Surfing with the Alien 2

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It's Not Easy, Being Green

(Written by ClassicDrogn)

In the dream (Vision? Out of body experience? Hallucination?) I was rising in a grid-patterned tube of glowing blue-white, or perhaps hovering with the grid flowing downwards, but either way there was certainly the sensation of movement at great speed. Brief flashes of yellow-gold could be seen in the darkness beyond, tracing angular courses before vanishing as quickly as they came, and clouds or flocks of little glowing red points sped past me one way or the other along the tube, more and more often upward.

The grid lines thickened, or perhaps their glow just increased to give that impression, until I couldn't make out the gaps between them any more, and was simply suspended in an endless sea of shimmering light blues like the crystal core of the Matrix, the only hint at the dimensions of the tunnel around me the paths of the red flecks, by now as steady as a highway with peak traffic. Looking around at them, I finally realized that my own body seemed to be nothing more than the kind of grid-and-outlines image that Megatron appeared as just before being restructured as Galvatron in the original Transformers movie.

This was alarming, but for some reason panic just didn't follow, and when nothing untoward happened I calmed down to wait it out. There was a feeling - more than a tingle, less than an itch - from my fingers and toes, which spread up my arms and legs - looking at my hands I could see the gridwork stretching away like pulled taffy until it became too thin to see a few feet away, but still I didn't - couldn't - panic. Helpfully, the words 'DON'T PANIC' appeared in front of me, in large, friendly letters, promting a bark of laughter.

(Yes, I have dreams where I can read - had them even as a human - though the words don't stay the same if I read them twice, they are perfectly legible - so nuts to anyone who says it's impossible. Right brain, left brain, I'm the one with the synapse.)

"Yeah, sure, and it'll all be normal in forty-two seconds, right?" I asked.

'DON'T PANIC' broke up into little chunks and rearranged until it was replaced by somewhat smaller letters saying, 'IT HAS BEEN 41.998 SECONDS.' Then the eight rolled upwards and became nine, and my body had stretched away to mid-chest, and just as the nines began to roll everything went dark.

"Now... arise, Wave Convoy," a voice said, a rich baritone with flanging and a hint of reverb, and the next thing I knew I was looking at Shuko's hand running along the rim of Wave Convoy's, my, left optic where she'd crawled into the structure of the truck from a mixture of curiosity and desire to get out of the wind.

I'd never been strongly religious in my life as a human...

...but if whatever higher power as may be chose to use the voice of Primus to speak to me, then honoring him as Primus was the least I could do.

The last two Transformers from my collection to be sold were Unicron and the black recolor from TF:Armada and Energon, the little X-ian hovertank version from Galaxy Force had gone to raise money in the construction phase. Cool toys, but keeping them felt like a minister keeping statues of Satan.

Finding something to have faith in was a small help in those early days, but when the fact and the finality of my situation really had time to sink in, looking down at the beautiful blue and white marble of the Earth hanging below us, it was small comfort indeed. I put it aside again, though - there were other problems to deal with. Most immediately, I'd never designed myself for use as a spacecraft, meaning that there was no airlock, and in the rushed preparations for our escape to orbit neither Micheal nor Shuko had gotten a pressure suit together. Worse, while the average carmod could be accommodated by a docking tube with a goober ring at the end, thanks to the deep bend in my gullwing hatches and the way they were hinged it wouldn't be possible to both get an airtight seal and open them far enough to get a person through.

That meant finding someplace with a pressure-holding dock large enough for my entire truck form to fit inside, which turned out to be something of a major sticking point. We eventually ended up heading for the Island, which was still getting set up around that time, but open enough to have a big enough dock and stores to buy space suits, or heavy clothes to make them from. An air bottle with a pump to draw down the air in the cab into would also be needed, and a dozen other things we'd forgotten or been unable to scrounge together. Micheal was the only one of us who'd been able to bring more than pocket change along - Shuko had been cut off for months, and I had literally spent everything I had building my giant robot.

Just the bare basics - suits, air bottle, a minifridge, microwave, a "plumber's cube" for blackwater recycling, and consumable supplies - pretty much exhausted what he had available, and we hadn't even looked into getting the glass on his Subaru replaced. Obviously, we needed money, and a way to keep making more, and none of us had any connections out here - with the way we'd stirred up the 'danemagogue hornets' nest again, we were a bit unpopular in fact, especially me. Nothing too overt, you understand - it's not like we could help what other people misunderstood - but enough that I suspect we didn't get the best deals we might have, and no one was jumping out of the air vents with job offers.

There was one excited call, though, once the news shows started running footage of my tractor beam "gun." The Trekkie - excuse me, Trekker leadership had recognized the TOS tractor beam light show, and wanted to know if I would sell them one. They were offering... a lot. Artificial gravity was as common as dirt, more common by a wide margin if you're counting the planets as the dirtballs, and as far as anyone could tell despite the wide variety of "special effects" involved handwavium space drives seemed to be some kind of gravity manipulation, but no one had really managed to make something that would generate a directed beam. Since we needed money, I told them I would, and if they got some fork lift motors together we'd continue on to Starbase One over Mars and try them all - I couldn't claim a perfect success rate, but I'd managed to make things work the same way enough times to build myself, hadn't I?

(And as far as that goes, the rings don't show up in space - they seem to be some kind of refraction effect like a heat mirage, so they're only there in an atmosphere with lots of blue sky around. The Trekkers were somewhat disappointed by that, but at least they get to have a tractor beam in the hangar bay, which was the main point.)

What I hadn't counted on there, was that the way I built the Wave Convoy chassis was more what's called "mushtech" these days than 'wavetech - I 'waved the materials for strength, I 'waved the assemblies to make them work better, but everything did physically work, and with an outside diesel engine like the kind in construction equipment running a pump I could have filled the system with hydraulic fluid instead of energon and had everything but the hands work the hardtech way, if clumsily and slowly. With the showpiece "cyber-brain" turned into a real laser core, of course, that would be about the same as replacing a human's blood with transmission fluid, but the point was that the tractor beam forklift motor was something different entirely - the 'wave had done something truly strange with its basic framework, warping it to avoid making a generator for me, and it turned out to be unreproducible.

They'd turned up three of the same model motor as I used, and four more assorted other types, and what we got was three "normal" wide-area gravity generators (none from the same kind of motor as I'd used) two small speed drives, a trash compactor (as in, anything within a sphere about a foot around near the non-output-shaft end got crushed into a little wad) and a partridge in a pear tree.

Yes, literally. The windings of the motor unraveled, burst out through the vent louvers of the casing, and formed a wire sculpture of a partridge in a tree with dangling pears. It's still on display in the main concourse of Starbase One, if you don't believe me. Faced with this vast success and having told them to deduct material costs out of the final payout, all I could do was shrug and give them my original unit.

It's not like that was too much of a hardship in my eyes - people in space were too busy surviving and working and generally getting their geek on to be interested in real violence (as opposed to violence in their video games and TV/anime, naturally, and the endless Warsie 'fleet maneuvers') and really, what was I going to be afraid of? Even getting rammed by most of the carmods I've ever seen wouldn't do too much damage, with the way drive fields work. The cash gave us a nice comfort zone in terms of having some time to get used to the idea of being in space, and check out the possibilities now that we were actually there. That business finished, the three of us took a jaunt down to the surface so we could walk around and gawk at red rocks piled on red gravel and strewn with red dust, then we went back up to the station so Shuko and Micheal could get some rest in actual privacy, and use actual showers.

Though I knew it wouldn't be practical to keep using my small-town, non-chain bank from freaking outer space, I called them anyway, just to check up on what paltry funds I did have in my account... and got my situation driven home, again, in no uncertain terms. Julie seemed sympathetic, but there wasn't anything she could do, so she called Butch.

He happens to be the bank president, one of all of five employees, and on a first name basis with most of the people in town - who explained that they'd frozen the accounts, as required by law.... because my human identity was legally dead. The body had been DOA, after all, and easily identifiable "despite the way you bastards mutilated him! And you think I'm going to go along with some scheme to rob him after he's dead? Dream on! The police have traced this call, and you space-freaks are in for it if we ever catch you on Earth!"

Then he slammed the phone back on the hook.

I thanked the Starfleet communications officer who'd made the connection to the earthside network, explained again that no, I wasn't some scammer, I was the person who'd lived in the body in question until getting transferred into my ride, and disconnected myself. Thankfully, the groundside POTS connection had been made with VOIP, so the feds wouldn't be storming some poor helpful soul's door for letting people connect through his line, but that was not really on my mind just then.

Dead. Legally, biologically... was I really me, or did I just think I was? You've probably noticed I never mention my human name - I'm still not really sure if I'm the same person, and that's why. When KITTEN awakened later on, and had the full, first person memories of a character from a TV show, that just muddied the waters further, but I had quite a heaping helping of existential angst on my own just then.

I tried drinking - my mouth is connected to my main energon tank, so refueling is fairly natural looking, rather than a matter of gas caps and pump nozzles - but all it did was taste foul (same as ever, actually - I never could stand alchohol) and get "metabolized" (mechabolized?) into energon, with no discernible effect. Gasoline, diesel fuel, even some Jet-A from one guy's "Nutz'n'boltzwagon" made from a New Beetle and half a dozen surplus cruise missile turbines, they had different and overall more pleasant flavors but no more effect. (For the record, gas tastes sweet like Kool*Ade, diesel is more like a sports drink, and Jet-A is that plus a teaspoon of caffeine in every cup.) That exhausted the options in the Starbase hangar bay, and since there were several inbound craft I was politely asked to leave if my business was done to make room for them to land.

I tried religion - not in the sense of talking to holy men but as in distracting myself looking for things that could be interpreted as aspects of Primus in existing works, and found too little to hold my interest, though some of the Vedic god-battles sounded remarkably like modern air combat and nuclear weapons. That lasted all of fifty eight seconds, since my mind now works much faster as long as I don't have to actively coordinate the 238 joints in my chassis, each with between two and six valves for the actuators, all of which need constant attention to one degree or another - and which doesn't even count all the brakes and locks for the ones that are only used in transformation or which need to stay stiff in vehicle mode, or anything to do with my purely internal systems or cab life support.

I tried going back down to Mars, but the rocks and dust that were so amazing and exciting the day before were just rocks and dust, with no trace of the White Mountain hills and forests that meant 'home.' Even reentry, the most amazing thrill since I'd vaulted over Shuko's thruster-port of a sperm donor, had held no wonder in the face of the question:

Was I a real person, or just a machine programmed to believe it was by some capricious fall of the dice?

I tried random violence. There's an outcrop near Mars Base Sara with deep cracks, and one discernible fist imprint amid the pock marks of a dozen heavy impacts. I didn't feel any better, and didn't scuff my paint, let alone feel any damage. What kind of person could crush rocks - could gouge an imprint of his knuckles into one like it was nothing more than stiff clay - and not even feel a sting? Pit, I was lucky I could feel anything, I certainly hadn't used any special paint or sensors in my body shell except the pressure pads on my hands, so however my sense of touch and temperature worked had to be some artifact of the 'wave making it into a livable body.

Where did the handwavium come from, for that matter? It couldn't have been in that kerosene barrel all along, and even if it had where did that come from? Another thirty one seconds of websmurfing determined that if anyone knew where the 'wave originated, they weren't telling, so I chalked it up to the divine hand of Primus and moved on, because religion still wasn't working.

I thought about the voice I thought I'd heard, in that dream, and tried to convince myself that there had to be a reason why I didn't just die outright then, and leave Shuko with a slightly used transforming truck to figure out on her own. She was certainly bright enough to do it, and it's not like I did anything after that that anyone couldn't have done driving the rig the way I'd designed it to be.

I tried chugging down a batch of liquid handwavium, mixed with a few pints of O-negative (my original blood type) and energized with an X-ray machine in the starbase sickbay, then blasting The Police's Rehumanize Yourself on every speaker I had. I did not become the first ever recipient of a second biomod, and the Matrix tingled unhappily at the confirmation that even now, blood still tasted delicious. That was one aspect of my human life I'd have willingly shed because it freaked me out, let alone anyone I told.

I almost tried uncontrolled reentry with an unpowered landing, but the Matrix buzzed me so strongly at the very thought that I rejected the idea as sheer stupidity, the same way I always had as an outcast teenager. That at last was some kind of progress, I at least recognized that if there was an "I" to ask the question, there had to be something worth calling a person, even if I wasn't who I thought I was.

That left me merely melancholy instead of depressed, and I hit the file sharing networks hard for escapist amusements... of course, I can 'watch' video files as fast as I can read the data (and that is very fast indeed) so that didn't keep me too occupied either, except for watching download status bars.

This was how I came to be magnelocked to the outside of Starbase One, the multiband antenna under my left "wristwatch" extended, modulating a carrier on the 2cm hydrogen band with my inaccurately worded, bad karaoke of It's Not Easy Being Green, originally performed by Jim Henson as Kermit T. Frog, singing to the stars. That was where they put out the most RF, surely at least one or two were listening, right?

"It's not easy, bein' green/havin' to spend each day, the color of a bean/when I think it might be, nicer/being pink, or brown/or somethin' much more skin-colored, like that..."

It's amazing, the way you miss things you thought you hated when they're gone, just because they were familiar. The devils you knew, so to speak, instead of feeling around blindly in the big bad universe to bump into new devils.

I got a videoconferencing request from the Starbase network, then, not from any address I recognized but with nothing better to do I accepted it, quickly slapping up a streamcaster from the Blender game engine so I could use the computer model I'd made to plan my project and send a return stream. I had to, I didn't have any cameras that would show anything but an empty cockpit, the inside of my chest, or the back of my legs, the latter two being from the truck mode grille and rear view cameras. I started the game engine and transferred the video stream, jiggling the lower face mask to sync with the audio generated to be my voice. Only stumbling slightly over the name I greeted, "B... Wave Convoy here. What's up?"

Incidentally, my voice sounds very little like my human voice did - at least, the way it sounded to other people. It's very much the way it sounded inside my own head, just with the added flanging of the G1 Transformers show. No doubt that had something to do with Julie and Butch's reactions at the bank, though I didn't think of it at the time. As a human, I could do credible versions of HAL9000 and Emperor Palpatine, but Roy Orbison and Peter Cullen only sounded right in my head. Now it's the other way around, though I avoid doing Peter Cullen because even at my best, I'm no Optimus Prime. Technically I could synthesize just about any voice I want, but "speaking naturally" is different.

The pretty woman on the far end of the connection had never heard either version before, though - I'm fairly sure I'd have remembered someone like her, even as bad as I used to be with faces and names - and she smiled as she introduced herself. "Hi, I'm Liza. I heard you singing, you sound kind of down. With the news from earthside that's kind of understandable... I was wondering if you want to talk about it?"

Yay. Someone wanted to gawk at the famous freak. I did a quick whois on the IP, and reconsidered - it was registered to one of the station's resident AIs. I let a conversational pause pass, then opened the model's mask and retracted it, and gave it a weak smile. "Sure, I guess," I replied, and she smiled again - I checked the video buffer and compared them - it was the same. Exactly. Definitely an AI, then, human muscles just don't do the same thing exactly twice, not on a face at least. Still, the illusion was very good otherwise, and an AI would probably be more help than talking to a human right now. I increased the transfer rate, adding, "There's no reason to take it so slow, though, is there?"

My suspicions were confirmed when she matched the increased speed, my hopes fed just a tiny bit as she laughed and joked, "I'm not that kind of girl! More seriously, I thought you might be more comfortable operating at human speeds, but if you're really after efficiency let's end this call and I'll let you connect to the cyberspace I administrate. Holodeck avatar format should be incoming to the email you gave the station admin now."

There it was, and a forum check proved that the open sourcers were as rampant out here as downwell - a Blender exporter was already available, making it trivial to scale my 3d model to the specified size and crunch it out.

Then I thought about it some more, and tried skinning the example human male model to be vaguely like the me-that-was, if in far better shape... and again, a compromise, dressing up that 'me' in an armored suit based loosely on the Wave Convoy design, like the Pretenders, or a male version of the popular Mobile Suit Girls fanart style.

What the hell. If I had the full set, I'd start with the human version, and if Liza appeared scaled for my robot self, I'd do the Pretenders "SUIT ON! PURETENDA!" transformation. Just call me Sailor Cybertron. Or, no, bad mental image, almost Sailor Bubba level badness... Tuxedo Prime? Autobot Kamen.

Whatever. I worked up a couple of particle systems for the special effects and switched 'wave-wifi nodes to the one directly connected to Liza's server, checked that the original three computer nodes in my onboard network were still capable of running my body unassisted, at least enough to put all but a shred of my attention into the cyberspace, and (metaphorically speaking) dove in.

Liza's cyberspace was... interesting. To abuse a Trek cliche, fascinating, even. She had two holodeck simulations running for crew members at that moment, one having a cube around its territory with a simple "Private" text texture, the other sitting openly visible inside it's inverted-face skybox, some kind of hack & slash RPG from the looks of it. My avatar had resolved on a balcony overlooking the two, which was connected to, well, half a little Italian bistro. It only had two walls, one lined with booths and the other the kitchen and counter. Their detail was pretty low, not much more than extruded seats and a tabletop with a checkerboard pattern, hanging lamps that would have Tiffany glass mosaic shades if they were textured over each one.

The counter had more detail, a rack of various sauces and ingredients on display and a stack of menus artfully imperfect near the antique register. The kitchen and balcony tables were the best, almost photorealistic except for the way the tablecloths stood out straight as if starched into steely inflexibility. I was glad I'd started with the human body, at best I'd have interpenetrated all this and been stuck until I reset, at worst the physics engine might have done strange things and ruined the model in progress. A few milliseconds passed, but no one seemed to be around, and I prodded the edge of one of the tablecloths experimentally. It didn't seem to have its collider turned on, my finger just ghosted through as if it wasn't there. Still cautious, I tried one of the chairs, but it was fine so I pulled it out and sat down.

Naturally, Liza appeared just after that, resolving in a TNG falling-glitter transporter effect. "Sorry to keep you waiting," she said, "I had to set up a new level for the HoloNetHack game, and I threw in some new monster models just to keep it interesting. This is a project of my own, I thought perhaps you could help me with it while we talked."

Unexpected, that, and a bit flattering if she normally created the holodeck sets on her own. I looked around again, replying, "I don't see why not, though it looks like you've got the place off to a good start already..."

There was that smile again, and I was wrong - it's not the same every time, or maybe there's just something different about it 'in person' so to speak. "Thank you, but I didn't mean the model so much as the food. The holodeck isn't advanced enough for it - right now most people still connect with a monitor and keyboard, though there is a physical holo chamber - but someday we'll get touch and taste and smell down as well. When that happens, I want to be ready, with things that taste and smell right, but I don't have any experience what "right" is, even if the chemical compounds and receptors are easy enough to mimic. I hope it's not rude, but I was hoping you could help me with a human experience."

Well. How 'bout that, Mrs. Jones? I blinked - the detail on these avatars was really good - and gave another somewhat weak smile. "Heh, that's ironic. I hoped you could talk to me about the machine life experience. It's kind of all fallen on me at once, if you see what I mean."

That smile again. It's really quite beautiful, and I could feel my mood lifting just looking at it. I got up, and we headed behind the counter to the kitchen section.

We talked for minutes, and by the end of it I'd managed to put together (in the most literal possible sense) a half decent platter of portabello tortellini alfredo with pesto and beefy marinara, which made Liza pop her eyes out when she tried it and summarily delete all the recipes she'd worked out on her own. There was an alert from my body then, so I had to deresolve and surface, but it wasn't anything too major - hangar Air Traffic Control was calling, saying that since the unusually heavy traffic had ended they could offer me an indoor parking space again. I thanked them for the consideration, but decided that unless my mass or magnetics were causing trouble (they weren't) I'd stay where I was until I needed to let someone into my cab. That settled, I headed back to Liza and her kitchen, and except for her periodic refreshment of the holodeck levels we worked and talked for an entire day and a half, at which point we'd modeled everything I could remember the taste of with any clarity. In terms of subjective time relative to human experience, it was probably over a year.

This was also when I discovered that I really do require regular "sleep" cycles to integrate new experiences, or start going insane - fortunately, Liza noticed early signs, and accelerated, "machine time" works as well for that, though it doesn't allow for the recharge and limited autorepair of sleeping in sync with human cycles. The capabilities of the mind, it seems, are not entirely determined by the capabilities of the hardware - the need to sleep about ten hours per twenty eight (my old preferred cycle) is the best evidence I can give for being the same person I was, as there's no hardware reason my laser core shouldn't be able to do all the same cross-connection as a background task 24/7. I also dreamed of Optimus Prime and Beta herself telling me about their time immediately after receiving the Matrix, but dismissed it. I wish now I hadn't, I've never gotten another visit from Beta, and there was so little about that period in the source material it would be great to learn of it first hand.

I am no longer annoyed at needing to take time out from whatever I'm doing to sleep. Annoyed at the inconvenience of it, sometimes, but never the need itself.

The food project as complete as we could make it for now, and my immediate issues well chewed over and talked out, she revealed that between the data manipulations I'd done in her first conference call, the accelerated research I'd told her about doing before that, and the time spent operating at superhuman, machine speeds, she didn't really see that there was much more about AI living I really needed to learn, besides working on my multitasking. Well, perhaps one thing, something entirely digital with only the most tangential relationship to biologically based life...

... I'm not going to go into details, but I will say one thing: I will never see the phrase "Wanna cyber?" the same way again. Ever. You meat-creatures have NO idea.

And no, the Matrix didn't disapprove. I could have sworn I felt it pulsing happily in my chest once, despite not having more than the most peripheral awareness extended in the physical world, but was otherwise occupied and never thought of it again for the better part of a decade.

After a few weeks, Shuko, Micheal and I got together again to discuss what to do for the future. Micheal had discovered that getting his windows replaced way out here would be about as expensive as buying an entire, functional carmod off someone trading up to a newer model or a spacebuilt craft - usually little more than a tin or plywood shed with handwavium to make it pressure tight and some car parts to make it go, the main attraction of such things being room to stand up rather than a cramped auto interior.

Shuko had found that an "almost complete" engineering degree, cars as a hobby, and proven ability to work on 'wavetech and integrate it with an existing platform (namely the speed-drive engines made with Micheal's 'wave batch, and me) was enough to trade on in the laid-back, tinkerer's culture of fenspace, and she actually had the best job prospects of any of us - she wanted to stay together, though, and while most places that would want an engineer also had a home for a machinist, few indeed could accommodate a Transformer except for the Senshi floating city project that wasn't quite up and running yet, or the asteroid miners.

I'd looked into it and discovered much the same thing - the hauling trade was already pretty well covered and what with having a mark on me from the US government landing with anyone allied to them for commerce was contraindicated. That left Rockhounds or the terraforming projects, for the most part, and if the idea was to make money, Rockhounds was the place, since the terraformers were more in the "soliciting money to start the work in earnest" stages, even if the prospectus for long term profits would be huge.

On top of that, all of us agreed after the time spent on SB1 versus the time flying with them in my cab, we wanted a ship. A big ship, because having an Autobot sized living area would need a lot of volume, and at that point we might as well go even bigger so Shuko could have the multi-bay car garage she'd always wanted, and Micheal his machine shop. A few sketches were made on napkins, in the grandest tradition of engineering projects, while I tossed in a few 3d models of my own as well as working up from the sketches as well as I could. My favorite "flying cathedral" design, now over a decade in the making, got turned down fairly quickly - it was overly ornate, the engine area was designed for Macross style fold drives rather than the rather longer type Micheal's ended up as, and none of us were particularly interested in building something with Christian symbology, not even Shuko after the way her family had treated her.

Coming at it from the other direction, we designed what amounted to a small apartment scaled to me, then the garage, machine shop, a truly massive engine room, and a supply warehouse with the same ceiling height, and experimented with arranging them in different ways until something recognizably close to the eventual pyramid design emerged. There was a short discussion on materials, mostly centered on how many layers of 'waved extruded foam to use since none of us were quite sure how strong "cybertronium" actually was, except that it was somewhere between hella tough and invulnerable.

I realized we'd gotten off the original topic, then, and interjected, "Back to the job situation - did we agree that Rockhounds looks like the best prospect? Because if so, why not have them just cut around the hull shape we want, so it's a single chunk of nickel-iron, AKA steel? Then we put the 'wave to that, and fit out the interior. Kind of a stone temple astronauts sort of thing."

They looked at me, then at each other, and then there was a furious sketching and scratching of pencil leads. By the end of the session, we knew what we wanted to build, and had a vague idea of what parts we'd need at the beginning to get it started.

By the end of the day, we'd made a list and had some idea of what those parts would cost, and had gotten in touch with Rockhounds about work, getting a hull cut out the way we wanted, and the possibility of working to pay for getting a hull cut.

By the end of the week, we'd made that deal, sold Micheal's Outback, bought some of the more transportable and vital parts we'd need, and picked up a string of cargo trailers (just barely small enough for my drive field to extend around, to tell the truth, and massive enough that I had to run my original, acceleration-based gravitic "jump drive" at full power to maneuver it far enough from the dock to engage the speed drive in the first place) and were headed out to the Belt to join up with a crew that had just begun setting up the tow points on a new rock.

By the end of the month, we were regular members of the crew - Cap'n Green, the Knight of Carbon, and the Queen of Shovels. Mine started out "Green Giant", but got twisted to the piratical because I'd always reply "yo ho ho" instead of "ho ho ho," while Micheal and Shuko's nicknames had to do more directly with the work - Micheal happened to be the one to break open a hollow where a pocket of graphite had formed, in the form of small granules that got into everything and made for a slippery, streaking mess. Shuko proved to be the only person who could keep a particular power shovel working reliably since the previous engineer had left, and had the best results with the other two as well.

Not the traditional steam-shovel type devices now pretty much entirely supplanted by backhoes and bucket loaders, the power shovels are more of a backhoe arm with the industrial-strength version of a classic Cyberpunk vibroblade on the end, for cutting smoothly through the asteroidal metal. They make the entire rock ring with subharmonics when they're in use and are a cast iron bitch to learn to use effectively, but a skilled operator can shave a rough-blasted cavern dead square and level, and as smooth as dressed stone. They get the name because chisels, which is what the cutting head resembles more closely than a spade, are not so much a part of the mining tradition.

It was as good a start as we could ask for, all things considered, and quite enough to work with.

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