When the first few rooms of the base were completed, we started moving in. We warmed up more people and started working on the factory.
Most of the work was automated and the people back home had done a good job of designing our robots to build from the basest and most ubiquitous of materials, space rock. This is the same stuff that covers the Moon, Mercury, and most of the other rocky worlds of the solar system. Its composition varies from place to place, but it consists mostly of aluminosilicates mixed with metal oxides, hydrates, carbonates, nitrates, and organic and sulfur complexes.
Our robots could refine metals from this undifferentiated mess when necessary, but most of what they made, they fabricated by simply fusing the rock into its glassy form—which is very much like obsidian—then hot-forming it. The fusing process releases a lot of volatiles—compounds of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, and various trace elements. These by-products, valuable for both life support and plastics manufacture, were collected as needed for the colony.
Fused space rock could be extruded or it could be powdered, then cast and sintered. When special shapes or precision fits were needed, laser- and ion-machining were used. Fused space rock was satisfactory for most of our structural needs. We saved metals and plastics for the high performance stuff, such as probes.
Soon we had new probes in stock and the factory was producing two more a month. This all happened ahead of schedule, thanks to the uranium ruckus.
You may recall that the original plans called for a camouflaged underground base. Well, as soon as the construction engineers were unfrozen, there was a long, closed meeting where they “politely” pointed out that it was impossible to mine for uranium, a trace element in space rock, and not produce gigantic tailings piles, which would blow our cover.
It took a while for the facts to sink in, but the captain finally realized a choice had to be made between uranium and camouflage. Uranium won out, which overjoyed all of us because we could get things done faster, be more flexible, and have more resources at our disposal. Mining for uranium meant that lots of other metal and chemical by-products would be brought up, and there would be rooms galore; no more sharing space between labs and rec rooms, and no warm bunking.
While the factory was being built, we designed the new probes. We designed them to be tamper-proof and then equipped them with tampering alarms. We had seen from our first experience that something on the planet was going to be hard on them, and we wanted to know what.
Finally we were ready to send the new surface exploration probes down to the poles, the deserts, and the oceans.
We were back in Probe Control, now a spacious dedicated room in the moon base, capable of holding a hundred people. I was still last on the right, third row, but Adrienne was now in the center, fourth row.
The polar probe was sent first. We watched Mark pilot it down to the center of the southern ice sheet, which covered a third of the southern continent. This world had an inclination of only ten degrees, so the seasons weren’t as extreme as Earth, but this was the summer hemisphere, and it was dawn of a long day.
As the probe descended and landed, the view screens showed the expected monotonous white. Snow is snow, no matter where you see it.
“Ready to detach coring machine?” Earl was again moderating.
“Ready.” It was one of the new engineers. There were so many new ones now, I hadn’t kept track of all the names.
Planting the coring machine kept the engineers busy for only a few minutes. Earl spoke again.
“Mark, there’s a mountain a hundred miles away to the northeast. Now that we’ve got the core machine planted over some deep ice, let’s go find some rock.”
“Rock it shall be.”
Mark let the probe autopilot take care of this. The probe slowly lifted into a brilliant blue sky, heavily streaked with filmy white cirrus horsetails. Almost as soon as it lifted, we could see the cloud-covered mountain top distant through the crystal clear air.
Below, the probe passed an endless scene of snow-in-sun and snow-in-shade. Even on a totally alien world, a desert is a desert. We found this out with the first probes to Venus and Mars. Be it snow or rock, it will always look the same. Only life, vibrant growing life, hydrocarbon-based life, offers the kind of variety a human can be sensitive to.
“Earl, we’re getting back the first core results.”
It was Ruth over on the far side.
“Let’s have ’em.”
“The ice has bands of radioactive contaminants. This confirms that there have been nuclear wars. First estimates indicate the last one was 2,000 years ago. We’ve found evidence of four separate events as far back as 10,000 years.”
The next day we sent down the ocean probe. Gary Bradshaw piloted this one into deep water, far from land. It dug sample cores and confirmed that the ocean floor was “warm” with radioactivity and that it dated back about a million years. It also found the first identifiable animal life: There were fish in the sea. Ecologically, the organisms we found ranged from plankton through bony vertebrate swimming fishes, a fairly normal spread by Earth standards. So it seemed that only the land areas were missing the expected animal life.
Gary took the probe closer to land, to study the shallow marine life. It went without incident until it moved into a marsh on a river estuary. Then it suffered one of those mysterious breakdowns. It was momentarily disabled, the internal tampering alarms went off, then went silent.
A minute later, the probe’s repair circuits seemed to correct the problem. But the new data looked phony, as it had on the first two. This problem was becoming very disturbing as well as monotonous—especially since this was one of the new allegedly tamper-proof jobs!
We were about to send down the desert probe when Mark got a bright idea. Why not send down an air surveillance companion to keep an eye on it?
The next day we were back again. This time Mark and Gary were both at the controls. Gary had the air probe, Mark the desert lander. A temperate desert, the kind we were sending the probe to, isn’t totally barren. We were expecting trouble.
“Bring it in slowly, Mark. There’s no point in rushing.”
“We’ve been circling this spot for half an hour. How much slower do you want? Gary, are you ready?”
“Let’s do it to it.”
Mark landed the desert probe uneventfully in a sparsely vegetated area. Gary had the air probe circling lazily 100 meters overhead. Here was vegetation again, and we could see, not just sense, that this world was alien. The probe sensors were working full time. Soon they reported they’d analyzed the area fully.
“There’s a gully about a quarter mile away to the north. Let’s go there.”
Mark started the probe rolling over a mix of red dusty earth and red sandstone rock. Interspersed at roughly 20 foot intervals were clumps of dusty, reddish-green, desert-adapted bush. Gary’s air probe was gliding overhead.
From Mark’s screens, the trip looked as uneventful as all the other probe journeys had. But the view from overhead was entirely different!
The desert probe had not traveled fifty feet before it was surrounded with swarming ant-like creatures that seemed to instinctively know which way the probe was looking. They froze and blended in with their surroundings when one of its sensors looked their way, then scooted along towards it when it didn’t.
Oblivious to their very existence, the desert probe drove over a swarm of them. They scampered aboard, and before it had gone another seven meters, they had stopped it. The probe’s tamper alarms went off momentarily, then its transmissions to us stopped. It had been disabled.
Once that happened, we watched silently as two nearby nondescript bushes dissolved into masses of swarming ant-creatures. They quickly flowed over and completely covered the probe. Two minutes later, the probe was still stopped and covered with them.
The aerial probe continued to circle.
As it watched, the mass of creatures covering the probe quickly merged again, changing their shape and texture into what appeared to be yet another twisted desert plant but with an artfully disguised transmission antenna on top. Like the “banyan tree” in the abandoned city, it was now sending bogus transmissions while the real probe was trapped somewhere under the plant.
I said it. There was nothing else to say. Stunned and speechless, we watched.
“That’s incredible. Nothing can do that.”
Phil chuckled, “I think we’ve found an alien life-form.”
But the show was not quite over.
Gary grabbed for the controls. The air probe sent back a brief image of flying insects swarming about it, then it too was disabled and transformed into a bogus unit.
“These creatures are learning. They’re disabling the probes very quickly now. What will they learn to disable next?”
It was Earl speaking quietly—speaking for all of us.