Awakening

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Awakening

Postby LilJennie » Fri May 19, 2023 8:53 pm

Miki and I have been collaborating for a long time now! This is our latest.

Awakening

By: Miki Yamuri and Jennie Flint

Darkness parts as light registers on my mind. I open my eyes and close them again tight. The light around me seems bright, and it hurts my eyes. I wait and slowly open them so they have time to adjust. I know the experiment must have been a success, because I’m alive.

I feel the vibrations as the seal at the end of the suspension tube opens and the tray I’m lying on slides out. There is thick mist all around me for a bit until it dissipates. I lie still, expecting someone to come and check on me. Time slowly passes; it gets to be a while, and no one has come.

I know something is wrong, but am still very groggy and disoriented. I sit up and look around. The area I’m in is well lit. The control area is as well. Outside the windows surrounding the control center, everything is blacker than black. I hear only the tweedles and clicks of whatever equipment is operating, nothing human.

I start to remember. The assistants were supposed to bring me out, wake me up, run tests. Dorothy, Jim, Alex. Where are they? Nowhere to be seen. The darkness outside the windows is disconcerting. I should be seeing daylight, or at least stars in the distant sky. Not … nothing.

I try to stand up, and find my legs wobbly. My head spins. I sit back down. Think. How could there be nothing but darkness? Then I remember. The emergency lockdown shutters. This lab was built and used for other experiments before mine. It was designed to protect the rest of the building from any accidental release of toxins or radiation from the experiments.

I’m confused. Was there a release of radiation or poisonous chemicals? This experiment doesn’t produce anything like that.

And then I realize something else. What released me? Only the low-power failsafe can do that. But the power comes from the reactor … and that’s good for thousands of years.

Thousands of years ...

And the power’s low enough to set off the failsafe. It’s also the only way to raise the lockdown shutters. I have to get up and open those. If the reactor fails completely, I’ll be trapped in here unless I can get at least one of the shutters open.

I get off the table, not caring that I can barely stagger across the room to the control panels. Power levels are dangerously low. I set the system to raise one of the lockdown shutters, the one nearest the main entrance. There’s a low, languorous hum, and outside the lab windows, I see a sliver of light appear near the ground as the shutter slowly rises … one inch … two inches … I struggle over to shove some empty gas canisters under each end of the shutter once they’ll fit.

The power finally gives out after raising the shutter about twelve inches. If not for the junk I just shoved under it to hold it up, it’d be slamming back down right now. But now I’ve got about twelve inches to squeeze through if I ever want to get out of here.

And I don’t want to stay in here, I remember … I don’t know what the oxygen supply is like after thousands of years, and there’s no food in the lab anyway. I awkwardly lie down on the tile floor and try to slide under the shutter. It’s tons of solid steel, so I really don’t want to dislodge any of the makeshift supports holding it up. I make it through to find …

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I stand in total eye popping mouth opened shocked incredulity. Nothing is as I remember in any way. The main administration part of the facility is ... gone. Only because I remember the layout of the building can I sort of tell where it used to stand. It’s more than obvious that many centuries have passed since whatever happened … happened.

A huge … I don’t really know for sure, but it looks like a large misshapen oak, is growing out of the location where one of the main office areas used to be. The foliage is thick and carries the scents of many flowering things.

A chill runs up my spine as I also hear some nasty nearby rumbling growls of some large critter.

I hold out my arms and look down at myself. I’m wearing the form-fitting shorts and T-shirt from the suspension tube. Basically barefooted, in a T and shorts, I need real clothes. I turn and look at the small gap beneath the door. The growling noises, closer still, give me courage as I slide back into the control center. For no other reason than habit, and to my good fortune, I shut the outer door.

I know where the facilities clothing storage is and start in that direction, when I notice a blinking green light. The screen above its console reads, “Emergency Solar Power Array.” I push the green button.

Almost immediately, the exterior shield doors slide slowly up as the arrays restore at least some power to what is left of the facility. I sit at the console and bring up a diagnostic of the solar arrays. From what the data says, all of them are luckily still in peak condition, and the emergency battery storage is at 99%, 1% having been used to raise the isolation doors and unlock the facility. I now have full admin access to the computer systems … those that are left and still function, that is.

I check on storage inventory in the database – if it’s survived whatever time has passed, I should be able to find almost anything I’ll need. I’m in luck – I even find weapons storage, ammunition, and an entire selection of survival gear. The last date listed for the large gathering of the stores and other supplies and materials is 3 months after my experiment began. All new data entries end 3 days after that entry. I feel a horrible shock run through me when I see how long ago that was … I’ve been asleep for two thousand years.

I access the facility’s admin logs under the historical documents. As best I can determine, my experiment was going well and the space administration was poised to make a multi-trillion dollar investment. My experiment was proving to be so successful so far that they were going to use my stasis device and send a manned crew to Alpha Centauri. The new nuclear engine, after initial vehicle speedup and slowdown upon system arrival, would have taken them there in about six years.

About that time, I hear a very loud thumping crashing noise, accompanied by loud animal shrieks of pain. I turn quickly; what I see I really have no description for. The critter might have mutated from some kind of large predatory cat. I can plainly see that the critter sprang at me and hit the closed glass door. The blood splatter on the explosion proof Lexan tells the tale well.

The critter stands up and wobbles all around while its nose bleeds profusely. It looks at me with ferocious eyes as it snarls loudly, then springs away into the foliage. A feeling of relief runs through me as I thank habit for making me close the door. This would have turned out much worse if I didn’t.

I go from there to clothing storage. Fortunately, all the outfits are vacuum sealed and have survived the long storage. I put on the armored battle uniform and the combat boots. I also find a tactical helmet, although many of its feeds are inop due to the lack of signals from the long-defunct satellites. I am impressed that the power belt is still charged too.

I go back to the computer console and do a bit of research. I discover that what is left of the facility has equipment that works, and I can assign that to the missing helmet functions. Of course, it’s all line of sight with what’s left of the facility, but it’s a whole lot better than not having it.

My next stop is weapons storage. If I’m going to have to contend with creatures like the one I just encountered, I need a good weapon.

My codes let me into the weapons locker, but I immediately see a problem. The firearms are regulation stored and are somehow still in good condition, but the issue is the ammo. It’s designed to have over 20 years of shelf life, but it’s been in here 100 times that long. I pick out an N662-GX rifle, go through its cleaning and maintenance procedure, and as a test I manually chamber a round, step out of the room, aim at a distant table down the hallway, pull the trigger … and nothing. The primer isn’t igniting the powder. The ammo’s no good.

I’m not finished yet, though. There are other options. I’ll just have to start over. I carefully put the rifle away, so anyone who finds this place will have to do what I just did – no telling whether they’ll be friendly. Next, I find some good old low-tech weapons, like knives and machetes. Packed away like this, there’s barely even any corrosion on the blades. Then I search for and find the next best thing; there are some carbon fiber compound bows. With one of these and a supply of arrows, I’ll still be a threat to those critters and whatever else might come my way.

Then there’s the really high-tech stuff. The 363LE particle pulse rifle is highly dependent on its power core, but it’s nuclear powered and supposed to be good for thousands of years, but it’s new – or it was new 2000 years ago – and a lot of the old guard didn’t really trust this type of weapon. We’ll see.

I get one out, go through its startup procedure, and find that it’s actually still functional. No need for ammo, but it can’t fire more often once every five seconds or so, because it has to build up a charge in its capacitor. But its electronic targeting reticle lights right up and shows ready. I step out and fire at the table at the other end of the hallway. It splits in half with a sound like it’s been hit by a car. Now we’re talking.

I glance at my partial reflection in a window and pause. I’ll have a hard time convincing anyone I’m a scientist and not a soldier looking as I do. Diplomacy might be difficult – but then I don’t know whether there’s anyone around to be diplomatic with. The mutant cat is the only thing I’ve seen so far, and it didn’t look like the type to listen to reason.

Kitted out with a machete, some combat knives, the bow, a quiver of arrows, and the nuclear pulse rifle, I feel a lot better about encountering hostile enemies, but then there’s the question of surviving the elements. Water purification, food, and cooking … I spend some time looking for rations that might actually survive and camping gear that might still be functional.

This was a research facility, not a military base. It had military grade security, though, because of the top-secret projects going on here, not all of which I know about, even now that they’re all over and done with. So there are weapons and defenses, but no supplies for assaulting the surrounding countryside.

What happened? There was some news, I remember, about peace talks breaking down with some rogue nation halfway around the world, but I didn’t pay it much attention, because peace talks are always breaking down with rogue nations.

Was it one of the ones with nuclear weapons? Whatever happened, it started happening just days after I was placed in cold sleep. And the shield doors dropped … meaning that the instruments detected radiation in the lab. A nuclear blast within line of sight could set them off, but of course I was inside the cryo chamber, so I was further shielded, and then the doors came down.

So there’s the possibility that there’s a nuclear blast crater somewhere within a few klicks. There might be residual radiation, too, after only 2000 years. Well, the tactical helmet does have a Geiger counter reading, so I make sure it’s visible. It seems a tad higher than normal background, but not much, and it varies as I move. I’m not going to get radiation sickness anytime soon, at least not here, but I’ll have to keep an eye on it. Wherever the blast happened, I don’t want to go in that direction.

Probably time to go out and see what can be seen. The light looks like it’s afternoon, but it’s hard to be sure. I make my way to the main doors and step out, listening carefully for those growling sounds I heard before – or anything that might indicate I’m not alone here.

I have to find out whether I’m the last human being on Earth. Is the human race extinct? If not, does civilization survive, or has it reverted to barbarism? Or maybe we’re actually more advanced than when I went to sleep? I don’t know what I’ll find. Before tonight, maybe nothing.

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I haven’t gone far before I see some type of creature just the other side of a stand of foliage in a small clearing beyond. I crouch down, brace my bow, and slowly remove an arrow from the quiver at my side. I’m not real sure what type of creature this is, either. It kind of looks like a large deer of some sort. Fortunately the breeze is blowing my direction, so any scents are going away from my quarry. To my joy, I also see a small stream and a pond behind the critter. If it isn’t contaminated, I now have water.

I slowly draw the string to my cheek. I shoot a 75 pound recurve bow for fun, so this is easy peasy. I relax the three fingers holding the string, the soft sound of the bowstring singing as the creature jumps, only to stumble and fall over with the arrow sticking out just behind its shoulder.

I approach the creature and insure it’s dead before I come up to it. I don’t want a critically injured animal attacking. I smile; this has to be a future kind of deer. The first thing I do next is return to the Control Center several times to collect containers to hold water. I now have enough water to hold me for a few days. I’ll be testing it first, though, as best I can.

Next, I pick the critter up and sling it over my shoulder, being careful not to get bloody. The animal is heavy, and I’m still kind of weak from the stasis and the other trips for water. The trip back to the research facility is hard, but I stubbornly make it with tonight’s supper.

After resting for a bit and testing the water for pathogens or contaminants that it apparently doesn’t have, I go to the storage locker and retrieve one of the large charcoal grills. I don’t need charcoal; there’s plenty of long-neglected and forgotten deadfall.

Eviscerating this critter is exactly like every other deer I’ve ever hunted. I place a large cooler beneath the critter after I hang it up to catch. Cooking it over a wood fire not only smells wonderful, but the meat tastes great too. I even found some salt and a few other spices held in the vacuum storage. To my great delight, they survived the ravages of time.

I do notice several predatory critters that come to the edge of the clearing, but they only watch me intently while I clean, salt, and stretch the hide. Perhaps they don’t want to intrude – or perhaps they realize that I’m another predator. I’m sure I’ll have a use for this creature’s hide sooner than later. His meat was very tasty.

I take the offal to the edge of the intact concrete right at the foliage line and dump it on the dirt. Shortly after I return to my cooking operation, two of the large catlike creatures and two small kitten-sized ones apparently of the same species come timidly up to the pile. As I watch them, they warily watch me back. I can tell that they’ve met someone similar to me and respect them, but don’t fear them.

They begin to eat all the while suspiciously watching me. When they’re done, the largest of the group, which I assume is the male, seems to stand and look at me as the others slink silently off into the thick foliage.

Once the other three have seemingly vanished, the larger one makes the strangest errking sound as it flips its tail at me several times, then it too vanishes into the thick greenery. I’m slightly amazed. From my perspective, the large critter appears to have thanked me, shown gratitude, or both before leaving.

After I get a really good drink of water and eat my fill, I sit down at the computer terminal in the control room and open the facility’s floor plan. To my sheer surprise, there’s more complex below ground than used to be above, and it’s all TOP SECRET U.S. MILITARY. I also include the original experiment chambers where I’ve been doing my stasis suspension research.

From what I can see around the blacked-out sections, at least one of the areas is actually still in operation. It has its own RPS power source. It’s a neatly designed Stirling engine that only has 1 moving part, the sodium salt piston. All it needs is a temperature differential, and it will produce power. Since no moving parts made any kind of friction, means no wear, I might not be alone after all. Now all I have to do is find the entrance to the hardened below-ground part of the facility.

A lot of the floor plan is blacked out with TOP SECRET bars, but there are only a few places where an entrance could be, so I set out to have a look at the most likely spots with my own eyes. Back in the day, meaning when I came in to work on what seems like yesterday to me, there was a checkpoint with armed soldiers at the entrance to Hallway 1-7, so I figure I’ll check that one first. I doubt there are still soldiers, but if there somehow are, that’ll also answer the question of whether I’m alone here.

I descend the stairs to Level 1, and it’s getting very dark down here. If there is a working generator, nobody’s using it to power these lights, at least. I get out one of the few working bits of technology I’ve found, a flywheel-powered LED flashlight. I crank it up, and it whirrs slightly as I slowly advance down Hallway 1, looking left and right for anything unexpected. I know Hallway 1-7 is on the left, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to the right, ready to jump at me. It’s tense … but nothing happens. If there’s anyone down here, they’re not ambushing me.

At Hallway 1-7, there are indeed still rusty remnants of a gate that was once guarded and opened only for properly identified personnel, but now it swings loose and looks ready to fall apart if anyone even tries to close it. I walk through. Here we go. I’m off the map that I know. What’s down here I have no idea. Military projects, long ago.

The hallway is straight, with offices to the left and right and an occasional small lab, and I see a freight elevator, but it’s where the main hallway is leading that I’m wondering about. If I have my directions straight, I’m walking straight into a hill that the facility was built into the side of.

There’s a pair of double doors in front of me. I open them, carefully, and behind them are stairs going down. They turn at a landing and go down again. I’m definitely off the map now. They end with another pair of double doors; faded signs might once have said “Authorized Personnel Only,” but they’re unreadable now.

The doors aren’t hard to get open; not much remains of their locking mechanisms. But beyond them is a cavernously huge room. I can hear every movement echo off distant walls and high ceiling. My flashlight can’t see how high the ceiling is. I advance carefully forward. There are air currents. At the other end of the room is what appears to be a huge vault door, something like 40 feet high. It would take a huge motor or some kind of winch system to open that.

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Due to the darkness in that particular direction, I notice a small … colored glow that slowly pulses every minute or so. I go over and explore slowly, looking all about me. The only perceptible sounds were from me. I know, I know … but, all that almost out of hearing range buzz is, is my imagination wanting to add something to the slow flashes. I even stop and do everything I can think of to be silent … there are no sounds. In fact, it’s so silent that the darkness seems to be heavy or something.

When I arrive close enough to see, a small panel on a control surface is blinking. I move closer … A label reads: Emergency Solar Interconnect … I open the panel and push the button. I can sort of feel it as power returns to the area. I do sort of jump when the lights flash once then start to brighten, as industrial lighting does. Of course, several of them just have to explode dramatically and fizzle for a minute, just to try and get me to wet my pants … which they almost do.

The area is enormous. Many types of heavy earth moving, mining, and transporting vehicles are stored neatly and easily accessibly to one side in a fenced in area. There’s also farming equipment as well as solar equipment stored in sealed containers that closer inspection proves to be vacuum sealed.

From what I see, this almost has to be one of the many secret stashes of the ARK Program. Perhaps I might even find some sort of seeds, or some type of genetic thing. I know I have the proper equipment in the control center to recombine genetic materials.

After the overhead lighting has fully brightened, and I’ve gotten a really good look around, I know this large place is a huge survival storage center. I can see other locations off in the distance now that the lights have come on, but what is stored in them I can’t tell from here. But a nagging thought remains: I came down here because there’s a circuit somewhere that’s running on its own reactor. This room obviously isn’t it – it didn’t have power before I connected the solar feed. Where’s the reactor, and what’s it powering?

The huge vault door at the end of the room suddenly begins flashing red lights. An irritating buzzer sounds for a minute before there’s a scrunching sound and it stops. The huge door ponderously and slowly opens. Beyond it is what looks like a road of some sort with a railed walkway on both sides. It leads off and down into the bowels of what I know has to be the hill the facility used to sit on.

As I walk down the well lit and paved way, I look at the many crossovers and all the many equipment clusters, which l think look like computer or control centers, and a really strange thought comes to mind and refuses to let go. It’s funny, but once the idea springs into my mind, I can’t let it go. I just know that I was left in stasis with the hope I would live.

I enter one of the offices that looks like a computer room. There’s a circular table with several strange devices built into it. I recognize the power switch. As I flip it, I hope against hope it doesn’t fizzle like some of the lights have done so far.

A strange cloud seems to appear, then within its misty interior, the most crystal clear video display I’ve ever seen runs through a few diagnostic start-up displays, then, in large block letters, a very ornate and leafy logo appears: Reemergence Program.

I run an inquiry search for that program. From the best I could determine, the world was preparing for toe-to-toe nuclear war for a long time. The largest such survival cache was the Arctic Ark. The data says the one I’m in is the one with some kind of very important items that they did their utmost to insure would survive. Now, I also understand the country’s mandate that every child born in the country would have a genetic profile made at birth. It was a hope that cloning might aid post-apocalypse repopulation at some point. The government made many top-secret preparations.

Then I make the discovery of this century. As diplomacy was crumbling and aggressions were spiraling out of control, the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff learned about a scientist who was working on a suspended-animation project and had been in stasis himself for almost a week – me.

Unbeknownst to me, I’d been doing my experiment in a facility where the government had secretly been storing some of its doomsday prep equipment, but once the President and top brass found out, they decided to bring together 1000 volunteers, equally mixed males and females, and put them into hastily-constructed duplicates of my experimental stasis chambers.

They and a lot of genetic data are here in stasis somewhere ... if the equipment is still functioning … and once again I’m thinking about that reactor I haven’t found yet. We’re apparently the sole survivors of the holocaust, and it’s our task to bring humanity back to the Earth if possible.

I look through the most recent historical data logs. From what I can find, the reason I was left and the facility sealed was that several 20-megaton nuclear devices went off 3/4 of a mile from here on the north side of the mountain, where a military combat installation had been constructed. All data entries stopped after that, when most of the above ground facility was atomized.

I can’t believe it. We called ourselves homo sapiens sapiens. Yeah, right, “wise wise man,” with so much wisdom that we totally eradicated our civilization.

I read what the archive tells me about the ever-escalating tensions between two nuclear nations and a small rogue Asian nation that managed to steal a mobile missile launcher and several ICBM type missiles with hydrous warheads.

Once the rogue nation launched one of their missiles and its 14 hydrous warheads hit fourteen locations within one of the larger and far more powerful nations, the fuse that had been lit now caused the keg to go off. Within minutes, the skies and low earth orbit filled with ICBMs. The satellite laser anti-missile shield performed remarkably well, as did Iron Dome, but the overwhelming onslaught was made worse as other nations with nuclear weapons launched.

The entire rogue nation was obliterated under the massive fiery conflagration of many very large nuclear explosions within minutes of their foolish attack. At least 150 mushroom clouds all merged over that area in a huge radioactive funeral pyre as the entire rogue nation was reduced to a deep radioactive ash pit.

Within minutes of that, hundreds more mushroom clouds sprouted all over the surface of the planet. All satellite feeds and radio comms went silent. Massive fires, tremendous destruction, and death ensued.

The data indicates that temperatures and radiation levels outside this testing facility skyrocketed. Radiation levels remained fatally high for many years, although over time it did slowly fall off around the facility to current levels. It’s now higher than what normal background was before this mess, but not fatal.

Data also showed a severe nuclear winter fell over the world for several hundred years after. As I would have expected, as time passed no new data was collected, and what was collected, was spotty and not very helpful.

Since communications lines were destroyed, there’s no data about anywhere else in the world. There were satellites, but the complex’s dishes were blown away. The computer projections based on the locations and strengths of the weapon impacts said that radioactive fallout should have made the world unlivable for higher life forms for centuries at least.

And yet, there are mammalian life forms out there now; I’ve seen them – both predator and prey species. I suppose a high degree of radiation could also increase the rate of mutation; as long as they were still able to reproduce at all, the young would have had a very high amount of genetic diversity.

If any of the populations managed to have genetic traits that helped them survive and reproduce, those traits would have been passed down. In some areas, the war would have massively accelerated the natural evolutionary process. And those new species wouldn’t necessarily have stayed in the same places. The species I’ve seen outside are clearly quite mobile.

But where are the suspended volunteers? There are still a lot of areas to search. I try to find out from the computer, but although I get a more detailed floor plan of this level, there are still a lot of areas that my ID won’t let me access, and some of the data is damaged as well. At least the core programs seem to be functioning properly.

On the blueprint I see a room not too far away that would be large enough for dozens of my stasis chambers, perhaps up to 100. Perhaps some of them are there. I try to call up more information about that room specifically, but all I get is “ACCESS DENIED.”

So I’ll have to go there and look myself, once again. I turn the computer off and go back out into the huge tunnel, whose lights had turned off, but they turned on again once I entered – the system was saving energy by only turning on the lights where motion sensors detected movement.

I continued down the tunnel until I reached the area where the large lab space should be and found a locked metal door. The lock, however, is like the ones I’ve opened on my way to where I am now – corroded, fused metal. Even if I had the key, I doubt it would work. But that meant that the metal is also weakened, and once again with some force I manage to get the door to open.

Inside is the jackpot. Around a hundred metal cylinders, stacked up in racks, each large enough to hold a person, each with a faintly glowing green or red light. This room has its own power source, or all the lights would be red – which would mean that all the units had failed. But most of them seem to show green, meaning continuity of life signs.

But then the ceiling lights flicker and turn red, and an alarm sounds. An automated message blares from decaying speakers. “UNAUTH – AUTH – AUTHORIZED ENTRY – ENTRY. IN – IN – INTRUDER D – DETECTED. SE – SECURITY LOCK – LOCKDOWN – DOWN INITIATED – ATED.” I don’t know how well the security lockdown mechanisms work, but I swear. This isn’t good. Technically I’m not supposed to be here, and this is the most secure part of the facility, so of course it would have the most stringent intrusion countermeasures.

I go to the place that is probably the safest during a security lockdown – the inside of the most highly protected room. I close the heavy metal doors behind me, though they won’t stay closed very well because of the damage I just did to them getting them open. The alarms won’t let me hear whether the stasis machinery is giving off that characteristic hum that I know well, which would tell me whether it’s working. I wait for whatever the security system will do next.

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Time seems to drag on slowly as I wait behind the door. It’s so faint that I almost miss it, but just after the intruder alarm goes off, the faint odor of burnt wires – ozone? – tickles my nose.

I continue to look around the room. A screen plainly displays the words “Security Alert” in flashing white letters on a red background, but there are flickers and artifacts on the screen; clearly the system is badly malfunctioning. I walk to the screen and read the data. Apparently at least one important component of the security system stopped working after 2000 years. It dawns on me how lucky I have thus far been; the equipment I’ve run into so far still seems to be functioning. Is the stasis system all right?

The door lockout on the room I’m now in has failed. I hope this means the other security doors are now open. I also hope nothing else breaks down … at least until I can get the others out of stasis. With some effort, I manage to convince the system that the security alert was just one more of many malfunctions as the system breaks down, and I’m able to access the system again. I inquire about the stasis systems. From what the data now says, the room I’m in is still working, at least. I ask about other rooms, and it tells me that the other rooms are functioning, and also that they’re top secret and don’t exist.

I also noticed that power storage is back up to 100%. The system’s power monitor reports that the solar capture system is performing properly. I also discover that it isn't a solar photovoltaic cell but an exotic thing meant to boil some type of fluid in sunlight and operate yet another sodium piston Stirling engine. Someone gave this a lot of thought and used materials meant to last an indefinite amount of time unmonitored.

I want to know how bad the main reactor system is, so I pull up the diagnostics on the reactor. I’m surprised I even have access to a lot of places I never knew existed until now.

From what I can tell from the diagnostic that runs, the nuclear core is depleted, and the reactor needs refueling, or at least its fuel rods need to be rearranged. That’s an operation I know nothing about nor have any hope of learning in the near future. The emergency solar capture seems to be working adequately for the present, but I’m not sure how well I’ll fare in cloudy weather.

So, what will I do? I have to wake up the sleepers, but there are only about 100 here, out of 1000. The rest must be somewhere else. I decide not to initiate the reanimation sequence until I’ve found where the others are as well. Where are they? I look around and find this level’s entrance to the freight elevator I’d seen on level one.

The freight elevator claims that it’s working. A small tingle of apprehension runs up my spine as the doors open and I peer in. After two centuries, what kind of shape is this elevator really in? I can see the wear from the passage of all that time on most everything around me; what about those things I can’t see … like the security system?

Nope, I won’t be lazy over this. Using the elevator might be fatal until I can really check it over. I go to the stairs and push on the door. Like several other security doors I’ve encountered, it isn’t really locked in place anymore. With all the corrosion, it breaks free from the wall where its frame is mounted and falls over in a cloud of rust, dust, and concrete debris.

I remind myself to remember how much time has actually passed and to take precautions. I enter the stairwell. There are lights, but many of them on the way down are out, and a few even fizzle as I approach. Each sub-level I see over the railing is well lit, although in just as poor and neglected condition as the rest of this facility has been so far.

I find another hallway with another stasis room. This one contains the main stasis control center – finally, some answers about where the rest of the stasis rooms are. When I open the control center’s door, I find several dozen skeletons in military type uniforms, all long dead desiccated mummies. After all the time that has passed and the fact that climate control has kept the temperature about 65 degrees and very dry.

“Thank you for your service,” I mutter in a gravelly, unused voice.

I look at the display panels. From the best I can tell, out of 1000 pods, 10 have failed. From where I’m standing it looks like some type of metal rack failed over the years and fell on them, breaking their seals … bad luck, although the rest show green, and the health monitors show the individuals contained within are doing well. There’s the room I found first, this room, and eight others, each containing about 100 people, and finally there’s a floor plan that isn’t blurred out where things are top secret.

My next thought has to be how we’re going to survive. I can hunt and keep myself alive, but a throng of 1000 … or 991 at least … is another story. We’ll all have to set up some kind of farms … wait, what’s this? Hydroponics complex … I find where that is on the floor plan and go have a look. Some repairs are in order, but the place may work. They must have stored up huge tanks of water and other chemicals, so we’ll have to make sure those don’t run out, but if they planned for this, they’ve got supplies for years at least.

I take a deep breath. All right, I’ve found them; now how do I wake up 990 people? It occurs to me that they would probably all have been briefed and trained on the equipment. If I carefully supervised one person’s awakening, that person and I could then each awaken another, making four, and then we could all each awaken someone … soon there would be 512 of us awake, more than enough to awaken the remaining 479. It could go even faster if everyone awakens two others.

Well … time to meet the first other living human being I’ve seen in 2000 years.

The stasis chambers are all numbered, so I decide to start with number 1, the one nearest the entrance.

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I sit at the master control console and bring up the data on the stasis pods. From what the data says, the individual in pod 1 is a skilled computer and software engineer. In pod 2, it says, is a mechanical engineer.

After reading a bit more, I discover that both of them are excellent physicists along with their listed engineering skills. OK, I suppose two are better than one, I think as I activate the awakening protocols for both pods.

As I wait for the pods to complete their cycles, I peruse the data about the individuals in pods 1 and 2. I want to at least know their names and approximate ages. Pod 1 contains a young 24 year old woman by the name of Jennie Eppics. Pod 2 contains another young 24 year old woman by the name of Michelle DuPree.

If anyone can help get this facility back in top shape, it’s they. I also have serious thoughts about certain replacement parts that I have no means to manufacture, or at least none I have thus far discovered. According to the computer system, there’s a huge vacuum/stasis storage chamber full of supplies, but I haven’t had time to go into the specifics yet. I hope against hope that the supplies, whatever they are, have survived the ravages of time.

The seals on the ends of the stasis pods break. and a cloud of white vapor fills the area for a minute until it dissipates. I raise my eyebrows as I see that both of them are in just their underwear. They must have been placed in the pods in a hurry, if they weren’t dressed in the shorts and top I had designed for the stasis program. Perhaps there hadn’t been time to mass-produce the uniforms.

I walk to the end of the closest pod. The young woman had long red hair and a row of cute freckles across her button nose. Her eyes flutter open. I smile and say softly, “Welcome back to the land of the living. Just relax. The effects of the extended stasis will wear off in a few hours. Lie back and relax. I’ll find you some clothes. I need to check on the other pod.”

Jennie said in a slow sort of gasping way, “Th … thanks. How … how long??”

I pat her on her arm and say softly as I move to the next pod, “We’ll discuss that after you’re awake properly.”

I walk to the next pod, where Michelle has her hand over her eyes. I say equally softly, “Welcome back. Just give your eyes a chance to adjust. It’s been a while. Just lie back and relax; I’m going to get you and the other woman some clothes. Everything’s okay so far, so don’t worry, just recover.”

I see the girls lie back and relax, so I go to storage to get them some clothes, where I find two jumpsuits that should fit them. After they recover a bit more, I’m sure they will want to find something more comfortable, but this should do for now. The jumpsuits fit skin tight and zip up the front. I know there’s more clothing in storage, but I don’t want to leave the girls alone for long.

When I get back, the girls are hugging tightly and sobbing. I come in and ask, “Are you going to be all right? I brought you these jumpsuits for now, but I’ll take you to storage to get something more to your liking after you dress.”

The woman named Michelle whimpers, “Every … everything we knew is gone. A nuclear explosion hit just as I went under. All I remember is the massive shaking and the noise, then waking up.”

Jennie says, “Yeah, they more or less stripped us and hurried us into the pods. There wasn’t any time. What happened to the men in uniforms?”

I reply sorrowfully, “I’m certain the men you’re talking about are dead. I found several dozen skeletons in unforms in the main control room. They’ve been dead for … a good many years.”

Miki looks up with tears in her eyes. “How many years?”

“You won’t believe it.” I reply.

Jennie says, “Tell us, we deserve to know.”

I sigh, then say softly, “It’s been over 2,000 years since the war.”

Stunned, Miki asks, “Are there any other people left?”

I reply, “I don’t have a lot of information. I went outside for a short time but didn’t see any evidence of other people. As far as I know right now, those in stasis and us are it. Everything above ground is … wilderness.”

Miki says as she steps into the jumpsuit and wiggles in, “I hope the data on the weapons and generating device is still intact. The generator would be highly useful.”

I say, “Ok, tell me a bit about it, and I’ll look through the data files and see if anything is there.”

Jennie explains, “Well, first off, we were able to use a controlled detonation to turn hot gas into a plasma filled with racing ions, which converted to electric current. With shock waves accelerating the compressed argon gas to 14 times the speed of sound, the charged ion-filled plasma then passed through magnetohydrodynamic generators to produce electric current up to 212 kilowatts while using 0.26 gallons of gas or 33 ounces. That’s enough power for a burst of energy unlike anything available now in a compact system. If they saved it, we had a working device just before the bombs started falling.”

“That would definitely be a useful system to have online,” I say. “I’ll see whether there’s any data about it. Or, better yet, I’ll see if you can have access so you can look for it. I’m really more of an expert on the stasis systems.”

“Well, it’s good that you were the first one to awaken,” says Michelle, who has expressed her preference for the nickname Miki. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Oh,” I say. “I’m, uh, Dr. Eric Palmintieri.”

“Wait, did you say Dr. Eric Palmintieri?” asks Jennie. “You invented this stasis technology. It really is good that you awoke first. We were in the hands of the world’s best authority on suspended animation.”

“Wow, your bio-temporal interaction work is groundbreaking,” says Miki, “or … uh, it was, in a scientific environment that no longer exists. The human race might have survived thanks to you. Although we can’t assume we’re the only humans left without more information, we can’t assume we aren’t, either.”

“Well, I’m still not sure whether we’re lucky or unlucky,” I say. “Lucky to be alive, I suppose. But I’ve been exploring the compound all day. Before I start getting too tired, I need to get some more of the sleepers awakened.”

“Maybe we should wait until you’re rested,” says Jennie. “Then you can show us the procedure and we can assist you.”

“Well, that was my plan,” I say, explaining my idea.

“Yes, if we do it that way, we’ll be awakening people at an exponentially increasing rate,” Miki says. “But I agree, you can rest. Just get us access to the computer system, and we can work on our areas of expertise, then when you wake up, you can get back to work on yours.”

“You really don’t mind waiting until I’ve had a bit of sleep?” I ask.

“Not at all,” says Jennie. “I mean, this is still disorienting. A chance to gather information might help.”

“Besides,” Miki adds, “we’ve had enough sleep for a while.”

So, after I ensure that the two of them have computer access, we do some foraging in storage and the nearby offices and rig up some at least somewhat decent sleeping arrangements. I sleep … well, fitfully. It’s not the best rest I’ve ever gotten. Part of it is probably stress at the terrible situation that I’m in – possibly responsible for the survival of the entire human race, what’s left of it. Part of it is probably anticipation of what might be facing me when I wake up – waking up all those people with no idea how we’re all going to survive. And part of it might be lingering effects of two thousand years of experimental stasis.

When I wake up, I’m amazed to find a fully functional computer terminal in the office that’s been serving as my bedroom. There was a dusty old keyboard and holo interface there when I went to sleep, but now it’s as good as new. What’s more, the display is showing a fully fleshed out floor plan of the entire complex, with my current location clearly marked, and there’s a message from Jennie.

When I touch the message icon, Jennie’s voice plays. “Dr. Palmintieri, as you can see, I’ve done a bit of digital renovation around the computer system. Miki’s been working on the power systems. The generator was saved, and we’re working on getting it functional, but for now, we’ve made some efficiency improvements in the solar electrical system. Also, we’ve found the hydroponics, but things have grown wild – we definitely need to awaken someone with botany or agronomy experience.”

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I sit at the newly refurbished computer and brought up the list of the hyberculum occupants. I’m very glad to see two of the names on the list. One is Gloria Frinks. She used to be one of the foremost experts in agriculture. Another is Jason Meriks, who specialized in exotic fertilizers and supplemental soil enhancements. Several others spring to my notice, such as John Belani and Clarence Trivaltie, who happened to be pioneers in advanced hydroponic agriculture.

I smile. I’m positive everyone will just love Clarence. They’re a man no one could tell was male without a complete exam. I sit back in my chair and think about it for a bit. This is his perfect chance to be Clairese, his transgender counterpart, in the open.

I know conformation surgery is out, but I also know men have a hidden vagina, and Clarence would love to learn this fact … assuming he doesn’t already know. I’ll be sure to give them the proper counseling, clothing, and instructions. I also know, from some of the list of supplies, there are enough hormones to last them a lifetime, and quite possibly enable them to become a Zwei-Shema … a twin spirit, a male who is more female than male.

Now I have a worry creeping up my spine; as long as things don’t break down and require spare parts, we’ll get along extremely well. I’m capable of living in a primitive way if necessary, although that would be a hard life at first until I gather enough supplies. The rest of the survivors, I’m not sure, and have no clues how well they would survive as a primitive.

I look over some of the other names of those in suspension. I’m amazed; the list is basically a who’s who of the individuals who would be the top choices in reconstructing a civilization.

They knew the world was in serious danger of being destroyed when they manned and supplied this facility. It’s also more than obvious they knew the above ground part of this facility would go away. The thing I know they didn’t count on was the 2,000 years between activating the facility and my awakening.

I make my list of professional agriculturists, including hydroponics, and go off to start the waking process. Shortly, I’ll have another dozen to add to my crew. As soon as we can establish a decent food infrastructure and figure a way to get water to the supply station for this place, we’ll start awaking the rest.

24 hours later

I walk into the large room and stop long enough to marvel. I didn’t ask or even suggest it, but Jennie and Miki have taken it upon themselves to set up a decent conference room. The soft buzz of voices from the 12 sitting here stop, and all eyes are on me.

I walk over to the table acting as the lectern and say, “Good …” That one word booms out loudly, then several loud feedback squeals deafen everyone before I manage to find and turn down the volume. “Sorry about that folks … it’s been a while ... longer than most of you will believe.”

A woman in the back stands and says, “I’m Dr. Margory Hikson, biologist and hydroponics specialist. We all know there was a nuclear war brewing at the time all of us were basically kidnapped and thrown into stasis. Did anyone survive besides us?”

I reply, “I can’t say absolutely for sure. From what data is available, and my short scurryings about outside, nothing above ground remains of the facility, or anything else for that matter, except for the shielded temporal lab and control room. I scouted and hunted about a mile circle around here, and all I found was overgrown wilderness. From what I see, nothing from the small town survived – roads or anything else. We all knew from the beginning this lab was the tip of some kind of military thingy. Good thing for us, it was. As far as how long … get ready for a shock. It’s been 2000 years.”

A loud murmur fills the room as the shock sets in. Dr. Hikson asks with obvious incredulity in her voice, “Why did it take that long? Your main experiment was only supposed to be for six months.”

I say, “I see you know that – I’m flattered that you were following my research. You’re correct, but the break in the chain was the fact that a technician had to manually start the revive cycle. Seems most of them were forcefully taken to a stasis chamber and sealed in. The only thing other than the manual revive cycle that could awaken me was the emergency low power failsafe. The chamber was powered by this facility’s nuclear generator. After 2000 years, its core started to become depleted; the fuel rods need to be rearranged. Once the failsafe tripped … well, it’s how we’re all here now. I found several dozen dead individuals in the main stasis control room. Indications are they died of severe radiation poisoning of one form or another. Saved data indicates they didn’t become irradiated within the facility’s area, so they must have been exposed when they went outside for whatever reason. All I know about the war. According to the surviving archives before the mass bombing stopped all new inputs, data indicates no higher mammals should be able to survive. However, I know this isn’t the case. I’ve seen and hunted some of the critters around here. All communications currently are nonexistent. There’s nothing from the satellites. Getting a signal from them I would find highly unlikely since most of their orbits would have decayed long ago.”

Another individual stands and says, “I’m Dr. Clarence Trivaltie, Hydroponics. Did the hydro labs survive? If so, what kind of condition are they in?”

I look at them, pausing for an instant as my idea from before pops into my head. “The hydroponics labs are undamaged but seriously overgrown, Clarence … or would you prefer Clairese? I think most of us understand your situation, and might I suggest that now is a great time to start over, right when we’re starting our civilization over again.”

A woman sitting next to them says loudly, “Yeah, you can be whoever you want now. No need to keep pretending when it’s either the end of the world or the beginning. Why not be who you are? I don’t think you’re going to offend any of the other women here.”

A murmur rounds the room before handclaps and sounds of support fill the air.

I look at Clairese and say softly, “Sounds like you have plenty of support.”

“Thanks, everyone.” Clairece replies shyly.

I point to a woman in the front row and say, “Lea, could I ask you to escort Miss Trivaltie to the clothing stores after this meeting? Make sure she’s dressed as she prefers to be before taking her back to the hydroponics control center.”

Lea grins and replies with a sharp salute, “Yes, Sir!” The room fills with laughter.

I continue, “To answer your question, Miss Trivaltie, yes, the hydroponics facility is intact. It does need a bit of weeding, and a few minor repairs. From what I’ve seen and the archive data, we should be able to bring it into full production within two months. Of course, we’ll try to cultivate the land around us on the surface to increase the food supply. There are predators, and we may need to keep the grazers out. I will train anyone who needs it in how to shoot a bow. It seems we have a plethora of them, and arrows.”

Miki and Jennie stand up. They have some kind of construct with them. Jennie says, “I found a use for those hides. They make a perfect seal with a bit of the stored fat grease. We built a very nice water pump here.”

Miki says, “I also found some piping in a stasis locker that’s in prime condition. I think there’s enough to reach that water source you mentioned. With this new pump, we can bring water here.”

I clap my hands together and say, “Excellent. Now, I need to warn all of you. Half life on some of the isotopes is over 186 thousand years. There will still be major hotspots. I didn’t find any within a half-mile radius on the surface, but you need to be aware. I do have some detection equipment that works, and I can repurpose others until I can get a few makeshift dishes set up, but with what I do have I’ve got probable locations of several nearby hotspots. Some of the physicists might want to look into this.”

Miki says, “Would it be too much of an imposition to awaken one more person? I want Dr. Thomas Blake. He’s one of those engineers and doctors that can fix a computer, or most anything else, with chewing gum and a tinfoil wrapper.”

I reply, “Under these circumstances, certainly. The only reason I’m not waking everyone up right now is food. I can hunt, but that doesn’t mean I’ll find anything.”

Lea says as she takes Clairese by the hand, “Meet us in Hydroponics. Once I have Little Missy here dressed properly, we’ll be there, and we’ll start seeing what needs to be done to start food production.”

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A short while later, Clairese and Lea return. “You were right, Dr. Palmintieri,” says Clairese, who’s now in a denim gardening dress with an apron whose pockets are full of tools. “The parts supplies Miki found have everything we’ll need to fix the minor problems with the hydroponics systems, so it’s just that and a bit of aggressive weeding, and we’ll be able to grow some veggies.”

“Actually,” says Lea, who’s a botanist, “several of the species growing wild in the hydroponics gardens could be salvaged. Some could be used as vegetables themselves, others as herbs, and a few could even be sources of pharmaceuticals. But then, some are just plain weeds.”

“That’s great,” I say. “I’m more of a medical physicist, so I defer to your expertise, ladies. You’ve done well already. Keep it up!”

“We’ve got Dr. Blake up to speed,” says Jennie; she and Miki have brought a still rather shocked looking man to the conference room. “He thinks he can probably get the necessary information infrastructure online.”

“I’ll do what I can,” he says. “Two thousand years! I have to wonder whether we’re alone.”

“We can start thinking about that once we’re more assured of our survival,” I say.

“Hmm, understood,” he says. “I wonder …”

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Over the next few days, some remarkable developments occur. Dr. Blake gets some radio antennas, satellite dishes, and detector arrays set up and working on the summit of the hill that most of the facility is buried deep beneath. A few others and I had to chase away the local fauna with our weapons, but we got the detection area set up, with cables running straight down through the earth to the facility, and with a nice high fence around the antennas too.

So far we haven’t detected any radio signals, but we’ll wait until nightfall. We certainly don’t want to send out any radio signals ourselves until we know what’s out there first. If anyone capable of receiving radio signals exists out there, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be friendly.

The detector arrays are helping us remotely pinpoint where the radioactive hot spots are, and there are quite a few. That will help us explore safely. We’ll be able to survey them and mark their boundaries on our maps. And the satellite dishes are scanning the skies for anything that’s still broadcasting. It’s unlikely after so long, but who can say? Something solar powered might still be in orbit, though its orbit may have shifted once it ran out of fuel for its attitude control thrusters.

That fencing Miki found is helping us set up our perimeter, inside which we can grow crops. It does seem to be the middle of summer right now, so it may be too late for some crops, but not for others, and our botanists and agronomists can tell us what we can do.

Miki’s also working on some robots – automated tractors for planting and harvesting. Jennie’s working on the circuit boards and talking about automating an automation production facility – robots building robots, limited by the supplies we have. We’ll want to think about raw materials for such things, as well as recycling anything we don’t need for more raw materials.

And we have to think about security. Those antennas on the hilltop are well situated, but we can’t assume nobody will notice, or that there isn’t anybody to notice. A few of us are thinking about worst-case scenarios and whether there are totalitarian dictatorships now that will find us, take us captive, and steal our technology to make themselves more powerful. If they exist, they don’t use radio to communicate, at least not on a regular basis, unless they’re far, far away from here. But just in case, we should be ready to defend ourselves. There are a few more of the particle pulse rifles, but we need defenses.

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90 days later

The hydroponics worked even better than I hoped. Within a month, including the wild growth already there, we had a self sustaining food supply. The other crops we planted outside in the cleared garden spot have been doing remarkably well and have even served another purpose, attracting other critters. The 15 people I awakened have proven more than extremely valuable in making it all happen. Dr. Blake, I’m starting to believe, could repair a nuclear reactor with a paper clip.

Then the weather began to change and get colder. I knew snow was very likely, so I went out early to check on the comm dishes. We’ve got a fairly decent radar, although we still haven’t picked up any radio signals of any kind.

I was bent over the remote weather proof console doing what had become a routine operations check of the equipment. As I bent over and typed on the small weatherproof keyboard, I felt some kind of nudge at my side. Since I wasn’t expecting it. I yelped and more or less rolled onto my other side into the fenced-in area of the dishes. If nothing else, the fence would provide some protection.

To my surprise, the large German Shepherd- sized cat-like creature was there. It lay down in a non-threatening way and actually started to purr. I realized this was the future version of what might be a house cat – it can’t have evolved from a mountain lion, as they can’t purr. I was totally shocked that it was as friendly as it was. I knew we had been feeding it all the offal from our kills and the meat scraps left over. Apparently it took this as acceptance into our … pride, for the lack of any other name.

That was when I noticed it had killed some type of four legged critter and brought it to me. I realized it was making some sort of offering. This creature was actually far more intelligent than I had first assumed.

Yea, yea, I know, ass out of you and me. >>sighs<< But it was true, not only for it, but its mate and two kits.

I return to the compound after I documented the system’s current diagnostic readings, followed by a very docile, several hundred pound cat. Its mate and kittens showed up about the time I got to the facility door.

I have to admit, it created a real sensation until I convinced everyone they were docile. They actually enjoyed being petted and scratched, as the very loud purrs proved. The kittens were very well mannered and would even play fight with us and not bring out their razor sharp claws, and if they bit, It was without force or teeth.

We were truly amazed, because they were, in fact, very large house cats and even acted like it in many ways. One very welcome perk was that they would hunt and share the kills with us the same way we shared with them. Now, when we would travel off into the wilderness exploring the new reality, one or more of them would follow and actually aid in defense or the hunt when necessary.

I sit in the chair at what has become my desk and look over the paperwork there. I see a long complaint from resource storage and agronomists. Apparently, Dr. Blake has been taking way more than what was thought of as his fair share of the corn and peanut crops. From the figures, a lot more. I also notice he’s set up some type of device at the sewage recycling center. Best I can tell, he’s collecting methane gas.

I decide to go see what he’s up to. At best guess, he’s attempting to make some type of fuel. If he can come up with a compatible fuel, we’ll have many types of heavy equipment and other farming equipment … that is, if they’ve survived the ravages of time.

I enter the large area we decided should be the main laboratory area and see Dr. Blake pouring some slightly thick amber liquid into a similar sized beaker of obviously thinner clear liquid. I watch as he stops several times and stirs his concoction. It’s taken on a slightly yellow tinge as he turns and notices me.

I wave and say, “Hi. Whacha working on?”

He waves back, then moves over to a small four-cylinder motor on a running test stand and pours the concoction into its fuel supply beaker. He replies as he watches the liquid move through the tubing to the injector assembly of the small motor. “I have devised a fuel. Since most of the motors are multifuel, that made this easy. They can operate normally on just kerosene made from peanut oil. It’s the ones like this one on the stand that make it hard. I have to blend alcohol I made from corn with the peanut oil to thin it out so it acts like a green form of gasoline.”

I watch as he pulls a small lever several times and pushes what looks like a small clear blister bubble. The line changes color as he bleeds the air from the injectors.

“Are you using methane? Seems you built a rather large contraption at the sewer plant.”

He points over to the far wall and explains, “Methane is the fuel that powers that generator. Now that I have it online and working properly, it’s what is powering all our radar and computer systems. More reliable than solar. We seem to be coming into the winter here. From what these readings are showing …” He moved to a panel with several display screens and flips several switches. The images from our radar dishes appear, both the aircraft-detection and the Doppler weather radar. “As you can see in these images, each sweep shows a massive winter storm approaching. Tentative windspeeds in excess of 60 mph. We need to batten things down now.”

He goes back to the test stand’s control panel and turns the start key. The small motor cranks for a bit, then catches. It spits and pops as Dr. Blake makes adjustments to the injectors. After a few adjustments, the motor stops spitting and popping and begins to idle normally. Dr. Blake even revs it several times.

I clap my hands and say, “Congratulations, Doctor! Apparently that’s the proper mix. Also, it’s a wonder the motor still runs.”

Dr. Blake smiles. “I had to do a bit of refurbishing before it would. I think most of the equipment will have to be done that way too, after all this time.”

I turn and hurry back to the central command center. There are six individuals there. “Come with me now. We have a severe storm approaching, and we have to prepare for it.”

They all stand at the same time and grab their coats and gloves. We all leave in a group with me giving instructions. It is already bitingly cold out, and the wind has started to pick up.

“We’ll drop the radiation shields and seal the seams – the above-ground part of the lab survived for thousands of years that way,” I said. “But first we have to bring in all the tools from the crops. And see if those cats are around anywhere. They’ve obviously survived winters before, but they might want to take shelter with us.”

Wright says, “OK, come on, Park, and we’ll collect the tools,” and Sook Ji joined him as they pushed through the wind toward the fences. I take Jennie with me to the antenna array to batten them down as best we can.

When we get back to the above ground lab, we start to hear loud yowling noises through the wind, and the family of large cats appears. Juarez and Mendel go to them, scratch them behind the ears, and try to corral them into the sheltered lab area. It isn’t hard; they seem to know from something in the air that bad weather is coming.

Wright and Sook Ji are back with all the gardening implements. Once we’re all inside the shelter, I double-check that everyone’s inside and seal the lab radiation shields, creating a dark but secure space that’s survived 2000 winters, so I have no doubt it will survive one storm. We go to the stairs and start down.

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I sit at my desk in the main control center. As I watch the exterior video feeds of the raging blizzard outside, I’m truly impressed with Dr. Blake, Dr. Eppics and Dr. DuPree.

Tom, Jennie, and Miki have basically taken most of the seriously decrepit equipment and refurbished it, and now the facility is mostly operational. They’ve even managed to get several of the security cameras working externally so we can watch the snow pile up. It’s already getting rather deep.

One of the best things they’ve done is overhauling the freight elevator, making it operationally safe once again. It’s aided us more than I can contemplate for moving things to and from the deep stasis storage areas.

The large male kitty has taken a real liking to me. I feel it as he comes up to me and basically rubs all around me. His purrs are loud and rumbly and tickle me in my heart as I reach over and scratch him on his head. The female is stretched out in her favorite place, while the kittens wrestle and play.

I had concerns early on about the water system, specifically the pump and the piping Jennie and Miki set up for supplying the facility with water freezing and perhaps the pipes bursting in the cold weather. I’m impressed that the girls thought of that and insulated and buried the pipes deep enough that the frigid weather isn’t affecting them. The pump they rigged, as simple as it is, has an actual heating element inside it to keep its minimum temperature above freezing.

Food and water aren’t issues any longer, nor is heat. The facility maintains a constant 70 year round, due to most of it being so deep underground. Convection and the genius way the ventilation was made during its construction insure that the air is constantly filtered, circulated, and refreshed without any type of manual manipulations.

Now the time of the grand awakening is at hand. I was contemplating waiting until the thaw to do it, but we have everything well in hand. Hydroponics alone can now sustain a group many times larger than we currently are.

Another really nice thing is that the pond where we get our water is teeming with very large and tasty fish with few bones which several of us, including myself, took using the bows, rigged out for fishing. Of course, there are the puritans who insist on using hook and line, but they aren’t disappointed either. However, the pond is currently frozen over, but new populations should hatch out and grow up once spring arrives.

Miki and Jennie come in. Both the girls give me a huge hug before Jennie says, “I never got to thank you for ... saving us. I know you didn’t do it directly, but from all the data we have managed to collect, we really do seem to be the only survivors. I used the large survey dish and scanned as well as I could for any radio or other signals. The only things I’ve found so far that even resembles a signal are pulsars out in space, and their positions are already well documented in the archives.”

I reply, “From what our scouting has shown, nothing of human civilization in our local area survived. The main highway and even the interstate are gone. So much time has passed that I would think any survivors would have attempted to rebuild. We should have found … at least something.”

Miki kneels and begins rubbing the large kitty’s tummy; he allows it and makes a happy purring sound. “We know that mammals, birds, and insects survived, though species have changed greatly. Thank the maker that pollinators were among them, or we couldn’t have many of the crops we have.”

Jennie says, “We even found the layer of something that must have evolved from a large predatory cat of some kind. I know there used to be a small zoo in the town that was in the valley below, although I’m not real sure if any of those animals survived the war.” She sits at another console and starts typing. A telephoto image of the valley below and its current condition appear on the screen. “Here’s the most recent picture of the valley taken from Jakobs Cliff. It’s obvious several detonations occurred there, because of the large craters that have filled with water and made ponds. Radiation levels are high in the valley as well.”

I say, “I wish we had some type of recon drone or something we could send out to scout. I really would like to know if there are any survivors other than us.”

Tom walks into the control center just then. “I heard that, “ he says, “and I have a similar desire. I found several hundred solar-powered drones equipped with video and sensors for doing aerial recons. They were stored well and are all in working order, and operate based on an experimental aircraft created by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called V2 (Version 2 EAD Airframe). They use electro-aerodynamic propulsion and are solid-state, with no moving parts. It works by ionizing air with emitters at the front of the wing and attracting those ions with collectors at the back, creating an airflow that gives the plane its lift and thrust. The electrical potential is supplied by photocells and an ingenious storage battery. Basically, this aircraft can stay airborne forever as long as nothing collides or interferes with it.”

I point to the screen in front of me that shows the raging blizzard outside. “Can it fly in that?” I ask.

Tom laughs. “I expect not much could. But the storm won’t last forever. Besides, we’ve waited 2000 years; a week or two more won’t hurt.”

I laugh. “No, I suppose in the grand scheme of things, a few more days mean nothing.”

Tom turns and walks towards the exit, “Jennie, you and Miki come with me to the lab. I can use your help on several projects, including getting the recon drones ready for deployment.”

I watch as the three of them leave the control room. I’m more than convinced the government knew well in advance that the war was coming and prepared for it for many years. Now that Tom has discovered the drones, my first order of business is to scout as far as I can looking for survivors ... if there are any.

I have an idea. Now that we have surveillance drones that can stay airborne 24/7 ... I’m going to set up an expanding network ... get something resembling sat comms back, if only due to these drones. Not as good as satellite coverage, but this will be far better than what we have now, and we can expand line of sight by altitude.

The first place I’m going to look is Colorado. One of the best underground survival places on the planet would be Cheyenne Mountain … that is, if it wasn't bombed into being Cheyenne Valley. I also know of several places in the Virginia mountains, although I’m almost positive those places will be gone. If we can, though, we should look.

The next day Miki tells me that she and Jennie have a super lightweight and low-power laser communications system worked out for the drones, so they can track each other and send each other data as fast as fiber optics, and it’ll be difficult to intercept. “Not the best in bad weather,” Miki said, “but Jennie’s protocols can adapt to that and reroute the data pathways around it.”

“How far apart can the drones be and still communicate?” I ask.

“Under absolutely clear conditions,” Miki says, “about 100 miles. Most of the time it’ll be less than that, though.”

“Even if it’s just 10 miles, 100 drones would get us 1000 miles,” I say, nodding.

“Yes,” says Jennie. “They have some data storage on tiny memory cards, so they can also store the pictures they take and transmit them when they get into range of another. Data makes its way back to us, and the software puts it back together like a jigsaw puzzle.”

“This already works?” I ask.

“Well, in the lab it does,” says Jennie. “I’ve got little instrument packages taped to the walls in the hallways all over the complex, up near the ceiling, shooting lasers at each other, telling me about changes in temperature for the moment. They don’t move, but that doesn’t mean I can’t code for transceivers that do.”

“Amazing,” I say.

“Thanks!” said Jennie with a huge grin.

Eventually the storm passes, leaving behind a glittering white expanse of snow under a brilliant blue sky. Under the full moon, it’s almost as bright as day, and in the daytime it’s positively blinding; I have to adjust the cameras’ white levels.

This means we can test-fly the drones, so we send out a fleet of 10 of them to scout the nearby area. Jennie fine tunes her code, Miki fine tunes her hardware, and Tom gathers all kinds of data about their power efficiency and thrust-to-weight ratios and other things that I, as mainly a medical physicist, don’t know much about.

But we get some great photos of the surrounding terrain, albeit covered with snow. We can see where there must be animal life because of tracks that are already appearing, but disappointingly, no signs of human activity.

Deciding to extend the range, we take some photos of land 50 miles out, and even up to 100 miles away, before recalling the drones and analyzing the data. Unfortunately, all the data recovered shows nothing remained of the cities nor roads our archived maps show should be there. The only reason I could sort of tell where a structure or road used to be, was because I had a picture to compare it with. Now, what I needed was a historical archaeologist or a paleontologist to decipher these images.

Meanwhile, I’m considering the next wave of sleepers to awaken. I peruse the data files on the sleepers looking over their stated expertise. Every one of the survivors in stasis has some skills or areas of expertise that the government considered useful for the survival of the human race – and for the prevailing political ideas of the nation at the time, no doubt, though we haven’t run into many disagreements so far. I’m not exactly sure why, but the current group have accepted me as the leader for the time being.

We could use some more biological knowledge, because of all the animal and plant life we keep finding, and we could use more physics experts, to help us with the radiation. I mark some names on the lists. Meteorology would be a useful skill, now that we’re starting to have some mobile weather stations.

Later, I’m training the others in how to put the stasis pods into the reawakening cycle. “This gauge should then slowly increase all the way to green. If it doesn’t make it there, or if it goes past green into yellow, let me know; that means there’s a miscalibration. But once it’s at green, it should stop, and this light should come on. When it does, the seals should release.”

“And then they start waking up?” asks Clairese.

“And then they start waking up,” I say. “You remember what that felt like, I’m sure. Help them through it, offer them water, but don’t shock them with too much information all at once. Let them rest normally for a little while before filling them in – I didn’t tell you it had been 2000 years until at least the next day, you’ll recall.”

“That was sure a shock to the system,” says Wright. “Yeah, I don’t know if I could have handled that right off the bat.”

“As long as they don’t roll over and go, ‘Nooo, five more centuries,’” says Clairese with a giggle. A chuckle ripples through the room.

“So that’s basically it,” I say. “We can wake up the next phase in the morning, when we’re all fresh and ready to deal with a bunch of very tired and disoriented people. You’d think sleeping for 2000 years would leave you well rested, but recovery is actually pretty exhausting.”

“I remember,” says Lea. “I couldn’t sleep, but I still felt totally wiped out. It was a pretty terrible feeling. But it passed.”

“When do you think we should wake up all the rest?” asks Park.

“Well, I’m willing to discuss that,” I say. “We’ve got 30 awake now. This next group will be about 70 individuals which brings that to 100 – more than three times as many, which will stress test our infrastructure. Once we’ve stabilized with that, we can try a Phase Three of perhaps 300 to 400 more, and after that, Phase Four can be everyone else.”

“How are you picking whom to wake up?” asks Tom, knowing I have an answer for that, but also knowing that it’s a question likely to be in the back of everyone’s minds.

“I’ve been pondering late into the night over the lists of people left by the government,” I say. “I think about the challenges we’ve been encountering and the times when I’ve wished we had an expert in field X or Y. I’m basing the decision on what we’ve proven that we need sooner and not later, and on how many I think we can support right now. I obviously want to get everyone woken up once it’s possible. If anybody has a friend or loved one who’s in the chambers and hasn’t already told me, please do.”

“Hey, is there anybody in the chambers who’s only there because they were rich or powerful?” asks Clairese.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Everybody in the database has skills useful for survival, or at least, so the database says. I’m not sure the government would have allowed anybody to bribe or bully their way into the stasis chambers – under the circumstances at the time, anybody with a brain would have laughed grimly at the very suggestion that any offer of wealth or power would soon be worth anything, with the ICBMs on the way. Another thing, I know of several other facilities like this one. Somewhere am sure there has to be survivors.”

Tom said, “There were other facilities, but almost all of them were well known targets. Not real sure they are still around.”

Clairese has given me something to think about – what if there were somebody who switched places with one of the rightful “volunteers,” putting their own life ahead of someone else’s and indeed ahead of the survival of the entire human race? So far I haven’t noticed anyone who doesn’t have the expertise the database says they should have.

Miki? She’s designed so many working devices. Jennie? With her computer and software engineering, she’s the real thing. Tom? His electronics and civil engineering skills are without question. Clairese? She’s gotten the hydroponic gardens into tip-top shape. Everyone’s doing exactly what they’re supposed to be an expert in. So I don’t think there are any impostors so far, but what about Phase Two?

I decide to add somebody to my list.

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“Can you hear me?” I ask. “Are you feeling all right? Can you tell me your name?”

The young man groans and says, “You first.” Others were being awakened all around me.

“I’m Dr. Eric Palmintieri, and you’re in the same facility you were placed in when you went into suspension.”

“Dr. Palmintieri,” he says. “You’re … you’re the inventor of the stasis process. I guess I’m in the best hands imaginable. If that’s who you really are, anyway.”

I smile. This is exactly why I picked him. “I assure you, I am. If you’ve seen photos of me, well, take a look. Once your eyes adjust, at least.”

“Yeah, we’ll put a pin in that. Wait a few minutes. Should I be dizzy? Is my head supposed to hurt?”

“Disorientation and headache are unfortunately not uncommon symptoms,” I say, “but they pass as you recover. Have some water.”

“I will, once I can sit up,” he says. “I’m Frank DiBrese. I’m a nuclear physicist.”

“Your work on sustainable fusion reactors is groundbreaking,” I say. “Or it was. We’ve got enough experts around here, though, that we might be able to build a new reactor with time. But you’re also a member of several skeptic organizations, the database says.”

“That’s an interesting thing to remember,” he says. “How long’s it been?”

“Let’s take it slowly,” I say. “Focus on recovering physically. I’ll share all the data we’ve got with you once you’re on your feet.”

“You could be concerned for my well-being,” he says, “or you could be trying to shield me from something emotionally shocking. How many thousands of years?”

“I’m trying to be fair, too,” I say. “Nobody’s getting the whole story until they’re physically strong enough to take it.”

“Aaagh,” he says, holding his hands to his head. “Do you at least have some kind of aspirin or something?”

“We do have that,” I say. “Lea’s managed to extract some salicylic acid powder from tree bark, the old-fashioned way.” I pour a dose of the powder into a glass of water and hand it to him.

He looks at it, then sits up, holds it, sniffs it, and drinks it. “I’m taking a chance on you, Dr. Palmintieri. Now, why did you wake me up? Does this place have fusion reactors? Or does it need one? I don’t think so. A usable fusion reactor was still in the future when the missiles started flying, though we’d achieved break-even.”

“I woke you up now partly because we need someone knowledgeable about radioisotopes … and because I need an ally who’s suspicious,” I say. “You’re well known for checking out everything anybody says, not taking anyone’s word for granted. That’s not in the database; I remember people talking about you.”

“Is something going on that requires … suspicion?” he asks.

“More like … skepticism,” I say. “I’ll explain everything. In the meantime, that was the only glass of water that I put any chemicals in, and that was only by your request. Let me know if you need anything else. It’s midday right now, and I expect most of this phase will be ready to learn about the situation by tomorrow morning. I hope you can wait that long.”

“I’ll try to be patient,” says Frank.

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The next morning comes faster than I would have liked. I didn’t sleep very well worrying over the near future. Thus far, none of the surveillance data have shown any type of human habitation, they should if there are any local survivors other than ourselves.

I walk into the conference room; the soft buzz of voices from the 70 individuals freshly from stasis become silent as all eyes are on me. The main view screen is showing an ongoing stream of images of the facility’s surrounding area. Our facility has been refurbished and fenced. It looks like any modern science research installation, or what we used to call modern, at any rate.

“Good morning all.” I say and receive a resounding good morning from everyone. “What I’m about to tell you, and the data I’m going to show you, may be shocking to the point of overwhelming.”

A female voice says, “From what those images currently on the screen are showing, I have to wonder how long we’ve been in stasis?” A murmur of agreement rounds the room.

I know my face takes on a grim continence as I reply, “Hold onto your seats; it’s been approximately 2000 years since you were placed in stasis.” There are gasps and murmuring, as expected. “From the best we’ve been able to tell from recon thus far, in about a hundred mile radius around us, nothing of our past civilization survived the war … except for this particular facility, and from what the place looked like above ground when I came out of stasis, that was by sheer luck. The nearest impact zone is only several miles away.”

A male voice speaks up. It’s Tom, walking into the room with a data card. “That was basically luck – the military base on the other side of the mountain was targeted directly. The damage to this facility was splash damage as the nuclear overpressure wave passed. I have things I’d like to present. From the very best we’re able to gather, we’re the only survivors so far. As soon as the data returns from Colorado, I can tell you more. The hardened facility at Cheyenne Mountain would be the best bet, if it survived the bombardment it must have received.”

Another slightly louder murmur of incredulity rounds the room for a few minutes. I don’t attempt to stop it; I know they’ll need a few minutes to digest what they’ve just heard. Tom begins to load the data card into the small laptop. The images on the screen change.

It shows a valley, beautifully covered in sparkling snow. There are three large ponds spread out in the valley. Tom picks up a wooden pointer and taps the screen on one of the ponds. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is the remnant of a blast crater.” Loud voices of disbelief and incredulity once again round the room. “These images also used to be the small city of Coal Creek, which is now gone. From the best our sensors can tell, radiation levels are very high in the valley. The reason it would have been targeted, at my best guess, besides the military base, is that it used to produce advanced electronics.”

I say, “As I said, we’ve got recon drone data for a 100 mile radius, and from what we can see, mankind managed to fairly thoroughly wipe himself off the planet. We do have about a dozen remote drones currently out mapping and taking readings around Cheyenne Mountain; that data’s pending. I don’t have too much hope, however. If any other place should have survived, it’s there. We should have at least detected local radio comms, if nothing else. That facility was not only a large complete city under a mountain, it also contained manufacturing and other facilities necessary for survival. The forward drones should have picked up at least radar signals as they approached, if anybody’s there watching for them, but thus far all is silent across the radio and microwave bands.”

Another female voice speaks. “All that being said, how are we situated as far as long term survival?”

I reply, “From all our best projections, we’re doing rather well. We have food stores enough to maintain us and the sleepers when we awaken them. We have fresh water ... and have even gotten hot water, the showers, and flush toilets working.” A small twitter of laughter rounds the room.

The woman says, “What about toilet paper? Bet we don’t have any.”

Another twitter of laughter as I respond, “We may run out of toilet paper, but we do have the ability to make more. Making paper is an easy and simple process. We can even make vellum, using the tanned and scraped skins of the animals we hunt for food.”

Tom says, “I don’t know the hows or whys of it yet, but somehow we managed to avoid the major fallout and radiation. The drones we have out have located and mapped some major radioactive hotspots.”

Frank speaks up. “There’s nothing we can do about the radioactivity. There might even be some residuals falling in rain or snow, although it would be easy enough to verify. My one question would be the condition of this facility’s own micro-reactor. What kind of condition is it in?”

I reply, “The actual reaction equipment is in nominal condition. Fuel … is another story. The core is depleted in its current configuration. If the rods are rearranged, it would work for another thousand years maybe. As it stands now, it needs refueling.”

Frank says in exasperation, “Damn. We might be able to locate some rods. ORNL is about 100 miles from here. If we have some type of vehicle to travel the rough country I’m sure is between here and there, and have the proper isolation gear to transport it, we might be able to scavenge some reactor fuel.”

I reply, “That is, if anything of ORNL survived, which is highly debatable. We do have the vehicles, and Dr. Blake, with the aid of Drs. Michelle DuPree and Jennie Eppics, have even come up with a fuel. It’s made from a blend of peanut oil and ethyl/methyl alcohol. Apparently, the military vehicles are multifuel and will run on just peanut oil. The others operate normally on the blend, which isn’t too much different from several of the green fuels that were already in use.”

I hear someone comment, “The flight at Kitty Hawk was with a 3 cylinder motor that used peanut oil for its fuel.”

Tom replies, “That was the reason I chose peanut oil. It’s the closest thing we have to number one fuel oil.”

I say, “Alright, people. This is mankind’s most desperate hour, as best I can tell. Each of you are awake now ahead of the others based on your expertise. The particular labs you will need have been meticulously refurbished. We do have large amounts of supplies in stasis storage to aid in almost any type of research we’ll need to do. Be frugal until such time as we’re able to start some form of manufacturing.”

One of the engineers spoke up. “Do we actually have the capability to manufacture?”

Tom replies, “We have some ability to manufacture certain items. We do also have the resources and ability to build more over time. I can’t say within six months, but eventually we will have the ability.”

One of the young men who was an environmental expert spoke up, “I will also be a real pest over it too. I want to start fresh and not make contamination or pollution if we can help it. One of the hazards we’ll have to live with is nuclear contamination.”

Tom replies, “I, with the aid of Jennie and Miki, have set up a decon location. We do have the ability to control it.”

One of the other men asked, “Do we have the ability to treat an accidental radiation exposure?”

I reply, “Not really. We do have stasis, which only keeps them alive, but not a cure. Iodine tabs, and the proper filters for air and water, but that’s about it. Now, I need each of you to find and go to your respective laboratories and start getting them set up properly. This is it, ladies and gentlemen. If we fail, from all the current data, mankind vanishes from this universe. Now, get to it.”

“Bit of an overstatement, isn’t it?” asks Frank, staying behind as the others file out of the room.

“Well, sort of,” I say. “We’re the last remnant of 21st-century human civilization. I suppose if we fail, we might have descendants who could survive in a Stone Age level subsistence existence, and there’s hope that their descendants might eventually rebuild some sort of civilization, but their chances aren’t good. If we want to rebuild anything resembling the level of civilization we remember, we’ll have to work hard, and do it now.”

“Well, yes, before we all get too old to work, but we’ve got decades,” says Frank. “You’ve got something else on your mind, and I think I know what it is.”

“And what’s that?” I ask. I know Frank will be able to guess.

“You’re trying to keep us all thinking about survival for as long as you can,” Frank says. “You don’t want us to switch into dominance mode. Somebody’s going to challenge you for leadership – it won’t be me; I don’t want the job – but as long as they’re all thinking of where the next meal’s coming from, they won’t have time. And if somebody does … I have to wonder whether everyone here is who they say they are.”

“I knew I made the right choice in waking you up,” I say.

“Well, if I were a rich or powerful man and the world were coming to an end,” says Frank, speaking rapidly in almost a whisper, “I’d have been looking for a way to save my own miserable hide. If I got an inkling that there was a place where they were going to freeze a group of hand-picked talented individuals who might end up being the only survivors of the human race, I’d look for a way to get into that group. I’ve seen people like this; I know how they think. They think they’re rich or powerful because they’re talented, because they deserve it. If they didn’t get picked, they’ll look upon that as a mistake that they have a duty to rectify. They’ll have picked someone who they think they can impersonate reasonably well for long enough, they’ll have taken their place, maybe murdered them, and they’ll have survived. Never mind the fact that they took out someone vital to the human race’s survival; they saved their own skin, and to them, that’s the most important thing.”

“And if you see anyone you think seems like an impostor,” I say to him quietly, “come to me with it right away. We’ll try to check them out.” We talk about our plans for this. I don’t think any of the first 30 are impostors. The 70 members of Phase Two deserve scrutiny, and Frank even has a plan to prove that he’s the real Frank DiBrese.

“Well,” Frank says more loudly, “I’m off to check out the facility’s reactor. I’m going to see if there is anything I can do to extend the life of the fuel rods. Maybe we can get a few more years or even centuries out of it, and give us more time to scavenge up some more fuel or build a new kind of reactor.”

“Agreed. Please let me know, Frank.”

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Frank isn’t an impostor. He’s written up a complete analysis of the reactor along with a plan for reformatting the fuel rods. We don’t have any other nuclear engineers, but the math is sound, and I’ve run it by Tom, Jennie, and Miki. He’s either the real Frank DiBrese or someone with a similar level of education in a similar field, and I don’t think that describes any politician, CEO, financier, or son of some rich family who might have killed the real Frank and taken his place. I keep that part of my conclusions to myself as I discuss the plan with the others.

“If we do as Frank suggests,” I say, “we’ll be able to run the reactor at full power for another two centuries – at minimum. That’s plenty of time to search for new fuel rods or the means of making more. There’s still the solar array and chemical power plant to supplement it, too, and we can also spend that time looking for alternatives that are renewable.”

“What do we have to do?” asks Miki.

I reply, “Frank says we’ll need to completely shut the reactor core down, separate the rods, so we don’t have any chain reactions taking place while we rearrange everything. That should be possible with the reactor’s controls. If they don’t work, this would be a great time to find that out, before we become too dependent on it. Frank’s got a new configuration all ready right here, with all its parameters worked out. And you can bet he’s made sure it’s safe, since he’s the one who’s going to be carrying the plan out – he’ll be the one in the radiation suit operating the manual controls.”

“I guess he has to be, since nobody else knows how to do this,” says Jennie. “Do we have a way to get him out of there in case things go wrong?”

“There’s a plan in here for that too,” I say. “Page 27. But he’s so careful that I don’t think it’ll be necessary – not that we won’t do it if we have to.”

“Well, we should do this as soon as possible,” Tom says. “Especially after what we’ve found at Cheyenne Mountain.”

“Yeah,” I say, “with every entrance and exit so completely destroyed by what must have been a massive saturation bombing, getting in there is going to be a very difficult proposition. But the interior has to be intact – no amount of bombing could affect anything beneath that amount of rock.”

“If we can get in there, it’ll be a treasure trove of technology we can draw upon,” Tom says.

“We’ll need to find the best way in,” says Jennie. “The least amount of digging, and in a place with the least amount of radiation. The drone data showed hotspots all over the place.”

“Ground penetrating radar might be the way to do that,” says Miki. “Can we rig anything like that?”

“I definitely can,” Tom says. “Especially if I work with the two of you.”

“Get me some sample data, and I can write some analysis software,” Jennie says.

“What about ORNL?” I ask. “That’s within 100 miles, which means the drones have already mapped out the area between here and there. Do we have any pictures that show how much of it survived?”

“Err, yeah,” says Jennie, “and the answer is nothing. Can’t even tell where it used to be. Even Fort Louden Lake is gone, however, the Tennessee River is still there. If we didn’t have a map showing its previous location, we wouldn’t know there were ever any buildings there. Except for the radioactive hotspots, of course. They’re a good indication that there used to be something that someone wanted wiped out.”

I sighed. “Well, it’s considerably farther away, but Cheyenne Mountain is the best bet, then. What kind of a trip are we talking about? Can we automate it? I’d rather not send people out into the unknown world.”

“We’d need to go along to use the ground-pen radar,” Tom says. “That means we’d need to plan an expedition very thoroughly. We’ll need a vehicle large enough and durable enough for the 2600 mile trip – there and back. It’ll need power or fuel. And if we find anything we want to bring back, it’ll need extra cargo capacity.”

“We can use the drone network to communicate with base.” says Miki. “We’re getting more of them into shape every day, so we’ll be able to have them in the air and in line of sight throughout the entire trip.”

“Still, if we travel at, what, 20 miles an hour, that’s 130 hours of travel, over 5 days, and that’s assuming we don’t stop,” Jennie says. There’s obviously a lot of planning ahead. We’re going to see what we can work out. River crossings will be an issue unless the vehicle is amphibious …”


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In the meantime before the grand expedition, several months pass as we prepare for the trip and continue to bring our facility back to what we consider modern standards. It is now late winter by our meteorology department. Spring and snow melt should start soon.

We want to at least try to prepare for most anything along the way. The specific laboratories for each individual’s specialty have come rapidly into operational status. We also have clearer aerial photos of a larger area around us that each lab now has the ability to research … and perhaps make discoveries.

Many individuals have banded together and created very nice sleeping quarters for all personnel, awake and in stasis. The kitties have even staked their claim and made a bedding place. I start to realize the kitties are a whole lot more intelligent than they let on. They predict what we do, they vanish when they can tell we don’t need them underfoot, and they are never, ever late for dinner.

Hot water is easy to make with Tom’s methane processing device, and the Co Ed waterfall showers have become popular with both men and women.

I knew it had to happen, but Robyn, one of the really cute chemistry specialists, is pregnant. She refuses to say who the father is, though we could find out if we wanted to, since we still have the ability to do advanced genetics, but we’ll all be overjoyed for the birth when the time arrives.

Tom, Jennie, Miki, and, believe it or not, Clairese have managed to scavenge materials and build a vehicle workshop. They’ve also begun construction of a vehicle, or, more accurately, modification of an existing military vehicle. It’s long and cylindrical. Flat on the rearward end, and sort of pointy on the front under the windshields, and it has terrain adaptable wheels like on the Mars rover. No rubber to go flat or worry over.

The pointed end is filled with some of the very best portable radar and electronic analytical equipment in the facility's stores. The vehicle is very large and has the ability to store and carry safely any type of reactant fuel Tom and Frank could think of … not to mention many tons of other materials we might find along the epic journey. I insisted that they make it amphibious, and they worked that out too. It has jets it can fire to make it hover for a short time in case of otherwise insurmountable obstacles, but of course those will depend on how much cargo it’s carrying.

It can also store enough fuel for the complete trip. Just in case, it has the proper equipment to make fuel, not to mention a really nice compact machine shop and fully operational laboratory.

Truth be told, however, fuel isn’t really required due to the battery/generator Miki and Jennie have installed; it produces more energy than the vehicle will ever use, but it’s best to have multiple backups. The first generator we found stored in stasis might have just been a proof of concept, but the concept worked well beyond expectations, powering the large equipment in our facility … adapting the technology for just one vehicle was simple.

The vehicle has been christened Terra Killer, due to the fact it was designed, as best as we could, to take on anything any of us could think of that the group might encounter along their travel route.

It includes some rather nasty weapons; it’s definitely well armed. All hope they won’t have a need for that kind of firepower, but, hey, better safe than sorry.

It carries two missile racks that can fold into the armored body. Each rack holds 26 small rockets that Tom fully refurbished and has fully tested. He’s even built, with the aid of Miki, Jennie, and Clairese, a means to manufacture the missiles and other ballistic munitions and explosives our weapons require, which is a wonderful stroke of luck, or a bravura exhibition of their skill and craft, depending on how you look at it.

On top of the well armored vehicle is a gunner’s blister. The main weapon is one of the particle cannons like the rifle I fell in love with shortly after awakening. To either side of this is a sixteen-barreled minigun cannon. Tom monkeyed with all the ammunition stores and managed to make almost all of our stored ordinance operable. The few that he couldn’t, most of it went into parts to make some that did, now that we’re able to manufacture our own.

Coupled with the excellent radar and sensor package, targeting is pinpoint over great distances, and can even be automated due to the software and computer enhancements thanks to Jennie and Miki’s diligence.

Tom has also begun to teach some of his skills to Clairese, who has learned fast. This brings about an understanding within my mind that the specific skills of all will eventually have to be taught to others, of course. Perhaps we should convince them to at least write instructional books for future generations, so they won’t lose important abilities. There’s quite a lot of instructional information in the computers, but not on every subject we need.

I keep this to myself for the moment, just in case someone isn’t who they appear to be at first glance. So far, everyone seems to be exactly who they claim to be, right down to those few in the group who knew each other before the war.

I watch the Doppler radar scan as another winter storm, more than likely the season’s last, approaches. From what I see, we’re in for another three or four feet of the white stuff before morning. External temperature is already at 8 degrees, with high winds and heavy blowing snow. Except for the video feeds and radar scans, I would have never known the severity of the snowstorm.

The new meteorology lab’s prediction AI that Jenny had written is as spot on as any I’ve ever seen. The exact time a storm might arrive could be a few hours early or late, but thus far it’s never been entirely wrong. And what it predicts for tonight is an extremely severe storm.

Even though our new Terra Killer vehicle could handle all that easily, I’ve decided to hold off leaving until the storms have at least stopped dropping more snow. I don’t want to run into any unforeseen thing slap in the middle of an arctic type storm.

I flip a few switches on the control panel in front of me. The images on my screen change to show the micro-reactor chamber. Dr. Frank DiBrese is definitely who he says he is. What I see in the vid is ample proof that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Apparently, the designers realized the eventuality of having to refuel the reactor. The varying auto devices, mechanical arms with grasping appendages, proper shielding, and containment areas, are readily available. With a bit of refurbishing, they do the job well.

Frank has recruited several others and has begun teaching them the necessary data to aid in refurbishing the reactor and its currently depleted core. I sit back and smiled at the relationship he’s developing with Donna, one of the cute mechanical engineers. If she isn’t already, I know she too will be pregnant shortly.

Frank and his small group have managed to remove the access plates and open the rod chamber. Everyone is overjoyed that the reaction vessel’s control center is operational. Core shutdown and retraction of the first rod is already complete; it’s in the containment area so Frank and his students can rearrange and reshuffle the fuel pellets.

By placing less used pellets near the reaction end of the rod, and the more depleted pellets further towards the end away from the reaction, this reformatting process will bring the reaction back to peak for at least 1000 years until it’s once again depleted, by which time our descendants will likely have found other means of energy production. The procedure on the first rod is almost complete. By the time spring comes, Frank should be ready to do a test run up to make operational adjustments.

After going over several of the morning reports, I discover there might be more women pregnant, as it’s more than obvious that a couple of them are intent on it. I checked stores. I’ll have to recruit some people to aid in producing baby products, since we have almost nothing geared towards infants or procreation. Apparently the planners either overlooked this or left it to whomever survived to deal with it on their own. No biggie, I shrugged; we’re more than able to handle something as basic as babies. Babies aren’t high-tech.

It’s also time to start making the decisions on whom we’re going to bring out of stasis next. I first peruse the documentation on each individual, looking for some anomaly that might reveal an impostor … or provide some hint of the possibility. I try to think like an impostor for a moment – if I weren’t a leading expert in some scientific field and was going to try to replace someone on this list, there are some people I definitely wouldn’t pick.

I wouldn’t pick someone who would be found out immediately, meaning that I wouldn’t pick anyone who was either famous in their field or friends with someone else in the stasis chambers. The impostor also wouldn’t have picked someone with advanced or specialized knowledge they didn’t themselves have, because they’d be found out as soon as they were required to use that knowledge. I can cross out several names from my list of possible impostors with that type of reasoning. The impostor just wouldn’t have picked them.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone we’ve already awakened is an impostor. We’ve only chosen people with very specific advanced knowledge – people an impostor wouldn’t have picked. What’s more, we’ve only awakened about 10 percent of the sleepers.

Frank walks into my office and looks at my screen. “Ah, you’re doing what I did weeks ago,” he says. “Looks like your conclusions are about the same as mine. Very unlikely we’ve got an impostor awake among us so far. Let me show you the names I’ve red-flagged.”

As he does that, I ask, “Do you think we should go on the expedition to Cheyenne Mountain before or after waking up the next phase?”

“Are you going?” he asks.

“Why, is that important?”

“If we wake up an impostor, it is,” he says. “The impostor will likely have been a politician in the old world. They’ll be adept at seizing power, and no one else will have the training to match that. You’re our de facto leader by virtue of being the first one to wake up and explore the world around us, and everybody’s just been going along with you because you’ve been making consensus decisions that nobody really disagrees with.”

“Hmm, maybe we should be thinking about some kind of constitution, forming a government,” I wonder aloud.

“Not until everyone’s awake and can participate, or we’ll have dissenters who’ll feel as if they weren’t consulted,” Frank says. “But we’re all scientists so far. We’re trained to look at the big picture, think about what’s good for all of us as a whole. We don’t distrust each other. A politician impostor will distrust everyone else, meaning they’ll want to protect themselves by gaining influence. They’ll do it by any means necessary. Sowing paranoia, threats, loyalty tests, blackmail, seizing necessary resources and bartering them for power, and 99 other kinds of dirty tricks.”

“But that’ll reduce our chance of survival as a group to near nil,” I object. “They’ll squander our resources and splinter us into squabbling subgroups who aren’t focusing on survival anymore.”

“They won’t care,” says Frank. “If they’re the last human on Earth to die, they’ll consider that a job well done. They’ll have protected themselves to the end. It’s the difference between putting survival of the human race first and putting personal survival first.”

“So you’re saying that I can’t afford to be gone when the next phase is awakened, just in case there’s an impostor among them,” I say. “Either I go on the expedition and we wait until I’m back to awaken the next group, or I don’t go on the expedition at all.”

“Exactly,” Frank says. “You have to be here when we wake up the next group, so we can spot the impostor and counter anything they try early.” So now I have a decision to make.

The problem is that, as I won’t discover until later, I’ve already made a crucial mistake, and Frank hasn’t noticed it yet.

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I go to the garage and examine the expedition vehicle. At first glance it looks like a huge extraterrestrial rover. I enter and stop as I look around. It’s more like the inside of some type of spacefaring vehicle than anything else I can think of. A craft for exploring an alien planet … then it strikes me that that’s exactly what it is.

It has a galley large enough for a crew of about 10. A completely equipped and working laboratory, a machine shop totally capable of manufacturing any part necessary to keep the vehicle in operation, or most anything else they stumble across, and a well-stocked but small medical clinic make it a self-contained mobile habitat.

It’s more than obvious that Tom, Jennie, Clairese, and Miki have gone overboard in trying to make the vehicle not only as self-sufficient as possible but capable of handling almost anything that might be encountered.

I climb the short ladder into the gunner’s bubble. The gunner’s couch is very comfortable. The targeting, tracking, and other radar and necessary items for defense are in exactly the proper place so the gunner has instant unfettered access to everything.

There are even shielded access areas to the miniguns just in case of a belt jam. This type of weapon was in use for a good many years, and the bugs like that had long been worked out … although it’s obvious they aren’t taking any chances, just in case.

I head forward and sit in one of the operator’s couches. The cockpit, for the lack of a better description, has places for the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, science consultant, and even a separate place for weapons and defense. I’m totally amazed. The control center for the vehicle reminds me of those outer space sci-fi shows I watched as a kid.

I decide, then and there, to wait until we come back from our expedition for the Grand Awakening. I turn on the equipment on the control deck and call up a map. I’m going to plot our course. I realize we’re going to have to cross four states, a river or two, and a large canyon before we get to the Colorado facility, or whatever’s left of it.

If conditions are similar along the way as they are here, it’s going to take a while to make the trip due to the wilderness and the distances we’ll need to cover. We’ve sent several scouting aerial drones to get more complete data on the conditions along our chosen path. It’s more than obvious that the Mutually Assured Destruction protocol was implemented with frightening results.

It’s easy to locate the places where nuclear reactors used to stand, because the radiation due to their massive meltdowns is still extremely high for several hundred miles around. It’s more than obvious that all of them China Syndromed due to bombardment, which made a horrible thing all that much worse, with tons of radioactive debris and water, among other things, being spread over large areas when thermonuclear detonations breached their containment domes.

I also see many remenants of detonation craters along the way. I’m truly amazed that life managed to survive. Another thought enters my mind, about the fauna along the way. I think about Kitty and his family. Those are ordinary house cats mutated by radiation and adapted to live in this new reality. I know of several other critters that mutated into something larger and nastier. There’s certainly a reason why their survival hinged on developing larger size and stronger fighting ability. I glance over at the weapons control. This vehicle’s armed to the teeth. I’m positive it can handle whatever we come up against.

I stand and exit the vehicle. I decide that we’ll leave for Colorado as soon as the vehicle can be provisioned. I’m sure that covering those four states is going to go a lot more slowly than we originally hoped. I can sort of tell where the old highways and interstates used to be, but the actual roads are now nonexistent.

I leave the vehicle, go to my desk in the control room, and flip the intercom switch, “Will all the expedition personnel report to the conference room for a prelaunch meeting. Also, I would like stores to begin provisioning the Terra Killer for an extended mission. From the data we have on current conditions along our path, things are wild, rugged, and many places are highly radioactive.”

I sit back in thought. From the condition of the exits and entrances of the Cheyenne Mountain facility, anyone who had survived the war would have either been trapped inside the mountain for 2000 years, or they managed to dig their way out.

Another nagging thought: with the obvious signs of the nuclear carpet bombing the mountain had received, if they did attempt to exit, they may have succumbed to the high radiation that would have been present. Guess I’ll just have to wait and see. I stand and start walking towards the conference room. We might be leaving within an hour or so … or possibly early in the morning. I want us all to know what we’re getting into.

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The Next Morning

I hold the vehicle’s control sticks in my hands as I press the pedals one at a time for a bit of familiarity and a simple ops check. I push the sticks slightly forward, and the vehicle responds by moving out of the parking revetment into the main yard proper. I flip several switches, and the radar and other feeds come right up. I look around the control center. Miki and Jennie are at the weapons, navigation, and comm stations, which include radar, and believe it or not, sonar. I look over at Tom at the copilot’s seat. He gives me a thumbs up and a large smile.

Here we go … I push the sticks forward, and the vehicle dashes off into the thick brush beyond the courtyard in a flash. Large trees and rough terrain seemingly mean nothing as we quickly descend the mountain into what used to be the chip manufacturing town of Coal Creek.

There’s no town left, of course; not even any visible remnants of buildings or their basements remain. Just those bomb craters that are now ponds. Miki confirms the remote readings we took earlier as we pass – radiation is still present near them. The creek the town was named after is still there, but has moved since the old maps were made.

We move on, following the course we plotted to take a pass over the ridge that forms the other side of the valley that Coal Creek lay in, and we continue. I try to steer between trees, but it’s often impossible to avoid knocking them down, which the vehicle can do with amazing ease.

As we go, the drone fleet continues to both survey our path ahead and provide communication with the base. They’re getting all the data we’re sending them, both of what we see and of our current position.

Once we’re about 50 miles from base, we start to see evidence of something new. There are trees completely denuded of leaves and small branches. It’s like a field of giant toothpicks in some places.

“That’s got to be a sign of some kind of large herbivore,” I say. “Nothing we’ve seen so far could do that, so it must be something new to us.”

“It’s possible the drones haven’t picked them up,” says Jennie. “They fly over and move on – they don’t stay put for a consistent view of the area. It’s possible that whatever it is is skittish and avoids the drones. Maybe it’s got really good hearing and stays far away from their sounds.”

“Well, they’ll probably stay far away from us too, then,” I say as we continue. “We make a lot more noise than the drones.”

For a while, I’m absolutely right. I kind of wish I weren’t.

About 75 miles from home, we encounter another giant toothpick forest, and this one extends for miles. At first we see no sign of what’s eating the trees down to their trunks, but then, suddenly, Miki says, “There’s a disturbance to our right. Something’s coming fast …”

Then we see it – there isn’t much brush to obscure our vision. A fast giant mammal of some kind leaps out from between the tree trunks and right over our vehicle. It looks like some kind of huge deer, with wide antlers, but it’s even more designed for running, with hind legs like a hare’s, and ears like one as well.

Before we have time to talk about it, Miki shouts, “More incoming!” and three more come, also jumping right over the vehicle and continuing on, and after that come dozens. Knocking down the tree trunks, they swerve around us or jump over us, not knowing what we are.

“They’re all running in the same direction,” says Tom.

“... and they’re not avoiding us,” I add. “They’re running from something. Do we want to meet that something?” That question was rhetorical; the answer is no. I deviate from our set course and turn toward the left, moving with all expeditious speed away from whatever is spurring the stampede.

“Having drones attempt to image that region,” says Jennie. “Initial photos are too blurry. There’s certainly some group of large creatures that is after the … jackalopes we just saw, for want of a better word. Can’t make out details yet.”

“Jackalopes?” I ask, incredulously.

“Well, what would you call giant rabbits with antlers?” she replies, staring at her screen.

“I think they’re more like deer with some harelike adaptations,” I object.

“We’ve got more photos,” Jennie says. “Oh boy.” They appeared on multiple screens. There were dozens of them – wolflike predators, each the size of a van, growling and chasing the … all right, we’ll call them jackalopes.

“They’re some kind of … readaptation of the dire wolves of the Pleistocene Epoch,” I say. “We’ve seen what happened to the house cats; now we see what’s happened to the dogs. Wait! I was wondering why we hadn’t seen the jackalopes before and why they hadn’t bothered our crops. What if I woke up right after these dire wolves migrated through our area and out of it, chasing the jackalopes out? The big cats must have evolved to be that big in response to the wolves. We have to warn the base – they need to know these things exist. The jackalopes are going to be coming through our area sooner or later, and when they do, the wolves won’t be far behind.”

“I’m on it,” says Clairese, assembling a message for home that she’ll put on the drone network for relay back to base. She includes photos, in case they don’t believe us. There’s still a nagging question in my mind about why the jackalopes have evolved to be that large, but there isn’t time to think about it just yet.


“Uh-oh,” says Miki. “Some of the wolves have seen us.” Most of them are continuing to follow the jackalopes, but a few have broken off and are running in our direction, and now I know what the phrase “slavering fangs” means.

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Jennie says professionally over the intercraft combat link, “Miki, take gunner’s chair. I have the tactical data online.”

Miki’s slightly muffled voice responds, “Already strapped in and logged in. Targeting now.”

Tom says to me over the command interlink, “I think you found some real treasure in those two women.”

I reply, “I know, that’s why they’re among the command crew – they’re top notch and are the assets we need.”

About that time, we feel it as the miniguns open up. 1000 rounds a second slam into a huge creature with 12 inch fangs. For an instant, there’s a large red blood splatter cloud, then the wolf falls over with most of its head missing. The targeting algorithm Jennie had written has proven its worth – resources are scarce, and we can’t afford to spend that kind of ammo firing into the air.

Tom says over the interlink, “Good shootin’ there, Tex. But there’s more of ‘em where that came from.”

Jennie says, “I have about 11 targets marked on tactical. They seem to be thinking that surrounding us will help.”

“Most likely it’s a tactic that’s worked for them in the past,” I theorize.

Miki replies, “Let’s see how good our rockets are.”

We feel it as the fast-acting racks unfurl from the armored sides of the vehicle. There’s a small thumping bump, then 2 of the rockets instantly ignite and zip off. Shortly after that, there are two huge explosions off in the distance. Threat indications on the radar suddenly vanish. Target acquisition indicates no available targets.

I say, “Seems you found gainful employment, Miki, as our crew’s gunner.”

Tom adds, “Yeah, and Jennie makes a good tactical officer too. The two of them never cease to amaze me when they work together.”

We all feel it as the rocket racks retract back into their storage compartments. I do an area scan for more hostiles. Data indicates the herd of … jackalopes, as they scatter off into the distance, pursued by the main body of the pack of dire wolves. Currently, the only threat I can see indicated is the many spots of high radioactivity. Apparently Miki has eradicated the group of wolves that broke away from the pack to pursue us.

We slowly approach the place the rockets targeted. We can tell immediately by the devastation that the rockets are going to prove highly effective, and might even aid in entering the Colorado facility. Of course, the genetics specialist has to gather samples for testing. I’m curious as well to know what kind of creature they mutated from.

We stay at the location for over an hour, gathering samples of everything the genetics specialist can think of. We even luck out and find the corpse of one of the jackalopes, although it’s obviously a victim of predation and far from intact.

We do manage to gather a complete skeleton and enough genetic material from everything else that we should be able to make enough of a determination of what the origin species of the mutated specimens might have been. We place all of this in stasis storage for later study as we pack up the equipment we brought out and prepare to leave.

I sit in the pilot’s seat and look at the current data feeds. The odds are very good that we’re now just across the border into what used to be Missouri, although we haven’t crossed the Mississippi River yet – its course has changed, as it has been known to do constantly over millions of years.

I’m positive the large radioactive reading I’m getting from northeast of our current position has to be where St. Louis used to be. I know we’re near the former courses of several large interstate highways as well, although none of them have survived the ravages of war and time.

Just out of curiosity, I assign two drones to go probe and take readings of the former St. Louis area to study at a later time as I turn our vehicle more westerly toward what I know used to be Kansas. The vehicle has had no trouble with any terrain we’ve thus far encountered, the thick underbrush, or even large trees as we’ve basically blazed a trail.

I’m getting many indications of radioactive hotspots. Due to the military nature of the Terra Killer, it has records of the missile emplacements all across Kansas. From what the computer database says, most of the hardened missile implacements had been hit.

Map data shows from our current location, we have about 779 more miles to go to Denver. I don’t have very high hopes of finding any humanoid life, due to the indications of massive strikes. One thing that does impress me is that the radiation counts are far lower and more localized than I’ve been thinking they should be.

We finally encounter the Mississippi River – still wide and shallow, just in a different channel from the one on the old maps. We seal the hatches and convert to amphibious mode; the Terra Killer is far too heavy to float, so it rolls along on the riverbed, and all the cameras show us is murky water and an occasional really weird looking fish.

Travel was mostly uneventful after the river crossing, although it proceeded slower than we would have liked due to the over growth and roughness of the terrain. When we’ve almost hit what was once the Kansas-Colorado border, we begin to get scans of a far larger and apparently more dangerous critter.

Due to the seismic disturbance it makes as it dashes around, and the quick glimpses we get from the drone flyovers, I have Jennie on tactical and Miki at the weapons console … just in case.

This creature is larger than a 60-passenger bus. Best guesstimates say it’s about 30 tons or more and bipedal. The damage it does as it dashes through the thick underbrush and trees looks almost the same as after Terra Killer has passed through. OMG … I so hope some lovesick critter doesn’t get any weird ideas.

From the sensor data I get, the critter looks like a giant orange-red iguana. It walks on its hind legs, uses its tail like a rudder, tucks its small front legs into its chest, then runs as fast as any cheetah ever did. Besides the gargantuan size, the thing that makes this critter even more dangerous is that mouth full of teeth and the long, razor-sharp claws on its hands and feet.

We’re in a valley, and this thing looks like it probably rules that valley. My background is primarily medical, so my bioscience training makes me wonder what it eats. What would provide the amount of caloric intake necessary to keep such a large creature alive? The dinosaurs lived by either eating prodigious quantities of plants or by eating other dinosaurs. This thing has to either be a herbivore, which it obviously isn’t, or have at least one large prey species that it feeds on.

It doesn’t take too long before we find its food source: cows. Or what may have once been cows. These are as tall as Miki standing on Jennie’s shoulders and are eating whatever plants they can find, which obviously grow back quickly if the terrain can support these creatures, which it obviously can, since they’re here. They don’t look a lot like the aurochs of the Pleistocene epoch, and those lived in Eurasia, but I’m going to call them aurochs anyway. If Jennie can name something a jackalope, I can call these something that actually existed at one point.

The huge lizard then proves that these giant cattle are at least part of its food supply by easily chasing down and eating one. We all marveled at the speed and skill the over large creature exhibited in its hunt. The rest of the aurochs herd stampedes, fortunately not toward us, to get away from the predator. The lizard then messily chows down on the unlucky aurochs it caught.

“We’re going to have to get across that valley,” I say. “Any ideas?”

“We could try killing it,” Miki suggests.

“Or we could wait until nightfall,” says Clairese. “It has to sleep sometime.”

“As a lizard, if it’s cold-blooded, it probably goes dormant when the sun’s down,” I say.
“Trying to fight it would be taking a chance,” says Tom. “If there’s an easy way around that, I’d rather avoid taking it on.”

“I tend to agree,” I say. “We’ve got weapons, but that thing is … very big. Discretion, valor, all that.”

So we’ll wait until the sun goes down so we can switch on the night vision cameras and use their infrared eyes to see whether the lizard is cold-blooded. “If it is, it’ll fade over time, and go dormant. If it’s warm-blooded, we’ll continue to see its heat signature on the night vision, and we’ll need another plan.”

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It’s easy for the drones to track the behemoth as it roams and hunts while the sun is up. Tom and myself find it peculiar that the beast seems to favor a certain stretch of cliffs. I’ve already suspected that there are several roaming the valley. I assign a drone to that particular area and start a slow survey, trying to ascertain how many of the monsters we’ll be trying to slip past come nightfall. Also, there has to be a reason a creature of that size favors a particular location.

What we find … “What are they?” I ask, looking at some sort of hairy creatures seeming to live in caves along the cliff wall we’re scanning. “They … wait.” We start getting closer and more detailed images. “They’re … bipedal?”

Everyone else comes to look at the screen. “They are!” says Tom.

“Cavemen?” asks Miki.

“Sasquatches?” asks Jennie.

“What?” I say in confusion. Jennie seems to go in for mythical creatures. But … they do look a bit like the mythical Bigfoot. They don’t look much like us; they’re hulking, very hairy bipedal beasts, but they’re still the only other bipedal humanoids we’ve seen so far. “Let’s build up more scans of them.”

From the data we obtain, they’re what humanity has become over the last 2000 years of adapting to a highly toxic radioactive environment. Our entire team was in total shock over this discovery. “I guess we know why we haven’t heard anything on the radio,” Tom says. “These people aren’t going to reinvent radio for a long time.”

We watch the drone footage in shocked silence as we see them hunting and killing some sort of large creature that looks like a cross between a tapir and and a wild boar. The size of the thing is impressive too; my best guess is almost a ton. It’ll provide meat for many individuals for almost a week.

I’m most impressed with their skill with their primitive bows, arrows and spears. Then again, if that’s how they have to feed themselves, it’s understandable. I shake my head, Oh, how the mighty have fallen. To think we actually walked on the moon, and now we live in caves and wear the skins of animals.

I do notice that they avoid the behemoth entirely if they can. We see one unlucky individual do his best with his bow to stop from being a lunch guest for one of the behemoths, although he doesn’t succeed.

I’m now more determined than ever to correct this primitive state if I can. I’m almost positive we’re the last remnant of advanced civilization left. Perhaps when we reach the Cheyenne Mountain facility, things might be different, although I have even less faith in that than before. It finally completely dawns on me just how fortunate we’ve all been to have survived the nuclear war.

After the sun has been down for about an hour, the drones confirm that the lizard behemoths are cold-blooded; their heat signatures fade away into the background, and they go dormant. The drones also detect the heat signature of what turns out to be a large cave with smoke emerging from it. The humanoid creatures seem to have a well-guarded refuge.

The drones do manage to find a cave where at least two of the giant lizards have sheltered for the night. This is good, because we can avoid them. Although, from the sounds of other large beasts echoing across the valley in the darkness, the night may still not be very safe.

I check the battery supply on the drones; now that the sun’s gone down, the batteries are the only thing keeping them operational. I’m more than happy to see that the batteries are good for another 17 hours; it’s a real load off my mind. The sun will be up again long before the batteries expire.

Just as I start the Terra Killer moving forward, Tom reaches over and says, “As thick as this undergrowth is, I’m more than positive we’re making a demon’s noise. Since this is a valley, I’m sure it echoes a long way.”

I slow the pace and agree, “The humanoids are sheltering in a cave, and we know it’s not from the huge lizards. There are other threats. But we still need to get through this valley.”

Tom nods as he turns slightly. “Jennie, you’re on tactical, and Miki, you’re in the gunner's chair.” Clairese took her post at the technical console, and Tom went back to check on the power and drive systems.

I thought about what nocturnal creatures might live in this valley. The Sasquatches hid from them in caves, which they kept heated with fire, so the creatures weren’t apparently attracted by that. But something was out there, or they’d have adapted to be nocturnal, sleeping during the day and moving around when the giant lizards were asleep.

More of the dire wolves? Although there was no shortage of those things, I wasn’t seeing evidence of the jackalopes’ tree damage here. So probably not dire wolves, but that didn’t narrow it down much. It could be almost anything. Dinosaur throwbacks probably aren’t out of the question – the huge lizards are almost that already. I might even believe flying fish or sentient trees at this point.

Just then there’s a shriek from Miki in the gunner’s turret and a loud scraping clank from the roof of the Terra Killer. “Miki?” I shout into the microphone. “You OK?”

“Something just came out of nowhere, scraped the roof, and vanished again,” she says. “I only caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye. My heart’s pounding. There’s definitely something out here.”

“Airborne nocturnal predators!” I say. “Turning all the cameras straight up – almost all, anyway, since we need to see where we’re going. Night vision mode is already on; aiming some infrared lighting upward too.” I keep us going slowly but steadily across the valley. I’m sure it sounds to every animal for miles like something big and heavy is making its way through the underbrush – after all, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Then I see it – just for a half second, as it enters the range of the infrared lighting and strikes again at the roof. Its huge eyes reflect the light and shine brightly; its outstretched wings are graceful and silent, especially compared to the noise we’re making. Its grasping talons look razor-sharp. And it’s enormous.

“That’s it! This valley has giant owls,” I say, replaying the video to get a better look. “Looks like it could easily carry off one of the humanoids and might even be able to lift an aurochs. It isn’t going to be able to lift the Terra Killer, though, even if it can find something to grip, but it hasn’t found that out yet.”

“OK, so it’s dangerous, but not to us,” says Miki. “Should I fire at it if it tries again?”

“I think so,” I tell her. “Even if you only put a few shots into it, maybe that’ll convince it to go find some easier prey.”

“It can’t hide from radar,” says Jennie. “I’m realigning the dishes.” The tactical display soon showed the positions of several airborne targets, some clearly circling us.

“Path analysis and prediction is running, I see,” says Miki. “One seems to be swooping in for another run at us! And I should fire … now!” We hear the minigun firing a very short burst, and we see a huge but very surprised looking owl recoiling and limping back into the sky, flying erratically and not moving very quickly anymore.

“Nice one! I think you gave it something to think about,” I say.

“That owl just got a little bit wiser,” Miki says.

Jennie adds, “Let’s hope the other ones learn too.”

From the best I can tell from the scans, the birds are moving extremely fast. I move the Terra Killer closer to a small rise, meaning the birds will have to choose a more direct attack that Miki can target.

It doesn’t take very long before several of them are circling us again. One brave one begins flying along the cliff face preparing for another attack. It doesn’t expect to feel an arrow tickling its ribs. I move the scanner dish to terrain mode as fast as I can, but whatever shot that arrow is well hidden, until I turn on infrared.

The creature is obviously pulling the flight feathers from the bird’s wings but is making no further actions other than field dressing his kill.

I say to Tom over the interlink, “Man, I shoot a bow for sport. To have one of those people teach me their technique would be so amazing.”

Tom replies, “It might be an adventure we can take at a later time. We would first have to make some type of contact with them. From what I’ve witnessed so far, that might not be possible.”

I nod my head in agreement as I turn the vehicle more westerly and I know I’m crossing Kansas/ Colorado border by this time. Our makeshift GPD (Ground Position Drone) system we’re using from the drones shows the current area with a semitransparent overlay of a map I’m familiar with. The land has changed. I can see the Rocky Mountains on the borders of the scan, although their shape is drastically altered and has many divots out of it.

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Finding the Cheyenne Mountain facility is easy – well, finding the mountain is easy. All I have to do is look for the high radiation contamination from the nuclear bombing of its entrance. We run into several herds of jackalopes and several packs of the dire wolves along the way, but they seem to avoid us.

We find a large herd of something that looks something like a cross between a buffalo and a moose. It’s a large beast, with thick fur and strangely-shaped antlers. Miki takes one down. Teresa, the biologist, takes many samples and pictures before she allows Tom and me to skin and eviscerate the beast. The meat is surprisingly tender and extremely tasty that night at supper. We store the rest in stasis for future consumption.

Nights are filled with large flying predators, but after our first interaction with them, they leave us alone. True, several of them might circle a few times, but they quickly leave.

We sit at the table, using the mess area as a conference room. “From what I see,” I say, “any survivors will be deeply buried somewhere within the many miles of underground tunnels.”

Several images of a group of hulking individuals wearing animal fur appear on the flatscreen. Tom points to it and says, “If they’re alive after all this time, they must have undergone major mutations to survive. The only other living humanoids we’ve found are basically troglodytes.”

Jennie clicks a few keys on the laptop on the table, and the images on the flatscreen change to those of what used to be the entrance to the facility. “From what I can find about the Cheyenne Mountain Facility,” she says, “most of the data is either lost or highly classified, and I have, as of yet, been unable to access ...”

I interrupt, “Don’t obsess over it; the data we need now sits over there.” I point in the direction of the mountains, still in the distance, but visible now.

Jennie replies, “Good, because cracking those encrypted databases is time consuming.” She turns and brings up another picture of what used to be the entrance to the facility, then continues her briefing. “Cheyenne Mountain used to be a triple-peaked mountain in El Paso County, Colorado, southwest of downtown Colorado Springs. That huge radioactive hotspot over there used to be Colorado Springs.” A small inset of a map of what used to be the city appears, and Jennie points to it before continuing, “The mountain served as a host for military, communications, recreational, and residential functions. The underground operations center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) was built during the Cold War to monitor North American airspace for missile launches and Soviet military aircraft. Built deep within granite, it was designed to withstand the impact and fallout from a nuclear bomb.”

Miki says, “Well, from the looks of those mountains, they took a fair share of hits. From the data the drones have returned, radiation levels are very high, and the entire entrance was obliterated.”

The images on the screen change. It’s supposed to be a picture of the same location as the one Jennie had previously displayed. It’s more than obvious that nothing of the entrance has survived. The landscape doesn’t even come close to resembling what the database says it should.

I sit back in my chair and sigh. “Is there a possibility of another entrance?”

Jennie says, “None that’s recorded – nothing unclassified, at least. There are a few shafts and elevator locations shown on some of the maintenance maps. Based on what the drones have sent back, we will have one heck of a time trying to get into the place. Remember, it was designed to stop people from doing what we’re attempting. But that’s what we brought the ground-penetrating radar for.”

“I suppose we should start surveying,” I say. “Do we have a plan?”

Tom replies, “We’ve got a search grid.” A map appears on one of the screens with a grid of points highlighted on it. “All we have to do is make measurements at the designated locations. Move to point A1, do a scan. Move to point A2, do a scan. Keep doing it until all the points are scanned. Collect the data, analyze it, and we’ll get a picture of what it looks like down to several hundred meters underground. If there are any passages, even if their entrance is collapsed, we’ll find them this way.”

“Well … let’s do it,” I say.

I drive the vehicle for the first few scans. I move us to the proper coordinates, stop, wait about five minutes for the turret to extend out of the bottom of the vehicle, run its scan, and retract again, then move to the next coordinates and repeat the process. Then I set it on autopilot for the rest of this series of points. We all watch the data come in and watch the analysis appear on the screens as the computer processes it.

“Look at those,” Miki says, pointing to a part of the image showing some significant voids and tunnels. “Those are definitely human-made. Look how rectangular and straight they are. So at least some chambers and tunnels survive down there.”

“But they’re 50 meters down,” says Jennie.

“Yeah,” says Miki. “It’s true; the question is whether anything connects that underground world with this one up here.”

When the Terra Killer had reached the end of its current series of scans, I drove us to the starting point of the next series, and we continued. We had a growing map of the tunnels below us. “Still no entrance,” says Jennie.

“I’m not worried yet,” I say. “This is only the second row out of 25. We’re nowhere near done. Unless we find a good passage before then, that is.”

Over time we completed more and more rows of measurements, but the sun started to go down. “It’s not as if this requires light,” I say, “but do we keep going?”

“I think we should, for now,” said Tom. “It isn’t until we get to row 18 that we start having significant vertical movement between points, having to find roundabout ways to get from one point to another. That’s the sort of thing we’ll want to do in daylight.”

“And the nocturnal creatures aren’t out just yet,” I agree. “We’ll just keep going for now and see.”

It isn’t until we get to row 12, and it’s starting to get well and truly dark, that I hear a gasp from Jennie, who’s watching the computer analysis screen at the moment. “Look!” she shouts.

I quickly make my way to that screen. There, before our eyes, is a clear image of a tunnel just a few meters down, with a definite gradient. “It looks like it’s clogged with rubble,” I say, “but that’s exactly what we’d expect!”

The next point’s data confirms that we’re seeing a tunnel that should come closer to the surface fairly nearby. By this time everyone is looking at the screen, fascinated. Jennie superimposes the tunnel’s position on the aerial drone map of the area. “It’s preliminary, but it looks like it could come out somewhere around here,” she says, pointing to one of many rubble-filled areas that had been a box canyon in the old maps before the bombardment.

“That’s a logical place to put an entrance,” I say. “We’d have to excavate. But it’d be a lot easier than excavating 50 meters straight down.”

“We’d have to excavate in a highly radioactive hot zone,” said Miki. “That spot saw significant nuclear bombardment, back in the day, according to the radiation scans.”

“The question is whether we want to dynamite it,” I say. “It would be faster if we set charges, but it might also attract attention – and it might cause collapses below.”

“Probably best to gather more data before we make any decisions like that,” says Tom. “We don’t even know yet whether that’s where it comes out.” We can all agree with that.

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The next morning, we take more readings, and they confirm that the tunnel we’ve found is going in the direction we thought, so I decide to move the Terra Killer toward what used to be the box canyon. The radiation detectors keep going off, so I keep steering around the hot spots. I see the pile of rubble filling what was once the canyon. I stop. The radiation is pretty high here, and we can’t go any further.

“So we’ve got a lot of radiation and tons of rubble,” I say.

“Let’s do a scan here,” says Miki. There is general agreement – there’s no harm in getting more readings. So we run the scan sequence – the turret extends out of the bottom of the Terra Killer, and within it, the maser goes through its pattern. With bated breath we watch the data appear on the screen.

Combined with the data we already have, it’s very clear. They had a tunnel here once, and its entrance is still there, under the rubble. It leads under the canyon wall and down at a rather steep grade. “If we can clear the rubble,” says Tom, “we can get at the entrance, but we don’t want to collapse more rubble, because it might block the passage.”

“What can we do?” I ask.

“Well, let me run some code on the computer,” says Jennie. “They had some interesting software back at the military base, and I think they had a shaped charge analysis program. Can we get more detailed data about the shape of the rubble?”

“I might be able to temporarily mount the maser on the front radar turret,” says Miki. As usual, these two can do the impossible when they’re together. Miki puts on a radiation suit, and we cover her with the guns just in case any of the local fauna get any ideas, but she isn’t outside for long. She soon has the ground penetrating radar scanning forward toward the rubble instead, and we get an excellent 3-D picture of the pile, with every rock and pebble shown in detail.

“OK,” says Jennie, “this is great. This military demolitions software is telling us exactly where to put shaped charges – if we have any. Do we have any of those with us?”

“We do, actually,” says Tom. “I packed some. I knew the mission was to get into tunnels that might well be full of collapsed debris. I’m not entirely sure they’re still good.”

“Were they in stasis storage?” I ask.

“Yes.”

“Then they’re still good.”

“OK, then,” Tom says. “Let me see that output.”

This time Tom puts on a radiation suit and goes out while Miki covers him with the weapons. Jennie guides him with the data from the charge analyzer software. He’s very careful, and it takes almost an hour to place everything, together with remote detonators. I haven’t seen too much demolitions work, but this is more complex than anything I’ve even heard of. There are charges all over the pile, top to bottom, front and back, in all different directions.

“OK,” he says once he’s back inside, “we’ll want to back away.” All the detonator wires lead to a single remote box that’s out of line of sight from the rubble pile, so it’s not as if the wires lead to the vehicle. Miki has removed the maser from the forward radar turret and stowed it, so I slowly back us away without fear of damaging that delicate piece of equipment. Once we’re also out of line of sight from the rubble and its crazy quilt of charges and wires, I stop.

Tom checks with everyone, then says, “Fire in the hole,” and pushes the button on the touch screen. We feel a sequence of vibrations that seems oddly crunchy, if that’s the word – a sequence of explosions that don’t quite take place all at the same time, separated by milliseconds at most.

The detonation does things that I didn’t know an explosion could do; a mass of rocks was hurled straight out of the canyon, while more bits were blown straight up and out of it. The air was full of pulverized rock powder, and without the radar we couldn’t see anything. “Well, if there was anyone watching for us, they know we’re here now,” I say.

“Let’s let the dust settle or blow away, then see what we can see,” says Tom. So that’s just what we do. It becomes possible to see the path ahead again in about five minutes, and after five more it’s even easier to see. There are new rocks all over the ground in front of us, but it was rocky already. I nudge us forward and turn us to face into the canyon.

At the end of the canyon, with a few rocks still lying around but nothing we can’t manage now, is the remains of a concrete bulkhead with a rusted steel hatch. “How did the explosion not destroy this?” I ask.

“Carefully designed and set shaped charges,” said Miki. “That software must be amazing.”

“Its documentation says that it was carefully researched for decades by military demolitions specialists,” says Jennie. “Our tax dollars at work blowing things up.”

I press forward a bit. We haven’t gone far into the canyon when all of a sudden, the vehicle cants forward, then stops suddenly after nosing in.

We sit for a few minutes and get our heads straight. I realize that we’re right on top of where the rubble pile used to be, and the charge must’ve pulverized the stone beneath us. A real fear tingles down my spine as I put the vehicle in reverse and pull back slowly. I hope it can climb back out of the powder-filled hole we’ve fallen into, and slowly but surely, it does. It slowly backs out of the cavity. I park on solid ground.

Tom, myself, and Clairese exit the vehicle in radiation suits and examine the terrain. From the looks of things, the ground used to be rock, and now it wasn’t anymore. Clairese kneels down and prods the hole we had created with a measuring stick. She looks over her shoulder and says, “It looks like we’ve got about two feet of dust right here at the edge, but it gets deeper than I can measure pretty quickly as I go toward the center. It might be that this was concrete here and not natural stone.”

“That would have thrown the software off,” said Jennie over the radio, as she’s still in the vehicle, “but not so much that it didn’t work at all.”

“Well, we’re not driving the vehicle all the way in here, then,” I say. “Does it look safe enough for us to walk around it near the edges?”

Clairese tried it, prodding the ground in front of her first as she carefully skirted the hole, hugging the canyon wall. “I think so,” she said. “Then there’s that thing to deal with.” She pointed at the large rusty hatch.

“Yeah, keeping the explosive force away from that hatch was something I carefully programmed in,” says Jennie. “I didn’t want us to smash it, or throw any debris down the tunnel.”

“How do we get this …” says Clairese, tapping the hatch with her aluminum measuring rod. Its hinges crumble, and it starts to slide off the concrete bulkhead. Clairese squeaks and jumps to one side. “I didn’t do it!” The remains of the hatch hit the rocky ground and fall backward with a clang.

“It was probably ready to do that at any time,” I say, “and a large explosion going off near it certainly didn’t help, shaped charges or not. And … well, there’s our way in. How’s it look?”

In answer, Clairese sits on the edge and drapes her legs over, turns around, and lowers herself into the tunnel below.

Her muffled voice echoes back, “It’s fairly clear. We will need light though. Other than that, as far as I can see down the tunnel, all is mostly clear. There is some minor debris, but nothing blocking the tunnel as far as I can tell. The grade’s pretty steep, but it isn’t smooth, so I doubt slipping will be an issue.”

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I have Miki and Jennie put on their radiation suits and join us. I also make sure that each of us has one of the flywheel torches. They’re very bright, adjustable light beams, and never run out of power. The packs are heavy, but we’re carrying a full day’s worth of water and rations so we can get a look around.


After we all enter the tunnel, we can see that it appears to have been made to drive on at one time. After all this time, though, debris has accumulated, although not so badly that we can’t walk. The steady click of our Geiger counter is a constant reminder of the radiation hazard.

We descend into the dark tunnel for a good distance before it levels off and becomes a huge room. From the looks of it, it has been ransacked long ago and left. Whatever was stored or placed in it is long gone. All that’s left is dust and debris.

Jennie shouts from across the large room where I can see her light, “Over here, I found something.”

As I walk to her I ask, “Whacha find there?”

Jennie leans against a very corroded door. Its frame and much of the surrounding supporting masonry comes away and falls into a large pile of debris and rust. The other side holds the grisly scene of many desiccated, mummified corpses. From the looks of a lot of them, something had been eating them.

I say softly, “Whatever happened here happened many years ago.” I kneel and examine one of the predated corpses. I can actually see teeth marks on some of the bones where something gnawed it. “I’m not real sure, but from the looks of this mess, they ran out of food and started eating each other.”

Tom has been examining the room further and discovers another corroded door. Opening the corroded door presents no issues, as it more or less crumbles away to rust powder.

On the other side is a totally destroyed computer system. There are several stacks of some kind of pages not made of normal paper. The rest of the room shows major age related issues. The stasis equipment in our facility managed to keep this from happening there, thank goodness.

Tom comments, “It doesn’t appear they managed to dig their way out.”

Miki says, “From what our preliminary scans have shown, this place is huge. We aren’t equipped to go much farther in. We only have supplies enough for maybe a day, then we’ll need more water and food.”

I reply, “Lets head back to Terra Killer and make better plans now that we sort of know what we’re up against.”

We return up the sloped tunnel – almost paradoxically, this goes more quickly than coming down, because we took our sweet time, making every step carefully, because we didn’t know whether there might be chasms or other hazards. Now we’re retracing our steps across known territory.

“It’s been six hours,” I say once we’re back in the vehicle and can synchronize our time. “That’s down and back up plus our exploration time in that huge cavern.”

“The cavern appears to correspond to this signal,” says Miki, pointing at a section of the 3-D data analysis of the radar data. The tunnel did appear to lead down to a large cavity. It got more confusing the farther down the radar attempted to penetrate, but we correlated what we’d seen with the radar data to get some idea of what other passageways may lead off from the large chamber.

Tom muses, “Every hour further we go in means an hour to get back, so we could’ve gone an additional nine hours … as it turns out. I agree that coming back was a good idea, though. We have to get our bearings.”

“Find anything in those old printouts?” I ask.

“They’re nothing that would have been classified,” Tom replies. “Provisioning reports, contractor correspondence, electricity usage records. I guess we can confirm that the place was built and provisioned, and used electricity, before the war … but then, we already knew those things.”

“Well, maybe if we go farther in, we’ll find out more,” I say.

So we make our plans, get some rest, and prepare to go back down.

We restock our packs and get ready to go again, the five of us. The descent back to the large cavern is uneventful. Once we get there, we continue onward to the opposite end of the chamber until we reach the far wall, where we find a curious thing. Our 3-D radar map indicates that there’s probably another tunnel that connects here, but it looks like a blank wall, just eroded concrete.

Clairese squints at the wall. “Wait,” she says. “Turn out the lights.”

“What?” I say.

“Turn out the lights,” repeats Clairese. “Just for a moment. Let our eyes adjust.”

We do. It’s dark – fantastically dark. But then our eyes start to adjust, and a rectangular patch of faintly glowing light begins to appear right where the tunnel should be. “What the …” Tom says.

“That’s made of some kind of glowing fungus,” says Clairese. “There are several species – well, there were, in our time. There could be more now, due to mutations. It’s been camouflaged, carefully formed to look and maybe even feel like the concrete surface around it, but it’s made of living fungus.”

“What – could cause that?” Miki asks apprehensively.

“Well, let’s use logic,” Clairese says. “Something with intelligence. Something that wants to remain hidden. Something that anticipates that someone will come along looking for an entrance. Something that knows how to shape living fungus any way it wants. And something that’s unable to tell the difference between the fungus and the wall – something blind, in other words.” She turns her light back on. “And that something doesn’t usually come out here, but if we go in there, we’ll likely be meeting it, because we’re going to have to break down its carefully-built fungus wall.”

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We return to the Terra Killer for better lighting and other types of archeological equipment we’ll need to enter that opening. Tom and myself examine the fungi and even make several scrapings. Where we scrape, it glows brightly with its cold fire.

After I scrape a small bit of the fungi into my hand and Tom has examined it with me, he says, “This stuff is amazing. It has the solidity and consistency of gypsum board.”

Clarese asks, “Sorry, but what is gypsum board?”

Tom answers, “Sheet Rock. Someone has blocked off that entrance with something they created like sheetrock. Obviously they had no access to gypsum to make sheetrock, so they made Slime Rock.”

We all laugh as we unload the new supplies and more foodstuffs from Terra Killer’s stasis storage. The trip back is uneventful except for one tasty encounter. We manage to kill a creature that seems like it’s a deer, and it tastes magnificent at supper.

It takes us several hours to set up the lighting and get all our digging and other equipment we think we might need to the blocked passage. Once the lighting is enabled, the large cavern shows its secrets as we stop and take a much-needed break, set up an operations camp so we can stop making the long trip back to Terra Killer, and eat lunch.

Far off on a side we haven’t explored, we find the remains of some badly corroded and decrepit equipment. As best Tom and I can tell, this was at one time some type of excavating equipment and a few farming implements. All of it shows signs of massive neglect for a great many years.

Tom comments, “I know at some time in the past a large group of individuals were kept here for food. The evidence of it is over there.” He points. “Once we take this partition down, I have a gut feeling that whatever is on the other side has strong human-eating tendencies.”

Miki says, “If that’s the case, I’m getting several of those 363LE particle pulse rifles we packed.”

Tom adds, “I managed to get several thousand rounds of small arms ammo refurbished enough that it’s reliable for use.”

As Jennie follows Miki to the small wheeled robot we use as a mule and retrieves two of the assault weapons and two large satchels of premagged ammo, she says, “Good, I’m taking two N662-GX assault rifles for me and Miki.”

Tom comments to me, “I see why they forced those two into stasis; they’re indispensable.”

I smile, “Don’t forget about your talents. Without you, a lot of what we have operational now wouldn’t be.”

Tom laughs, “Remember, without your contribution, none of us would even be here.”

I don’t know how to feel about the last complement, although I also know it’s true. I pick up one of the small electric bladed cutting tools and turn it on. I’m slightly surprised it works so well. I go to the fungus rock panel and slowly cut around the door opening lines one of the other crew members has drawn around the location of the actual door.

The whine and ringing cutting sounds of the blade sound loud among the powdered sawdust that goes everywhere in large copious clouds. We have to clean the dust off the faceplates of our radiation suits every few minutes. Very shortly, though, Tom is removing the door-shaped panel, revealing a tunnel lit with an eerie green/blue light. The illumination isn't as bright as our light apparatus, but it’s bright enough for us to see clearly that this tunnel leads off through several junctions before the distance became too great for me to see.

We slowly make our way further into the facility, shining our torches all around. The signs of many decades of neglect are obvious – this isn’t a well frequented area, assuming anyone or anything still lived down here. Before we come to the first junction, we see another corroded door. This one is different; it also has some sort of barred gate that has corroded to the point that it’s fallen off its hinges and lies in a moldering pile on the ground.

The door’s a joke. It’s just a layer of corrosion that hasn’t yet succumbed to gravity. Pushing through it is sort of dusty and slightly messy, but no other issues. Once we’re inside, my heart sinks. I was hoping to find some kind of archival data – a computer, those preserved non-paper pages, anything.

We entered what used to be a large and very sophisticated supercomputer center. Many years of neglect and corrosion have taken a massive toll on what we see. Tom does manage to find a large cabinet filled with the strange pages made of something not paper that have managed to survive. We carefully empty the cabinet and load its contents on the mule-bot that Jennie and Miki built for safety to carry back and study further tonight. The bot trundles back up toward the Terra Killer with its load.

But this area still looks as if no one’s been here for so long there’s no way of telling; the undisturbed dust we’re leaving footprints in stands in silent testimony. We finish searching the former computer center; there’s nothing else left for us.

Back out in the corridor, its rough walls overgrown with the glowing fungus, we decide to go further down. “We’ve got about 2 hours before we’ll have to turn around and come back up,” says Miki, checking the supply gauges, “and of course, we can take a little bit longer, but we have to watch it. We don’t want to run out of water.”

“So we keep going for now,” I say, “and discover what we can discover.”

“Remember that something down here eats humans, or at least used to,” says Tom, looking around warily.

“But whatever made that fungus door was blind,” says Clairese.

“Maybe that means we’ll see it before it sees us,” says Jennie.

“Well, that kind of goes without saying, doesn’t it?” Miki jokes. “If it’s blind, everything it does happens before it sees us.”

“Did you hear something?” says Clairese with a gulp.

We stop and listen, but we don’t hear or see anything, not even with the night vision scopes, and Tom says, ”Well, we can’t be looking over our shoulder the whole time. Clairese, you take the rear and shout out if you see anything. Jennie, you take the left side. Miki, take the right side. Eric, you and I will work together to look ahead. First one who sees anything, shout it out – not necessarily literally.”

We advance steadily but carefully this way. It’s not like exploring a cave; this used to be a concrete-lined passageway with a tiled floor. There are constant junctions and turnoffs that go straight into the distance. It would’ve been nice to have a map of the place, but its layout was of course classified.

“I thought I saw … never mind,” says Jennie quietly. “My eyes must have been playing tricks.” Miki tightens her grip on her rifle.

And then suddenly we’re in a huge, wide open area. There are buildings here, actual multi-story buildings, and stone columns that must have been natural at one time that go floor to ceiling … however high the ceiling goes. It’s like it was once a city under a mountain – they must have started with a vast natural cavern and converted it for human habitation. “Heads up,” says Tom. I actually look literally upward. And looking back at me, if indeed it can see, is something like a naked human, seen in green night vision of course, its eyes shining in bright infrared. It is far above me, clinging to the cavern wall, and in an instant it scuttles away into a crevice or passage that must be up there.

“We’re not alone,” I say.

“No, we’re not,” says Tom. I follow his gaze down what might be considered a street and see something similar vanish behind a building.

“We mean no harm!” I say loudly, because it’s not as if they don’t already know we’re here. They aren’t attacking – yet, at least. “We can defend ourselves if we have to, but we’re just here to find information, maybe manufacturing equipment.” My voice echoes faintly back to me after a while. “Ingequipment. Quipment. Ipment. Ment. Ttt.”

There’s no response, but there are faint scuttling sounds coming from basically every direction. The cavern is so tremendous, though, that some of them might be echoes.

“How was this not destroyed by nuclear bombardment?” I ask.

“Part of it probably caved in, just not this part,” says Tom. “But we’re really far under a mountain. This was designed to withstand just such a nuclear bombardment – carefully calculated and engineered. Even nuclear weapons have their limits. A mile of solid stone – well …”

“Where’s the manufactory?” I ask.

“If I were designing it … probably a big building like that one we see over that way,” he says, pointing.

“Let’s go … carefully,” I urge. We start stepping that way. We sight occasional creatures – they’re definitely humanoid, but they may not like the look of our weapons, because they quickly slip out of sight. The scuttling and whispering sounds echo directionlessly.

We start to approach the large building. We turn a corner to see a large group of the creatures on the steps leading up to its doorway. They shout at us, brandishing claws and weapons.

We finally get a good look at them. We’re still using night vision, but they’re clearly somehow mutated from humans. Lanky, with long fingers ending in stone-gripping claws, long white hair, shining vestigial eyes with no irises or pupils, sharp pointy teeth. They wear nothing or tatters of clothing. They’re crowded around one with slightly better clothing and a square hat of some kind, evidently some sort of leader. This one says something in a commanding voice, but I can’t understand it at all.

“We … we’ve come in peace,” I say. “I’m not here to fight you.” I give my rifle to Tom and step forward one pace, hands in the air.

The leader says words I didn’t understand, so I figure that they probably didn’t understand what I just said either. I hope they understand my gestures – assuming they can see them somehow. Maybe they have some kind of strange underground senses. Some of them approach tentatively, sniffing deeply at the air around us and making clicking noises somehow.

“Echolocation?” asks Clairese. “They … what?” Some of them seem to have noticed her. They cautiously make clicking noises at her and sniff the air around her now. They talk to each other in their language. The word, whatever it is, seems to pass among them and reach their leader. The leader says something. The ones nearest Clairese bow down before her, crouching on the floor. They say something in what seems like a reverent tone.

“Do they … think Clairese is our leader?” asks Miki.

“Seems like it,” says Jennie, “but why?”

“Is it because … I mean, what if they can tell that I’m … what if they think I’m two-spirit?” Clairese wonders, looking at the bowing subterranean humanoids nearest her. “It used to be said that some cultures revered people who were, you know, born male but living as women. They thought they were sacred.”

“Can they tell that?” asked Tom.

“Well, with no vision, their other senses have certainly developed to compensate,” I say, “and with radiation mutating them, evolution may have happened far more quickly. They seem to have acute aural and olfactory senses, at the very least.”

“Maybe they can hear you moving and speaking in a feminine way, but your scent doesn’t match?” asks Jennie. “Or maybe trans women smell a certain way to them, and it’s close enough that you smell like their trans women? I’m just guessing here, though.”

I’m trying to wrap my mind around the thought that these blind subterranean humanoids have transgender people among them when two more approach, not bowing, dressed in less tattered fabrics. The others defer and bow to them as well. They move gracefully.

“Are these the … priestesses of their people?” Clairese asks. “I don’t know what to do.” They reach out and feel Clairese’s clothing; she’s wearing the same radiation suit that we’re all wearing, though, so I have no idea how they could smell her or feel anything different. Maybe Clairese somehow moves differently? She definitely speaks in a feminine manner, so maybe that’s it? They gesture at Clairese, putting their hands in the air and then lowering them, palms together in front of them. Clairese tries making the same gesture. They intone something in their language, so Clairese tries to chant in similar tones, “Peace be with you, revered ones.”

“What’s that?” asks Jennie.

“Something I just made up,” Clairese replies quietly. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Well, I’m going to be respectful to you so maybe they’ll let us see the factory,” I say, and bow to Clairese and the priestesses. Tom, Miki, and Jennie do the same. “I hope this works.”

“Just hoping they don’t eat us at this point,” says Tom.

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A small, almost nude boy runs up to one of the priestesses and kneels. He holds up an extremely ornate box, which she takes while he pants from the effort. The priestess gracefully comes to Clairese and also kneels as she offers the box up.

Clariese asks pensively, “What should I do?”

Tom’s reply is, “Take the box and open it; see what’s in it.”

Miki and Jennie say together, “Yea. Whatever is in that box might resolve some of our questions.” Then they look at each other and giggle.

The box has weight as Clairese takes it and starts to examine it. She can see some kind of labels used to be on the box, but time has taken too great a toll for them to be legible. The lid fits snugly as she wiggles the top off. To her most astonished surprise, the box holds within it perfectly preserved pictures and data about … her?

Tom notices the sheer incredulous look on Clairese’s face and approaches her. He asks, “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.”

Clairese hands the box to Tom, saying, “It’s all about me and the fact I was the foremost hydroponics expert in the US. It also details my being placed in stasis.”

Tom takes the box and examines several of the stored ... not paper pages that tell a complete history of Clairese, including the transgender aspects and even several really pretty pictures of prewar Clariese dressed as a girl for a night out.

Tom has a tingle of hope run down his spine as he turns to the still kneeling priestess, “If you have knowledge of what this is and who she is, you must still be able to speak our current language.”

Another more elderly of the priestesses hobbles over. That’s when it dawns on me what the rags she wears used to be. It’s a lab technician’s coat … or what’s left of it, after many years. How could fabric several thousands of years old still exist? Perhaps there’s a storage area where some things are still preserved?

She says in the broken rasp of the elderly, “Can make some word. Accordin’ ta tha gran’sirs, food runded out an tha … quipment?” Tom nods that he understands the broken speech. “Brokted affer tha sky fell. Was tol’ she gonna come ‘n makes it ok. We wait long time … she finally come.”

The elderly priestess stands up proudly as she waves her hands at the small group of other priestesses and says, “All 2.” She holds up her hand with index and middle finger raised, then closes them together, “Both mallie an femallie.”

I say, “That explains the attraction to Clairese. Now, how do they, ummm, see? Aren’t they blind?”

The priestess replies, “We no blind. Know many you no can tell.” She rubs her bare arms. “Can even feel and make see better.” She starts making a clicking noise for an instant, then says, “That maka imaaggie mind see.”

Tom says to me, “Interesting, echolocation developed to the next level.”

I say, “If she can speak our brand of language, perhaps we can get some major questions answered … if she has the ability to answer them, that is.”

Clairese says, “I don’t care whether they help us or not; I want to help them.” To the elderly priestess she says, “Do you have hydroponics facilities? Places where plants grow in water, or used to grow? Can you show me? I want to help.”

“We show,” says the wizened old priestess. “I tell to other ones; they no talk the book-talk.” She says something in their language to the leader, who says something back, and they seem to come to an agreement. “We show,” the priestess says. “Come and we show. They no hurt.”

“We will come,” says Clairese, looking at the rest of us.

I nod. “We’ll come. We’ll do whatever we can to help fix up their hydroponics.”

The priestess follows, walking and leaning on her walking stick, which might once have been a length of some electrical conduit or steel piping. The other priestesses walk with her respectfully. Clairese follows after, and we follow Clairese. She seems to have the most pull around here of any of us.

Several of the buildings were in poor states of repair, but others were actively in use and had been patched up, possibly by cannibalizing the other buildings. Sorry, that’s a poor choice of words, isn’t it? I’m still not sure whether they would have eaten us if it hadn’t been for Clairese and the fantastic revelation that there were records about the stasis project here. But this is one hypothesis I don’t want to test by experimentation.

They lead us to a long, narrow building. It’s odd, in that it’s one of the few that’s been patched up but isn’t obviously being used right now. Clairese goes inside, and we follow. The place is pretty bare – the only materials that haven’t corroded or rotted away to nothing are ceramics and a few metals. They’ve kept it clean.

“This … could be a lot worse,” says Clairese. “Our hydroponic gardens were in almost this bad a shape, once I cleared away the unusable debris, I got them working, didn’t I? Of course, we had more supplies. But … I don’t know what they have, because I haven’t found out yet.”

She starts talking to the priestesses, trying to make it known what she needed, sometimes paging through the sheets of non-paper and pointing at photos of things. The priestesses talk to each other, and talk to others as well, no doubt about what Clairese is asking about. She gets Tom and Miki in on it too, and they offer opinions.

Soon more of the seemingly blind humanoids come with different types of supplies – copper piping and wiring, other pieces of ceramic, some aluminum frame components, and many other things. Some of the biggest issues there’s no solution for – there are no lighting elements of any kind, neither bulbs nor LEDs, that have survived the test of time. For those we’ll need the factory that I know is around here somewhere.

Clairese has something she can show them. “We did bring some things with us,” she says to the priestesses. “Some of it is still on the surface, up there, but some is right here. See here.” She finds in her pack a charged power cell and a hydroponic light. “The plants will need this.” She turns it on, pointed at the growing frames.

“Ahh, this called light,” says the older priestess. “No see with things you call eyes. Can feel. Make plants get big. Then eat.”

“Yes, and take the seeds, and plant more, and keep doing that,” says Clairese. “But you will need two things – the growing solution, and the power to make the light.”

“Always need the grow water, and the light power,” says one priestess, nodding.

“But I can show you how to make the … the grow water,” says Clairese, “and as for the power, well, there are several ways … Tom and Miki know more about that than I do …”

“We use methane or solar, or a reactor,” Tom says, “but I don’t know what power generators you have here, and how well they’re maintained. You haven’t had light for a very long time.”

“Old stories say light making broked long ago, when sky fell,” says the oldest priestess. “Nobody could fix.”

“Do you have factories, where we could make things?” asks Tom. “We could help you make solar panels, if the facilities can be brought back online. One of the things we came here to find was the factories. If we could help make them work, maybe we could make things for both of us.”

“You know place of machines?” asks the old priestess.

“Place of machines, elders say, gots be saved,” says another.

“Save for time when others come, fix,” another says. They talk amongst themselves in their language.

“This ‘place of machines’ sounds like it could be a factory,” I say as they confer.

“Place of machines, we show,” says the old priestess. They lead us to the largest building, which we saw earlier. Inside are the hugest, rustiest old machines I’ve ever seen. Perhaps if you peeled away the rust, there might be steel underneath it, but the parts wouldn’t fit together, being too small by several inches. But still … Tom’s clever, and so is Miki. Jennie, as a software engineer, isn’t going to be too useful right now, but maybe soon.

But they all start looking over everything. Tom has some ideas.

The priestesses, meanwhile, have been talking to others of their people, and soon one of them says to Clairese, “He say there stories about black rock that make power out of light. They in old place of staying.”

“Make … power out of light?” asks Clairese. “Solar panels?”

“If we could get solar panels up onto the mountain and run cables down here, they could have all the light they need,” says Tom. “Especially since they only need power for hydroponics and maybe manufacturing. But we’d have to figure out how to drill down all that way. And it’s probably pretty radioactive up there.

Miki and Jennie grin at each other.

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“You know, drilling a vertical hole is pretty easy, really, if it only has to be big enough for a cable,” Miki says. We’re back in the Terra Killer, and she and Jennie are watching the progress data. They’ve made a small drilling robot in the Terra Killer’s machine shop out of parts we brought with us, and right now it’s drilling straight down from the top of the mountain toward the mountain people’s cavern. We’ve decided to call them that – the “mountain people.” It sounds much better than “blind subterranean humanoids.”

“It’s already gone 800 feet,” says Jennie, looking at the diagram on the screen. “Only about 6000 more feet to go.” The mountain people did indeed find a storage room that has some solar panels in it, and they’re well preserved, so far underground. Some of the solar panels are being affixed to the mountaintop by other robots; it’s very radioactive up there, as we predicted – bad for humans, but not enough to bother robots. We still have them build a fortified enclosure for the panels. We don’t need something blundering into them and damaging them. Not many prospects for making more anytime soon.

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I’m amazed at how fast Clairese has refurbished one of the large hydro-pods. I realize it’s only a matter of reclaiming the grow racks within the pod, which turns out to be simple once they showed us the vacuum-sealed stores.

Miki and Jennie have managed to drill a perfect hole from the small solar farm we established to a quickly assembled controls and inverter station Tom and one of the others on the expedition named Randy threw together. The power cable is thick enough on its own that pushing it down through the hole isn’t an issue. They sealed around the place the cable ran into the rock so there won’t be water leakage from rain.

Light once again blooms brightly in the darkness as the hydro-pod comes to life. Clairese makes minor adjustments to luminosity to better make the proper environment for the plants. The Priestess and many of the mountain people gather a respectful distance away while, it’s obvious, heavy discussions in their own language quietly pass among them.

Tom says quietly to me, “Must be a real surprise.”

I look over to them and reply, “Realizing something that has apparently become some sort of revered thing is actually happening?”

Tom smirks, “Something like that. From what I gather from the documents stored about Clairese, they only expected the stasis project to last two years. Turned out it lasted two millennia.”

“Yea,” I say. “And apparently being cross gender has taken on a new respected meaning.” I open one of the makeshift valves to the hydro pod, as Clairese has instructed.

“No reason it shouldn’t,” says Tom. “Though I think they have some kind of religious or spiritual thing about it.”

“Well, as long as she feels, you know, happy, good about herself, that kind of thing,” I say.

Our conversation is interrupted when the grow fluid I just opened the valve to reaches the grow trays. Quick as we can, Tom and I plant the trays. Rows and rows of anything we can find a seed for. I’m not sure exactly how long everything will take, but I positively know that in a month or two this one pod should feed several thousand. My only hope is that they aren’t going to eat us after we fix everything.

The next issue is germination. The environment within the pod is sufficient that we can introduce some of the genetic pollinators stored in Terra Killer’s science station’s stasis compartment. It’ll take a few more days, but the pollinator issue will be resolved and maintained by the surrounding pod.

I notice that while Tom and I fiddle with the power distribution, another hydro-pod comes to life. I watch as several of our team, accompanied by several of the mountain people, begin to disassemble, refurbish, or replace as necessary.

As I watch, I know I’m going to have to reevaluate my opinion of the mountain people. It only takes once – after hearing us explain to them how to do something, they basically jump right into the firefight. In a short time, Randy has an entire workforce all geared to refurbishing and reestablishing the hydroponics section. Now, the issue is water pressure. I had enough for one pod, but now there are two, with about a dozen more under reconstruction.

Jennie, Miki , and Tom come to our rescue. The mountain was chosen for its naturally flowing and filtered water supply. The elderly priestess shows Tom the actual location of the gathering/storage cistern. Miki and Jennie go off into one of the large buildings with Tom and are gone long enough that I start to worry. When they return, they have a rather crude but highly effective water pump they’ve somehow either found or built.

After about a week, we have over a dozen grow-pods up and planted. Jennie and Miki’s water pump supplies not only water to the pods but to many locations; what’s more, we’ve been supplying electricity, for which the population seems to rejoice. We certainly do. Now, instead of the ebony darkeness, which we can only pierce with flashlights and night vision goggles, light begins to enter this large subterranean area. Of course, the mountain people don’t seem to need it at all, but it helps us help them.

We’ve discovered, to our great relief, that the individuals are raising some form of large rodent or something. They have huge herds of them for food. We’ve also discovered a huge mushroom farm with many types unknown in our time. We showed them a means to make mycelium fibers, and Tom built a small loom.

Cloth has begun appearing, and the females have immediately started wearing their version of clothing, although the males seem not to mind being nude. They’re more concerned about different weaves and textures than we are, and completely unconcerned about color, which makes sense, given that colors aren’t something they experience.

Then there’s the factory. Now that the infrastructure is there, Tom’s turned his attention to the machines. He’s starting with the foundry, hoping to be able to recycle some of the scrap metal around this place into usable steel. I’ve seen them all do some pretty amazing things, so I have no doubts that he can do this. Jennie doesn’t have a lot she can give them yet, but I’ll bet she’s got something cooking.

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I was right. Jennie upgraded those looms into programmable looms. She’s shown the mountain folks how to make these cards that they can insert into this loom she invented, or I guess reinvented, since the things used to exist, that make the looms produce different weave patterns and textures. They love it. They’re inventing their own new patterns now.

And Tom is making progress. He’s doing this the smart way. He’s got fabricators from the Terra Killer that he’s using to make fabricators for the mountain people’s factory. It’s small-scale right now, but he’s ramping it up. Once he gets the scale up to the right size, there’s nothing they won’t be able to produce, as long as they have a pattern for it.

One thing Jennie managed to do that really helped Tom, was she built a forced bellows. Now that we had a form of cloth, seals and other items other than clothing were possible. The first one was hand operated, but that soon changed since the only motion was up and down, Tom built simple piston like devices out of some tubing. It worked to keep the bellows operating while another fed and worked the hot coals of the forge.

Well, that’s not exactly true. There’s the matter of electronics. I’m not sure even Tom and Miki can set up a microchip factory. Not that I’d be totally surprised to learn that they can, but it seems like a quantum leap of difficulty beyond anything they’ve done so far. Tom’s told me that making the large-scale fabricators is the priority first, so they can make parts for their other machines, but after that it’ll be micro fabricators that he’ll focus on, so they can make microcircuitry, at least. I don’t know whether that translates to microchips, though. They’d need some special materials for semiconductors – I think, anyway.

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As time passes, I’m really impressed with Tom, Jennie, Miki, and Clairese’s successes. It looks like someone’s nightmare, but the forge actually works with the billows Jennie has made. We take all the seriously oxidized metals of similar composition, drop them into the smelting crucible, then recreate them into something usable.

Jennie had a great idea from one of the art classes she took at college. What it involves is for Tom and myself to make a mold out of rock pounded into sand that has the shape of the object we wanted. The hot melted metal is poured into the mold. Due to rapid heat expansion and contraction as the metal cools, the mold will shatter, leaving the item we want in a crude form. It can then be filed and polished into its final shape.

We have no petroleum oils, but we have a large supply of peanut oil, which works to quench the metal. From what Tom has said, salt water would work too, but not as well.

Now, to complete the process and create a finished piece, we use Terra Killer’s machine shop. It’s very small and not designed to manufacture large amounts of goods, just replacement parts. To solve this, Jennie and Miki have managed to scrounge a real industrial lathe and a milling machine.

At first, they’re in very poor condition. It doesn’t take long for Tom and his new crew to create the replacement parts needed to have the factory operating above the capacity of Terra Killer’s machine shop.

I’m impressed at the mountain people’s versatility as well. A small irritating thought keeps nagging at the peripherals of my mind. The mountain people are more educated in the operations of equipment that has been wasting away for centuries than I ever assumed. Once again it would appear that “ass out of you and me” might be prevailing here. I’m not sure, but it’s incredible how fast they’re learning what would seem to be new tasks.

In my rummaging around in things, I’ve come across what appears to be an officer’s office. Getting in is easy, since the door is nothing more than a thin film of rust and dust. Inside the office, everything shows the same amount of neglect and wasting to the passage of time as most everything else, except for one item.

It’s a very heavily made safe of some kind. There are layers of rust and corrosion, but not enough to hinder the usefulness of it. I bend and look at the combination wheel. To my surprise, it’s set in the unlocked position. The large heavy door is almost impossible to move until Jennie shows up and happens to have a small amount of peanut oil in her knapsack. It takes a few minutes for the oil to soak into the corroded hinges, but they loosen up, and the door stiffly opens.

Within the large metal walkin vault are rows and rows of vacuum-sealed pages of that substance that isn’t paper – by now, we’re thinking that it’s something like that “stone paper” that’s made of calcium carbonate and polyethylene; it’s not biodegradable, but it is photodegradable, meaning that it’s survived because it’s been kept out of the sunlight. Tom and I are ecstatic that we’ve found this large a volume of some sort of records.

We take them back to the place we’ve set up as our center of operations. I stand in the doorway of the building and look out. There’s now light and running water in a large section of this city. If what the priestesses told us is accurate, their sewage cistern will make enough methane to have sustainable fuel for anything like the forges.

One of the most amazing fixes, I see Miki show Tom, is how she replaces a computer circuit board using tinfoil, cardboard, and some glue.

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A week later, Tom is in the middle stages of an iterative process of basically creating 3-D printing technology. Starting with crude hand-operated devices, he’s made higher and higher precision parts, until now he has automated electronics. He says soon he’ll be able to make integrated circuits – microchips, though nothing like what the big computer chip makers of our time used to be able to do. I guess fancy video games are a long way off yet. But soon we may have something for Jennie to do. It’s a lot easier to reiterate this process now that we don’t have to do it from scratch.

And that’s the thing – we don’t have to, but what about our children, and the mountain people’s children? We’ll have to make sure they learn what we know, before we aren’t around anymore for them to rely on. Otherwise we’ll just be the magicians of a new dark age.

We are still able to communicate with the base via the drone network. Things seem to be going well there in the weeks we’ve been away. Frank’s got the reactor fully up to power, so with that plus the methane generator and the solar panels, there’s more power than we can use, and they’re doing something similar with the precision fabricators, only they’ve started from a higher level of technology.

By coming to Cheyenne Mountain, we’d hoped to find something here that was better than what we had, but it turned out that everything had deteriorated far worse than it had back at base. What we’ve found are allies. I’m hoping that the work we’ve been doing and what we’ve been teaching them will make them amenable to forging a lasting relationship with our community. We don’t know what else is out there – maybe nothing, but if there is a threat that we need help with, it will be good to have someone to call upon.

Clairese and the priestesses have been doing something else besides hydroponics – they’ve been doing some linguistics. She showed the priestesses the notes she’d been taking on their language, and one of them came up and showed her that she’d been taking notes on ours – in their interesting writing system, which involves a Braille-like system of raised and lowered patterns in that stone paper, which there is an ample supply of. They’re writing with hand instruments that let them shape the paper. Clairese is making notes on that too. Anyway, they’re collaborating on writing books that let each of our groups learn the other’s language. That will be useful when we get home and wake up some actual linguists.

And to that end, we’ve been setting up radio antennas on top of the mountain. Packet-switched radio can allow us to send data back and forth to our allies here, once they have electronics capable of it. We’ll get them to the point where we can talk to each other any time we want, and when we get home the airwaves will no longer be dead.

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Back in the Terra Killer, we held a conference. “How much longer do we think we need to stay here?” I asked the others.

Tom replied, “Well, my current project’s getting close to reaching the limit of what they’ll need me to do for them. There’s a large group of their people who have been watching what I’ve been doing carefully, and I’ve been telling them all about the manufacturing process – I think those priestesses have been teaching them our language, too, so I think they understand me. I’m close to done bootstrapping. We’ve got a programmable 3-D printer, and we’re making denser and denser data storage chips. NAND flash memory that can hold 16 kilobytes doesn’t sound that impressive, but we made it from scratch, and it’s improving all the time.”

“And considering that we’re using a standard based on our time, when we had 16 terabyte flash cards,” says Miki, “we’re avoiding all the intermediate steps. I think we can leave next week. They’ll be outdoing us before we get home.” She giggled.

“But they’re extremely grateful to us,” says Clairese. “They know we have to go home, but they want to keep talking to us. The communication stuff will make that possible.”

“I’ve got an expandable multimedia system worked out, based on the standards of our time,” says Jennie. “Once Tom and Miki get the hardware up to spec, I’ll upload the operating system from our computer to theirs, and they’ll basically be able to send us email, do voice streaming, transfer schematics, anything. Clairese helped me create code points and glyphs for their language, and I’ve made it expandable if they want to revise them. And Tom and Miki have a working tactile display that can present a touchable surface that they can feel, for printing images and glyphs on.”

“I’ll bet you’re happy that you finally have something to do,” Miki says with a grin. Jennie grins back.

“Well, soon they’ll have an expanded diet, thanks to their computer-controlled hydroponic farm,” Clairese says. “And that’s not dependent on us staying here; it’s just a matter of time for the plants to grow.”

“I’m fairly sure that before long they’ll be manufacturing robots and bootstrapping the process of refurbishing their home,” says Tom. “They’ll have the whole place disassembled, recycled, and rebuilt. It’ll be a fantastic wonderland, all in the dark.”

“Let’s hope they put in some lights, at least, so their visitors can see,” I say.

“Not needing lights will save power,” Miki says. “They don’t use as much as the water pumps or manufacturing plant, but lights do use some power.”

“I still wonder what happened to their reactor,” I wonder. “They must have had one. But none of the mountain people seem to know where it is. Was there a cave-in that covered it up?”

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Tom, Randy, one of the team with us, and myself decide to do some other deep explorations of the mountain facility. From what I’ve observed thus far, I don’t have any real hopes of finding anything – certainly the mountain people have explored every inch of their mountain home over the generations – but it always pays to be thorough. Yes, part of what we were looking for was that reactor.

We do remember to bring a Geiger counter with us as we explore deeper. I figure that any reactor deep underground will have residual radiation, regardless of whether it’s still usable. We come across several places where the “Slimeboard” has been placed over a passage, blocking it off. One or two of them we immediately understand why – the radiation count is very high on the other side. I also realize “Slimeboard” blocks radiation more effectively than lead and is light as hydrogel used to be.

We remove one of the obstructions and slowly enter the area, examining all we can while we monitor radiation counts closely. The area we find ourselves in is obviously military. None of the massive security doors or any of the locks function. We do find a treasure trove of data, and even discover that several of the locations collapsed under the bombardment. It will take a lot of work to clear enough debris in one passage just to determine whether we can go any further.

We do find a windfall of metals, wiring and what looks like it might once have been communications and radar equipment. The ravages of time have definitely taken their toll. I’m very confident, however, that Tom, Jennie and Miki, with the help of Clairese, might be able to reclaim some of it, if we have enough replacement parts.

We come to a large door. It isn’t shut completely, so we can enter. Off in the distance, we can see where some kind of major collapse happened. The debris isn’t blocking the passage, but it’s enough that we can tell that it would have caused a serious issue for anyone nearby. What we find are the remains of the military personnel who were unfortunate enough to be in the passage when it collapsed.

We also discover the location of what’s left of the reactor control center, but we still haven’t found the reactor as of yet. Radiation levels are high and in many places severely high. This is why we’re wearing the radiation suits.

Tom points as he says matter-of-factly, “The reactor is in that direction. From the radiation count, it appears that it melted down.” He waves the Geiger counter’s wand over the doorway to make sure. “There’s no way we can get to it, even with the suits; the count is way too intense beyond this door.” Radiation suits are protective, but they aren’t magic.

While that’s going on, Miki and Jennie have been rummaging around through the rubble, and they discover another door. Behind it is the motherlode – the main storage area for the facility. The items within have been stored in vacuum-sealed containers filled with nitrogen that has insured no oxidation.

It’s fortunate that we opted to bring the Mule-bot with us. I arrive as Miki and Jennie load many items we’re actually in need of back at our base. The windfall of metals is the largest thing. With the mountain people’s foundry now operating using methane to fire its burners, I’m sure we’ll be able to start manufacturing replacement parts for much of the necessary equipment.

I think about the way the forge is set up here and make careful notes so we can build something similar back at our facility. What we do find is a true treasure … many records detailing what led up to the war, not to mention other valuable data on other survival facilities elsewhere in what was once the USA. Perhaps some of them have supplies or even equipment or parts.

Jennie is reading through the records; she can read faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. She quickly focuses on one set of binders and gasps when she reads through them. “These were labeled Top Secret,” she says, “and I can see why. This is the list of all the nuclear fuel stockpiles. They didn’t keep them in the national labs; they didn’t keep them at missile silos or big military bases. They put them in unmarked buildings in out-of-the-way places, with just a few guards or only electronic surveillance. And they classified all the documents that listed where they were – I’m betting they didn’t store any of it on computers. So no foreign spies could find them and ensure they were destroyed.”

As she speaks, we all turn toward her and gape. This could guarantee the long-term survival of our base. We’d have to go to one of the stockpiles and pick up some fuel, but we can do that.

I start to think about the politics of it. “OK, this is incredibly important for us. But anything we find down here and carry away without permission might leave a sour taste in the mouths of our thus-far-gracious hosts. Yes, we’ve helped them a great deal, but you don’t just take things away that you find in your host’s basement. They could make a strong case that everything here is theirs.”

“But we’ve done so much for them,” says Clairese.

“No, he’s right,” says Jennie. “Because on the other hand, if we tell them what we’ve found and ask them for permission to, say, take photos of all the records and leave the physical pages here, that would increase goodwill – we could have just taken them without asking or even telling them, but instead we chose candor. I think that would be a far better plan. We want to cooperate with them going forward.”

“I hate politics,” says Tom – I’m omitting some four-letter words that he added to that statement. “But I think you’re right. We’re going to want to stay on their good side.”

“Let’s frame this as a trade for what we’ve done for them,” says Miki. “In exchange for the hydroponics, factory, radio, electricity, and water – not to mention knowledge of the location of this cache – we get this information.”

“I agree,” I say. Frank was right – I make consensus decisions; I don’t dictate terms. That wouldn’t be my style.

So that’s what we do. The mountain people’s leader and the high priestess listen while Clairese explains – and Clairese is partly using their language now – and then they discuss things amongst themselves. They seem to come to an agreement, and the priestess explains to us, “If you can take the words from the paper, and leave the books here, you can take all the words. Is our gift to you. You give us the water, the power, the gardens, the place of machines. You show us how to keep them working. You give us so much. And now we give you these words you have found, and yet we still have them as well. Take them with our thanks.”

We are all incredibly grateful. “We are going to go now,” Clairese tells them. “But you have learned so much about how to keep your garden growing and make your machines run. And we can talk with the radio.”

“We will talk,” says the priestess. “Be well, and may the gods watch over you in the places where you walk.”

We make one more trip to the caverns below and take high-resolution digital images of all the documents. Then, when we return to the surface, we transfer these to the Terra Killer’s computer for storage, and we start transmitting them over the drone network to the computer at base.

Shortly after we do, there’s a message from Frank. “Holy …” Yeah, expletive deleted. It was definitely Frank. “That’s the motherlode, all right. Recommend you head for the site at …” and he stated the coordinates of one of the fuel rod caches from the documents. Yes, of course our communication is encrypted – Jennie insisted on building that in from the beginning. If anyone was picking up our packets, which was unlikely in the first place because of the point-to-point nature of the drones’ laser comms, they’d just get encrypted garbage unless they somehow had our secret encryption key.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea Frank has,” says Tom. “It’s far enough away from anything that it’s unlikely to have been bombed, the drones aren’t picking up a radiation hotspot there, and it’s not far from our path home.”

So we sent a message to the mountain people’s comm system saying that we were heading home, and they again wished us well. And we pointed the Terra Killer toward our next destination – which was on the way home.

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We’ve loaded a large part of the storage compartments at the rear of Terra Killer with many tons of materials. With what we’ve gathered, we can begin creating even more replacement parts for other equipment.

Printed circuits have turned out to be easier than I imagined. Miki showed me how she can etch the circuit onto a piece of cardboard or other hard non-conductive surface, then smear the tracing with glue, and we have a sort of wood glue that Tom made from boiling animal skins, then overlaying the glued tracing with a thin foil.

After allowing the ... board to dry, we cut away the excess foil. What’s left, to my great astonishment, is a cardboard circuit board ready for component attachment. With what Tom and Clairese have managed to cobble together, we can even make rudimentary computer chips.

One of the things we found in our windfall, was a selection of instructions on creating transistors and tubes. Both sets of info are great, as we can create vacuum tubes to take the place of the chips we don’t yet have the ability to recreate.

Although, as fast as we can, we need to learn how to make the chips. Tube tech works, but it takes huge amounts of tube circuits to take the place of one small transistor or chip, not to mention the massive cooling requirements for tube tech.

We built the Mountain People a true entry and exit into their underground facility should they wish to exit into the upper world. Of course, the exit is sealable to protect the Mountain People from whatever unknown threats might approach.

I take the pilot’s seat, and Tom takes the navigator’s position. Clairese and Jennie take their places at the science and engineering stations, while Miki takes her location at weapons and tactical.

Terra Killer seems almost eager to continue as I push the control handles slightly forward and the huge vehicle quickly begins to move in a northwesterly direction completely unhindered by the thick foliage or rough terrain.

Tom asks as he looks at the drone feeds of the terrain ahead of us, “So Frank suggested the depot location in what used to be Iowa?”

I reply, “Yes. I know Nebraska along with the Dakotas were heavily bombed. All of those locations are silo country up this part of the US. According to the data we found, one of the places they stored a large quantity of processed reactor fuel is there, where Iowa used to be.”

Tom slowly flips through the surveillance drones’ images of what lies ahead. Many of the readings, just as we thought, show high radiation counts and many weathered blast locations of smaller nukes, in maybe the 1 or 2 kiloton range.

Our drones, as they do, make contact with other drones that are out to reconnoiter from our home facility. I’m going to have to take a consensus and give our home base a name. Might even keep the old one, Nanogen Research, just to pass on the memory of what we used to be.

The new images show many locations that I know were at one time large population and farming areas. We once again notice flora and fauna of many types, some we’ve never seen before, but no signs of human habitation.

We even have a minor brush with something looking like a cross between a large bear and a hippo. Miki takes the gunner’s blister on the top while Jennie and Clairese feed her tactical and radar tracking.

Tom comments as the creature makes ready to charge us, “That thing’s as big as a freight train.”

I reply, “With armor plating, no less. Miki? I would rather not kill it if we don’t have to, but … I guess the term is “Weapons Free.”

“Aye, sir.” replies Miki.

No one laughs as tensions run high. That critter is large enough to do Terra Killer damage if it charges. We hear the fast tracking motors of the blister as it rapidly moves into position, then we hear the whining pop of the two large particle pulse weapons Terra Killer is armed with as they fire. It doesn’t use ordnance like the twin miniguns. It uses energy, and it’s slow firing, but it packs one heck of punch when it does fire, and it doesn’t run out of ammo.

Through the forward windows we see the beams hit their target. Our radar and other sensors also record it. Twin, very bright explosions erupt on the armored chest of the beast. I watch as it takes out a decent amount of the trees and brush around the critter as the creature is knocked backwards and tossed several yards in the resulting explosion, along with large amounts of debris.

While we sit in anticipation, the critter lies on its side twitching for a few minutes before standing on its four very wobbly legs. It shakes its head as it stumbles off into the thick bush. We can see it’s been injured, but not the severity of it. We know the critter still lives, though, and isn’t bleeding enough to leave a trail, or anything the biologist can take samples of.

Crossing rivers and some crevasses is easy, since Terra Killer is fully submersible and, if necessary, can hover for long distances. Of course, when the sensors alert us to dangerously high radiation levels, we steer clear and choose another path. We’ve got shielding, but nothing’s perfect.

While crossing one extremely deep and wide river, we manage to capture a very large fish of some sort. Let me tell you, it tastes better than any trout. The meat is pink, very flaky, and wonderfully tasty. Our local biologist even comments that this might be a mutated trout or salmon.

After 2000 years there are still a few traces of human civilization left. Earthworks required for large buildings or railroads are still around, though the buildings themselves are gone. Landfills still have plastics in them, though decomposition of other materials has caused the earth to subside. And of course there are those radiation spots.

Most building materials, even concrete, have decayed to nothing by now, with the exception of stone – we see occasional stone buildings, or the remnants of them. But when we look on the drone images for the site Frank picked out in what was once Iowa, we’re astonished to see a small building – the documents said that the cache of fuel rods was underground. This building looks intact, so someone thought of a way to preserve it against the elements and time. When we get there, I guess we’ll find out what they used. Tom thinks it’s some kind of industrial ceramic material; that’s what he says he’d use.

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I need to say this for the record, and I know I have made it sound like the travel was quick and moderately easy. This is not so. Terra Killer is a heavy military vehicle with armor plating, radiation shielding (which will be upgraded as soon as we can manufacture more of the amazing slimeboard), and heavy combat weapons modified to handle most anything we could think of.

There are no roads, not even a trail or a path, although there are vague remnants. Other than that, it’s all wild, thick and very old pristine growth. We haven’t discussed the ruggedness of the terrain with crevasses and gullies, and only occasionally have we mentioned crossing wild untamed rivers. Nor have we touched upon any of the various foul weather issues that rage around us from time to time. We handle critters we meet of all sizes. We catch large quantities of meat and have it in stasis storage as proof. It’s very tasty and gives us months of food – what we can eat, that is, after it passes the usual tests for radiation or toxins.

Terra Killer handles it easily, but we can’t just put the pedal to the metal; we have to go rather slowly. It takes much longer than we’ve planned. I forgot that we’d be blazing a trail through wild, untamed locations.

Many times, we knock down large trees a foot through the middle. We avoid any larger than that due to the wear damage it might create. We do stop and inspect the vehicle for damage from time to time, although we never find any. We do have to pull several large tree parts from the front cutters and ram, though.

After nearing the location in Iowa we’re looking for, and parking Terra Killer, I sit back in my comfortable operator’s couch and type in a request for the most recent map data of the location Frank marked on the Nav board. I think it’s interesting to note that the name of the place used to be “Mount Moses,” according to the current map on the screen.

I bring it up and make a split-screen side-by-side comparison of the map and the most recent aerial recon data from the drones we’ve dispatched to the location. The recon footage clearly shows a simple white almost perfectly square building with a peaked roof right in the middle of a cleared section of massive overgrowth. Magnification of the image reveals the building’s surrounded by what might be an actual working electrical fence.

Tom says, “Damn. If that’s what it looks like, it could be quite shocking getting to what it’s protecting.”

The rest of us say, “Ohhh, that’s so corny.” We all laugh.

Tom replies with a slight worry in his tone, “If that’s a typical military electric fence …” He swivels his seat so he can look at us all. “We might be talking 80 to 90 million volts minimum.”

Clairese says, “OMG!! I’m not real sure Terra Killer could run through that. We might get through, but the electrical damage to our vehicle might be tragic.”

Miki says as she holds up her thumb, “No probs. I’ll take it down with one of the small rockets.”

I ask, “What if that place is still occupied? Personally, something smashing or detonating its way through my highly electrified fence would kinda upset me a bit.”

Everyone sits silently in thought for an extended period. Occupied? This place? After 2000 years? But then again, there were the Mountain People. They’ve survived all this time. Who knows?

Tom breaks the silence. “How would you suggest we get by the fence?”

Clairese has been typing for a bit on her control keyboard, but now she turns slightly in her seat and says, “This vehicle is military. We’ve come across several access codes and gate pass codes in the windfall of data we discovered, not to mention those in its memory. Odds are good the storage facility for the nuclear fuel was and most likely still is military, based on current recon data. It might be as simple as approaching and entering the code at the gate.”

I hit the auger anchors and dig in. Terra Killer stabilizes and auto levels as it anchors itself to the ground. I stand and say, “Lets make supper. We can discuss it more then.”

As we eat some wonderful stew made of some of the plentiful game and wild vegetables and herbs we’ve been finding along the way – Clairese is an excellent botanist and has been identifying numerous new variants of native plant species – we talk about the possibilities.

“The documentation for this site does include numerous security codes,” says Jennie. “Of course, the difficulty is which one to use. It lists a daily code rotation scheme – but it’s based on the calendar date. We’d have to know exactly what today’s date is in the Gregorian calendar.”

“Well, we know what date the computer back at the base thinks today is,” says Tom.

“Yes,” Jennie points out, “but is it right? It was operating at extremely low power for an unknown length of time.” Tom nods, because she’s right.

“If it’s gotten off by even one day in those 2000 years,” says Miki, “it’ll throw the scheme off, and the code won’t work.”

“How many codes are there?” I ask. “How many days before the pattern repeats?”

“512,” says Jennie. “But I don’t think that means we’ve got a one in 512 chance of guessing the code. We can make astronomical measurements to determine the sun’s right ascension and declination and thus see where the Earth is in its orbit. In fact, I think Heather Minopedes back at base has been doing just that. We could contact her and see if she’s got a consistent estimate.”

“Let’s do that,” I say. “What can it hurt to ask?”

So we do. We can’t directly talk to people back at base because of packet latency, but we can effectively send an email with a small audio or video file attached, and they can reply. And we do get a reply. When we play the video, the face of Dr. Heather Minopedes, our astronomer and astrophysicist, appears.

She says, “Hi, everyone. Yes, I’ve been taking measurements of the solar angles at dawn, noon, and sunset every day since the day after I was awakened, and I’ve been keeping a running analysis – each day the estimate gets better. Right now the best estimate is that it’s May 3, 4044, in the Gregorian calendar, assuming addition of leap seconds, minutes, or hours at appropriate moments during the intervening time to keep the calendar aligned with the seasons. Now, from what you said, you might be dealing with a computer system that might not be adding those, but we’re talking about one second a year, so it might be off by a full day after about 3600 years – but it’s only been 2021 years. So I suggest you try entering the May 3 code just before midnight – if the system’s been adding leap seconds or the like, it’ll think it’s just about to turn May 4, but if it hasn’t, it’ll think it’s earlier than that, but certainly not an entire day earlier. That’s the best advice I can give you – good luck, and let us know how it goes!”

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Sleep comes easily. What dreams I have I don’t recall, although some vague shadowy remembrances make the morning more pleasant. I go to the galley for my morning coffee and some breakfast. I’m not sure what creature those huge eggs were laid by, but only one is enough to give the entire crew seconds and thirds on eggs. They taste like any other eggs I’ve ever eaten. Whatever is left over is used for another meal. We do our very best not to waste anything.

I sit in the command chair and push the control sticks slightly forward. Each stick controls 3 of the crawler wheels on either side of Terra Killer independently. I also have pedals that act as brakes and can cause the vehicle to move in many different ways. I slowly move through the dense foliage and across a river as I blaze a trail towards the small building.

I stop about 50 feet from what’s obviously the gate and exit the vehicle. I have several renditions of what I think the access code might be, informed by Jennie’s analysis of the top secret documents we found and by Dr. Minopedes’ advice. I walk to the gate and press the button on what looks like a call box.

To my astonishment a voice says, “State your full name, rank, and/or title, then enter your badge number.” A small keypad opens.

I stand for a minute longer then reply, “I’m Dr. Eric Palmintieri, foremost stasis expert on the planet.” That’s guaranteed to be true nowadays. I haven’t thought of my badge in a long time; I didn’t think I’d ever need it again. I’m fortunate that I actually have one in my wallet that I still carry with me … just because. I pull it out and look at the number, “It’s Rhue 77-812-009.”

I can hear the electrical crackle go away as the fence powers down, then there’s a loud click and some scraping, sliding noises. The gate opens. The voice says, “You may enter, Dr. Palmintieri. The Dhalcon fuel repository is expecting you.”

Let me tell you the shock I feel when I hear that. I return to the Terra Killer and tell the crew what just happened. None can believe it. Nevertheless, we gather our weapons and other supplies we feel we might need for an extended exploratory journey, then return to the still powered-down fence and open gate. Before we leave the Terra Killer, we do relay the data we have and the amazing gate response. One of our crew will relay any messages from Nanogen as they arrive.

Jennie, Clairese, Miki, Tom, and myself enter the gate and go up to the door in the side of the small building. It isn’t corroded, and the doorknob actually works. It’s those industrial ceramic parts, I guess. Built to last.

Jennie has her hand to her ear. “Eric? According to Terra Killer’s reading of the electromagnetic spectrum, there are low-power EM-band radios in operation. From the best I can tell, they’re operating in the 100-milliwatt power range .. civilian walkie-talkies. Signals are weak, most likely due to the structure's blocking it.”

Tom says as he charges his pulse weapon, “We have to be on our toes here. Seems like this location might have survivors. No guarantees they’re friendly.”

I open the door and comment, “Has to be. None of this is corroded or shows any kind of neglect.”

We all enter via the door into a small room. In the room is what appears to be a highly advanced computer terminal and the door to an industrial heavy lift elevator … which is open and obviously operational.

Jennie goes to the computer terminal and begins to type. The display screen clearly shows that I’ve been given total admin control of this storage facility. It’s about then that Clairese screeches in shock, then starts to giggle. We turned and prepared to fire, but what we see is a small maintenance bot doing its job.

Tom goes to the elevator and examines it. “From what I can see and tell, this equipment has been kept in good condition, and it’s the only way into the facility.”

“Well, we’ve got backup up here in case things go bad,” I say. “Ready?” Everybody nods, and we step into the elevator. The buttons are labeled, so I press the one marked “Fuel Storage.”

The doors close, in typical elevator fashion. We feel ourselves moving, and the air pressure changes with time, our ears popping. We must be hundreds of feet underground. The doors open, then, and lights flicker on. Some of them keep flickering. They reveal a stark white hallway. Rolling toward us is some kind of robot, looking like an automated Segway with a flat screen monitor atop its vertical column. It stops about 10 feet in front of us as we step out of the elevator to look at it, and it plays what is evidently a recorded greeting.

“Greetings,” says a neutral masculine-sounding voice. “If you are hearing this, the worst-case scenario for which this facility was designed has come to pass. But your government and military have made preparations. Do not panic! You will find supplies you may need here in order to survive what are certainly dangerous and uncertain times.”

Miki is already giggling. “Who did they think they were recording this for?” she asks, laughing, but it goes on, so she stops.

“... access is limited to certain individuals who are considered likely to have survived the war, natural disaster, or planetoid impact that has ended the continuity of the United States government as we know it. At least one of them must be among you, or you would not have been admitted to this facility. To confirm, they should place their hand on the screen here.” An image of a handprint appears on the screen.

Looking at the others, I then step forward and place my right hand on top of the handprint. This pushes the screen back a bit, but it doesn’t seem to affect anything. “Thank you,” says the recording. “Dr. Eric. Palmintieri. Is among the individuals authorized for full access to this facility. Please select the area you wish to visit.”

A menu then appears on the screen, with headings such as, “Machine Parts,” “Building Supplies,” “Reactor Components,” “Reactor Fuel,” “Data Center,” and “Personnel.”

“Well, first things first,” I say, touching “Reactor Fuel” on the screen.

“You have selected Reactor Fuel,” says the voice. “You are on the correct level. Please follow this automated assistant.” The robot then begins to slowly move away from us, down the hallway, its screen still facing us.

I walk toward it, and it continues to move, speeding up to match my walking speed, slowing down when I slow down. The others are following me. This reactor fuel could mean the success or failure of Nanogen Base.

The robot turns left through a pair of sliding doors, which open for it, and the lighting switches on in the room it leads us to. The doors slide closed behind us when the entire group is inside, and as they close we can see the lights click off out in the hallway. There are containers here, each about 12 feet long, on wheeled carts, and there are more containers along the walls on shelves.

“Now, unless I miss my guess, those are going to be the fuel rods, in shielded containers,” says Tom. “Probably stored in separate compartments within the container.” He confirmed this by reading the labels on the container. “Yep. I hope they’re the right form factor, but whatever form they are, I’m sure Frank can make use of ‘em.”

“Well, let’s hope we can get them out of here and into the Terra Killer’s cargo bay,” I say.

“I’m still wondering what I’m picking up,” says Jennie. “These low-level radio signals.” She holds a meter near the robot. “I guess it could be the robots. There was also that cleaning bot we saw, so there are probably other ones. The main computer would have to control them somehow; perhaps that’s how. Not the frequency usually used by the 802.11 family, but it might be a military protocol.”

“Still think there might be survivors?” Clairese asks.

“I’m starting to doubt it,” replies Jennie. “This place might be entirely automated.”

“Are there outdoor robots, do you think?” asks Miki. “Something’s been keeping the exterior in good shape too.”

“They’d have to be pretty rugged, but it could be,” says Jennie. “I’ll bet they have a great machine shop here.”

“And an amazing data center,” Miki agrees.

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I find the main control data center. Am amazed at the pristine condition the areas around me had been kept in by the maint-bots. One of the things I’m going to discover is how they’re put together. They would be an even bigger boon to us than the ones Tom, Jennie, Miki, Clairese, and Frank cobbled together, which have proven themselves to be indispensable.

I sit at the main computer console and type simply, “Give me access.”

A window opens and asks for my complete name, rank or title, and my ID card number. I enter the requested info and hit return. There are a few seconds of inactivity before the screen shows the logo for the Nano/Gen Scientific Research facility. Beneath that, a very flowery and ornate logo appears that says, in Old English script, “Reemergence Project.

After a few seconds, a picture of a balding man in a military uniform appears on the screen. On his shoulders are 5 very shiny gold stars. “Greetings, Dr. Eric Palmintieri. If you’re seeing this, then our worst fears have happened. I’m sorry to have hijacked your project and forced several thousand into stasis without their consent, but it was necessary for the survival of the human race.”

I’m shocked. Several thousand? A slowly moving feed of storage locations throughout this facility appears. I’m truly amazed at the amount of hardware, equipment, and other necessary resources stored in the stasis facilities, obviously deeper underground.

The face comes back. “I’m not sure how much time has passed since this recording was made. I do know your experiment was to terminate within 6 months. We therefore have given you the means to reestablish mankind’s hold, at least on your local area. All the available data and resources we could gather are stored for your team’s access and use. Copy this access code. It is an admin access code that will give you top access to any military or government facility without question. Good luck to you, I’m positive you will need …” There’s a tremendous shaking of the image, and the video goes blank.

After a few seconds of static, the image clears, and a series of options appears. They’re mostly related to the stasis storage facilities further below ground, and the maintenance record for the freight elevator. From the best I can tell, the elevator has been kept in pristine condition. I’m very glad; those fuel rod containers weigh almost a ton.

The personnel selection gives me several thousand names, all in stasis, and many in different locations. They had multiple stasis centers! I also discover why the rechargeable batteries have survived so many years – they aren’t lithium-ion; they’re air-ion. An air-ion battery runs many times hotter than a normal lithium-ion. However, the usage they’re put to here is a perfect energy storage means. Well, nearly perfect.

It’s got more power, no degradation over time, and no explosive fires. It holds a full charge now as well as they did when new. The heat produced by the battery is a perfect means to operate the Stirling Generator. OMG! Am I glad. Coupled with the metalic sodium pistons, the Stirling engine generators can more or less operate forever. No moving part creates any friction, so there’s no wear. With this type of battery, it means the setup could more or less generate and store large amounts of electricity forever, as far as mankind is concerned.

I’m astonished as this all sinks in. They expected that I would be the one to rebuild human civilization? But a moment’s thought brings me back down to earth. There were certainly multiple figures who could have come here; there were certainly plans in place in case one of them had survived instead. A quick search through the system reveals a message for Miki, if she’d been the one. There’s one for Jennie, one for Clairese, one for Tom, and even one for Frank.

I notice several stasis facilities in the Virginia mountains. Further research indicates several of those facilities were designed to safely house the many congressmen and senators of what used to be our government. I already know the presidential survival chamber is now a very large and highly radioactive crater. We’ve sent several drone expeditions to Virginia hoping to find survivors. Most of the places are large divots in what was once a mountain range. I have little hope of finding anyone there alive. Langley is also gone. Nothing but wild growth amid several large crater lakes.

NY City, Jersey, and Washington D.C. are total washes. The area encompassing what used to be those cities is nothing more than a huge barren desert-like divot in the ground. No growth; radiation levels from the drone reports indicates that life in those areas won’t return for many more centuries. The groundwater around the NYC metro area is contaminated beyond belief. Only the natural motions of the wind and tides keep it more or less contained around the remnants of the city.

From what the archives tell me, everything we’ve been hoping for is here and safely stored in stasis. Nanogen Facility will live on. I have all the resources and equipment we can safely store on Terra Killer loaded. We discover a cache of loader robots designed to help us do exactly what we’re doing.

I make sure we either take the forge equipment we don’t have or make copies. I insure that we leave enough equipment that the robots can continue to repair and manufacture what they need. With this extra equipment, Nanogen Facility’s manufacturing capabilities can return to what mankind was able to accomplish prior to the war.

I have the complete storage area for the fuel rods emptied and stored in the shielded storage areas we set up for just that. We also appropriate several of the maint-bots to take back with us. We have major uses for them and now, the ability to fabricate more as needed.

Now I see why Frank insisted one storage bay be in the front of Terra Killer and the other to the rear. The rods and their hardware and cases weigh in at several tons. I’m so overjoyed there are actually operable bots and the industrial service elevator is in proper repair. Otherwise, I have no idea how we would have gotten them loaded.

Just after I complete uploading all the data including the special universal admin code to Terra Killer’s computer, Tom’s voice rings out, “Vic? Come take your place at the helm. It’s time for us to go.”

I hear Jennie add, “Better hurry and lock the place up. From what I see, the weather is going to take a nasty turn rather fast.”

I type in the access data for the drone feeds and select the proper set of them. What I see approaching reminds me of a torus type massive tornado filled with electrical fire and collecting tremendous amounts of radioactive dust and scattering it all over. I agree with Jennie; it’s past time to leave.

As I strap myself into the operator’s couch, Miki reports, “Radiation levels are high within that storm, but not so bad it will affect us in here as long as we don’t open the doors or windows to let some breeze in.”

We laugh as I push the control sticks all the way forward. Terra Killer lunges off rapidly back along the trail we blazed to get here. I, of course, make some directional changes more to the south so we can return to what’s now our home. It will be easy to find, too; it’s the only high gain comm signal our equipment can locate except for the one we linked to the storage facility’s computer.

“Drone net positioning system working,” says Jennie. “Messaged home base that we’re on the way back with presents.”

“Oh no!” I say. “I wish we’d thought to establish comm contact with that base’s computers!”

“Oh …” said Jennie. “While you were busy with the fuel rods, I made a trip to the data center and programmed that into the system. The robots will build a protected antenna, and I gave its computer access to send messages via our drone net. It’s certainly still building now, but once it’s built, we’ll be able to access it from wherever we are.”

“How … when …” I sputtered.

“I didn’t have much to do when we were at Cheyenne Mountain,” Jennie said. “I wrote a lot of code.”

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Then there’s the weather. I have several huge problems on my hands now. I glance over to Tom, who appears to be cool and calm as many large debris items fly past the forward screens. We can feel the force of the wind as Terra Killer, loaded with as many tons of materials, not to mention its own dry weight, is still being buffeted about in a rather disconcerting manner.

Miki announces in no uncertain tones, “Wind Speeds exceeding 500 MPH.”

Clairese announces in the same professional voice, “Radiation levels are spiking. Before rearward scans were overcome with the material in the air, a huge cloud of debris like a dust storm was raging. Too much particulate matter, moisture, and atmospheric ionization locally for us to get a clear updated reading.”

I ask, “Where’s that stupid twister? I thought it was on a heading NE of us.”

Jennie replies, “Yes, according to the last readings, its heading was NE of us. The twister has a base over a mile wide with windspeeds in excess of 500 MPH. From what data says this is larger than what we’d have called an F6 in our time … the system has yet to make a determination. We are ½ mile from the outer perimeter of that. We still have to contend with the storm itself that’s generating it.”

Although visuals are down to a few feet in front of Terra Killer, we can see clearly enough that it’s begun to rain heavily and drop baseball sized hail. The impacts sounded loudly on Terra Killer’s armored hull. I’m finding it harder to control our direction. Windspeeds are incredible, and I can also hear something other than the hail hitting the sides as the noise and shudders of the vehicle grow increasingly worse.

It comes rapidly. The roar’s so load that it sounds like we’re in the middle of a rocket engine test. Terra Killer suddenly takes on a slightly nose-down attitude and slowly rotates several times.

The girls scream as Tom raises his right hand and shouts, “Yaaaa Hoooo. Ride ‘em, baby!!”

Terra Killer comes to a sliding thumping landing, still in the nose-down configuration due to the incline it’s now on, and rolls several feet down the incline. The massive buffeting has slackened way off. The forward camera’s sapphire glass shield is covered in mud and leaves. I use the cleaner; it blasts all the debris away with a shot of high pressure water spray, then the wipers clear the water.

Now that we have visuals, we can see that we’ve come to rest in some kind of gully or large ditch of some sort. The storm rages on above the top of the ditch; the air’s all gray and filled with motion and much debris. Within the ditch, except for the torrential rain and baseball-sized hail, we can sort of see.

All the heavy foliage above the edge has been scoured away. As the storm moves away further northeast, the radiation levels and wind speed fall rapidly. The hail stops, but not before it accumulates about six feet of ice.

As quickly as it all started, the huge cyclonic storm passes. Even the radiation count falls as the storm moves off. Now that the severe atmospheric debris, moisture, and ionic saturation has subsided, our radar and radios come back. The images we get from the drones are scary – fortunately the drones are programmed to avoid storms by flying above them or getting well out of their path, so the fact that they’re back means the system has moved on. We can see a swath of destruction over a mile wide leading off in the distance. We can also see that the storm missed the storage facility – though with that ceramic it’s made of, it’s probably weathered a few like this without much harm.

The really eerie thing is the thick white fog that has appeared over the top of the ice. It makes the whole thing seem surreal … like one of those Saturday Adventure things that used to come on.

The sky clears, and the sun comes out. I unbuckle my harnesses and open the side hatch. As the hatch opens and the steps extend, I say, “I’m sorry, but I want to go out and see the aftermath with my eyes. Anyone game to come with me?”

Almost the entire crew exits to take a long look around. Many have been through tornadoes, and several have even studied them. None have witnessed one as powerful as this before. Everywhere the base of the tornado touched and several yards beyond where the kill zone extends is either scoured bare, or piled in tons of mangled debris beneath a large pile of ice covered with thick fog.

After checking things over, Miki reports, “Terra Killer is covered in mud, leaves, and other debris, but it’s undamaged in any way.” I breathe a sigh of relief.

Jennie shows a data analysis on the main screen. “The tornado didn’t actually pass over us,” she says, as the screen shows the huge track of the storm passing over the map of our vehicle and its surrounding area, “and although Terra Killer is covered in debris, it’s no worse for the wear. What hit us was part of the kill zone downdraft extending from the base of the tornado funnel.” The image now shows a side view of the funnel and that downdraft. “We managed to get far enough away that the main funnel missed us.” I’m also very glad it missed the storage facility too. There’s too much there that we still need to duplicate or salvage.

We set up an early camp, and one of the crew starts lunch. Wonderful aromas drift to our noses as we remove the debris covering Terra Killer and clean off as much mud as possible.

Jennie, Clairece, and Miki insure that all the other equipment is working properly, including sending a status update to Nanogen Facility. We pick up some updates via packet radio signals from Cheyenne Mountain and, to my surprise, we’re already getting some telemetry updates from the Moses Storage Facility.

This is a small thing, but I feel happy that some of our civilization appears to be making a comeback. We also get word that we’ve added some new members to our population, as several of the young women have given birth to their children while we’ve been out. They were born healthy, with no deformities that the doctors could discover. Apparently stasis didn’t affect our genetics … thank goodness. It shouldn’t, according to my research, but there’s always that nagging doubt.

While we eat a scrumptious meal, Clairese sets up a small flatscreen and hooks her tablet computer to it. “Look here, everyone. I took as many readings as I could. According to the archive computer, they’d have called that an EF5 – but that’s because the rating was assigned after assessing the damage, and EF5 meant everything was destroyed. You can’t destroy more than everything. It means 200 MPH and up, but this was quite a bit over that.”

I look sideways at Tom. “Well, at least one of our cowboys enjoyed riding the bronco.” Everyone laughs.

“Just trying to put a good face on a bad situation,” Tom says.

Clairese says in a cute pouty voice, “Or tryin’ to get a girl to wet her panties.”

Jennie and Miki blush slightly. I smile and say, “Perhaps a couple of you did.”

“Uhmmmmm let’s change the subject,” says Jennie. “So there’s already some data from the Moses Facility …”

“Y-yeah, I think the robots probably started work on that as soon as they saw the heavy weather was going to miss them,” Miki adds.

They’re both quite embarrassed, and may need dry panties, so I don’t taunt them about it, poor girls. We’ve all been through a lot.

“R-right, there are weather overrides for all instruction sets,” Jennie adds, “so the robots go into weather preparedness mode when sensors pick up something coming their way. You can override that, but I saw no reason to do that. There’s no point having them start building the antenna and then having it torn down before it’s done and the cover’s on.”

“Good job, then,” I say. “Anything unusual in the status reports?”

“Nope!” Jennie says. “Our visit was logged, and since then the facility’s continued operations as usual.”

“Back at Nanogen Facility,” says Miki, “they want to know whether they should wake up any more people.”

“I should send them back a message right away, then,” I say, “because they absolutely should not. There are more stasis facilities with more people asleep in them. That means we’ve got more information to deal with.”

“More decisions about what order to wake people up in?” asks Tom.

“Right – for example, Clairese was in an early group because I knew we’d need to feed a lot of people, and more as we go along, so we needed the hydroponic gardens working, and therefore as an expert in that, Clairese was high priority.”

“But we do need to wake everybody up,” Tom adds.

“Right, my goal is to get everyone up and busy doing whatever they do best,” I say. “Everybody was put in stasis for a reason, and what’s more, the more of us are awake, the greater the chance we’ll be able to build a new civilization that can survive.”

I do not mention the possibility that some of the people in stasis might be impostors. No need to stoke paranoia. I also don’t add the worry I have that whatever civilization we build might just turn around and do the same thing to itself that the old civilization did. I don’t even want to think about that.

“Well, wow,” says Miki, “we survived! Maybe we can even make it out of this ditch.”

“We’ll get out one way or another,” I reply.

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OK, we’ve all stopped, eaten a really good meal, and looked over the massive damage of the storm … now it’s time for us to move on. I sit in the operator’s couch and strap myself in. Tom and the girls have already strapped in as I grab the control handles and slowly push them forward.

Terra Killer digs large ditches, but it’s unable to move forward or backward through all the mud and slush left from the storm. Six feet of now melting ice on top of all the torrential rainfall makes a huge slushy mess.

Tom looks over and smirks. “Look here, Eric. Terra Killer is supposed to be unstickable. Now look what you’ve done …”

Clairese speaks up, “Yeah, you went and actually got it stuck.”

Everybody laughed. I, on the other hand, feel my body temperature rise a bit as irritation pricks me around my peripheries. “Well, we put in the hover jets for a reason,” I say. I reach over and flip the hover lever. A few moments of buzzes and vibrations, then Terra Killer lifts out of the mire and slush. I give it a bit of altitude, then maneuver it to a fairly flat and clear location and set it down.

Jennie and Miki start clapping their hands as Miki says, “Good job there.”

Jennie says, “Excellent. Keeps Terra Killer’s unstickable reputation intact.”

Everybody, including yours truly this time, bursts out laughing.

The trip back home is far less exciting. We do encounter some flying creatures. They’re huge, too, as big as a small aircraft. They’re large enough that, for an instant, I have a fantasy of capturing several and making them domesticated creatures we can fly on. But that has to be something for the future. We currently have no means to capture one of them without seriously injuring or killing it.

Tom looks at me and asks, “What’s on your mind? I see you kinda watching those flying things.”

I laugh, “Just a fantasy, I’m sure.”

Tom replies, “No, seriously. Most anything could probably be useful.”

I look at Tom out of the corner of my eye as I navigate a deep wash gully, “Well, I was thinking how we might capture several of those bird things and … train them so we could ride them like a horse.”

Tom rubs his chin as he pokes out his lips and slowly nods. “You might have a good idea there. Why build an aircraft when nature has already done it for us?”

I say, “Only thing that’s still a problem, is capturing one of them without hurting them.”

Tom laughs, “Don’t fret over that. I have a way. The real issue is penning them in and taming them – and keeping them fed, of course. They probably eat a lot.”

On the long trip back to Nanogen Facility, Tom, myself, and the girls discuss the possibilities.

Jennie says excitedly, “If we got a breeding pair or even found a nest with eggs in it, we could start domesticating them at time of hatching.”

Miki says as she brings up the data we’ve managed to collect on the avian creatures, “From what these readings are showing, they come to roost at night. All we need to do is use some drones to mark their roost. Then we show up with a huge net. Could probably capture the whole flock in one swoop.”

Clairese says thoughtfully, “Yeah, but think how unruly all that would be.”

“How so?” asks Miki.

Clairese replies, “One of those birds is as large as a Cessna 182 used to be. Imagine trying to tangle with a whole flock of them at once.”

Miki says as she starts typing on her keyboard more, “Hadn’t looked at it that way. I think I have something in the archives that may be useful.”

The forward radar lights up and begins showing a marker ping.

Tom says, “Ahhh, at last. Home is but about an hour away.”

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People stay well away from Terra Killer as it enters the vehicle bay, but as soon as we stop and open the doors, they’re all over us. They’re coming out of the woodwork, cheering, hugging, and even crying with joy in some cases. “We’re so happy you’re all back!” “I listened to every single update you sent!” “We’ve been talking to the Mountain People, and I’m friends with one of them now!” “That storm must’ve been scary, huh?” Chatter is everywhere.

“Let’s see those fuel rods,” says Frank’s unmistakable voice, and I turn my head. There he is, in the flesh, focused as always.

“Hi, Frank! Come this way,” I say, and open the front cargo section, revealing the large shielded cases containing the fuel rods. “We’ll need to get these to somewhere they can be opened safely. They weigh about a ton each. That’s why we brought some robots with us.”

So I go around and open up the rear cargo section too, and there among other things are the few cargo manipulator robots we loaded, folded up into their compact travel configuration. I try to get the attention of one of the others who knows how they worked – I’m a biophysicist, not a roboticist.

Jennie sees what I’m was doing and comes over. She opens a panel on one of them, presses a sequence of buttons, then does the same on each of the other robots. One by one, they roll out of the cargo compartment, then once on level ground they unfold into their operational configuration, with their load platforms, adjustable brackets and guards, manipulator arms, and so forth. She takes out her tablet and directs them to the front of Terra Killer, where they start loading the containers.

Once each robot has a container on board and locked in place, Jennie asks Frank, “OK, Chief, where to?”

“Here, just follow me,” Frank says. “You’ve been gone so long that you’ve probably forgotten the way to the reactor’s safe room.”

“You’ve still got it, you charmer you,” says Jennie, following Frank, four large robots rolling after her.

“So, I saw all the photos you sent of the Moses facility …” Frank says as he and Jennie leave my range of hearing.

Miki is ecstatic with the possibilities, talking to people about how we can now build a manufacturing lab that can built parts for an even bigger manufacturing facility that can in turn bootstrap itself into a full-blown factory and even create mining robots to gather and purify more raw materials. The Cheyenne Mountain people are using something like this already, thanks to Miki and Tom, and now we’ve got materials we can use to get started here.

Clairese is talking to her botanist colleagues about how much she’s learned about hydroponics, especially these new species of fungi that have evolved now and how we can use them. There are some food species, and then there are the ones that the Mountain People make that radiation-blocking “slime board” out of.

Then I see some more old friends. The big cats have come to welcome us back … sort of. The father of the family comes up and sniffs me, then turns around and walks away, looking back at me and flipping his tail. I know how it is. He’s mad at me for leaving. It’ll take a while to forgive me for going away, now that I’m back.

Once a cat, always a cat. But I’m glad to see them. The kittens are a lot bigger, almost as big as their parents, and they aren’t mad at us in anyway and show they are very glad to see us as they come and snuggle all around us and purr loudly.

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Over the next few days a lot of changes happen, and the people of Nanogen Facility seem happier. For one thing, Frank says that he’s replaced the fuel rods in the reactor core with the new ones, and the reactor is operating at peak performance. Miki’s already gotten her manufacturing bootstrap project under way. The folks in charge of above-ground agriculture have shown me their new reinforced walls designed to keep out the Jackalopes and Dire Wolves, which could be migrating through this area any day. But also …

“So,” says Frank, in my office, just him and me, “we’re going to have to wake up another batch of the sleepers. And what’s this about there being more facilities with sleepers in them?”

“Yea, apparently there are, or at least were, other stasis facilities,” I say. “I had no idea, but the data from the Moses Facility has information about them. We’ve had drones visiting their above-ground locations, but it’s a bit hard to tell from the air whether there’s anything underground. There could be, though.”

“That means more potential help … but also more potential impostors,” says Frank.

“You’re not wrong about that,” I reply. “But let’s deal with our own sleepers first.”

“Yes, I agree,” says Frank, “since I’ve gone over the list of them several times.” He shows me the list on a tablet. There are hundreds of names. “These are the ones that could potentially be impostors, not that it’s certain,” he adds, pointing to the names that he’s highlighted. “Some can’t be, because they’ve got skill sets that would be too hard to fake. Chemists, doctors, even artists. We can’t go by DNA samples, because the DNA data could also have been tampered with. There wasn’t much time, but they could’ve done it. So these are the ones we’ll have to be careful about. But we can’t just wake up these ones, because they’ll be suspicious, so we’ll have to do it as part of a larger group.”

“Well, I suppose we’d better just do it, then,” I say. “Let’s plan the group to wake up. We might as well wake up some actually useful people along with the potential impostors – after all, we’ll need them anyway. And not all of the potential impostors really will be, right?”

“Hmm,” says Frank, the way he does when he thinks I’m being overly optimistic.

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I look over the names of the many surviving sleepers in the Nanogen Facility’s stasis area. After looking over the before and after images of the area where the large metal frame had collapsed onto several of the stasis pods sometime over the last 2000 years, I begin wondering. Close observation reveals there should have been no materials corroding away in that location so badly they would have fallen on those ten pods. This was sabotage.

The people in those pods were weavers, tailors, tanners, basically various artisans who had skills necessary for the survival of the species under fairly primitive conditions. We had clothing in storage, but the supplies weren’t unlimited, so we needed to know how to make more. But nobody would be trying to impersonate anyone known to be dead – the saboteur would be trying to eliminate anyone who personally knew the person they’d be replacing. But who did these people know? There wasn’t anything about their personal lives in the records we had about them.

Well, they might be artisans in similar fields. And again, they wouldn’t be anyone who we’d crossed off the list – anyone famous or with highly technical knowledge that couldn’t be faked. There are others in the fields of textiles, dyeing, nutrition, household arts … we’ll have to look at all of them with a suspicious eye.

An impostor might be able to fake it, but they won’t have the knowledge or skill that a PhD or lifelong expert artisan will. Going through the lists, Frank and I come up with 20 people who are experts in similar fields to the sabotage victims.

Now, even an impostor, as long as they have the mindset to work for survival, could be allowed to live. I might even leave their secret intact. But anything else is treason in my mind … that’s how serious things are.

Frank makes sure the 20 are flagged, and we don’t stop our scrutiny there. We have to make sure that, if there are impostors, they don’t hamper our recovery efforts but do contribute. But as usual, Frank warns me that they might be a politician and might try to sow discord and seize control.

So we have to decide what to do if they don’t contribute or try to turn the focus of our people away from survival. Most people would call the penalties we come up with excessively cruel. We’ll toss them out of the community into a radioactive crater and let them fend for themselves, as harsh as that might sound.

Frank comes into the office as I’m making the list of the next 70 I’m going to awaken. He comments, “I see you’ve flagged the weavers and tailors first. Don’t forget, however, that there are more that could be impostors whom we need to keep an eye on.”

I reply, “Yeah, but let’s try and keep it as simple as possible.” I bring up the research I’ve been doing on the failed support racks. “From what I can see so far, those racks shouldn’t have failed. None of the others that are exactly the same show any kind of fatigue or pending failure. As best I can tell, one thing I’m searching for is the very last individual to enter stasis. Odds are better than good they too are an impostor and rigged those racks to fail.”

Frank rubs his chin as he poked out his lips in thought. “That’s very good. I didn’t even think of that.” He manipulated the keyboard for a minute and brings up the name Anthony Nepo. He stands up and continues with satisfaction, “Him; he should be the last one we awaken. The odds are very good he’s the reason for the failure.”

I make sure to flag Anthony Nepo’s stasis pod as last on the list to awaken. I also have others to attend to with the same problems. I rub my face tiredly as I think of the other stasis facilities we have yet to locate exactly. We’re going to have a rather large city once they’re all awake.

Over the course of the next several months, Tom, Jennie, Miki, and Clairese have not only refurbished and rebuilt the entire machine shop into a factory in which we can now begin manufacturing items, but they’ve also built a metal forge far superior to the one we built for the Mountain People. Brand new parts and components begin appearing, much to my pleasure.

Our hydroponics section is performing magnificently. The external fields are growing properly, although we have started to see Jackalopes increasing in numbers. I know that soon the wolves will be arriving as well.

I sit back with satisfaction. We now have machine looms in a large area where we can weave cloth. Another section to that is a place to make clothing and other items from the cloth we’re making from the new shrooms we brought back with us. We’ve also made a lot of that “slime-board” insulation and replaced all the heavy radiation shielding in Terra Killer and around much of the exterior of the facility. Radiation levels have dropped extremely low now that we’ve accomplished this.

Several of the women and I have worked together to refurbish one of the large unused areas as a nursery. We currently have 3 babies to care for, and several of the other young women are already showing. This is good; survival means children for the future. We also make a large Clinic area for our physician types to play in. We will need doctors and hospital areas eventually.

Frank is overjoyed with our new manufacturing abilities. My new crew of industrialists – Tom, Jennie, Frank, Miki, and Clairese – are constantly coming up with improvements and new ways for us to make better and better items.

Now that Jennie has introduced the programmable loom, I know we need weavers. Ok, I begin the procedures to awaken 70 more sleepers. I go to the stasis room and look over the 20 pods that might contain an impostor. I don’t know. Only time would tell.

Several volunteers and I work to awaken the next group and get them to places where they can rest. They’re all disoriented and confused; we all were when we woke up. The issue is whether they’ll be able to work productively in their designated fields – or at the very least contribute in some way to our growing colony.

The same questions arise as always. “How long has it been?” “Is everything … gone?” “Are there any survivors anywhere else?” The nutritionist asks whether we’re secure in our raw food sourcing. And one of the weavers looks at my shirt and asks what kind of fibers it’s made from, because she’s never seen anything like the mycelial fibers it’s woven out of. I’m going to have to be careful. There were mycelial fabrics back in our day, but they were by no means a common thing. But to all the questions we promise the newly awakened that we’ll have a gathering and answer them all at once.

And we do – the Q&A session is just like the previous one. In fact, I’m not noticing any signs that anyone here is an impostor. Maybe Frank is seeing something I’m not, so I’ll have to consult with him later. Of course, we haven’t awakened that Anthony Nepo person, so maybe that’s why; maybe it’s him.

“This technology is beyond anything I’d seen in … well, in the world I went to sleep in,” says Sylvia Fairbairn, the nutritionist I mentioned, while we’re on the tour of the manufacturing facilities. “But then, the most high-tech machines I ever saw were at the food processing factories that I consulted for. Still, if we could make parts for some of those machines … we could have very efficient food production!” She goes into talking about doughs and batters that could be made using the crops we’re growing and cautions that we’re quite deficient in the dairy group and are going to need to find a way to supplement our calcium and B vitamins until we can nail down a secure source of milk. I begin to wonder about the jackalopes. Surely the females produce milk, and they’re actually larger than cows. Can they be domesticated? And if so, can we protect our herd from the dire wolves that hunt them?

At any rate, I’m starting to think Dr. Fairbairn is the real deal when Frank comes up to me and says, “We have a problem.” I motion him to my office.

“What’s the problem, Frank?”

“I’m not seeing any impostors in this group, that’s the problem.”

“Your problem is that we don’t have a problem?” I ask.

“My problem is that our problem hasn’t materialized yet,” he replies. “If there’s an impostor, they were likely to be in this group, or maybe they’re the last one into stasis.”

“Maybe it’s that Anthony Nepo person.”

“Maybe,” says Frank. “I’ll keep watching, but I don’t see any telltale signs so far. A few who still seem disoriented, but that’s not terribly surprising at this stage.”

“Well, let’s both keep watching.”

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I sit at my desk early one morning going over the latest reports and inventories along with the condition of the most recent awakees. From what I see, it would be almost impossible to determine who the impostor was based on current data. All of them seem to have gravitated to their specified locations and started doing the very skills the documents claimed they were supposed to do.

As I sit, a timid knock comes at the door to what has become my administrative office. “Yes? Come in.”

A very pretty young woman in one of the skin-tight jumpsuit uniforms enters the office, “Hi, my name’s Robyn Rudermann. I have an interesting question for you.”

I blank the computer screen and sit back in my chair, “I’m open to almost any idea that will aid in our colony prospering.” Now, Frank and I both studied the dossier of every one of the latest batch of awakened sleepers carefully. Ms. Rudermann is listed as an expert at clothing manufacture – and is one of the only one of those who survived, the “accident” having killed almost all of them. She fortunately, was in another bank of pods.

She brings out a small computer tablet and turns it on before placing it on my desk in front of me. “From the best I can tell, we’re producing more foodstuffs than we need, and we’re also beginning to manufacture goods such as clothing, building materials, and major machine parts.”

I reply, “And this is a good thing …”

Robyn interrupts, “Yes, and all this is good. Now, what are you going to do about commerce?”

“Commerce? I hadn’t thought about that. Under the circumstances, it didn’t really apply.”

She brings up lots of financial data on her screen. “We are at the point where we’re producing goods at a remarkable rate. Now, we need some fair and equitable means to transfer goods from one to another. Like … this.” She brings up on the screen several renditions of coins and paper bills and shows a wonderfully thought out economy outline.

Now I see. In other words, she believes we should create and support some form of monetary exchange for goods and services. I also remember how such things got way out of hand before the war. I really don’t want that to happen here.

I reply, “That’s a very good suggestion. Now, I will ask you to think about such a system and devise a way for it not to get all out of hand and messy like it did in the old economy.”

She smiles as she types on her tablet’s keyboard for a minute, then she slides it over where I can see. “As you can see, I have set it up where everything and anything a person does, they will receive some form of compensation for.”

I’m impressed. For a tailor, this woman knows her economics well – is this a sign that she’s an impostor? But would an impostor do something to make themselves so obvious? Perhaps she’s just a textiles manufacturer who took a lot of economics classes in business school, and Ms. Rudermann is documented as having an MBA. “I’m not sure what we can base the value of the coinage on just yet, since we have no precious metals, but give me a bit more time, and I’ll figure it out.”

She gathers her things to leave, as I continue, “Tom and I have actually been thinking about this and already have a few ideas. I’ll stay in touch over this. Now that you’ve brought it to my attention, we’ll make it a priority, but I must warn you that regardless of a few very recent advances, we’re still at extreme risk of extinction as a species, so it’s still far too early to predict that we’ll even survive, let alone need to invent a form of money. And precious metals aren’t exactly precious anymore – you can’t eat gold, and even if we still consider gold valuable, if we find any, we’ll have to make sure it isn’t a radioactive isotope.” But it’s a sign that people are starting to think beyond mere survival, if anyone at all is starting to consider economics. “But thank you for letting me know that this is a concern for you – there’s no way for me to know what people want unless they tell me.”

“Thank you, Sir.” She gathers her things and leaves.

I watch as the young woman leaves my office. All sorts of red flags just went up, and my mental alarms just started going off in my head. I know it’s very likely this girl studied economics and learned tailoring as well. I need to talk with Frank. I quickly send an email to his tablet. I hope he’ll answer it soon.

I’m up to my neck in trying to organize some kind of monetary exchange system when Frank, being Frank, walks in and sits in one of the chairs, “What’s up? Your email seemed to indicate you might have found someone who isn’t who they claim to be.”

I explain about Ms. Rudermann. “Hmm, yes, well, she’s got an MBA and knows something about economics,” he says. “But why is she the first one to suggest a monetary system? We have economists. They weren’t murdered. They’re still asleep. Because we don’t need them yet, in my opinion. Regardless of how well she thinks we’re doing, human civilization is still dancing on a knife’s edge. I mean, people can’t exactly go out and claim some land and build a house – how would they survive the next Jackalope stampede, Dire Wolf attack, or radioactive mega-storm? Or hazards we don’t even know about yet? If we’re not careful, we could well still face extinction, or devolution to the Stone Age at the very best.”

“We might want to put our ideas for a monetary economy into practice,” I say, “before she does. If she’s an impostor, she might set herself up with an initial advantage.”

“Right, if we let radical capitalism take root, it’ll be impossible to stop,” says Frank. “And once again we’ll have a situation where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, forever – or until there’s another nuclear Armageddon. Fortunately I suspected this would happen, and I already have the perfect answer. Remember what we said about a constitution?”

“Oh, right,” I say. “We can’t start anything like that before awakening everyone we know of, because we’ll have people waking up and being discontent because they weren’t consulted.”

“Exactly,” says Frank. “We put her off and postpone her. Don’t tell her what our plan is – tell her that we’ve got several ideas, all of them different, and haven’t decided on one. Tell her we can’t implement anything until we awaken everyone, especially the economists – and we’ve recently learned that there may be other sleepers at other facilities, so that will take time. Meanwhile, tell her that we’re still scrabbling for the means of survival, despite some recent advances. If you need a speechwriter, I suggest you talk to that young Jennie woman. She’s got more of a way with words than you know.”

“Really?” I say. “I’ll talk to her.”

“What’s more,” added Frank, “the property of the community is, well, communal property, and that’s not changing. Nobody actually owns anything yet, except maybe a rock they pick up off the ground. Everything in this facility is community-owned. Nobody even owns the clothes they’re wearing, unless they grew the cotton – or mushrooms or whatever – and made them themselves, with their own tools and equipment. So there’s nothing to buy or sell yet.”

“Except for services. We’ve gone over this already,” I say.

“Right, right, we basically need something new that’s not capitalism and not communism, because neither of those has ever worked for everyone in the system,” says Frank. “Maybe we do need to wake up some economists.”

“The fact that we haven’t could be another reason not to adopt a monetary system yet,” I muse. “Tell her that while she may have studied economics, there are economic experts that simply haven’t been awakened yet, and we’ll need to get their input.”

“Perfect! Another way to stall her while we watch her,” says Frank. “So, we need everyone awake, especially the economists, we’re still struggling for survival, and what’s more, there aren’t even any goods to buy or sell yet.”

“Not to change the subject,” I say, “but if she’s an impostor, that means she’s also a mass murderer, having killed 20 people by sabotaging the stasis facility. What do we do in that case? It’s not like we could prove it to everyone’s satisfaction.”

“Right, well, there’s a problem there,” says Frank, tapping at his tablet for a minute. “I found some video from some of the top-secret cameras that nobody was supposed to know about.” He held it up. A shadowy figure was skulking around one of the stasis rooms.

“Is that –” I begin.

“The room with the failed pods,” Frank says. This must be from before those frames collapsed, because they’re intact in this video. The figure is doing something to the support beams. They carefully move close to each one and pay attention to it for a few minutes before moving to the next. I notice that they only go to the ones that I know later failed. They approach one of the beams at an angle where the distance and lighting allows me to see what they’re doing better – they’re applying some kind of substance to the beam from a vial using a brush or the like.

“They’re … weakening the structural framework with some kind of acid?” I guess.

“That’s what it looks like,” says Frank. “And here’s the problem. The pods are all closed. Everyone who’s going to be in them is already in them. In all the rooms. And this person, even though they’re wearing a dark hooded cloak, is obviously a lot taller than Ms. Rudermann.”

“So if she is an impostor,” I say, “she didn’t sabotage those pods. Someone else did. I hadn’t thought about that – what if someone sabotaged them for someone else’s benefit?”

“Like a family member, even an adult child,” says Frank.

“Ms. Rudermann could be the murderer’s daughter or other relative,” I say. “But that doesn’t mean she isn’t an accomplice. She might have known very well what this person was going to do, and chose to go through with it – and besides, they still replaced the real Robyn Rudermann. Or, I suppose, her relative completely lied to her, murdered the real Rudermann, told this woman that she got into the program legitimately, and then sabotaged those racks after she was already in her pod, to ensure that nobody would be able to catch her out.”

“Time to run a DNA test?” Frank suggests.

“I think so,” I say. These tests take a long time, and we don’t have the supplies to run them on everyone, but this one might be warranted. “I’ll do it myself.” The DNA records are top secret – not that someone with enough money or influence couldn’t have gotten at them, but if the test proves false, then we’ve got her. If the test comes back positive, though, and she matches the DNA in the records, well, either she’s for real or the records were tampered with.

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No need to get a new sample from her; we took samples of everyone in the process of waking them up. The testing equipment was in stasis, so it still works, but it requires specific chemicals we can’t manufacture yet, so we can’t run this test on absolutely everyone. It takes days to run the genome, but when it’s done, I compare the results with the known DNA of Robyn Rudermann from the classified database.

They don’t match.

So she really is an impostor. Now we know. But we shouldn’t confront her with it. We’ll see whether she wants to be an asset to the human race … or a parasite.

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As expected, the Jackalopes migrated, with the large pack of Dire Wolves following. The preps we made held, and we avoided losing anything to them. We managed to capture about a dozen Jackalopes and corral them. We’re going to see if they can be domesticated. From what our biologist says, we even have some breeding pairs, although milking is out. So far, other than that, it looks pretty promising.

I’m taking a small hunting party out with bows to gather some more meat. Our population has grown, and now we need more food. I’ve noticed two of the large avian friends as they circle each other. It’s very impressive to watch two birds the size of small aircraft go toe to toe.

We all know the dangers their razor sharp beaks and 3 inch talons represent. Large feathers begin to fall over us as the battle in the sky rages on more intensely. As I watch, the two of them slam head on into each other, then veer off into one of the cliff faces. The impact creates a small rockslide down on top of the now twitching birds.

We’re fortunate to have brought one of the mule-bots with us. This enables me to capture and incapacitate both creatures without hurting them any further. One of them has a broken wing, a minor thing for us to fix, but probably fatal to the critter without our intervention.

The sensation it creates when we show up at the compound with these huge creatures make me feel nice. Tom immediately begins designing a bird saddle, while Frank and a couple of the others tend to the broken wing.

I’m back out immediately, building the closet thing I can to an aviary to house them. The stupid enclosure is as large as any hangar, and it kinda looks like one, except for the thick chicken wire instead of steel. It even has a sliding door leading into it. It’s easier than a swinging door and perhaps a bit safer.

One of the newly awakened sleepers is a young woman named Jessie Charmichael. I’m in my executive office when she pokes her head in and asks softly, “Can .. I see you for a little bit? I need to talk to you about something important to me.”

“Sure, “ I reply, “Come on in and have a seat.” I gesture towards the other chair.

She enters. She has on one of those skin-tight outfits this facility seems to have so many of in storage. She has it unzipped just enough in front that her beautiful cleavage is on full display. She comes up to me and says in a soft voice, “Part of our duties are to ensure the continuation of the colony, right?”

She takes hold of my hand. I begin to feel uncomfortable as she walks close and puts my hand between her legs, “Well, survival includes increasing the population, doesn’t it?”

OMG!! This woman is asking me to … I stammer, “I .. well.. Yes it does.”

She giggles, “Well, I have always had a serious crush on you. Ever since I went to the symposium on extended hyper sleep.” She puts both her hands on top of mine and wiggles a little. “Any time you might … need a companion. I’m willing.” Then, she turns and leaves my office.

All I can do is sit with my mouth open. I’ve never had that happen before. Then again, the young woman is correct. We need to start having as many babies as possible. I smile; those warm waterfall showers help this a lot, and I had to admit, I really wouldn’t mind in the least.

I rub my tired face as I sit back in my chair. I’m very glad that Juarez hasn’t been seriously hurt while training the birds. Sure, he got a few minor scrapes, but it could have been a lot worse. But he has accomplished a major goal – the darn bird is actually saddle broken. There’s still a good bit of training to do, to teach it and a rider how to work together. By fall next year, though, Nanogen Facility will have its own version of an air force. Will we need it? Who knows?

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We’ve got so many irons in the fire. We’re having the drones survey the sites where the data from the Moses depository said there were originally other stasis facilities. We often can’t tell from the air whether anything remains of them; their entrances are often camouflaged and overgrown, but at least we could tell if one of them is now a bombed-out crater.

That is the case for one of them, unfortunately. But there are six others that are, as far as we can tell, still worth investigating. We’ve dispatched a new team in the Terra Killer to survey the terrain around the closest of them.

We also have to awaken more of the sleepers here. Frank and I are going through the list and deciding who we can feasibly support … and who might be impostors. We know we’ve got one, but by no means are we assuming there’s only one. “Now here’s Jeffrey Charmichael,” says Frank, pointing at the record on his tablet. “Construction expert, and brother of Jessie Charmichael, who’s already awake. We’re going to need people who know how to build. And because they’re siblings, it’s unlikely that an impostor would pick one of them to replace, knowing they’d be found out.”

“S-sounds good,” I say, thinking about Jessie, whose advances I hadn’t accepted or rejected yet.

“And there’s Malachi Dawnmountain, veterinarian,” he went on. “We’re starting to have domesticated animals – started a while ago, if you count those huge cats – so we might want one of those around.”

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I go out to do my usual morning rounds, so to speak. I’m bent over one of the methane fuel consoles when the large male kitty slowly slinks up and lies next to me.

Then it happens. In a really strange, growling-moaning voice, it says, “Talk? Naw su guu can.”

I almost pass out. I knew the cats were smarter than typical big cats of our time, but now I know they’re far smarter than any of us assumed. Darn, there’s that thing, and boy, did it just make one out of me. They can actually talk.

I quickly gather my wits and say, “I’m sorry I went away for so long, but we had to see if perhaps there were other survivors.” I scratch behind his ear in his favorite place. It’s obvious he really enjoys it, too.

Kitty replies, “No touurk meees. Why comes?”

I sit and begin to pet the large cat. It rolls over on its back and lets me rub his tummy. I know how ticklish cats are in their stomach area, and I just have to as I gently tickle Kitty’s ribs. I laugh as he responds just as any cat has in my memory over it. It’s nice to see.

I know Kitty can hurt me badly with his sharp claws and teeth when he reacts. But there’s no force or even claws when he responds.

I say, “I didn’t realize.” I shrug, “Now, I know. One of your kits is male and will be needing to rove about soon.”

Kitty rolls over and sits as he tucks his forepaws under. “Nex … u go, Kitty go, ‘n brings Grrreee.”

I reply as I rub Kitty’s nose in the way they love so much. “It’s a deal. I’ll see if Tom can even rig up something on the bird saddles for you.”

Kitty stands and gives me a large bump. “Thx.” Then he slinks off through the brush, as silently as any predator. I sit for a few minutes and marvel at the revelation that those kitties can talk. This changes the ballgame, as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to have some wonderful chats with cats. I chuckle.

I finish checking the methane fuel system and record the readings. Everything is operating well within specs. I’m also pleased to see that the recent drop in the solar arrays’ power output isn’t due to damage, just an accumulation of grime and pollens. I clean and polish the arrays. Immediately the power output returns to nominal levels.

I stand and see someone out by the Jackalope corrals. I recognize Malachi Dawnmountain. I’m still sort of skeptical of him, but thus far he has shown not only great native wisdom and veterinary skills, but also an uncanny way with the wild animals we’ve recently captured.

Juarez and he have made remarkable strides in teaching the birds how to be bridle broken. The day when the two of them recently took a preliminary flight caused everyone to stop what they were doing and watch. The birds responded quickly to their inputs as they dove, swooped, and soared.

I wasn’t extremely pleased with Malachi or Juarez when they took it upon themselves to recover 30 large eggs from the huge avians along the cliffs. The dangers involved were severe.

I did marvel at the incubators they and several of the newly awakened individuals built. I’m not sure how long it will be, but several of those who professed to be biologists also aided, or got in the way, whichever the case may be, and it appears that in a few very short days we’ll have 30 chicks to care for. The addition to the aviary for the new arrivals took only a few days and turned out nicely.

I stand in the middle of the compound and look around. We’ve actually managed to bring some of the 21st century back to life. What I see looks like any modern research facility. As a matter of fact, if we rebuilt the admin building, it would resemble the area that was there before the war. We aren’t out of the woods by any means, but it does look more than promising.

I also see the brand new building where our metal foundry and machine shop now reside. We might not be completely back to 21 century standards, but we have way better than a fighting chance to make it very soon. I wish we could have built that underground, but the heat, smoke, and gases could potentially have been dangerous.

Beyond the compound’s walls is wild, thick growth. There’s a definite trail leading out the main compound gate by this time. I’ve created several bots to perform one task unsupervised: to keep the trails to Cheyenne Mountain and to Moses Facility clear and passable. We blazed them with the Terra Killer and don’t want to have to do it all again. Drone footage reveals that they perform this task well. I laugh; they aren’t eight-lane superhighways, but they’re a major improvement and will reduce travel time to those locations.

I also know that Tom, Jennie, Miki, and Clairese are working on something like slime-tar. They managed to create some kind of thick goo with the methane and mixed it with slimeboard. I’m seriously impressed with what they came up with. It isn’t tar, but by gosh, it’s more durable and stronger than tar.

Jennie has started writing an upgrade to my clearing bots that will also allow them to pave the trail. Miki created some sort of sprayers that will lay down a thick layer of the stuff in a smooth even way. There’s even a large roller attached that helps compact it after spraying and makes it smooth. Humanity’s first roads are reappearing. I feel really elated.

Of course, not everyone’s happy with this development. Frank thinks it’ll lead potential enemies straight to our door. “What enemies?” I asked him when he brought it up last night.

“Hey, just because you haven’t found any intelligent threats, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any,” said Frank. “There are those cave people you noticed, and you didn’t make contact with them. Guaranteed they saw you, and now you’re building a road straight through their valley. Don’t you think they’ll follow it and see where it goes? And then there are all the primitive people you didn’t see. What’s more, who’s to say some other species haven’t mutated to have higher intelligence?” This was last night, and thinking about today’s revelation about the cats, I’m no longer as convinced as I was that Frank’s wrong.

Still, anyone who’s determined to find and attack us will do so, roads or no roads. In the meantime, we’ll have the roads, and we’ll use them to our advantage. If we need to build walls and fortifications, so be it. As it is, we’ve got cameras and AI routines to watch for intrusions.

“Dr. Palmintieri,” said a small voice from behind me and to the right. I turned to see Robyn Rudermann, or whatever her real name was. “I have a question … and it may sound a little strange.”

“Still trying to implement a money economy?” I ask. I asked Jennie to write something, and I looked over what she’d written before sending it to Robyn. I thought it was pretty persuasive, but I guess we’ll see.

“No, I understand. That … that can wait. There’s something I wonder if you can show me.” Robyn is oddly hesitant.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Can you … show me the failed stasis pods?” she asks. “The … ones where people … didn’t make it.”

“You’re right, that is a strange question,” I say. “Can I ask why you want to see them? We gave their remains as proper a burial as we could. I was thinking about repurposing that room, but with so much going on nothing’s been decided yet.”

“I … just wanted to see … well, you know. What could’ve happened.”

“Well, I suppose so, if you really want. I was about done here. Want to go now?”

“That’s fine.” She’s really far more subdued than she’d been earlier. I’m wondering what’s going on.

We continue talking as we take the stairs down into the depths. “Was it something in Jennie’s note? I thought she put the argument about waiting on making big changes like that pretty cogently.”

“No, it’s not that,” she says. “I mean, yes, it was something in the note, but not the argument about the economy. She’s right. You’re right. It was … it just made me think about something.”

“Jennie’s good at making people think. I swear sometimes she makes even machines think, and I know computers just make rote decisions based on logic and input.”

“She mentioned something about how we’re shorthanded in … my field because all the others died in a terrible accident,” says Robyn. “It made me feel bad. Then it made me feel … even worse. I have to see something.”

“Well, OK,” I say. “Here we are.” I open the door and turn the lights on. “We’ve removed the pods from the frames, but the frames are still up … what’s left of them.”

“This is terrible,” says Robyn, going up to the frames and looking closely at the spots where the metal buckled and collapsed. “It’s … no. It’s not right.” She was crying.

“What?”

“It’s … my life … it’s … a lie,” she sobs.

“Are you telling me that you’re not Robyn Rudermann?” I ask. I already knew this, of course, but I don’t understand what’s going on.

“I am … I mean … that’s my name … but … my life’s been a lie for a lot longer than that …”

“Um … why don’t we sit down and you can tell me about it?” We go back to my office, and she explains.

“Have you ever heard of … Jeremy Sotay?”

“Yes, of course,” I say. “Investor, financier, one of the world’s richest men. Or he was.”

“Yes … he was also my father.”

“Your father? There’s nothing about that in your file … it says your father was a tailor.”

“That’s the … other Robyn Rudermann,” she says, tearing up again. “I think my father … killed her.”

“But you say that’s your name too,” I say, confused.

“My father … about four years before the … the war … he started acting strange,” Robyn says. “He started taking an interest in my social life. He never had before. Making sure I went to events, parties, gatherings. And the same man was always there. Rod Ruderman. With one N.”

“I … go on,” I say.

“I got to know Rod, and over time, we got interested in each other, and we got married. We didn’t have kids … and after the wedding he was always kind of distant … always busy with his job …”

“Your dad wanted you married off and picked a guy … for his last name?” I guess.

“I didn’t realize,” she says. “I think so, now. I think he found something out. Something about the program. He knew something was coming.”

“This is … astonishing,” I say. “He found someone in the stasis program whose name was Robin or Robyn, found someone with almost the same last name, and … replaced her with you?”

“Not only that,” she goes on. “I’m pretty sure he made certain that anybody else who might have known the real Robyn Rudermann was killed, so I wouldn’t be challenged. I think he sabotaged those racks. They were all … somehow melted, all in exactly the right places.”

“That … would mean 11 people died so you could be here today,” I say carefully.

“But I didn’t know it!” she cries, tears streaming down her face. “My whole last four years – maybe even longer than that, I don’t even know now – were all just my dad playing some kind of long game to make sure I lived … and he didn’t care who had to die …”

I pause. I give her time. Then I say, “Well … that’s all in the past, and you’re here now, and there’s nothing we can do about any of it. All we can change … is the future. So I need to know some things about you, starting right now.”

“W-what do you need?” she asks.

“I need to know what your skills are,” I say. “We’ve got that information about everyone else, but not you. Your file is about the other Robyn Rudermann. We need to get you doing what you actually know how to do. Did you go to college? What did you study? What are you good at? I don’t even … I’m not good at asking these questions, because I’m a biophysicist, not a vocational guidance counselor. Look, what your dad did, or had somebody else do, was terrible, no doubt about it. I’m sorry you’ll have to live with that. But you can still make your life mean something. You can still make your mark on the future and work together with everybody to help our new civilization get started.”

“I … I’ll do it! I’ll write something. I’m, well, the daughter of a rich man. Right now I feel like that’s worth less than nothing.”

“You have talents – I know that because everybody does, though I don’t know what yours are. Let me see what I can find. If we found some kind of aptitude test, would you want to try taking it?”

“Sure, anything that would help,” she says. “I’ve always been persuasive, good at getting my way …”

“You can make use of that, in public relations,” I say. “As we awaken more people, we’re going to need to be able to communicate with them all. Are you afraid of speaking in public? Any stage fright?”

“I will say that’s not a problem I’ve ever had,” she says, starting to look a bit more confident and dabbing at her face with her sleeve.

“Any experience with writing? Talking to people? Maybe you could be our first journalist,” I suggest.

“Well, I’ve tried creative writing, but I just don’t get ideas,” she says, “but I’ve always done well in English classes …”

“Well, those are just a couple of ideas, and I’m sure if we talk to people and think about it for a while, we’ll get more. My point is that everybody here has talents, and I’m sure that includes you, and everybody is using them to try to make a better future for all of us. But there are many ways to do that, only some of which we’re doing at present. All we have to do is find you a niche that you’re good at, and away we go.”

“I … I’m going to need a minute,” she says. She’s still clearly very shocked.

“I understand,” I say. “I will too. This is quite a revelation. Remind me later to tell you about something we found out. When you’re ready.” I’ve decided not to tell her that we already knew about her, not until she’s at least somewhat recovered.

“When I’m … yeah, I understand, I think I’m going to cry again if I find out anything else,” she says. “Look, Dr. Palmintieri, are you going to tell everyone about … all of it?”

“Not yet,” I say. “I think you and I both have to recover first. Then we can decide how to go about it.”

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“You KNEW?” she says a few days later, when she comes back to my office. Kitty is lounging on the floor by my chair, mostly asleep, but probably listening.

“We only knew a little,” I say. “We knew you weren’t the real Robyn Rudermann. And we have a surveillance video of somebody sabotaging the racks. You can’t make out their face. We didn’t know you were Robin Sotay before getting married. We didn’t know whether you knew about the murders or not.”

“So you just … what, gave me enough rope to hang myself?”

“Look, I’m a scientist, and all my friends are either scientists or engineers,” I explain. “When we don’t have enough information, what do we do? We reserve judgment and wait until we can gather more information. We make guesses and gather data to test them.”

“So your guess about me was …”

“First it was that you were a multiple murderer,” I say, “but that video shows someone who obviously wasn’t you – they’re clearly a larger person, for one thing, and you were already in your stasis pod by that time. So that guess was out. At that point it was about whether you killed the real Robyn yourself or not. And if not, whether you even knew about that, or the others.”

“Which one did you believe?” she asks.

“It’s not a matter of belief,” I reply. “It’s a matter of evidence. We didn’t have any. Now we have your side of the story. It’s hard to corroborate, because the real Robyn’s body was never found, and then there was the war. We don’t seem to have any surveillance footage of Robyn’s murder. But I did watch you carefully when we went to the room with the damaged stasis pod frames. You obviously didn’t know where to look at first. You found the places where the frame had been sabotaged, but only after searching.”

“So you believe me?” she asks.

“I believe the evidence,” I say, “and it doesn’t point to your guilt at all. Now, could you still be a very convincing con artist? Sure. But I’m still gathering information, and if what I see remains consistent with your story, there’s no reason to treat it as anything but the truth.”

“Innocent until proven guilty?” she asks rhetorically. “I thought we didn’t have a constitution yet.”

“I’m just trying to do the minimum harm possible until it’s really feasible to undertake an effort like that,” I say. “By the way, we’ve found a sort of an aptitude test, if you want to try it. It’s something the military used when deciding what job to put recruits in, so it’s got a very military focus, but maybe it’ll help.” I hand her a tablet.

“Sure, I’ll take it, what can it hurt?” She takes the tablet. “I’ll just bring it back when I’m done, I guess?”

“Yes, it’ll tabulate the results, and we can go over them together, if you like.”

“OK, then.” She turns to go. “And … thank you.”

“Just trying to do my best for all of us.”

After the door closes, Kitty looks up at me. “Herrrr no lies,” he says. “Noooo kills.”

“Thanks, Kitty.” I stroke his head and scratch him behind the ears, making him purr.

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I sit in my office going over the morning reports. From what I read, our foundry is operating extremely well, and we’re producing all the necessary metals we need, including a few exotic ones.

As far as replacement parts go, we’re actually overproducing the items we need. All of our equipment has been completely rebuilt and is in pristine condition. Our radar and comms are working almost as good as prewar.

Recycling, of metal at least, is working better than it was back then. Recycling companies were still trying to turn a profit, and that meant they sometimes cut corners and threw perfectly good metal into landfills when they couldn’t find a market for their recycled goods – or even when there was a market, but not enough to be profitable.

I’m having our production and fabrication department begin producing a special type of balloon drone that will achieve a certain altitude and a specified location, and more or less orbit that location at about 14,000 feet. Of course it’s programmed to get out of the way of inclement weather and some of the predatory critters that happen to fly that high. Jennie has proven that it’s completely possible to track every single member of a species – when they’re that large, it’s a bit difficult for them to hide.

I’ve slowly been stationing these special drones in specified locations in an ever-widening area around us. This allows us to more reliably use our comms and personal communicators in most of the places we want to go. We’ve figured out definitely that the 100 MW comm signals we’re getting are that Moses facility’s computer system’s way of controlling the maint-bots it needs to keep the facility operational. The new comm network we’ve had them build is working amazingly well, now that we actually have RF and microwave comms back up.

We now have the system working as well as what I remember the Internet doing. We not only have emails and text chat, we have instant video and voice abilities now without the annoying lag. I nod with satisfaction as I look over the reports on the areas that we keep bringing online.

The paved road from the front gate to Cheyenne Mountain and to the Moses facility does bring out some curious primates. We’ve come to find the Trogs a bit more civilized than we first thought. They almost speak English, at least, enough of the rudimentary language that we can understand each other and talk.

We’ve managed to convince about 50 of them to come work at Nanogen facility. We’ve slowly trained them on the operation of the basic farming gear and other simple tasks at first. It doesn’t take them long to get over their awe and fear and begin to learn.

Tom’s most grateful since he trained 25 of them to come work in the foundry and machine shop producing parts. The mountain people have proven to be hardy and brave as they took the trek from their facility to ours on foot. It’s still amazing how these people manage to function as if they have sight.

Our local doctors have done as much of an exam on them as they’re currently able, only to discover what we already knew. Their eyes have atrophied away over the course of 2,000 years of ebony darkness. This only makes it more amazing how they can function. If we didn’t already know, we wouldn’t know they were blind from our perspective.

I now have the maps out for Virginia. I compare the data we’ve retrieved from the Moses Facility with the best current drone data for the stasis survival locations. A few of them I know were destroyed. The very mountains they were buried under were now deep radioactive ash piles.

I do have hope, however, Many of the places show lush and wild growth all over them, and, by searching the terrain for temperature variations and comparing with the detailed maps found in the data from the Moses Facility, we’ve actually found what data seems to indicate to be viable entrances. I have hope that some survived.

I flop back in my chair and stretch. I know that before we can think of bringing any of those out of stasis, we’ll have to fully awaken those here … And today is the day we’ll do it. We have enough food stores that we’ve begun trading with the … Troglodytes, for the lack of a better term, for which they eagerly swap for their bows, arrows, and spears. Primitive though they may be, these tools are made with an artistry that can only be developed through generations of experience. Once we awaken some of the cultural anthropologists, they’ll be fascinated to see how these people have developed.

They’re very much pleased when I demonstrate how to use an atlatl. They immediately adapt their arrows into long slender spears and start tossing them at targets they’ve set up prior to their leaving to return to their cliff dwellings.

One Item I’ve tried to get them to stop seeking are the giant bird’s eggs. We have almost 100 of them in the incubators and several hundred more in stasis storage until such time as we might need them.

The Trogs are fascinated by our huge hangar-sized aviary and the brooding area for the not-so-small chicks that have hatched. One of the large primitive men, named Gloft, has made it known that he wants to take a ride on one of the large birds.

OK, I go to the storage area, bring out a tandem saddle, and begin fitting it to the bird. The Trog watches in open-mouthed incredulity at the docility of the bird and how much it actually seems to help me saddle it.

Once I’ve finished, I walk up to the bird’s head and softly pat it as I give it one of those seed and honey balls we’ve made up to treat it for a job well done. The bird eagerly takes it from my hand and eats it quickly.

Gloft follows my lead as I strap into the saddle. I fasten the safety harness. “Safe,” I say, showing him how to do it. “No fall.”

“No fall!” Gloft replies, doing likewise. The harness fastens around the upper legs and waist, so even if the bird inverts, we won’t fall. Gloft seems to understand that falling out of the saddle of a flying creature is something to be avoided.

Finally I’m in position and take the reins. The bird knows what to expect, and she’s ready to fly today. A shake of the reins, and she’s running for the exit ledge, flapping her huge wings to gain altitude. She’s soaring in no time. Gloft gasps. I know how he feels. The first time I did what he’s doing, I lost my lunch.

She finds a thermal, and I let her ride it up. It’s a slow upward climb, and the ground gets farther and farther away. By no means are we at 14,000 feet, but the saddle’s altimeter says we’re easily over 2,000. The tallest trees look like vegetables. “So high!” says Gloft. “So small!”

I see a herd of wild Jackalopes in the distance and steer her toward it. The bird knows what to expect from us; we’ve trained them well. “See those?” I say to Gloft.

“Yes!” he says. “Big rabbit! Good food when tribe can kill! Look out for big wolf!” Sure enough, as we fly high above the tiny-seeming Jackalopes we can see a pack of Dire Wolves heading toward them. A few of the Jackalopes sense them and start to run, and soon the whole herd is running. I remember being in the midst of that chaos inside Terra Killer, and this is much preferable, in my opinion.

I turn us back toward Nanogen Facility, and we fly over the road, a tiny gray ribbon far below. “Metal Tribe make rock trail,” says Gloft. They call us the “Metal Tribe,” I suppose because we know how to use metals. “Why make?”

“You have seen our carts,” I say. “With wheels.”

“Yes. Wheel. Tribe makes cart with wheel. Breaks a lot.”

“They can go very fast on flat straight trail,” I say. “Better travel. Better journey. Do you see?”

“Wheel no break, cart go on and on,” says Gloft. “Good travel.”

“Yes,” I say. “Good travel. You see.”

“We use rock trail?” asks Gloft. “Metal Tribe let us use?”

“We can make a bargain,” I say. “You help us take care of it, you can use it.”

“Gloft talk with tribe,” he says. “Tell you what they say.”

“Good,” I say. The bird comes in for a smooth landing, backwinging and setting down on the ledge before walking inside. We unfasten the harnesses once she’s come to a halt, and I give her another honey seed ball.

It is soon time to awaken the final group of sleepers. This includes the last one, the one Frank is suspicious of, Dr. Anthony Nepo, the economist. It also includes Jeffrey Charmichael, the brother of Jessie Charmichael, as well as a number of people whose areas of expertise we haven’t needed until recently, but the need for them is starting to materialize. The awakening team is even bigger than it was before. Jessie wants to be present for Jeffrey’s awakening, which only makes sense.

I mostly supervise this time; everyone in this team has at least assisted with at least one awakening before, if not actually performed it themselves. This makes it much faster, but less controlled. I ensure that Frank is on the scene for Nepo’s awakening.

As always, the awakened sleepers are dehydrated, stiff, and curious about what year it is. As always, we tell them to get some rest, real rest, and we’ll brief them when they’re all less exhausted.

When that time comes, I’ve had my rest too. “Welcome, Phase 4!” I say to them, assembled in the large multi-purpose room that was once the darkened vehicle bay I discovered. “I suppose it’s time to answer all the questions I’m sure you have. We’ll start by saying that as near as we can tell, it’s March 3, 4045.” A wave of gasps of surprise ripples across the room, just as it’s happened before. “I’m Dr. Eric Palmintieri, and apparently the US military made good use of the stasis technology I developed, because you’re all here now. I woke up solo, a year and a half ago, and found out I wasn’t alone after all …” I told them the story so far. “... and so, with a road built between here and Cheyenne Mountain and with diplomatic relations beginning with the cave-dwelling tribes to our west, we’re making a start at rebuilding something resembling a civilization.”

“So you haven’t started up some kind of trade-based economy yet?” asks Dr. Nepo.

“Not within our community,” I say. “We’ve traded with the Trogs for some of their handcrafted tools.”

“Good,” say Dr. Nepo. “If we all start using capitalism without taking a long hard look at what to fix, we’ll just end up right back where we started.” I see Frank looking at him in surprise, then looking at me. I take it that Frank didn’t prompt him. That isn’t what an infiltrating impostor would say … unless, of course, he didn’t want to sound like an impostor.

“Now that all the people at our facility are awake, we can start thinking about politics,” I say, to several audible groans. ”I know, I hate the thought as much as most of you, I’m sure, but we should try to hammer out something resembling a basic constitution. I didn’t want to start doing any such thing until everyone here was awake, so we could all have a say in how it came together. I don’t want some kind of dictatorship, and I don’t want to be any sort of dictator, but as the first one awake I’ve sort of fallen into a leadership role by default, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m going to turn into some kind of king. Now that everyone’s awake and nobody’s going to be accusing anyone of forming a constitution without them, I want there to be some sort of elected leadership, a system that there’s broad support for, rigid enough to stand up to the challenges we’re facing but flexible enough to handle the rapid change that we’ll certainly experience … but that’s all going to be hashed out later. We’ll have town meetings.”

Lots of muttering. It’s clear that people both do and don’t want to have to deal with politics. That’s exactly my attitude toward it too. Politics is an evil, but it’s a necessary evil. As soon as you have two people on Earth at cross purposes, you have to have politics, unless they fight and one kills the other, but that’s even worse. You have to lay down some ground rules so everybody can get about their business.

“Anyway, welcome to the new world!” I say. “We’ve got these computer tablets from storage, we’ve got an actual network they can connect to, we’re getting close to being able to manufacture something like these things, and we’ve got a wealth of data we’ve collected from the world around us that you’re welcome to peruse. You should see the Jackalopes, and the big birds. You don’t want to see the Dire Wolves or those giant frilled lizards.”

“To be honest, I do,” says a woman I know to be Dr. Janice Kodaly, evolutionary biologist.

“I stand corrected,” I say. “We’ve got survival figured out for at least a few years, and I hope that with your help we can extend that to indefinitely. And then there are those other facilities out there that might also have survivors in stasis sleep. We’re going to want to help them get set up too, and with any luck they can join with us into a better … nation? Civilization? Human species? Something like that.”

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Now that we have the full complement awake, we can begin doing more research on how to upgrade and better maintain our equipment. We now know for a fact that one of the individuals we awakened in the previous group is an impostor, although she wasn’t complicit in it. We also suspect that there might be other impostors, but our detective work is ongoing. We can’t just DNA test everyone, because of our limited supply of the necessary chemicals, and because it would take a very long time even if we had an infinite supply.

But also, I have to figure out a way to awaken any survivors at other facilities and set them up with a decent way to grow and prosper too.

I sigh as I lean back in my chair. The huge arguments, some of them heated, rage on in the conference room over what our new constitution is going to cover. It basically follows the original US one, although there are some major changes so we can avoid some of its pitfalls that appeared over time.

We actually have an inclusion of what all were discussing should be equal rights for all, regardless of their orientations, gender identities, etc. And there are several other things we don’t want to become an issue this time around. But some want to start fresh – and there are some parts of the old US Constitution that won’t even work, because we don’t have states. We’re thinking about implementing some kind of colony system, but how to govern such things is one of the matters being discussed.

Jeffrey Charmichael is one of the people most involved in the new constitution – he thinks there needs to be a strong executive branch. And he’s not wrong; decisions sometimes need to be made quickly. But others, myself included, think there should be checks and balances, a way for the other branches of the government or the people themselves to pull the leadership back. We can all remember times when elected leaders made the wrong decisions – like the decision to start the war. That can’t happen again, or we might well really end the human race this time.

Dr. Nepo is involved too, mostly in terms of designing the new economy. I’ve run a DNA scan on him, since he’s one of the ones we had under suspicion, being the last one into the stasis banks. The results state that he’s the real Dr. Nepo. If there’s an impostor, it isn’t him.

I don’t want to be involved in creating the new constitution. Not only is it headache-inducing, it would also look inappropriate for me to take too much of a hand in it, as the unofficial but de facto leader. There’s been a bit of talk about replacing me, holding some kind of a vote, but I’m not sure it’s really going to go anywhere.

“Well, hello, Dr. Palmintieri,” says Jessie, entering my office unannounced. “I was wondering what you thought of my … offer.” She sashays up to my desk and leans forward, looking into my eyes and giving me a full unobstructed view of her beautiful cleavage.

“Look, Jessie,” I say, “you’re very attractive and all that, but I really don’t have the time –”

“I know,” she says, standing back. “You’re obviously under far too much stress. What you need is to relax. Everybody knows you’ve been looking tired, and with the vote coming up –”

“What vote?” I ask.

“Oh, the vote for interim leader,” she says. “I thought you knew. People have been talking about the fact that you’re basically the unelected ruler of this place and the majority seem to agree that the matter should be put to a vote. It’s only until there’s a proper constitution, of course, setting the rules for holding a real election.”

“I’ve got to talk to the others,” I say. I get out a tablet and start sending an email to Jennie, Miki, Tom, Frank, Clairese …

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m sure you have everyone’s complete support,” she says. “But really, you do need to relax. I’m an expert at massage, did you know that?”

“Thanks, but not right now,” I say. “I’d appreciate it if you let me send this message.”

“Well, go right ahead, then,” she says, “but I have to insist that you do need a break, and I’m ready and willing to help you relax.”

That’s when Kitty wakes up and stalks over toward her. I’m relieved. I forgot about his penchant for sleeping in my office. “Oh, Kitty, do you want attention?” I ask him. He head-butts her as he often does when he wanted petting.

“Um, nice kitty,” she says, clumsily petting his head. A soft growl comes from his throat, rather than the expected purr.

“Oh dear, Kitty doesn’t seem to like you,” I say to her. “Maybe you should come back another time.”

“I think now might not be the best time,” she agrees. “But remember, I’m more than willing to help …” She leaves.

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“Interesting that this is going on while the Cheyenne Mountain delegation is visiting,” says Frank. They all gathered in my office as soon as they could after my message. “I’m a bit suspicious.”

“So why am I the last to know about this vote?” I ask.

“You’re not,” says Jennie. “This is the first I’ve heard of it too.” Miki and Tom were the same.

“I’ve heard of it,” says Clairese. “Some of the folks in the gardens were talking about it. It sounds like the person who’s running against you is Jeffrey Charmichael. They say he’s going around telling people that you look tired and stressed, and that he just wants to give you a break.”

“Wait, Jeffrey Charmichael is saying this?” I ask.

“Well, it’s what they said he was saying,” Clairese replies. “I haven’t heard him say it. He hasn’t talked to me at all.”

“Well, his sister has talked to me,” I say. I explain Jessie’s multiple visits to my office.

“And you didn’t take her up on it?” asks Tom with a half grin. “I’m surprised. She’s quite a looker.” Miki and Jennie look askance at him, and Clairese stifles a giggle. I see Frank almost – almost – crack a smile.

“Those two are trouble,” says Frank. “And they’re clearly in cahoots. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was recording your conversation this last time – and possibly every single time she’s talked to you, looking for something she and her brother can use. What’s their game, though?”

“Undermining Eric’s authority,” says Jennie. “Undermining people’s confidence in him as de facto leader.”

“Which would create a power vacuum, letting someone else grab control,” Frank says. “And if they can do it before there’s a constitution, there won’t ever be one, not a real one anyway.”

“I just had a terrible thought,” I say. “We checked them off the list of potential impostors because they each had someone who would recognize them.”

“But that someone was – each other,” says Frank. He swears. “They could both be impostors. If they each replaced the only person who would know the other one, they’d be in the catbird seat. Seats. Whatever. They’d know it would take longer for anyone to suspect them.”

Jennie got a message on her tablet. “This says there’s going to be a debate tonight. Jeffrey Charmichael is challenging you to defend your leadership position. It’s only two hours from now! If you don’t go, he’ll say you’re oblivious or don’t care. If you look unprepared, he’ll take advantage of that too.”

“If you challenge the legitimacy of the debate or the vote, you’ll look like a dictator,” says Frank. “He’s good.”

“Well, I know how I’ll prepare,” I say. “I’m going to run their DNA scans, right now.”

“That’s assuming they haven’t compromised the DNA archives,” says Clairese.

“They haven’t,” says Jennie, definitively. “I’ve got multiple dated backup copies of that data, encrypted too.”

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The debate happens. Sitting in the front row and listening with interest are our illustrious visitors from Cheyenne Mountain, Sutak, the leader, and Nyinna, the high priestess, along with some other dignitaries and assistants. It was more than apparent the looms we built for them were functioning well. The clothing they wore was not only well made, but also bordered on elegant.

Jeffrey is dressed in his very best jumpsuit from the stasis storage – fashion hasn’t really advanced very far yet – and is waiting behind a makeshift lectern he’s set up in the assembly hall. There’s a second lectern that he’s obviously set up for me. He’s been there for some time before I arrive. “Oh, does the eminent Dr. Palmintieri finally decide to grace us with his presence?” he says as I walk in, with Tom, Miki, and Jennie. Clairese and Frank are already in the audience.

There are murmurs as I walk up to the lectern. I smile and nod to people. “Oh, please forgive me, I’ve been quite busy, as you all know,” I say. “Could you remind me what your name is? It was easy to remember everyone when we had under 300, but now that we have over 900 people here it’s so difficult. I’ll learn all your names eventually.”

“As you all know,” he says, “I’m Jeffrey Charmichael, and I …”

“He lies!” says a voice. It’s the leader of the Mountain People, Sutak, who has stood up, pointing to Jeffrey, who was completely surprised.

The high priestess, Nyinna, stands up too, saying, “He’s right! Your heart rate and respiration shouldn’t be so affected by such a simple question as what your name is. So if that isn’t your name, what is it?”

“Er, ah, I’m sure our respected friends from Cheyenne Mountain are very wise, but they may not understand the intricacies of our politics …” Jeffrey tries to begin.

“Now, now,” I say, “They have intricate politics of their own, but my friends, it’s interesting that you should say that, because I’ve just made a very important discovery.”

Up to now, I haven’t let anyone know that I can run DNA tests on anyone. I really couldn’t see any benefit in telling people that I had their records or DNA samples of them, before the war or recent. But I didn’t really see any choice.

I held up a folder. “I’ve just finished running a DNA scan on you, and your supposed sister. Not only does your DNA not match that of Jeffrey Charmichael – Jessie’s doesn’t match either – but unless one or both of you are adopted, you aren’t even brother and sister!”

The audience erupts in a roar of conversation that grows into shouting, most of it at Jeffrey, though some are shouting at each other to stop shouting. Jeffrey is trying to shout something, but nobody can hear him. He lunges at me, trying to take the folder. I let him, since it’s not the real folder anyway, which he quickly discovers, and I hold up a different folder as the crowd rises up and surrounds him.

“Please, please, we must not resort to violence,” I say as loud as I can, but it’s hard to make myself heard over the noise.

Later that night, Frank fills me in. “Jeffrey’s confined to quarters, and others have taken it upon themselves to set up a watch. Jessie’s disappeared; she hasn’t been seen since the assembly.”

“What about the vote?”

“Some neutral parties volunteered to hold the vote,” Frank says. “It’s already been held. Guess who gets the honor of remaining the de facto leader?”

I sigh. “I don’t think I have to guess.”

“That’s right,” says Frank. “So with this speed bump out of the way, we can continue working on the constitution. Somehow I suspect that it will go more smoothly without someone trying to undermine it who obviously has no interest in making sure it’s completed properly, or at all.”

I’m not real sure who “Jeffrey Charmichael” and “Jessie” were before the war, other than a pair of murderers, but I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they’re going to continue to be real trouble.

After Jeffrey finally convinces people to let him out of house arrest, he tries his very best to interfere with the new relations we’ve made with the Trogs. One of them, a huge hairy mountain of muscle named Lugg, informs him by picking him up off his feet by his collar and saying to his face, “Trogs no like. You jus’ bad. Stay ‘way, no can promise what happen if ya don’.” then tossing Jeffrey aside like garbage. Jeffery landed hard and lay in a dazed pile while the Trog delegation walked off.

Dr. Nepo has some interesting ideas like creating a form of currency that represents an hour of physical labor, and limiting banking to loaning only money that the banks actually have, rather than the money that people effectively lend the bank – that would be once banks actually exist, of course.

Since so many of us are scientists, they’ve come up with an idea of having a scientific academy with its own rules as a separate branch of government with checks and balances on the other branches, and of course subject to the checks and balances of the others. We have basically one actual lawyer, so the job of working out the ramifications of all of these ideas falls on her, but she’s doing very well, I hear.

They’re on their 17th draft so far. I’m glad to hear that they’re following the idea that people simply have rights, not merely rights granted to them by the government – it may only abridge those rights when they impinge on the rights of other people. It’s the same philosophy that the US Bill of Rights was founded on.

The amazing thing about the whole constitution operation is that the Mountain People and the Trogs all want to be a part and make contributions. I’m amazed at how well they understand what we’re trying to accomplish.

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I sit at my desk and look over the long list of things we’ve accomplished in the 3 years since I awoke. Nanogen Facility is active once again and is basically back to its original 21st-century standards.

One of the major finds the Mountain People have made is the area within their manufacturing section that once produced microchips. Since they have no ability to use any of the data or equipment, they gave it to us in trade for things more useful to them, like metals, plastics, and even advanced graphene.

Jennie and Miki have made a simple device that creates lots of graphene out of our garbage. They fill a tube with the garbage, seal it off, and insert something that looks for all the world like a spark plug then they zap it with huge amounts of electricity, of which we now have an overabundance. The result is graphene, which is therefore easy to make and has millions of uses.

Frank, Tom, and a young man by the name of Charlie Wilson have set up one of the many unused areas as a clean area and refurbished all the photo masking equipment. From the data archives we found the patterns and masks to create advanced chips. Miki was right on cue as she showed us a simple way to make the printed circuit boards.

We might not have all the rare earths that were used in creating the original microchips, but what we use instead seems to work as well, if not better. They use less electricity, and due to the graphene, are able to dissipate heat far better.

The devices used three carbon-based inks: semiconducting carbon nanotubes, conductive graphene, and insulating nanocellulose. In trying to adapt the original process to only use water, the carbon nanotubes presented the largest challenge.

Frank’s group develop a cyclical process in which the device is rinsed with water, dried in relatively low heat, and printed on again. When the amount of surfactant used in the ink is also tuned down, they show that their inks and processes can create fully functional, fully recyclable, fully water-based transistors using material other than the massively rare earth components.

Tom has already proven that nearly 100% of the carbon nanotubes and graphene used in printing can be recovered and reused in the same process, losing very little of the substances or their performance viability. Because nanocellulose is made from wood, it can simply be recycled or biodegraded like paper. And while the process does use a lot of water, it’s not nearly as much as what is required to deal with the toxic chemicals used in traditional fabrication methods, and the water can be used repeatedly.

We’ve built a computer-operated van/bus/truck type of robot and given it to the Mountain People. It’s armed just in case some of the larger carnivores become interested. The Mountain People are overjoyed at having it and use it and the several others we’ve made to transport their goods to us for trade, then take what they have back with them.

The Mountain People begin producing extremely nice clothing and undies for the women. The fine textures produced by their computer controlled looms are obvious as they continue to improve on their finished products.

They even begin making adorable infant clothing and other necessary items for the new arrivals. This is a good thing, as the women seem to realize that long-term survival means increasing the population. Basically they’ve all begun to get pregnant and have children. Our nursery section has about 24 infants being cared for currently, and groups of toddlers, with many more expected shortly. Even Donna, one of the cute female mechanical engineers who has taken up with Frank, is way ready to have her first child. Over the last two years, we definitely have a fair crop of toddlers.

The Trogs have turned out to be what I consider normal humans. They may look like huge hulking mountains of hairy muscles, but that masks their intelligence. As soon as they see something or have it explained once or twice, they know and retain the knowledge. Their personal weapons and other implements are works of pure art, and our anthropologists are wild about them.

Within about 7 months of social interactions with us, the Trogs began dressing like we did and even mastered our language, proving themselves the intellectual equals of us and the Mountain People. It isn’t long before they duplicated the bot we created to make slagcrete and build dome structures. Many almost indestructible habitat domes quickly began to appear along the cliffs the Trogs call home. It looks more like some sort of otherworldly colony than anything else.

The Mountain People apparently weren’t going to be outdone, and they too began to build external dome structures. Of course, I must say, there have been encounters with large and vicious wild fauna. By this time, however, they aren’t an issue any longer.

I’ve found 10 stasis facilities in the Virginia Mountains with 1000 sleepers each that seem to still be intact. Drone surveys showed that there’s some sort of large power source operating steadily underground. We found the entrances to them due to temperature variations.

We took the birds and flew them long distance. They performed well and seemed to know the way. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking on my part. After entering several of the facilities and scouting around, I came to realize the enormity of the task at hand. We’ll have to work hard to build a viable infrastructure for these people before we can even think of awaking them. I had ten thousand people to worry about until they can fend for themselves.

The Mountain People and the Trogs pitched right in as soon as they heard what was needed, though. From what I’ve seen on the feeds from the scouts in Virginia, it appears that a small town of domes has sprung up. There’s even electricity and running water for each structure, not to mention the hydroponics and other simple manufacturing locations.

It’s official now. Together we’ve all actually created three cities: Nanogen, Cheyenne, and Amethyst, which is what the Trogs have named their city, because of the deposits of that type of quartz that are plentiful in their area, which they use as sort of an emblem.

But Jessie and Jeffrey Charmichael, or whatever their real names are, have disappeared. They seem to have taken some tools and supplies, so it may be that they intend to start their own homestead somewhere. Maybe they’re going to start their own family – the Charmichaels were brother and sister, but there’s no guarantee that these two are related at all. We’ve searched for them, and our drones are programmed to alert us of any anomalous structures, but they haven’t found anything. Maybe they fell victim to some of the unexpected hazards that this new world is full of. Or maybe they’re just hiding really well.

The constitution did finally get hammered out. Guess what – I didn’t actually run for the chief executive position. I didn’t think it would look appropriate. The people did want me to continue as de facto leader, but they couldn’t make me run for office.

What they could do, however, was make me the director of the Science Academy, one of the branches of the new government. We have certain checks and balances over the other branches, just as they have over us, so nobody gets too powerful. The president of the United Cities is one of our people this time, Sook Ji Joon, always a hard worker and an agricultural genius whose crop knowledge has been instrumental in our survival.

Under my direction, the Science Academy has organized teams to start awakening people in the other facilities. They can examine the suitability of each facility for habitation – if it’s too badly damaged, the people can come live in any of the cities we’ve already been building, but if the place can be salvaged, we can help them build a city there. Our constitution gives each city the ability to elect its own government by whatever means they like, as long as they respect the rights of the people, obey the UC laws, and so forth. Whatever they decide to do, we’ll make it work out.

As it turns out, only one of the facilities is so badly damaged that the awakened sleepers there don’t want to attempt to salvage it. We’re going to have an influx of people from that one. But it looks like we’re going to be admitting nine new cities to the UC soon, so we’ll have 12 in total. Not bad.

“So, are you worried about impostors in the other facilities?” I ask Frank during a meeting in my office. It’s a much nicer office, and I have an actual desk, chairs, and a computer that we’ve actually built ourselves during the past year. Jennie’s running a whole software development division now, and their FreeOS is incredibly easy to use and works on every device we have.

“Of course,” Frank replies. “Although I wouldn’t say worried. I’d say something closer to wary. We could DNA-test every single one of them now – we can produce the chemicals needed, and we have a lot more computing power – but I’m not sure there’s a point unless someone becomes an actual problem. The Charmichaels, or whoever, were a problem. If they hadn’t tried to basically start a coup, nobody would’ve cared who they were.”

“That’s true,” I say. “I wonder where they went.”

“My bet? They’re trying to infiltrate one of the new cities,” he says. “As soon as everyone from here leaves, there’ll be no one who recognizes them. They’ll probably try to take over. And that’ll probably go about as well as it did here. How’d you know the Mountain People could tell when somebody’s lying, anyway?”

“I didn’t,” I say with a chuckle. “That was just pure dumb luck. I just wanted to make a snarky comment about how nobody knew who Jeffrey was until he started making a ruckus, whereas everyone knew who I was. But it got him to claim to be somebody he wasn’t, again, and the Mountain People picked up on his lying with their extra-visual senses. So should we do anything about the Charmichaels?”

“I mean,” said Frank, “the fact that they’re the only wanted posters we have should make anybody suspicious about trusting them.”

“They’re not wanted posters,” I caution him.

“Fine, they’re beware-of-these-fraudsters posters, whatever,” Frank replied, waving his hand. “In the old days, all the terrible division and rapid social change had people divided; everybody thought they were a rebel against everyone else, so if someone wasn’t trusted by one group, they could find support in another group that didn’t like the first group. But there’s no other group now. We should be careful, but we shouldn’t be paranoid.”

“Wait, you’re saying we shouldn’t be paranoid?” I asked Frank. “That’s not like you.”

“Well, married life has mellowed me, maybe,” he replied. “We can’t spend all our time and effort chasing shadows. We’ve got too much to do.”

“The first of the vehicles from Hazelton Facility is here!” said Juarez, shouting down the hallway before opening my door.

“I’ll probably want to say some words of welcome, as the only person they probably all know,” I say, getting up from behind my desk. “Thanks, Juarez. Want to come, Frank?”

“No, I have to get back to my rounds,” he said. “The trainees are coming along, but I wouldn’t call them nuclear engineers yet.”

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I stand in the doorway of the large area we’ve designated as the higher learning area. We’ve set up places for the preschoolers, grammar schoolers, and high schoolers of the future, not to mention an excellent place for college and above. I’m truly impressed. The team has written and published many textbooks.

They’re made from carbon fiber that will last for centuries if necessary and contain all the data and information required to teach whatever subject matter happened to be. They cover everything we have and the grand sum total of all the knowledge from the experts awakened from stasis and the other files we’ve managed to salvage.

There are numerous visual aids, displays, and computer systems for the students to use. Besides our own children, who though young are already being trained in the necessary disciplines, the Cheyennes and the Amethysts are also sending their children long distances to attend our schools. They learn fast and take their knowledge back home with them, where they use it to better their cities. Of course, we made special armored robotic vehicles to carry the children to and from their homes to insure nothing happened to them along either direction.

Of course we have nursery schools and daycare for the infants and toddlers, which we have more and more of these days. The training aids and simple lessons created for them work well and teach them how to make do in the world that they’re growing up in.

Several dozen of the medically and surgically inclined have gotten together and turned one of the unused areas into a medical facility that would have been the envy of any hospital or medical research facility before the war.

They’ve even managed to refurbish or build new and decent equipment. It’s a completely modern 21st-century medical facility that even the Cheyennes and Amethysts trust enough to bring their sick and seriously injured to for treatment.

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It’s come to pass that the Trogs have opened a flight school. They’re teaching their people how to raise, bridle and saddle break the large birds. I can’t quite say they’ve got an air force, but it would make any airman proud.

They recently came one morning and had us all come to a large clearing. We all made a huge BBQ picnic out of it, and even the kitties enjoyed it. Without warning, the huge sound of flapping wings and squad of large birds, along with an equal number of huge Owls came in for a graceful landing, each with a rider in a saddle.

The Trogs showed us how effective they were with their bows while in saddle and flight. It was a true artistic dance to watch. We may not have a real air force, but this would be the envy of any before the war. We’ve started having our bird riders train with the Trogs’ flyers, so they can learn from each other. The Trogs and their aerial combat techniques are like nothing we can do, and frankly all we really have to offer them are some more sophisticated animal training methods.

But I was curious to learn that they had put so much effort into this new form of combat. I asked my friend Gloft that day, “Why are you learning how to fight in the air? Is there some threat that I don’t know about?”

Gloft looked troubled. It’s fortunate that their mastery of English has constantly improved. “Maybe,” he said. “Old legends say there are People of the Stones, far to the south. In times long ago, our people lived in towns on the plains, it is said. Houses made of wood and grass, in the land between the valleys where the giant lizards run and the forests where the big rabbits and wolves travel in their herds and packs. The stories say that the People of the Stones came up from the south. They killed many with their weapons. They could shoot from far away. They burned our ancestors’ houses, and they came and took many of our women and children from us.”

“They didn’t take men?”

“No, the stories say. They kept attacking until we moved away to live in the caves of the valley. The big lizards were dangerous, but they were dangerous to the People of the Stones too. They stayed away after that, it is said.”

“And this was before anyone now alive was born?” I asked.

“Yes. Long before,” said Gloft.

“Why were they called the People of the Stones?”

“It is said that they were made of stone, or maybe wore armor made of stones, so that our arrows and spears did nothing to them.”

“And you’re concerned that they might be back?” I asked.

“Some of us are,” replied Gloft. “We have left the caves and the valley. It was to the valley that our ancestors retreated when faced by the People of the Stones. It was our place of protection. Now we are leaving it. Some are worried.”

“And no one has seen any of these people for a long time?”

“We have scouts who range across the land and come back to say what they see,” explained Gloft. “Sometimes they do not come back. But that does not mean the People of the Stones. There are many dangers.”

I nodded. “That is true.”

“But there was one scout who came back, Trevee. She is very clever. She swears she saw one of the People of the Stones, but that they did not see her, and she escaped to tell the tale.”

“How does she know it was one of them?” I asked.

“You will have to ask her.”

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So I do. I’ve asked Gloft if he can introduce me to Trevee. He said that he could, next time Trevee was back from a mission. So that’s how I’m here, in the city of Amethyst, visiting with Trevee’s clan and waiting for her to return.

“This is made from palm oil?” I ask. I’m looking at the oil lamps they’re using, which are a recent innovation, and one that we didn’t have anything directly to do with.

“Yes, it burns long and smells good,” says Larann, grandmother of Trevee. “It is from the palm trees, the trees like hands reaching up from the ground, that grow where it is warm and moist.”

“Trevee is here!” says a child, running into the home.

Larann stands up. “Well, we should welcome her,” she says. “But, Paree, do not run in the cave.”

“It’s a dome, Great-Grandma,”

“Very well, Paree, but do not run in the dome either.”

“Yes, Great-Grandma.”

We step outside, and down the streets of the city of dome-shaped buildings walks a small but powerfully-built young woman with two spears and a pack on her back. She smiles as she sees her family, and little Paree runs up to her and hugs her. She looks oddly at me but raises a hand in greeting, so I do as well.

“Grandmother, I am glad you are well,” she says as she reaches the home.

“I’m glad you are,” says Larann. “Your father is still hunting, but he will be glad to see you, and hear of what you’ve seen. This is Eric, from the city of Nanogen.”

“Greetings, Eric. Many people of Nanogen visit us. Why are you visiting today?”

“Greetings, Trevee,” I say. “I was told that you had a story to tell about the People of the Stones.”

“Ah, yes,” she says. “I will tell you what I saw. But first, let me have something to eat and wash my tired feet.”

“Of course.”

After she’s had some time to refresh herself, and after her father comes home, overjoyed to see her, we all settle down for a home-cooked meal, and Trevee begins her tale. She’s actually not a bad artist and has drawn some pictures of her journeys in a book that must have been made by our people. She turns to the right pages.

“I was scouting south, past the Ancient Mountains, past the Eternal Marshes, past the Great Lake of the South,” she said. “There, it is said, the People of the Stones live, but I have been there many times without seeing them. This time was different. They saw me from far away. I heard a noise in the air, like an arrow with a loose feather. I took cover behind a large stone that I knew was there. A big arrow came crashing down where I had stood and broke into many splinters. I looked out in the direction it had come from and saw this person in the distance.”

In the book, she shows me the sketch she made of this incident. “He or she had a big machine that had fired the arrow. But their armor looked like this.” The sketch shows me something that I halfway recognize.

It looks like a robot. It looks like one of the robots we saw at the Moses Facility. But it isn’t one of those. It looks like it started out as one of those, but someone has changed it, or maybe repaired it as best they could when it broke down. It’s one of the more humanoid looking ones, the model 6162s or maybe the 6239s, or it was originally.

Larann says, “Now, Trevee, you know the stories say …”

“... that they’re called the People of the Stones because they can throw huge stones a long way,” she says. “I know. But this one shot a big arrow.”

“We would call that a ballista bolt,” I say. “Perhaps they ran out of large stones and have decided to use ammunition they can grow.”

“Maybe?” replies Trevee. “You want to know if they are a threat, yes?”

“Exactly,” I say. “If there’s a threat out there, we certainly want to know about it too. If we’re warned, we can know what to look for, and how to defend against them, if they come. It seems that you had to go pretty far before you ran into one.”

“I am one of our tribe’s farthest ranging scouts,” said Trevee with pride. “But yes, I went to their land. They did not come to ours. Not yet.”

“Could I show you some maps? Maybe you could show me where you were?” I take out one of our tablets and bring up some maps that our drones have made over time. They look at its screen with interest.

“So,” I say. “Here is Amethyst. And here is Nanogen. South is this way. So you traveled over the mountains …”

“Yes. And past the marshes …”

“And past the great southern lake.” I am moving the map southward as we go. It looks as if she went into what was once Florida. Global climate change, a growing fear back in the 21st century, has largely been reversed, one of the only good things to come of the near-extinction of the human race. It was once feared that Florida would be inundated by rising ocean levels, but with the war, humans largely stopped burning fossil fuels, and it has been two millennia since then. “Is it this?” I point at what was once Lake Okeechobee.

“Yes. It is vast, and shaped like that.” She turns her book to a page where she’s clearly surveyed that lake. Its features are clearly correct, though her directions are a bit rotated, which is easy to do with no compasses or overhead views – she made this journey before I awoke.

“And you traveled farther south?”

“Yes, almost to the great water,” she says, clearly meaning the ocean. “To the south, and east.” She had approached Cape Canaveral, obviously a government installation at one time, but not a military one. But they might have had robots … although who knew what had happened there after all this time? And why would robots have kidnapped women and children from this tribe? Of course, that had been generations ago, perhaps centuries. Who knows whether that was exactly what had happened? Clearly they hadn’t kidnapped all the tribe’s women and children, because the tribe still existed.

“So, near this place,” I say, pointing to Cape Canaveral.

“Near, but not as far east,” she says. I make the map larger. “Here. I crossed this small river. Many gators.” I have no doubts that she can handle alligators if she meets them. She carries two spears and knows how to use them. She probably cooks and eats gators.

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I sit at the sensor’s consol and call up the most current data package from the 20 drones I’ve sent to what used to be Florida. It was immediately obvious that the Savanna River nuclear facility in what used to be Georgia, the Barnwell Nuclear Facility in South Carolina, and the Turkey Point Reactor in Florida either China syndromed or were bombed, or both. The resulting radiation from those three incidents caused the surrounding area for miles to support no life. Trevee’s path didn’t lead her into any of those areas.

I open another of the files further toward the east coast of Florida. In many places I can see the destroyed and moldering remnants of our former civilization. The war and ravages of time appear to be doing their best to remove any memories of us. Florida is also trying to return to its former swamp/wetland self. I can also see pictures of what used to be called Lake Okeechobee. It’s a far different sinkhole lake now and appears to be somehow deeper. I’ll have to do further surveys with specific scans to tell. I finally see live images of what used to be Cocoa Beach. I discover that those strange towerlike mounds covered in all the twisty vines are the old launch gantries. I do see the lump that used to be the main NASA building and assembly area. There isn’t much left, except for rubble covered in vines and other wild growth. There are even several trees within the old foundations.

I do, however, realize the reading I’m getting from Okeechobee and one I’m getting here are very similar. There’s some type of construction on the bottom of the very deepest part of the lake, and one buried at the Cape under what appears to be tons of rock.

I can’t be sure, but it appears that another huge underground facility is located at both places. What I’m sure of are the rusting corroded hulks of bipedal robots. From the aerial photos taken by the drones, those particular hulls have been lying there for quite some time. From the looks of the other places, they’ve been neglected for about as long.

I can see evidence that those robots were active once, although from their current condition, they’ve lain there for a very long time – and yet Trevee saw one active relatively recently. I need to let the others know and perhaps get Terra Killer out once again for a journey and retrieval operation. I hit the intercom. It’s time to call a Science Academy meeting ...

The next day, I walk into the conference room. The buzz of voices silence as all eyes are on me. “Good morning, my esteemed colleagues.”

The cordial reply, “Good morning, Mr. Chairman.” emanates from all present. I see Tom, Jennie, Miki, Clairese, Frank, and many others of our prominent scientists and engineers.

I shuffle nervously at the podium over that reply, then say, “It has come to my attention that the NASA facility may still have some active components. I’ve come across some stories the Trogs tell about robots that attacked them centuries ago – but one of their scouts told me that she saw an active one down there just a few years ago.”

I put up on the screen the current pictures of the swampy, overgrown, corroded area that used to be the NASA complex. “It may not look like much is left, but there are some strange readings. We may want to scout the area in person and find out what’s going on. Yes, Frank?”

Frank had put his hand up to be recognized. “What do we hope to find there that’s worth risking life and limb to investigate?”

“Now, you do bring up a good point, Frank – we don’t need reactor fuel and won’t for some time. The site isn’t on any lists of stasis facilities containing survivors from our era. But this is something else – a potential threat. We should investigate to find out whether it’s a real threat. And more than that – these readings show something buried deep beneath both the former NASA complex and Lake Okeechobee. Underground facilities of some kind that are likely to have survived the war. Chair recognizes Miki.”

Miki said, “Any technology we can find will be beneficial. We can manufacture a lot of equipment now, but there are still some things beyond our reach, and we can always use raw materials.”

“Chair recognizes Frank again,” I say.

“I know I’m arguing against myself,” said Frank, “but the fact remains that the Charmichaels are still out there somewhere, and we don’t want intact advanced tech falling into their hands, or the hands of anybody out there who doesn’t happen to like us much. This is as much about acquiring such things as it is about making sure that potential enemies don’t.”

“Good point,” I say. “It’s true that it’s our policy to freely share our technology and information with allies, but there are those out there who aren’t our allies, and there may be more than we know. Tom?”

“You do know that Terra Killer has been under continuous improvement since we returned, right? It’s better than ever, and it survived a radioactive megastorm before those improvements. I think we’re ready for a land journey. That said, we aren’t really ready for plumbing the depths of a lake. We don’t have a submarine. Yet, anyway.”

“Chair recognizes Miki.”

“We could probably manufacture some SCUBA gear, however, as well as some powerful underwater lighting.”

“Chair recognizes … Jennie?” She doesn’t usually talk about expeditions, mostly about processing the data that comes in afterward.

“If you’ll give me a day or two, I can try applying some of the AI software I’ve been working on to the drone data from those areas,” Jennie says. “Especially if we can observe the areas over a period of time, I may be able to get the AI to pick out patterns of occurrences that aren’t immediately obvious.”

“Absolutely,” I say. “Any insight your software might provide would be extremely valuable. But you already have access to the data – what you probably didn’t have was any idea of what I was focusing on.” She nodded, and immediately began gesturing at her tablet with her fingers.

“Clairese?” I ask, as she has her hand up.

“Well, this is probably obvious, but just to make sure, can we make sure that whoever goes on this expedition takes documented samples of the soil and plant life along the way?” As always, she’s a bit shy, but she has a point. “It’s important to learn about the new biomes of this continent.”

“That’s true, the expedition can be about more than just what we find at the far end,” I say. “We should make the most of our resources whenever we can. And what do you mean, whoever goes on the expedition? I don’t see how you wouldn’t be invited, or even begged, to go along. Frank?”

Frank said, “I realize it’s a bit early to talk about who’s going, but might I suggest that you sit this one out, Chairman?” I was stunned. “It’s a risky endeavor, going out into the wilderness, even in that Terra Killer vehicle, as great as it is. If we lose you, where are we?”

I’m a bit gobsmacked as I reply, “I … well … I understand your point, Frank, but I just can’t bring myself to send out others to take risks that I’m not willing to take myself.”

“It’s not about whether you’re willing,” he says. “We all know you’d risk your life for us. We just don’t want you to. We need you here.” There’s a low murmur in the room, but it stays low. Everyone knows not to talk until recognized, but several hands do shoot up.

“Uh … I … don’t think we need to talk about personnel for the expedition at such an early stage of planning … Gerald?”

Several other people put in their two bits about whether I should go or stay, and about who should go on the expedition. Finally a committee is formed to discuss it. Another committee is formed to come up with an itinerary and set of objectives. They’ll present the results of their deliberations at the next meeting. That’s what committees are good for – talking about stuff later so we don’t have to talk about them all at once. What they’re bad for is coming up with a coherent plan that made sense, unfortunately.

It takes time for them to hammer out their plans. In the meantime, Jennie quietly knocks on my office door, bringing her findings.

“Dr. Palmintieri?” she asks, knowing full well that I was sitting right in front of her and that I’ve told her a hundred times to call me Eric, but I know she’s just being polite. “I want to show you something.”

“Come in, Jennie, come in,” I say. “Pull up a chair. What’d you find?”

“The AI software has found something quite interesting and disturbing,” Jennie says. “Thank you for introducing some variation in the drones’ altitude and path. That’s helped a lot.”

She gestures at her tablet, showing a mastery of the interface that’s not unlike magic and is probably to be expected of the person who after all designed the thing. “This is a composite of imagery seen by drones that flew at under 3000 feet above ground. Note these objects.” She circles what are clearly ballista devices similar to the one Trevee drew a sketch of. Smaller objects may be robots, though they aren’t moving when we put the video in motion.

“And now look at this,” says Jennie. “This is a composite of imagery from when drones flew at well above 3000 feet.” The objects aren’t there. It isn’t that they’re farther away or smaller and harder to see. They just aren’t there.

“What? I don’t … understand …” Except that I am starting to understand, and the hairs are rising on the back of my neck. “They … know the drones are there …”

Jennie nods. “They’re clearly able to mobilize their defenses quickly, and they’re aware of our drones well before they’re in range. They have a surveillance network that extends out probably hundreds of miles. But they seem to be unable to detect the drones when they’re well over 3000 feet up. So I have a further experiment to try.”

She describes it, and we try it. It involves sending in a batch of “high” drones at 5000 feet first, then a “low” group of drones at 2500 feet, so we can see what happens. And the next day, when we run the results through the computer, we find out that sure enough, when the “low” drones are hundreds of miles from their territory, the robots, or whatever they are, get out their ballistae from whatever hiding places they keep them in and are standing at the ready, locked and loaded, well before the “low” drones are in range. This time we can see them do it, too.

“They’re mechanically efficient,” I say. “They have to be robots.”

“What would robots want to kidnap humans for, though?” Jennie asks.

“Don’t think I haven’t been wondering that,” I say. “But I don’t know the answer. To repair the robots, maybe? No, that doesn’t make sense. We can speculate all day, but we still won’t know. But thank you for doing this. You’ve uncovered something important just by looking at the data in new ways, and I knew you would.”

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Now we have a real dilemma. From what Trevee told me and from what the drone surveys show, something is active at the old Cape and at Lake Okeechobee. Jennie has written a special program to explore deep waters as Tom, Miki, and the group of specialists they’ve trained are building another type of drone.

This one looks more like a large fish than a drone; however, it’s constructed in such a way that a simple internal reactor powers it once the large mother drone drops it. They tested it in various rivers and lakes closer to home before deploying it for real. But still, I’m a bit apprehensive.

I sit at the sensor console and watch the feeds as the new, very large mother drone drops its payload. The submersible hits the water in a nose-down attitude and makes very little splash. As soon as it hits the water, the drone starts sending signals back. They become stronger as the reactor that powers it comes to full reaction.

Electromagnetic signals don’t travel well through water, which is why submarines all used to use sonar. There’s one exception, which is visible light. Miki’s adapted the laser technique the airborne drones use; the submersible keeps in contact with a small floating buoy on the surface via two-way laser, and the buoy stays in contact with the airborne drone network in the same way.

There are occasional data interruptions due to fish or debris interrupting the laser, but Jennie’s algorithms adjust for that as long as they aren’t too prolonged. They briefly considered using acoustic signals, but they could be detected too easily. The laser is scattered by the water, but it’s actually pretty clear, another sign that there aren’t humans living nearby.

The pictures I get at this point are amazing. The multitudes of aquatic life that have survived and mutated truly amaze me. I make absolutely sure to record every nuance I receive so our research department can go over it with a fine-toothed comb.

For an instant, in the darkness of the deep, I see a series of lights far off, looking like a set of glowing spots. Several times I notice some sort of very large object as it streaks by. The sensors on our submersible record the wakes of the passing objects. They have to be almost 100 feet long and weigh several tons. They move very fast and can seemingly turn on a dime.

But there’s no mistake about what I see next, as the white cavitation trails of the incoming torpedoes are obvious. I know when the impact happens, as all the feeds from the submersible go dead simultaneously.

On the surface, a tremendous explosion of water sprays almost 200 feet into the air. The surveillance drones record it all, including the many dead creatures that float to the surface, killed by the overpressure wave. My mouth falls open. I can’t believe there’s an active military style installation several thousand feet under the surface, but all evidence points to just that.

Next is the old launch facility at the Cape. I have Jennie intentionally include in the software for those drones a routine to basically harass the area close to the ground while several others stay above 5000 feet and scan.

As those drones dive, weave, and swerve, many very poorly kept robots bring out their ballistas once again. The air fills with bolts. I have the high flyers record everything they can see. We actually lose one of the drones close to the ground as several bolts smack it hard. All the feeds from it go dead. The drone has been totally destroyed.

I’m also startled to be getting data burst transmissions on a military combat channel. No voices, but it turns out to be a super compact machine language. It takes Jennie several frustrating minutes to break the old code and decipher the fact that it’s machine language code instructions for the robots.

So yes, now we have a real problem. It’s more than obvious the facilities are live, automated, in poor repair, and extremely hostile. Trevee said it’s been a few years since she’s even seen a stoner, and then it was on their home turf. The anthropologists have analyzed the Trog legends and agree that it’s been several hundred years since they last saw one near what is now Amethyst City.

I have to know more about this place. I’m positive we could storm the place by force, although how much damage we would take compared to what they’d take is unknown. And there are others who are debating whether we should be poking this hornet’s nest at all – is what we hope to gain from this worth the risks? And what do we hope to gain from it, anyway?

“We think the two installations are either connected or at least communicating,” says Miki. “We’ve detected the same machine code in use at both places; the lake ones are using high-frequency sound waves to transmit it, but it’s the same code. So either they’re the same installation, or they’re working together.”

Several of us are in my office talking about what we’ve just seen. We’re all still processing it when Stephanie Spinder, one of the engineers Tom’s been training, calls him on his tablet. “We’re picking something up on the radar,” she says. “Look at the D-band.” An image appeared on his screen. Her voice continued. “The green signals are known; they’re our drones. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen anything other than those. And they’re moving this way.” Indeed, there were several red points on the display, probably about ten of them.

“What?” asked Miki. “Focusing drone cameras on them.” I’ve gotta hand it to her. She very quickly linked in the radar data to the drones, giving them the coordinates to search in real time. Jennie’s code has to be respected, too; she’d anticipated the need to do this and written this in.

“This is what they’re seeing,” says Miki, showing a series of images on her tablet that had just come in. They were some kind of small, lightweight planes, appearing mostly to be made of wood. The drones were picking them up from different angles, but they all looked similar. And all the shots were from above, because they were flying low, whereas our drones had mostly been flying high. But they were all headed north.

“They’re coming … here?” I ask. “How would they know to come here?”

“Good question,” says Tom, “but a better one is what they plan to do when they get here. Do they have weapons, or are they recon drones?”

“We have to notify the defense division,” I say. “It’s procedure.” So I put in a call to Major Howard Riley, the highest-ranking military officer who had been put in stasis, and there weren’t many. His forces consisted of a loose cadre of volunteers who mostly did other things around the facility.

“Hi, Eric, what’s … you’re all there, aren’t you? Something serious is going on.” I explain the situation.

“OK, they’re still hundreds of klicks out, so let’s get the air force out and shoot these things down,” he says. “Our Trog allies are still better at aerial combat than we are, so let’s involve them. We’ve given them those tiny IFF transponders you folks made for their birds’ saddles, so they’ll show up green on the radar. We don’t want them finding our exact location.”

So he gives the order, and they mobilize our bird riders and notify the Trogs to see if they want to go along. They do, so we tell them that our riders will have the information about where the targets are. From my office, we get some video of what’s going on, and of course we see the live feed from the radar. Groups of green blips fly southward, and when they encounter a red blips, it isn’t long before that red blip disappears.

My friend Gloft talks to me via audio from birdback. “Haha! Eric, this is a good fight! These wooden birds are easy prey. Best place to shoot is right behind the nose.” He’s obviously learned that by trial and error, but it could mean that’s where their motor is. We’ll have to send out some drones to inspect the wreckage of some fallen bogeys.

“Well, just make sure you get all of them, Gloft,” I say. “They’re the People of the Stones, and they’re looking for us.”

“We do not fear them,” he says. “Their legend grew in the telling like a tree grows from a small seed.”

“That may be, but they are real, and we don’t know what they want,” I say.

“Tom?” said Stephanie’s voice from Tom’s tablet. “There are more.”

“More targets?” he asks. He looks at the radar window.

“A steady stream of them, coming from the south,” says Stephanie. “One by one.”

“Ha!” says Gloft, overhearing. “They can keep sending wooden birds. We will keep shooting them.”

“Until you run out of arrows,” I say, “or they run out of … err, wooden birds. I just don’t know which will happen first.”

“If we run out, we will find another way,” Gloft says. “Your people also have those strange weapons that do not shoot arrows.”

I’m trying to think of what he might be talking about when I realize that we have some targeted drone jammers. We’ve detected their communication frequencies, and that’s probably what Major Riley’s got our people doing. Our flyers jam their transmissions, and then the Trogs shoot them down, so whoever’s controlling them, they don’t know what got them. That would make sense. But the jammers would have caused the things to crash eventually anyway, as they continued in a straight line and hit a mountain or tree; they’re flying so low.

“I know you’ll find a way,” I say. “But as you know, more are coming. Good hunting, my friend!”

“They tell me to say, ‘Gloft Out!’” he says.

Time passes, and dozens more of the strange wooden drones have been wiped off the radar, when Jennie asks, “Are they sending them as soon as they can manufacture them? Is there no end to this? What could they hope to accomplish by doing this? Major Riley, what does your strategic analysis tell you about their strategy here?”

“This is clearly a recon operation, so they’re getting information about us,” says Riley. “But they must not think they have enough, if they’re still sending more drone craft.”

“Here, let me show you an analysis I’ve made of the path of each craft,” says Jennie, and the imagery shows up on our tablets as well. “Look at how the trajectory has changed.”

“Well, I’ll be –” says Riley. “The first ones were slightly west of north, the next one was slightly closer to north, and so on. Then they tried a higher altitude, starting west of north again and going east. We’re being scanned.”

“It’s a systematic, programmatic approach,” she said. “We’re facing machine opponents. We don’t know what objective is programmed into them, but they’re methodically pursuing it. But I have this warning. Sooner or later our people will tire out, but these drone craft never will.”

“What’s more, eventually the sun will set,” Riley agreed, “and although that won’t affect radar, it’ll affect our flyers, and the Trogs’ flyers too. They’ve got some owls, but their riders are still human and can’t see in the dark. We do have other allies who can see in the dark, but I don’t know how good they are with flying. Now’s not the time for them to start learning.”

“Right,” I say. “The Mountain People haven’t shown any interest in flying on the birds.”

“So what do we do if their plan is to keep sending their wooden drones at us all night?” asks Jennie. “I happen to know of some particularly well-honed laser targeting software that could be repurposed.”

“How far away can we jam a drone?” asks Major Riley.

“Signal power is usually the problem, but if we’re using a tight beam along with my predictive software,” says Jennie, “the signal can be focused only on the target. Then the issue becomes line of sight. But …”

“Modify some of our drones with the tight-beam jammers,” says Riley, “and get them from any angle – high, low, in front, behind.”

“Exactly what I was thinking.”

Soon, the flyers start noticing that the drones stop following the contours of the land before using their jammers on them. Our own recon drones have become defense drones. They have all that extra power capacity – here’s finally an application for it. As the adversary’s drones slam into hills and mountains or have their wings clipped by collisions with trees, our flyers and the Trogs’ flyers finally get to take a rest. Gloft isn’t happy, but even he has to admit that the birds are exhausted, He’ll never admit that he himself is too, even though I know he is.

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I sit at the console with my mouth open. I can’t believe the results I’m getting from the remains of one of the wooden drones we shot down. I sent one of the robots our electronics department built. It isn’t anything fancy, basically a mobile platform on tracks. Tom designed it, and Miki built it, with the help of Clairese. The articulated arms and manipulatable fingers are a true work of art. Jennie’s operational programs work well above and beyond.

We sent it to the nearest crashed wooden drone and collected the remains and as much debris as we could locate on its sensors. The first thing we’ve noticed are the genetic mutations that have transpired within the wood material. It was originally spruce, high strength and light weight, not brittle and soft like balsa. Not exactly sure what to call it, since it has the very best features of both trees.

The next thing we find is that the drones were manufactured to be shot down, or to suicide crash after a preset flight time. In the exact nose piece of the drone is a glass ampule, a simply designed glass tube that holds a white powder. On impact, the paper-thin glass is meant to shatter, releasing the white powder, with a small explosive charge designed to scatter it.

Our virology lab might not have everything it needs, but it’s still up to 21st-century specs. The report from them on their examination of the white powder has shown it to be a weaponized form of anthrax. The entire sample we’ve obtained shows it to be non-viable over the obviously long storage time it’s suffered. But even that sends a real chill up my spine.

Whoever those idiots are inside the old NASA facility have to be insane. From what the data on my screen shows, the results of the investigation and inspection of the wooden drones, they were designed to crash or be destroyed and spread the weaponized anthrax. The only saving grace is the fact that the viral component had long ago died and become nonviable.

I flop back in my chair with my mouth open as Tom enters the office, “What’s up, Doc?” He chuckles slightly at the reference. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

I reply as I point to the screen in front of me, “I might have. Only a really stupid oversight has saved us and the Trogs’ flyers. Those drones are a vector to spread …”

Tom says in a majorly shocked tone, “Anthrax? Those idiots are using anthrax?”

I turn and look at Tom, “Yeah, they are. Only thing saved us is their viral weapon died centuries ago.”

Tom says in shock, “OK, boss, that clinches it. The committee wanted to know about risks. I think it’s a bigger risk to allow an unknown that obviously has some exotic weapons that were banned in our time and intends to use them.”

Tom says as he quickly leaves the room, “Time for a Grand Council Meeting. I’ll gather the Science Academy, you make the calls to the other branches, and we’ll conference in Amethyst and Cheyenne. They need to be told of the seriousness of this.”

I bang my fist on the table in frustration as Tom quickly leaves the office. Damn. No sooner do we manage to build enough that we might make a proper comeback, than we find some idiot is doing their best to destroy it all over again. Now we have to go to the old Florida complex and stop who or what ever this is. I have no doubt in my mind that this means the life or death of mankind if we can’t fix or stop it. I give everyone notice that in 48 hours we’ll have our first emergency meeting in the large auditorium. It’s no surprise that I received replies back immediately that all will attend.

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“The news is grave,” says President Sook, introducing the meeting of the United Cities. The UC legislature is seated in the room, as are the leaders of the Science Academy and the President’s Cabinet secretaries. Delegates from all the facilities aren’t physically present, but they appear on screens around the room, including a delegation from Cheyenne and one from Amethyst. “You all know what we’ve discovered – this unknown factor has proven themselves an enemy by attempting to attack us with a biological weapon, and we were saved only because the weapon was too old. We must decide our next move. But whatever we choose to do, we do together. We cannot be divided in this. So if we need more information, so be it. We will first hear the report of the Science Academy. We know the data, but you’ve had time to analyze it – what are your conclusions?”

Miki stands up. She’s small, but unlike Jennie, she’s confident speaking before an audience, and her voice is clear and steady. “Mr. President and all assembled,” she begins. “It’s no stretch to assume that anyone who would use a biological weapon of mass destruction intends to annihilate their target. But what conclusions can we draw from their methods and tactics?”

She uses a tablet to control images that appear on all screens. The first image that appears is a rotating computer reconstruction of one of the wooden drones our adversary sent against us. “These continue to fly toward us from the south, even today, crashing into the mountains as their guidance systems are jammed. But they’re made of the absolute minimum amount of metal possible. Almost every element of them is wooden. Conclusion: their mineral supplies are extremely limited, forcing them to use renewable resources. This might suggest that their objective is the capture of other facilities, to take their resources for their own. But that is far less certain.”

“Why? Because it has taken them this long to attempt to do so.” Miki pauses. “The people of Amethyst have a legend about this unknown adversary – centuries ago, they attacked the area now occupied by the city of Amethyst, kidnapping many women and children and forcing the remainder to flee, resettling elsewhere before returning years later. Legends aren’t data, of course, but this suggests that they needed people for some reason. Again, this might suggest that their objective is to obtain humans as laborers – slaves. But again, that is uncertain.”
Once again, she pauses. “Our observations of their movements indicate that their forces are controlled by computers – machines, not humans. We have encountered other facilities run by machines, however, and we’ve seen nothing that behaves like these machines. But those facilities were designed to assist human stasis sleepers who would later awaken and find them. Two conclusions seem possible: either they were programmed for some other purpose, or their programming has become corrupted – or, of course, both.”

“So what is their programming attempting to do now, and how can we use that to our advantage?” asks Miki. “Here we have some data from the other facilities. The Cape Canaveral-Lake Okeechobee facility isn’t described in detail, but it is mentioned as a location for humans to survive – not in stasis, but awake and continuing to try to survive past the war. And perhaps that’s what it was, originally, with the computers and robots assisting the humans. But that doesn’t explain what happened later or what’s happening now.”

“Our current hypothesis: after centuries the humans died out, and with no humans to assist or protect, the machines’ programming was unable to cope. Their limited ability to adapt led them in directions unpredicted by their creators as their programming accumulated errors. And then they detected scouts from a group of humans living far to the north and west. Following them to their origin, they sent robots to capture these humans and bring them back to their facility, so they would have humans to protect and assist again. The robots met with resistance but fought back, quickly finding that their stored ammunition had expired and shifting to improvised weaponry, creating catapult-like devices to destroy the humans’ buildings. This led to the legends of the People of the Stones.”

“The remaining humans, defeated, fled, but no matter – the machines had people to care for again. Only now, they kept them captive, tending to their every need but not allowing them to escape. Again, centuries passed.” Miki pauses once more. “A few years ago, at least one scout from the people of Amethyst encountered one of the machines, which was now using wooden missiles, another sign that their mineral resources are running low. But there was no move to follow the scouts or kidnap more humans. Conclusion: they still had humans to protect and assist, so they didn’t need more.”

“However, this doesn’t explain what we observe now,” says Miki. “They’ve shot our reconnaissance drones out of the air and water, but their response? Attempted total annihilation – and using a biological weapon, so they know we’re humans and not some machine threat. In the past their aim has been to protect and assist humans. Now they wish to destroy. Why? The only conclusion: something has changed. They have information leading them to consider us a threat to them. Yet we’ve done nothing threatening; the drones they shot down had no weapons, only sensors. Where, then, did they get this information?”

“Our only hypothesis: the individuals known by the aliases Jeffrey and Jessie Charmichael.” Photographs of their faces appear on all screens. “Thousands of years ago, they murdered the real Charmichael siblings and took their places in the stasis chambers. They attempted to undermine our power structure and seize power for themselves before they were found out. We imprisoned Jeffrey while we discussed what to do, and Jessie vanished – and then Jeffrey escaped. Neither has been seen since. It is possible that they have provided the machines at the Florida complex with false information casting us in a bad light. As the machines’ goal is to protect and assist humans, they believed this information and are now acting upon it.”

“In conclusion,” Miki says, “the Florida facility is most likely controlled by machines and robots with faulty programming and limited mineral reserves that are carefully protecting a captive population of humans that now includes the false Charmichaels, who are feeding the machines both true and false information about us. This is the analysis of the Science Academy. With more data, these conclusions may change, or become more certain. Only time will tell.”

“Thank you, Science Academy,” says the President. “We will now hear from the Department of Defense. Major Riley?” Riley could be a general, but despite repeated offers he refuses to accept promotion. He doesn’t feel like he’s earned it yet.

“Although the details aren’t fully worked out,” says Riley, “the goal must be to defeat these machines and destroy their military capability. Considering that their airborne capability seems to consist of wooden drone planes with a defunct payload, it may frankly be unnecessary to defeat them – or it may have been before hearing that there are captive humans and that the Charmichaels may be there. Yes, I know they’re only hypotheticals. But we do know that the Charmichaels are a threat and need to be dealt with – and the rest of the captive humans need to be rescued. Besides, as long as they see us as a threat, the machines may come up with other more effective weapons to throw at us. The Charmichaels may even have suggestions.”

“We will need to build vehicles for land and water based assault,” Riley says. “We must, however, avoid letting any large amount of metal fall into their hands, or they’ll repurpose it against us. It’s possible that they can only send the drone planes, with their small amount of metal, because of what they’ve salvaged from our drones that they’ve shot down. Now, the Terra Killer has been a very successful land assault vehicle. Can we build more like it, only geared for military assault rather than scientific research? And my second question is, can we build a submersible assault vehicle with countermeasures against their torpedoes?”

“That seems like a question for the Science Academy,” says the President.

Tom stands up. “Design of such vehicles is already in progress, and prototypes can be built quickly once the design process is at the proper stage. The land vehicles are closer to that stage, considering we already have a working design, the Terra Killer. These are a mere variation on that theme. But the submersible is an entirely new concept, though based on plans from the computers, so it’ll take longer. I anticipate we’ll have a prototype land vehicle built and ready for testing in two to three days, but the submersible is at least two weeks off – and again, those are prototypes.”

Major Riley nods. “Thanks, Tom,” he says. “Given our recon drones and bird riders, especially working in concert with the Amethyst bird riders, we have some pretty good air power. Land and water are the challenges we face right now – and we’re working in that direction.”

“Amethyst stands ready on land,” says Gloft, from the Trog delegation. “We will smash the machines before they smash us! But we understand. We must act together, so we must first decide how to smash the machines.”

“Our good friends of Amethyst are of course forgiven for speaking out of turn,” says the President, “but the feeling is clearly mutual. You are far from the only ones who wish to, as you say, smash the machines. What’s more, the humans being held captive there, other than the Charmichaels, of course, are certainly your people’s kinfolk.”

“Yes!” says Gloft. “We must rescue our kin from the People of the Stones, who took their ancestors captive long ago. This, too, must be part of the plan. Our scouts stand ready to find the captives so they may be freed.”

“One plan I can think of,” says Major Riley, “is some sort of EMP bomb, carried by a human scout into the heart of the Florida complex. We’ll want to get all our machines out of the pulse radius, but this sort of device would disable all electronics without harming a single living creature. It could also be carried by a sacrificial drone – and there’s no reason why we can’t send more than one. Only the first one to go off would work, of course – the others would be disabled by the first one – but the redundancy would ensure that one of them went off.”

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A group of our biologists has created a small enclosed and protected habitat for many creatures our genetics department has begun regrowing to attempt reintroduction back into what is now Earth’s natural habitats. We of course do slight bits of genetic prestidigitation with our fully refurbished CRISPR to insure the genomes will survive in the new reality.

The entire city of Nanogen has accepted this as a natural habitat meditation park and uses it often to unwind. The aromas of the many flowering plants, the buzzing of the reintroduced honeybees, and the wonderfully melodious sounds of the many song birds create the perfect atmosphere to relax.

Kitty and his family seem to enjoy this location, as it is as I remember nature being before the war, down to and including a small and very biologically active fish pond. It tickles me to watch the large kittens as they frolic and chase butterflies and lizards through the flowering growths.

There are separated biomes built with easy access to each other. It takes a bit of construction, and we have to build a large group of domes to handle it and enclose everything, but our builder printer bot can manufacture slagcrete from the local soils. We can add some of the slime-board to the mix and make them massively resistant to any possible radioactive storms that may pass over the above-ground portion. Our city is growing, and we have many toddlers to prove it thus far.

I sit on the bank of the large pond, toss what passes as bread into the water, and watch it boil with the fish coming to eat it. We have breads made of corn, potatoes, and several mixes from the nuts of the mutated trees. Wheat is something we haven’t yet decided to grow, although what we substitute works perfectly well.

Kitty comes to me and headbutts me in his show of affection before lying beside me and asking in his strange accent, “Soompin bofferin Ooomans?”

I smirk as I lean back into Kitty’s warm fur and give him a convenient scratch in a nice place. “It seems we found a place in what used to be Florida before the huge war that wants to destroy what little we have left.”

I feel it as Kitty stops purring. I instinctively know he has something very pertinent to say. “Wuz … times ago. Two Ooomans left here wiffa large movin thingy packed wiffn suffs.” I nod. “Thems wen ta tha way n no comed back.”

I sit up and turn slightly to look at Kitty. “Do you know anything more?”

Kitty nods. “Does. Went affer em. Affer thems Ooomans wnt, thos black squeakie Oomans lookins come out. Talk to em. Take em inside.”

I give Kitty a large nose bump in the manner he so liked and say as I left, “Thanks. We thought they went there. Now we know.”

I stand and walk to the nearest door out of the habitat. From there I go to my office, where I set up a call with the Science Academy’s central council.

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“Don’t cause a rockslide!” says Major Riley over the radio. “You almost brought that whole rock face down on top of you.”

“Maybe we should,” replies Lt. Ibanez. “That would be a good test.”

The UC Defense Force is putting the prototype military vehicle through its paces, and the Science Academy has instruments on board to detect any undue effects on the interior. But the intrepid volunteers, such as Lt. Ibanez, are on board the vehicle in person, learning to drive it and operate its weaponry while our scientists and engineers make sure that gases, particulates, and radiation can’t make it through the hard outer shell or ventilation systems.

“How’s it going?” I ask Miki, who is monitoring the data from the sensors on her tablet while watching the vehicle from a distance.

“It’s performing well, though I wish we could have left more scientific equipment in,” she says. They’d removed a lot of the computers and living quarters, replacing them with ammunition and auxiliary vehicle storage. “I don’t know what exactly we’ll be facing, but I guarantee they don’t know what they’ll be fooling with either.”

“How’s the submersible going?” I ask her.

“Not too far behind,” she replies. “We’ve got a test of one of those coming up later today. The submersible drone wasn’t built for combat, and we didn’t expect a torpedo. This will be a much more difficult target – and will shoot back.”

Major Riley’s voice comes over the radio. “Can you paint the target on Hill C?”

In seconds, Lt. Ibanez replies, “Laser sight targeted.”

“Fire test ordnance.”

“Firing.” As we watch, a rocket shoots from the vehicle toward a distant hill. “Transponder shows success. Target reached within 2 cm.”

“Outstanding,” says Major Riley.

I say, “If we’re really doing EMP bombs, we’ll have to get them inside the complex. All that water will shield them against anything like that. I doubt the land complex will be that well shielded, but enough soil would also dampen the effectiveness.”

Without taking her eyes off her tablet’s virtual instrumentation, Miki replies, “Absolutely. We’ve built several EMP devices, but they have to be delivered to point-blank range, the closer the better. We can do that with drones, or the Trogs have volunteered to take them by hand, and we can get them there with enough support.”

“Do we have another plan? We should have another plan.”

“Major Riley’s worked out several plans,” says Miki, “but yes, we’ve got more plans. I can tell you’re worried.”

“Of course I’m worried. About a lot of things. But we have to deal with these robots.”

“What are we going to do about the Charmichaels?” Miki asks. “Assuming they don’t just slip away and run again.”

“We’ll … I don’t know,” I admit. “We’ll hold a trial.”

“And if they’re found guilty?”

I pause. “I don’t want to be responsible for instituting a death penalty.”

“You wouldn’t be,” Miki says. “It’d be put to a vote. A law would have to be passed. A jury would have to find them guilty of treason. A judge would have to decide the sentence, if they were found guilty. Not you.”

“What if there were another penalty?” I ask.

“You could put them back in stasis, I guess,” says Miki. “But wouldn’t that just kick the can down the road? Wouldn’t that mean that some future civilization would have to deal with them? Wouldn’t that be more of a punishment for that future civilization than for the Charmichaels?”

“I think you just answered your own question,” I say. “I don’t know.”

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The submersible doesn’t dive into the water from above this time. It gets lowered into the water at the shoreline. This one requires a lot more testing, because the land vehicles are based on the Terra Killer, which has already been tested under fire, while the submersible is brand new. We test it in a local river, and it performs great. A liquid oxygen/liquid methane Stirling engine powers the submersible and makes it the quietest thing in the water.

In a few days the factory’s mass-produced a dozen land vehicles, and the submersible is deemed ready for limited production. We’ll have a few of those too, keeping whatever defenses they have in the lake busy. Meanwhile, the Florida complex has finally quit sending wooden drone planes our way to crash. Maybe they ran out of metal – the planes did still require a small amount of metal in order to operate.

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I’ve made sure there are more surveillance drones equipped with the proper electronics to search out and detect the robots. One thing I don’t need is a surprise attack that we have only minutes to prepare for.

I go to the garage to check on how our assault vehicles were doing. When I walk in, there are about a dozen well armored and extremely well armed vehicles sitting in the large staging area around the main workshop. They’re magnificent from my perspective.

I enter the nearest one and stop for a good look around. This thing’s more like a small spaceship than anything else my mind can think of. It’s large enough to accommodate maybe eight comfortably … more if certain allowances are made.

It’s basically a Terra Killer type vehicle, although much of the research equipment and laboratories have been replaced with munitions storage and weapons. I walk into the command deck and sit at the controls. The two joysticks and foot pedals are exactly the same, except now there are triggers, some buttons on the sticks, and an extra fire control system I can manually enable and fire weapons from. I flip a few of the power switches.

The command deck comes to life. Radar and other tracking and lock on equipment display perfectly. There’s even programmable separations of specific images that can be called up independently of everything else.

Tactical and weapons stations have been upgraded immensely. It’s also possible that four or maybe more could monitor all the tactical data, and the same amount could operate each of the vehicle’s weapons systems either independently or simultaneously.

Now, instead of two hideaway missile racks, there are four, not to mention the addition of two more 16 barrel miniguns and two large plasma weapons Tom and his geniuses along with Major Riley’s crew managed to cobble together out of the smaller handheld version.

I have strange emotions over it all. Here I sit in perhaps the most deadly machine of war Nanogen City can manufacture. I shake my head sadly at the feeling that we might be starting something that could result in the final extermination of mankind. I now know what the leaders before the bombs fell faced. They had no choice; the only choice they had was to do all they could to insure something survived before the war happened. From the remaining records, everyone knew there was no winning that war, except to survive it somehow.

Damn. I bang my fist on the couch’s armrest and grumble about how this mess has forced itself upon me. I’m impressed to say the least over the work to produce this vehicle, although I’m not happy in the least for the necessity of it.

I exit the vehicle and walk into the large assembly area. I’m greeted by a large machine that appears to be some sort of large aircraft sitting in a launch cradle with six large probe type tires that have no rubber.

I walk up to the boarding ramp that leads into the aircraft looking thing. I find Tom, Jennie, Miki, and Clairese inside, amid many jumbles of wire and other equipment they’re working on and installing. I can tell this is going to be another far-out escapee from a sci-fi movie.

Tom looks up from the pile of electronics and wire as he reaches for a crimping tool. He sees me and smiles. “Sup, bossman?” He stands and waves his arm around. “This isn’t gonna be called a submarine.”

I reply amusedly, “No? What are we gonna call it, an octopus?”

Everyone there laughs.

Tom replies, “Hell no, why would I call something as sleek and graceful as our seaplane that?”

I reply, “Seaplane, is it?” I nod as I rub my chin, “Yeah, it does look more like an aircraft than a ship.”

Tom says, “When we’re done installing the control center here, I’d be more than happy to take you on the shakedown for it. It was designed to operate as a land vehicle as well as an aircraft on and under the water.” Tom points to the large cradle portion, “This is the transport. It’s a robotic vehicle, but it’s also directly controlled from within the command bridge. The carrier can function completely submerged.”

“OK,” I say as I raise my eyebrows; I guess it’s time for a stupid question. “You’re not going to leave the carrier attached during operations, are you?”

Tom smirks as he shakes his head. “Not in the least. The carrier will deliver the seaplane into the water, where the QDs release and the plane moves off, leaving the carrier to exit the water and await the return signal from the plane.”

I frown a bit as I say, “I think this should have a name of some sort. Like we gave our first exploration vehicle the name Terra Killer.”

“Sure,” replies Tom.

“Call it Hydra.” Jennie pipes up.

Miki adds, “Yeah, call it the Hydra. You can’t very well see them at this point, but there are a lot of weapons systems tucked away in the armored hull. If they’re extended, I think it would look sort of like a mechanical hydra with winglets.”

I nod. “OK.” I walk over to a table and pick up a bottle of what we’ve started calling soda, and smash it across the front of the ship, shattering the glass bottle and spattering the pop all over. “I hereby christen you Hydra.”

Everyone present on the construction bay stops what they’re doing and starts clapping and cheering. I look further into the construction bay and see about six more of these vehicles in various stages of near completion. We might not know exactly what we might find, but what we do know about we’re more than well equipped to handle.

About that time, a very pregnant young woman taps me on the shoulder. She says in a soft voice, “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Chairman, but there’s someone here who wants to see you. I believe he arrived on some kind of giant grey bird.”

I smile. “That’s Gloft, from the Trog delegation. Apparently he has something important to show me.”

The young woman smiles as she placed one hand beneath her very swollen tummy, “Follow me. I think he’s waiting for you in the red lounge.”

I follow the pregnant young woman to the lounge’s double doors. I open the doors and enter. A huge mountain of muscle stands, holds out his hand, and says joyfully, “Hi there, my old friend. I have an interesting thing to talk with you about.”

I take Gloft’s hand in the firmest grip I can as I gave the huge man a warm handshake. “What thing might that be, my old friend? Another acrobatic flight maneuver for our flyers?”

He nods his head. “Somethin’ like that. Here’s the idea. I am told you have something called an EMP bomb. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to understand how it works, but I do know they told me it would knock out all of what you call electronics. It might not damage the power transmission wires, but I am told it can start fires and burn out those generator things.”

I nod and smile. “That's a pretty fair description for someone who says he might not understand it.”

Gloft replies, “Thanks. But, anyway, I brought over Scree for the demonstration if you want one.”

I wave my hand. “That won’t be necessary. Just tell me what this new maneuver is.”

“It’s more like this,” he explains. “Scree and his other flock have been flying at great altitudes since they were born. It’s a snap for Scree to make 14 or 15 thousand feet. From what I’ve seen in some of the drone footage, those Stoners don’t respond to things above certain altitudes, and they can make it above the line the Stoners recognize objects.”

I pinch my lip in thought as I point a finger at Gloft. “Ya know? And since a bird isn't affected by an EMP …”

Gloft adds, “And none of the saddle equipment would be affected by EMP either. We could saturation bomb the place with EMP bombs. The only thing it would kill is the Stoners.”

I think. “EMP bombs are themselves electronically armed, so when one goes off, it disables all the others in the radius, but that’s OK, because all we need is for one of them to go off. But … what if we decrease the radius? If we arm you and your flyers with smaller EMP bombs, you can blanket an entire area with them. We’re going to try to get at least one large bomb into the complex itself, past its shielding, but that’ll require getting past their surface defenses, and I think that’s where you come into play.”

“Exactly!” says Gloft, laughing heartily. “They will try to stop you getting to their doors. But thanks to us, that won’t work. You’ll get in. And boom! Their city breaks down. No more Stoners! Revenge for our people at last! And we’ll be able to free the prisoners.”

“You will have to coordinate with Major Riley,” I explain. “Let’s go see him.”

We go to Major Riley’s office and talk strategy.

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And then there’s the Terra Killer. I walk up to it, all by itself in a corner of the vehicle bay while all this activity is going on around it. I kind of feel like it, in a way. I started all of this, and now all these other people are doing so many things around me. I open its side hatch and go inside.

“Well, hello there, old friend,” I say to it. “We’ve had some adventures, haven’t we? But now your descendants are going off to fight. What are you going to do? They’ll probably want me to stay behind. You’ll probably have to stay behind too. No reason for a science vehicle or for a scientist on this mission …”

I stop. “Or is there?” I wonder. We are going to be facing robots and whatever unknown technology they’ve developed during centuries of isolation. “Well, am I the director of the Science Academy or aren’t I?” I say.

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“You want to what?” asks Clairese. She’s director of the Botany and Hydroponics Technology Division now, and she’s on the Science Academy’s council. “But that’s so risky!”

“I won’t be on the front lines,” I say. “But we need to collect and analyze the technology the robots have developed during their centuries of isolation. Not only do we need to know what we’re up against, we might find discoveries we can use back home.”

“That’s … not farfetched at all,” says Tom, who refuses to accept a division leadership but was unable to prevent me from nominating him to the council at large anyway. “These robots were clearly programmed to learn and adapt, and that means that they may well have made scientific or technological discoveries that the rest of the world wasn’t making.”

“They did shred my submersible recon drone,” says Miki. She’s director of the Mechanical Engineering division. “I’m still upset about that. They shouldn’t have been able to even detect it. Maybe they can’t detect objects high in the atmosphere, but they can sure interpret a sonar signal, assuming that’s how they did it.”

“Some of their innovations may be in the form of data analysis software, or even machine learning,” says Jennie, director of the Software Engineering division. “If we can scavenge the data storage devices the robots use, we can analyze their data, and their code too. That’s just as much an artifact as their electronics. But EMP bombs are going to wipe a lot of it, sadly. We’ll have to make sure to disable some of them in other ways.”

“The Terra Killer is still the best equipped scientific vehicle we’ve got,” I say. “And I don’t want to go alone. I want a hand-picked team.”

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“Now, remember, I’m only in charge of science here,” I say. “President Sook Ji is in charge overall, and Major Riley is in charge of military matters.”

“Are you trying to remind us or yourself?” asks Clairese with a sly smile as we roll along, well behind the front line. Terra Killer is handling as well as it ever did, though it doesn’t have to knock down any trees or blaze any trails – that’s all being done by the dozen land assault vehicles going before us.

“Some of both, I guess,” I say. “Not that we won’t be able to keep track of what’s going on – we’re also functioning as a comms hub.”

“That’s true,” says Jennie, at the comms console. “We’ve got video from all the other vehicles, and audio from the flyers. Whatever happens, we’ll have a very good picture of all of it.”

“But remember, if we encounter something we want to salvage, just roll over it and stop,” says Miki, at the tactical console. “We’ll open up the ventral hatch and take it in, sheltered by the rest of the vehicle, so nobody has to go outside.”

“I’ll scan it before I bring it in,” says Tom, in the engineering area. “You never know when there might still be a functional surprise attached.”

The front lines are still passing through what was once called South Carolina back in the old times. We’re staying east of the mountains after crossing them at a convenient place farther north. But in the Terra Killer, we’re miles behind the rest.

I watch the screens as I steer us forward. We’ve got cameras in all directions, of course, and – “Wait, what was that?” I say, looking at the screen that’s showing me the view to the right-hand side of the vehicle. “I thought I saw … no, it’s gone.”

“Playing back,” says Miki. “I’m not sure, Boss. That could be a humanoid shape, but it might also just be a trick of the shadows in the trees over there.” She put the video on everyone’s screen to see.

“Well, it’s not as if there can’t be people living around here,” says Clairese. “Just because we haven’t seen them before, that doesn’t mean they’re not here. They could be reclusive.”

“But … the size,” says Tom. “That person would have to be eight feet tall. And then to just vanish into the trees like that – it’s gotta be a trick of the light.” I look at the video playback. It looks like a tall humanoid shape stepping out of the woods, then stepping back behind.

“Could it be one of the robots?” asks Jennie.

“That doesn’t look or move like a robot,” Miki says. “Without going over there and searching, it’s hard to say. Again, though, it could just have been an illusion.”

We keep going. Maybe we’ll make an expedition to this area at a later time. For now, we’re pressing southward. Like the front lines, we go in shifts, not stopping for the night. The flyers have to stop and rest, but they’re faster and can catch up.

“Front line’s entering the Okefenokee,” says Jennie. “Swampy going, but it’s barely slowing them down. It’s why we made these vehicles semi-amphibious.” It’s going to be swampy on and off for the rest of the journey, and Cape Canaveral is almost an island, attached to the mainland by a narrow isthmus of land. If that’s where their base is, the approach to it will be easy for them to defend. That’s where the flyers will come in, to deal with the defenders.

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The front line of vehicles, including several of the Hydra class, has come to a point about a mile from the coast in what our maps shows used to be the northern edge of the Tosohatchee Wildlife Preserve. None of the highways or buildings survived the ravages of the war; however, there are crumbling reminders.

Just as they approach what used to be Port Canaveral, we, looking at what they’re seeing on our screens, begin seeing signs that the old highway 528 and a bridge leading into the old Kennedy Space Complex have actually been tended to over the years. The repair of the road improves suddenly, although it’s obvious that not as much care has been taken in preserving the bridge.

No biggie – our attack vehicles are amphibious and can even fight underwater. We send several of the Hydra class vehicles on towards Lake Okeechobee, with several of the Killer class attack vehicles as an escort, just in case.

Without warning, directly in front of our advancing vehicles, a complete line of hatches irises open, and several really strange looking primitive/modern looking weapons rise from within. They look like a mix of a bunch of huge crossbows and the rest like some type of trebuchet. Of course, many of the robots appear and instantly begin loading large bolts and some form of flaming pots into the cradles of the respective devices.

A rapidly moving shadow crosses overhead, accompanied by a loud screech and a Trog war whoop. A huge bird with a mountain of muscle on its back dives in as the huge man tosses several grenades with amazing accuracy. They go off with large electrical shorting sounds. All the robots fall over and begin showering sparks, except for one. It’s far enough away that all that got zapped were its motivational proclivities.

Oh, man. Do those electronic engineers jump on that. It takes them mabe 20 minutes to subdue and place the damaged robot in stasis for us to recover and disassemble. The robot is, in fact, a highly modified version of the standard maintenance bots that were around before the war.

The troops manage to cross what’s left of the bridge onto what was once the main NASA complex’s island. Things become sort of hairy then, as a missile of some kind slams into one of our killer vehicles and explodes. The force of the impact is large enough that it actually moves the many ton vehicle to one side several feet. That’s when we realize that it’s been hit by some type of drum filled with a type of homemade explosive. It’s left black smudges all over the vehicle, but other than shaking up the crew, it did no other damage.

That’s when the robot army shows up and starts tossing some kind of liquid accelerant and spreading fires. The Killer vehicles are well armored and insulated. The heat from the fire does no damage and causes no problems as we slowly advance into the midst of the huge robot army. Once again the Trog flyers show up, but this time over a dozen huge birds swoop in as their riders precision-toss many hand grenade sized EMP bombs. The fight ends shortly after that exchange.

We begin to pick up some type of microwave transmissions, although as hard as Jennie tries, there’s no deciphering the massive amounts of gibberish. Our seismometers register some large underground movements. Something very large is in motion and moving to a location that our maps identify as the former site of Launch Tower #3, about a mile from our present location. Although what’s there now, as best as the scans can tell us, is a mass of twisted and severely corroded metals and lots of swampy vegetation.

By this time we’ve arrived at the disabled robot in the Terra Killer and have stopped to disassemble it and take its parts with us, so we’re very busy. Jennie keeps monitoring the situation and puzzling over the strange signal. “It’s almost as if it’s … not even … a digital signal … of course!” she says, snapping her fingers as she has a realization. “That frequency – they haven’t used it for anything but this! It’s not a message – it’s just a signal. It must have a prearranged meaning.”

“Which is?” I ask as I help Tom carry pieces of disassembled circuitry and nonstandard data storage devices into the vehicle.

“Well,” says Jennie, “considering that something started happening up at Tower 3 right after it was sent, I’d say it means, ‘Now!’”

“Any sign of what’s going on up there?” asks Miki.

“No, the drones are watching, but they aren’t seeing anything. Seismic readings say something’s happening underground.”

“Have they found a way in yet?” I ask.

“I … don’t think so … no, wait!” says Jennie. “Some of the ground-based drones have been exploring the tunnels the robots came out of not long ago. They go down super far. Tunnels in the bedrock.” Those drones wouldn’t be able to communicate with the surface if they’re down that far, if it hadn’t been for a simple and obvious network of wireless repeaters that they lay down behind them. They’ll be knocked out if we set off one of the big EMP bombs down there, but if we can knock out the robots’ command center at the same time, it’ll be worth it.

“I think we’ve almost got all the interesting bits,” says Tom. “Get one of those sensors from the head – yes, that one there.”

As we salvage that part and start analyzing, I close the hatches and get us moving again. The action is all happening on the other side of the bridge from here.

Suddenly, what used to be the launch tower begins to tremble and shake. Many birds began to flee as something opens beneath the tangle. “Oh my G … it isn’t … no!” I say, watching the screen.

The blood drained from his face, Tom says quietly, “That’s an Omega hydrogen ICBM.” We begin to see the vapor trails of the liquid cryonics as they vent.

I turn to Tom and shout, “Is there anything we can do to stop that thing from launching?”

Tom never gets to answer as two of the Killers open their rocket racks and launch. The massive explosions tear the missile in half as the cryonics explode in one huge fireball. The top half falls to the ground as a dozen Trog flyers divebomb the tower and shower it with EMP grenades.

“That,” says Tom. “We can do that. No boom if there’s no missile. Come to think of it, most thermonuclear weapons have a tritium booster, and that lasts decades if you’re lucky. It was quite a shock to see that missile, but after a moment’s thought, there’s no way they have an intact supply chain to maintain it. Impossible.”

“Well …” Miki begins to say.

“Hold that thought,” I tell her. “If you’ve got any ideas, better save them for Frank back home.”

“Yeah, OK,” Miki says, and goes back to disassembling the robot parts and testing them.

“The underground drones have reached the bottom of the tunnels and are exploring,” Jennie says. “And the other strike force is approaching Lake Okeechobee.”

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The advancing contingent at Okeechobee haven’t encountered any type of issues. The only things they run into are huge constrictor type serpents, and extremely large creatures that look like some kind of armor plated lizard looking thing with huge sharp teeth. None of them pose any type of threat to the Hydras or the Killers that escorted them.

Two of the Hydras come to the edge of Lake Okeechobee and dive right in, while the Killer escort assumes protective positions to maintain a secure perimeter. Amid many bubbles and roiling water, the land vehicle carrier for the submersible part of the Hydra exits the water and parks close by to await the signal to recover the submersible part.

I sit at the sensor console of the Terra Killer and watch the channel specifically assigned to the Hydras. The laser relay system seems to work better and better the more we use it. I smile as I thought of the unique thing the Hydras can do with EMP. They all employ something that Tom and Jennie rediscovered, a system known as a fluidic computer.

The principles are easy enough, and among the engineering team, many of them took it as a personal challenge to recreate the system. The physical basis of fluidics is pneumatics and hydraulics, based on the theoretical foundation of fluid dynamics. The term fluidics is normally used when devices have no moving parts, so ordinary hydraulic components such as hydraulic cylinders and spool valves are not considered or referred to as fluidic devices.

A jet of fluid can be deflected by a weaker jet striking it at the side. This provides nonlinear amplification, similar to the transistor used in electronic digital logic. It is used mostly in environments where electronic digital logic would be unreliable, as in systems exposed to high levels of electromagnetic interference or ionizing radiation.

What this means is that the Hydras can be equipped with a sonic emitter and an EMP emitter without danger of knocking its own critical computational systems offline, since it isn’t affected by electromagnetic impulses, including ionizing nuclear radiation, as the chips Nanogen City are now producing are.

The Hydras dive deep into the waters of the sinkhole lake. It amazes me to think that the recorded depth of this lake historically was between 9 feet and 20 feet. I wasn’t sure if the sinkhole just opened up more, or if it was done by human manipulation, but at some point in the past, things changed. In the very center of the huge expanse of water, is now an area 2000 yards across that dives to an amazing depth of 10,000 feet. This was the location the first probe discovered, and something used torpedoes on it.

I watch as the vehicles proceed over the edge and down into the depths, and the sensors begin their downward scan. It becomes very dark and dusky as the Hydras continue their descent. Many types of fish and other really strange looking creatures seem to be gathering around the Hydras, all attracted by their running lights.

At 5000 feet, the first sighting of the lights far below begins to show. It’s a dim glow through the murkiness of the water. The Hydras have each released a buoy that relays its signals to the rest of our network. This time, instead of using lasers, the Hydras are also sending out a long hardwire tether to the buoys to insure comms continue without interference from the surrounding environment. It’s also a countermeasure against detection: visible light is really the only electromagnetic signal that can pass through water, but even a laser gets scattered, and that might be how they saw our drone probe before. This time, there’s no laser pointing out the location of the Hydras – and although they’re using bright running lamps now, they can turn them off without affecting comms.

The Hydras begin picking up some high level microwave signals, which they promptly record and forward to Terra Killer so Jennie can get a crack at deciphering them. This time, the very organized patterns within the data stream appear to be some sort of vocal comms with video piggy backed on them. Jennie is pulling her hair out over the message, however, since its translation is so elusive.

Hydra One detects some type of ping as it hit its hull. It isn’t sonar, so it’s silent, but the energy flux it creates when it strikes the hull ionizes the water enough that the sensors record it. It’s also about that time that the scanners indicate two large cigar-shaped objects, approaching at a great rate of speed.

“Enemy craft,” says Hydra One’s ops officer, Kyra Pine. “We knew they were coming – let’s see what this thing can do. Watching for torpedoes.”

The Hydras have already activated their evasive protocols, even before she started speaking. Since the Hydras fly through the water rather than move like a torpedo, they’re fast, and highly maneuverable. I see the large white flash of bubbles around the front of one of the cigar shaped things as it launches two torpedoes. The white cavitation trails and the noises they produce over the hydrophones make it very clear.

The Hydras have been well programmed by Jennie to be able to maneuver and fight at the same time. They roll, loop, flip, flop, and basically perform acrobatics normally reserved for birds and aircraft. The cigar shaped vessels fire many torpedoes, all of which are quickly outmaneuvered and avoided. The instruments register many far-off explosions from the torpedoes that miss … and there are many, from the detonations against the sheer cliff face leading up toward shallow water.

Quickly, the Hydras get behind the cigar-shaped craft and get a really clear scan of them. From what the computer archives show, they’re Hunter-Killer class attack nuclear subs. Scans indicate, however, that their source of power isn’t nuclear, but currently, something electrical.

Tom turns and says, “Enough of this cat and mouse crap. Clairese, if they haven’t thought of it already, remind them that they can EMP the heck out of those.”

Clairese replies with a hint of joy in her voice, “Yes sir,” as she sent the message.

Both Hydra release a huge electromagnetic EMP pulse.

Scans can find none of the pre EMP readings emanated by the Hunter Killers. All indications now are that they have been disabled. No life form readings show, not that they did before. The Hunter-Killers proceed in their courses for a few more hundred yards as they start canting more nose down until they’re headed for the bottom, still thousands of feet below.

The Hydras’ commanders then give the orders to begin scanning and approaching the huge facility that’s being indicated, 5000 feet deeper.

Hydras One and Two are being backed up by Three and Four, and the rest are being held in reserve up in shallow water. Three and Four are standing ready to EMP any other submarines that show up while One and Two approach the facility for a closer look. The water is murky, but there are tricks we can use to get better imagery, such as combining both Hydras’ camera signals and building up a more solid image over time.

“Descent drones are mapping the corridors,” says Jennie. Indeed, as more and more drones populate the subterranean passageways, the maps grow faster and faster. I look at the screen containing the map and am momentarily astonished by how expansive the complex is. Did the US military really tunnel through deep bedrock all the way from Cape Canaveral to Lake Okeechobee? It’s starting to look as if they did. This facility is making the Cheyenne Mountain complex look like a small-town mall. This is the Mall of America in comparison. There could be an underground city down there.

But the drones are just picking up passageways. They’re laid out in a grid, clearly ready for expansion, but there just isn’t anything more than that. “They must have planned this to be a shelter for a lot of people,” I say, “but it looks as if they never finished it.”

“Could be,” says Jennie. “Maybe the war came before they were ready.”

“Still, there have to be people somewhere,” says Tom. “Where are they, I wonder? I suppose we’ll find them if we keep scanning.”

The Killer vehicles have been scanning the Cape Canaveral site and have been attacked yet again, but the swooping Trog flyers keep eliminating the robot defenders before they can become a threat. Then, suddenly, Miki announces, “Look out, this thing’s still active –”

And that’s the last thing I remember for a while.

Darkness parts as light registers on my mind. I open my eyes, and gradually a room comes into focus. “Oh look, he’s awake,” says a familiar voice. “Hi there, Dr. Palmintieri. Remember me?”

“Wha … you … you’re the guy who isn’t Jeffrey Charmichael,” I mumble.

“How right you are,” he says. “I’m not going to bother telling you my real name, since it doesn’t mean anything anymore. You can keep on calling me Jeff if you want, though, if you need a name.”

“Fine,” I say. “Jeff. Where are we, and when are you letting me go back to my people?”

“Where we are is somewhere deep under what used to be Florida,” he replies, “but as for when I’m letting you go back … well, that’s not really up to me.”

“No?” I ask. I might have known. He came here thinking to take over, and instead became a prisoner. Just as I now was. I looked around. I was in a cell with a bed and a toilet, with transparent walls, probably bulletproof plastic. There were tiny holes, most likely so air and sound could pass through. Jeff was in the cell next to mine. There were rows of them, mostly unoccupied, all in a huge white room.

“The robots that run this place were very … grateful, I suppose, for the intelligence we provided them,” said Jeff. “But they’re programmed to protect humans and keep them alive. Not necessarily happy, but alive. Not that I’m sure they know what happy means.” Jeff is reclining jauntily on his bed, whereas I am more like lying supine with my head turned.

“How did they get me here?” I ask.

“No idea,” Jeff says. “They brought you in, unconscious, and put you in there. If I had to guess, they set some sort of trap for you and whoever you were with. I guess that because I told them that’s what they should do. Capture their leader, I said, and they’d win. You’d probably be in a separate vehicle, because they wouldn’t want you on the front lines, I said. You’d probably want to try to analyze any parts left behind by defeated robots, I said.”

“Yet I’m the only one they got,” I say. “The others got away.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that,” Jeff replies. “Jess is around here somewhere – not her real name either, obviously, not that it matters – but I only see her occasionally. They move us around.”

“And I got the spot next to you,” I say. “Lucky me.”

“Yes, it is kind of lucky,” says Jeff. “I get to tell you all about our brilliant plan and how miserably it failed.”

“Again, lucky me,” I say. I’m thinking of a way to get out of here. I know nothing about robotics. Clearly I can’t break through these walls. Anything I try will have to wait until they let me out, which they must do from time to time. But the others will find me. Even if the entire crew of the Terra Killer is imprisoned, in this cell block or some other, we were winning, last thing I saw. They’ll find their way down here, and they’d find me. It’s only a matter of time.

“So, I hope you brought a big army with you, Doc,” says Jeff. “That one Terra Killer vehicle is pretty tough, but just the one of them wasn’t much of a match for one of my little tricks, and that isn’t the only one I taught them.”

“I imagine they’re listening in on anything we say,” I remark, “so of course I’m not going to comment on any forces there may or may not be.”

“Listening in?” he said, seemingly amazed that I would think such a thing. “Why, Doc, that’s positively paranoid! And, of course, completely correct. They analyze everything we talk about. For our own protection, of course.”

“Of course,” I say. And the lights go out.

“Hmm,” I hear Jeff say. It’s absolutely dark. There isn’t even any emergency lighting. What we’re probably looking at is the result of an EMP, but it could always be a ruse. Get me to think their systems are all down so I say something unguarded that they can use. Clever. Jeff probably thought of it.

“Does this happen often?” I ask.

“Never seen this before,” Jeff replies.

“I’m not a fan of darkness,” I say. Actually I have no fear of darkness, but feigning weakness can cause your enemy to underestimate you. Jeff may be a prisoner here, or he may not be. I don’t for one minute think it’s a coincidence that I got placed in a cell next to him, with so many empty ones all around. He’s either a collaborator, doing favors for the robots in exchange for privileges, or he’s in charge of the place.

“Well, it seems darkness is something we’ve got plenty of right now,” Jeff replies. “I wonder if we owe it to your friends.”

“I couldn’t begin to speculate,” I say.

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I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. At this point I’m still in a cell somewhere deep below ground. But in the meantime, as I learn later on, the Killers take close perimeter positions so they can direct precision fire solutions. The Trog fliers circle overhead out of range of the robot’s detection grid, waiting to see the Killers in action.

A small hatch pops open further into the facility. The four missile racks each Killer carries pop open as well. Many robots seem to pour from the hole. They form a huge wall with several more robot walls spaced apart. Something rises from the ground. The fire control leader can’t believe what he sees. Right there appears to be a functioning Ares missile defense system, armed and primed.

A huge flash with billowing clouds of smoke marks the launch. Killer 1 fires back with its proton cannon. The fast tracking and acquisition protocol Jennie wrote assures, even with the weapon recycle time, that each of the rockets launched from the racks is intercepted and destroyed with a huge pyrotechnical explosion.

Let us not forget the robots. There are hundreds, and each appears to have been programmed for defense at all costs. Their tactics are wasteful and cause them to lose members unnecessarily ... not that I’m complaining, but you know how it is.

Killer 2 tracks, then locks onto, about 12 fast-moving robot targets. They’re all armed with some kind of homemade Molotov-type bombs. Immediately there’s a loud whirr and then a sound like a jet engine as the minigun atop the Killer opens up. Fire immediately erupts in a huge boiling area as the robots come apart and a tremendous amount of debris flies off in random directions.

The Killers back off their assault. There are raging fires and small explosions off into the facility. Huge amounts of debris lie everywhere as large black billowing clouds rise into the air – remnants of the defending force sent against the Killers.

The two Killers retract their auger stabilizers and slowly begin to move forward, pressing their incursion into the NASA facility. There are a lot of doors opening along their path, but whatever is supposed to operate the mechanism within appears not to be functioning. They finally come to the location that’s emitting the microwave and high gain radio signals.

It’s obvious enough that this place has functioning radar and possibly more. If we can only manage to recover some of it without its being destroyed by our EMP weapons, it could be very useful. The Killer stops and pops its hatch. 20 individuals walk out wearing powered combat suits.

The commander’s voice can be heard, “Listen up! I want to at least try and recover something useful here. So far, we might have wiped out whatever their defending force was, or we might not have. Alpha, stay with me, Bravo, I want you guys to look into that.” He points off towards another dark entryway. “And Charlie, I want you to take that door.” He points to another darkened entry into the main building. “I’m going to go right up its kazoo.”

There’s a small twitter of laughter as each team goes to its designated location. On the signal from the commander, they all charge in, only to find a large collection of debris scattered all around. From the best that can be determined, one of the bots was damaged in the initial vollies and came in here to inform the other bots what was going on. Apparently it exploded and took out the whole crew. That makes the infiltration task seemingly easy ... or is it? The commander looks around the room. Somehow, he was sure, there was going to be some type of attempted ambush.

Now that he has that thought, this is looking more and more like window dressing – for example, where’s the explosion splash … and why can’t he see any shrapnel damage? …

The commander shouts, “All teams, defense Omega. We end this stupidity. If it comes.”

Each team takes up defensive locations surrounding the commander. They slowly begin moving deeper into the facility. They can hear the robotic presence, but no one can see them. The robots are obviously hiding from them.

Several panels slide open in the archway above their heads and begin firing at them. A quick volley of guided small arms rockets put a stop to that amid a large billowing cloud of debris and dust. They immediately realize that this amount of retaliatory force is unnecessary, as most of the ordinance that’s being fired at them is weak and mostly impotent after all this time.

About this time, the rest of the Terra Killer crew is recovering from what just happened. “I don’t get it,” says Miki, holding her forehead because of her pounding headache. “Why’d they only take Eric?”

“Let’s review the camera footage,” says Jennie, holding a finger to her temple but operating the screen controls with her other hand. Apparently among the robot components we brought aboard was a gas bomb in disguise. The screens show Miki realizing that something’s wrong and starting to shout a warning before it explodes and fills the vehicle’s interior with some sort of narcotic gas. The internal air filtration systems quickly detect the foreign substance and cut into high gear, attempting to entirely replace the air in the compartment, but for a few crucial seconds everyone’s breathing a semi-toxic chemical.

“There!” says Tom, pointing at another of the components, which appears to change form, becoming a tiny robot, with four long many-jointed limbs. As the crew struggles to retain consciousness, the small device quickly finds a door control and opens a hatch, probably the first one it can find, which turns out to be the port side lateral hatchway.

Several of the crew have gone unconscious, and the rest are only slightly moving, except for Miki, who spotted the thing first and probably held her breath. Four robots enter the compartment, and the cameras show several more outside. Miki tries to fight them off, by herself at first, but she’s unarmed and they simply thrust her aside. Clairese heroically grabs an emergency sidearm and fires at one of them, but she’s unable to aim well in her state and does only superficial damage.

By this time they’d grabbed me and were carrying me off. I was fully unconscious by this time; I don’t remember any of this. I’ve seen the footage, though; they save it for later. I’m already out the door by the time Miki grabs the sidearm from the barely-conscious Clairese and starts firing more precisely. She gets a few good shots in, and the robot carrying me falls, but another one immediately grabs me and keeps going. They disappear through the secret tunnels they popped out of and vanish below the ground.

“So they did go straight for Eric,” says Tom. “I’d thought maybe they took whoever they could grab, but they could easily have gotten me or Jennie, but they didn’t.”

“Yeah, we were out like the proverbial lights,” adds Jennie. “Eric was their target. Why, though? No, wait. Let me think. Ow. Logic is painful right now. The Charmichaels. When they left Eric was our leader. They must have told the robots that. They don’t know about any of the changes in government we’ve been doing since they left. The robots must think they can cripple us by capturing our leader. Or maybe they think they can hold him hostage, or add him to their human assets below. Ow.”

“Here, take some of these,” says Clairese, passing around some tiny packets containing tablets. “Herbal painkillers. We grow the plants it comes from – no time to explain it right now.”

“A thousand blessings upon your house,” Jennie says to her, swallowing a tablet. “I’m sending a message to the others, reporting our status.”

“I’ve jettisoned all the robot parts we picked up,” says Miki.

“The little robot isn’t here anymore,” says Tom. “I saw on the video. It jumped onto the back of one of the bigger robots as it left.”

“The front line just breached the entrance to their complex and is advancing inside,” says Jennie. “They say they’ll look for prisoners, just as the original plan said. It seems pretty likely they’ll put Eric with their other human captives.”

“How’s the drone map of the complex going?” asks Clairese. Jennie points to one of the screens. The drones are clearly still exploring, as more data keeps being added to the map, but it’s a lot farther along than before this incident. “What if … we go after him?”

“What, us?” asks Tom. “We’re not wearing powered armor. We’re not some kind of heavy assault team.”

“According to what I’m hearing from the front lines, we might not need armor pretty soon,” says Jennie.

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“Terra Killer’s suffered a setback,” the commander reports to his troops. “Dr. Palmintieri’s been captured. But Major Riley says the mission continues unaffected. They’ll probably put him with their other human prisoners, and we’ll rescue him when we find the rest of them. We go forward. Meanwhile, they’ve got data about the layout of the underground complex. It’s huge.” The troops’ heads-up displays are updated with our drone maps. “The drones doing the mapping haven’t even reached us yet, so there’s all this unknown territory between us and the maps, but we’ll get there.”

They progress around corners and down hallways, and suddenly the leader of the Charlie group reports, “Jackpot, chief.”

“What is it?”

“Huge industrial area behind this door,” she says. “Betcha it’s their power plant or at least their command center.”

“Probably heavily guarded,” says the commander. “I’m coming to your position. I have to get eyes on the layout.” A moment later he says, “Alpha, go back, first corridor on the right, then first right after that, take position at first door. Bravo, continue forward to next door on the left. Respond when in position.”

“Bravo, in position.”

“Alpha, in position.”

“Enter on my mark and neutralize any opposition,” says the commander. “Three. Two. One. Mark.” The commander and Group Charlie throw their door open and find themselves on a wooden platform with stairs leading upward toward a very high ceiling and downward to a floor far below. They can see Alpha Group across the room, separated by that gulf below. Bravo group is to their right, but along the same wall, connected by the walkway they’re standing on. Everyone is looking up, down, every direction.

“Below!” shouts Charlie’s leader. One of the soldiers sidesteps a shot – it’s like a crossbow bolt, but moving at the speed of a bullet. It shatters into splinters on the concrete wall behind him. Multiple troops open fire on the robots they can see down there, apparently guarding what looks to be a bank of computers or at least control machinery.

“We have to get down there,” says the commander, leading the way down the stairs. “Descent plan, Charlie, then Alpha, then Bravo.” This means that he and Charlie Group go down a flight of stairs while the other two groups cover them, then they take a position and help Bravo cover Alpha, and so on.

By the time they all reach the bottom level, no active robots are in sight. Their fire has felled every defender.

“Assault squad to Terra Killer,” says the commander. “Sending you images of what may be a command center or power reactor. Can you analyze? Over.”

Tom’s voice comes over the comms. “You are clearly in the power center for at least that part of the complex,” he says. “Several of its systems are offline, but a lot is still running.”

“Would this be a good place to set off one of our big EMPs?”

“Affirmative,” Tom says. “It would do them a great deal of damage. You don’t want to be there when it goes off, though – it won’t hurt you, but that powered armor will be a lot heavier without power.”

“Roger that,” says the commander. “Assault squad out. Troops, we’re deploying one of the big EMP bombs here. Conceal under … that console. Set timer for 15 minutes. Prepare to move out immediately once set.”

One of the troops of Bravo Group takes a device from her backpack, sets it, and affixes it under the console as ordered. “Ready … three, two, one, mark!”

“Move, move, move!” shouts the commander, and everyone heads for the stairs they used to get there. A few stories up, doors open and robots emerge, but the groups across the well take them out, and the soldiers push them over the edge. They make it back up to the third landing and exit. There are a few robots in the hallways, but they’re easily dealt with, and the assault group recombines and retraces its steps out of the complex, reaching the entrance well before the timer hits 15 minutes.

Of course, even if it had been a highly explosive device, they were separated from it by so much concrete and earth that they probably wouldn’t have heard or felt anything, but these EMPs are electronic, so there’s no explosion. The only way anyone can tell one’s gone off is by checking its effects.

“That’s 15 minutes, chief,” says the soldier who placed the device.

“OK, back in,” says the commander. “Confirm efficacy.” The troops nod and follow him back in.

They immediately notice that there are no lights. They all switch on their helmet lamps and the lights on the forearms of their armor. They return to the power center and start to advance beyond. This time they find only inactive robots lying on the floors. “Assault squad to command,” says the commander. “Power reactor disabled. No active robots. Proceeding to search for further targets and any prisoners.”

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Of course, the problem with setting off such a big EMP device is that some of our mapping drones go dark – as do the lights in the cell block where I’m being held, next to Jeff. But the Terra Killer crew can now confirm that there aren’t any robots. They send down some more drones with lights – we do have some with night vision cameras and infrared lights, but the robots, if there are any still active, are just as likely to be able to see infrared as what we humans call visible light.

“Drones aren’t finding active robots in this area,” says Miki, “and have found some disabled robots that weren’t present earlier. Lights are out – looks like power was knocked out, even all the way down here. There are still a few of our first set of drones active, but they’ve made it most of the way to the lake.”

“Jennie, you might be right!” says Clairese. “After that EMP, we could search for Eric. They went straight down from here, and they can’t have taken him too far before the EMP went off.”

“Let’s be careful,” says Tom. “None of these holes is big enough to get Terra Killer down, and I’m not sure we’d be able to get it back up if we did. So we’re going to have to carry anything we need with us. What I mean is, let’s make a plan.”

“It’s dark down there,” Miki says. “I wish we’d brought some of the Mountain People with us.”

“Some volunteers from the Mountain People are in Killer 5,” says Jennie. “Should I ask them?”

“Sure,” says Clairese. “I’ll ask them.”

Jennie yields the comm station to her, and Clairese opens a channel. “Terra Killer to Killer 5,” she says. “We’re going to launch a search and rescue operation for Eric. There are no lights below that we don’t bring with us. Are any of the Mountain People willing to help us search?”

“Roger that, Terra Killer,” said Killer 5’s comms officer. “They heard you. They’re talking about it.”

Then another voice comes over the console, a female voice thick with the accent of the Mountain People. “We will come. We wish to save Dr. Palmintieri.”

“Major Riley’s given the OK,” says the comms officer. “Killer 5 will come to your position.”

“Roger that, Killer 5, and thank you, Seela,” says Clairese, who apparently recognized the speaker’s voice. She adds something else in the Mountain People language.

Then the Terra Killer crew starts making their plans and selecting their gear. They’re coming to rescue me. Of course, I don’t know that yet.

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I do need to remind everyone all this doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time to move equipment and personnel into place. Some of the distances are several hundred miles, although the Trogs have the ability to cover distances quickly due to their squadron of flyers. We have ours too, but the Trogs’ squad are superior flyers. We do have clear blazed trails now that our vehicles and robot carryalls can more easily travel, which reduces lag time a lot.

Once the lights go out, it’s more than dark. It’s so dark that I swear I can feel it pressing on my skin. We can hear sounds, however. Due to the underground cavernous nature of our location, some of the sounds are distorted and really sound strange as they echo and reecho.

I can hear something that sounds like scurrying noises. I’ve heard this sound before, but I can’t place where. With all the reechoing, it sounds like a big collection of large rodents on the move. There are the unmistakable sounds of intermittent small arms fire with what sounds like small explosions. It isn’t long before those sounds are quite near.

At first, I think I’m mishearing one of the strange echoes. It’s very faint and almost unrecognizable due to the echoes, but I know something’s calling my name.

A very accented voice I immediately recognize as one of the Mountain People’s can be heard calling ever more clearly, “Dr. Palmintieri! Can you hear us? Call out, we are searching for you, and this place is as big a maze as the Mountain.”

I call back, “Here! We are here!” as loudly as I can. I can hear it as the echoes grow softer with distance.

Jeff hisses fearfully, “Quiet, you fool. How do we know they’re friendly?”

I laugh, then reply, “You’re the fool. I’m trying my very best to insure the survival of the human race, while all your pea brain can think about is a means to rise to power that technically doesn’t exist as we knew it any longer.”

Jeff snaps back, “Now, wait just a minute …”

I cut him off. “No, you wait. You had 10 people murdered to cover your deception. Then you had your accomplice try to seduce me to try and blind me to what the truth really was.”

About that time, a huge explosion happens very near. I can feel it as the overpressure wave scatters debris. I can hear the sound of small debris as it falls all around and pelts the clear plastic of my cell. A light comes on. I immediately close my eyes tightly, then slowly open them as they adjust.The light is on, but not pointing directly at us.

The sound of scurrying comes to an end as a somehow familiar female voice with that really strange Cheyenne Mountain accent says with obvious joy in it, “Dr. Palmintieri, at last, we found you!”

I can’t believe it. What looks like a combat squad stands in their powered armor along with six of the Cheyenne Mountain people dressed in their version of very finely woven and ornate body armor. One of the power armored troopers comes to my cell door and basically tears it from its hinges and tosses it out of the way.

He walks to Jeff’s cell and stops. “Should I release this rat? We all know what he’s done, and quite frankly, I’m not real sure what the penalty for murder and treason should be at this point.”

Jeff protests loudly, “You … you can’t just leave me here to starve. It’s … not lawful.”

I laugh. “And just what laws are you referring to? As best I can tell, the only law died centuries ago in a mass of nuclear stupidity. But I’m hearing that you want out.”

The trooper tears Jeff’s cell door from its hinges and tosses it as well. He also takes hold of him in no uncertain terms and twists some kind of metal rod around his wrists, binding them solidly better than any shackles. “We do have new laws, although I feel we might find some use to put you to … like feeding the giant lizards of the valley.”

Jeff screams as he’s manhandled off down the corridor. I, along with several of the Cheyennes and several of the troopers in powered armor, begin searching the cell block. From what the Trogs have told us, there must be more prisoners here somewhere. The light they brought with them helps me a lot, although the Cheyennes are unhampered by darkness like the rest of us and take point.

The holding cell area is huge. We find Miss Jessie in one of them in a near animalistic and deplorable state. She is quite obviously pregnant, and much of her physical body has been abused. The large healing bruises all over her face and upper torso show that she’s been severely beaten.

I have one of the powered armor troops take her back to the Terra Killer so one of the doctors there can take a look at her. She may have been an imposter, but she didn’t deserve what I just saw.

We find many more much larger individuals in a sort of open corral pen. They’ve made a sort of village from whatever scraps have been given them. To my astonishment, they can actually speak with me normally. They explain to me how the robots came and took them from their people generations ago, then began to breed them. None of them can explain why, but they do mention how abusive some of the robots were.

“The robots,” I say. “They beat you? Hit you?” They nod. “When? When do they do this?”

“When we try to escape,” says one of them.

“But also when they come to move us,” says another. “They take us to cells, put us together, sometimes to make us mate, but sometimes they put two men together, or two women. They handle us roughly. Sometimes it breaks our bones.”

“I think that long ago, the robots used to have a mission to care for and protect people,” I say, trying to explain in non-technical terms they’d understand. “But maybe there was a time when they didn’t have any people to care for. Over time … things went wrong in their brains. Their thinking went bad. They forgot that they were so much stronger than people. They forgot that there were men and women. They forgot what it meant to protect and care. They were like … when a river shifts and starts to pour into a village.”

“We have stories,” says one of them. “About villages. And rivers.”

“We can show you those,” I say. “If you come with us.” We start to gather the captives and whatever they want to bring with them.

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The Hydra vehicles have taken close, careful measurements of the underwater facility’s airlocks and transmitted that data to the surface, where the portable fab units manufacture adapter hardware. Hydras 3 and 4, equipped with airlocks now perfectly suited to interface with the underwater station, begin to make their way down while Hydras 1 and 2 stand guard. As the automated systems lock on and test the seal, troops stand ready to assault the station and neutralize any threats.

The airlock doors open. There are a few robots here, but they put forth only token opposition and are soon defeated. The lights flash red and klaxons blare as the troops search for and find the control center … which speaks to them. “You are unauthorized here. Please proceed to the human habitation areas. Mobile units will arrive soon to guide you.” Its voice sounds vaguely feminine but mostly electronic.

“I don’t think they will,” says the squad leader. “How many are left?”

“That information exceeds your authorization level,” says the computer. “Please proceed to the –”

“Got it. Heard it before. Hydra assault team to command. Opposition neutralized, other than an uncooperative computer. Over.”

“Roger that, Hydra team,” says the comms officer. “I’ve got someone who wants to talk to it.”

“Talk … to it?” the squad leader says, looking confusedly at her troops. “Very well, go ahead. Putting you on speaker.”

Jennie’s voice comes over the speaker in the squad leader’s armor. “Greetings, Deep Control,” she says. “Administrative maintenance mode. Authorization code Zero Zero Alpha Four Hotel Six Seven Victor Niner Niner Zero Three.”

The computer’s voice starts to break up. “Un-unauthoriz-ized access-cess you will be-be reported-ported access granted. Welcome to Deep Control. Maintenance mode active. Select diagnostic level.”

“I finally managed to crack that code,” says Jennie. “Now it’s time to plug in that gizmo Miki sent with you.”

“Roger that,” says the squad leader. “Griffin, you’ve got the gadget.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” says one of the troops, cleaning corrosion out of a connection port with a solvent pack before plugging a device into the port.

“And there we go,” says Jennie. “I’ve got full control over the complex from here. Well – the part of the complex that’s still functional, anyway. The EMP they set off at the other end doesn’t seem to have reached all the way down here. But this is better. We can start downloading data and making things easier for you down there. For example, every robot is now standing motionless. Except for one that I’m sending to you, which will now dance the mambo.” Outside the control room, they could see the dancing robot through the reinforced glass windows.

Jennie quickly finds information about the remaining human holding areas, which drones investigate first before sending human troops – she suspects correctly that some of them contain only moldering corpses or even mildewed skeletons. It’s amazing that any humans are alive considering how badly degraded their data about how to care for humans has become. They find more survivors, though, and lead them to safety.

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We find a treasure trove of items and data once we get past the meager defenses of the aged facility. It tickles me to no end when I hear the mountain people, those rescued captives, and a quantity of the Trogs all want to live here and refurbish the place. Jakool, one of the Trog flyers, even suggests we still call it NASA. Although it now would be referred to as Nasa City.

We’ve discovered the facility’s maintenance department. I now understand what happened to the robots. Some many years after the initial war, something compromised one of the command computer centers and the main habitat nearby – perhaps some sort of attack. Apparently it killed the remaining garrison. The surviving robots, attempted to continue on, although their database was corrupted. Based on the data we’ve recovered, I’m amazed they managed to continue on this far.

We’re all sitting in the master control center and watching as Jennie performs one of her programming miracles and brings the aging system back to operational standards. She’s had to rewrite many of the command protocols, but as soon as she does, the lights come back on, and there’s actually running water, although it has a great deal of rust in it for a while until it runs enough to purge the system. After the water clears and Miki fabricates a large filter, we test the water supply. To my astonishment, it’s clean and safe to drink even before filtration.

I station 2 Killers at the launch facility entrance and 2 Hydras at the lake entrance. We remain at the facility for a further 3 months. I’m really amazed at how well the Mountain folk and the Trogs work together and bring the facility back from the brink. We do find their version of a reactor. It’s in nominal condition and only needs minor adjustments to bring it back to full power, once we install fuel rods from our supply.

Clairese starts work on repairing and updating the hydroponics, with help from the Mountain People, while the Trogs do a lot of muscle work in rebuilding. By the time we leave the facility, it’s mostly back in operation, and sure enough, everyone’s calling it Nasa City. Thus far, it’s the largest and most intact facility we’ve found. The equipment wasn’t maintained in pristine condition, but it was maintained well enough that it’s simple to bring back to top condition.

Clairese has a field day restoring the facility’s hydroponics. The gardens are still in good enough condition, coupled with the monitoring computer, that there’s a wild and verdant growth throughout the many pods. The one I find most interesting is the exotic pod where they grew Balsa Trees. They were left to their own devices, and we have quite a large crop to harvest should we need it. Of course, Tom and Miki have to take several pounds of the lightweight wood with them. I’m sure that somewhere along the way, I’m going to see small aircraft or something floating around made of balsa. What Tom, Jennie, Miki, and Clairese do with it, however, blows everyone's mind.

Can you believe it? A wooden transistor.

To create the wood transistor, they use a heating and chemical process to remove lignin – an organic binding substance within wood and plants – from pieces of balsa wood. This is a simple technique that was in use for many years back in our time. That process frees up space within and between the natural network of tubes, called lumina, that transport water within wood. They then immerse the wood within a liquid solution containing a conductive polymer, allowing the polymer to soak into the wood and coat the lumina. That creates conductive wood capable of interacting with electrolytes – chemicals that conduct electricity when dissolved in water – as the foundation for constructing a wood transistor.

They’re huge compared to what we consider normal transistors, but they work and don’t require the usage of the scarce but vital minerals needed to make a regular one.

As Terra Killer progresses along, one of the others takes over the helm for a while. I go back to the research computer and start looking over the data we’ve managed to recover. I’m extremely grateful for the admin access code I was given earlier on; it comes in more than handy on many of the computer files.

I discover a really helpful file, too. It concerns the motors that Tom and the rest of R&D are using in our missiles. Due to the early on inability to manufacture, we were using a simple metering valve and a highly pressurized tank of methane. From what the file and schematics show me, the methane can rapidly expand when passing through the valve, creating a severe low pressure and causing it to freeze solid within the valve under certain circumstances.

The solution is a simple high pressure turbine pump to feed the expanding methane to the combustion cans, avoiding the valve. The pump, based on the way it’s manufactured, is immune to freeze-ups and is completely meterable. I immediately transfer these findings to R&D back at Nanogen City.

For those who have yet to figure it out, Tom, Jennie, Miki, Frank, and about two dozen hand-picked scientists make up the city’s R&D department. And, believe me, they’re in high demand most of the time because of their seemingly magical abilities to build things and innovate, as the wooden transistors prove.

As we head back to Nanogen City in Terra Killer, we again pass through the hills east of the Appalachian Mountains – in our time we called this part of them the Great Smoky Mountains. I’m not driving; I’m still using the research computer. But I feel the vehicle slow down to a crawl and hear a murmur of conversation, so I get up and investigate.

“Oh – you spotted something on the way south, Eric,” says Clairese, who was watching the monitors as the vehicle was rolling along. “I just saw something this time. Look at this.” She plays back a video on the monitor. It looks just like what I captured on video months ago. It might be a dark humanoid figure among the trees to the west of us, walking along, but it seems to turn its head toward us, then change course to go deeper into the woods, quickly vanishing from view.

“Well, it’s not inconceivable that there are people living here,” I say.

“Yes, but this person looks … I mean, seven to eight feet tall,” says Clairese, playing the video over and over.

“It’s kind of hard to say,” says Miki, looking at it too. “What if they’re closer to us than we think? They’d just look taller relative to the trees behind them.”

“But they have to be right on the edge of the trees, or they couldn’t have just turned and disappeared into the forest.”

“Think we should investigate?” I ask.

“Well, we might make contact with another group of people,” says Jennie. “We’ve got allies because of doing that.”

“True enough,” Clairese says.

“OK, let’s get some backpacks together for an hour or two of hiking,” I say. “If we don’t find anybody after going for an hour, we head back here. Maybe we can send an expedition later.”

“Drone footage is pretty extensive over this region,” says Jennie, “because we were scanning it a lot for a while, looking for any incursions from the robots. We didn’t pick up anything that looked like a village or settlement. Though they could live underground, like the Trogs or the Mountain People.”

We get ready for the hike and start heading toward the spot where Clairese recorded her video. The usual suspects are all here: Tom, Clairese, Miki, Jennie, and me. The rest of the crew is staying in the Terra Killer to hold down the fort. As it turns out, the spot where I recorded my video months ago is just a few miles farther north of here.

“This is the place where they stood,” says Clairese, walking the path where the figure we saw must have walked. “They looked toward us …” She looked toward the Terra Killer. “... and then turned and headed into the woods over here.”

“Hey, do that again,” says Jennie.

“What, walk it again?”

“Yes, that. I’m going to ask somebody in the Terra Killer to take a video of you doing that and send it to us. Ready?”

“OK,” says Clairese. “I’m walking now.”

“Everybody else stay out of the way,” says Jennie. “Now, just follow where they were, up to the place where they went into the forest … and then turned in. OK, great. They’re sending me the video … and it looks like this.” She holds up her tablet to play the video, which clearly showed Clairese walking, stopping, then turning away. Sure enough … assuming Clairese is right about where the unknown person was walking, they would have to be a foot and a half to two feet taller than she is.

“They’re tall, whoever they are,” I say.

“Let’s see if we can find any other sign of them,” says Miki. “Right about here is where they went into the forest?”

“Yeah, right about there,” Clairese confirms. “They went behind that big tree right there.”

“So they would have gone this way …” Miki says, looking carefully at the ground.

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There in the grass and dirt is a huge foot impression. The grass is almost tall enough to hide it as it rises back into its normal condition. Miki shouts to the rest of us, “Over here! I found its trail. Whatever it is is barefooted and has huge feet.”

We all come over and examine the footprints. They’re still obvious, since the grass is still crushed down and the soil is soft. Closer inspection shows that this isn’t a lone creature slipping out of sight – there’s actually some sort of trail leading off into the deep bush. But they’re humanoid footprints, though very large.

I point in the direction the trail leads. “Whoever it was went that way. From the looks of things, this is rather well traveled.”

Tom starts moving in that direction, followed by Jennie, Miki, and Clairese, all with their weapons charged and ready. The rest of us tag along warily, watching for any movement that might be out of the ordinary.

As we move further into the gloom of the heavy foliage, I become aware that not only is the trail well traveled, but something has taken great pains to hide it. An individual has to basically know where the trail is to see it. I stop and take a good look around. It’s only when I look carefully that I realize the direction the almost invisible trail leads in.

Laurie Mendez, one of our crew’s zoologists, comments after making a simple casting of the footprint, “Seems this individual has huge feet.”

Jennie and Miki start giggling. I look at them and ask, “Just what’s so funny about that thing’s foot size?”

Miki replies, “You know what they say about men with big feet, don’t you?”

“What?” I ask, “they wear big shoes?”

Clairese giggles then. “No, silly. It’s said they have a big … um …” She blushes cutely, unable to continue.

Jennie laughs out loud. “Yes they do say that, don’t they?”

All the girls laugh while I stand there feeling like an idiot. Oh well, we have an apparent village to meet as I continue on the trail deeper into the jungle.

It isn’t long before we begin seeing signs of the inhabitants. It isn’t obvious, and I realize we’ve been walking by some sort of field where they’re growing some kind of plant. The field is arranged in such a way that it blends in well with the rest of the surrounding wilderness.

Without warning, about a dozen huge hairy humanoids with size 15 feet seemingly magically appear. They have some fairly nasty weapons with them. Several have artistically made bows with quivers of finely made and fletched arrows. Their spears are straight and topped with metal heads, as are their arrows. One of them even carries a hand-forged sword. These people know how to work metal, or at least have access to it.

We find ourselves surrounded and vastly outnumbered by the creatures as more magically appear from the bush. Those with guns hold them at the ready, but I know none of us wants to fire.

One of them shouts something in a language none of us knows. Their voice is deep and gruff. They say something else. Another one responds. They have a short conversation that we can’t understand.

While they’re at it, I say, “If they wanted to kill us, they’d have done that already. Well, unless they know what kind of guns those are and don’t like what they do to living tissue. But in any case they haven’t attacked yet.”

It’s Jennie who puts her gun away, takes one step forward, and says, “Do you speak English? Hablan español? Parlez-vous français? Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” She says a few more phrases in other languages I don’t recognize.

The natives look at her, look at each other, and talk amongst themselves. There’s a murmuring among the trees as a conversation seems to spread among them, even those we can’t see. Finally another one emerges, not armed, a small one. This one’s only about six and a half feet tall.

“We want to know what you are doing here,” says this one carefully. Their voice sounds like a woman who smokes ten packs of cigarettes a day, but it’s probably normal for them, or I guess so anyway.”

Jennie answers, “We are scientists – we explore, we discover, we learn. Do you have scientists? We saw one of you and wanted to meet you. To know who you are. Maybe we can learn from you. Or maybe you can learn from us. Maybe we can trade.”

“You have weapons, so we got our weapons out,” says the strange ambassador. “Sometimes we have to fight. The metal people of the south, they are not our friends. There have been other enemies, in the past.”

“Those metal people are not our friends either,” says Jennie. “We have been fighting them. In fact, they should not be giving anyone any trouble anymore.”

“I think we can put our guns down,” I say, and we all do that. The natives visibly relax. The one with the sword puts it back into its sheath.

“You beat the metal people? Then you must be strong. But we are also strong. The metal people come to fight us, but we always win.”

We start exchanging stories and learn each other’s names. Our translator’s name is Tahamerah. She says it means the scent of the wind through the mountain flowers. She’s a young one, only about 50 years old – we’re astonished to learn that the eldest of their people live to be about 500 years old.

They live in harmony with nature, knowing how to grow their crops so they look no different from natural undergrowth, and knowing how to build their homes from living trees so they look like part of the forest from the air, which is why our drones never noticed their villages. They have ways to divert the jackalopes and dire wolves so they never come near their villages. But there are things that don’t respond to their natural wisdom, like the robots, and the various tribes of humans they’ve come into contact with over the centuries, so they also know how to make weapons, and they usually keep to themselves. But they have a network of villages. I get the impression that there are a lot of them.

“You are … from the time before the Great Fire from the Sky?” Tahamerah reacts with astonishment when we tell her that we were, basically, put to sleep underground before a big war happened that destroyed all the cities.

“Yes,” says Jennie. “Eric had just learned how to make people sleep for a long time and wake up as if no time had passed … does that make sense? Go to sleep, then wake up a long time later, but you aren’t any older? So our leaders chose some of us and made us sleep. They saw the war coming and wanted some people to survive. We woke up, and it was thousands of years later.”

“The ancient scrolls tell of that time,” says Tahamerah.

“There are ancient scrolls?” asks Jennie, looking excited. “Can we see them?”

“I will ask the elders. But for now, the scrolls say that the humans made machines to replace nature, machines to run faster than horses, machines to pull stronger than oxen, machines to fly faster than birds and swim faster than fish. They made houses that closed themselves away from nature, where they breathed only air that had first been breathed by machines. We hid from them as we had hidden from the people before them.”

“The … people before them?” asks Jennie.

“We lived here, with nature,” says Tahamerah. “Then the humans came from the north. Thousands of years, they moved here and there, sometimes making villages, towns, or cities. Then they moved away and their cities fell to ruins. Then they build others. Hiding from them was easy. Then more humans came over the sea. They built bigger cities. They were the ones who built machines. They pushed the first humans away. They were harder to hide from, but no one is better at hiding than we are.”

“Wait, if you’re so good at hiding, why did we see you?” asks Jennie.

“We … well, some of us are curious too,” says Tahamerah. “They saw the big metal Sarcos coming from the north and went to look at them. The wind told us of a great battle somewhere south. Then there was another metal Sarco coming back from the south, so they went to look at it too. You came out of that one.”

“Oh. So you have scientists too,” Jennie says with a giggle. “But wait … how far back do your scrolls go?”

“Many thousand years,” Tahamerah says.

“Wait, wait,” says Jennie, looking around at the rest of us. “Did we just solve the mystery of the Sasquatch?”

“We are not a mystery to us,” says Tahamerah with what sounds like a laugh.

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We manage to bring our vehicle in close without making any telltale trails of destroyed trees and brush. The tracks we do leave are shallow and easy to conceal. The large big-footed creatures bring out some really simple but extremely versatile cooking stoves. They build a fire within an area inside the lower part and close the latch. Every now and again, someone has to check the firebox to make sure it doesn’t need more wood.

The interesting thing about this setup: no matter how smoky the items being burned are, the smokestack, due to the ingenious way they’ve constructed it, produces no visible smoke or odors. Needless to say, I ask them for the design specs as soon as I feel it’s acceptable to do so.

I find them to be very gentle and humble. They’re very pleasant company and are most willing to become allies, with some interesting stipulations as to our behavior. After listening to the Grand Historian, and reading several impressive manuscripts, I now know why they insist. Mankind as a whole has been perhaps the worst at interspecies interactions. Look at what we did to ourselves as proof.

I learn from their gracious High Historian that they call their people the Yee Tie and have done so since they first began moving from the high mountains to the lower altitudes looking for better places to hide. From what I understand, mankind has risen and fallen several times since then.

I’m reminded of the many stories of great mages and powerful wizards. It isn’t that they wield any great powers; they have a technology far in advance of what more primitive civilizations know, so they call it magic. Any technology sufficiently advanced will always be thought of as magic by those uninitiated – even those who are part of the civilization using it.

To prove his point, the High Historian retrieves an ebony black box made of some kind of unknown material. It’s about 14 inches long, 3 inches wide, and about 4 inches deep. When he removes the top, my mouth falls open in shock.

I say with disbelief obvious in my tone, “Don’t tell me that thing is a magic wand.”

“I won’t say anything, I’ll show you.”

He removes the wand from its case and gives it a flick. A bright green/blue beam flashes from it and impacts on one of the large wooden tables. There’s a huge explosion as the table shatters into splinters amid a bright flash.

Tom gasps, his face fully showing the surprise, “So, those damn things were real, just not as legends described them.”

The High Historian smiles and says, “Most of the objects associated with a mage that were deemed magical, weren’t really. They were just advanced technology.”

I say, “I get it, they either lost the ability to manufacture replacement parts, the devices were destroyed, or whatever energy sources they used became depleted.”

The Historian puts the wand back in its case and closes the lid. He picks up another box made of the same materials, but larger. It’s obviously designed to hold some type of necklace. The Historian opens the box to reveal a very ornate and beautifully made pendant and an equally ornate ring. The large stone at the end of the gold chain pulses with a blue inner fire, while the stone in the ring pulses with a green fire.

The Historian places the necklace about his neck, then takes the similarly ornate ring from the box and places it on his index finger. “Now, watch this.” He points his finger at a large bowl sitting on a table a few yards away. I don’t notice any flashes or beams, just the bowl jumping off the table and quickly moving to the Historian’s hand. Needless to say, we’re all mind blown.

“And yet you live in what some of us might consider primitive dwellings,” I say.

“Ah,” says the Historian, putting away the amulet and ring, “but why does that seem strange to you? Because it doesn’t seem strange to us at all. To us, it seems odd to build more and more walls between oneself and the natural world. Now let me show you an even greater achievement.”

He takes out two similar cases, each of which contains a jeweled glove, very large, of course. Putting one on each hand, he gestures toward the pile of splinters that had once been a wooden table … and they come back together to once more form a table. “Removing nature from nature itself seems so … nonsensical.” He gestures again, and the table’s legs put down roots, and the entire thing covers itself with bark and grows branches and leaves.

“I really want to know how that works,” says Tom.

“We can try to teach you,” the Historian says, “but I’m afraid there is a lot for you to learn … and unlearn … from where you are now.”

“Tahamerah came out to speak with us first,” asks Clairese. “Why was she the one?”

“She knows your language,” the Historian replies. “It is an interest of hers. And I was too far away.”

“You study languages, I’m guessing?” Clairese asks.

“Indeed. I study everything. I understand you wanted to see the ancient scrolls, more properly called the Record of Time?”

“We very much want to,” I say. “We want to know of your history, and what it can tell us of times that we know little about.”

“There is quite a lot,” he says. “Let me show you the start of it.”

He leads us to a passageway that goes down into the ground and twists and turns, the walls seemingly made of wood with small glowing lamps at intervals. We reach a chamber, the passage widening into a vast room, with columns like tree trunks, roots hanging down from the ceiling like stalactites. It’s like a cave, if a cave were made of living wood. Cylindrical cases sit in alcoves that look like they grew naturally, but in some sort of order. The Historian takes one cylinder and opens it, laying it out on one of the many tables that grow in the center of the room. Within is a scroll made of … not paper, because it would not have survived … or would it?

Unrolling the scroll, the Historian says, “We have here the oldest records of our people. They are in our language, of course, and it’s a very old form of it. But this describes our lives when we first began to keep track in writing.” He began to read. “I am Yuriv, Historian of Yee Tie. Today Pirosh returned. He left the village last year to see what lay at the bottom of the mountains. We thought he had fallen into a crevasse, but he is alive. He tells tales of broad plains with no snow, lush forests of trees with luscious fruits, and wide rivers of crystal clear running water. It is just like the tales the elders tell of ancient times. Some of us are making plans to explore this new lower world. I will go along to chronicle this expedition.”

“So there were times even longer ago that you have no written records of,” says Jennie.

“Of course,” the Historian says with a smile. “Even we do not know everything. How boring that would be!”

----------------------------------------------------------------

It took a while, but with the help of Terra Killer’s computer translation software Jennie wrote, and her diligence at solving the riddle, an excellent translation of the Yee Tie historical documents has been made. The stories it tells from the Yee Tie’s perspective are a whole lot different from the ones I was taught as I grew up.

What really amazes me has been discovering that many of the great wizards, sorcerers, and witches of myth were actually real, although they weren’t really mages. They wielded the remnant knowledge and technology of an advanced civilization that had also met a catastrophic end, just the same as mine has. It’s incredible how many have risen to a pinnacle, only to destroy themselves due to sinister hearts and greed.

Now it’s perfectly clear why the Yee Tie have such strict and strenuous rules of behavior for us if we’re to be allies and make a mutual cooperation treaty. The Historian has already made and given us a very large and thick copy of how to make and wield the weapons of what I’m tempted to call magical talismans, with a strict warning: with great power comes an even greater responsibility.

I look over the schematics for what I’m going to call a magic wand, for want of a better word. The plans call it a “smash rod,” roughly translated. I’m totally astonished at the molecule sized linear accelerators that aid in the amplification of the energy given off by the atom-sized lasers. I know there were discussions of such things being theoretically being possible, but here I’m seeing exactly how it’s done.

I bring up the data for Nanogen City’s manufacturing capabilities. We’re just now starting to make microchips once again. They’re nothing as powerful or dense as the ones prior to the war, but they’re still microchips and perform their functions well. I now have the actual plans to build a newer laser masking system capable of producing far advanced chipsets, the atom sized lasers, and molecule sized linear accelerators. Of course, building that will require several generations of upgrades to the manufacturing infrastructure – though knowing Tom and Miki, they’ll have it done before the end of the year. At that point, we’ll be far advanced beyond even the old human world we grew up in. But … is that the direction we want to go in?

I sit back in my chair and rub my tired eyes. If we do manufacture this advanced equipment, it’ll mean we’ll truly be back on a technological level. Our R&D department keeps coming up with remarkable workarounds for the lack of rare earth elements and specialty metals. One of the largest and most amazing has been the wooden transistor. It may be gargantuan by comparison, but it performs the tasks we put it to very well.

By the time we make it back to Nanogen City, several more of the facility’s young women have given birth, and we have more infants in our nursery. The older children are in school – the oldest are in what we’re calling second grade, out of a sense of continuity. Younger ones are in first grade, kindergarten, and preschool. We have some of the finest academics the 21st century produced to teach our future a better way to do things.

Now, there are 14 other as yet unnamed cities sprouting up, some around the former NASA launch facility and others in what used to be Virginia. Commerce is now becoming routine, and we’re actually getting many materials we’ve been so desperately in need of while in turn they’re getting brand new manufactured items made to their specifications. I know it sounds like trade, but Anthony Nepo and the other economists have us trying out an economic system they worked out that they think can prevent the emergence of both runaway wealth and runaway poverty. There will be people who have more and people who have less, but the worst results of capitalism may be avoidable under this new system, which they’re calling fractional exponentialism or something of the sort.

We’ve got all sorts of problems on the horizon – the radioactive areas and the superstorms are just two of them. But we now have the knowledge to face them, and allies to face them side by side with.

-------------------------------- THE END --------------------------------
Sunshine & rainbows,
LilJennie
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LilJennie
 
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