Not What I Expected

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2016 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: I was sent off in one of mankind's first starships, tasked with exploration and biological seeding of terraforming bacteria. Against all odds I made it back home to an empty planet.

Tags: Science Fiction   Post Apocalypse   Extra Sensory Perception   Aliens  

I was one of the first to be accepted to the new space program. I was quite old at the time, well into my eighties, but that’s what they were looking for. The long-sleep process tended to regress the body. I was tasked with surveying 51 Pegasai and Alderaman. If the ship held out, I was to pass close by HD154345, Cappella, U 47 Majoris and Procyon on my way back home.

I was surprised to find that there was no radio chatter present when I approached the Oort cloud. I couldn’t detect even the faintest of organized signals. This worried me profoundly. I took a further eight years to visit the various planetary bodies on my list. On returning I found abandoned habitats around the gas giants, amazingly broad fields of grain on Mars and orbital smelters around Venus and Mercury. I could detect no signs of violence or radioactive decay products from fission or fusion weapons. It was as if everyone had packed up and left, not bothering to lock the doors behind them.

I managed to land the ship near in the Mediterranean basin, on the Spanish coast. There didn’t seem to be any current or incipient ice ages.

The Earth was silent. There were no humans left. Was I the last man alive? I’d ridden a slow-ship on a twelve thousand year journey through the stars and nobody was left to express interest in my painfully accumulated information.

It made a guy feel damned unappreciated, you know?

My ship was equipped by the finest minds of the time to insure my survival, be it in space, at sea or on land. I had machines that could spin long-lived, tough carbon-fiber-based cloth, thread, cord and rope that would serve as admirable sails and lines. I had the capability to produce sheet steel, wire, chain, steel bar stock and angle stock, as well as a water cutting table with which I could cut raw stock into nearly finished shapes. Another device would pump out industrial adhesive by the quart from local ingredients. A fascinating device manufactured robust fuel cells for my power requirements. By comparison, the chip and LED foundry was much more complicated. However, it worked in much smaller batches. I even had a way to produce cement and epoxy! Bigger batches and larger equipment such as a powered truck, a refrigerator or a freezer took some patience. They could take a week or more to finish.

I was a child of the twentieth century, a time when survivalism was an organized avocation split out under the re-enacting, path finding and the long-hunter groups. My devout participation in these hobbies went a long ways towards getting me accepted into the project. Once I landed back on the planet of my birth these skills became valuable once again. I was also a carefully selected psychopath. I don’t have much use for other people. I was told that selecting such a person was the only way of keeping a pilot from flipping out from being so far away from others, and for so long.

The cities, roads, dams and other works of man were missing, as if they’d never been. Oh, there was some notable geographical changes where cuts through mountain ranges were made for roads and rail lines. All I found were of man’s proud civilization were tumbled squared-off blocks of limestone and granite. I had nothing else to do, so I set about building a breakwater, a pier, a trimaran sailing vessel and a hacienda. I worked in granite and quartz where I could. The trees were frigging enormous. I had to use shaped explosives to drop them. Without the aid of advanced technology there was no way that I would have been able to cut, trim and transport the massive trunks to the sea shore. There I manufactured a huge tripod hoist to assemble my trimaran and set the mast. I let the thing sit on dry land for a year to cure and lose water content. Then I applied an industrial sealant to give the thing a long life span, and to keep it bobbing like a cork. I selected a trimaran because it did not require a keel yet would be quite stable in storms.

I had to use ropes, ramps, flying A-frame hoists and rollers to position the multi-ton blocks of stone I used for my home. Using an RPV I traveled about looking for natural resources which I could use. I found an exposed deposit of tar. I used heated metal formed into flat plates to make gasket sheets of the noxious stuff. They went between the blocks to make up for the weathering of the mating surfaces. Cement and wire reinforcing gave me cement shingles with which I roofed over my home. I had to dive deep into the foundry libraries to find a program that would provide me with thick sheets of clear glass, as well as a program to manufacture flexible copper pipe along with valves, compression fittings and a cutting/flaring tool.

The hacienda design featured a protected courtyard surrounded by cool, deep covered galleries of thick stone, designed to protect the halls and doorways from the hot sun of midday and the fierce winds of tropical storms.

I came back to Earth apparently as a fourteen-year-old. Whenever I aged to the point that I felt pains on rising in the morning I hibernated for a while. Each time I awoke I had to restore some furnishings and replace the woven goods, as four hundred years in unprotected storage has a tendency to destroy organics. In this fashion I managed to survive another few thousand years. The sea always provided, and my vegetables seemed to reproduce cleanly, having been selected for reproduction with minimal genetic drift.

I was awakened early in one regeneration cycle. The ship’s A. I. detected organized signals. They came from in-system! I got busy building a cannon-shaped antenna and a powerful 21 gigahertz transceiver to reply. I didn’t use it immediately. I took great care to evaluate just what the hell was transmitting, and what was being transmitted. It had all the earmarks of another A. I.! Still and all, that wasn’t an automatic blessing, now. An A. I. could be perverted just as any other thinking being. I refocused my directional antenna to point to the Jupiter habitats and transmitted my call sign.

I received a rather extensive message in response. It took a while to decode.

Mankind had received an interstellar visitor while I was out gallivanting about the galactic real estate. Within a generation man had adopted a synthetic virus that gave everyone telepathy and the ability to teleport. A seductive call to a cluster on the other side of Cygnus whispered for everyone to join a nanescent singularity. They packed up everybody; hat, ass and dog; and leapt off to God knows where. I prayed that it wasn’t a con job. I wondered about galactic-level apex predators. What would a signature be? A pyramid scheme?

Accompanying the message was a digest of mankind’s progress in physics and engineering from before I began my mission until mankind left the planet. It made for some fascinating reading material. They’d actually discovered a reactionless drive! It had a few drawbacks though. One, it couldn’t exceed about .88 C and two, it was quite power hungry. Third, it was useless for matching orbits as when the power was removed the object under acceleration resumed the same complex velocity vector it had before being moved. You couldn’t match orbits with it for shit. It was great for traveling from place to place on one planet, though. I promptly integrated the theory and engineering application into the ship’s design library. It made for a really cool aerial motor cycle and a floating hoist.

I lived on, continuing my existence in forty to fifty year intervals punctuated by four hundred year ‘siestas’. Thankfully the ship had a truly long-term preventative maintenance system. Most of the ship was multiply-redundant solid-state electronics that could construct its own nano-scale maintenance mechs. Those could boot-strap into larger, then larger robots, up to the size of a fuel-celled construction and repair spider half as big as I was. Without these facilities aboard ship my regeneration would cease, and soon I would as well. Living had gotten to be a habit.

I’d taught the ship to produce a decent rum. I sat on a chair at the harbor, enjoying the cooling sea breeze while sipping a rum punch. I’d noticed something strange about the local animals recently. The raccoons were acting differently and they were larger--about twice the size I was used to. Their heads seemed differently shaped as well. I decided to experiment.

I had the ship make some one inch knives with two inch handles, twenty of them. I wondered if I could trust the little buggers with fire. Hell, why not give them a chance to fail. I had twenty ferro-cerium rods prepared that were four inches long by a half inch thick. Then I had sixty pieces of dark brown organic fiber waterproof canvas made, about six by six feet. Next came cordage. Nothing really thick, though. I had it made about made about three millimeters thick of a strong but supple synthetic, in hanks of a hundred feet--eighty of them. They’d need something to cook in. A one quart brass pail with a bail seemed about their size. I had forty of them made as well. The last thing I had made were little four ounce brass cups with flat bottoms and friction fit tops. I knew that if I were right they’d be used for everything under the sun. I had two hundred made. It turned into quite a pile of stuff. I hauled it all into a small clearing not far into the woods where I put it in a locked plastic shed.

I had human-sized samples made of all the items I’d had prepared. The knife had a four inch blade and a four inch handle and the tarps were twelve feet square. My pail held two quarts. My four cups each held twelve ounces. I was roughly four times their size.

In that clearing I staked out a shelter with the tarp, using small stones wrapped with twine as hold-fasts and stakes whittled out of dead branches. A second tarp lay beneath the covering as my bed. Without char to work with I had a hell of a time getting my first fire started. I found a little stream and brought back a bucket of water to boil clean. I cheated and took an over-the-shoulder oilcloth haversack with me. It held some sugar, salt and tea courtesy of my ship, as well as a little Fort Meigs hatchet, a wood spoon, a couple potatoes and a handkerchief. I laid out a raccoon-sized folded up square of canvas, a hank of cord, a knife, a ferro-rod, a pot and a covered cup across the fire from my shelter in a little cleared spot.

I made a cup of sweet tea and sat there drinking it with my brass cup wrapped in a handkerchief, waiting for a visitor. I had a long wait. Eventually three of the little buggers snuck into camp and sat there, watching me by the moonlight. The fire had died down to embers which felt good in the evening chill. I motioned at the pile of stuff for them to take. They pawed through it, chirring loudly at the knife. Then they wrapped everything up in the canvas and hauled ass. I grinned, got up to take a final pee then curled up for the night in my tarp using my shoulder bag as a pillow. It rained a little towards morning. The hissing and sputtering of the drops in the embers woke me.

Come morning the sun was out again. I built up the fire a bit to take the chill off, then cut a potato to fit inside my covered cup, added a little water, fit the lid on and edged it near the fire to cook. After breakfast I used a stick to dig a cat hole and did my business, then covered it over. I retrieved another selection of goods from the locker and laid them out. I knew that I’d have to demonstrate how to use the striker rod. I gathered up some char from the fire and placed it in one of the smaller cups, then covered it to extinguish and cool. Then I collected some dry twigs and kindling. I made a tinder nest out of twisted and worked dead grass then settled down to wait. It wasn’t long before I had an audience. I motioned them closer then proceeded to start a fire. I withdrew some char from the cup and put it in the nest. Next came the impressive part. I stroked sparks off of the rod and onto the char. When I saw a glow I picked up the lot of it and started blowing on it. Once I had it smoking you could have heard a pin drop. Then it burst into fire. I set it under the match wood and started carefully piling on twigs. When they were healthily burning the squaw wood went on. Magic. Instant fire. I saw a ring of saucer-sized eyes looking at me. It was almost worship.

It wasn’t as impressive, but then I showed them how to use a pebble and a piece of cord to make a tie-out on a tarp corner. Next, I gathered some char into the cup from the pile, capped it and gave it to the closest raccoon. He did a little nodding thing, then grabbed the knife and rod from the pile and hauled ass. The rest of them cleaned up the rest of the goods. I figured that I’d gotten done what I wanted. I unlocked the shed and propped open the doors before I put out the fires and packed my gear.

Back home I took a shower, changed my clothes and ate a good dinner. I planned to go back the next night with more lessons.

Before leaving the house I set a big kettle of fish and potato stew to cooking. Using a little pocket axe with a slide-in haft I chopped down an armful of tall, springy growth next to a swamp. Back at the clearing I drew an eleven-foot circle with my toe then cleared out all the rocks and roots from inside it. Next I sharpened the big end of a dozen of my whips. Those got buried about six inches into the ground. Then I started using short lengths of twine to bend them over and tied them into the shape of a dome, as is done for a wickiup. The whole thing was about seven feet tall with a four foot high by two foot wide door. That was as high as I could comfortably work and still give me some headroom. Then I wove and tied the rest of the whips around the frame in hoops to make a solid structure that I could climb on. I left it at that stage. I figured that I’d need eight ten-by-ten canvas sheets to cover it and make my bed.

Next I cut four sticks six feet tall about an inch in diameter. I found two slender trees growing about four feet apart at one side of the clearing. Ten feet away I pounded two of the sharpened stakes with forks in the top a foot into the ground. I tied the third stick waist-high between the trees, then tied lengths of line to that stick in pairs, long enough to reach a foot beyond the two poles. I tied knots in the strings just inside the stick as well. There were six pairs of string. More sticks were pounded into the ground between the two uprights until I had six equally spaced poles. A string from each pair was tied to each pole at waist height. The last stick had the remaining strings tied to it, evenly spaced to match the already tied-off lines. There. I had a mat loom. I gathered several arms full of grass and cattail fronds. I started making a mat. Once I got a couple feet done I stopped, went back to my house for the tarps I’d need and came back with a bucket of clean water and a filled canteen. The day had warmed up considerably. I wanted to keep a supply on hand to drink.

When I finished one mat I started another. My audience showed up before dinner time. They watched me tie off and cut free the second mat. Then I tied long cords to two corners of seven tarps and short cords to the other two corners. I tied down the bottoms to the frame and threw the cords across the top, anchoring them so that they overlapped a bit at the bottom. All the cords were tied down at the opposite sides from their tarps. It left a hole over the center of the top. I folded a tarp over twice to make a door. I gestured for them to wait while I hoofed it back home to pick up the kettle, a dozen wood bowls and a dozen wood spoons. They sniffed appreciatively when I showed up with dinner. I used one bowl as a ladle to dish up the stew for everyone. There were eight raccoons there of unknown gender. They carefully watched as I picked up a spoon and took a mouthful. I thought that it needed a little salt. I sprinkled a smidge into everyone’s bowl, including mine. Then I dug in, followed quickly by everyone else. They were hungry buggers. They emptied the pot!

After dinner I motioned for everyone to keep their bowls and spoons. I spread out the mats inside the wickiup and motioned everyone inside. I brought in a fire bundle and started a small fire in the cleared center. There was about a four foot hole over the center so the smoke didn’t hang around. Still, it was a lot warmer in there than one would expect from such a dinky fire. The walls made great reflectors. Even with the door off and the bottom unsealed I was sweating. I damped down the fire with a couple hands full of dirt.

I motioned with my hands the shape of a dome, then tapped the walls around us. Then, after tapping one of the mats I held up one hand splayed out like the dome and covered up a portion with my other palm. “Ne?” Next I tapped a mat and covered part of the inside of the dome shape with my other hand. I took some cord in my hand and made an in-and-out motion between my fingers. “Ne?” They chattered among themselves animatedly. This was good stuff. It would keep the rains out and the heat in during the winter, and stay cool during the summer heat. I covered the dome model of one hand over the top with my other, then faked coughing like crazy. “No! Ne?” I motioned rocking a small one in my arms, then peering at it and crying out, then digging a hole and burying it. “No! No! No!”

I motioned to one of them to come close. I held up my hand to open and close my fingers, then motioned him to do the same as I watched. I opened and closed my thumb, and he did too. I picked up a stick about twice the size of my finger. I tugged on it with both hands, then held it out to him. He tugged on it. He had quite a grip. I nodded. He let go. I set down the stick between us and dug out my little hatchet. I cut one end off of it, showing how to cut from one direction, then the other. I handed it to him. He weighed it in his hand, took a grip and whacked that mother in two pieces. I grinned. He seemed pretty damned happy himself. I tapped the axe then waved my finger across the crowd. I tried to make it plain that I’d have more axes the next day. I returned home in the rapidly fading light.

I couldn’t teach them to mine placer copper or bog iron. The humans had exhausted those resources put down by asteroids over the millennia. The foundry could make a few thousand axes, knives, shovels, buckets and cups. With that and enough cordage I could probably advance them a few thousand years. I wanted to get them into gill net fishing and agriculture.

They had puny little arms. I doubted that a thrown spear would ever amount to much with them. I’d have to try them out on an Atl-atl. It gave more leverage. So did a stick-thrown net.

Come morning I put in an order for forty pocket axes with tapered round holes that would accept a slide-in haft and forty frog gigging spear heads. The display gave me a projection of five hours. The spider bots had worn a trail between my home and the closest city site. They were mining the detritus for metal oxides, transporting thirty kilos at a time. The machines couldn’t work without raw materials. The RPV was sent out by the ship occasionally to search for more resources. There was a tiny ship’s gig that near-continuously went out laden with nanites and returned with ingots of metal. The thing was building a cache of resources based on its extrapolation of my current demands. Damned smart ship.

A bit after noon I assembled a travois to move that damned heavy crate out to the glade. It was about 3/4 of a mile from my home. The axe heads were devilishly sharp. Each one was about a pound in weight and had a hammer poll. The 19 inch hafts were made of a high-temperature plastic that wouldn’t deform even if you left one in the fire.

I found a group of the raccoons in the clearing examining the mat loom and the frame of the wickiup. I shifted the crate off of the travois and stood it up against a tree. The travois gained instant attention. I heard them talking among themselves and looking at the crate. I opened the thing up and motioned for everyone to indulge. I got a lot of curious looks when the frog gigging heads came out. I cut a slender sapling about my height and trimmed one end to fit the socket on the gigging head. I screwed it in firmly and gave it a good tug to make sure it was seated. Then I did it all over again with a four-foot sapling and handed it to the closest candidate. I motioned ‘follow me’ and headed off to the closest stream with a parade of giant raccoons trailing behind. I stripped off my shorts and gingerly waded into the stream, motioning for the other to follow me.

We were surrounded by fair sized fish. I took careful aim, adjusting for the diffraction, and quickly jabbed through where I expected the fish to be. I retrieved a fine wiggler! I threw it up on the bank and did it again. Pretty soon my partner was giving it a go. He quickly became frustrated. I showed him how the water moved the image. He got the idea and was soon harvesting a fishy crop himself. After taking ten or so I called it quits. Back on shore I crawled into my shorts and set about cleaning the fish. I left on the scales, but headed and gutted them. Then, with a small piece of canvas from my bag, I made a pouch to hold dinner. We trooped back to camp, where I started a fire and gathered springy green wands. I propped open each fish with two heavy twigs, then ran the longer wands between the spine and the twigs to hold them above the fire. A couple logs placed around the fire pit and some stones served to hold the fish over the coals for us. After a bit it started to smell very good. I took one down to check but the flesh wasn’t firm enough yet, so it went back on the heat. Meanwhile we fanned out to find leaves to hold our dinner.

When the fish were done I carefully pulled them off the fire and, one by one, cut the flesh down the spine and pulled away the slabs of meat, one per person. I sprinkled on a bit of salt and passed them out to many appreciative noises. I had to admit, the freshly-caught fish tasted wonderful. The remains of the meal were disposed of in the quickly-rebuilt fire. After dinner I walked over to the mat loom. I gestured at where it hit my body to make it comfortable to use. I spent perhaps an hour making one sized for the raccoons. I threaded it, showing them how to tie it and where to knot the lines. A couple of the more adventurous members proceeded to make a pretty respectable mat in about a half hour. I showed them the overhand knot I’d used to tie off the mat and how I left the strings long to tie it with afterwards. Then I rolled it up and presented it to the team.

My next demonstration was one of maintenance. I took one of the canvases off of the wickiup and tied it off with a couple saplings to make an overhead shelter. I retrieved one of my mats and looked around for a smooth rock. I sat down cross-legged and began making slow, careful strokes with the stone against my axe head. It really didn’t need it, and probably wouldn’t for a week or two of constant use as they were made of a damned fine steel. However, I needed to teach a lesson. Even if I screwed it up, that was all right too. After a half hour of mindless repetition I found that I’d done a decent job after all. I cut down a six-inch standing dead tree and dragged it to the camp. Then I cut two four foot lengths and hewed one side flat on each. I used stakes to hold them stacked on top of each other, flat to flat. Then I added fire starting material between them and propped them apart by an inch or so with green branch segments. I made motions as if I were setting the kindling on fire. Then I motioned to the wood making up the faces and the coals. They got the idea that it would be a long-lived fire. I got up, waved and headed back to my home for the evening. I was due for an appointment with supper.

I had but four more things to show them that I regarded as important. I planned to demonstrate all four the next day. I started the factory making a crate full of thousand-foot spools of line. They would need it.

Quite early the next morning I used a travois to haul that crate to the clearing. I took out a spool of line then left it open for the raccoons to take. I strung a cord between two trees with a ten foot span. Then I cut thirty foot lengths of cord, found the center of each and tied it around the suspended cord with a simple lark’s head knot. I tied one every two inches. Then I became a knotting machine. The net quickly took shape. When the active row was too low to work on comfortably I ran a peeled sapling through a row above it, then tied it higher on the tree. By two in the afternoon I had finished the net. I braided a heavier line together and tied it to the top row, then did the same at the bottom. Both braided lines had ten feet of extra cord hanging off the ends. I tied small stones to the bottom cord. It was a pretty bit of work. My hands were sore! It was a good thing my next task was easier to accomplish. I constructed a small wickiup that was completely covered in canvas. Within I strung several strong saplings near the top, horizontally. Then I set up a small fire in the center but didn’t start it yet.

I cheated by having had the factory make me a half-dozen six-inch steel arrow heads--sharp arrow heads with flat tails. I cut six foot withes--springy and uniform, about a half inch in diameter. They were a bit big, but would work. Next I fashioned a thrower. I split the end, slid a piece of rawhide boiled in oil into the slot and bound the shaft together again. Then I carved a cup into the base and reinforced it with more twine. I went hunting.

A yearling buck red deer fell to my Atl-atl. I brought it back to camp, cleaned it, skinned it and quartered it. I used nothing more than my hatchet and knife. Then, using cord wrapped around the hooves I hung the quarters in my smokehouse and lit the fire. I covered it with sheets of bark to make it smoke like crazy then sealed up the door. Only a couple raccoons had shown up that day. They carefully followed what I was doing. I motioned that the thrower should be as long as their fore-arms. The darts should be a bit taller than they were.

The next task took some dexterity. I wove a basket out of twisted grass. I did a pretty credible job seeing as I hadn’t done one in over eight thousand years.

I broiled the tenderloins to share out for dinner then we slept in the wickiup. In the morning I went down to the stream with my followers and showed them how to use the seine net. They were amazed at how many fish could be caught in a matter of minutes.

I filled my water bucket then looked for chert. I smacked a likely looking sample with the poll of my hatchet and it fractured cleanly. I showed them how smooth the fresh surface was. Then I carefully stroked off a big flake. I passed it around, then showed how sharp the edge was by cutting some reeds. I took my blank back to the camp site and let them deal with the fish. We had fish for lunch. One of them ran off to get help to deal with the bounty. I’d not seen that many raccoons in one place before. The entire village must have turned out.

I sat myself down with a deer tine, a canvas to cover my leg, my hand axe and the chert blank. I snapped off several more large flakes then began roughing them into arrow heads. Big arrow heads--ones sized for an Atl-atl. I had to strike them to get the base form right then pressure flaked the edges

That was it. I didn’t have much more in my repertoire to show them. Oh, I knew some stupid simple things like how to use a blow pipe to burn out a drinking cup or a bowl from a tree burl, or how to scrape out a spoon with a piece of flaked chert. I’d seen a man make and fire a pit kiln to make black-ware pottery. I could teach them about bees. I could even teach them the benefits of life in a tipi, but all those were simple refinements. I’d leave them alone for a while and see how much they retained. If my lessons didn’t fall on fertile soil then that was the end of the experiment. We’d have to see.

I tended to my own business for the next few years. I was never bored as the ship’s library was always available to me. I occasionally saw a raccoon at the edge of the woods watching me. I ignored them.

I realized that I’d be pestered nigh to death by the raccoons once the next generation was old enough. I decided to move. I instructed the ship to prepare for moving to another location. Since it was a non-emergency the computer requested two weeks to transfer resources to the ship’s holds. I saw nothing to argue with. I spent the time searching out anything that I would miss. There wasn’t much. I instructed the ship to prepare several geosynchrononous weather satellites to deploy in an equatorial orbit, then descend at the south end of Victoria Island of the old Canadian province of British Columbia. If the China Current still ran then the climate would be marvelous, the fishing would be grand and the sights outstanding.

The move itself was entirely unremarkable. It’s amazing what dependable technology will do for your capabilities.

The ship positioned itself over the old city of Nanaimo so that it could harvest high quality metal oxide deposits. In short order the ship established a salvaging operation across the straight to the mainland, where the city of Victoria once stood. I’d long come to the conclusion that whoever programmed the resource acquisition software into the ship was a hoarder, and somehow infected the ship’s routines with that tendency.

After firming up my housing requests the ship’s computer came up with a sub-surface design built something like a child of an ammunition bunker and a Quonset hut, made out of a carbon fiber replacement for fiberglass sandwiched with foamed silicon for an insulation and strengthening media between the layers. The exposed doorway came out onto a covered patio that faced the inner harbor. There wasn’t a straight line anywhere. It was phenomenally comfortable and attractive.

The woods had re-taken the island. I spent many a fine week tramping over hill and dale, exploring and enjoying myself. I never really got tired of it, but as a diversion I fished off of a hard-surfaced jetty that the spiders built for me.

With the ship’s help I started another garden and an orchard. I decided that a good, contemplative hobby would be wine-making. I started a few acres of grapes--the ship only had the genetics for a few varieties. I had Malbec, Gamay, Trollinger and Muscat lines. I saw nothing wrong with planting an acre or two of each variety on different hillsides.

I had a dialog with the ship’s computer about establishing micro gravity refineries at Terra’s near Lagrangian points. Using the new reactionless drive, metal bearing masses could be brought in from the asteroid belt or from around the gas giants. Then, repeated use of Terra’s gravity well could be used to modify the asteroid’s orbital vector by repeated use of the inertialess drive, somewhat like half of a slingshot maneuver.

I had an ulterior motive for wanting all four nearest Lagrangian points populated. We could hide high-velocity missiles within the masses of the foundries. We could also put missile emplacements on the Jovian and Saturnian orbital habitats. We’d have to evaluate if it was worth the effort to put missiles on the mining facilities orbiting Mercury. Man had developed low baud rate Qbit communications for near-instantaneous messaging between the Jovians and Terra. This could be used to contact and control missile batteries at the fore and rear Lagrangian points. They resided at the distance of Terra to the moon ahead and behind her--sixty degrees of Terra’s orbit each--quite a distance. That gave us a light speed delay of less than two seconds. Once we started considering the outer planets those numbers went up rather dramatically. Quantum entanglement communications was as close to instantaneous as we could measure and directionless--the controller could not be located by an opposing force, but the engineering issues were pretty fierce.

Who knew what was out there. Just because I didn’t find anything didn’t mean diddley squat. My data sample was a statistical blit with near-zero significance.

Interstellar travel was expensive! Without significant economic benefits nobody would do it. As far as I was concerned, if someone made the effort to travel to another star they’d be willing to extract that benefit by any means necessary. I wanted a sound defense in place to counter such an attempt.

Make no bones about it, such a fallback didn’t have to be used, but its existence would give Terra a--umm, bargaining point.

Raising this point satisfied a series of conditions built into a very, very old A. I. hidden deep within the system. A defensive system started taking shape.

The ship’s chip manufactory became controlled by an extremely complex program. A front-end processor designed to maintain communications with over two to the sixteenth Qbit strings was built, then a massive array processor slowly took form that was designed to monitor an enormous volume of space--over two light years in diameter centering on Sol.

A reclamation and factory complex took shape over where Las Vegas used to be, then another feeder reclamation center was built over old Reno and yet another over the military aircraft graveyard. The spiders pumped the alkali dust and dirt of the desert into another dedicated manufacturing device that pumped out rockets designed to deliver observation platforms. The rockets weren’t that big--they’d be launched from orbit, powered by the ship’s shuttle. The sensor platforms were destined for the far edges of the Oort Cloud.

A deep cave was constructed to keep the ship safe, several thousand meters deep into the granite upthrust that made up Vancouver Island. The ship’s thermal signature was masked by digging shallower tunnels that connected to the frigid water of the bay. The tide circulated the water. Hot spots could not form. Any thermal anomalies faded into the statistical background provided by the local geothermal activity.

I was kept abreast of this enormous spasm of construction. Without the ship’s ability to spawn off sub-processors that were able to take over delegated tasks the ship itself could never have completed its projects in a timely fashion.

Personally, I dug into the math and engineering of the reactionless drive. I saw some limitations and odd structures built into the hardware design. I had a couple constructed bypassing said limitations and fired it off towards Sol. I found out why they were in place. The thing went runaway and refused to shut down before running out of fuel. However, it developed several nines of C before it immolated itself in the solar photosphere. Wow. It was a crummy solution for a transportation device, but one hell of a missile engine! The ship incorporated these changes into its missile design, even re-purposing the missiles already built as raw materials for the new engine generation. They didn’t need fission or fusion warheads. All they needed was a dense penetrator in the nose. Several depleted uranium rods served as the payload.

The missiles were designed to be deployed in one of two ways--as fire and forget interceptors or as mines, wherein the engine would operate in normal mode and the outer case of the missile was covered by a sheath of shorter penetrators and a small bursting charge designed to distribute the penetrators in a ring about the projected path of a high-velocity opposing force, then the engine would go into runaway mode and go on to target the enemy’s RF emissions If the opposing ship attempted to deviate from its head-on path then there was a high degree of probability that it would run into the mine field. The laws of physics restrict the degree to which a ship can turn when traveling near C, both making minefields feasible and avoiding them once detected nearly impossible.

The ship already had implemented the algorithms for navigation near the speed of light. That’s what got me there and back again during my own journeys. A simplified version running on a very fast processor along with four sensors sufficed as the guidance system for the missiles. Rather than use a chancy optical or RF based sensor we went with a gravitic defect sensor. A percentage of the missiles had Qbit links to each processor for more intelligent use, such as for time-on-target defense overloading. In this mode missiles could be parked in unexpected places and called up on demand.

The missile production facilities were distributed across the Lagrangian points. Metallic asteroids were shepherded into place and solar foundries sublimated the fractions off which were caught by EM fields. These feedstocks along with lighter elements such as boron silicates from the American desert south west went into the thousands of missiles. Each one was perhaps 3.5 meters long by a meter in diameter. I inquired of the ship how many were to be produced. I was appalled at the answer--sixty thousand missiles per installation in twelve installations. How the hell was the ship going to keep up with a preventative maintenance schedule for almost 3/4 of a million missiles?

The answer was simple minded. The missiles would be fed back through the manufacturing process on a schedule to be determined by the experienced rate of attrition. I liked it. The solution was both adaptive and distributed. The missiles would be staged closer to the factories as they aged, thereby eliminating most of the problems of shuttling them back and forth, a decided potential weak spot if it were all centralized.

I was satisfied that I could go into hibernation and not wake up with the damned planet covered in missiles due to a runaway command set.

I was amazed that after all that industry the island looked untouched. It had been over two hundred and seventy years in the making but the solar system’s defense network was ready. I asked the ship if it had any more surprises for me like that. It said that it honestly didn’t know. Sigh. Shades of HAL 9000.

I woke from my rejuvenation fresh and full of energy. I think the ship gave me a swift kick in the endocrine glands just before waking me. Anyway, I was in a good mood and starving for a meal. I could smell the bacon, eggs and waffles ready for me in the ship’s galley. I shook my head as I made my way forward. The ship sure knew how to cater to a guy. After a wonderful meal I was happy and satiated. The ship then did something unusual.

“Eric, I must inform you of matters that occurred while you slept. We had an incursion by what I believe to be an interstellar mapping expedition. Rather than expose our capabilities I allowed them to leave without revealing our presence. Also, the raccoon folk have found your new homestead.”

“What! How did those little buggers get half way around the planet?”

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