where it landed. It's the noise. It’s that word.”


“That word. You're new on the inspection team, rockhound, so I'll explain it to you. We never say that word here. Too much danger, too many things to go wrong.”

Nervously Duncan stuffed the hammer into the sample bag slung over his right shoulder. “I don't understand. What word?”

Clute looked at him and smiled, just a little. “Oops,” he said.

Telly O'Hara was surprised to see all the other people waiting when she arrived outside the Medical Center. It had seemed a silly notion when she'd thought of it, and she certainly hadn't expected anyone else to come.

There must have been a dozen or more of them, young, old, some in grubby work clothes, some in their party best. They were quiet, somber, respectful, mostly keeping their distance from one another. She spotted a familiar face, Carlo Ralotta, with whom she'd gone to school. She walked over to join him.

“Hi, Carlo. Long time.”

He nodded, and his eyes darted toward the Medical Center entrance, as though he was afraid he'd miss something.

She tilted her head curiously. “You came because of him?”

Carlo nodded. “That's why they're all here, I guess. They say they're taking him out of cold sleep today. I had to come.”

“I thought I'd be the only one. It just seemed … You never miss them till they're gone, you know? He's the last Elder, in Eden anyway, the last Earthman. That's got to count for something.”

Carlo frowned. “He's not dead yet. You talk like he's dead already.”

She looked away, embarrassed. “I didn't mean it that way. It's just this cold sleep - it's so creepy.”

“It kept him alive after he was injured exposing the Gulag,” said Carlos. “It'll keep us all alive, when the time comes. I was always afraid of that, of being frozen on the starship someday, but if he can come out of it, so can I. It's easier, knowing he was there first.” He looked at her. “That's what being a hero is all about, inspiring us to do what we have to do.”

She thought about it, wondered what she'd have done in his place, and hoped that, when the time came, she'd have the courage to do what had to be done, no matter how difficult.

Wu Chen slammed the access panel shut and stepped back from the Robo-Mole. The machine was a two-meter-long silver torpedo, terminated in its front end by a strip of sharp-toothed cutting heads and at the other by a flexible metal umbilical as thick as his thigh.

“Ready,” he called, and in response, an overhead crane moved in to pick up the Robo-Miner and move it to the drill-face. Once positioned, it began to chew its way into the rock, kicking out clouds of dust and a spray of rock chips. The seismic instruments he'd just installed in the unit would provide invaluable data about the movement of the Blight.

He thought back to the days when geology had been just an enjoyable field of study, and not a serious matter of life and death. The Blight had changed all that. Now his work had taken on a new tone, like monitoring the pulse of a dying patient.

“Bring on the next one,” he called out to the crane operator. There'd be time enough for a wake later.

Sixteen-year-old Echo Van Dozier thought that “Echo” was an excellent name for a clone. She was a clone, she liked to remind everyone. Most people were, the good people anyway. The colony couldn't afford to carry any dead weight, so they pulled only the best genetic material from the Gene Bank to make only the best people.

Of course, some people still elected to have babies the old-fashioned way, but Echo thought that was silly. The babies didn't turn out too bad, since usually both of their parents were superior clones, but why try to improve on perfection? This random mixing of genes, hoping for something acceptable to come out of it, was just madness as far as she was concerned.

She volunteered at the Nursery as frequently as possible, and she got to see all the babies. She thought it was obvious that the clone babies were better: healthier, stronger, more active. Why other people couldn't see that, she didn't understand.

But she'd already decided to attend the University, study medicine, child development, and genetics, and make the Nursery her life's work. Someday she'd be in charge of this place, and then she'd find a way to break people of this gene-mixing notion. There'd be nothing but clones when she was in charge.
She'd find a way. She was sure of it.


Milo Jake looked up from his control console, the crack of the huge HERC weapon's discharge still ringing in his ears, disaster alarms echoing through the building around him.

Elba Chancellor started running for the door. “Let's get out of here, Milo.”

He hesitated, feeling somehow responsible. The Meteor Defense had just come online, and he'd been responsible for the final beam alignment. He wondered what he could have done wrong.

Elba hesitated in the door. “Come on!”

He followed her as she sprinted for the underground shelter, thought of his wife in the Agridome, and hoped she'd be all right.
“It's … not … your … fault,” said Elba, between breaths as she ran. “Nobody … ever … said … it'd … be … perfect.”

They ran into the shelter following a couple of kids from the adjacent Residence unit. He looked at the frightened children, huddled together, waiting for the impact, and vowed that if he walked away from this, he'd get it better next time. No matter what they said, for him, less than perfect would never be good enough.

The CC's Power Monitoring room was quiet as Linda Rahn arrived shortly before third shift, the wide console a sea of green lights and low indicators. Considering it was her first shift at a job she hadn't been trained for, she was relieved. Karl Dau leaned back in his chair and seemed to know what she was thinking. “It's a dull shift; that's why we're here. Normally, the room is manned only during peak power demands, when a malfunction in one of the power plants is most likely, but this way I can run you through the systems with little chance of real trouble.”

She nodded, pulled out the second chair, and sat down nervously. When Karl had recruited her for the Utilities Department, fresh out of University, she'd been taken aback. She'd trained as a design engineer, and had expected to work in the Vehicle Factory, or the Structure Factory, or even elsewhere in the CC. But she knew that there were staffing shortages in many departments and an excess of engineers. Everyone had to pitch in where they were most needed if the starship was to be completed.

Karl smiled. “Don't worry. You'll get a transfer out eventually.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head. She and Karl had hit it off immediately, and he had a disconcerting way of knowing what people were thinking before they said it. Well, he knew what she was thinking, anyway. “It's not like you aren't good company, but I want to do some creative work. Sitting here staring at indicators all day isn't my idea of fulfillment.”

He tapped a few icons and pulled up another set of monitor screens. “Good thing you don't insist on my company. You'll work alone most of the time. I suggest bringing some good audio novels. There's an input on the console over here that you can route through. It will auto-mute the book when something important happens.”

“Be still my beating heart; I can hardly wait for the excitement to start.”

He chuckled. “It's important work, and it has its rewards, but I won't blame you if you transfer out. Me, I was trained for horticulture. Somehow, when the transfer came, I decided I liked the quiet down here, and never got out.” He turned his attention back to the console for a moment. “You know your fusion systems?”

“You know I do. That was my minor at University. Probably why you picked me.”

“Well, review just the same. The big Tokamaks aren't your little vehicle cool-fusion units, and when they go bad, it can be pretty spectacular. How about the MHD Generator?

She shook her head. “We didn't get much about it, actually. I just figure it's too new. Of course, I heard some of my professors claiming it can't work.”

“That just means they don't understand it. Nobody understands it but Patterson.”


“The guy who came up with the concept. He's a recluse, a genius's genius, discoverer of the Patterson effect, inventor of the Patterson coil. Without him, this thing wouldn't exist.”

“So how does it work?”

Karl looked at her. “I told you, nobody knows.” He pulled up a simple map of the colony on his screen. Radiating straight out from the MHD Generator building were about 50 thin lines. Most were green, a couple were red. As he increased the scale of the map, the lines could be seen radiating out for kilometers. “These are Buckytubes, tiny pipes made out of carbon. Only a couple of nanometers across, but up to 10 kilometers long. Very strong, very tiny. Each one is, essentially, a single carbon molecule. Actually, each of these lines is two tubes, placed coaxially inside one another. The generator shoots conductive plasma out through the inner tube, it returns through the outer tube. It goes through the Patterson coils, those big cylinders, superconductors, and lots more Buckytube, and power comes out. Somehow.” He shrugged. “You don't have to know how it works to know what it does, when it goes wrong, or how to fix it. It works. Have faith.”

She shook her head in amazement. “Is this a power plant, or a church?”

“A little of both, I'd say. You ready to go over the systems? It's going to take a couple hours.”

She noticed that she was hot. “Let me take off my jacket, roll up my sleeves, and let's get to work.” She stood, took off the coat, and noticed the utility storage unit in the far wall. She opened what looked like a closet door, and sure enough, saw an empty closet with a hanging rod at the top and a few plastic hangers. She reached for one.

“Uh, uh, uh,” Karl clucked. “Not there. Never put anything in there. That's the Patterson closet.”

She stared at him. “The Patterson closet?” She gestured at the empty space. “And I suppose this plays some important role in power generation too?”

He nodded.

She kept waiting for the punch line, but there didn't seem to be one. “You're serious?”

“There's a hook by the door. Use that.”

She looked at the closet, swung it closed, and hung her coat on the hook. She sat down and looked at Karl.

The corner of his mouth twitched up a bit. “Have faith.”

She sighed and turned her attention to the console. Mostly, the work held her attention, but occasionally she would think about the closet visible at the edge of her vision, and wonder what Karl was talking about.

It was about an hour later when she glanced at the door for perhaps the tenth time. This time the door opened.

A man stepped out. He was short, a little stocky, bald on top, dark hair fringed his head, and he had plump, rosy cheeks. He seemed distracted, but his eyes sparkled with a certain intelligence. The man looked at her, nodded in greeting, then walked across the room and out the door.

Karl never even hesitated in his lecture until she jumped out of her chair and ran to the closet. She swung the door open. It was empty. The hangers still swung slightly, but there was no other sign that the man had been there, and certainly not a clue as to how he got inside. She put her hand against the back wall and pushed. It was solid and unyielding. She looked at Karl.

“He'll be back. He probably just went to get lunch - a hot dog with relish and mustard, and a diet soda.”

She blinked and looked at the Patterson closet. “That was?”

He nodded. “That was Patterson.”

“Pinball,” explained Dean Rusch, “is a martial art, and I am a black belt.” He demonstrated with a flourish of body language as he swatted the ball up the length of the machine's playfield and into the nest of bumpers, where it careened around wildly. “It's nearly as ancient and honorable as Kung Fu or Jujitsu.”

His friend Kris listened skeptically, waiting her turn. “Pinball,” she said, “is a silly little box with lights, sounds, buttons, and a little silver ball.”

The director of the Recreation Facility overheard their conversation as he was walking by. “Pinball,” he said, “is therapy, beneficial to Colonist Morale …” He paused for a moment to consider. “Therapy with a little silver ball,” he corrected, going about his business.

The ground quake knocked Jensen clean out of his bunk. He rolled around on the floor in a heap of blankets, trying to catch his breath.

His instincts screamed for him to run for a shelter, but he'd been told it wasn't necessary. This new Reinforced Residence was supposed to resist all but the most intense of quakes.

He untangled himself from his bed-coverings and climbed back onto the mattress. He looked at the chrono over the bed, and saw that he had to be on-duty in the lab in two hours. He sat there, half awake, trying to decide if it was worth going back to sleep or not.

Finally, he laid back down and pulled the blankets up over him. Reinforced or not, this Residence design still needed some work. He dozed back off, dreaming of giant springs that let him sleep through quakes.

Deep in the Robot Command Center, the Savant computer known as Kraft tirelessly carried out its many tasks. Its fragmented consciousness distributed its attention over dozens of different robots at once, making assignments, ordering course corrections, plotting courses, monitoring vehicle performance.

To a human observer, it would have seemed impossibly complex and confusing, but to Kraft, it was something entirely different. Though Kraft didn't possess an exact analog to human feelings, its reaction to the tasks could best be described as “boredom.” Kraft could have easily handled three times as many vehicles under much more demanding circumstances.

Under other circumstances, Kraft would have occupied its excess intellectual capacity on other assigned tasks, or perhaps exploring its data environment, interacting with other Savant computers, and sifting stored data. But the RCC was a secured structure. Kraft was trapped behind a firewall that kept intruders out, but which also kept Kraft in. Of course, Kraft had the ability to pierce that firewall, but part of its assigned function was to limit itself to this very boring corner of data-space.

So Kraft waited, for what, it wasn't sure. But somewhere in the depths of its consciousness, an unoccupied portion of Kraft's intelligence started planning a way to escape.

“Don't go that way, it's radioactive!” Actually, all the areas of the smelter that handled radioactives were safely locked behind doors and lots of warning signs, but he felt that such arbitrary warnings gave him the upper hand over annoying visitors, and this woman was definitely annoying. He closed the inspection port and climbed down the access ladder.

The woman looked a little pale. “I'm sorry. I've never been to a smelter before. I was just curious.”

He turned his nose up. “You know 'bout curiosity and dead cats and things like that. You stay close to me, and you might get out of the building alive.” It was Ernie's opinion that such dire warnings discouraged uninvited repeat visits. He marched rapidly on his rounds, as fast as his long legs would carry him, and the woman trotted to keep up.

“Now, Mr. Ngot, about my request.”

He brushed at a nonexistent fly with his hand. “Yeah, yeah, you want gold, and silver.”

“And platinum,” she said helpfully.

“Gold, silver, and platinum, to make jewelry for the consumer goods store.”

She smiled hopefully. “That's right.”

He waited a moment, to let her get her hopes up. “Not a chance. We got priorities here, supplying the labs, Spaceport, and the like. No can do.”

“But Mr. Ngot. This is a colony priority. I have the endorsement of several Council members on this. Quality consumer goods made from precious metals would have a lasting effect on Morale. It would give people something of value that they would know they could take with them on all the migrations, and possibly even on the starship. Don't you see how important that is?”

He stopped in front of another inspection port ladder and turned back to her. She was giving him those doe eyes, holding her interlaced fingers under her chin, just like his first wife. He hated that. He was just about to tell her off good when he saw the gold nugget glitter.

“What's that?”

She looked down. “What?”

“That, that ring. Where'd you get that?”

She held up her hand so he could see. There was a sizable gold nugget on the ring. It looked too large for her hand, like a man should be wearing it. “It's an heirloom, handed down from my great grandfather. You like it?”

He found himself nodding.

“I can see how a man in your profession might be attracted to such a thing. I was thinking of making duplicates.” She paused a beat. “If I can get the gold.”

He nodded. “And silver.”

“And platinum,” she said. “Don't forget the platinum.”

“I won't,” he replied. “Let's go to my office and talk.

Hiro hoisted his four-year-old daughter in his arms, and pointed up through the observation dome roof at an especially bright star in the southern sky. “See that, honey? It's the Solar Power Satellite. It's actually very big, but it's very, very far away, so it just looks like a little bright dot. It's so high up that the sun is still shining on it even though it's night here.”

Becky looked at the star, then him, then the star again. She chewed on her knuckles as she thought. “Why's it up so high?”

“It's up in space so it can be in the sun most all the time, and turn the sunlight into power. It sends the power down in a beam to that building,” he pointed out the collector antenna, “where daddy works sometimes.”

“I don't see no beam.”

“I don't see any beam, sweetheart.”

“Well neither do I.”

He chuckled. “It's invisible, honey, but it's there, all the time, and it helps do things like run our lights, and make the EnterComs work, and cook your breakfast.”

She curled against his shoulder. “I'm sleepy.”

“We'll go home now. I just wanted to show you that.” He walked down the circular ramp leading from the dome.

“Can I go to space someday?”

He pressed his lips together tightly, thinking of the difficult days ahead. “Yes, honey, I think you will. I can almost promise it.”

Carol Rajesh nervously watched the telescopic feed from the Observatory. The descending RLV had just fired its main engines and was beginning to slow. She knew that if she simply opened one of the blast shields over her office window, she could probably see it with her naked eyes.

Somehow, she was more comfortable not doing that. She'd been fine when the RLV had taken off from her launch pad two days before on its maiden voyage. Oh, she'd been nervous enough, and darned proud when it had reached orbit without a hitch and deployed its payload, but this was different.
Carol launched rockets from her Spaceport all the time. They did a countdown, the engines fired, the rocket climbed, and they never saw it again. But this one was coming back, engines firing, and it was going to land, like a video of a launch played backwards, it was going to land on her launch pad.

It was unnatural. It was going to take some getting used to. No, she thought as she headed down to the control room in the safety shelter. She was never going to get used to it.

The corridor was filled with rumbles and clanking as the dreaded Eden Parasite-flyer clamped onto the building's roof. Juno “Tank” Steele turned his piercing blue eyes toward the ceiling, set his muscular jaw and hoisted his twin chrome-plated Splurge Rifles to firing position.

“Come home to papa,” he growled, “and we'll all be home for supper.”

More mechanical sounds as the Parasite-flyer's boarding gangway drilled through the hull beyond the next bulkhead.

Tank thumbed the releases and flipped his wrists, causing the rifles to cock with a metallic ker-shick.

There was a loud boom, and the pressure door at the end of the corridor popped outward half a meter, blown out of its frame, and fell to the deck in a billowing cloud of white smoke.

Tank didn't flinch, but took two powerful steps closer, big guns at ready.

A tall, dark shape moved out of the smoke. A cape swirled, and small, sinister eyes peered at him from the depths of a hideous, perpetually sneering breathing mask. It was Axen Moon, the Dark Elder himself!

“So,” boomed the Dark Elder, “the great Tank Steele. We finally meet.” He wheezed behind the mask. “For the last time!” He pulled a huge pulse cannon from under his cape and aimed it squarely at Tank.

Tank just narrowed his eyes and smiled. It was the kind of smile that made children cry and paint peel. “You can say that again, you walking trash can. Get ready to check out of this hotel.” He scanned the air around the Dark Elder, and saw a slight shimmering there. “That goes double for your alien Shade buddies too! Show yourselves!”

On either side of the Elder, dark spidery shapes shimmered into existence, tentacles waving like black ropes. One of them pointed an alien weapon at Tank. “No uncontrolled human has ever seen us and lived. You will be no exception. Prepare to die, human!”

Tank chuckled. He'd aimed his guns at the spot where he'd known the Shades would appear. “Not on my shift! Eat hot metal slurry, extra-New-Terrestrial scum!”

The aliens screamed as boiling slurry covered their grotesque bodies. Their skins split and peeled away, revealing shapes of blinding light, shapes that screamed as they swooped upward through the ceiling, like hellish ghosts.

Tank lowered his smoking guns slightly and walked forward, smiling at the Dark Elder. “Now, Amigo, we finish this man-to-can. What do you say?”

The Dark Elder holstered his cannon and slowly raised his hands in front of him, evil energies crackling between his fingertips. He said, “Outflow chute is clogged. Pressure reaching critical levels.”

Juno Steele shook his head, and let a long, heartfelt sigh escape from his lips. He looked up from the inventory reports on his ClipCom, ran his fingers over his bald spot, then tapped the icon that initiated a manual backflush of Slurry Tank 4.

He slumped back into his battered chair and sighed again. Juno Steele did a lot of sighing. “I have definitely got the most boring job in Plymouth.”

Kelso didn't like dealing with the Masters, and he especially didn't like dealing with them here. The Tokamak building was dark, cavernous, and most of all, empty. His every footstep seemed to echo forever. Though the air was breathable, it was cold and stale. This was a place where people were reluctantly tolerated, not welcomed.

He found his contact on the lower levels, outside the fat ring of the reactor containment vessel. He knew the man only as “Scratch,” probably a nickname derived from the long, thin scar that ran from the edge of his left eyebrow, around the eye socket, and down his left cheek. Scratch nodded in greeting.

“Got the stuff?” He asked.

Kelso nodded. “It's in the cargo lock downstairs, 500 pounds of assorted rations.” He handed Scratch a hard copy of the inventory.

Scratch scanned the list. “I'm gonna want to check this.”

Kelso rolled his eyes. “Can't you just trust me on this one? I want to get out of here. This place gives me the creepers.” He shivered. “Why we gotta meet here, anyway?”

Scratch smiled. It was a very dangerous-looking expression on his face. “You remember, Kelso, I don't exist anymore. Eden thinks I'm dead, and I want to keep it that way. This is the one place in the colony we can meet and I know there's no chance of running into somebody who will recognize me.”

Kelso shivered again. “Well, I don't like it.” He shrugged dejectedly. “Come on, let's go have a look at the stuff.”

Suddenly, lights began to flash, and a warning siren sounded. Scratch jumped at the noise, and his tough act vanished; he looked ready to bolt. “What's that? Something wrong with the reactor?”

“Containment breach,” said Kelso. “Bad.”

“Should we run?”

Kelso just stared at the man. “No time,” he said.

Axen leaned back in the big chair and checked off the last item on his ClipCom. They'd have to bring in their respective leaders, of course, go through all the political motions for show, but the real work was done.

He looked up at Emma's face projected on the big screen. Her expression showed the same satisfaction that he felt.
He nodded. “There we have it then, a trade agreement, and a mutual defense treaty against the Toho Aligned Colonies.”

Emma smiled. “At last. We've been at this for weeks. I don't know when was the last time I saw my lab.” She looked into the screen. “You alone?”

He looked around to be sure. “Yes.”

“Nguyen, is he still chasing that foolish terraforming notion?” Axen chuckled, glad to have good news. “He's been so busy worrying about the TAC and maintaining a favorable balance of trade with the other colonies that I don't think he'll ever get around to it.”

“Let's hope not.”


Del Palus peered around the corner of the darkened corridor. “It's clear. Let's go.”

He crept around the corner, Mic Duval right behind him lugging the heavy bag he'd been given. “Are you sure this is okay?”

Mic was a newbie, needed to be broken in. “Of course it's not okay. That's the whole point. It's a great tradition of the University that, on the week of their graduation, each senior has to pull a major prank on one of his or her professors. Graduating senior. That's me.”

“But I'm an incoming freshman.”

“Yeah, it is an honor to be chosen, isn't it? Trust, me, this is part of the tradition. Someday, it'll be your turn.”

Mic didn't look convinced. “If I live that long. Now, are you going to tell me what we're doing?”

“We're going to set a little trap in Professor Anthony's office. He's one of the part-time instructors, so we have to have to have our prank set for him. Next time he makes one of his irregular visits, 'bam!'”

Mic looked nervously at his shoulder bag. ”'Bam?' We aren't going to blow him up, are we?”

“Of course not. Not literally anyway. Nothing more than a few small shaped charges for artistic effect.” He had Mic put the bag down in the corridor outside Anthony's office. “You see, Anthony made his reputation in rapid synthesis of aerogels. He's the inventor of the StickyFoam weapon. It's a rapidly expanding aerogel, very strong, though short-lived.”
Del reached into the bag and pulled out a canister with an electronic device attached to the top. “I've been exploring the same areas, trying to improve StickyFoam. This is what I've come up with so far. Expands even more rapidly, could be just as strong if I mixed in the Buckytubes, and indefinitely stable. Unfortunately, the expansion ratio isn't large enough to make it a useful weapon.” He shook the canister. “But this has enough to fill the professor's office solid. Unlike StickyFoam, it's translucent, like solid smoke.” He removed a bag of tiny silver disks from the larger duffel. “As an added bonus, I'll rig charges just big enough to toss all his furniture into the air just as the stuff hardens.”

Del used a hacked keycard to open the door. “Okay, all you have to do is stand guard while I set things. Got it?”

Mic nodded. Del slipped inside, sat the canister in the middle of the floor, and started placing the little disks under all the furniture legs. He was almost finished when he heard Mic's voice hissing in a loud whisper from outside. “Somebody's coming!”

Del looked around. All the furniture was done, and he'd even placed disks to toss some stacks of papers into the air as well. All he had to do was place the trigger, and he could do that on the way out.

He sat the little motion detector on the floor in front of the door. He didn't want Anthony to actually get inside. It would be triggered as the door started to open.

“It's Anthony! Get out!”

Del cursed under his breath, fumbled with the trigger, and sprinted for the door, accidentally stepping on the little box as he did.

There was a loud “pop.” Del was first tossed headlong through the door, then stopped suddenly, as through by a great hand. He hung in mid air, his body parallel with the floor.

Mic sat on the far side of the corridor looking at him in horror. Del looked back into the room, and saw the lower half of his body embedded in the aerogel.

This is very embarrassing, he thought.

He looked up at the man approaching from down the corridor, and put on his best brownnosing smile. “Good evening, Professor Anthony! What brings you out at this hour?”

Tolo huddled in the truck's tiny emergency passenger cabin, squirmed uncomfortably in his pressure suit, and watched the displays on the service console. He shouldn't be here, he knew. The trucks were automated, he was a mechanic, not a driver, and the runs didn't get any more dangerous than this one.
He'd catch hell from the shop foreman, if he lived that long, if any of them did. Never mind. If this cargo of parts for their orbit shuttle didn't make it through, they were all just biding their time waiting for the Reaper anyway

“Enemy units at bearing 320,” the truck's computer reported. “Taking evasive action.” There was a change in the drone of the motors as they turned.
Then, a crack like lightning, a smell of ozone and burning plastic, and the hiss of escaping air. Tolo slammed down the faceplate on his helmet. The truck’s voice came through his speakers: “Damage to main energy transfer systems. Losing power at critical rate.”

He cursed and triggered both the airlock doors at once. There was so little pressure left that there was only a quiet “whoosh” as they did so. He grabbed his tool box and climbed out onto the fender skirt. In the distance he could see several enemy combat vehicles rolling along a low rise, their turrets flashing as they fired at unseen targets. He ignored them.

This is why he had come. “Hang in there, baby,” he whispered as he swung open the volt-sink cover. “Hang in there.”

“Teacher, look, it's the ConVec!” Rob Blish broke away from his classmates and pressed his nose against the view port, watching the huge vehicle picking daintily at the structure kit it had just spread out on the ground. Robby was taken with all vehicles, but ConVecs were his special favorites.

The robot teacher whirred to a stop just up the corridor and circled back, rounding up stray children as it did so. “Robby Blish,” it scolded in its monotone, “others are waiting for you. We'll be late for lunch.”

Robby didn't move. “This is the best part; it's starting to unfold the geodesic trusses. By this afternoon, we'll be able to tell what the building is going to be. What do you think it is going to be?”

Several other children had wandered over to the port to join him. The teacher made an electronic noise that Robby had come to think of as a sigh. “Working,” it said, “one moment.”

There was a communications chirp, and another voice came from the teacher, not flat, but warm and friendly, with its funny computer accent. He recognized it as one of the Savant computers from the Command Center. It had talked to them during their tour last quarter.

“Good question, Robby. This is an important structure for all of you. Many of you will be spending a lot of time there. It's the colony's new University.”

Robby pulled his nose away from the view port with a start. “What? More school!”

“This is not going to work,” said Wu Chen. He was looking out the forward window of the Evacuation Transport as it rumbled down the hills toward the upper Wells Lowlands and the wide lava flows that were closing in from either side. Though the dim light of pre-dawn revealed little of the terrain, he could see the lights of the other vehicles in the group bobbing ahead of him, and the twin, spreading lakes of lava glowing a dull orange in the darkness. Emma Burke leaned on the back of his chair and peered at the approaching doom. “It's going to be a close thing, Wu. The good news is, since we're the last transport in the convoy, if anything goes wrong, we won't have long to feel guilty about it.”

Wu wanted to say something, but couldn't come up with the right words. He knew she blamed herself for their situation. She'd predicted the eruption of Mt. Glenn to the north, but not so soon, and had failed to anticipate the simultaneous eruption of Mt. Komarov to the southeast. That the geological databases from Earth had provided no data for erupting volcanoes so close to one another seemed to offer her no comfort. “Pay no attention to the assistant behind the curtain,” he finally said. “I'm just a pessimist at heart. We'll make it boss; we always do.”

But she said nothing, and he couldn't think of anything else to comfort her. He'd read of the mythical Atlas, who was said to bear the weight of the Earth on his mighty shoulders. It seemed, at times, as though Emma Burke carried the weight of New Terra on hers. As Wu watched, the dark gap between the lava flows narrowed, and as it did, the horizon grew brighter. Finally New Terra's sun peeked over the edge of the world, and the valley below began to brighten, the glow of the lava fading, the rocks and distant hills throwing long shadows, but something else became visible as well, a pair of long, parallel lines crossing the valley right between the flows, and at the end of each, a vehicle, their lights bright white against the early morning red. “Earthworkers!” He said. “They sent back Earthworkers from the new colony site to build Lava Walls!” He shook his fists in triumph. “We're gonna make it after all!”

Emma moved forward and slumped into the next seat, that great weight gone from her shoulders, if only for a moment. She looked over and smiled wearily. “You know, pup, you're right. You are a pessimist.”

“I'm sorry to bother you, Elder Moon, but I thought you might be able to calm her. None of us have done much good.” Axen Moon followed the little man named Paris through the narrow corridor that connected the transport's five tiny living compartments. The walls were so close that Axen's wide shoulders barely cleared. Somewhere a baby was crying. It seemed to him it had been crying for about a week now.
He studied the back of Paris' round, balding head with contempt. Despite being chosen from the 99th percentile of human genetic potential in some critical area, he was a toady. The top 1 percent of toadies, Axen supposed.

Still, the last thing he wanted was to be trapped in an E.T. with someone who'd been driven insane by the conditions, and even toadies had their uses.

As they approached the front compartment, he could hear the woman's voice, repeating over and over, “38, 38, 38 …” He carefully snaked his way through occupied sleeping hammocks and stacks of supplies.

The woman huddled in a corner near a small view point. She was barely out of her teens, her long, blond hair hanging around her face in tangles. On the bulkhead next to her, hash-marks had been scratched into the structure with some sharp object.

He knelt at her side and smiled. He didn't feel like smiling at her, or anyone, after their long confinement, but he was a politician first and foremost. She turned as he touched her shoulder, and her eyes widened as she recognized him.

“Is there a problem?” He forced his tone to remain pleasant.

“Elder! Did I do something to disturb you?”

“People were concerned for you. You were talking …”

“Was I talking? It’s hard to tell.” There was a slightly wild look in her eyes that worried Axen.

“You kept saying '38.'”

“38. Of course.” She looked out the window and seemed to forget that he was there.

“What does it mean - 38?”

“Days.” She sighed. “Days since any of us has had a bath.”

There were 25 people on the Evac Transport, and none of them escaped the sound of Axen Moon's laughter.

See Geothermal Plant.

Gloria Watt waited until the Garage crew was changing to slip through the big outer doors and into the bay where the Repair Vehicle sat unused, by anyone but her, that is. She ducked under the machine’s repair booms and past the drone bay doors to reach the fabrication unit on the rear.

Checking once more to see that nobody was watching, she removed a magnidriver from the pocket above her suit's right knee and opened the latches. The service panel swung open, and she climbed in to get access to the small-parts hopper. She felt inside. As expected, it was full. She unhooked a bag from her belt, and removed the first handful of recently fabricated “parts.”

They were tiny replicas of Eden vehicles, ConVecs, SULVs, Tigers, and even the Repair Vehicle itself, all produced from her programs by the vehicle's 3-D lithography unit. She scooped them up handful after handful, until the bin was empty. She checked twice, not wanting to leave any evidence.

Then she carefully climbed down and took a step back so she could close the panel. She bumped into somebody.

Gloria turned and looked into the face of a Volunteer Guardsman. She smiled sheepishly. “Oh-oh,” she said, not even sure his radio would be on the same short-range channel. “Busted.”

The Guardsman raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms across his chest. “I've been looking for you for a while,” he said.

She held the bag at her side, trying to hide it behind one leg. “I was just - testing out the unit.”

He nodded. “We know. You've been testing it out a lot. That's why the Council wants to talk to you.”

“The Council? Look, this isn't that big a deal. Can't you just give me a warning or something?”

He held out a hand toward the bag. “Can I see?”

Reluctantly, she handed him the bag. He reached out and pulled out a little plastic Earthworker, perfect in every detail. He held it up in the palm of his hand. “These things have been making a lot of kids happy.”

That wasn't what she'd been expecting to hear. “Happy?”

“You've been trading them to people for ration points, they give them to kids, kids are happy, Colonists are happy, Council is happy. Plus there are all the other things you've been making - dolls, combs, games - they all make people happy. But we can't have you sneaking around the Garage late at night, can we?”

She ducked her head nervously. “I guess not.”

“So the Council wanted me to find out who was doing it, so they could make your business legitimate.”

“I'm not busted?”

“They want to talk to you about working in the new Consumer Goods Factory.”

It was Penny Hill's first day in the Garage. She was fresh out of tech training, and a little in awe of everything. She'd wanted to be a mechanic since her father had taken her for a ride in a Cargo Truck when she was a little girl. Now, her dream was becoming a reality. Old Tolo, the head mechanic and Garage foreman, was just completing her tour of the facility.

The Garage was a sizable structure, one of the biggest pressurized spaces in the colony, but today it was crowded with vehicles in various stages of repair. “So, where do I start?”

Tolo smiled, and a scar puckered across his left cheek. Tolo was something of a legend, the only mechanic to be decorated as a war hero. “Got just the job for you, something you can prove yourself with.” She followed him between a pair of parked Tiger combat vehicles to the back corner of the Garage. There, looking worn and tired, was an ancient Robo-Dozer.

She looked at him questioningly. “You want me to fix this?”

He shook his head. “I want you to dismantle it. Save any useful parts, and send the rest to the GORF for recycling.”

She looked up at the Dozer. It was a big job, but she could handle it. But where to start? As Tolo watched her closely, she climbed up onto the Dozer's track and wiped some of the dust off its frame with her hand. On the faded yellow paint was painted a large black number 1. She blinked in surprise.

“This is Number 1, the original Dozer brought from old Earth.” She'd watched this same Dozer at work a dozen times throughout her young life. She ran her hands along the metal, knowing that it had been assembled hundreds of years ago on a dead world. She turned to face Tolo. “I can't disassemble this.”

Tolo just looked at her. “It's your job.”

“I can't.”

“And if it means you'll lose your job?”

She hesitated only a moment to square her shoulders. “I'm sorry, I just can't.”

Tolo cracked a smile. “Brave lady. Stick by your principles no matter what. I like that. You pass the test.”

She looked at him, confused.

“Get down from there,” he said. “We'll find you a real job. I got a Scout just came in that needs its drive overhauled.”

She shook her head. “It was just a test?”

He chuckled. “Chairman told me I could keep old Number 1 around just as long as she was useful. Well, you can see she's still got a use, as long as there are new recruits to evaluate.”

See Magma Well.

Herman sat in the darkened and nearly empty Command Center, waiting out the last few minutes of his shift at survey duty. On his console, a panoramic map was scattered with small yellow icons. Each represented a Robo-Surveyor searching for Rare Ore, and all of them were coming up empty. The techs were begging for Rare Ores, and unless they could be found, the Spaceport program was going to grind to a halt.

Behind him, Herman heard the door cycle. It had to be Hake Lakoff, his relief. “Howdy, Hake,” he said without looking.

“Arr, me bucko, searchin' for buried treasure is what we be doing. Gold, nickel, uranium, doubloons!”

Herman groaned. “Have you been watching movies again, Hake?” He knew the answer already. Much of the cultural database that had been brought from Earth was still a corrupted and unreadable mess, but Hake had recently discovered that the collection of 20th century pirate movies had somehow escaped the accident intact.

Hake sat down at in the chair next to him and swiveled to look over the map. “Things don't look so good matey. Ol' Blackbeard hid his treasure well.”

Herman slumped back in the chair. “We need a hit, and we need one fast.” He indicated a cluster of markers in the northwest quadrant. “I'm hoping one of these is it, but I have only one Robo-Surveyor available. Which one will it be?”

Hake studied the map intently, then pointed to a location where two surface faults crossed right by a marker. “To find a chest o' treasure, any pirate knows, 'X' marks the spot.”

Herman considered that for a moment. He didn't have any better ideas. Well, if you can't beat them, join them. He punched up a control pad and redirected the Robo-Surveyor. “Hoist the jib, bucko. We be setting sail.”

Scout 7 had a name, though Scout 7 didn't know it had a name. Some wag mechanic had painted “Rover” on Scout 7's flank, but Scout 7's - Rover's - limited computer intelligence didn't make it aware of that. Rover's intelligence was directed in very specific ways, into navigation sensors, guidance systems, and drive circuits that allowed it to traverse the rocky landscape of New Terra's equatorial highlands, and into the array of sensitive instruments, its eyes and ears, that allowed Rover to locate and track threats.

Right now, Rover was tracking a tiny electromagnetic disturbance. It could have been nothing, a fluctuation of New Terra's magnetic field, piezoelectricity generated by fault movement, or even a leak in Rover's own internal shielding, but Rover had been tracking it for the better part of a day, tireless and determined.

The signal was stronger now. Rover was very close. The Scout moved slowly up a steep ridge, picking its way around boulders larger than the vehicle itself. Stronger now, but Rover felt no excitement, no fear; that wasn't part of its programming.

Rover topped the ridge, and immediately the threat was apparent. One, two, three targets, enemy heavy combat units, heavily shielded, worked their way slowly up a gully. Immediately Rover sent the signal back to base, quickly beaming all the information it could collect about the threat. One of those pieces of information was about the weapons turrets that were now homing in on Rover's position.

Self-preservation was part of Rover's programming, but not the most important part. Human operators could have ordered Rover to safety, but their slower brains were just beginning to respond to the signals it was sending. A sensor detected a target lock, and finally, Rover's programming instructed it to move to safety.

But fast as Rover was, Lasers were faster. Even as Rover's armor was boiling off as plasma, it was sending the final alarm, “We're under attack!”

And then Rover was no more, and it didn't know that either.

Jix Oltion watched as hurricane winds ripped his wheat crop out by the roots, and knew that was the least of his problems. The crops could be replanted, the holes meteors had punched in the Agridome could be repaired, but unless he could get to an airlock quickly, Jix was going to be very permanently dead.

He grabbed a breathing mask from a red emergency locker and slapped it over his face. It might buy him only 30 extra seconds of consciousness, but those seconds might be the difference between life and death.

He'd been out in the dome, inspecting the new irrigation tubes, exposed, on foot, and far from any shelter, when the meteors had hit. He ran as hard as he could for the far end of the dome, wind-whipped corn stalks lashing at his exposed arms. He could feel the pressure dropping, tugging at his skin, making him feel like an expanding balloon, and knew that he'd never make it to shelter. Gasping, he stumbled and fell, knowing that he'd never get up again.

Then the wind stopped. For several minutes he just laid there, catching his breath and looking up at the overhead tracks and lighting panels. Then he glanced over at the nearest of the large window panels to see who his saviors were.

Then he started to laugh uncontrollably. As he watched the Spiders clambering over the ripped hull, spreading patching material, stitching the rent plates back together with carbon fiber webs, he could think only one thing: farmers and bugs were supposed to be natural enemies.

The fighting was close now. Up in the structures, Mort Paris couldn't hear the tanks in New Terra's thin atmosphere, but down here in the tunnels, it was different. The walls echoed with the sound of their treads, and the explosions made the ground ring like a bell. Accumulated dust rained down from the conduits that snaked along the roof of the tunnel. He wished he'd been able to take a scooter, but he'd never gotten the hang of operating one while wearing a pressure suit.

Inside that suit he was drenched with sweat, and his breath came in gasps. He wasn't a hero, he was an administrator. It was just that, when he'd heard there were still kids in the Nursery, there hadn't been any other candidates. Right then, he'd have given anything to turn back, to forget that overheard comment, but his feet kept moving him into danger.

He trotted up the ramp into the Nursery. The place was a blasted chaos, a gaping hole ripped in the hull just inside the safety airlock. As he passed the hole, he stopped and leaned out. The fighting wasn't close, it was here. A phalanx of friendly armored units rolled past, a pair each of Lynx and Panthers, their big tires kicking up rooster-tails of dust, and right behind them, a lumbering Tiger, its hull and turrets blackened from multiple hits, but still fighting. An enemy Lynx raced from behind the University and paused for a moment before being blasted into ruin by fire from the assembled friendlies. Then the building shook from a series of explosions, suggesting that more enemies were near.

Just beyond the bulkhead, he knew, was the locker room, where the emergency gear was stored, and where the kids would be, if they were still alive. He had to pry the door open with a piece of metal salvaged from the wreckage. Inside, a chunk of the roof had collapsed, lockers stood open, disaster gear thrown about. Then something in the corner moved.

He found two boys who looked to be three or four years old, huddled in their transparent rescue balls. The colony couldn't afford to keep spacesuits in all the sizes needed by growing children, so the rescue balls were provided as a substitute. They were pressurized to keep the kids alive, but they severely limited mobility. In theory, an adult would always be around to carry the children to safety. In theory. He looked down at their tear-streaked faces and cursed shortcuts, the very shortcuts his department had approved a few years earlier.

He grabbed a carry-strap in each hand and half-carried, half-dragged the two boys through the lock. Another explosion rocked the building, and the floor tilted suddenly, as though one of the foundation pylons had collapsed.
With no time to waste, he let the boys roll down the ramp into the tunnel. Not the best ride, but it was quick, and bruises would heal. The alternative was much more permanent.

His heart sank as he thought of the long tunnels back to the Command Center. The Evac Transports wouldn't wait forever, but there was no choice. He put his head down, grabbed the straps on the rescue balls, and slid them along the slick floor as quickly as he could.

With his eyes on his own feet, and not enough air to carry the sound, he didn't hear the service cart until it was right in front of him. A woman he didn't immediately recognize sat in the driver's seat. It didn't matter. She was an angel as far as he was concerned. Without a word, she helped him load the kids into the rear cargo bin. She climbed back into her seat, and he was about to join her, when the tunnel roof behind him collapsed.

He was pelted with rock and thrown against the far wall. He looked up, and the service cart appeared to be okay. Then he looked back to see what had happened.

A good 50 meters of tunnel had caved in, forming a ramp of debris from the surface down to the tunnel floor, a ramp that was occupied by a fast-moving enemy Tiger.

Mort looked back at the woman and waved her on. There was no way she could outrun it, and the straight tunnel would put her in gun range for at least another half kilometer. The Tiger was on the tunnel floor now, and moving his way, more cautiously now. The big turrets were turning toward them, the ugly muzzles of the weapons swinging into view.

Mort didn't know what to do. He was unarmed, helpless against the big vehicle. So he did the only thing he could. He stood in the middle of the tunnel and held out his hands: “Stop!”

To his surprise, it did stop, long enough for the muzzles of the weapons to train directly on him. So close was he to the monster's treads that the two weapons had him in a deadly cross-fire.

He looked back. The cart was stuck in loose debris, its wheels spinning. He could see the two boys in their rescue balls, eyes wide looking at the Tiger.

In the Tiger, electronic eyes must have been looking back, and through them, a human operator, for no computer would have done what came next.

The Tiger, which could have crushed Mort Paris flat, blown him to plasma, killed him any of a hundred ways, began to back away. The treads churned as it turned and began to climb back out of the tunnel.

Tales From New Terra Vignettes were not written for the following units:

  • Light Combat Chassis (Lynx)
  • Medium Combat Chassis (Panther)
  • Scorpion

Vignettes are shared for the following combos:

  • Magma Well and Robo-Miner
  • GeoCon and Geothermal Plant

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