Life is pretty good, Bob reflected, since the hydroponics module came on line. Better than he had expected to experience any time before his retirement, for sure. He’d signed on for a three year hitch as an asteroid miner, with the idea that by extending his contract twice he could be set for life before his thirty-first birthday. But then Planet Zippy had shown up and changed all his plans.
Zippy had come as quite a surprise to everyone. It was a Moon-sized object moving at a speed of umpty-blah kilometres per something (Bob wasn’t great at figures and the coffee machine in the briefing room where they had been given the details was broken, as always) that had just sort of appeared one day. It was now zipping through the Solar system—whence the name—in the direction of the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Bob was vaguely astonished that it hadn’t been spotted and catalogued years before its arrival, but the science types said it was due to anomalous something-or-other. He clearly remembered the word ‘anomalous’ because in asteroid work that generally meant you were already dead and waiting for the angels to arrive, but in this case what it really seemed to indicate was ‘unlimited funding,’ and everyone can see uses for that.
So the Company had cut a deal with Congress and the Science Council, and about a hundred and fifty miners and support workers and all the science types from the sector had been boosted over to Zippy orbit. There they transferred in batches of a dozen to a collection of landers that had been built decades ago for some Mars mission that had been cancelled before it ever got started. Word was it had been scuppered because these landers weren’t worth shit, and could only hit the ground in the most impactful of ways. The science types said not to worry because Zippy was oh so much smaller than Mars. Bob and the guys thought that all sounded pretty grim, and actually considered industrial action, but when the landers arrived the science types were fighting each other to get on the first drop, which effectively changed everyone’s mind. Bob made Zippyfall on the third trip down.
By the time he arrived on the surface things were already pretty interesting, in a what-the-fuck kind of way. At the briefing they’d all been told what to expect. He’d written some of it down. “Frozen rock from deep space … blah blah blah … No sign of water, thus no chance of life.” Someone else with more degrees had then picked up the same thread: “gigayears in the dark,” she’d said, and “thin atmosphere plated onto the surface by extreme cold.” They’d made a lot of the cold airless sterility thing. More boring than the Moon, Zippy was supposed to be. Just another drab asteroid, in fact, except for being huge, nicely spherical, and travelling fast enough that most of the miserable caffeine-free briefing had been devoted to an explanation of how the mission was going to deal with all that delta-vee.
So in any case, what they had not been expecting on their arrival was all these fucking insects.
Well, they weren’t exactly insects, in much the same way that they weren’t exactly seed pods. They spent about half their time attached to, apparently actually part of, various plants. But they spent the other half clogging vents and smearing windshields and generally wandering around in dense annoying animated clouds of half-centimetre winged shininess, so, as a word, ‘insects’ would do just fine for now.
Plenty of life, for a barren planet newly in from the deep dark. They’d been way off about the temperature and the atmospheric density as well. About the only thing they’d been right about in that briefing was the absence of water. So go figure.
In any case, this striking discovery (if you can call a thing a ‘discovery’ when it devotes all its energy to trying to get through your faceplate and fly up your nose) had got the folks on Earth even more excited. Probably since now the life scientists could also get in on the funding. Some of the channels even had biologists ahead of celebrity gossip on the international news, trying very hard to explain that when they had said, ‘no chance of life in the absence of water,’ they had meant this in the sense of ‘…or something else really clever and interesting we will tell you about just as soon as we get plenty of money.’ And they wanted to send actual scientists out to Zippy. Not mere Company science types who had got weird from reading too many books, but the kind of scientists who had written the books in the first place. Scientists who could be there in person, not hampered by comm lag, to look and see and prod and poke and figure out what, you know, the fuck.
Thanks to the distances, the orbital positions, and the delta-vee, that jaunt was going to take some time yet to arrive, but the first step was to make sure these scientists would be comfortable when they did. So plans were made to boost up the Hotel. Which had, get this, a hundred and twenty eight actual cabins, each with two bunks and two chairs and a desk—enough to house the miners as well as the science staff. And a gym designed for use in gravity, which would be beyond great, if there was the slightest gap in his schedule to use it. And, glory be, a hydroponics module. All of it left over from that Mars thing where they’d neglected to consider the getting-down-to-the-ground-but-not-inside-it mission phase adequately. But all, evidently, neatly deorbitable onto little, increasingly gassy, Zippy.
So now, three months into the mission, there was food. Not just the usual crunchies-and-mush, but vegetables. With seeds. And colours. And flavour.
That, of course, was the root of the problem.
Bob was out in the strangely orange landscape of the Big Desert, half way through refrobbing a relay box that had come unfrobbed and stopped relaying. At least there were no bugs here to smear up all the glass. He was a day out from Base Camp and the Hotel, about three hours’ drive beyond Outpost, and about thirty minutes’ walk from the bumbler because, well, there were two different boxes on the fritz this morning and how often does a spaceworker get to escape from the supervisor and go for a hike? And now he was having cause to remember another of the effects that those yummy little peppers have on the digestive system.
“Oh, god,” he thought (though he was not a religious man), “I have got to take a crap.”
Now you might think that this was not the sort of thing for a spaceworker to be deeply concerned about, since space suits have all sorts of clever features for situations that aren’t generally talked about except between those who have to face them in their daily work. And you’d be right, except that Bob wasn’t wearing one of those types of space suits. He was wearing one of the other kind, the kind that are flexible and comfortable and light enough to take a couple of hours’ hike in, the kind that are only designed to provide modular vapour seal, an air supply, and some protection against decompression should everything but everything go pear-shaped. So Bob was faced with an agonising choice.
He could, of course, ‘set condition brown,’ as they say when they are for some reason not feeling vulgar. Or, he could, conceivably, take the science types at their word when they had said, “strict vapour discipline is really only a precautionary measure in this environment.” Of course, there were paragraphs of caveats that had gone with that statement: the air pressure was a little low, oxygen was explosive in the local atmosphere, and the outside temperature was about (Bob checked his instruments—hey, not so bad after all) minus five. “But,” they had said, “if you have to vent, go ahead and vent.”
“Well,” thought Bob, “I sure gotta vent.”
So he left a small pile behind the relay box, pulled up his pants, reset the seals, ran a gas flush cycle on his whole suit, and thought no more of it than, “that was a goddamn stupid idea! It’s way too fucking cold here and the air stings like a swarm of rabid hornets in a hailstorm.”
That was Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Bob finally managed to schedule his long delayed Mandatory Training on Biocontamination.
About a week later, relay box 89 kicked out again, just as Bob was delivering some large, ugly, dented crates holding some small, delicate, technical objects to Outpost. “… I’ll take care of it,” he volunteered, scratching his butt, “since I already have a bumbler signed out.” Nobody looked at him too weirdly, he thought. He hadn’t spoken up too quickly. Anyway, lots of guys liked to spend a bit of time outside by themselves. And everyone’s butt itches sometimes.
He was still a short way off from the stubby tower when he saw it: centred on the main equipment box, or rather a point half a metre behind the box, there was a perfect circle, ten metres across, of flat, matte, neutral grey, weird, unnatural deadness in the normally orange-and-yellow sand. His business still sat in its sad little pile, perfectly in the middle, looking strangely vivid on the shockingly colourless ground.
The words of the biocontamination training rattled around in his mind, quite crisp, for once, in his recollection. “These alien life forms are quite primitive, and evolved free from contact with earth. They can, therefore, have no defences against anything such as bacteria that we may have brought with us, or at least, no defences other the oxygen-free environment, which will not stop everything. Similarly, the free oxygen that is poisonous to the native life is not found everywhere in our own environment. This means that even though our tests indicate that the local organisms can’t survive at all in our atmosphere, it remains vitally important to keep the two ecosystems separate.” He scratched some more. Since this talk he’d been experimenting with ways to blow oxygen up his ass, just in case. He was hoping with all his might that his amateur efforts at sterilisation were the only cause of his ongoing irritation. But in another way, that dull grey disc on the ground outside scared him even more.
Bob fixed the box and drove home. He didn’t tell anyone about either problem.
Another month had gone by and word was that the scientists were now well on their way. Bob was slouching around outside the telemetry room, trying for various social reasons to miss the first sitting for lunch, and maybe pick up some news from home. Perhaps the Astronomical Union had decided how Zippy was to be classified and were ready to start thinking about giving it an official name. Perhaps Elvis was back from the dead.
“Will you look at that, Lydia!” said a lab guy in ill-fitting science overalls. He was pointing to a featureless grey circle on his monitor. “That wasn’t on the survey images.”
“Camera malfunction? Drag it across to the wall screen for me.”
“Sure.” The image flowed smoothly onto the floor-to-ceiling display that formed the entire south wall of the telemetry room, where it came to rest, fully two metres high.
He wasn’t imagining it. That wasn’t just any circle, that was his circle, spread wide across the surface. Flat, grey, dead, round, and perfectly centred on the slowly pulsing red square that represented Relay 89.
“No, that looks real. You can see where a big rock outcrop cuts into the perimeter on the west. What’s the scale on that image? 28? So that disc is, what, twelve or thirteen clicks across? No, wait, twenty-five. Weird.”
Bob started to think it was time to confess.
The tech called Lydia spoke again. “We got anyone at Outpost now?”
“Good thought, we’ll see if we can get someone to drive out and take a ground-level look. Pick up some samples.”
Yep, it was definitely time to come clean. The question was, to whom?
After some hurried thought, Bob settled on having a chat with Ralf. Ralf was his boss’s boss, and a decent, easy going sort of guy with a reputation for looking after the guys who worked hard and didn’t complain too much outside of the bar. Inside of which was where Bob would rather have been having this conversation, but time was short and the bar, such as it was, was on the far side of the base. So instead here he was laying out his troubles in a room that looked disturbingly like an office, the compartment where most of the surface logistics was planned. He felt like he was at a job interview, trying once more to explain away the difficult year he’d had after he left school. Only much, much worse.
Ralf listened to the whole story, thought for a bit, and finally, slowly and carefully, said, “Congratulations, Bob. You may have just single-arsedly destroyed an entire alien ecosystem.
“But don’t worry. We’ll think of something to tell them. It’s Jill they’ll be sending out to look around, there’s no one else at Outpost right now. She’s ok. She can tidy things a bit for you. She still owes us for hiding the—do you know about that? Never mind. Get me drunk some time and I’ll tell you.”
“But what about that grey thing? I don’t think it’ll just go away. It’s spreading fast.”
“Don’t worry too much. It’s interesting. Let the science types worry about it. It’s their job to study things. It’s their job to figure stuff out. We’re just here to lug shit around.
“No pun intended, I’m sure.”
Jill was out taking pictures of some new plants when she got the official call from Mission, directing her to inspect the environment around Relay 89. The plants she was examining were the closest things to flowers she had yet seen, with slender, bluish, half metre stalks growing from roughly hexagonal bases. These, in turn, were formed by arrangements of three triangular leaves that sprouted from the stems barely above the ground. But the most striking feature of the plants was the shiny spherical structure that grew at the top of each stem. It was about three centimetres across and sported a dark glassy spot on one side. It looked so much like an eyeball that she repeatedly found herself imagining that they were watching her. Several dozen of these plants had sprouted during her last off-shift, set in a broad ring around Outpost’s perimeter. All the ‘pupils,’ as her mind insisted on classifying them, faced inwards, towards the small camp’s main module.
Jill’s grandmother was a retired CTO and wealthy enough to live in the countryside. While visiting her grandparents, she had learned something about the things that grew wild in the woods. Her small knowledge of mushrooms led her to surmise from the ring structure in which the eye-plants grew that they were quite probably connected together underground. And she had the nagging feeling this, in turn, ought to mean something. But then, she wasn’t being paid to think too hard. Thinking was above her pay grade, she told herself wryly. When she got a few minutes spare, she’d tag her pictures to the science guys, and see what they made of them. She stuck the camera back to her belt and bounced across to the bumbler.
Fifty minutes into her drive her comm came to life again, this time with the warble used for Operations. It was Ralf. He checked that she was on her way to the relay, oh so delicately reminded her that she owed a favour or two here and there, and then started to relate the background to the current situation as he had come to know it. Good job there was no traffic on Zippy, because Jill was having trouble driving straight as Ralf explained Bob’s predicament. The comm was on her shoulder while she drove and couldn’t catch her face, but she fought to maintain her reputation for cool-headedness and not laugh out loud. She sobered up, though, when Ralf came to describe the recent satellite images to her. In the earlier call, the folks at Mission had been characteristically terse, telling her to investigate ‘any novel surface phenomena,’ and putting more stress on the equipment and procedures she was expected to employ (as if she were some idiot like Bob!) rather than the actual nature of the situation. Typical. They’d given her no idea of the scope of this thing. Ralf repeated his plea for her to ‘tidy up a bit,’ and signed off.
Poor Bob. Damn Bob. Stupid Bob. She drove a little faster.
It was only an hour later when she came to the edge of the still expanding disc, by now so large in radius that, from her viewpoint in the bumbler’s cab, the edge of the grey circle seemed straight. She stopped the vehicle, opened the hatch, and clambered down to take a closer look. The grey area had a small and clearly visible rim, and this was advancing at a perfectly steady slow walk. At the edge, the sand would abruptly turn black, puff up like burning sugar, fade to grey and settle slowly back to its original height. Small stones and the little red desert plants would simply collapse into grey powder as the wavefront passed them. This was truly an ecocatastrophe on the hoof. There was nothing she could compare it with. She shuffled backwards three paces, unwilling to let the line of destruction overtake her while she was on foot. She was seriously starting to doubt the wisdom of this plan of Ralf’s to conceal Bob’s indiscretion, but it was entirely true that Ralf pulled hard to keep all of them in work and out of danger. She certainly owed him her job, and probably her marriage, too. And that had all been accomplished by Ralf’s occasionally asking unusual favours of others.
Well, she knew what she knew, and she could revisit her decision to go along with Ralf and Bob if need be. For now, she was blindly following two unrelated sets of orders, the way she was paid to do. She jumped back into the bumbler and edged it cautiously over the boundary. Nothing untoward occurring, she headed on towards Relay 89. Driving on the smooth grey dust of destruction was much quicker than bumping over uneven stony desert. Bumblers had a Lunar heritage, and were good on dust.
As it turned out, Bob needn’t have worried about having his indiscretion discovered, and Jill’s anticipatory distaste at doing a small but unpleasant favour for him was without foundation. When she finally pulled up behind Relay 89 she could find nothing disgusting to ‘tidy up.’ More than that, the ground immediately surrounding the relay post seemed back to its usual clumpy orange self. There were few large stones, though, and the sparse little plants she could find were all a pale and sickly pink. She walked around the relay taking preliminary site pictures before getting out the soil sampling gear, all by the book. The area of restored normality wasn’t itself circular, unlike all the other recent oddity, but was shaped like the end of an emery board or a tongue depressor. Towards the east, it had one neatly semicircular edge, marked by a laterally moving gutterlike depression in the ground and an almost imperceptible return of colour: a lazier looking reversal of the travelling line of grey destruction she had previously seen, though it crossed the distance just as fast. To the west, though, the recovering patch led off like a self-widening road, beam straight, aiming, she supposed, at the large stony outcrop somewhere beyond the horizon that Ralf had described in the satellite imagery. Taking some initiative, she decided to take two radial series of ground samples, one leading from the relay out to the east and a short way into the grey area, the other a similar distance back along the westward arm of restored normality. Someone would be interested in comparing them. After that, she’d get back in the bumbler and grab some more samples from the outer edge of the disc, wherever it had reached by then. When that was all done, she’d call in voice. The less she asked for instructions, the less instructions she’d be burdened with. The equipment would send the locations and preliminary data back to Base Camp by itself, anyway. That was a big part of what the relays were for.
She had finished the eastward arm of her survey and was walking back to the relay and its small array of antennae when she stopped short, the hairs on the back of her neck growing stiff. She was being watched.
She looked around, then laughed. A small, curved line of those blue stemmed eye-plants had sprouted behind the solar array. She hadn’t noticed them in the long shadows. The interpretations of reality that the unconscious mind could construct were fascinating. She got back to work. Half way done for this location.
She had finished up and was settling into the driving seat of the bumbler when she noticed a second irregularity in the shape of the ‘surface phenomenon.’ Though roughly linear, this oddity wasn’t perfectly straight or at all regular looking, and it was growing much, much faster than the line of restoration leading West. The land seemed to be simply collapsing in one area, creating a visible waist-deep depression lined with what looked like purplish, steaming mud. It exactly traced her path of arrival, and it, too was extending, heading off towards Outpost about as fast as she could drive. It had a significant head start.
Now it was Jill’s turn to have a very, very bad feeling, though she could swear that she, at least, was not morally to blame for this one.
When the going gets weird, the weird get going, Lee thought contentedly as he hauled himself into the mission’s sole fuelled and ready hopper. Not that anyone had been anticipating quite this level of weirdness when they assigned him to the Zippy gig, but he seemed to be everyone’s favourite trained maniac lately, and it can be useful to have someone around with a demonstrable knack for breaking the rules and living to tell the tale. On the basis of an icy calm priority one from Jill and a series of faults with Outpost’s remote camera control, the on-site Director had decided to roust Lee from his bunk and send him scouting. A hopper could boost to Outpost a good hour before Survey Satellite 2 came over the horizon, and it sounded like things there might be interesting enough to warrant an immediate look-see. Lee ran quickly through pre-flight, and plotted a constant thrust trajectory (how often do they let you do that?). Then he hit the button and went for the ride, with Jill’s recorded report as his background listening.
Lee’s flight was quick and gratifyingly intense, but, much like Jill’s mission before him, his arrival at Outpost involved a failure to find what he was looking for—in the even more striking sense that Outpost itself wasn’t there. Normally Lee would have ascribed this to failure in some subsystem—the navigational computer, the satellite network, the coffee supply—but in this case there seemed to be little cause to re-check the coördinates. Where Outpost should have been he could see a broad, darkened circle, marked out in more or less regular segments like half of a cut orange. By the shadows and the readings of the terrain scanner, the area was slightly depressed, a crater. Not an impact crater, though; Lee had seen plenty of those. More like a broad and extremely shallow blast crater. What would cause that?
…And there was no wreckage visible, either to his eye or to the hopper’s instruments. Not a single thing of human manufacture. Nothing.
Now this was worth getting out of bed for.
Lee put in a call to his control centre.
“Central, this is Hopper 3. Hopper 3 to Central.”
“Go ahead, Hopper 3.” It wasn’t a voice he recognised. There were a lot of people on Zippy.
“Central, you want to take a look out my window.”
“One moment…. We are already recording, Hopper 3.”
“I understand, Central,” he said, focussing on calm, “but I think this is one for human eyeballs. Ones with rank.”
“Roger. I’ll patch you through to…. What the hell?”
“That is my point, Central.”
“What is that?”
Oh, yes, but this guy was one of the swift. It’s the view outside, he thought. “You’re looking at the location of Outpost. Live feed from my camera 1.”
“It—where’s the base?”
“Not there. Not even wreckage. Just a crater.” As you can see for yourself….
“The air’s thin, we expect meteorites I guess. What are the odds…?”
“One in a yottalot. But I know craters, Central. Wrong profile. Wrong explanation.”
“Then what… hold on… ok, Mission are responding, I’ll patch you through.”
Lee breathed a silent sigh of relief. Maybe there would be someone with half a clue at the big desk.
“Hopper 3, this is Mission.”
“Mission, Hopper 3. Do you have my forward cameras?”
“On the wall. That’s interesting. What are we looking at?”
“Check the numbers, Mission, that’s the location of Outpost.”
This conversation sounded like a rerun, but at least it was going more quickly. “Instruments say no, Mission. Not hot enough for a high energy strike, but no bulk metals in the terrain. Looks wrong, too.” Lee remembered he was in a refitted hopper, with other instruments he could be using. “Um, hang on, let me look at the atmospheric analysis….
“Not good. All kinds of wrong stuff outside. Traces of aluminum, titanium, lots of random oxygen compounds. All the things a base is made of and Zippy’s air isn’t. Yeah, something dramatic happened here, Mission.”
“Can you set down proximal?”
“Can do.” And want to. This was well worth inspecting up close.
From above, Lee could see three clear trails leading away from the bizarre crater. First and familiar was the jokingly named ‘Highway One,’ the rough bumbler track leading back to Base Camp, and the path along which Outpost and most of its supplies had originally been hauled. Second, as he had more than half expected after hearing Jill’s report, was a slumping, purple, muddy trench that led somewhat unevenly in the direction of Relay 89. But finally, and perhaps most interestingly, an arrow-straight trail headed off to the north of northeast. As he made his approach he saw that despite its regular outline it was scored and slimy like the greyish-purple trail of a giant snail—a giant snail wearing cleats.
He set down very smartly beside Highway One, an almost cautious distance beyond the crater’s edge. He unbuckled, went aft, climbed out through the cumbersome airlock and took advantage of Zippy’s low gravity to jump easily down the ladder. From the ground it was clear that the crater’s rim was no higher than his waist. Set around it, though, at regular intervals, were twisted tree-like objects that towered above him as he approached. He’d seen these structures on the way in, but he had been busy flying and thinking about explosions and snails, and it somehow hadn’t registered how odd they were. Out here in the east he’d never seen any exolife over 50 centimetres tall, and these were several times his height, like so many half-melted, club-headed palm trees. Coming up to the closest of them, he could see that its charred and ashy surface was scored with bright cracks of yellow and orange. Instruments told him that the crater floor was warmer than the surrounding landscape, but he could feel heat radiating from the trunk even through his suit. This was very strange indeed. He checked that everything was being properly recorded.
Turning his attention back to the site of Outpost, he climbed easily over the crater’s rim. The ground inside had a peculiar texture beneath his boots: a hard and unyielding surface beneath a treacherous layer of ooze. It was like walking on greased tile. Like tile, too, it was broken into geometric pieces by finger thin lines that fanned out from the base of each of the ‘trees,’ making a pattern like a doily in the ground. At the centre of the crater, where Outpost’s main module should have been, the mud was churned up and the pattern obscured. This was the start of the path of his imagined giant snail.
Lee put in a call to Jill. He always enjoyed Jill’s company. Though he tried hard to remember—with some success recently—that she was married.
“Hey, Jill, it’s Lee.”
“Hey, Lee. Where have they sent you today?”
“I’m at Outpost. Just set down. Say, Jill….” Lee’s voice was uncharacteristically hesitant.
“There was no one else on station here, was there?”
“No. Only me. Why, how weird is it?”
“Really weird. You won’t be coming back here. Not to stay, anyway. Outpost is gone.”
“Best words I’ve got. Big hole. No base. Completely gone.”
“Wow…. Well, that’s not good.” There was a pause. Lee got that always fascinating sense of immense machinery turning inside Jill’s head. “Hey, Lee, look around. Are there any flowers? Waist high, long stalk, round structure on the top? Kind of like an eyeball?”
He looked around again. “Um, no? But there are some weird melted things, more like the size of a tree, in a ring around the edge crater. Six, eight metres tall. But the shape could be right. Ball and stick.”
“I was afraid you’d say that. The ones here are still growing. They’re taller than me, now. Maybe they’re not just eyes….” The sound of Jill’s breathing changed, as if she were starting to run. “I think I have somewhere else to be, you know, right away. I should get the bumbler outside this circle.” There came the muffled sounds of Jill climbing into the bumbler’s cab. “I’ll get back to you in a minute, as soon as I’m….<ping!>” She was cut off in mid-sentence by a higher priority incoming connection, but her icon stayed reassuringly lit at the edge of his visor.
“Hopper 3, this is Mission.” A new voice this time. It sounded like Phil.
Lee controlled his agitation. “Hopper 3. Uh, Mission, uh, I think Jill could use an immediate pull-out.” Lee was already making his way back across the slippery crater floor to the hopper.
“We concur. I’m afraid we’ve been eavesdropping. The job is yours. When can you lift?”
“Sixty seconds. She’s still warm.”
“Roger. Lay a sensor grid across your current area as you leave, we want to have a recording of anything more that happens. Do the same at Relay 89 as you set down.”
That was irritating—half of Lee’s mind was impatient to play the hero with Jill, and the other half was impatient to be the hero—but he had to admit that it made sense in terms of scientific objectives. Jill had already had the brains to start driving, and was good at looking after herself.
So, “wilco,” he said, as he emergency-cycled the hopper’s airlock. He spent the still interminable wait remoting into the navigation system and setting a course to Jill’s transponder. Finally he was through into the cabin, into the cockpit.
“How’s your fuel?” That was Phil again. “Will you have enough to lift the bumbler home?” That was Mission being practical. Was saving some bumbler really important at this moment of adventure? But then, bringing home the equipment scored extra points for style.
“Um… yeah, I think so….” Sliding behind the controls, he ran a quick model with his left hand while his right fired up the engines by unsupervised rote—“Computer agrees”—because, after all, orange is a lot like green—“If you don’t mind me running her dry.” And I can ditch the bumbler in flight if by some chance my estimate’s wrong, and still be the hero.
Hauling away from the ground, Lee deployed a scattering of the fancy quasi-autonomous observation nodes that were generally reserved for principal projects with their own grant funding.
“Ok, do it. On arrival, drop the sensors, grab the bumbler, and pull her out. We’ll have 2 and 4 fuelled by the time you get back, so we won’t be completely grounded while 3 refuels.”
“Roger. Already on my way.” He cut the connection to control and resumed the link to Jill. “You still there, Jill?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. I’ve moved away to the south a bit. Do you think half a klick is far enough away for safety?”
“Make it a whole kilometre. The air’s thin. Shrapnel can go a long way.”
“Ok, I’ll take your advice. I have some cameras set, I don’t really need to stay to watch.”
He glanced over the computer’s flight plan, then shaved off some more of the safety margin to get a hotter line to Relay 89. Jill wasn’t someone he planned to lose. Her bumbler could take its chances.
“See you in about twelve minutes.”
By the time Lee arrived back at Base Camp with Jill in the copilot’s seat and the bumbler clasped to his belly, not only were hoppers 2, 4 and 5 fuelled and prepped for flight, but the full maintenance team were out greasing the landers. Evidently evacuation procedures were being put on warm standby. Based on what Lee had seen at Outpost, this was not bad thinking. No one but the ground crew was out to welcome them home, though. He wondered if other excitement was happening.
“Lee, we will send you right away back out in hopper 4, ok? You will be under control of Mission immediately following takeoff, we now busy with logistics.” That was Ying at Central. They’d put the good people on shift.
“Damn, I hate flying 4.” This complaint was a ritual of his. “Never does what she’s told. Yeah, sure, no problem. Where am I headed?”
“They sending you and … I think Manuela … to Outpost to look at those tracks in the dirt. We have new satellite imagery which make people excited.”
“Can you forward that to me?”
“Sure… hold one moment…. You should have it now.”
“Thanks. I’m dark here, already. I’ll pick it up in 4.”
It seemed his fun wasn’t over.
Lee, now back in flight, looked over the satellite data. There was nothing obviously different at the site of Outpost than he had seen with his own eyes, but there was some additional imagery of the third, northeasterly, trail that was extremely interesting. One photo showed a point, a little more than twenty kilometres from Outpost, where the path ended abruptly in a coarsely textured, high-albedo disk. It was this disk, rather than Outpost itself, that Manuela and he had been given as their objective. Unfortunately the image resolution was not good, at less than a pixel per metre; the satellite must have been programmed for rapid survey. But there was little point in puzzling over it when he was on his way there in person. He turned his attention back to flying.
Not much to his surprise, it became clear as they arrived at the target coordinates that the trail had continued to lengthen. Nothing now distinguished the trailhead of the satellite image from its surroundings to the northeast and southwest.
Manuela’s voice came on channel. “Hopper 4, I’m thinking we want to keep going and find the end of this thing.”
Manuela was Lee’s superior. Lee wasn’t generally great with authority, but Manuela appreciated his skill and his attitude, and could be reasoned with. “Yeah, Manuela, I was about to say the same thing.”
“Mission, this is Hopper 2. It looks like whatever made the trail has moved on. We propose to keep following until we catch up.”
“Affirmative, Hopper 2.” That was Phil again. “We have your cameras. Sounds like a good plan.”
The landscape, here composed of gentle orange dunes almost devoid of vegetation, swept away beneath him as they chased the ruler-straight purplish trail, flying mere metres above the ground. After a couple of minutes and tens of kilometres, the scene was suddenly interrupted by a vast low hummock of stone. The trail, which had been directed straight towards the highest point of this feature, jogged suddenly to the right as if to pass around the massive rock. As he pulled up and turned to follow, a glint of light from the ground caught Lee’s eye.
“You see that, Manuela? Something metallic, maybe?”
“Hm, yes. And I think we have found the end of the trail.” Indeed, it seemed to end in the flickering patch ahead.
“I think it’s still moving. Yes, it is. Maybe five metres per second. Can you tell what it is?”
“It’s not just one object. A group of metal polygons moving together. Like sheep.”
“I’m going to fly in closer. You hang back in case of the unexpected.”
“Hey, I’m the boss here. But ok. Be cautious.”
Shifting into hover discipline, Lee edged over the limb of the stone outcrop until he was almost directly above the strange assemblage of moving objects. From here he could see that despite their rigid, geometric, almost fabricated outlines, they varied widely in shape and visual texture, like the scrambled pieces of an ancient Roman mosaic. They slid or dragged themselves independently in their strange herd, bunched up and at roughly the same velocity, but occasionally falling behind for a moment, or catching at one corner and spinning in place. Perhaps this explained the irregular gouging he had noticed earlier in the surface of the trail, though it still said nothing of their source of motive power. He slid in closer.
“Manuela? Mission? You see that big white one? I … ok, I have camera three tracking it.”
“I’ve got it, Lee.”
“Do I see writing on it?”
“Um, affirmative. I think.” That was Phil.
“…Could be,” said Manuela. “It’s barcoded, too. I’ll turn on my data overlay. Yeah, it IDs as a latrine.”
The inside of Lee’s mind lit up like a Christmas tree. “I think that’s Outpost. The whole cluster. It’s the cut up pieces of Outpost.”
Oh, most excellent. This was a weirder unexpected than he’d expected.
Back at Mission, the disturbing reports were accumulating. Surface based remote sensors were failing, all systems at a site often going offline within a couple of milliseconds of each other. Eyeballs on stalks were sprouting around large pieces of equipment at locations all over the planet. An accident during hurried maintenance on a lander that led to a gashed suit, a cut thigh, and a few drops of blood on the ground, had produced another strange circular discolouration of the earth and some disconcertingly organised behaviour among the ‘insects.’ The data uplinks were saturated with traffic.
Lee, meanwhile, was back on foot. With great enthusiasm, and against Manuela’s better judgment, he had set down to one side of the débris’ anticipated path, and got out to watch it pass around the south edge of the great rock.
“That really is a job for a robot, Lee.”
“If we had one with us, I’d agree,” he lied.
“It wouldn’t take long to go fetch one.”
“Too long, I think. They’re not continuing east. They’re heading north now. It’s going somewhere.” The herd rearranged itself as it turned the broad corner, but jostled tightly together, the metal chunks scraping and banging against each other.
“Can you see what’s moving them?”
He’d been wondering that very thing. Even under unusual circumstances, tonnes of cut up scrap metal do not normally move around unprompted. “The mud is slippery enough, and you have to wonder where it suddenly came from, too, but that explains nothing. Standing waves in the slime, maybe? The ground is vibrating in a weird way.” Lee thought some more. “Could the motive force be somewhere else, some kind of focussed surface wave? But it’s a long way between here and Outpost. It’s hard to imagine something with that kind of reach.”
“So it must be in the ground.”
“Everywhere in the ground, if Outpost’s location wasn’t unbelievably lucky. And we missed it.” And Lee could feel it, the mystery of it, in the rumbling earth beneath his feet.
(If Manuela thought Lee’s choice of the word ‘lucky’ for Outpost’s fate to be odd—and she did—she said nothing about it.)
The weird procession had passed by as they talked, and as the last straggler—a piece of scorched sheet metal whose torn and bent corners kept digging into the ground—moved past, Lee started to jog alongside the fresh purple track. In the low gravity he might have been able to keep pace with the herd, if his pilot’s gear had been designed with running in mind.
“Any idea where they’re headed?” Manuela asked.
“It’s just following the base of the cliff. I can’t quite keep up.”
“Hey, take my feed.” Manuela sounded suddenly alarmed. “The ground’s subsiding up ahead of you. Be careful!—it’s a large collapse.”
Lee stopped running. He could see the earth cracking, dirt pouring down along a line that cut across in front Outpost’s moving remains, a line that became more and more prominent as the land just before his feet started to tilt and slide to his left. “What’s on the subsurface?” He could have requested the data himself, but the interface on his suit was much more cumbersome than the one Manuela had in her cockpit.
“One sec…. It looks like there’s a cave right ahead of you. The roof is falling in under the weight of all that stuff. It looks more solid near you, but you might want to step back ten or twenty metres to be safe.”
Lee ignored that remark. He was doing a lot better than a word like ‘safe’ could encompass. “Can you pass me the data overlay?”
“Cool. Yeah, it looks like I’m on solid enough ground, but up ahead…. Do you see that?” He pointed to beyond where the uncanny procession was now continuing its progress sideways down a newly formed scarp.
“Move around behind me. From up there you’ll see better than I can. Turn on your landing lights. Can you see into the hole?”
Lee felt the hot downdraft through his suit as Manuela passed close overhead, spinning to face down the slope.
“The cave leads right back under the rock. I didn’t get that from the scan.”
“Yeah, and there’s something down there.” He abruptly realised they’d been having a private conversation for some time. “Hey, Mission, are you getting all this?” Not waiting for a response, he started forward at a run.
“Mind that slope, you idiot!” Manuela generally reserved the word ‘idiot’ for those she loved and those she hated. Had he noticed, Lee would have scored himself a point—either way—for that designation. But Lee (of course) paid no heed, first skidding then sliding down the slope as he lost his footing and stumbled into the slick purple ooze of the now crazily canted trail. There were no longer any options but down. By the time he reached the bottom he was sledding on his belly, fighting to keep his faceplate up, clear of the slime and the danger of sudden contact with hard objects. He took a moment to breathe, an activity for which the support equipment was thankfully still working.
“Lee, Lee, are you good? Are you alright?” That was Manuela again, sounding agitated.
Lee got carefully back to his feet. He had stopped sliding well inside the cave. He looked around in the dim light. His jaw fell open.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
“Are. You. Ok?”
He took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’m ok.” He tried to pull his thoughts together. “Manuela…. There are things down here.”
Manuela’s focus was elsewhere. “Look, I’ve got a rope. I’m going to throw you down a rope, ok?”
“Tonnes, kilotonnes of cut up stuff.”
“Here it comes. Just tie it around yourself. You don’t weigh much here, I can pull you right up.”
“I don’t think it’s all ours, Manuela.”
“Are you ok? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t think this all came from Earth.”
“This is not human junk down here.”
“This is Mission. All personnel prepare for immediate evacuation. This is not a drill. We are under attack by forces unknown. Bring up your logistical overlay for instructions. First landers lift in one hundred and eighty seconds. Move, everyone. This is not a drill. Repeats. This is Mission. All personnel prepare for immediate evacuation. This is not a drill. We are under attack by forces unknown. Bring up your logistical overlay for instructions. First landers lift in one hundred and sixty two seconds. Move everyone. This is not a drill. Repeats….”
“Manuela? Two more minutes. I need to grab a souvenir.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Sure. Just hold on….”
Manuela did get Lee out of the cave. They did make it back to Base Camp in time to take the last lander out. They flew in the cockpit and saw with their own eyes as the Hotel was flattened from beneath by a large planar explosion and then cut into geometric shapes by the vast organic laser cutters that had grown up around the perimeter. It seemed as if it had been waiting for them to leave.
Lee was happy. Most of his clothes and his favourite book were among the flattened objects now jostling their way to a mysterious cave in the northeast. But in the hold lay a duffel bag containing something blue and dodecahedral and manufactured, something not made on Earth.
“On sober reflection, and without prejudice as to the vexed question of whether the observed chain of events was the result of reflex or intelligence, it must still be supposed that we have encountered a highly effective evolved response to repeated first contact situations,” read, in very small part, the official report. But Bob’s thought on the matter (you remember Bob?) was more succinct.