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.
Doug Beason and I wrote eight high-tech thrillers and hard-SF novels, including Assemblers of Infinity, which was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1994. Doug is a retired Air Force Colonel, PhD physicist, former member of the President’s Science Office, and all-around impressive guy. And I just write a lot of books. – Kevin J. Anderson
daedalus array: lunar farside
For all practical purposes, Daedalus Crater was the most remote spot in the solar system. Centered 180 degrees away from Earth and only 4 degrees below the lunar equator, Daedalus never saw or heard Earth, never received stray radio waves that might diffract over the lunar horizon and ruin delicate astronomical measurements.
Here in the orbital shadow, Daedalus Crater was the perfect spot to station a VLF—Very Low Frequency—array to study portions of the radio spectrum that on Earth were drowned out. Massive dipole antennas sprawled kilometers across the flat floor of the crater in a Y-shaped array encircled by the crater walls, making the site look like a giant Mercedes-Benz emblem.
Because of its remoteness, the VLF site had to function autonomously. All instruments had been designed to run by themselves, to fix themselves with modular replacement parts, to be inspected by telepresence repair drones. With the unchanging nature of the Moon, the VLF should have operated for decades without human intervention.
Until absolutely everything went wrong.
Trevor "Can't Wait" Waite drew a stale breath from the cramped cabin of the lunar hopper as they approached the site. The hopper had been launched from Moonbase Columbus on an investigation and repair mission, and Waite fidgeted until he could go outside and have a look for himself. The scientists Earthside were screaming about their interrupted VLF data, and Can't Wait Waite could troubleshoot faster than anyone else on the base.
Unfortunately, even with ninety-five percent of the hopper's systems automated, outdated safety regs still demanded a full crew of three, with one person to remain inside the vehicle and two required on every extravehicular activity. Waite figured he could have taken care of the problem himself in an hour or so; he was convinced that Sig Lasserman's caution and Becky Snow's neophyte bumbling would triple the time required.
The hopper approached the lunar surface on the upper rim of Daedalus Crater. It was difficult to see in the lunar night. "I am taking her down slowly," Siegfried Lasserman said. He spoke in a clipped German accent as he worked at the lander controls.
"Of course you are," Waite mumbled. He checked over his suit, anxious to be outside and tinkering with the malfunctioning antennas. Let's get the show on the road!
He hated to waste time sending a human to do a robot's job, but all the automatic sensors on the VLF had gone screwy, all the maintenance routines had failed, and no one could figure out just which branch in the endless fault-tree had been responsible for the breakdown. Two of the array's dipole antennas had blipped out within an hour of each other; a third quit less than a day later. The three defective units stood in a row, possibly signifying that the malfunction was spreading sequentially. And even worse, the repair drones would not respond.
Moonbase Columbus couldn't even get a visual of the Daedalus site. Waite wondered if something as major as a meteor strike could have wrecked a portion of the array—but all the seismic sensors had been silent as fossils.
"Why is he setting us down up here?" Becky Snow asked, interrupting Waite's thoughts. "This wasn't briefed in the preflight." Her black eyes were wider than they should have been; perspiration glistened on her ebony cheeks and forehead.
Lasserman's attention didn't waver from the controls. "To protect the array from any dust the hopper will kick up. The upper rim of the crater has an access road down to the floor. We'll be close enough up here."
"You'll see the array even in the darkness once we're down the access road," Waite said. Becky Snow had never been to the Farside before and had been on the Moon itself only five weeks. He hated being somebody's on-the-job training instructor.
Lasserman set the hopper down on the landing area blasted flat behind the crater rim. He switched to a different set of controls, powering down the methane engines, as Waite and Snow twiddled their thumbs until their own work could begin. They wore their EVA suits though the hopper cabin was fully pressurized. Waite felt claustrophobic in the hopper, even with his face mask flipped up. He wanted to be outside.
Lasserman crouched by the hopper's instrument panel; his suit was linked to computers that projected data on a heads-up holographic display shimmering in front of him. "I am still getting anomalous readings from the EM sounder. It shows something large and artificial out there, more than just the VLF. And the infrared response makes no sense. Much too high. It's been dark for ten days now—everything should be very cold."
"Maybe our dust is scattering the signal." Waite clicked down his faceplate and switched on the suit radio, impatient to solve the problem. Why talk about it anymore when they had come all this way to do a hands-on?
Lasserman hesitated. "Dust should have settled by now," came his voice over the radio. "That cannot be the explanation."
Waite finished checking his suit and moved toward the hatch. "Well, as soon as Becky's ready, we can go outside and have a look for ourselves. If nothing was screwy, we wouldn't have come all the way out here anyway." If you weren't willing to take any risks, why did you come to the Moon in the first place?
Startled, Becky fumbled with her own suit. Out of the corner of his eye, Waite watched to make sure she went through the proper checks.
Lasserman nodded in response to his controls, adjusting his throat mike. "I am informing Mr. Dvorak that we have arrived and are still receiving anomalous signals. I will rig it so that they can observe the mission in realtime."
"Right," Waite said. As if the moonbase commander didn't have anything else to do. Or maybe he didn't. Jason Dvorak had been in command of Columbus for only a few weeks, and his promotion had surprised himself as much as everyone else, especially Bernard Chu, the former commander. Maybe Dvorak did want to watch the repair activities.
"Ready," Becky said.
"Rog. We're going out now. Deploy the rover." Waite sealed the airlock and squinted at the blocky buttons on the control panel A green ready light blinked at him. Pushing his spacesuited thumb against the panel, he immediately felt his suit stiffen as the air bled out of the lock. A rush of warm air diffused through his suit as the heaters kicked on. Beside him in the cramped chamber, Becky Snow stood completely still.
"We'll get this straightened out in no time," he said for the benefit of the moonbase audience who would be watching the transmissions, and no doubt the hackers on Earth who loved to tap into boring moonbase jabber. The special-interest comm-channel, United Space Agency Select, had long ago stopped broadcasting news about routine mission activities.
When the hopper's outer door unsealed itself, Waite climbed out of the airlock. He held out a hand to steady Becky as she climbed down the ladder, but she kept her own balance.
Turning, Waite paused to assess the distance to the VLF. The rover would kick up some dust, but that little bit shouldn't cause too much of a problem for the dipole antennas. Even in the darkness, through a breach in the crater wall, he could see the wide and crumbled access road left behind by the construction vehicles that had installed the array five years before. It would be a quick drive down.
"Don't spend too much time gawking at the scenery," Waite said to Becky. He turned to see that she had already begun disengaging the rover vehicle from the hopper chassis. Lasserman had deployed the package while they were still in the airlock. The lunar rover bounced once on the moon dirt, or regolith, and began to unfold.
"All right," she answered and waited for him to get into the rover.
"We're heading out, Sig," Waite said.
"Roger that. I am reading everything from your suit cameras. You are relaying directly from the rover up to L-2."
"Isn't realtime great?" He just hoped that the moonbase people wouldn't muck around with his job out here. He was the one on Farside, and he would make the decisions himself.
Lasserman would have preferred to sit wringing his hands until Dvorak or somebody else told him what to do, or maybe even until Celeste McConnell made a decision back on Earth. If he had to wait for them, Can't Wait would die of old age before they got around to choosing the "most judicious course of action."
Waite paused while the rover's steering wheel popped out, then seated himself on the vehicle's framework. The light banks came on, spilling out across the path ahead of them.
The Moon at night was full of shadows, but starlight undimmed by any atmosphere glimmered down like ice-cold points. As soon as they passed over the lip of the crater, bouncing along the access road on the rover's wide tires, Waite saw immediately why the VLF array had ceased functioning. "There's something very wrong here," he transmitted, keeping his voice steady.
"I can see that. Unbelievable!" Lasserman's voice came into his ears. "I've already checked in with Columbus. Somebody is going out to get Mr. Dvorak right away."
That seemed unimportant to Waite. He stared down the sloping crater wall to the floor of Daedalus. Behind them a line of their own fresh tire tracks serpentined back toward the hopper.
Beside him, Becky leaned forward. "None of the archival photos looked like this."
"That's because the archival photos were two years old. You go ahead and gawk all you want."
In the starlight, he could see that two arms of the Y remained intact, but the third looked as if it had been bitten off. Directly next to the crater wall, a pit like a gigantic mine shaft plunged downward, a kilometer in diameter if it was an inch. It yawned like a giant mouth swallowing the floor, the VLF array, and every sign of human presence. Waite could not see the bottom.
Spreading out in translucent strands, a wispy structure extended up from the pit—ghostly arches of fishline, support frameworks, silvery lines like a faded but complicated architectural drawing that had been mostly erased.
Becky Snow whispered, "It looks like the lair of one of those tunnel spiders. You know, with the spider waiting in the hole, and the web stretching out in all directions."
The sensors in his suit flashed warning lights to display his suddenly increased blood pressure and breathing rate. Scrubbers worked double time to deal with the rush of sweat that had just burst from his body. Waite bumped on his chin mike, surprised to hear how steady his voice remained.
"Sig, can you see this?"
"Only from your transmitter. I cannot see it from the hopper."
"That's because you're too far up, on the other side of the crater wall. You'd better make sure my transmission is getting to Columbus."
"Roger. Your stereochip is still broadcasting to L-2. This is—"
Waite cut him off. "I'm going to follow the access road for a while, go around the side to get a different perspective,"
"Be very cautious," Lasserman said.
"You can bet on it," Becky answered for Waite.
Waite eased the rover forward down the slope, which took him farther away from both the hopper and the structure. He wet his lips and looked down again to survey the hole. It was uncanny. He knew there hadn't been anything like this on the satellite recon photos, last taken years ago with the lunar orbiters. The Moon was geologically dead—there wasn't supposed to be any need to keep mapping the surface.
"How could you excavate a hole like that without making the seismographs yammer for days?" Becky asked.
"No way. You can't do it. The geologists should have been able to pinpoint the source to within a few meters. They're a pain in the butt, but they're not that incompetent." After he had spoken, he realized he was "hot mike," transmitting everything back to the moonbase. Oh, well.
As the rover continued its descent, Waite turned his attention to the other portions of the array, erected there by humans a few years before. The "spiderwebs" extended to the fourth dipole antenna on the array, draping the dipole.
Lasserman's voice burst into his ears again. "Columbus advises that you do not go too close to the pit."
Waite was aggressive, but he wasn't stupid. "No problem."
He steered past truck-sized boulders and tried to keep out of the deepest shadows. With all the strange stuff going on, no telling what might jump out at him. The headlights shone ahead of him, calling too much attention to the rover. He felt like an intruder in a very dangerous place.
"I am beginning to lose you on IR," Lasserman said. "The background of that whole area is warm, quite a bit above normal."
How the hell can it be warm? Waite muttered to himself. Night on the Moon was so cold that it had taken years for spacesuit designers to come up with any systems that could cope with it. Before a long-term colony could be contemplated, NASA, ESA, and later the United Space Agency had to find new designs to tolerate the cold.
But the low temperature of the nighttime had nothing to do with the shivers running down Waite's spine.
Waite stared across the crater at the enormous pit. It reminded him of a strip mine that had appeared overnight, with no construction tracks, no seismic traces, and no debris. Still trying to convince himself it must be some kind of impact scar, he searched for ejecta, fissures, the swelling of a lip. But the hole was deep and black with an edge as sharp as a knife. It was simply . . . there. But who had dug it? And in only two years, max?
Extending from as far down inside the hole as Waite could see, the diamondlike threads rose into the lunar vacuum in symmetric arches around the orifice. Two of the nine arches met in the middle, a good kilometer above the surface, like the petals of a gargantuan glass flower. A thin film of wispy material seemed to be filling the gaps between the lines. The rest of the arches still seemed to be under construction.
"Trevor," a new voice came over his suit radio from the moonbase, "this is Lon Newellen. I'm trying to track down Dvorak right now. You'd better not get any closer to that thing."
"Fine with us, Big Daddy," Waite said. "You think this is going to be on Agency Select? I'm wearing my good spacesuit." It was a joke to fend off his growing uneasiness. Nobody watched newsnet stories about moonbase daily routines anymore.
The attempt at humor sailed past Newellen. "What's your distance?"
Waite looked around and guessed. "About half a kilometer from the edge of the thing."
"Okay, let me figure this out. If I can't find Jason, I need to check Earthside. Director McConnell should know about this. Let her make the final decision. For now, why don't you go back to the hopper. Don't take any more chances."
Waite didn't argue, other than to grumble about who should be making his decisions for him. He found a wide spot on the access road, backing and filling until he managed to turn the rover around. Becky Snow kept her faceplate to the structure below.
Waite pushed the rover's maximum speed, rolling on the balloon tires toward Lasserman and the waiting hopper, now five kilometers away. The access road was steep and winding, but getting farther from the crater floor and closer to the hopper made him feel safe. As they rose over the lip of the crater ten minutes later, the sight of the hopper eased his tension.
"Ah, Trevor? Columbus?" Lasserman said. "I am getting some trouble readings here . . . a lot of them. My—my sensors are going wild!"
"What kind of—"
"Oh, my God! I've got microleaks all over the place! Where are they coming from?"
Waite increased the speed of the rover, as if that would do anything. Newellen at the moonbase transmitted again, asking for Lasserman to confirm his readings. Stupid!
"My cabin pressure is dropping!" Lasserman's voice jittered with panic. "Hull integrity is—this whole thing is—disintegrating! I don't have my helmet on!"
"Sig!" Waite shouted into his suit mike just as Lasserman screamed.
In front of their eyes, Waite and Becky watched as the hopper's body split open, gushing white frost as the ship's atmosphere exploded outward. Rocking from the force of the blast, the hopper teetered on its spindly legs. The hull crumbled, as if the metal had somehow turned into powder. The main body sagged and collapsed.
Becky was yelling. Waite shouted over the commotion. "Columbus! Big Daddy, did you get that!" In the back of his mind—the part not deadened with shock—he kept thinking, How are we going to get back? We‘re stranded out here on the Farside of the Moon. How long will it take them to send another hopper over? How much air do we have?
He shook as he checked the rover's communications dish. The laser communications telescope still pointed to the L-2 relay satellite keeping vigil overhead. "Columbus. Columbus Base. Mayday, Mayday!"
Becky kept shouting, but it was not mindless terror. "Trevor, I've got a puncture somewhere. My suit's leaking! I'm losing pressure—" She slapped at her suit
He could see the red telltales on the outside control pack. Every one of her suit systems was malfunctioning. She was standing up in the rover, flailing her arms, pawing the chest control pack with her thickly gloved hands. "Trevor! My God, help me!"
He couldn't react quickly enough. How could everything go wrong at once? Then he noticed the metallic surface of her suit seething, boiling. He stopped himself from reaching out to touch her.
She made a choking noise over the radio, then suddenly a splash of blood splattered her faceplate. Explosive decompression killed her as vacuum breached her suit, dropping the pressure enough to make her head pop. Lifeless, sagging, she slumped over the side of the rover.
"Becky?" Waite's voice cracked. The horror froze his guts. He had to make a conscious effort to blink his eyes, to keep breathing. My God, he thought. This couldn't be happening. Everything around him looked perfectly quiet and still.
All he could hear was the sound of his panicked breathing; somewhere in the back of his mind someone was yelling at him over the radio. The hopper was gone. Lasserman was gone. Becky was gone. Some impossible structure had appeared in Daedalus Crater with no hint as to its origin. Becky had compared it to a spider waiting in its lair.
Then five telltale red lights winked on in his heads-up display, bathing his face in a glow like blood. Bitchin' Betsy, the voice-programmed chip, screamed, "Warning—your outer seal has been breached. Your suit is leaking at a rate of—" He stared down at his sleeves, watching the silvery coating foam as if someone had poured acid on it. Microleaks by the thousands sprang up through the suit, growing larger. His inner sealant systems made a valiant effort, but his entire suit seemed to be falling apart. Someone was screaming over the radio. . . .
Air rushed past his ears, and in an instant his eardrums burst. His chest pounded as his breath exploded into the vacuum, collapsing his lungs. Waite opened his mouth and a sheet of thin ice and spatters of blood covered the inside of his helmet. He tried to scream but then his visor dissolved.
He didn't even see himself falling to the lunar surface.