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     Hugo-99
     Source: Asimov's SciFi Magazine
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     A bone-dry frozen wind  tore  at the  earth outside, its lethal howling
cut  to a muffled moan.  Katrinko  and Spider Pete  were camped  deep  in  a
crevice  in  the rock, wrapped  in furry darkness. Pete could  hear Katrinko
breathing, with  a  light rattle  of  chattering teeth. The  neuter's yeasty
armpits smelled like nutmeg.
     Spider Pete strapped his shaven head into his spex.
     Outside their puffy nest, the sticky eyes  of a  dozen gelcams  splayed
across the rock, a sky-eating web of perception. Pete touched a stud on  his
spex,  pulled  down a  glowing  menu, and adjusted his visual  take  on  the
outside world.
     Flying  powder  tumbled through  the yardangs  like  an evil  fog.  The
crescent moon and a billion  desert  stars,  glowing like pixelated bruises,
wheeled above the eerie wind-sculpted  landscape of the Taklamakan. With the
exceptions of  Antarctica,  or maybe the deep  Sahara-locales Pete had never
been paid  to  visit-this  central Asian  desert  was  the  loneliest,  most
desolate place on Earth.
     Pete adjusted parameters, etching the  landscape  with a busy array  of
false colors.  He recorded an  artful series of panorama shots, and tagged a
global positioning fix onto the  captured stack. Then he  signed the footage
with a cryptographic time-stamp from a passing NAFTA spy-sat.
     1/15/2052 05:24:01.
     Pete saved the stack onto a gelbrain. This gelbrain  was a walnut-sized
lump  of neural biotech,  carefully  grown  to mimic the razor-sharp  visual
cortex  of an American  bald eagle. It was the best, most expensive piece of
photographic hardware that Pete had  ever owned. Pete kept  the thing tucked
in his crotch.
     Pete  took  a deep and intimate pleasure  in working  with  the  latest
federally subsidized  spy gear. It was  quite the privilege for Spider Pete,
the kind of privilege that he might well die for. There was no tactical  use
in  yet  another spy-shot of the  chill and empty Taklamakan. But the tagged
picture would  prove that Katrinko and Pete had  been here at the  appointed
rendezvous. Right here, right now. Waiting for the man.
     And the man was overdue.
     During their brief  professional  acquaintance, Spider Pete had met the
Lieutenant Colonel in a number of deeply unlikely locales. A parking  garage
in Pentagon City. An outdoor seafood restaurant  in Cabo San Lucas.  On  the
ferry to Staten Island. Pete had never known his patron to miss a rendezvous
by so much as a microsecond.
     The sky went dirty white. A sizzle, a sparkle, a zenith  full of stink.
A screaming-streaking-tumbling. A nasty thunderclap. The ground shook hard.
     "Dang," Pete said.
     They found the  Lieutenant Colonel  just before eight in  the  morning.
Pieces of his landing pod were violently scattered across half a kilometer.
     Katrinko  and Pete  skulked expertly through  a dirty yellow jumble  of
wind-grooved  boulders.  Their  camou  gear  switched  coloration moment  by
moment, to match the landscape and the incidental light.
     Pete pried the mask from his face, inhaled the thin, pitiless, metallic
air, and spoke aloud. "That's our boy all right. Never missed a date."
     The neuter removed her mask and fastidiously  smeared her lips and gums
with  silicone anti-evaporant. Her voice  fluted  eerily over  the insistent
wind. "Space-defense must have tracked him on radar."
     "Nope. If they'd hit him  from orbit, he'd really be spread all over. .
. . No, something happened  to him really close to the ground." Pete pointed
at  a violent scattering  of cracked ochre rock.  "See, check out  how  that
stealth-pod hit and tumbled. It didn't catch fire till after the impact."
     With  the   absent   ease  of   a  gecko,  the   neuter  swarmed  up  a
three-story-high  boulder. She examined the surrounding forensic evidence at
length, dabbing  carefully  at her spex  controls. She then slithered deftly
back  to earth. "There  was no  anti-aircraft  fire, right?  No interceptors
flyin' round last night."
     "Nope.  Heck, there's  no  people  around  here in a  space bigger than
Delaware."
     The neuter looked up. "So what do you figure, Pete?"
     "I figure an accident," said Pete.
     "A what?"
     "An accident. A lot can go wrong with a covert HALO insertion."
     "Like what, for instance?"
     "Well, G-loads  and stuff.  System malfunctions. Maybe he  just blacked
out."
     "He was a federal military spook, and you're telling me he passed out?"
Katrinko  daintily  adjusted  her  goggled  spex  with  gloved  and  bulbous
fingertips. "Why would that matter anyway? He wouldn't fly a spacecraft with
his own hands, would he?"
     Pete  rubbed  at  the  gummy  line  of  his mask,  easing  the  prickly
indentation across one  dark,  tattooed cheek.  "I  kinda figure  he  would,
actually.  The man  was a pilot. Big military prestige thing. Flyin'  in  by
hand,  deep in Sphere territory, covert insertion, way behind enemy lines. .
. . That'd really be something to brag about, back on the Potomac."
     The neuter  considered this sour  news without  apparent resentment. As
one of the  world's top technical climbers, Katrinko was a great connoisseur
of pointless displays of dangerous physical skill. "I can  get behind that."
She paused. "Serious bad break, though."
     They resealed  their  masks. Water was  their greatest  lack, and vapor
exhalation was a problem. They were recycling body-water inside their suits,
topped off with a few extra cc's they'd obtained from occasional  patches of
frost. They'd  consumed  the last  of the trail-goop and  candy  from  their
glider  shipment  three long  days ago. They hadn't eaten since. Still, Pete
and  Katrinko were getting along pretty  well,  living  off big subcutaneous
lumps of injected body fat.
     More through  habit  than apparent need,  Pete and Katrinko segued into
evidence-removal mode. It wasn't  hard  to conceal a  HALO stealth pod.  The
spycraft was radar-transparent and totally biodegradable. In the bitter wind
and cold of the Taklamakan, the bigger chunks  of  wreckage had already gone
all brown and crispy, like the  shed husks  of locusts. They couldn't scrape
up  every  physical  trace,  but  they'd  surely get  enough to  fool aerial
surveillance.
     The Lieutenant  Colonel  was  extremely dead. He'd  come down from  the
heavens in  his  full  NAFTA military power-armor, a leaping, brick-busting,
lightning-spewing   exoskeleton,  all  acronyms  and  input  jacks.  It  was
powerful, elaborate gear,  of an entirely different order than the gooey and
fibrous street tech of the two urban intrusion freaks.
     But the high-impact crash had not been kind to the armored suit. It had
been crueler still to the bone, blood, and tendon housed inside.
     Pete  bagged the larger  pieces with  a heavy heart. He knew  that  the
Lieutenant  Colonel was basically no  good: deceitful, ruthlessly ambitious,
probably crazy. Still, Pete sincerely regretted his employer's demise. After
all, it was precisely those qualities that had led the Lieutenant Colonel to
recruit Spider Pete in the first place.
     Pete  also  felt  sincere  regret  for the  gung-ho,  clear-eyed  young
military widow, and the two little redheaded kids in Augusta, Georgia.  He'd
never actually met the widow or the little kids, but  the Lieutenant Colonel
was always fussing about them and showing off their  photos. The  Lieutenant
Colonel  had  been  a  full  fifteen  years  younger  than  Spider  Pete,  a
rosy-cheeked cracker kid really,  never happier than when  handing over wads
of  money, nutty  orders,  and expensive covert equipment to people whom  no
sane man would trust with a burnt-out match. And now here he was in the cold
and empty heart of Asia, turned to jam within his shards of junk.
     Katrinko  did  the  last of  the  search-and-retrieval  while  Pete dug
beneath a ledge with his diamond  hand-pick, the razored  edges slashing out
clods of shale.
     After  she'd  fetched  the  last  blackened  chunk  of their  employer,
Katrinko perched birdlike on a nearby rock. She thoughtfully nibbled a piece
of the  pod's navigation console. "This gelbrain  is good when it dries out,
man. Like trail mix, or a fortune cookie."
     Pete grunted. "You might be eating part of him, y'know."
     "Lotta good carbs and protein there, too."
     They  stuffed a  final  shattered power-jackboot  inside  the Colonel's
makeshift  cairn. The  piled rock  was  there for the  ages.  A  few jets of
webbing and thumbnail dabs of epoxy made it harder than a brick wall.
     It was  noon  now, still  well  below  freezing,  but as  warm  as  the
Taklamakan was likely to get  in January.  Pete sighed, dusted sand from his
knees and elbows, stretched. It was hard work, cleaning up; the hardest part
of intrusion work, because it  was the stuff you  had to do after the thrill
was gone. He offered Katrinko the end of  a fiber-optic cable, so that  they
could speak together without using radio or removing their masks.
     Pete waited until she  had linked in, then spoke into his mike.  "So we
head on back to the glider now, right?"
     The neuter looked up, surprised. "How come?"
     "Look, Trink, this guy that we  just buried was the actual spy  in this
assignment.  You and  me, we were just his  gophers  and backup support. The
mission's an abort."
     "But we're searching for a giant, secret, rocket base."
     "Yeah, sure we are."
     "We're  supposed to find this  monster high-tech complex, break in, and
record all kinds of  crazy  top secrets that nobody  but the  mandarins have
ever seen. That's a totally hot assignment, man."
     Pete  sighed. "I admit it's very high-concept,  but I'm an old guy now,
Trink. I need the kind of payoff that involves some actual money."
     Katrinko  laughed. "But Pete! It's a starship! A  whole fleet  of  'em,
maybe!  Secretly  built  in  the  desert,  by Chinese  spooks  and  Japanese
engineers!"
     Pete shook  his  head. "That  was all paranoid bullshit that the flyboy
made up, to  get  himself a grant  and  a field assignment. He was tired  of
sitting behind a desk in the basement, that's all."
     Katrinko folded  her  lithe and  wiry arms. "Look, Pete, you  saw those
briefings  just  like me. You  saw  all those  satellite  shots. The traffic
analysis, too. The Sphere people are up to something way big out here."
     Pete  gazed around  him. He  found it painfully surreal to  endure this
discussion  amid  a  vast  and threatening  tableau  of dust-hazed  sky  and
sand-etched  mudstone gullies.  "They built something big here once, I grant
you that. But I never figured the Colonel's story for being very likely."
     "What's so unlikely  about it? The Russians had a secret rocket base in
the desert a hundred years ago. American deserts are full of secret mil-spec
stuff and space-launch bases. So now the  Asian Sphere people are  up to the
same old game. It all makes sense."
     "No,  it makes  no  sense  at all. Nobody's  space-racing  to build any
starships. Starships aren't a space race. It takes four hundred years to fly
to the  stars. Nobody's gonna finance a major military project that'll  take
four  hundred years to pay  off. Least of all a bunch  of  smart and thrifty
Asian economic-warfare people."
     "Well, they're sure building something. Look, all we have to do is find
the complex, break in, and document some stuff. We can do that! People  like
us, we never needed any federal bossman  to help us break into buildings and
take photos. That's what we always do, that's what we live for."
     Pete  was touched by the kid's  game  spirit. She  really  had the City
Spider way of mind. Nevertheless, Pete was fifty-two years old,  so he found
it necessary to  at  least try to be reasonable. "We should  haul our  sorry
spook  asses back to  that  glider right now. Let's  skip on back  over  the
Himalayas. We can fly on back  to Washington,  tourist  class  out of Delhi.
They'll debrief us at the puzzle-palace. We'll give 'em  the bad news  about
the bossman. We  got plenty of  evidence to  prove that, anyhow. .  . .  The
spooks will give us some walkin' money for a busted job, and tell us to keep
our noses clean. Then we can go out for some pork chops."
     Katrinko's thin shoulders hunched  mulishly within the  bubblepak warts
of her insulated camou. She was not taking this at all well. "Peter, I ain't
looking for pork chops.  I'm looking for some professional validation, okay?
I'm sick  of that lowlife kid stuff, knocking  around raiding  network sites
and mayors' offices. . . . This is my chance at the big-time!"
     Pete stroked the muzzle of his mask with two gloved fingers.
     "Pete, I  know that  you ain't  happy.  I  know that already, okay? But
you've already made it  in  the big-time, Mr.  City Spider,  Mr. Legend, Mr.
Champion. Now here's my  big  chance come  along, and you want us to hang up
our cleats."
     Pete raised his other hand. "Wait a minute, I never said that."
     "Well, you're tellin' me you're walking. You're  turning your back. You
don't even want to check it out first."
     "No,"  Pete said  weightily, "I reckon you know  me too  well for that,
Trink.  I'm still a Spider. I'm  still game. I'll  always  at least check it
out."
     Katrinko set their pace after that. Pete  was content to let her  lead.
It was a very stupid  idea to continue the mission  without the overlordship
of  the  Lieutenant  Colonel. But  it  was  stupid  in a different and  more
refreshing way than the stupid idea of returning home to Chattanooga.
     People in Pete's line  of work weren't allowed to  go  home. He'd tried
that once,  really tried  it, eight  years ago, just after that badly busted
caper   in  Brussels.   He'd  gotten  a   straight  job  at  Lyle  Schweik's
pedal-powered aircraft factory. The millionaire sports tycoon had owed him a
favor. Schweik had been pretty good about it, considering.
     But word had swiftly gotten  around that Pete had once been a  champion
City Spider. Dumb-ass  co-workers would make  significant remarks. Sometimes
they asked him for so-called "favors," or tried to act street-wise. When you
came down to it, straight people were a major pain in the ass.
     Pete preferred the  company  of  seriously twisted people.  People  who
really  cared  about  something,  cared  enough  about  it  to  really  warp
themselves for it. People who looked for  more out of life than mommy-daddy,
money, and the grave.
     Below the edge  of a ridgeline they paused for  a recce. Pete whirled a
tethered  eye on the end of its  reel and flung it.  At the peak of its arc,
six stories up, it recorded their surroundings in a panoramic view.
     Pete and Katrinko studied the image together through their linked spex.
Katrinko highlit an area downhill with a  fingertip  gesture. "Now there's a
tipoff."
     "That gully, you mean?"
     "You  need  to get  outdoors  more,  Pete.  That's  what  we  rockjocks
technically call a road."
     Pete and Katrinko approached the road with professional caution. It was
a  paved  ribbon of macerated  cinderblock,  overrun with drifting sand. The
road  was  made  of   the  coked-out  clinker  left  behind   by  big  urban
incinerators, a substance  that Asians used for their road  surfaces because
all the value had been cooked out of it.
     The cinder  road had once seen a  great  deal  of  traffic.  There were
tire-shreds here and there, deep  ruts in  the shoulder, and post-holes that
had once been traffic signs, or maybe surveillance boxes.
     They  followed  the  road  from  a  respectful  distance,  cautious  of
monitors, tripwires, landmines, and many other possible unpleasantries. They
stopped for a rest in a savage arroyo where a road bridge had been carefully
removed,  leaving only neat sockets in the roadbed  and a kind of conceptual
arc in midair.
     "What creeps me  out is how clean this  all is,"  Pete said over cable.
"It's a  road,  right?  Somebody's  gotta throw out a beer can, a lost shoe,
something."
     Katrinko nodded. "I figure construction robots."
     "Really."
     Katrinko spread her swollen-fingered gloves. "It's  a Sphere operation,
so it's bound to have  lots  of  robots, right? I  figure  robots built this
road.  Robots used  this road. Robots  carried in tons and tons  of whatever
they  were carrying.  Then  when  they were done with the big  project,  the
robots carried off everything  that was  worth  any money.  Gathered up  the
guideposts, bridges, everything.  Very neat, no loose ends, very Sphere-type
way to  work."  Katrinko set her masked chin on her  bent  knees, gone  into
reverie. "Some very weird and intense stuff can happen, when you  got a  lot
of space in the desert, and robot labor that's too cheap to meter."
     Katrinko hadn't been  wasting her time in those intelligence briefings.
Pete  had seen  a lot of City Spider wannabes,  even trained  quite a few of
them.  But Katrinko had  what it  took to be a genuine  Spider champion: the
desire, the  physical talent, the ruthless dedication, and even the  smarts.
It was staying out of jails and morgues that was gonna be the tough part for
Katrinko. "You're a  big fan of the Sphere, aren't you, kid? You really like
the way they operate."
     "Sure, I always liked Asians. Their food's a lot better than Europe's."
     Pete took  this  in stride. NAFTA, Sphere,  and  Europe: the trilateral
superpowers   jostled  about   with  the  uneasy  regularity  of   sunspots,
periodically brewing storms  in the proxy regimes of  the  South. During his
fifty-plus years,  Pete  had  seen  the Asian Cooperation Sphere  change its
public image repeatedly, in a weird  political rhythm. Exotic  vacation spot
on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Baffling alien threat on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Major  trading  partner  each  day and  every day,  including  weekends  and
holidays.
     At the current political moment, the  Asian Cooperation Sphere was deep
into  its Inscrutable Menace mode,  logging lots of  grim media  coverage as
NAFTA's chief economic adversary. As  far  as  Pete  could  figure it,  this
basically meant  that  a big crowd of goofy North  American  economists were
trying to act  really  macho. Their major complaint was that the Sphere  was
selling NAFTA too  many neat, cheap, well-made  consumer  goods. That was an
extremely silly thing to get killed about. But people  perished horribly for
much stranger reasons than that.
     At sunset, Pete and Katrinko discovered the giant  warning signs.  They
were titanic  vertical plinths, all  epoxy  and  clinker, much  harder  than
granite.  They  were four stories  tall, carefully  rooted  in bedrock,  and
painstakingly  chiseled with menacing horned symbols  and elaborate  textual
warnings in at least  fifty different languages. English was language number
three.
     "Radiation waste," Pete concluded, deftly  reading the text through his
spex,  from two kilometers  away. "This  is a radiation waste dump.  Plus, a
nuclear test site. Old Red Chinese hydrogen bombs, way out in the Taklamakan
desert." He paused thoughtfully. "You gotta hand it to 'em. They sure picked
the right spot for the job."
     "No way!"  Katrinko  protested. "Giant  stone  warning  signs,  telling
people not to trespass in this area? That's got to be a con-job."
     "Well, it would sure account for them using robots, and then destroying
all the roads."
     "No, man.  It's like-you  wanna  hide something big nowadays. You don't
put  a  safe  inside  the  wall  any  more,  because  hey,  everybody's  got
magnetometers  and  sonic imaging and heat detection. So you hide  your best
stuff in the garbage."
     Pete scanned their surroundings on spex telephoto. They were lurking on
a hillside above a  playa, where the occasional gullywasher had spewed out a
big alluvial fan of desert-varnished  grit and cobbles. Stuff  was  actually
growing down  there-squat  leathery  grasses  with fat waxy blades like dead
men's fingers. The evil  vegetation didn't look like  any kind of grass that
Pete had ever  seen. It struck him as the kind of  grass that would blithely
gobble up stray  plutonium. "Trink, I like my explanations  simple. I figure
that so-called giant starship base for a giant radwaste dump."
     "Well, maybe,"  the neuter  admitted.  "But  even if that's the  truth,
that's still news worth paying for. We might find some busted-up barrels, or
some  badly  managed  fuel rods  out  there. That  would be a  big political
embarrassment, right? Proof of that would be worth something."
     "Huh,"  said  Pete,  surprised.  But it was  true. Long  experience had
taught Pete that  there were always useful  secrets in other people's trash.
"Is it worth glowin' in the dark for?"
     "So what's the problem?" Katrinko said. "I ain't  having kids.  I fixed
that a long time ago. And you've got enough kids already."
     "Maybe,"  Pete  grumbled.  Four kids by  three different women. It  had
taken him a long  sad time to learn that women who fell  head-over-heels for
footloose,  sexy  tough  guys would  fall  repeatedly  for pretty  much  any
footloose, sexy tough guy.
     Katrinko was warming  to the task at hand. "We can do this, man. We got
our suits and our breathing masks, and we're not eating or drinking anything
out  here, so we're practically  radiation-tight. So we camp way outside the
dump tonight. Then before dawn we slip  in, we check  it out  real quick, we
take  our pictures, we  leave.  Clean,  classic intrusion job. Nobody living
around here to stop us, no problem there. And then, we got something to show
the spooks when we get home. Maybe something we can sell."
     Pete mulled this over. The prospect didn't sound all that  bad. It  was
dirty  work, but it  would complete  the mission. Also-this was  the part he
liked  best-it would  keep the Lieutenant Colonel's people  from  sending in
some other poor guy. "Then, back to the glider?"
     "Then back to the glider."
     "Okay, good deal."
     Before  dawn the  next morning, they stoked  themselves  with  athletic
performance enhancers, brewed in the guts of certain gene-spliced ticks that
they had kept hibernating in their armpits. Then they concealed their travel
gear, and swarmed like ghosts up and over the great wall.
     They pierced  a tiny hole through the roof of one  of  the  duncolored,
half-buried containment hangars, and oozed a spy-eye through.
     Bombproofed  ranks of  barrel-shaped sarcophagi,  solid and  glossy  as
polished granite. The  big fused radwaste containers were each the size of a
tanker  truck.  They sat  there neatly ranked in hermetic darkness, mute  as
sphinxes. They looked to be good for the next twenty thousand years.
     Pete liquefied and retrieved the gelcam,  then re-sealed  the tiny hole
with rock putty. They  skipped  down the slope of the dusty roof. There were
lots  of lizard tracks in the sand drifts, piled  at  the  rim of the  dome.
These healthy traces of lizard cheered Pete up considerably.
     They swarmed silently  up and over the  wall. Back uphill to the grotto
where  they'd  stashed their  gear. Then they removed  their masks  to  talk
again.
     Pete  sat  behind  a boulder,  enjoying  the intrusion  after-glow.  "A
cakewalk," he pronounced it. "A pleasure hike." His pulse was already normal
again,  and,  to  his  joy,  there  were  no  suspicious   aches  under  his
caraco-acromial arch.
     "You gotta give them credit, those robots sure work neat."
     Pete  nodded. "Killer application  for robots, your basic lethal  waste
gig."
     "I  telephoto'ed that whole cantonment," said Katrinko, "and there's no
water there. No towers, no plumbing, no wells. People  can get along without
a lot of stuff in the desert, but nobody lives without water. That  place is
stone dead. It  was  always  dead."  She paused. "It was all automated robot
work from start to finish. You know what that means, Pete? It means no human
being has ever seen that place before. Except for you and me."
     "Hey,  then  it's  a  first! We scored a  first intrusion! That's  just
dandy," said Pete,  pleased at the professional  coup.  He gazed across  the
cobbled plain at the walled cantonment, and pressed a last set of spex shots
into his gelbrain archive. Two dozen enormous domes, built block by block by
giant robots, acting  with the dumb persistence  of  termites. The sprawling
domes looked as if  they'd congealed  on  the spot, their rims settling like
molten  taffy into the desert's  little convexities and concavities. From  a
satellite  view, the domes probably passed for natural features. "Let's  not
tarry, okay? I can kinda feel those X-ray fingers kinking my DNA."
     "Aw, you're not all worried about that, are you, Pete?"
     Pete  laughed and  shrugged. "Who  cares? Job's over, kid. Back to  the
glider."
     "They do great stuff  with gene damage nowadays, y'know. Kinda re-weave
you, down at the spook lab."
     "What, those military doctors? I don't wanna give them the excuse."
     The wind  picked up.  A series of  abrupt  and brutal gusts.  Dry,  and
freezing, and peppered with stinging sand.
     Suddenly,  a  faint moan emanated from  the  cantonment. Distant  lungs
blowing the neck of a wine bottle.
     "What's that big weird noise?" demanded Katrinko, all alert interest.
     "Aw no," said Pete. "Dang."
     Steam was venting from a  hole in  the  bottom of the  thirteenth dome.
They'd missed the hole  earlier, because the rim  of that dome was overgrown
with big thriving  thornbushes.  The bushes  would  have been  a  tip-off in
themselves, if the two of them had been feeling properly suspicious.
     In the immediate area,  Pete and Katrinko swiftly discovered three dead
men. The three men had hacked and chiseled their way through the containment
dome-from the inside.  They  had wriggled  through the  long, narrow crevice
they had cut, leaving much blood and skin.
     The first  man had died  just  outside the  dome, apparently from sheer
exhaustion. After their  Olympian effort, the two survivors had  emerged  to
confront the sheer four-story walls.
     The  remaining  men had  tried  to  climb  the mighty  wall with  their
handaxes, crude woven ropes, and pig-iron  pitons. It was a nothing wall for
a pair of City Spiders with modern handwebs and pinpression cleats. Pete and
Katrinko could have camped and eaten a watermelon on that wall. But it was a
very serious wall for a pair of very weary men dressed in wool, leather, and
homemade shoes.
     One of them had fallen from the wall, and had broken  his back and leg.
The last one had decided to stay to comfort his dying comrade, and it seemed
he had frozen to death.
     The three men had  been dead  for  many months, maybe over a year. Ants
had been at work on them, and the fine salty dust of the Taklamakan, and the
freeze-drying. Three desiccated  Asian mummies, black hair and crooked teeth
and wrinkled dusky skin, in their funny bloodstained clothes.
     Katrinko  offered  the  cable lead,  chattering through her mask. "Man,
look at these shoes! Look  at this shirt  this guy's got-would you call this
thing a shirt?"
     "What  I would call this is three  very brave  climbers," Pete said. He
tossed a tethered eye into the crevice that the men had cut.
     The  inside of the  thirteenth  dome  was a  giant  forest of monitors.
Microwave  antennas,  mostly. The  top of  the dome  wasn't  sturdy sintered
concrete  like the others,  it was some kind of  radar-transparent  plastic.
Dark inside, like the other domes,  and hermetically sealed-at  least before
the dead men had chewed and chopped their hole through the wall. No sign  of
any radwaste around here.
     They discovered the little camp where the men had lived. Their bivouac.
Three men, patiently  chipping and  chopping their  way to  freedom. Burning
their last  wicks and  oil  lamps,  eating their last rations bite by  bite,
emptying their leather canteens and scraping for  frost to drink. Surrounded
all the time by a towering jungle  of satellite relays  and wavepipes.  Pete
found that scene very ugly. That was a very bad scene. That was the worst of
it yet.
     Pete and Katrinko retrieved their full set of intrusion gear. They then
broke in through the top of the dome, where  the cutting  was easiest.  Once
through, they sealed the hole behind  themselves, but only  lightly, in case
they should need a rapid retreat. They  lowered their haul bags to the stone
floor, then rappelled  down on their smart ropes. Once on ground level, they
closed the escape tunnel with web and rubble,  to stop the howling wind, and
to keep contaminants at bay.
     With the hole sealed, it grew warmer in the  dome. Warm, and moist. Dew
was collecting  on walls and floor.  A very strange smell, too. A smell like
smoke and old socks. Mice and spice. Soup and sewage. A cozy human reek from
the depths of the earth.
     "The  Lieutenant  Colonel  sure  woulda  have  loved  this,"  whispered
Katrinko over cable, spexing out the  towering machinery with her infrareds.
"You put a clip of  explosive ammo  through here,  and it  sure would put  a
major crimp in somebody's automated gizmos."
     Pete  figured their present situation  for  an excellent chance to  get
killed.   Automated  alarm   systems  were  the  deadliest  aspect  of   his
professional  existence,  somewhat  tempered  by the  fact  that  smart  and
aggressive alarm systems frequently  killed their owners. There  was a basic
engineering  principle  involved.  Fancy,   paranoid   alarm   systems  went
false-positive all  the  time:  squirrels, dogs,  wind, hail, earth tremors,
horny boyfriends  who forgot the  password. . . . They were smart, and  they
had their own agenda, and it made them troublesome.
     But  if these machines were alarms, then they hadn't noticed  a  rather
large hole  painstakingly  chopped in the side of  their dome. The spars and
transmitters looked bad,  all  patchy with long-accumulated rime  and ice. A
junkyard look, the definite smell of dead  tech. So somebody had given up on
these smart, expensive,  paranoid  alarms. Someone had gotten sick and tired
of them, and shut them off.
     At  the  foot  of  a  microwave tower,  they found a rat-sized  manhole
chipped  out,  covered with a laced-down lid of sheep's hide. Pete dropped a
spy-eye down,  scoping  out a  machine-drilled  shaft. The tunnel  was  wide
enough to swallow a car, and it  dropped down as straight as a plumb bob for
farther than his eye's wiring could reach.
     Pete silently  yanked a  rusting pig-iron  piton  from the edge  of the
hole,  and  replaced  it with  a  modern  glue  anchor.  Then he  whipped  a
smart-rope through and carefully tightened his harness.
     Katrinko began shaking with  eagerness. "Pete, I  am way  hot for this.
Lemme lead point."
     Pete  clipped  a crab  into  Katrinko's harness, and  linked their spex
through the fiber-optic embedded in the rope. Then he  slapped the  neuter's
shoulder. "Get bold, kid."
     Katrinko  flared  out  the  webbing on her  gripgloves, and  dropped in
feetfirst.
     The would-be escapees had made a  lot of use of cabling already present
in the tunnel. There were ceramic staples embedded periodically, to hold the
cabling snug against the stone. The climbers had scrabbled their way up from
staple to staple, using ladder-runged bamboo poles and iron hooks.
     Katrinko stopped  her descent and  tied off. Pete  sent  their haulbags
down. Then he dropped and slithered after her. He stopped at the lead chock,
tied  off, and let Katrinko take lead again, following her progress with the
spex.
     An eerie glow shone at the bottom of the  tunnel. Pay day. Pete felt  a
familiar transcendental tension overcome him. It surged through him with mad
intensity. Fear, curiosity, and  desire:  the raw, hot, thieving thrill of a
major-league intrusion. A feeling like being insane, but so much better than
craziness,  because  now  he  felt  so  awake.  Pete  was  awash  in  primal
spiderness, cravings too deep and slippery to speak about.
     The light grew  hotter in  Pete's infrareds. Below  them was  a slotted
expanse of metal,  gleaming like  a kitchen sink, louvers  with hot slots of
light. Katrinko  planted a  foamchock  in the tunnel wall,  tied off, leaned
back, and dropped a spy eye through the slot.
     Pete's hands  were too  busy to  reach his  spex. "What do you see?" he
hissed over cable.
     Katrinko  craned  her head  back,  gloved  palms pressing  the  goggles
against her face. "I can see everything, man! Gardens of Eden, and cities of
gold!"
     The cave had been ancient solid rock once, a continental bulk. The rock
had been  pierced by a Russian-made drilling rig. A  dry well, in a very dry
country. And then some very  weary, and very sunburned, and  very determined
Chinese  Communist  weapons  engineers had  installed a  one-hundred megaton
hydrogen bomb at the bottom of  their dry hole. When their beast in its nest
of layered  casings achieved fusion, seismographs jumped like startled fawns
in distant California.
     The thermonuclear explosion had left  a giant gasbubble at the heart of
a crazy webwork of  faults and cracks. The deep and empty bubble  had lurked
beneath the desert in utter and terrible silence, for ninety years.
     Then  Asia's  new  masters had  sent  in  new  and  more  sophisticated
agencies.
     Pete saw that the distant sloping walls of the cavern  were daubed with
starlight. White  constellations, whole and entire. And  amid the space-that
giant and sweetly  damp airspace-were  three  great glowing lozenges,  three
vertical cylinders the size of urban high rises. They seemed to be suspended
in midair.
     "Starships," Pete muttered.
     "Starships," Katrinko agreed. Menus appeared in the shared visual space
of their linked spex. Katrinko's fingertip sketched out a set of tiny moving
sparks against the walls. "But check that out."
     "What are those?"
     "Heat  signatures.   Little  engines."  The  envisioned  world  wheeled
silently. "And check  out over here too-and crawlin' around deep  in  there,
dozens of the things. And Pete, see these? Those big ones? Kinda on patrol?"
     "Robots."
     "Yep."
     "What the hell are they up to, down here?"
     "Well,  I figure it this way,  man.  If you're inside one of those fake
starships, and you look out  through those windows-those portholes,  I guess
we  call 'em-you can't see  anything but shiny stars. Deep  space.  But with
spex, we can see right through all that business. And Pete, that whole stone
sky down there is crawling with machinery."
     "Man oh man."
     "And nobody inside those starships can see  down, man. There is a whole
lot of  very major weirdness  going  on  down  at  the  bottom of that cave.
There's a lot of hot steamy water down there, deep in those rocks  and those
cracks."
     "Water, or a big smelly soup maybe," Pete said. "A chemical soup."
     "Biochemical soup."
     "Autonomous self-assembly  proteinaceous biotech. Strictly forbidden by
the  Nonproliferation  Protocols of the Manila Accords of  2037," said Pete.
Pete rattled off  this phrase  with practiced ease, having  rehearsed it any
number of times during various background briefings.
     "A whole big  lake of way-hot,  way-illegal,  self-assembling goo  down
there."
     "Yep. The very stuff that our  covert-tech boys have been  messing with
under the Rockies for the past ten years."
     "Aw, Pete, everybody cheats a little bit on the accords. The way  we do
it in NAFTA, it's no worse than bathtub gin. But this is huge! And Lord only
knows what's inside those starships."
     "Gotta be people, kid."
     "Yep."
     Pete drew a slow moist breath. "This is a big one, Trink. This is truly
major-league. You  and  me,  we  got ourselves  an intelligence coup here of
historic proportions."
     "If  you're trying to say that  we  should go back  to the glider now,"
Katrinko said, "don't even start with me."
     "We  need  to  go  back  to  the  glider,"  Pete  insisted,  "with  the
photographic proof that we  got  right now. That  was our mission objective.
It's what they pay us for."
     "Whoop-tee-do."
     "Besides, it's the patriotic thing. Right?"
     "Maybe I'd play the patriot game, if  I was in uniform," said Katrinko.
"But the  Army don't allow neuters. I'm a  total freak and I'm a free agent,
and I didn't come here to see Shangri-La and then turn around first thing."
     "Yeah," Pete admitted. "I really know that feeling."
     "I'm going down in there right now," Katrinko said. "You belay for me?"
     "No way, kid. This time, I'm leading point."
     Pete eased  himself  through a crudely broken louver and  out  onto the
vast  rocky ceiling. Pete  had never  much liked climbing rock. Nasty stuff,
rock-all natural, no guaranteed engineering specifications. Still, Pete  had
spent a great deal of his life on ceilings. Ceilings he understood.
     He worked his way out  on a series of congealed lava knobs, till he hit
a  nice  solid crack. He did a rapid set of fist-jams,  then  set a  pair of
foam-clamps, and tied himself off on anchor.
     Pete panned slowly in place, upside down on the ceiling, muffled in his
camou gear,  scanning  methodically for  the  sake of  Katrinko  back on the
fiber-optic  spex  link.  Large  sections  of  the  ceiling  looked  weirdly
worm-eaten,  as if drills  or acids  had  etched  the rock away.  Pete could
discern in  the  eerie glow  of infrared that  the three fake starships were
actually  supported  on  columns. Huge  hollow  tubes, lacelike  and  almost
entirely  invisible, made  of something black  and impossibly  strong, maybe
carbon-fiber.  There were  water pipes inside the  columns,  and  electrical
power.
     Those columns were the quickest and easiest ways to climb down or up to
the  starships.  Those columns  were also  very  exposed.  They looked  like
excellent places to get killed.
     Pete knew that he was safely  invisible  to  any  naked human eye,  but
there wasn't much he could do about his heat signature. For  all he knew, at
this  moment he was  glowing like  a Christmas  tree on  the  sensors  of  a
thousand  heavily armed robots.  But you couldn't  leave a thousand machines
armed  to a  hair-trigger for  years  on end. And who would program them  to
spend their time watching ceilings?
     The  muscular burn had faded from his back and shoulders. Pete shook  a
little extra blood through his wrists, unhooked, and took  off on cleats and
gripwebs. He veered around one of  the fake stars, a great  glowing glassine
bulb  the  size  of  a laundry basket. The fake star was cemented into a big
rocky  wart, and it radiated a cold,  enchanting, and gooey  firefly  light.
Pete  was so intrigued by this bold deception that his cleat missed a smear.
His  left foot  swung  loose.  His  left  shoulder  emitted a nasty-feeling,
expensive-sounding pop.  Pete grunted, planted both cleats, and slapped up a
glue patch, with tendons smarting and the old forearm clock ticking fast. He
whipped  a  crab through  the  patchloop  and  sagged  within  his  harness,
breathing hard.
     On the surface of his spex, Katrinko's glowing fingertip whipped across
the  field of Pete's vision, and pointed. Something  moving out there.  Pete
had company.
     Pete eased  a  string of  flashbangs  from his sleeve. Then he hunkered
down in place, trusting to his camouflage, and watching.
     A  robot was moving toward him among  the dark pits of the fake  stars.
Wobbling and jittering.
     Pete  had never seen any device  remotely akin to  this robot. It had a
porous, foamy hide, like cork and plastic. It had a blind compartmented knob
for a head, and fourteen long fibrous legs like  a frayed mess of used rope,
terminating in absurdly complicated  feet,  like  a boxful  of grip  pliers.
Hanging upside down  from bits of rocky  irregularity too small to  see,  it
would open its big  warty head and flick out  a forked sensor like a snake's
tongue. Sometimes it would dip itself close to the  ceiling, for a lingering
chemical smooch on the surface of the rock.
     Pete  watched with murderous patience as the  device backed  away, drew
nearer,  spun around  a bit,  meandered  a little closer, sucked  some  more
ceiling rock, made  up its  mind  about something,  replanted its big grippy
feet, hoofed  along closer yet, lost  its train of thought, retreated a bit,
sniffed the air at length, sucked meditatively on the end of one of its ropy
tentacles.
     It finally reached  him,  walked deftly over his legs, and dipped up to
lick enthusiastically at the chemical traces left by  his gripweb. The robot
seemed enchanted by the taste of the glove's elastomer against the rock.  It
hung there on its fourteen plier feet, loudly licking and rasping.
     Pete lashed out with  his pick. The razored  point  slid with  a sullen
crunch right through the thing's corky head.
     It went  limp instantly,  pinned there against the ceiling. Then with a
nasty  rustling  it  deployed  a  whole  unsuspected set  of  waxy and filmy
appurtenances. Complex bug-tongue things, mandible scrapers, delicate little
spatulas, all reeling and trembling out of its slotted underside.
     It was  not going to  die. It couldn't die,  because it had never  been
alive. It was a piece of biotechnical machinery. Dying was simply not on its
agenda anywhere. Pete photographed the device carefully as it struggled with
obscene  mechanical  stupidity  to  come  to  workable terms  with  its  new
environmental parameters. Then Pete levered the pick loose from the ceiling,
shook it loose, and dropped the pierced robot straight down to hell.
     Pete  climbed more quickly  now,  favoring  the  strained shoulder.  He
worked his way methodically  out to the relative ease of the  vertical wall,
where he discovered a large mined-out vein in the constellation Sagittarius.
The vein was a big  snaky recess where some kind of ore had been nibbled and
strained from the rock. By the look of  it, the rock had been chewed away by
a termite host of tiny robots with mouths like toenail clippers.
     He  signaled  on the  spex for Katrinko. The neuter  followed along the
clipped  and anchored line, climbing  like a  fiend while lugging one of the
haulbags. As Katrinko settled in  to their new base camp,  Pete returned  to
the louvers to  fetch  the second bag. When he'd finally heaved and grappled
his  way back, his shoulder was aching  bitterly  and his nerves  were shot.
They were done for the day.
     Katrinko had put up  the emission-free  encystment web at  the mouth of
their crevice. With  Pete returned  to relative safety, she reeled  in their
smart-ropes and fed them a handful of sugar.
     Pete  cracked  open  two capsules  of  instant  fluff, then  sank  back
gratefully into the wool.
     Katrinko took off her mask.  She  was vibrating  with alert enthusiasm.
Youth,  thought Pete-youth, and the  8 percent metabolic advantage that came
from lacking sex organs. "We're in so much trouble now," Katrinko whispered,
with a feverish grin in the faint red glow of a single indicator light.  She
no longer  resembled a  boy  or a young  woman.  Katrinko looked  completely
diabolical. This was a nonsexed creature. Pete  liked to think of  her  as a
"she,"  because this  was somehow easier on  his mind, but Katrinko  was  an
"it." Now it was filled with glee, because finally it had placed itself in a
proper and pleasing  situation.  Stark  and feral confrontation with its own
stark and feral little being.
     "Yeah, this is trouble," Pete said. He placed a fat medicated tick onto
the vein inside of his elbow. "And you're taking first watch."
     Pete  woke four  hours  later,  with a  heart-fluttering rise  from the
stunned depths of chemically assisted delta-sleep. He felt numb, and lightly
dusted with a  brain-clouding amnesia,  as if  he'd slept  for four straight
days. He had been profoundly helpless in the grip of the drug, but the  risk
had been worth it, because  now he was thoroughly rested.  Pete sat  up, and
tried the left shoulder experimentally. It was much improved.
     Pete  rubbed  feeling  back  into  his  stubbled  face  and scalp, then
strapped his spex on. He discovered  Katrinko squatting on her  haunches, in
the radiant  glow  of  her own  body heat,  pondering over  an  ugly mess of
spines, flakes, and goo.
     Pete touched spex knobs and leaned forward. "What you got there?"
     "Dead  robots. They ate our foamchocks, right  out of the ceiling. They
eat anything. I  killed the ones  that  tried to break into  camp." Katrinko
stroked at a midair menu, then handed Pete a fiber lead for his spex. "Check
this footage I took."
     Katrinko  had been keeping  watch with the gelcams, picking out passing
robots in the glow of their engine heat. She'd  documented them on infrared,
saving and editing the clearest live-action footage. "These little ones with
the ball-shaped  feet, I  call  them keets," she  narrated, as  the captured
frames  cascaded  across Pete's spex-clad gaze. "They're small, but  they're
really fast, and all  over  the place-I had to kill three of them. This  one
with the  sharp spiral nose  is a drillet.  Those are a  pair of dubits. The
dubits  always travel  in pairs.  This big  thing  here,  that looks  like a
spilled  dessert  with big  eyes and  a ball on a chain, I call  that  one a
lurchen. Because of the  way  it moves, see? It's  sure a lot faster than it
looks."
     Katrinko stopped the spex replay, switched back to live perception, and
poked  carefully at  the broken litter before her booted feet.  The  biggest
device in the heap  resembled a dissected cat's head stuffed with cables and
bristles. "I also killed this piteen. Piteens don't die easy, man."
     "There's lots of these things?"
     "I figure hundreds, maybe thousands. All different kinds. And every one
of  'em as stupid as dirt.  Or  else we'd be dead and disassembled a hundred
times already."
     Pete stared at the dissected robots, a  cooling  mass of nerve-netting,
batteries, veiny armor plates, and gelatin. "Why do they look so crazy?"
     "'Cause  they  grew  all by  themselves.  Nobody  ever designed  them."
Katrinko glanced up.  "You  remember  those big virtual spaces  for  weapons
design, that they run out in Alamagordo?"
     "Yeah,  sure,  Alamagordo.  Physics  simulations  on  those  super-size
quantum gelbrains.  Huge virtualities,  with ultra-fast,  ultra-fine detail.
You bet I remember  New Mexico! I love to raid a great computer lab. There's
something so traditional about the hack."
     "Yeah.  See, for  us NAFTA types, physics virtualities are  a  military
app.  We  always give  our tech  to the  military whenever it  looks  really
dangerous. But let's say you don't share  our NAFTA values. You don't  wanna
test new weapons systems  inside giant virtualities. Let's  say you want  to
make a can-opener, instead."
     During her sleepless hours huddling on watch, Katrinko had clearly been
giving this matter  a  lot of thought. "Well, you could study other people's
can-openers and  try to improve the design. Or else  you could just set up a
giant high-powered virtuality with a bunch  of virtual cans  inside it. Then
you  make  some can-opener  simulations, that  are basically  blobs  of goo.
They're simulated goo,  but they're also  programs, and those programs trade
data and evolve. Whenever they pierce a can, you reward them by  making more
copies of them. You're running,  like, a  million generations  of a  million
different possible can-openers, all day every day, in a simulated space."
     The  concept  was not entirely  alien to Spider Pete. "Yeah, I've heard
the  rumors. It  was one  of those stunts  like Artificial  Intelligence. It
might look really  good  on paper, but you can't ever get it to work in real
life."
     "Yeah, and  now it's illegal  too.  Kinda  hard to  police, though. But
let's imagine you're into economic  warfare and  you  figure  out  how to do
this. Finally,  you evolve this super weird, super can-opener that no  human
being could  ever have invented.  Something that no human being  could  even
imagine. Because it grew like a mushroom in an entire alternate physics. But
you  have all  the specs  for its shape  and proportions, right there in the
supercomputer. So to make one inside the real world, you just print  it  out
like a  photograph.  And  it works! It  runs! See?  Instant  cheap  consumer
goods."
     Pete thought it over. "So you're saying the Sphere people got that idea
to work, and these robots here were built that way?"
     "Pete,  I  just can't figure any other  way  this  could have happened.
These  machines  are  just too alien.  They had  to come from  some  totally
nonhuman, autonomous process. Even the best Japanese engineers  can't design
a jelly robot made  out of  fuzz and rope that  can move like a caterpillar.
There's  not enough money  in the  world  to  pay human brains to think that
out."
     Pete  prodded at the gooey  ruins with his  pick.  "Well,  you got that
right."
     "Whoever built this place, they broke a  lot of rules and treaties. But
they did it all really cheap. They did it in a way that is so cheap  that it
is  beyond  economics."   Katrinko  thought  this  over.  "It's  way  beyond
economics,  and  that's exactly why it's against  all those  rules  and  the
treaties in the first place."
     "Fast, cheap, and out of control."
     "Exactly, man. If this stuff ever got loose in the real world, it would
mean the end of everything we know."
     Pete liked  this  last statement not  at  all.  He had  always disliked
apocalyptic hype.  He liked  it  even less now because  under these  extreme
circumstances it sounded very plausible. The Sphere had the youngest and the
biggest  population of the three major  trading blocs, and the youngest  and
the biggest ideas. People in Asia knew how to get things done. "Y'know, Lyle
Schweik once told me  that the weirdest  bicycles in the  world come  out of
China these days."
     "Well,  he's right. They  do. And what  about those  Chinese  circuitry
chips they've been dumping in the NAFTA markets lately? Those chips are dirt
cheap and work fine, but they're full of all this crazy leftover wiring that
doubles back  and gets all snarled up. . . . I always thought  that was just
shoddy workmanship. Man, 'workmanship' had nothing to do with those chips."
     Pete  nodded  soberly. "Okay.  Chips  and  bicycles,  that  much I  can
understand. There's a lot of  money in that. But who the heck would take the
trouble to create a giant hole in the ground that's full of robots  and fake
stars? I mean, why?"
     Katrinko  shrugged. "I  guess it's just the Sphere, man.  They still do
stuff just because it's wonderful."
     The bottom of the world  was boiling over. During  the passing century,
the  nuclear test cavity  had  accumulated its own  little desert aquifer, a
pitch-black subterranean  oasis. The bottom of the  bubble  was an unearthly
drowned maze of  shattered cracks  and  chemical  deposition, all turned  to
simmering tidepools of mechanical self-assemblage. Oxygen-fizzing geysers of
black fungus tea.
     Steam rose steadily in the  darkness amid the crags, rising to condense
and run  in chilly rivulets down the spherical star-spangled walls. Down  at
the  bottom,  all  the water was  eagerly collected  by aberrant  devices of
animated sponge and string. Katrinko instantly tagged these  as  "smits" and
"fuzzens."
     The  smits  and fuzzens  were  nightmare  dishrags  and  piston-powered
spaghetti, leaping  and slopping wetly from crag to crag. Katrinko  took  an
unexpected  ease and  pleasure  in  naming and photographing  the  machines.
Speculation boiled  with sinister ease from the sexless  youngster's vulpine
head, a swift off-the-cuff adjustment to this alien toy world. It would seem
that the kid lived rather closer to the future than Pete did.
     They cranked their way from boulder to boulder, crack to liquid  crack.
They documented fresh  robot  larvae,  chewing their way to the  freedom  of
darkness through plugs of goo and muslin. It was a whole miniature creation,
designed in the senseless  gooey cores of a Chinese supercomputing gelbrain,
and transmuted  into reality  in a  hot  broth of undead mechanized protein.
This was by  far the most  amazing  phenomenon that Pete had ever witnessed.
Pete was accordingly  plunged into gloom. Knowledge was power in his  world.
He knew with leaden certainty that he was taking on far too much voltage for
his own good.
     Pete was  a professional. He could imagine stealing classified military
secrets from a superpower, and surviving  that experience. It would be  very
risky, but  in the final analysis  it was just the military. A rocket  base,
for instance-a secret Asian rocket base might have been a lot of fun.
     But this was not military. This  was an entire new  means of industrial
production. Pete knew with  instinctive street-level certainty  that tech of
this level of revolutionary  weirdness was not a spy  thing, a sports thing,
or  a soldier  thing. This was  a  big,  big money  thing.  He might survive
discovering it. He'd never get away with revealing it.
     The thrilling wonder of it all really  bugged him. Thrilling wonder was
at best a passing thing. The sober implications  for the longer term weighed
on  Pete's soul like a damp towel.  He  could imagine escaping this place in
one piece, but he couldn't imagine any plausible aftermath  for handing over
nifty photographs of thrilling wonder to military spooks on the  Potomac. He
couldn't imagine what the  powers-that-were would do with that knowledge. He
rather dreaded what they would do to him for giving it to them.
     Pete wiped a sauna cascade of sweat from his neck.
     "So  I figure it's either geothermal power,  or a fusion generator down
there," said Katrinko.
     "I'd  be betting  thermonuclear, given  the  circumstances."  The rocks
below  their busy cleats were a-skitter with bugs: gippers  and  ghents  and
kebbits,   dismantlers   and   glue-spreaders   and   brain-eating   carrion
disassemblers.  They were  profoundly dumb  little  devices, specialized  as
centipedes. They  didn't  seem  very  aggressive,  but it surely would  be a
lethal mistake to sit down among them.
     A barnacle  thing  with an  iris  mouth and long whipping  eyes  took a
careful taste of Katrinko's boot. She retreated to a crag with a yelp.
     "Wear your  mask,"  Pete  chided.  The damp  heat was bliss  after  the
skin-eating chill of the Taklamakan, but most of the  vents and  cracks were
spewing thick  smells of  hot beef stew and burnt rubber,  all  varieties of
eldritch  mechano-metabolic  byproduct.  His lungs  felt sore  at  the  very
thought of it.
     Pete cast  his foggy spex up  the nearest of the  carbon-fiber columns,
and  the golden,  glowing,  impossibly  tempting lights  of  those  starship
portholes up above.
     Katrinko  led point. She was  pitilessly exposed against  the  lacelike
girders.  They didn't want to risk exposure during  two trips,  so they each
carried a haul bag.
     The climb went well at  first. Then a machine rose up from wet darkness
like a six-winged  dragonfly.  Its stinging tail lashed  through the thready
column  like  the  kick  of  a mule.  It  connected  brutally. Katrinko shot
backwards from the impact, tumbled  ten  meters, and  dangled like a ragdoll
from her last backup chock.
     The flying  creature circled in a figure eight, attempting to  make  up
its nonexistent mind. Then  a slower but much  larger  creature  writhed and
fluttered out of the starry sky, and  attacked Katrinko's  dangling haulbag.
The bag  burst like a Christmas piata in a churning array of taloned wings.
A  fabulous  cascade of expensive spy  gear  splashed down to  the hot pools
below.
     Katrinko twitched feebly at the end of her rope. The dragonfly, cruelly
alerted, went for her movement. Pete launched a string of flashbangs.
     The  world  erupted  in  flash,  heat, concussion,  and  flying  chaff.
Impossibly hot and  loud,  a  thunderstorm  in a  closet.  The best kind  of
disappearance magic: total overwhelming  distraction, the only real magic in
the world.
     Pete soared  up to Katrinko like  a  balloon on a  bungee-cord. When he
reached  the bottom of  the starship,  twenty-seven  heart-pounding  seconds
later, he had burned out both the smart-ropes.
     The silvery rain of chaff was driving  the bugs to mania. The bottom of
the  cavern  was suddenly  a-crawl  with leaping  mechanical heat-ghosts, an
instant  menagerie  of  skippers  and humpers and  floppers. At  the  rim of
perception, there were new things rising from the depths of the pools,  vast
and scaly, like golden carp to a rain of fish chow.
     Pete's own  haulbag had been abandoned at the base of  the column. That
bag was clearly not long for this world.
     Katrinko  came to  with a sudden winded gasp.  They began free-climbing
the outside  of the starship.  It  surface  was  stony,  rough  and  uneven,
something like pumice, or wasp spit.
     They  found the underside of a  monster porthole and pressed themselves
flat against the surface.
     There they waited, inert and unmoving, for an hour. Katrinko caught her
breath. Her ribs stopped  bleeding. The two of them waited for another hour,
while  crawling  and flying  heat-ghosts nosed furiously around their little
world, following the tatters of their programming. They waited a third hour.
     Finally  they  were  joined  in  their  haven  by an  oblivious gang of
machines with suckery skirts and wheelbarrows for heads. The robots chose  a
declivity and  began filling  it with  big mandible trowels of stony mortar,
slopping it on and  jaw-chiseling it into place, smoothing  everything over,
tireless and pitiless.
     Pete  seized  this  opportunity  to  attempt  to  salvage  their   lost
equipment. There had been such fabulous federal bounty in there: smart audio
bugs, heavy-duty  gelcams,  sensors  and  detectors, pulleys,  crampons  and
latches, priceless vials of programmed neural goo. .  . . Pete crept back to
the bottom of the spacecraft.
     Everything  was long gone. Even the depleted smartropes had been eaten,
by  a  long  trail  of  foraging  keets.  The  little  machines  were  still
squirreling about in the black lace of the column, sniffing and  scraping at
the last molecular traces, with every appearance of satisfaction.
     Pete  rejoined  Katrinko,  and  woke  her where  she  clung  rigid  and
stupefied to her hiding spot. They inched their way around the curved rim of
the starship hull, hunting for a possible  weakness. They were in very  deep
trouble  now,  for  their  best equipment was gone. It didn't matter.  Their
course was  very obvious now, and the loss  of  alternatives  had  clarified
Pete's mind. He was consumed with a burning desire to break in.
     Pete slithered  into the faint shelter of a large,  deeply pitted hump.
There he discovered a mess of braided  rope. The rope  was woven of dead and
mashed organic fibers, something  like the hair at the bottom of a sink. The
rope had gone all petrified under a stony lacquer of robot spit.
     These were climber's ropes. Someone had broken out here-smashed through
the hull  of  the ship, from  the inside. The robots had come  to repair the
damage,  carefully re-sealing the exit hole, and  leaving this ugly hump  of
stony scar tissue.
     Pete pulled his gelcam drill. He had lost the sugar reserves along with
the haulbags.  Without  sugar to metabolize, the little  enzyme-driven rotor
would  starve and  be  useless soon.  That  fact  could not be helped.  Pete
pressed the device against the hull, waited  as  it punched its way through,
and squirted in a gelcam to follow.
     He  saw a farm.  Pete  could scarcely have been more astonished. It was
certainly  farmland, though. Cute,  toy  farmland,  all  under a stony  blue
ceiling, crisscrossed with hot grids of radiant light, embraced in the stony
arch  of the enclosing hull. There were fishponds with reeds. Ditches, and a
wooden irrigation wheel. A little  bridge of bamboo. There were hairy  melon
vines in rich black soil and neat,  entirely  weedless fields of dwarfed red
grain. Not a soul in sight.
     Katrinko crept up and linked in on cable. "So where is everybody?" Pete
said.
     "They're all at the portholes," said Katrinko, coughing.
     "What?" said Pete, surprised. "Why?"
     "Because of those flashbangs," Katrinko wheezed. Her battered ribs were
still  paining  her.  "They're all  at the portholes, looking  out  into the
darkness. Waiting for something else to happen."
     "But we did that stuff hours ago."
     "It was very big news, man. Nothing ever happens in there."
     Pete nodded, fired with resolve. "Well then. We're breakin' in."
     Katrinko was way game. "Gonna use caps?"
     "Too obvious."
     "Acids and fibrillators?"
     "Lost 'em in the haulbags."
     "Well, that leaves cheesewires," Katrinko concluded. "I got two."
     "I got six."
     Katrinko nodded in  delight. "Six cheesewires! You're  loaded for bear,
man!"
     "I love cheesewires," Pete grunted. He had helped to invent them.
     Eight minutes and twelve  seconds later they  were inside the starship.
They re-set  the cored-out plug behind them,  delicately gluing  it in place
and carefully obscuring the hair-thin cuts.
     Katrinko sidestepped into a grove of bamboo. Her camou bloomed in green
and tan  and yellow, with such instant  and  treacherous ease that Pete lost
her entirely. Then  she waved, and the spex edge-detectors kicked  in on her
silhouette.
     Pete lifted his spex for a human naked-eye take on the situation. There
was simply nothing there at all. Katrinko  was gone, less than a ghost, like
pitchforking mercury with your eyelashes.
     So they were safe now. They could glide through this bottled  farm like
a pair of bad dreams.
     They scanned  the spacecraft  from top to bottom, looking for dangerous
and interesting phenomena. Control rooms  manned by Asian  space technicians
maybe,  or big lethal robots,  or video monitors-something  that might cramp
their style or kill them. In the thirty-seven floors of the spacecraft, they
found no such thing.
     The five  thousand inhabitants spent  their waking  hours farming.  The
crew of the starship were preindustrial, tribal, Asian peasants. Men, women,
old folks, little kids.
     The local peasants rose every  single morning, as their hot networks of
wiring came alive  in the  ceiling. They would  milk their goats. They would
feed their sheep, and some very odd, knee-high,  dwarf Bactrian camels. They
cut  bamboo and  netted their fishponds. They  cut down tamarisks and poplar
trees for firewood. They  tended  melon  vines and grew plums and hemp. They
brewed alcohol,  and ground  grain, and boiled  millet, and squeezed cooking
oil out of rapeseed. They made clothes out of hemp and raw wool and leather,
and baskets out of reeds and straw. They ate a lot of carp.
     And they raised a whole mess of chickens. Somebody not from around here
had   been  fooling  with  the   chickens.   Apparently  these  were   super
space-chickens  of  some  kind,  leftover  lab  products  from some  serious
long-term attempt to  screw around with chicken  DNA. The hens produced five
or  six lumpy  eggs every day. The roosters were enormous, and all different
colors, and very smelly, and distinctly reptilian.
     It  was very  quiet and peaceful  inside the starship. The animals made
their lowing and clucking noises, and the farm workers sang to themselves in
the tiny round-edged fields, and the incessant foot-driven water pumps would
clack rhythmically, but there were  no city noises. No engines  anywhere. No
screens. No media.
     There was no money. There  were a bunch of tribal elders who  sat under
the blossoming plum trees outside the big  stone granaries. They messed with
beads  on wires, and wrote notes on slips of wood. Then the soldiers, or the
cops-they  were  a bunch  of kids in crude leather armor, with  spears-would
tramp in groups, up and down the dozens of stairs, on the dozens of  floors.
Marching like crazy, and requisitioning  stuff, and  carrying stuff on their
backs, and handing  things  out to  people.  Basically spreading  the wealth
around.
     Most of the weird  bearded old guys were palace accountants,  but there
were  some  others,  too. They  sat  cross-legged  on mats in their homemade
robes,  and  straw  sandals,  and  their  little  spangly  hats,  discussing
important matters  at  slow  and extreme length. Sometimes they wrote  stuff
down on palm-leaves.
     Pete and Katrinko spent a special effort to spy on these old men in the
spangled hats, because, after close study, they had concluded that  this was
the local government. They pretty  much had to  be the government. These old
men with the starry hats were  the only  part of the  population who weren't
being worked to a frazzle.
     Pete  and  Katrinko  found themselves  a cozy spot  on the roof of  the
granary, one of the few permanent structures inside the spacecraft. It never
rained inside the starship, so there wasn't much call for roofs. Nobody ever
trespassed up on the roof of the granary. It was clear that the very idea of
doing this was beyond  local  imagination.  So Pete  and Katrinko stole some
bamboo water jugs, and some lovely handmade carpets, and a lean-to tent, and
set up camp there.
     Katrinko  studied an especially elaborate palm-leaf  book  that she had
filched from  the local temple.  There were pages and pages  of dense  alien
script. "Man, what do you suppose these yokels have to write about?"
     "The way I figure it," said Pete, "they're writing down everything they
can remember from the world outside."
     "Yeah?"
     "Yeah.  Kinda  building  up  an intelligence dossier for  their  little
starship  regime,  see?  Because that's  all  they'll ever know, because the
people who put them inside here aren't giving 'em any news. And they're sure
as hell never gonna let 'em out."
     Katrinko leafed carefully  through the stiff  and brittle  pages of the
handmade  book. The people here spoke only one  language. It was no language
Pete or Katrinko could even begin to recognize. "Then this is their history.
Right?"
     "It's  their lives, kid.  Their  past lives, back when they  were still
real  people,  in  the  big  real  world  outside.  Transistor  radios,  and
shoulder-launched rockets.  Barbed-wire,  pacification campaigns,  ID cards.
Camel caravans coming in  over the border, with  mortars and explosives. And
very advanced Sphere mandarin bosses, who just don't have the time to put up
with armed, Asian, tribal fanatics."
     Katrinko looked up. "That kinda sounds like your version of the outside
world, Pete."
     Pete shrugged. "Hey, it's what happens."
     "You suppose these guys really believe they're inside a real starship?"
     "I guess that depends on how much they learned from the  guys who broke
out of here with the picks and the ropes."
     Katrinko thought about it. "You know what's truly  pathetic? The shabby
illusion of  all  this.  Some  spook  mandarin's crazy  notion  that  ethnic
separatists could be squeezed down tight, and spat out like watermelon seeds
into interstellar space. . . . Man, what a come-on, what an enticement, what
an empty promise!"
     "I  could sell that idea," Pete said  thoughtfully. "You  know  how far
away the stars  really are, kid? About  four hundred  years away, that's how
far. You  seriously want  to get human beings to travel to another star, you
gotta put human beings inside of a sealed can  for four hundred solid years.
But what are people supposed to  do in  there, all that time? The only thing
they can do is quietly run a farm. Because that's what a starship is. It's a
desert oasis."
     "So you want to try a dry-run starship experiment," said Katrinko. "And
in the meantime, you happen to  have some handy religious  fanatics  in  the
backwoods of Asia, who  are shooting your ass off. Guys who refuse to change
their age-old lives, even though you are very, very high-tech."
     "Yep. That's about the size of it. Means, motive, and opportunity."
     "I get  it.  But  I can't believe that  somebody went through with that
scheme in  real  life. I  mean, rounding up an ethnic minority, and sticking
them down in some godforsaken hole, just so you'll never have to think about
them again. That's just impossible!"
     "Did I ever tell you that my grandfather was a Seminole?" Pete said.
     Katrinko shook her head. "What's that mean?"
     "They  were  American tribal  guys who ended up  stuck in a  swamp. The
Florida  Seminoles,  they  called  'em. Y'know, maybe  they just  called  my
grandfather a Seminole. He dressed really funny. . . . Maybe it just sounded
good to  call him  a  Seminole.  Otherwise, he just  would  have  been  some
strange, illiterate geezer."
     Katrinko's  brow wrinkled.  "Does it matter that your grandfather was a
Seminole?"
     "I  used to think  it did. That's where  I got my skin color-as if that
matters, nowadays. I reckon it mattered  plenty to my grandfather, though. .
.  . He was always stompin' and carryin' on about a lot of  weird  stuff  we
couldn't  understand. His  English was pretty bad. He was  never around much
when we needed him."
     "Pete. . . ." Katrinko sighed. "I  think it's  time we  got out of this
place."
     "How come?" Pete said, surprised. "We're  safe up here. The locals  are
not gonna hurt us. They can't even see  us. They can't touch  us. Hell, they
can't even  imagine us. With our fantastic  tactical advantages, we're  just
like gods to these people."
     "I  know all that, man. They're like the ultimate dumb straight people.
I don't like them very much. They're not much of a challenge to us. In fact,
they kind of creep me out."
     "No way! They're fascinating.  Those baggy clothes, the acoustic songs,
all  that  menial  labor.  . . .  These people  got something that we modern
people just don't have any more."
     "Huh?" Katrinko said. "Like what, exactly?"
     "I dunno," Pete admitted.
     "Well,  whatever it is,  it  can't be very important." Katrinko sighed.
"We  got  some serious challenges on the agenda,  man. We gotta sidestep our
way past all those angry  robots outside, then head up that shaft, then hoof
it back, four days through  a freezing desert, with no haulbags. All the way
back to the glider."
     "But Trink, there are two  other starships in here that we didn't break
into yet. Don't you want to see those guys?"
     "What I'd like to see  right now is  a hot bath in a four-star  hotel,"
said Katrinko. "And some very big international  headlines, maybe. All about
me. That would be lovely." She grinned.
     "But what about the people?"
     "Look, I'm not  'people,'  " Katrinko said calmly. "Maybe it's  because
I'm a neuter, Pete, but I can tell you're  way off the subject. These people
are none of our business.  Our business now is to return to our glider in an
operational condition,  so that we  can complete  our assigned  mission, and
return to base with our data. Okay?"
     "Well, let's break into just one more starship first."
     "We gotta move, Pete. We've lost our best equipment, and  we're running
low on body fat. This isn't something that we can kid about and live."
     "But we'll never  come back here again. Somebody will,  but it  sure as
heck won't be us. See, it's a Spider thing."
     Katrinko was weakening. "One more starship? Not both of 'em?"
     "Just one more."
     "Okay, good deal."
     The  hole they  had cut through the starship's  hull had  been  rapidly
cemented by  robots. It cost them  two more cheesewires to cut  themselves a
new exit. Then Katrinko led point, up across the stony ceiling, and down the
carbon  column to  the second  ship.  To avoid annoying  the  lurking  robot
guards, they  moved with hypnotic  slowness and excessive stealth. This made
it a grueling trip.
     This  second  ship had seen hard use. The hull was  extensively scarred
with great wads of cement, entombing many lengths of dried and knotted rope.
Pete and Katrinko found a weak spot and cut their way in.
     This  starship was  crowded.  It was loud  inside, and it smelled.  The
floors were crammed with hot and sticky  little  bazaars,  where people sold
handicrafts  and liquor  and  food.  Criminals were being  punished by being
publicly chained to posts and pelted with offal by passers-by. Big crowds of
ragged  men and tattooed women gathered  around brutal cockfights, featuring
spurred mutant chickens half the size of dogs. All the men carried knives.
     The  architecture  here  was more elaborate, all kinds of warrens,  and
courtyards, and damp,  sticky alleys. After exploring  four floors, Katrinko
suddenly  declared that  she recognized  their  surroundings.  According  to
Katrinko,  they were a  physical replica  of  sets  from a  popular Japanese
interactive  samurai  epic. Apparently the starship's designers  had  needed
some pre-industrial Asian village  settings, and they  hadn't wanted to take
the expense and  trouble to design them from scratch. So they had programmed
their construction robots with pirated game designs.
     This  starship had once  been  lavishly  equipped  with  at least three
hundred armed video camera installations. Apparently, the mandarins had come
to the  stunning realization that the  mere  fact that  they were  recording
crime didn't  mean that  they could control it. Their  spy cameras were  all
dead  now. Most had been vandalized. Some had gone down fighting. They  were
all inert and abandoned.
     The  rebellious  locals had  been very  busy. After  defeating the  spy
cameras,  they  had  created  a set of giant hullbreakers. These  were siege
engines, big crossbow torsion machines,  made of  hemp and wood and  bamboo.
The hullbreakers were  starship community  efforts, elaborately painted  and
ribboned, and presided over by tough, aggressive gang bosses with batons and
big leather belts.
     Pete  and  Katrinko  watched a labor gang, hard at work on one  of  the
hullbreakers.  Women braided  rope ladders from  hair and  vegetable  fiber,
while smiths forged pitons over  choking, hazy  charcoal fires. It was clear
from the evidence that these restive locals had broken out of their starship
jail  at least twenty  times. Every time they had been corralled back in  by
the relentless efforts of mindless machines.  Now they were busily preparing
yet another breakout.
     "These guys sure have got initiative," said Pete admiringly.  "Let's do
'em a little favor, okay?"
     "Yeah?"
     "Here they are, taking all this trouble to hammer their way out. But we
still have a bunch of caps.  We got no more use for 'em, after we leave this
place. So the way I  figure it, we blow their wall  out big-time, and let  a
whole bunch of 'em loose at once. Then you and I can escape real easy in the
confusion."
     Katrinko loved this idea, but had to play devil's advocate. "You really
think we ought to interfere like that? That kind of  shows our hand, doesn't
it?"
     "Nobody's watching any more," said Pete. "Some technocrat figured  this
for a big lab experiment. But  they  wrote  these people  off, or maybe they
lost  their  anthropology  grant. These people are totally forgotten.  Let's
give the poor bastards a show."
     Pete and Katrinko planted their explosives,  took cover on the ceiling,
and cheerfully watched the wall blow out.
     A violent gust  of air came through  as pressures equalized, carrying a
hemorrhage  of dust  and  leaves  into interstellar  space. The  locals were
totally astounded by  the explosion,  but when the repair robots  showed up,
they soon recovered their  morale. A terrific  battle  broke  out, a general
vengeful  frenzy of  crab-bashing  and sponge-skewering.  Women and children
tussled  with  the keets and bibbets. Soldiers  in leather  cuirasses fought
with  the  bigger  machines, deploying  pikes, crossbow  quarrels,  and  big
robot-mashing mauls.
     The  robots were profoundly stupid, but  they were indifferent to their
casualties, and entirely relentless.
     The locals made the most of their window  of opportunity. They loaded a
massive harpoon into  a  torsion  catapult,  and fired  it into space. Their
target was the neighboring starship, the third and last of them.
     The barbed spear  bounded off the hull. So they reeled it back in  on a
monster bamboo hand-reel, cursing and shouting like maniacs.
     The starship's entire  population poured into the fight.  The walls and
bulkheads shook with  the tramp of their angry feet. The  outnumbered robots
fell back. Pete and Katrinko seized this golden opportunity to  slip out the
hole. They climbed swiftly up the hull, and out of reach of the combat.
     The  locals fired  their big harpoon again.  This  time  the barbed tip
struck true, and it stuck there quivering.
     Then a little kid was  heaved into place, half-naked, with a hammer and
screws, and a rope  threaded through  his belt. He had  a crown of  dripping
candles set upon his head.
     Katrinko glanced back, and stopped dead.
     Pete urged her on, then stopped as well.
     The child  began reeling  himself  industriously  along  the  trembling
harpoon  line,  trailing a  bigger rope. An airborne machine  came to menace
him. It  fell  back  twitching, pestered by a  nasty  scattering of crossbow
bolts.
     Pete  found himself mesmerized.  He hadn't felt  the desperation of the
circumstances,  until  he saw this  brave little boy ready  to  fall to  his
death. Pete had seen many climbers  who took risks because  they were crazy.
He'd seen professional climbers, such as himself, who played games with risk
as masters of applied technique. He'd never witnessed climbing as  an act of
raw, desperate sacrifice.
     The heroic  child arrived on  the grainy hull  of  the  alien ship, and
began banging  his  pitons in a hammer-swinging frenzy. His crown of candles
shook and flickered with his efforts. The boy could barely see. He had slung
himself out into stygian darkness to fall to his doom.
     Pete climbed up to Katrinko and quickly linked in on  cable.  "We gotta
leave now, kid. It's now or never."
     "Not yet," Katrinko said. "I'm taping all this."
     "It's our big chance."
     "We'll go later."  Katrinko watched a flying vacuum cleaner batting by,
to swat cruelly at the kid's legs. She turned  her  masked head  to Pete and
her whole body stiffened with rage. "You got a cheesewire left?"
     "I got three."
     "Gimme. I gotta go help him."
     Katrinko unplugged,  slicked down  the  starship's  wall  in  a  daring
controlled  slide,   and  hit   the  stretched  rope.  To   Pete's  complete
astonishment, Katrinko lit  there  in  a  crouch,  caught herself  atop  the
vibrating line, and simply ran for it. She ran along the  humming  tightrope
in a thrumming blur, stunning the locals so thoroughly that they were barely
able to fire their crossbows.
     Flying  quarrels  whizzed  past  and around  her, nearly skewering  the
terrified  child at the far end of the rope. Then Katrinko leapt and bounded
into space, her gloves and cleats outspread. She simply vanished.
     It  was a champion's  gambit if Pete  had  ever  seen  one.  It  was  a
legendary move.
     Pete  could  manage  well enough  on  a tightrope. He  had  experience,
excellent balance, and physical acumen.  He was, after  all, a professional.
He could walk a rope if he was put to the job.
     But not in  full  climbing  gear,  with cleats.  And  not  on a  slack,
handbraided, homemade rope.  Not when the rope was very poorly anchored by a
homemade pig-iron harpoon. Not when he outweighed  Katrinko by twenty kilos.
Not in the middle  of a flying circus of airborne robots. And not in a cloud
of arrows.
     Pete was  simply  not that  crazy any more. Instead, he  would  have to
follow Katrinko  the  sensible  way.  He would  have to climb the  starship,
traverse the ceiling,  and climb  down to  the  third starship onto the  far
side. A hard three hours' work at the very best-four hours, with any modicum
of safety.
     Pete weighed the odds, made up his mind, and went after the job.
     Pete turned in time to see Katrinko busily cheesewiring her way through
the  hull of  Starship  Three. A gout of white light poured out as the cored
plug slid aside. For a deadly moment, Katrinko was a silhouetted goblin, her
camou useless as the starship's radiance framed her. Her clothing  fluttered
in a violent gust of escaping air.
     Below her, the climbing child had anchored himself to the wall and tied
off  his second rope.  He  looked  up  at the sudden gout of  light,  and he
screamed so loudly that the whole universe rang.
     The child's many relatives reacted by instinct, with a ragged volley of
crossbow shots. The  arrows  veered and  scattered  in the gusting wind, but
there were a lot of them. Katrinko ducked, and flinched, and rolled headlong
into the starship. She vanished again.
     Had  she been hit? Pete  set an anchor, tied off, and tried  the radio.
But without  the  relays in  the haulbag,  the  weak  signal  could not  get
through.
     Pete climbed on doggedly. It was the only option left.
     After  half an hour,  Pete began coughing. The starry cosmic cavity had
filled  with  a  terrible  smell.  The stench  was coming  from the  invaded
starship,  pouring  slowly  from the cored-out hole.  A long-bottled, deadly
stink of burning rot.
     Climbing solo,  Pete gave it  his best. His shoulder was bad and, worse
yet, his spex began to misbehave. He finally reached the  cored-out entrance
that  Katrinko had cut. The locals were  already  there  in force, stringing
themselves  a sturdy  rope bridge,  and  attaching it to massive screws. The
locals brandished torches, spears, and crossbows. They were fighting off the
incessant attacks of the robots. It was clear from their wild expressions of
savage glee that they had been longing for this moment for years.
     Pete slipped past them unnoticed, into Starship Three. He breathed  the
soured air for  a moment, and quickly retreated again. He inserted a new set
of mask filters, and returned.
     He found  Katrinko's  cooling  body,  wedged  against  the ceiling.  An
unlucky crossbow shot had slashed through her  suit and punctured Katrinko's
left arm.  So, with her  usual presence of mind, she  had deftly leapt  up a
nearby wall, tied off on a chock, and hidden herself well out of harm's way.
She'd quickly stopped the bleeding. Despite its awkward location, she'd even
managed to get her wound bandaged.
     Then the foul air had silently and stealthily overcome her.
     With her battered ribs  and a major wound, Katrinko hadn't been able to
tell  her dizziness from shock. Feeling sick, she  had relaxed, and tried to
catch her breath. A  fatal gambit. She was still hanging  there,  unseen and
invisible, dead.
     Pete discovered that Katrinko was far from alone. The crew here had all
died. Died months ago, maybe  years  ago. Some kind of huge fire inside  the
spacecraft. The  electric  lights  were  still on,  the  internal  machinery
worked, but there was no one left here but mummies.
     These dead tribal  people  had the  nicest clothes  Pete had yet  seen.
Clearly they'd  spent a lot of time  knitting and  embroidering, during  the
many weary years of their imprisonment. The corpses had all kinds of layered
sleeves,  and tatted aprons, and braided belt-ties, and lacquered hairclips,
and  excessively nifty  little sandals. They'd all smothered horribly during
the sullen inferno, along with their cats and dogs and enormous chickens, in
a sudden wave of  smoke and combustion that  had filled their spacecraft  in
minutes.
     This was far too complicated to be anything as simple as mere genocide.
Pete figured the mandarins for gentlemen technocrats,  experts with the best
of intentions. The lively possibility remained that it was mass suicide. But
on mature  consideration, Pete had to figure  this for a  very bad, and very
embarrassing, social-engineering accident.
     Though that certainly wasn't what they  would say  about this mess,  in
Washington. There  was no political  mess  nastier than a nasty ethnic mess.
Pete couldn't help but notice that these well-behaved locals hadn't bothered
to  do  any harm  to  their spacecraft's lavish surveillance equipment.  But
their cameras were off and their starship was stone dead anyway.
     The air began to  clear inside  the spacecraft. A pair of soldiers from
Starship Number Two came stamping  down  the hall, industriously looting the
local corpses. They couldn't have been happier about their opportunity. They
were grinning with awestruck delight.
     Pete returned  to his  comrade's  stricken body. He stripped the  camou
suit-he needed the batteries. The neuter's lean and sexless corpse was puffy
with subcutaneous storage pockets,  big encystments of skin  where  Katrinko
stored her last-ditch  escape tools. The battered ribs were puffy and  blue.
Pete could not go on.
     Pete returned to  the break-in hole, where he found an eager crowd. The
invaders  had  run  along  the rope-bridge  and  gathered  there  in  force,
wrinkling their  noses and cheering in wild exaltation. They had  beaten the
robots;  there  simply  weren't  enough of the  machines on duty to resist a
whole enraged population. The robots just weren't clever enough to out-think
armed,  coordinated  human resistance-not  without killing people wholesale,
and they hadn't been designed for that. They had suffered a flat-out defeat.
     Pete frightened the cheering victors away with a string of flash-bangs.
     Then he took careful aim at the lip of the drop, and hoisted Katrinko's
body, and flung her far, far, tumbling down, into the boiling pools.
     Pete  retreated  to the  first  spacecraft. It was  a  very dispiriting
climb, and when he had completed it, his shoulder  had the serious, familiar
ache of chronic  injury.  He  hid  among the unknowing  population  while he
contemplated his options.
     He  could hide here indefinitely. His camou suit was  slowly losing its
charge, but  he felt  confident that he could  manage very well without  the
suit.  The  starship  seemed to  feature most any  number  of  taboo  areas.
Blocked-off no-go  spots,  where there  might  have  been a scandal once, or
bloodshed, or a funny noise, or a strange, bad, panicky smell.
     Unlike  the violent, reckless crowd in  Starship  Two, these locals had
fallen for the cover story. They truly believed that they were in the depths
of space, bound for some  better,  brighter pie in their  starry  stone sky.
Their little  stellar  ghetto  was  full of superstitious kinks. Steeped  in
profound  ignorance, the locals imagined that their  every  sin  caused  the
universe to tremble.
     Pete knew that he should try to take his data back to the glider.  This
was  what Katrinko would have wanted. To die, but leave a legend-a very City
Spider thing.
     But  it  was hard to imagine battling his  way past  resurgent  robots,
climbing  the walls with an injured shoulder,  then making a four-day bitter
trek through a freezing desert,  all  completely  alone. Gliders didn't last
forever, either. Spy gliders weren't built to last. If Pete found the glider
with its batteries flat, or its cute  little brain gone sour, Pete  would be
all over. Even if he'd enjoyed a full set of equipment, with perfect health,
Pete had few illusions about a solo  spring  outing, alone and on foot, over
the Himalayas.
     Why risk all that?  After all,  it wasn't like  this subterranean scene
was breaking  news. It was already  many  years  old. Someone had conceived,
planned and executed  this  business a long time ago. Important people  with
brains and big resources had known all about  this for years. Somebody knew.
Maybe  not the  Lieutenant Colonel, on the  lunatic fringe of NAFTA military
intelligence. But.
     When Pete really thought about the basic implications. . . . This was a
great deal of  effort,  and for not that  big a  payoff. Because there  just
weren't that  many people  cooped up down  here. Maybe  fifteen thousand  of
them,   tops.  The  Asian  Sphere  must  have  had   tens  of  thousands  of
unassimilated tribal people, maybe hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions.
And why stop at that point? This wasn't just an Asian problem. It was a very
general problem.  Ethnic,  breakaway  people, who  just plain  couldn't,  or
wouldn't, play the twenty-first century's games.
     How  many Red Chinese  atom-bomb  tests  had taken  place deep  in  the
Taklamakan? They'd never bothered to brief him  on ancient history. But Pete
had to wonder if, by now, maybe they hadn't gotten this stellar concept down
to a  fine art.  Maybe  the  Sphere had  franchised their plan to Europe and
NAFTA. How many forgotten holes  were there, relic pockets punched below the
hide of the twenty-first  century, in the South Pacific, and  Australia, and
Nevada?  The  deadly  trash  of  a  long-derailed  Armageddon.  The   sullen
trash-heaps where no one would ever want to look.
     Sure,  he could  bend every nerve and muscle to force the world to face
all this. But why? Wouldn't it make better sense to try to think  it through
first?
     Pete never got around to admitting to himself that he had lost the will
to leave.
     As  despair  slowly  loosened  his  grip  on him,  Pete grew  genuinely
interested  in the  locals.  He was intrigued by the  stark limits of  their
lives and their universe,  and in what  he could do with their narrow little
heads. They'd  never  had a supernatural being in  their midst before;  they
just imagined them all the time. Pete started with a few poltergeist stunts,
just to amuse himself. Stealing the  spangled hats of  the local greybeards.
Shuffling the  palm  leaf volumes  in their  sacred libraries. Hijacking  an
abacus or two.
     But that was childish.
     The locals had a little temple, their special holy of holies. Naturally
Pete made it his business to invade the place.
     The locals kept a  girl locked  up  in there.  She was very pretty, and
slightly insane,  so this  made her the perfect  candidate to  become  their
Sacred Temple Girl. She was the Official Temple Priestess of Starship Number
One.  Apparently, their modest  community  could  only  afford one,  single,
awe-inspiring Virgin High Priestess. But  they were practical folks, so they
did the best with what they had available.
     The High Priestess was a pretty young woman  with  a  stiflingly pretty
life.  She  had her own maidservants, a  wardrobe of ritual clothing, and  a
very  time-consuming hairdo.  The  High  Priestess  spent  her  entire  life
carrying  out  highly  complex, totally  useless,  ritual  actions.  Incense
burnings, idol dustings,  washings and  purifications,  forehead  knockings,
endless  chanting,  daubing  special marks on her hands and  feet.  She  was
sacred and clearly demented, so they watched her with enormous interest, all
the  time. She meant everything to them. She  was  doing  all  these  crazy,
painful  things so the rest of them  wouldn't have to.  Everything about her
was completely and utterly foreclosed.
     Pete quite admired the Sacred Temple Girl.  She was very much his type,
and he felt a  genuine  kinship with her. She was the  only  local that Pete
could bear to spend any personal time with.
     So after prolonged study  of the girl  and her  actions, one  day, Pete
manifested himself to her. First, she panicked. Then she tried to kill  him.
Naturally  that effort failed. When she grasped the fact that he  was hugely
powerful, totally magical, and utterly  beyond her ken, she slithered around
the polished temple floor, rending her  garments and keening  aloud, clearly
in the combined hope/fear of being horribly and indescribably defiled.
     Pete understood the  appeal  of her concept. A younger  Pete would have
gone  for the  demonic subjugation option. But Pete was all grown up now. He
hardly saw how  that could help matters any, or, in fact,  make any tangible
difference in their circumstances.
     They never learned each other's languages. They never  connected in any
physical, mental, or  emotional way. But  they  finally  achieved a  kind of
status quo,  where they could sit  together  in the  same room,  and quietly
study one another, and fruitlessly  speculate on the  alien contents of  one
another's heads. Sometimes, they would even get together  and  eat something
tasty.
     That  was every  bit as good as  his connection with  these  impossibly
distant people was ever going to get.
     It had never occurred to Pete that the stars might go out.
     He'd cut himself a sacred, demonic bolt-hole, in a  taboo area  of  the
starship.  Every once in a while, he  would saw his  way through the robots'
repair efforts and nick out for a  good  long look at the artificial cosmos.
This reassured him, somehow. And he had other motives as well. He had a very
well-founded  concern  that  the inhabitants  of Starship Two  might somehow
forge their way over, for an violent racist orgy of looting, slaughter,  and
rapine.
     But Starship Two had their hands  full with the  robots. Any  defeat of
the bubbling  gelbrain and its hallucinatory tools could  only be temporary.
Like  an onrushing  mudslide,  the gizmos  would  route around obstructions,
infiltrate  every  evolutionary  possibility, and  always, always  keep  the
pressure on.
     After  the crushing  defeat, the  bubbling  production  vats  went into
biomechanical overdrive. The old regime had been overthrown. All equilibrium
was gone. The machines had gone back to their cybernetic dreamtime. Anything
was possible now.
     The starry walls  grew thick as fleas with a seething mass of new-model
jailers. Starship  Two  was beaten  back  once  again,  in  another  bitter,
uncounted, historical humiliation. Their persecuted homeland  became  a mass
of grotesque  cement.  Even the portholes  were  gone now, cruelly sealed in
technological spit and ooze. A living grave.
     Pete had assumed that this would pretty much finish the job. After all,
this clearly fit the parameters of the system's original designers.
     But the system could no longer bother with the limits of human intent.
     When Pete gazed through a porthole and  saw that the stars were fading,
he knew  that all bets were off. The stars were being  robbed. Something was
embezzling their energy.
     He  left  the  starship.  Outside,  all  heaven had  broken  loose.  An
unspeakable host  of creatures were migrating  up the rocky walls, bounding,
creeping, lurching,  rappelling  on a web  of gooey  ropes.  Heading for the
stellar zenith.
     Bound for transcendence. Bound for escape.
     Pete  checked  his aging cleats and gloves,  and  joined the  exodus at
once.
     None of the creatures  bothered him. He had become one of them now. His
equipment had fallen among them, been absorbed, and kicked open new doors of
evolution. Anything that could breed a can-opener could  breed  a rock chock
and  a  piton, a  crampon,  and a pulley, and a  carabiner.  His  haul bags,
Katrinko's bags, had been stuffed with generations of focused  human genius,
and it was all about one concept: UP. Going up. Up and out.
     The unearthly landscape  of the Taklamakan was  hosting a robot  war. A
spreading  mechanical  prairie  of  inching,  crawling,  biting,  wrenching,
hopping mutations. And  pillars of  fire:  Sphere satellite  warfare.  Beams
pouring down from the authentic  heavens, invisible torrents of energy  that
threw  up geysers of searing dust. A bio-engineer's final nightmare.  Smart,
autonomous hell. They  couldn't  kill a thing this big  and  keep it secret.
They  couldn't  burn  it up  fast  enough.  No,  not  without  breaking  the
containment domes,  and spilling their own ancient trash  across the face of
the earth.
     A beam crossed  the horizon  like the finger of God, smiting everything
in its path. The sky and earth  were thick  with flying creatures,  buzzing,
tumbling, sculling. The beam caught a big machine, and it fell spinning like
a multi-ton  maple seed.  It  bounded  from the side of  a containment dome,
caromed like a dying  gymnast,  and landed  below  Spider Pete.  He crouched
there in his camou, recording it all.
     It looked  back at  him. This  was no mere robot.  It was a  mechanical
civilian  journalist.  A  brightly  painted,  ultramodern,  European network
drone,  with  as many  cameras  on  board as  a top-flight media  mogul  had
martinis. The machine  had smashed violently against the secret wall, but it
was not dead. Death was not on its  agenda. It was way game. It  had spotted
him with no trouble at all. He was a human interest story. It was looking at
him.
     Glancing into  the cold spring sky, Pete could see that  the journalist
had brought a lot of its friends.
     The robot  rallied  its fried  circuits,  and  centered  him  within  a
spiraling focus. Then it  lifted a multipronged limb, and  ceremonially spat
out every marvel it had witnessed, up into the sky and out into the seething
depths of the global web.
     Pete adjusted  his mask and  his camou suit.  He wouldn't  look  right,
otherwise.
     "Dang," he said.

: 46, Last-modified: Mon, 27 Aug 2001 04:52:57 GMT