Nebula Award Nominee. The crew of Moonbase Columbus make an amazing discovery on the far side of the Moon—a massive alien structure is erecting itself, built up atom by atom by living machines, microscopically small, intelligent, and unstoppable, consuming everything they touch. The mysterious structure begins to expand and take shape, and its creators begin to multiply.
Is this the first strike in an alien invasion from the stars? Or has human nanotechnology experimentation gone awry, triggering an unexpected infestation? As riots rage across a panicked Earth, scientists scramble to learn the truth before humanity's home is engulfed by the voracious machines.
The novel was shortlisted for the Nebula Science Fiction Award and features a massive alien structure erecting itself and consuming everything it touches. Again, one of the more gripping science fiction reads you will come upon. Impossible to put down. – Dean Wesley Smith
"A subtle combination of anticipation and known scientific breakthroughs intermingled into a complex unfolding of all too real human plots, twists and turns; funneling down into a typical Anderson & Beason styled masterfully crafted grand finale, with an apotheosis of mind boggling possibilities."– Amazon Revew
"Only Kevin J. Anderson could write such a fast-paced, gripping, story that makes extremely complex technology understandable via his description of the Moon Base's discovery of the ruined antennae on the far side of the Moon."– Amazon Revew
The helium-3 processing plant looked like a lunar rover thrown together by a committee of abstract artists.
Standing two hundred meters away, Jason Dvorak recognized the large wheels and the heavily shielded nuclear power unit. Huge triangular heat radiators jutted up and out at an angle, giving the impression of a stegosaurus lumbering across the crater floor. The front of the He-3 processor opened up in a cylinder of diamond-tipped teeth used for scooping and grinding the top layer of regolith; at the opposite end, a jumble of hot debris was deposited like excrement.
As the leviathan crawled along the surface, swallowing regolith, Jason felt pressure on his spacesuited arm. He turned and, in a habit he could not seem to shake, looked at the reflectorized spacesuit visor of his companion before glancing down to the namepatch. Never look at the face to recognize someone outside, he kept telling himself. After a year, you'd think he'd be used to it.
Cyndi Salito's contralto voice came over his speaker. "You haven't moved for minutes, Jase."
"Can't help it." Jason turned back to the mobile processor. "I can't believe it's finally working. You beat your deadline by a week. This'll really look good for us. Especially for me—two weeks in command and already I have a major milestone to show off." And it's a miracle the base hasn't fallen apart, he added to himself. He still couldn't figure out why the Space Agency director, Celeste McConnell, had named him—an architect, of all people—commander. He was still getting used to the title.
"If it's working," corrected Cyndi. "The ten metric tons of dirt it's processing should yield a hundred milligrams of He-3. If the wizards back dirtside keep their part of the bargain, we could have a working fusion plant by early next year. We're also due to receive another proton transmission from the Nevada Test Site next month."
"I'll turn this place into a resort yet." Jason laughed.
"That's why you're up here, Jase," Salito said. Jason hated to be called by the nickname, but he never bothered to correct people. She nudged him back to their rover. "Come on, demonstration's over. If I was ten years younger, I'd take you out to dinner."
"You're just trying to make points with the boss," he said.
Salito made a sound like static on the suit radio. "Won't need to after next month."
"Columbus won't be the same without the fifteen of you," he said. "I'm going to miss you and the other old-timers."
Salito snorted. "Old-timers! We haven't been up here much longer than you have."
Jason stepped over a rock as he climbed onto the rover's passenger seat, trying not to grip anything. Even at 4.5 psi suit pressure, the gloves still bit into his flesh. It was a common complaint. Fifty years of spaceflight and you'd think they could solve a simple problem of constant-volume suits, he thought. For months he'd put up with rubbing his hands raw each time he pulled off his gloves.
Salito started the rover and turned for Moonbase Columbus. "Don't you look forward to getting back to your wife and twins when it's your turn to be rotated home?"
"Of course," he said. That's what Salito expected him to say. But Jason's wife Margaret had filed for separation a month ago, before he had even been gone a year. Some devotion! Talk about twisting in a knife from 240,000 miles away. And his children Lacy and Lawrence hadn't seen him except on video transmissions since they were three years old. He was not looking forward to returning home. Being so far away put a little distance on the pain.
He tried to sound upbeat, for Salito's sake. "Hey, someone's got to put in that second level of habitation modules and make this base livable, not a crummy boot camp. Can't trust a bunch of physicists and astronomers to get their hands dirty, digging tunnels and piling regolith. I watched how much trouble Bernard Chu had getting you all to put together the Sim-Mars base!"
Salito grunted over the radio; Jason had the frightening feeling that she saw right through his small talk.
Four groups made up the sixty-person base, and everyone worked and socialized within their own group. Every six months a group rotated off the Moon, and a new one came on. After a six-month apprenticeship under Bernard Chu, who had transferred up to the Collins station at L-l, Jason had suddenly found himself the new commander of Moonbase Columbus. The change in assignment had surprised him as much as it had Chu. . . .
As the rover continued, Mare Smythi unfolded to reveal Columbus Base. The Earth hung low over the crater wall, like a big blue drop teeming with life. The tip of the base's sixteen-meter telescope was barely visible behind the embankments of the buried living modules. From this vantage point, Jason couldn't see the optical interferometer, the gamma-ray telescope, and other astronomical equipment
One of his first troubles as commander had been to placate the Earthbound astronomical community by assuring them that the seismic vibrations from the wandering He-3 processing plants would not disturb any of the sensitive astronomical devices. It wasn't as if someone using a Disney telepresence link would be driving these monstrosities; the Disney corporation used only miniature robotic rovers in a compound hundreds of kilometers away.
Jason had done that himself once, before he told anybody his dream to come up here. He remembered sitting behind the controls after waiting five hours in line at Disneyland, marveling at how he could be sitting on Earth and driving a real rover on the Moon, just for the fun of it. He smiled as Cyndi Salito continued to drive to the moonbase.
As if a switch had been thrown, radio chatter filled Jason's helmet as they came into line of sight "—not sure what happened. We lost contact with the hopper just before Waite's signal ended."
"Get a hold of Dvorak yet?"
"Still trying! L-l can't raise him—"
Salito turned toward him, but Jason was already using his chin mike to break into the discussions. "Columbus, this is Dvorak. Big Daddy, what's going on?"
"Jason, am I glad to hear you! We were just going to send someone out to find you —"
Jason cut Lon Newellen off. "Okay, I'm back. What's going on?" He barely noticed Salito increasing speed.
"Trevor Waite's hopper—we haven't been able to raise it."
"Did the communications link fail?"
"No, that's not it. They… they were broadcasting from the VLF. Waite had gone with Becky Snow down into Daedalus Crater and Lasserman was relaying the information from the hopper—" Newellen fell into an uncomfortable silence. Jason was about to press him when Newellen spoke again.
"There's something more. You'd better get in here and see the visuals yourself."
Two meters in diameter, the transparent holotank took up the center of the hemispherical control center. Jason placed a hand on the shimmering image and let out his breath. "Whoa. What in the hell is that?"
A faint shimmer could be seen between translucent spindly arms growing up from an impossibly deep hole. The rest of the object seemed to be under construction.
The enormity of the scale made Jason take a step back when he caught a glimpse of the hopper landing zone outside the crater. The hopper itself was destroyed. Trevor Waite, Becky Snow, and Siegfried Lasserman were dead. The first deaths on the Moon in years. And they were his responsibility.
But the mystery of the artifact kept grabbing his attention. The thing was huge—and no one had even suspected its presence.
"Flash up the most recent orbiter picture of that site." A cube dilated in the holotank and rotated. It showed the identical scene—without the hole and ghostly infrastructure. "When was this picture made?"
"That's from LO-3. That orbiter went down two years ago. Those pictures were taken just after the VLF went operational."
Jason stepped close and squinted at the images Waite had transmitted, but the tank's resolution got no better. "I can't make out any vehicle marks, except for Waite's rover."
"There weren't any."
Newellen brushed off his powder-blue jumpsuit and moved with balletlike grace in the low gravity toward the holotank. The heavyset man seemed out of place in the lunar environment, but Newellen's beefy frame was held up by some of the largest bones Jason had ever seen. People didn't appreciate the nickname of "Big Daddy" until they met the man up-close.
Newellen jabbed a chubby finger into the shimmering 3-D image. "Way over here you can see plenty of rover tracks—here, here, and even here. These are all from when the VLF array was built years ago. You can even tell where some of the folks went off joyriding. But except for this isolated spot by the . . . the thing"—he outlined the volume with a chubby finger—"the regolith is undisturbed. See." He punched at the holotank and the entire view collapsed to the spot he had outlined some seconds before.
Cyndi Salito pushed closer to the image, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Jason and Newellen. "How come we didn't detect any of this before? What could have built that thing in the past two years without leaving any footprints? Has the regolith around the hole been swept back to cover tracks?"
"No way." Newellen magnified the image even more, and the ground took on a jumbled appearance. "We already ran a Mandelbrodt simulation—we got the same distribution as what you're seeing here. The ground is essentially undisturbed."
No one spoke as he pulled the view back to encompass the entire structure. Jason kept staring at the image. "So what you're saying is that something the size of a football stadium just appeared out there, without any sign of construction, no by-products? That doesn't explain a damned thing!"
Newellen just shrugged. "Abracadabra."
"And Hopper-1—no idea of what happened? Or that last transmission from Trevor Waite?" Jason scowled and ran a hand through his dark curly hair. "Come on, dammit! Skyscrapers don't just start growing on the lunar surface!"
When nobody spoke for several moments, Newellen reran Lasserman's video transmission, relayed from Waite's stereochip. He stopped at the close-ups of the gossamer structure rising up from the pit.
Cyndi Salito finally broke the silence. "I'm not going to be the first to say the 'A' word."
Newellen rolled his eyes. "Right. Alien construction Corps. invades Moon. That'll rank right up with that statue of Elvis we're supposed to find on Mars."
Jason looked around to the other people in the control center and narrowed his eyes. "I'm not going to be a laughingstock. But three people are dead, and we'll damn well find out why. Put me through to Director McConnell on Earth."