That's not a shuttlecraft, it's a bulldozer!

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(Written by Kokuten with contributions from Feinan; posted January 14, 15, 17, 18, and 27, 2007)

Christmas time is here.. Time for Joy, and time for Cheer..

I stared blankly at the plain brown wrapper on the coffee-can sized package the postal clerk had handed me earlier. I had an idea what was in it, and I wasn't sure how I felt about it.

In the aftermath of That Con, a friend of mine had privately admitted to having a small supply of 'wavium, pure strain, before the guacamole incident. I'd asked her for some, and crossed her palm with the thirty piece of silver for shipping, and a few more for her trouble.

No problem there; I make damn good money fiddling with radios for a local utility.

But now I had a can of Handwavium. Some people were saying this was the new Messiah, magic come to earth, a grey goo nightmare waiting to happen, the story was different depending on who you asked and how much they had been drinking. I thought it was possibliity in a jar, myself.

I retired to the garage, and firing up a cigarette, I started unpacking the 'glass and steel' bins and buckets from my ill-fated alcohol-based-rocket-fuel-production experiment, idly wondering if that corner of the yard would ever grow grass again as I did so. Once I had my tools out, I set the can on my stainless steel bench and unwrapped it.

The coffee can size and shape made perfect sense now, with the bright and cheerful 'Folgers' logo staring back at me. The lid was duct-taped on rather agressively, and I cut it off carefully, removing the tape and lid to reveal... a quiescent grayish ooze, with no movement or changes to indicate anything.

I decanted the ooze into a glass tun and considered my next step...


I heaved the head off the big Cat Diesel and set it gently on a rollycart, then scrubbed and wiped until the engine ahead of me was clean and bright. Reaching into the cylinders with a brush, I spread on a thin layer of 'Wavium Black, a strain I had fed on motor oil, premium unleaded, trucking magazines and Bob the Builder episodes. Coating the inside of all six cylinders carefully, I then applied traces of 'Silver', a blend fed on golden age Silver Surfer comics and cut with elemental mercury and activated charcoal.

My mind fixated on what I hoped would happen, I got down under the motor and sprayed off the motor oil from the crankshaft, repeating the same process as the cylinders. A couple of additional areas got the treatment, and I started bolting covers and 'wavium treated gaskets on as I cleaned up. The sun went down and the temperature started to drop as I finished bolting the head back on the big Diesel, and I was shivering as I unplugged the ECM and headed back to the shop.

In the heated, well-lit shop, I considered the ECM, unsure what was going to happen next. I had developed a few strains of Handwavium for specific mechanical applications, but I had nothing going that seemed appropriate for computers or computing power. I decided on a course of action, and put the little engine computer module in a small sorting tub, bedding it on pages ripped out of a heavy equipment wholesale catalog that ran fairly heavy on stories and reviews. I drew a can of base 'Wavium from one of my holding tanks, and poured a layer into the tub, filling it a touch above the ECM.

I said a quick prayer under my breath, still unsure as to whom or what I was praying, and shut off the lights. I fired up the pickup and headed home, worried and hopeful about the next day.

Ten acres won't improve itself, so it was with a happy grin and a hot coffee that I greeted Sparky as I arrived at the land the next day. He'd already been at work, and the happily grumbling Cat he climbed down from seemed to indicate that my work had at least 'not failed'.

"Morning Sparky, the Cat seems to be running good today."

"Yeah, boss, but that new ECM didn't fit into the old brackets, I had to fabricate one this morning."

I nodded sagely, masking a deep and shivery excitement. We walked over to the idling Cat, and as I laid my hand on the engine compartment cover, I swear she leaned into my hand and purred. Sparky gave me a curious look as I, with a shit-eating grin, opened the compartment and checked the fit of Sparky's new bracket, which was perfect. The ECM was now bright yellow, and signifigantly longer, with a large Cat logo on its upper side. I reached forward and scratched it behind the connector, and the Cat shivered in pleasure, its engine note dropping to just above 'stall'.

I grinned at Sparky and explained what I'd been up to last night, and he shook his head in disbelief... and the work of clearing the land went a lot faster, with a Cat that thought it was a cat, and needed ear-scritches and pets as well as diesel and hydraulic oil, but seemed to have almost doubled its available pushing power.

Ten acres isn't much land, I reflected that evening over reindeer sausage and sourdough biscuits. Between me and Sparky, the rough layout we'd been working on sat, areas in green highlighting our current progress.

"At this rate we're going to be working all through this winter... finish up in early '09," Sparky said, digging into his own plate.

"Yeah, but we can at least pour the cement this winter, it's Portland, it'll cure."

"Roof over the cut and heat it?" Sparky asked, and we fell into the comfortable shorthand of two old friends, discussing our strategic goals.

Spring, '09

The basic shapes and structures were finished. A near-square rectangle of land, the edges walled in a 'Wavium based cement we called 'Grunt', because it ended up being so damn heavy and strong. We figured the three-meter thick border we had put on the land could take anything short of a city-killer kinetic energy weapon, and we weren't too sure it couldn't take that, this stuff was tough. A one-foot square pillar spurred off the wall had resisted everything we had, including 'Kitty', the 'waved Cat 936 wheel loader that had been the backbone of our work, and was the matriarch of our little fleet of construction and work vehicles.

Various hangars and structures dotted the landscape, all enclosed in the foot-thick 'roof pillars' that traced our boundaries. I bumbled along the access road in one of the few un'waved vehicles in the fleet, an old Suzuki ATV, and considered. Ten acres, tons of cement, hundreds of gallons of diesel and thousands of dollars, every scrap of money I could beg or borrow. My father, and Sparky's father had both taken out second mortgages to pay for equipment and supplies... We were committed, perhaps overcommitted, financially. Without some financial help and advice from other Fen, we could easily end up in a world of hurt.

I saw the gate rising, and bumbled my way over... maybe this was the carbon fiber strakes for the overhead dome..

It was. A whole bloody lot of ten-foot carbon fiber rods, light and strong, and a truckload of bracketting and assembly tools for them. We had developed a plan based around the willow huts used by some of the Native peoples, and we were fairly confident in its success. Given that even willow grew far too slow for our current timetable, we'd decided to use a signifigantly faster growing plant that was almost as strong.

The Fireweed sprouts were coming along nicely, and we staked each one with carbon fiber stakes, tying the plants with nylon ties and coating with handwavium. Dusting the whole assemblage with carbon fiber dust and praying, I moved right along.

The day was still young, so I cruised down to the engine bay. Drawn from innumerable anime and sci-fi shows and my own fevered mind, the engine was a Whedonesque rotating nightmare, turning over just above idle now to provide electricity and airflow for the rest of the complex. I considered the massive spindle, checking the battery levels and fuel flows and status indicators. Given how the engine responded to near-constant attention, I needed to get a maintenance officer down here. Who was I kidding, I needed a Kaylee...

Everything was coming together. Assuming the 'grow-a-dome' theory worked out, we'd be ready to go by September. And, so far, noone had so much as sneezed at the building and working we'd done. We were far enough out that cops and feds weren't welcome, and there was enough other construction going that we had remained unnoticed... so far.

Soon. I patted the engine gently, looking forward to the day when it would crank over hard, bringing us out of the 'surly bonds of earth' and into the Out There...

August 19, 2009

World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

I watched it pull back to a tiny dot on the screen, and I hit skip backwards twice on the DVR.

World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

I watched it pull back to a tiny dot on the screen, and as I reached for the DVR remote, the TV switched inputs.

"37 times, boss? What are you getting out of this?"

"Hope, Hermes. This whole thing is a little scary."

"Truth. Better sack out, boss, tomorrow is a long day, we're gonna weave the weeds."

"Goodnight, Hermes."

The TV shut off as Hermes went away. I got up and readied for bed. As I drifted off, I kept going over and over the plans, probing for any weakness...

August 20th, 2009

Carbon Fibreweeds. An adaptation of a damn fine idea, one I couldn't find the source for. I remember seeing a short-term 'indian hut' made out of woven willow, with a thatched willow cover that was marvellously efficient at keeping the rain and the wind out, and had almost zero impact on the environment.

Willow, even 'waved, just didn't grow fast enough. I had adapted the idea into a local plant, fireweed. Fireweed was a weed, and was found everywhere and grew, well, like a weed.

We had planted some stands of it, and staked them with carbon fiber poles. Applying carbon fiber dust to the assemblage, 'painting' the resultant with raw 'wavium, and allowing to soak for two seasons, with repeated 'wavium and carbon dust applications, had left us with a very tough, very stiff plant that grew wonderfully. The dark-greed leaves and jet-black blooms of our carbon fiberweeds had added an almost funeral air to the edges of the land.

Fireweed reproduces through conventional pollination, as well as by sending out tough woody runners. Our hope was that the linked network of carbon fiberweed in the ground and extending into the air could be woven with itself to make a tough, resilient, living dome. We'd developed a 'waved visqueen, a tough, inexpensive plastic covering that when 'waved, became almost optically clear and tougher than nails. It also had a good habit of sticking to itself, but only on the edges.

The initial weaving was difficult. The stiff, springy fiberweed didn't like staying bent, and we ended up using light wireline and ground anchors to assist us. As the sun spiked towards noon, we'd moved to manlift trucks and were operating over 30 feet in the air. We broke for lunch and considered. The weave had begun to turn, moving from a near-vertical curved wall towards the arched roof, and I brought out the next part of the dance.

The Spool

A custom-built wooden spool on a slapped together spool lift welded on top of a tandem axle snowmachine trailer, the spool was over fifteen feet tall, and filled with a carbon fiber and steel cable just under a half inch in diameter. By estimate, we had enough cable to encircle the land twice, with leftovers.

Weaving the cable into the fiberweed was a nontrivial exercise, and it took the rest of the day to get close to the first loop. We called it a day, and I walked back to my cabin, exhausted, exhilerated, and terrified.

I shucked my coat and sat down at the terminal. Hermes popped onto a side screen, scowling faintly. I pushed the button, and World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future...

August 21st, 2009

By lunchtime today we finished weaving in the contents of the Spool, making it two and a half times around the perimter, drawing it tight and welding the steel, seperating out some of the carbon fibers to be tied and epoxied.

Towards the end of the day, we finished the upper weave, taking advantage of the scaffolding I had laid in beforehand to speed our work. The finished product was wonderful to behold, the smooth curves of the carbon fiberweeds and graceful mesh of the weave arcing gracefully over the grounds. Thirty feet high at the top of the wall, almost fifty feet high at the centerpole, it was glorious.

We broke that day smiling. The next few days flew by, as I spent most of my time applying the 'waved plastic we were calling 'clean queen' to the inside and outside of the structure, gluing it to itself whenever a large enough gap occured in the weave. The airflow through the compound was dropping rapidly, and the environmental "plant", literally a collection of high capacity greens that should be more than sufficient to keep the air clean and fresh until we could get more skilled help.

August 24th, 2009

We were sealed. The bottom of the compound had been tunneled almost 90 feet down, and a grid of 'wavium cement beams, and in some cases, plates, had been installed by the compound AI, Hermes, running a rather well-waved set of burrowing drones. The underground sides were solid and thick, a three meter thick wall of "Portland Wave" sloping outwards from the bottom grid to just outside the stand of carbon fiberweed. The fiberweed rose near-vertically thirty feet, bellying outwards slightly, then turning smoothly to form the 'circus tent' profile of the compound.

The cops finally showed up today, and our cover worked beautifully. The officer was known to me, and I escorted him around with a smile, passing the fiberweed off as "a kevlar mesh with a really neat paint job", and the whole shebang as a movie set. I'm fairly sure he bought it, but in another month, it won't matter.

We're pretty much done with the large-scale construction. The engine is running smooth and producing all the power we need. It seems to rough out and get bitchy if noone is onsite doing something, which is a trait it has in common with Hermes. Given what we're planning to use this place as, I don't forsee it being a problem.

The big production today was testing the "Big Doors", the dual monstrous doors at the 'prow' of the compound. I suppose I really should think of it as a ship, but until we lift...

The doors functioned smoothly, though by the time we cleared enough dirt to close them again, we had a couple of truck loads.

August 25th, 2009

We used the raw soil from the door test yesterday to run a full-up test on the main processor. We plan to have several processor lines running outside the ship, but the startup, and in event of problems, the fallback processor is internal.

It worked flawlessly, and the motor was postively purring when all was said and done. The Misc. Organics bin got the most activity today, and the thick, dark, loamy material seems like a damn fine fertilizer and 'Wave growth media.

The 'Waved teflon coating, which we call 'Slickum' worked perfectly. The ingots of tin and iron that slid out of the conveyor belts slid easily, and we stacked them by hand in the output bunkers with massive grins on our faces.

August 26th, 2009

Slow day. Tested the lift facility of the engine, and brought the whole ship up a good ten feet and settled it back down. While a tunnel-drone revealed that we had not settled completely evenly into our original socket, but the cement held firm and stiff, and there was no visible internal or external damage. I tidied up the entryways with the Cat, and called it a day early.

I walked into my bunk and lit up a smoke, opening a window to keep the air inside fresh. I sat down in front of the terminal, and as Hermes looked on disapprovingly, I pushed a button, and World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

August 27th, 2009

The Engine has been tested, the environmental system is performing wonderfully (we've actually had to add a couple of smudge pots, the crew doesn't make enough CO2 to keep the plant happy). We've got a bundle of man-hours of work in, and so far, we've had nothing really major go wrong, that we haven't been able to fix. The fiberweeds are continuing to grow, and I've been having Hermes monitor them. They don't appear to have any problems with forming a 'topknot' of weed above the centerpost, and I don't have any problems with my ship, my home, having a funny hat, so we're letting them stay.

While we've got a fair bunch of moderately 'waved work vehicles and equipment, I'm rather pleased with our 'shuttles'. One of the most common vehicles in Alaska is the Chevy Suburban. They're big, they're nondescript, and they are capable beyond capable. While the Cat loader ended up being a cat, the four Suburbans Raven managed to get for a song from a local junkyard ended up being dogs. Specifically, as near as we can tell, St. Bernards. Big, doofy, loveable St. Bernards. They've been a little bored lately, since we've been keeping them under wraps to avoid answering questions about a flying Suburban, but I spent most of the day playing with them.

Someone decided to name them after the seven dwarves of Snow White fame, and since I don't argue with a good idea, I got to play 'fetch' with an old radial tire, and Doc, Dopey, Happy, and Bashful. I don't want to know how a Suburban can pick up a tire and throw it in the air, and neither do you. The boys were in fine fettle, and the heavily 'Waved drivetrains were turning over nicely, miniature Whedonesque Adjusted Mass cores rotating where a motor and transmission would be.

As I bedded down for the night, I considered, one more time, picking up a couple more Suburbans, to get us a Sneezy, a Grumpy, and a Sleepy. Tonight, I decided to do so. We had the space, and the extra mobility can't hurt. I pushed the button, and World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

August 28th, 2009

Most of the crew that helped build this is gone. They got paid well, and have no idea how badly into hock I've gone personally to make this happen, which is fine. More than one of them took me up on the 'wavium bonus to their conventional pay, which is even better, and several Coffee Cans of Possibility have gone out into the world. Raven's out hunting an additional three Suburbans, and Sparky's been locked in with Hermes for days, something about solving our personnel problem, which I'm leaving totally up to him.

I spent yesterday with the boys, so today I'm going to dedicate to checking on the rest of our 'Smart' vehicles. The second most common vehicle on the roads in Alaska, maybe the most common, is the four-door Subaru wagon. We picked up one for the taking, bidding a cool fifty bucks at a police auction, and driving the old girl home. This rig was intended to be our dispatch boat, the 'non-work workhorse' that ran packages and people to places we couldn't park, which was going to be most. Originally a 1984 Subaru wagon, she had taken to a 'Waving like it was something she was waiting for, and a few screens and a CarPC almost upgraded itself to an AI before we could get the 'Wave on it. Her name is Millie, and I was aiming for one of the minor Greek gods, and I got an absurdly professional, chipper, relentlessly blonde secretary.

After spending a morning with Millie, I was feeling pretty happy, as her relentless optimism and clear eagerness to work just blow through my worry-cloud. This was going to be neccesary, as I had to go talk to Vioarr.

I walked into the bay where Vioarr could normally be found, and saw, as expected, nothing. V, as she prefers to be called, is a 1999 Dodge Stealth VR4, a Mitsubishi 3000GT in a funny hat, really. We got the basic chassis at another police auction, and found several pounds of weed that Raven dubbed 'fairly good' inside the door panels. I still think I shouldn't have let Raven 'Wave V while she was stoned, but bygones are bygones. She's absurdly fast fast fast, and as her model implies, she's a stealth boat. Never know when you might have to be sneaky, and she's damn good at it.

As evidenced by the lack of car in my bay. I pulled a tennis ball out of my pocket that I had left over from playing with the Boys, and hucked it. It bounced off the wall, hit the floor, and came back to me. I caught it, and hrmmed.

Winged against the left wall, it bounced off and hit the back wall and cornered into the right wall and rolled around a bit. Against the right wall it hit the back wall at a good enough angle that I could catch it, and I did so. I hrmmed again, this time with a little more emphasis, and heard a feminine chuckle.

"Well, bugger. I guess I'm just gonna have to switch this bay's fuel feed to diesel, then... park Cat in here or something." I said, then hit the light switch. As the lights went out, I felt a big mass of air move, and heard a thump and squeaking of suspension. I reached for the light switch and a pair of headlights snapped on before I could turn it on.

"You wouldn't do that, would you boss?" V asked, and I smiled as I turned the light back on. Inky black, gloss black, the kind of black that your eyes just kind of slide off of, V squatted there flickering her headlights. I turned quite a few watts of charm on her, because as mischevious as she is, V is a genuinely nice person. I patted her fender as I walked around the passenger's side, and she popped open the door for me. Sliding down into the leather, I sighed, and V popped up on her in-dash, a spare outline of a face surrounding a trim mouth with 'bee-stung' lips and a piercing pair of grey eyes.

"You added a face!" I exclaimed, looking closer. V grinned, her cheeks wrinkling a bit cartoonishly.

"Yeah, I've been spending quite a few cycles considering what I want to look like." She said, still smiling. Her smile then dropped away, leaving her looking vapid and bored. The cheeks still didn't quite animate right, but the overall effect was very well executed. "Since I have nothing better to do."

And now she was pouting. The cheeks worked well for that, at least!

"Yeah, V, I know, but soon, soon..." I trailed off into nothing, smiled reassuringly and patted the dash before climbing out and heading off. I spent some time with Cat, checked the main 'Wavium tank, noted the growth rate on the logbook, and smiled. The organic 'leftovers' from processing two truckloads of dirt were almost gone, but the growth rate on that media was just awesome. We were approaching the doubling-per-day that was rumored to be 'perfect', and that was good enough for me.

I made it back to my cabin, and before I bedded down for the night, I pushed the button, and World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.


"Yeah, boss?" Today, Hermes had a nifty fedora on, her strong, confident face troubled. She was wearing her early-series hair today, too.

"You think we're gonna make it?"

"Yeah, boss, I do." Hermes smiled at me. I don't know why she picked the face and voice of Barbara Feldon, Agent 99 of the old, old Get Smart TV program, but I liked the result. Reassured, I waved a goodnight, and rolled over and went to sleep.

August 31st, 2009

Yeah, chilled out for the weekend. I spent some time with my family. We're leaving in 20 days. I'm nervous, but I'm starting to feel more confident. Today we overpressured the dome, bringing the inside pressure up to 5 atmospheres. There was a lot of creaking, and quite a lot of leakage through the bottom seam, which we fixed with the simple expedient of adding another stripe onto the bottom, and staking it into the ground. The second test worked just fine.

I pushed the button, and World Watch One pulled out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

September 1st, 2009

It seems that everything is ready. Raven's happy as a clam with her workshop, Sparky is still spending most of his time with Hermes, but claims everything is A-OK, the AI's are confident, and it's finally starting to sink in. I'm headed down to the tank right now, to draw off a big mug of 'original strain' Handwavium. Biomod's gonna happen, I figure, and I want to get it out of the way before I take off.

I've been considering what I wanted to get out of my biomod, and reading everything I could get on the subject. I think I've got a good pack going, and I've been playing World of Warcraft a lot, just spending time crafting and riding as a dwarven warrior. Watching the Lord of the Rings. Reading Shadowrun and GURPS sourcebooks, reading Dragonlance and avoiding the Hell's Gate series.

I think I'm ready. I sit down at the terminal, push the button, and World Watch One pulls out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

Hermes faded in through the last frames of the clip, watching me. I lifted my mug and saluted her, then bedded down for the night. If I dreamed... I don't remember it.

September 2nd, 2009

Well, this worked out about as well as kljd'jlksfda;33333333333333333333333\\ 3333333333333333333333333333333

September 3rd, 2009

Raven was able to whip me up a solid steel buckling-spring keyboard, this seems to be able to keep up with my new fingers a bit better. The 'Change' was fairly painless, and had none of the messy 'eating nearby inanimate objects or organics' or 'sphaghetti explosion' side effects, that seem to happen when mass change is part of the Change. I'm a bit shorter. None of my clothing fits right anymore, I didn't think of that. I'm close enough to human/normal that I should be able to buy off the rack still, thank god.

Headed to the gym now. Need to figure out what's going on under these lumps of muscle, get some coordination back.

September 4th, 2009

I've got my basic muscle skills relearned. Walking, writing, typing. Shooting is gonna be interesting, I can't see far distances for beans. Smell is up, I caught a scorched fuse in one of the new 'burbans before I could visually check it. Hearing also improved, though something seems funky in my binocular hearing - I can sense direction and position of sound origin better, but only 'up close', about 15 feet or closer.

I'm ugly now. Not that big a deal, really, but... it's going to make finding a wife a bigger challenge.

Raven thinks it's "Craggy good looks". She's nuts, but I appreciate the gesture. The Boys didn't seem to notice any change, I guess I 'smell' the same. The girls, Millie and V, noticed, but they don't have the same aesthetic sensibilities humans do, so no problem.

I'm taking this surprisingly hard. After making sure that none of the AI or 'smart' things on the boat were gonna flip out, I spent a couple hours wrenching on the new 'burbans. While Handwavium is a true miracle, it isn't a perfect miracle. I can synthesize a drivetrain out of the appropriately shaped components, but the components have to be there. We'd ran off the neccesary sets of engine rotors and assorted mounting and control gear as soon as we brought the new 'burbans in, but they still needed the actual work done.

September 5th, 2009

I didn't realize it, but yesterday was the two week mark. I'm going to finish up the new 'burbans and take a break. Go see my friends and family one last time.

September 9th, 2009

The Boys are up to seven members now, and there's something truly strange about a flock (is that even the right term?) of frolicking Suburbans. Especially reactionless, flight-capable ones.

We're ready. I'm pretty damn certain of it. The stock bins are full, the tools are racked and secured. The processes and processor are tested, vetted, and locked down. The environmental plant is running smooth as silk, and turning out some good food plants as well.

We've got over 3000 gallons of base-strain Handwavium tanked away, and a thousand gallons each of the Black and Silver strains. I'm headed out, going to go see my friends and spend an evening on top of Hatcher's Pass, but before I go...

I push the button, and World Watch One pulls out of the dusty Texas soil again, headed for the sky, headed for the future.

September 18th, 2009

We're ready. The last of the goodbyes have been said. My Father and Mother plan to be on hand for the launch, though hopefully it will be uneventful and boring. Today we triple-checked all of our lists, all of our storage. The Boys are nervous, the girls are putting forward a calm face. Raven cooked up a new AI, calls her Freyja. She says that we needed a medic, and I concur, but I was hoping for someone who's actual flesh and blood... but I'm more than willing to give this new gal a chance, she seems nice enough, if a bit remote.

September 20th, 2009

Here we go. As the sun popped up above the horizon, I pushed the button, and the HSF-000 Hephaestus shuddered in the chill air, pulling free of the frozen grasp of the earth with a jump, then settling down to a slow climb.

"Everything looking OK, Hermes?"

"Everything's nominal, boss. The motor's turning like it's never gonna stop, and the Boys are barking at the moon, but we're cruising nice and level."

"Awesome. Give me broadcast, tightbeam on my Father, marine band, channel 68."


"Dad, everything looks good from in here. You see anything haywire?"

"Well son, you're taking a few chunks of permafrost with you, but nuttin's falling out or fallin' apart. Godspeed, and I love you."

"Love you too, Dad." I replied, closing my eyes on the lump in my throat. As we passed the treeline, I saw the sun through the cold air, bright and powerful. I touched the controls and Hephaestus pivotted like a force of nature, slow, inexorable, and smooth.

Here was the moment of truth. I rolled on the throttle slowly, and in the 'downview' camera (actually a composite, but it didn't matter) the earth rolled away, my father's blue Ford shrinking to a tiny dot beside the sizable crater we'd left behind.

I glanced up at Hermes, who had fashioned her virtual avatar into a similar control station to mine. She was kicked back with her feet up and a cup of coffee in one hand, watching a virtual monitor. I smiled at her and she looked up, smiled, and saluted me with the coffee. I rolled on some more throttle, and we slipped the surly bonds of Earth, headed for the limitless possibility that I had first seen in a simple coffee can.

That's when the shit well and truly hit the fan. I had believed that, with out position near Sutton, we would be far enough away from the USAF bases at Fairbanks and Anchorage to not have to worry about jet intercept, but they must have had something up, because Hermes dropped her coffee, jumped to her feet, and zoomed into her normal 'face' view.

"Boss, I'm being hailed by a USAF jet fighter, they demand we cease moving at once and communicate our intentions!"

I paled. Not being a 'man of action', I had no idea what was going to happen to us, or to Hephaestus. The radio signal claimed to come from a jet fighter, and I didn't know what was parked on the runways in Anchorage or Fairbanks normally, or even what they would be capable of.

"Give me a channel, same freq, omnidirectional. broadcast a capsule summary off of the Mt. Sue and Mt. Gordon-Lyon ham repeaters, open a cell channel and call.. call.. "I trailed off as I brainlocked. While I had lots of friends and sources on the ground, I had noone that could affect this, and noone that needed to know, that wasn't being covered by the amatuer radio broadcast.

"Fuck the cell broadcast, just get a capsule on the repeaters, then follow-up with a live feed, and gimme an open mic to the jet fighters."

"You're on."

I grabbed the handmic, took a deep breath, and squeezed the trigger. "This is Captain Casler, independant fen in command of HSF-000, Hephaestus, leaving Earth for the asteroid field, identify yourself."

"Casler, this is First Liuetenant McCormick, USAF, in command of an F-16. You will halt your ascent and return to ground immediately"

"Sorry McCormick, no can do. I'm locked on my current course and am not capable of changing my vector. This bus doesn't stop until LEO"

"Casler, you will halt and reverse course immediately or we will fire!"

I stared blankly at the mic. I didn't know how honest a threat this guy had, or what would happen, but I was damned if I was going to set dow-


Hermes' scream was simultaneous with the clattering crashing crack of a burst of rounds shredding their way through the dome, snapped fiberweed and punctured 'queen flapping and snapping. The bullets didn't stop there, of course, but only struck sparks off of some of the internal walls before losing momentum.

Or, at least that's what reconstruction tells me. I saw the initial penetration of the dome, and rabbited. I slammed the throttles to the stop with my left hand and groped for the helmet to my skinsuit with the other. As the acceleration, stronger than the compensator was ready for, slammed me back in my chair, I forced the helmet onto my head, locking it into its ring. The sky above me was fast fading from the icy blue of Alaskan sky to a velvet black, and things were happening very, very fast.

September 21st, 2009

We're alive and Up. The single burst from the guns on the jet had parted a single strand of the fiberweed, put three punctures in the plastic, and taken a minor divot out of the outer wall of the Upper Machine Shop. This had been enough to nearly kill us.

We had the doors and air passages sealed tight for lift, and that had saved almost everything we had. Almost, for that one parted cable had taken out two others, whiplashing like an Indiana Jones movie on fast forward. Those two had taken out two others, but the tension had already started releasing from the whole structure.

By the time the damage had stopped, we had almost two dozen plants parted at various heights, and a ten foot tall rip in the plastic. The air rushing out of this gap had swiftly depressurized the dome, and Raven, showing up as soon as the acceleration had stopped, was actually blown out of the dome. Thankfully, the girl had the sense to use her safety rope, and all we lost there was a few minutes pulling her back in.

The earth on the top of the complex is freezing, and quickly. We managed to patch the rip with nylon rigging rope on the outside and visqueen strips on the inside, copious amounts of glue, and prayer. It turns out, the Carbon Fibreweed can't hack the cold, either. About half the dome is dead, the rest is dying, and it doesn't appear that the dead plant can hold the load, where the live one could.

Very little air is left in the dome. We're releasing what we can from the underside, and Sparky has kitbashed an oxygen seperator that he's running off of our water tankage, but we're in a world of hurt, now.

It's been a long day, trying to save what we can, but we're alive, and We Made It!

I push the button, and the HSF-001 Hephaestus pulls out from the cold embrace of the Alaskan soil, and climbs away from the camera like a dream. The camera isn't good enough to catch the jet fighter that almost killed us, but the ship is visible for quite a few seconds, and I can hear my mother in the background crying gently. My dad lowers the camera, and I hear him say quietly "good luck son" before the clip ends.


September 23rd, 2009

We're up. Thankfully, atmospheric containment is holding, at least underground. We rigged some of air compressors and pulled the dome empty, basically giving up on the plants.

Pulled the plastic back onto rolls and left the fiberweed frame up. No air, no friction, no drag.

I love it up here. The three of us loaded into one of the Boys this afternoon and just poodled around. Hermes says the orbit is stable right now, we've got a couple of days before we need to do anything to maintain it, and I've got her working a trajectory to the Belt. Nothing to it but to do it, and I want to get full holds before we start thinking of what next.

September 24th, 2009

More on the dome. On our way up, we took a burst from the gun on a USAF interceptor. I'm not sure why he fired, honestly, and I'm not honestly that worried about it.

Seriously. Noone was hurt, and the dome was a lot less reliable than we thought, so better to find out now.. I guess.

I still wonder why he fired, but I haven't heard anything on the radio, and, well, you can hear a lot up here.

So the dome was punctured, and one of the fiberweeds was snapped, by a bullet. It chain-reactioned out quite a few more, and the structural and atmospheric integrity were compromised. We managed to patch up the rip before we lost much air, but the environmental plants were working overtime, before we locked off the dome and pumped the air out of it.

Repair was going to happen - we would have a dome, come hell or high water, but it wasn't going to happen soon enough to make keeping the shreds of the existing one pressurized make any sense. The 'Carbon Fiberweed' we'd developed had failed utterly, succumbing to the cold of space, most likely. The dessicated carcasses were still fairly tough, but didn't have the tensile strength needed for this.

Hermes lit up the motor at 2am and pointed us at the Belt. I wasn't very amused, but she just looked at me and reminded me how much I'd fretted about liftoff.. Is it possible to lobotomize an AI?

(Edit: No. Not once she's had this long to backup components and put them where you don't know about them, boss! -Hermes)

So we're well on the way to the Belt, and Hermes says she's identified a couple of likely candidates. Today we fashioned airlocks out of 'waved plastic sheet, velcro, zippers, epoxy and 'Wavium. We then updated our design to include painted surfaces, since near-optical quality plastic sheeting ended up being more of a pigeon-into-glass situation than a man-through-the-lock one.

Hephaestus looked strange from the top now. The bright-orange airlocks were very visible, against the grey-green background of dead and dying plant life.

"Hermes, you found anything on the radio bands from 'folk yet?"

"Quite a bit, boss. Private conversations are happening all over the place, with different encryptions and codings, there's some sinusoidal carrier at 1.8ghz that seems organic, and a lot of public stuff in 400 and 900 meg UHF."

"Logical, that. Antennas for that can be very small and simple. Pick a public frequency you like and open me a channel, broadcast."

"You're on, boss."

I looked at the display, Hermes sitting in an old-school Trek workstation with an Uhura earbug sticking out the side of her head, and sighed.

I picked up the handmike and pressed the button.

"This is HSF-000 Hephaestus, KL1XD 'Wire Geek' commanding, and while I'm not, I repeat not, calling an emergency, I'm pretty bloody close. We lost dome containment on the way up, and we're not going to be able to restore it. If there's anyone in the sound of my voice or anyone you know who is a dab hand with domes, or a dab hand with plants.. "

I let up off the mic and considered a moment. Hermes glanced at me inquiringly from the monitor, and I winked at her. There were a couple of responses, and I smiled as I picked the mic back up again.

"Again, this is HSF triple zero Hephaestus, KL1XD 'Wire Geek' commanding. We just got off the dirt and into the Out Here, and we're headed for the Belt. We're a full-service refinery and asteroid mining operation, and dome or not, we will be open for business. Hit us up on this frequency, and we'll be happy to help you with pretty much anything that can be described as 'metal', aside from the music. We also have a few tons of raw organics, a few thousand gallons of basic 'wavium, and a couple of homebuilt strains that you might just be interested in. I'm turning the show over to Hermes, the nice young digital lady who actually runs the place, and lets me push the buttons and look important. She'll tell you where we are, where we're going, and answer any questions you might have."

I put the mic back in its holder, and the TX light clicked back on the radio console as she took over. I smiled at her on the screen as she busily pushed buttons and flipped switches on her console. She looked over at me, still busily working.

"Couple of live wires here, boss, the closest seems to be a gentleman who calls himself "The Jason". He's actually in the Belt now, so I've already altered course to meet him."

"You, my dear, rock. Is the prow pointed forward?"

"Does the Pope shit in the woods?"

I grinned, rising from my seat. "I'm going Outside, me and Raven are gonna go play fetch-golf with a couple of the Boys. Keep an ear on the radio, and if someone seems chatty, patch them through to my suit."

I grumbled as someone shook me and called my name, and I squirmed a little deeper into my blanket before sighing and giving in. "Yeah...?" I yawned, starting to sit up on the couch where I'd been taking a nap. "What's up?"

The small Robosapiens drone started on its way, even as Lachesis spoke up. "Fate's got something interesting on the radio, lad. Somebody lost containment on their way up, and they're asking for someone who's good with plants. Interested?"

I reached for my glasses and put them on, then got to my feet. "Tell her to respond 'yes' and get the details. I'll come up to the cabin in a second."

"Sure thing, lad."

I headed up to the semi cab that served as my cockpit, considering. Lost containment, and they wanted someone good with plants? Sounded interesting. As I clambered into the shotgun seat, I smiled. "OK, Fate. What's the news?"

"Seems a fighter plane was trigger happy when this new ship took to the air. Might've been a warning shot, but it did a fair amount of damage. I've been talking to Hermes, the AI for the Hephaestus. They were apparently using a modded plant as supports for a containment dome, but one got snapped, and that caused others to unravel. The rest are dying - it doesn't sound as though the mod was spaceworthy."

I nodded as I listened. "Ok. Get their coordinates and head to meet them. Let them know I'm on the way. Also...ask Hermes for more information. I can probably fix something up, but I'll need an idea of the specs they want - what kinds of plants do they want, and what do they need them to do?" I chewed my lip, even as I considered possible parameters that would need modded. "And find out what they were using before. I can try to troubleshoot what they had, if need be."

Fate's triple-toned voice answered quietly. "Already doing so. They're apparently set up for refining, and have metal and some other stuff for trade. Including several handwavium strains."

I arched an eyebrow; that could be useful. "Works. We can figure out the details of payment and all once we see what needs done. Let me know when we get a little closer, and I might want to talk to Hermes myself, or the person in charge over there."

She answered back, "All right, Kevin. I'll go ahead and send the various parameters to your lab. I assume you'll want to review them and get some ideas while we go?"

I chuckled. "You know me too well, lass. Tell Clotho I'm on my way."

She chuckled softly. "Already done."

I nodded, getting to my feet and heading for the corridor back to the main part of the ship. I figured I'd have at least a little time to look over what was needed, and what they'd been using before. Time to tinker a bit.

Hermes beeped me just as I let rip, and I stood bemusedly as a golf club left station and headed off towards.. wherever. Sneezy was on deck and snagged the club handily, puttering back to base in the strange 'romping' flight pattern the Boys used when they weren't in a hurry.

"Yes, oh digital dominatrix of my desmene?"

"Huh? Nevermind. Boss, I've got coordinates on the Fateful Lightning, we're fairly close to on the way to them, so I've just altered our heading to meet up with them."

"OK, Hermes, sounds good, but.. who's the Fateful Lightning?"

"Right.. didn't tell you, sorry. The gentleman I mentioned earlier, The Jason? He's the captain of the Fateful Lightning, the one with the promising sound I mentioned earlier?"

"Got ya. So what's his shtick?"

"Greek mythology, pseudo-organic AIs, drones, and plants."

"Interesting. Pseudo-organic?"

"They sound more human than AI. I'm not saying I'm unhappy with my core, but those gals sound like they were Born of Adam. It's a little weird, tossing high-speed data bursts at someone who breathes."

"Well, I'm sure they're nice people." I replied, grinning ear to ear.

"Oh, they are! They just feel more human, it's kinda weird, and that triple-voice thing, woah.." Uncharacteristically, Hermes trailed off, and I wished I had a CPU meter handy. "Anyway, Fate, the AI for the Fateful Lightning, yes, stop giggling, Fate would like to know what our preferences and requirements for plantlife is."

I setup the tee and pointed forwards, and Sneezy backed off, spinning his tires in short bursts as he waited for the ball. "Well, if you have comm with his AI, I'll let you do the talking. I've no problem being friendly and all, since we're not time crunched, but I do want to get a dome back under us sooner or later. Hmm, preferences.. "

I swung, connected, and with the strange 'ck!' of a golf-ball hit in vaccum, the ball streaked into the far foreground, Sneezy in hot pursuit. "By preference, I'd like something 'viny'. I'm a piss-poor horticulturalist, Raven's more of a 'recreational' one, and I don't know the exact terms. Anyway, something without much leaves on the stalk, and very low maintenance. The whole topknot idea was awesome, I really liked it and I think it's workable."

I pondered a second as Sneezy snagged the ball in his hood and bounded back to me. Retrieving it and setting up, I fired off another shot before continuing. "I'm gonna have to leave it in fate's hands, so to speak. Make sure to bundle our procedures and results with the fiberweeds, it may be of some use to him, and I don't value the idea enough to try and profit from it."

"Burst and... recieved, boss. Fate will notify her captain, and I'll call you when we get close enough for easy voice comm."

"Thank you, Hermes."

"My pleasure."

I smiled again as I retrieved the ball from Sneezy. Looking closer at him, he appeared to be.. panting. I went to scratch my head and clonked my glove on my helm. Laughing at myself, I affectionaly smacked the big Suburban on his nose and headed for the airlock. Given the speeds and distances, I had a fair bit of time before we got in low-delay voice range, and I wanted to 'freshen up'.

"Boss, there's a semi truck hailing us, it's the Jason."

"Extend all courtesies and tell him to suit up, I'll meet him at the prow beacon."

The semi conglomeration that was the Fateful Lightning stayed off from Hephaestus - the mass of trailers behind the cab was too large to fit easily. Instead, a small Toyota emerged from the rear of the trailer, and started towards the prow. A radio call goes out, "Coming in, and suited up. I'll meet you there."

The red-and-white strobe at the apex of the upthrust prow of Hephaestus started blinking as the Tercel approached it, and slid neatly in overtop of it to land in the cleared area behind it. The driver's side door opened - apparently, the car was already airless inside - and a suited figure stepped out. He appeared to be dressed in some sort of dark blue spandex suit, but what was most unusual was his helmet. There was a faint shimmering bubble around his head, but other than that, he didn't appear to be wearing one.

WG blinked repeatedly as he strode to the side of the Toyota, disbelief clear on his face through the clear glassy bubble of his helmet. "Is that?" He extended a finger gingerly at the faint shape.

The man grinned back. "Force field, yes. And you wouldn't believe how long it took me to get it right...." He was a large man, definitely someone who shouldn't normally be wearing spandex, with dark brown hair and a reddish-brown beard. He smiled, and offered a hand. "Kevin Eaches. But I go by the Jason. Good to meet you."

The similarly wide, but far shorter WG shook the proferred hand firmly and briskly "Nick Casler, I go by WG up here, pleasure's mine." Gesturing behind him at the dying, frayed vines arching overhead, cold, black, and dead against the starfield, "I assume you can see the problem?"

Kevin looked up, peering at the dying vines, and nodded. "Definitely. You need something spaceworthy and strong, at the very least. Did you want to stick with what you had, only a spaceworthy version? Or do you want something new? I can try either, though I'll need a sample of the original plant you used in yours if you want that."

The mismatched pair walked over to the verge of the land, dead grass and ground cover crunching under their boots. "I would like as close to what I've got now, aside from that dying thing, as I can get. The Fireweed is a pretty Alaskan thing, and I gotta remember my roots." WG stated, bending to grasp one of the woody stems in both hands. With no apparent effort, he broke the vine into sections, handing one to the Jason and considering the other. "We've still got quite a few pieces of live stock inside, you're welcome to them."

Kevin took the section, and nodded. "I can do that. I'll need at least a few live plants, and I'll see what I can come up with for you. I've modded plants for spaceworthiness before, so I have at least some ideas on what to do for that. And I have to say, the carbon fiber idea is a good one. Though I think I'll incorporate spider silk as well - that should help. Work for you?"

"Spidersilk, pasta noodles, whatever gets the job done. We're gonna need ground cover too, I'm afraid - but that can wait until we have pressure back."

"So what can we do in return?" WG checked his wristwatch, and looked out into the starfield.

The larger man nodded. "Yeah. And groundcover in pressure is easy - it's not as though you need anything modded special for that." He hmmmed...and reached through the forcefield to scratch the back of his head. "We could work up a deal for credit? I can always use new drone frames worked up or the like, special fittings..."

WG checked his watch again, glanced out in the starfield, and smiled. "I'm sure we can work something out, I can slap together nice sturdy drone frames in short order. Now, let's head back to the Point, Sparky's bringing in an asteroid, this ought to be something to see."

As the two returned to the apex of the prow of Hephaestus, with the Fateful Lightning looming overhead, giant doors opened in the rock below them, opening the front of the platform. Kevin grinned, watching with interest. "Nice setup...."

"First run. We've ran all the processes before, but never Upstairs. Looks like Sparky brought Doc out with him, that's the Suburban harnessed to the asteroid. Doc's the smartest of our 'worker bees'. This is the first all-up test, but the crew has requested me to stay hands-off for this one, so you wanna join us for dinner? Tonight's a good moose goulash and baked potatoes."

Kevin hmmmed, nodding. "Individual AIs for the various vehicles, then?" Then he grinned at WG. "Can't say that I've ever had moose. If I wouldn't be imposing, then sure."

"Well, not quite AI. Internally, we call it 'big doofy dog' level intelligence, but the Boys seem to be happy, and they work well, so..." WG trailed off as the Suburban pulling away from Hephaestus cut loose from his harness and slid away from the rock, which coasted inside the massive doorway.

"Huh. Anyway, dinner's pretty much a community affair, so one more would be a pleasure. "

Kevin nodded. " why fix it if it ain't broke." He chuckled softly. "Most of the work that I don't do, my girls handle through remote drones. No need for extra AIs, but then, most of it is close-in work that remotes are just fine for. And that sounds wonderful. It's always good to meet new folk up here."

A faint thump rolled through the platform, the doors closing, as WG led the two of them to the nearest airlock.