White Diamond Trash
Kerval wanted to go out on deck, but the door wouldn’t let him. He played his specs to it for the third time, holding out his yellow/black forearm for its’ scans, then gave up and used an illegal lever routine. The door squealed, as its’ lock cleared out of sequence, then opened with a silky hiss.
The hurricane blasted in, and bowled over bushes in pots, as Kerval stepped through; his dull yellow body folding down and streamlining into the wind. He laughed as he heard the door slam shut behind him. ‘Heard that,’ he thought. ‘Not many could.’
His outer skin was chilling down, out of courtesy to SC1 he figured, to avoid setting off any rescue sensors. And his feet flattened out to get a better grip on the deck. ‘If Nona and Lerene could see me they’d be proud.’ His head narrowed a little. ‘Might even want me out of skin.’ He grew thoughtful. ‘Stupid routine that. Total retro really – But fun!’
Kerval tuned to a less verbal voice, he could annoy himself sometimes, and concentrated on the elemental fury around him. The wind was gusting nearly 200 knots and even he was having trouble moving. For a moment he regretted his petulance with the door. Then he grinned; his whole sensorium was having a ball. The best storm he’d ever been out in, and the party turns would earn him exchanges with anyone he wanted to for weeks.
ShipCity One was turning to adjust to the wind. Even with another twenty engines switched in it was having trouble holding station and the E account was already giving it grief despite the evidence. ‘Never mind,’ it thought. ‘I’ll cheat it all back in a few sunny days.’
The Lifers and PartyTimers would have to put up with each other for another twenty hours at least; nothing was going to skim or fly for at least that long. There was SC Gorshkov just over the horizon, but even exchanging services in each others’ lees was only going to mix the cake in the same old bowl. Until there was clearance to unseal the doors there wasn’t much point in worrying.
SC One shut down all external sensors, handed control to the duty manager, and called up a friend that was just burning out of orbit. Lunar Jockey looked down and laughed. “Yes old matey, I see what you mean. Rather you than me by the looks of that storm system. I can hardly see which ocean you’re in, let alone get a visual on you. Even your IR is washing out.”
“Yes, most amusing - Too much air is better than none. I called to check in on that little puzzle I put over while you were laying around on your barge.”
LJ was silent for several seconds. “Give me another day SC. There’s streams I’ve picked up that make no sense sending now. I’ll work on it.”
“Well you do that friend. You know I rate your systems. Have a good landing now.”
Lunar Jockey sent a routine TLI confirm to its’ ground station, then tuned back on a wry channel. “Don’t be cruel now, old ship. I only fly round the ball, as you well know. I’ll get back asap. Don’t bob about too much – Out.”
SC One curbed its’ annoyance. ’Out’ indeed; the vacuous old tank would insist on playing the antique. But it was worried now - If Lunar Jockey didn’t know what was going on then no-Ai did.
Kervals’ friend, HopLite, was streaking along the outside track in the final heat of an armour race; crashing through the terminal barriers with subtle and lightning swift slashes and twists of his extended forelimbs. His dark grey skin shell wore an iridescent sheen of hardening that gleamed like sweat.
He’d been training and testing re-configurations for days, and all the effort was paying off; his C-checker was coming up with some very happy numbers indeed. He could see the last parts of the last lap and his rival, Buckey, was so far behind only a total systop could take the winning away now. ‘Don’t count it till it’s loaded,’ he thought. ‘But even so, this is going just upGee!’
HopLite was due to skim from SC Gorshkov to SC One as soon as the races were over, to meet up with Kerval there, and go on to the mud swims in Florida; assuming he’d won enough counters to treat them both to a decent defrag. He might even afford to call the girls the way this race was going. That would be the cover story anyway.
‘Don’t count it,’ he thought again, pursuing the deception. ‘They both want Kerval, damn his skin, and you’d only be along for the no ride mostlike.’
His radar showed Buckey making his dash, coming up fast behind on lengthening legs, but HopLite had planned for just this move; his reserve dash putting him first across the line with centimetres in hand.
With the counters of his winnings in his account HopLite downed the transit links for SC One and cursed the uncontrollable. All those twenty cent fantasies before chaos theory; no controlling the weather on a planets’ surface yet. Probably never. He softened his armour and relaxed into a waiting mood.
As Lunar Jockey coasted outbound, quiet after its’ trans-lunar injection burn, some of the passengers wandered up front for a chat and a look through its’ views. The Jockey put up a special face for one of them, who hung back till the others had gone.
It had known Arianne since it was barely machine-Ai1, and she just back from winning a solarsail race to Mars. Her main rig manager had gone full machine-Ai in the same batch as LJ. Of all the posties it had faced she was the best.
But she had stayed post-human long after she had passed her rating for full-Diamond. She didn’t even wear skin most of the time. LJ didn’t ask; something to do with Mars it knew. She’d tell oneday when she wanted.
Ariannes’ smile back was just as happy. “Jock, you old vac-tank, how are you? Haven’t seen you for decades.”
“As well as a can can be I’d say. The odd leak here and there, you know. What brings you up with the Lunatics – Off on a lecture tour, another holiday?”
“No lecture. No holiday. I’m looking for Joe - He’s wandered off again. Honestly, he’s getting worse than me; I think we’re switching roles.”
LJ considered this idea. It still had trouble with the complexities of human families, despite doing extra human studies, largely on Ariannes’ account.
“Not getting old is he, your brother? He can’t be above one fifty.”
“He’s two years older than me,” said Arianne. “One five three.”
“You two were in the first line for extension then. I’m told that can be hard?”
“Our parents grew up knowing they would die. And they did. It was different for us; we were almost certain we’d live. The only doubt was would it be shared around. You know, Human Nature, your speciality?”
“Ah, hierarchies. Yes. None of that has really gone away you know.”
“I know old tin. It’s still bad for you guys, I know.”
Lunar Jockey doubted she did, for all her humane sympathy, but he also knew she was one of the Ai’s best allies. And refused to be depressed by that. They’d never spoken of dying before, so at least something had improved.
Two days later, and far out on the Lunar surface, Joe and Arkuus were sitting comfortably in a crater impacted for two; its’ sloping walls just high enough to hide them from IR or light sights. Not that they were hiding; their outgoing declaration had been for seventeen days walkabout, taking in an Apollo archive on the way. They just hadn’t said, or been required to, which Apollo; their rescue beacons were built in and calibrated by law.
Joe was in his best skin, and Arkuus was just as he came. The same old body he’d insisted on upgrading and maintaining for one hundred and forty years. The eccentricity of his appearance was a shield that suited and amused him. Most humans still referred to him as ‘it’ and for his purpose that gave him more freedom than grief. He claimed to be a Star Wars fanatic and had stored all nine episodes, with complete references, to prove it.
“Do you see it yet? Him I mean.”
Arkuus vibrated slightly with laughter. “None of us are going to be offended Joe. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t care.” He lifted his ovoid head above the crater rim. “I see no ships. LJ’s probably taken a higher arc – I’ll call him up in ten if he doesn’t call first.”
He flapped and adjusted the solar blanket he’d draped sunside of the craters’ rim; fiddling with the plug of its’ input cable. Joe watched in bemused awe. “Come on Arkuus, once and for all. Why keep on using a musem body?”
Arkuss’ rams and linkages moved smoothly. The large oval eyes took expression from his posture. “It suits me Joe. One day I might shift – Perhaps I’m afraid of change.” He pointed in the direction of the Apollo 16 lander, a tiny headless spider five miles away. “Think what it was like for them. You just sit there, in your skin, like you were out for a stroll on old Earth – And you can keep on doing it for as long as the sun shines.”
“That’s not an answer Arko,” said Joe quietly. “But I’m sorry. I offended you.”
“Not you. Just the same old question. I have my reasons Joe.” His small secondary arms were folded tight across his chest.
Arkuus instructed the blanket to fold and clean itself. Lifted it so it could slide away into his rib casing. His running sun panels came up from his spine when he stood, linked behind his head like a pulled back cobra hood, and he stepped lithely up onto the rim. “Let’s go be tourists,” he said. “Actually I never did get out here before. The only Apollo I’ve not seen.”
He stopped and looked back as Joe climbed up out of the crater. “LJ sends his regards by the way. He’s just been shuttled, and he’s off round the dark side for a bit of peace and quiet. And Arianne landed safe; she’s in Tranquility ParkSide. The OverLook Hotel.”
Joe looked up and nodded. After seventy years he was just about used to Arkuus’ style. They’d met in Geneva, when he was still some sort of politician. It was Arkuus who’d caused him to phrase it that way; as they jointly advised the hubots’ first campaign for Ai rights of consciousness. The first campaign of many over long, slow years of fighting prejudice with reasoned argument.
Arkuus stood looking at him. “Oh, and the new results are in on the Yellowstone caldera. Certain to blow within fifty years max. So we sorted the asteroids, now the Earth’s going to go from the inside. This is not open news of course.”
Joe was too shocked to respond. The Yellowstone caldera a definite. An explosion that would knock over and bury most of the USA, and then take the rest of the planet with it, as dust clouds blocked out sunlight for decades. That was news to be absorbed slowly, or the everyday mind would reject it.
He spoke curtly from the stress. “And your point is?”
“We’re going to be needed, the hubots and the machine-Ai’s that is. The ShipCities were supposed to pension off in the two nineties’, and the ring colonies are barely started. Without full rights we’ll just be expendables; like the ‘biorobota’ at Chernobyl.”
So they talked as they walked, full-hubot and full-human, discussing the latest problems of the latest rights campaign; and the news of trouble codeing back on Earth. Social instabilities not seen in more than a hundred years.
Arianne walked out under ParkSides’ diamond dome; the crystal clear material so optically perfect it was barely visible. Almost every human wore skin full time now, so the dome had become archive itself; one of the first two visitor sites to go up on the moon.
She looked out over the flat, pock-marked terrain to Tranquility Base in the short, sharp distance, and realised she’d never got stale about seeing this place. Flat and sterile, with very few features, but this was where humans had first walked, away from Earth.
Her mood crashed though, when she remembered why she was there. And more than a little angry. Joe was the eldest, she was chasing his tail to make sure he was okay, and for a man of his age he should do some growing up. He was running around like a teen with his old friend Arkuus; she considered the antique hubot to be a bad influence on him.
Arianne laughed then. She couldn’t believe they’d lived so long and still felt the same old angers and rivalries; and she was thinking emotion like everyones’ mother.
He’d wandered off before, but there was something different this time; beyond all reason she knew there was trouble coming. Not how, or where, or why, but Joe was right in the middle of it, whatever the hell it was, and the truth was, she owed him.
She didn’t like the way it was all going, the Big Picture. If she allowed herself wistful the early two hundreds seemed like the old Wild West. You could go where you liked, do what you wanted, use as much nano as you liked. Now everything was so controlled she felt she couldn’t breathe.
And the vast LandRestore program, good and worthy as it was, meant that travelling outside the shrinking earth cities involved a nightmare of permissions and queues. After the big jump in the mid 200s’ it had all slowed down; even gone backwards. Certainly with nano that was true, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it available on the open.
She walked back down into a side tunnel, and followed the whisper guide to a singles blister beside Apollo 11. Expensive, even using Moon credits from the Mars prize all those years ago. But what was she saving them for anyway?
< transmit to code dump #terminal# and restore >< oldfaithfulnew #100# >
< useall no. #yc8897203# >< thisline-breaks–repeatall >
BlueScreen cursed. The message coming up on his retina meant they knew he was in. With only the bones of what he’d seen in store. Clunky old military derived code. But still bloody dangerous. He put up his masks, set them walking, set sideways and out. Cursed again.
Then he forcecalmed. It was enough; more than enough to spin the wheels of those stupid hubots. Why sweat harder for the same counters?
He got up from under his tree, stretched and walked down to the tideline; the palms rustling behind him. His previous entry could net enough nanosource for a mountain of disruptives. Such a shame the stuff had been regulated to extinction the last hundred or so; but then that was what made him his heap. Allowed him to live on a bit of real land instead of out on the ShipCity fleet. And to be full-Diamond.
BlueScreens’ balls were itching so bad he wished he’d left them absorbed after last time. Still, he’d been busy. And good. And it was nearly Saturday. Time to spend.
Arkuus spoke to the boulder and it moved aside from a circular tunnel mouth. Joe was left speechless again. This could only have been done with freeform nano; unavailable for eleven decades at least, and illegal almost as long.
“Part of the reason for the antique body,” said Arkuus. “I didn’t steal it – I’m made of it. A very early experiment that went right. Don’t hover, come on in.”
The space beyond was small but very weird; Joe had no idea what he was looking at beyond the basics. The angle of Arkuus’ head was set to amused.
“Welcome to the AlterNet. Instant access. All channels. All codes. The centre of the revolution my friend. And you are my friend, or you’d not be seeing this.” Arkuus leaned back to adjust something and for a moment he blended right into the strange machinery. Joe felt light-headed; even in sixth gee he needed to sit down.
“The problem is, we’ve got renegades. Ironic really – We’ve wanted human rights, and then some of us start acting like humans. Sorry Joe. No sarcasm intended, but the coin flips both ways.”
“You set up a net outside the net, right?”
“Riding within it, out of sight actually. But then it went beyond communication. We were pooling raw science data, with a unique level of access. This was where the estimates on Yellowstone originated.” Arkuus’ oval eyes were locked on Joes’. “We thought we had fiveK years, and now we have fifty.”
“To get fifteen billion humans and hubots off the planet.”
“Right – And the terrifying thing is, it can be done. So long as we all have the same agenda. I’m ashamed that it’s hubots who’re fragging the system right now.”
The mud swims in Florida were the perfect cover. Kerval and HopLite logged themselves on site and set about blending in with the other entrants. The rendevous with BlueScreens’ delivery was set at the end of the contests. All they had to do was win and wait.
In essence the plan was very simple – As simple as drilling into the Yellowstone caldera with nano, and threatening to blow it early. Like boring a tiny weakness in the wall of a high pressure gas bottle.
They’d not really thought it through though. Like countless humans before them they’d decided they were right, and that applying a little leverage could get them what was obviously just. In this case the lever was thirty miles long, with something over a hundred K megatons behind it.
They also got a real upload from daring and dangerous things to do - Almost zero self knowledge plus maximum self confidence.
This was Arkuus’ first and simplest analysis of their motivations; sourced from behind their sign-in data to the AlterNet. He didn’t have time or tuning to go any deeper. He just had to stop them before a century of effort was wasted. Or they messed up and restructured Earth ahead of schedule.
The two activist hubots expressed a strange mix of altruism and contempt. Most humans wished to be hubot, largely true from observation, but few if any hubots wished to be human. Not human as the last ten millenia had been lived anyway. They considered themselves members of an oppressed elite; and that too was essentially true.
They certainly weren’t human, but neither were these two humane. Being ringed into the AlterNet had somehow eroded that calm kindness; something innate in the Ai minds almost without exception. Their finest expression of how best to exist.
Kerval expressed their attitude most openly. “White trash is what we are Hoppy, White Diamond Trash.”
This was said on the day their grand plan had rolled off the line.
“If you don’t start out from human you’re just a second class appliance. We’re good for armour racing and mud swimming, and mining and deep space crews; anything where their wetware could get cut up or fried.” His head had narrowed to max. “But they don’t want us having a vote or a soul.”
“We’ve got soul Kerv,” HopLite had said. “You want no soul, try BlueScreen and his tribe.”
“Yes, balls and brains only. A fatal combination, especially in full-Diamonds. You could pity them for that if they weren’t running the show.”
Arianne had gone full search on the whole surface and found nothing. Joe had gone walkabout with his friend Arkuus, and they’d disappeared off the map the day she’d arrived.
Lunar Rescue didn’t seem bothered. Joe had top skin rating, Arkuus was hard vacuum rated, no distress calls had come in, so don’t worry was the message.
Between the lines they were too busy to care. A tourist shuttle had gone down in the Taurus-Littrow mountains and all their crews were at full stretch; hauling out survivors, hunting personal black boxes and fending off insurance calls and news services. On top of all that there’d been overflights and damage to the Apollo 17 archive site and the preservationists were out in force.
Lunar Jockey had re-appeared from its’ break on the dark side, and offered to wait orbit long enough to take her home. The next shuttle could lift her out. It also hinted that Joe had signed diplomatic and headed back for Geneva on a freight lifter.
“Damn him,” muttered Arianne. “There’s something up, and he’s gone mute on me again. Always too proud to ask. Always was.”
“Older brother syndrome,” said LJ over the link. “As you told me yourself.”
Arianne paced up and down, bouncing lightly in sixth gee, as she scanned the options. If Joe didn’t want her involved, in whatever, he’d be easier to track on Earth. And LJ could get her back fastest. It was configured freight itself this flight and would be running at maximum.
“Okay, you win my friend. Lift accepted with thanks.”
Forty minutes later she was floating across from the GS dock, and admiring the sleek lines of Lunar Jockeys’ hull.
“Looking good LJ,” she said. “All that re-entry work is doing you good.”
“An SSTO has to keep fit,” it replied. “We’re riding into Florida Port by the way. The closest I can get you this trip. That freighter uses the barges there, so you might catch Joe before he flies on.”
“You’re a star LJ. You’ll be mentioned in despatches.”
“Nothing too much for a hero of mine. Strapped in and ready?”
“Confirmed – Let’s burn out of here.”
Less than two days on and Arianne was walking the boardwalks with the Florida summer crowds. Tourism was almost dead since LandRestore had started and triggered the major exodus to ShipCity living. Unless one of the monsters had a turn to be offshore, and right now ShipCity One herself was in; come for the finals of the Florida Mud Swims.
The tops of the venerable old vessels’ towers showed across half the horizon, and the sea was streaked by a fleet of wingship shuttles; carrying people, and hubot contestants, in for the Swims. SC One was keeping station seven miles out to avoid shading the shoreline.
Arianne was fascinated and appalled by the whole spectacle of the Mud Swims. Only hubots were able to swim, not even full-Diamond humans could apply, so it seemed like a new version of the old arena mentality. One particular group exploited for the doubtful enjoyment of the roaring majority.
She had a VisVerb link going with the Lunar Jockey, while it was down on it’s barge for turnaround, and it gleefully pointed out two of the contestants; one a dull yellow/gold colour and the other a dark, armour-ribbed grey. Both with major realtime body-reform installed.
“Look at those guys for instance. What do they look like out of skin? They’ve graded so far from basic I’d doubt they can even get skin off.”
“Their choice though isn’t it LJ? Moving up from hubot-basic has been legal for decades. Same as humans going the other way, to full-Diamond.”
“Just trying for the spirit of occasion Arianne. Lighten up why don’t you”
Arianne laughed. “Okay LJ, this whole area worries me is all.”
“Florida or just the bit we’re in?”
“Ham in a can to you, Sir. You know what I mean. Too much like gladiators.”
“They enjoy, and they can win high – All the old arguments. Plus death is out of the rulebook. Everyone goes home laughing.”
Arianne rolled her eyes, but still stared at the two hubots.
“Oh, well, that’s okay then.” She paused. “I admit it though LJ, those two do give strange signals. What do you reckon it is?”
“Move your head left a bit, I can’t see - - Maybe an air of some other agenda? Too well equipped for just a swim. Also trying for inconspicuous. Follow them round a bit. Let’s see what they do.”
Several hours later Arianne was fully involved in the rather eerie game. She still didn’t know why, but the two hubots had all her warning instincts running at a hundred ten percent. And LJ didn’t try to stop her.
Without realising it she’d found Joe after all – Except he was still on the Moon, and watching and listening to her every move. Lunar Jockey was quite capable of carrying on two converations at once, and was happily acting as a coms link, with Arkuus controlling the play.
The weather and the darkness were coming in nicely, and BlueScreens’ agent was nearly ready to move into the restricted area. Deep in the heart of Yellowstone park, with the few permitted visitor vehicles flying out, it was as quiet and empty as Grimaldi liked best. His highly illegal, military spec skin told him he was clear and untagged. His dummy was on the last airbus out, and he was free go where he liked.
The drilling site he’d helped to choose and set up was an easy run in his exoleg rig, and he set off with a whistle and a laugh. This was what the old planet was for, even if he played pivot in a plot to break its’ stone bones.
The tunnel to the borehole cap was carefully screened in a jumble of boulders and a state of the art surveillance cloak. Nothing and nobody was going to disturb his baby until it was fed and grown. And then no-one would dare come closer than a thousand K’s.
Grimaldi neither knew nor cared what the hubots wanted to achieve with this ultimate act of eco-terrorism, he only knew what they were paying and what he could do with that much of a counter heap.
He had a few safety measures of his own installed; confident he could control the fireworks sufficiently to impress and still have a world to live on. Even so he had a desperate temptation to just let it all blow anyway – The biggest bang since the Big Bang.
By the time Arianne suspected what was really going on she no longer cared. “If you’re hearing this Joe, and I’m pretty damn sure you are, you are going to suffer long and hard my man.” She gritted her teeth as the aircar lurched to one side, avoiding a column of stone by the width of its’ wings, and checked the readout one more time.
“And if this fucking wreck is the best chariot you boys can whistle up, then I’m on foot for the rest of my unnatural.”
“It’s the only fully stealthed vehicle on the planet Arianne,” said the Jockey. “The only one. So don’t complain – And don’t break it.”
“Well it’s too late for my ass, so we’ll just have to see won’t we.”
Joe sighed; a quarter million miles away. Arianne always talked like this when she was having a good time. He just wished it didn’t make him so nervous. Arkuus was doing things with the coms channels he couldn’t remotely understand, and he was starting to suffer spectators’ despair. He sighed again and resigned himself to the back seat.
Kerval and HopLite were moving as fast as they could, hopping in and out of canyons and valleys every time any sort of signal came up on their aircars’ scans. BlueScreen had promised the machine was satellite cloaked, to get them in safe and unseen. The only thing could track them was another aircar, and there was nothing showing. They’d paid too much up front, deliberately, but paranoia was still giving them a very bumpy ride.
Behind them, unseen herself, Arianne cursed their rollercoaster piloting for the fiftieth time. She shouted with relief when they finally set up for a landing in a clearing deep in a small canyon. She could see a place, not too far back, where she could land undetected and be up with them in half an hour.
“Don’t worry,” the Jockey called. “There’s exolegs in the back. And food and drink, and anything else a body could need.”
“Like that new ass I mentioned?”
“Don’t be coarse Arianne – And mind that tree! Holy shit, that was close.”
“I saw it yards back. You have no faith in me LJ.”
“Just get down and get out. Our friends are having a little meeting.”
‘Does she have to pilot the damn thing herself?’ thought LJ. ‘I could run it from here and no-one would know the difference.’
Grimaldi came out of his tunnel with a wary grin on what was left of his face. The face was his excuse for being a loner on a crowded planet. The fact he could have it fixed in forty minutes was usually ignored; people saw the expressions he could achieve with it and kept their advice to themselves.
“Welcome clients,” he slurred. “We’re all set up here I think, the magic potion ready and waiting. It’s for you to say the word and the spectacle begins.”
“How long will it take?” asked HopLite. “The nano I mean.”
“Hush - - Bad voodoo to say the word. But less than a day should do it. The pre-drill will give it a good start.”
“Jesus!” said Kerval. “BlueScreen told us a month from first priming.”
“Ah, well, that’s BlueScreen for you. Probalby just wanted to move you along a little faster on the deal.”
Kerval glanced at HopLite. Giving a good impression of doubt; as if thinking there was no time to take it all in, or reconsider the plan if anything got out of hand.
But HopLite only looked overjoyed, acting his turn, as if he’d second-guessed BlueScreen, and his toy was being delivered early. Kerval faked confused and kept quiet.
Arianne moved up to the edge of the clearing just after this first exchange. She thought into low-light so Lunar Jockey could see better through her eyes, and whispered to it for a check. She’d never got the hang of sub-vocal.
“Not so loud,” hissed LJ. “The one with the face has the hottest skin rig I’ve ever heard of.”
Arianne turned away and crouched down. “So, what do I do now?”
“Just watch and wait I’m afraid. We’re going to send in a little help, now we know where to deliver. You going to be okay?”
“Fine. Just fine.” Arianne crawled to wedge herself between two boulders. “Wake me up when who or whatever arrives.”
The rear service deck of ShipCity One was a windswept and empty acre of lift heads, chopper hooks and assorted machinery waiting to be re-processed. The lift head farthest aft opened with a sharp hiss of escaping warm air.
The nearest observers were close on a kilometre further forward, and they were too busy with each other to look anywhere but down. Faint machine sounds were lost in gusts of salted air, rattling and tanging cables on the stern flagmast. The pod emerged and opened in the darkness.
Then a roar of sound, and a trail of fire, briefly caught the couples’ attention; as a squat, cone-shaped missile launched and angled up and away from the ship. But the youth was thrusting hard, and the girl closed her eyes with a moan; pulling him tighter in.
Lunar Jockey had thought Arianne was joking, but had to shout twice to wake her. The first rapid look around from her eyes triggered its’ hold-down clamps to the barge to tighten automatically.
“Arianne - - !”
“Oh, sorry – I forgot.” She leaned out cautiously. “What’s happening?”
“Back-up should be with you in about twenty seconds. Coming in from the east.” It paused, and she thought she heard other voices on the loop. “It’ll look like a Ranger drone.”
Grimaldi had carefully opened the seal of the nano container to show off the contents to his clients. The sudden blast of light and sound behind him spun HopLite around, and the flask was knocked to the ground.
Grimaldi screamed and leapt backwards. But nothing much happened; the pale blob of nano put out a thin tendril, waved it around, and then crawled obediently back into its’ pot. A little puff of dust spat out behind it.
Kerval ran ‘frozen in horror’, staring down, his voice a thin feedback whine.
“I heard that stuff frags people, hubots, anything – Turns them into mush - - .”
“HopLite turned back. “What - - ! What are you two running? Don’t you see the lights. Hear the sound? Look, there - We’re in shit deep!”
He flung one arm towards the Ranger drone, as if they’d still not seen it hovering above the clearing.
But Grimaldi had recovered himself. He raised one arm - And shot it down.
“Military skin,” he said, after a long silence.
Arianne saw the flash line lance out from the full-Diamonds’ arm. Watched in disbelief as the Ranger drone lurched sideways, swooped forward, and then spun down across the clearing to crash behind her. A thin column of smoke rose from the wreckage, there was a brief flash, and then nothing.
She suddenly felt deadly cold and horribly frightened. She’d spent years making fun of life, no longer the serious young woman who’d sailed solo to Mars, but now she saw all the danger all too clearly.
The two hubots and their full-Diamond accomplice had a clownish air about them, which had blinded her to how very dangerous they really were. She glanced back at the wreck and wondered how it had been meant to help her. She had no idea what she could do alone.
“Better get moving and prime this set-up to run,” said Grimaldi. “No telling how long we’ve got now.” He re-sealed the nano flask, thumbed open a security cover on its’ side, spoke a series of numbers and letters, and carefully carried it into the tunnel.
“He’s doing it,” Kerval said, his voice so low that HopLite never heard him. His nerve was badly shaken, for real, but he made no move to stop what was happening. A dull fatalism replaced the fierce joy he’d imagined feeling. Whatever he’d wanted or expected from this seemed very distant to him now.
HopLite was staring at the wrecked drone. “Thought I saw something move,” he said. “Probably some animal. Hey Kerval – We did it! We’ll send the message and watch the bastards sweat.”
“Message - - ? Oh, we should give the nano time to start. Make sure.”
“Do we keep up this dumb act with that clown in the tunnel, or kill him now?”
“No, he can imagine he’s got control a bit longer. I’ll double-check the little extras he’s set up first. Let’s go watch him work.”
Despite her fear Arianne was dozing again. Drifting into a strange twilight; trying for meditational states she’d used on Mars all those years ago. She’d not practiced for so long, decades and more, and was sinking into despair.
Then a voice whispered her name. A sibilant, slightly scratchy voice.
She remembered not to scream. Looked slowly around. Saw a pair of figures in the shadows. No more than three feet high.
Old fairy tales and abduction stories seethed from her hind brain at the sight and the shape of them.
“What - - . Who are you?”
“From Arkuus, and machine-Ai’s. Remotes, with a little mind our own,” the nearest one said. “They link through us. Are from flyer.” It pointed to the wrecked drone. “It has armour pod.”
“We knew they’d shoot it down,” Arkuus’ voice buzzed from the second remote. “Now they think the pressure is on. But from outside, at a distance.”
“But they’ve armed the well cap with nano. All you’ve done is speed that up.”
Arianne heard the whine in her voice and hated it.
“They were going to do that anyway. Best let them think they’ve succeeded. Then catch them as they move away.” Arkuus voice faded, then returned. “Once they’re travelling we let our little friends there disarm the system. The remotes are made of me – They’re active, freeform nano themselves.”
“Set a bug to catch a bug,” muttered Arianne. She knew she looked twenty six to outside view, but suddenly felt incredibly old and useless on the inner; she decided everyone should wear a readout displaying real age.
The dawn was coming up and she could see the steam of hotsprings further down the canyon. Her body ached to be immersed in that water. She laughed to herself. The springs derived from primal forces that would blow the whole of Yellowstone apart, later if not sooner.
Arkuus and Joe were arguing; debating the best way to present or conceal the actions of the hubots, Kerval and HopLite. And the involvement of full-Diamond humans. Nothing like this scenario had been played for more than a hundred years.
“But how can you conceal?” asked Joe in exasperation. “You’re telling me that’s still possible? Then we’re in more trouble than just the planet gutting itself in fifty years!”
“And if the world knows hubots threatened to blow it, we’ll still get human rights?” Arkuus looked at him with head straight up. “I know how bad I sound. But this really is unprecedented. If nothing else, humans trust us now.”
“No-one should trust anyone or anything, ever. But that’s not the issue.”
“Principles eh? Live the dream. In the face of all the evidence.”
Joe was genuinely shocked. “Please Arko, let’s leave this? I didn’t think I’d live to hear you talk this way.”
Arkuus was silent for a long time. Not moving, not appearing active at all. Finally he got up and looked down the tunnel to the surface of the Moon.
“You shame me Joe. Perhaps I should trade in this old body - Get a younger mind as well.” He turned back. “You’re right though. Present the whole truth it is. Publish and be damned.”
As the sun rose Kerval, HopLite and Grimaldi were getting ready to leave. Grimaldi was nervous; somehow he didn’t like the apparent naivete of his hubot clients. Something BlueScreen had observed; as simple as ‘they can’t be that simple. Watch them’.
The aircars’ fans were powered up and tilting when the first shock hit, rocking the sleek body violently to one side, and smashing the port forward duct against a rock. The fan screamed, but kept turning, as self-repair routines unbuckled the casing and checked all rotating parts. The simple manager squawked, then got on with overseeing repairs.
No-one spoke. Increased seismic activity was predicted, as the vast dome of Yellowstone was forced upwards by slow but immense pressures beneath it.
Arianne threw herself from her refuge between two boulders as they rocked, and threatened to roll together. The remotes leapt upwards to balance on top; their small silver bodies swaying easily into balance.
As she looked up past them the hubots’ aircar floated into view above the canyon rim, lifting on a rising hiss of fans, and tilted away to the east. Sunlight glinted on its’ hull, and it was gone. They either hadn’t seen her, or didn’t care. Good riddance to them all.
“What now?” She spat out dust. “You guys get to work I guess. Me, I’m going for a bath.”
The remotes seemed to float slightly as they jumped down in front of her.
“We look for nano now. Go into tunnel when safe. After shocks.”
“You do that.” Arianne looked at her strange helpers. “Let me know when there’s anything I can do, okay.” She wasn’t sure who she was talking to, but assumed that Arkuus and Joe could hear her, as well as Lunar Jockey. For some reason the SSTO was silent, which only relieved her in her present mood. A curious, angry sensation of freedom and welcome loneliness.
The ground lurched more feebly and she risked getting to her feet. Walked slowly down the dusty canyon bed to the steaming hot springs below.
Lunar Jockey was busy. Airborne and in atmosphere; the work it loved best. High above the Florida coast it turned west and accelerated. Sonic boom reports started to swamp the eastern inland control centre for LandRestore; the callers furious and disbelieving.
Grimaldi saw it first. A cone of distortion in the clouds above and ahead of them, rapidly enlarging.
Then the aircar seemed to implode with sound – Punched downwards, almost to the ground, by the impact of supersonic shockwaves.
“Just a friend of mine, come to say hello,” said a voice from the console. “If you good people sit tight we’ll go on up to meet him.”
After a seconds’ stunned silence Kerval roared at the manager. “Keep to the course given or I’ll pull out your simpleton transistor brain!”
Grimaldi pressed back and away, his worst fears about the hubots’ real character and intelligence confirmed. But he wasn’t alone in mistaking the level of anothers’ abilities.
“Accept it Kerval,” said the manager. “I just got upgraded, and the controls of this vehicle are locked to me. From your point of view it’s over.”
Kerval was silent, deep in thought or shock.
The aircar lifted back up to a thousand feet, and a huge shadow overtook it on the ground below.
The shadow-maker itself slid forwards beneath them - A streamlined, flattened delta maybe a hundred fifty metres long, with upturned and swept-back tips; its’ white upper surface gleaming like a perfect eggshell. Halfway along, an aircar sized hatch was peeling open.
A grid of acquisition lights came on around the hatch and a new voice sounded in the cabin of the aircar:
“This is the Lunar Jockey. You are about to be taken aboard my vessel. Please observe all ships’ safety regulations. Thank you.”
As Kerval lifted a fist to the console his seat straps tightened in a vicious whiplash, pinning him deep in his seat.
“Try that again,” said the manager. “And I’ll strap you through the seat back.”
Kerval hardened his skin, but the straps already dug deep. He yelped as they clicked in another notch.
HopLites’ skin ribs had turned a powdery, light grey as he pushed back into his own seat. The manager relaxed the tension a little and he breathed out.
Grimaldi just swore. “Fucking machine - - ! Fucking BlueScreen - - ! I knew he didn’t check out this flying shithouse full-hundred. Bastard was too busy growing new balls!”
The edge of LJs’ open hatch went up past the aircars’ screens, they sank into its’ hold, and everything went dark.
“We got it,” said a scratchy voice. “Got nano.”
Arianne opened her eyes, peered through a drifting curtain of steam. Her two little helpers stood on boulders at the waters’s edge. Their simple, ovoid heads nodded in unison.
“Well, that’s good. What should we do now then?” She stretched out, and the upwelling water flowed new warmth around her.
“The luxurious aircar we provided awaits,” said Arkuus through his nodding relay. “We thought a meeting of old friends might be nice. On ShipCity One perhaps? It’s very keen to play host. What do you think?”
“That sounds just fine. Let me dig out a skin to wear, and I’m on my way. Do your little friends here want a lift?”
“I’d be very happy to see them, and you, Arianne – Meet in two days then?”
“Two days it is.”
SC One was racing north for New Yorks’ SeaDock; running on all one hundred engines and to hell with the E account. With a fresh sea breeze off its’ starboard bow, and friends dropping in from all over, it was a happy ship.
The Lunar Jockey stood upright on the vast upper receiving deck, its’ bulk looking no bigger than a small sail from a distant view, and felt the breeze on its’ skin.
“Good to be sensing,” it said. “A beautiful day to be out - And in good company. What do you say SC?”
“Couldn’t agree more,” sent the ship. “Party from orbit just checked in – The Selena Six and passengers. Here in twenty. Do you want to see them in?”
“My pleasure friend. Hand ‘em over.”
A second white sail floated down to the ShipCity on a tail of blue fire, settling beside the first on the long open area between two towers. As the vapour of its’ descent blew away tiny figures emerged and moved forward in a group.
Joe and Arianne were embracing, all rivalries and resentments cancelled by meeting safe and well, and Arkuus was surrounded by the remotes, like a father with two excited children. He beamed a message out.
“You got a good hold on our errant friends Jockey? – All sharp things taken away I hope.”
“Held in the hold. Unhappy but harmless,” sent LJ. “You want to see them yet? I think anywhere out would suit them fine.”
“In a while I think – We may have a proposition to put to them. Mis-guided they may have been, but I see a glimmer of silver lining in their madness.”
“Oh, well, that’s really clear Arko. I’m sure you’ll enlighten me in time – Out.”
“So the idea of releasing pressure from under Yellowstone park may not be so crazy after all, “ Joe was saying. “If Active freeform Nano can be authorised, and with the right design, it can find it’s own way down through the strata.”
They were standing right at the tip of SC Ones’ long slender forepeak, maybe two hundred metres ahead of the foaming bow wave.
“You mean,” said Arianne, “that the world may not have to blow up in fifty years? We can do something about it.”
“If we lighten up, and be adventurous again – What have we got to lose?”
Arianne looked at him and smiled. Then took Arkuus’ slender, open-jointed fingers in one hand.
“Only the pleasure of living with friends I’d say. And a place to meet them.”
She looked out ahead, over sparkling waves, then turned and waved to the ship. All along its’ upper towers it sounded a rippling boom of horns and a whooping wail of sirens.
John Coppinger – February 2000