5. Response Time
Starbase Gandalf, Starbase Gandalf on moon Gollum, this is Lieutenant Redshirt of the SS Undertaker, lasering in report of Multivac, planet 5, fly-by recon.
My trajectory took me past moons Larry, Isaac and Hal, and a close pass by the Thin Ring. Sulfur volcano Mesklin on Hal is erupting. Recon shows normal Starfleet activity around Wu colony on Larry, and normal civilian activity around Trantor colony on Isaac.
Bolo retracted for high-gee burn of 1.1 hektoseconds.
At closest Multivac approach, I stared at the cloud-tops, spellbound. Multicolored storms spinning off eddies wider than Rosie! Mighty Multivac, almost a star!
No enemy activity detected.
Before humans could colonize planet Roseanne, they had to remove the cyanide from Rosie’s toxic air. It was a massive feat of planetary re-engineering, a planned ecological collapse, called a 'mild terraforming' for propaganda purposes. The Mild Terraforming involved systematically exterminating 17% of the planet's native bacteria species, and its most advanced strain of lichen. Truffula and lorax survived, but in reduced numbers. In Lake Ness, Nessies, Gefiltes and Ludefisk survived, but the Twix succumbed. The Mild Terraforming also required equally ruthless extermination of human dissent; for the process took centuries, during which the colony stayed mostly on crowded and airless Dan. A few rebel mavericks colonized marginal Columbia. During the 'sojourn on Dan' the Inner Crew encouraged the culture to crystallize around the sacred video records from Lost Earth.
Still in orbit about Dan is the shell of the colony ship, the Methuselah. 50% of its corpiscles didn't revive; all of the sperm and eggs made it. The crew sustained genetic damage from centuries of cosmic radiation; so they were heavily gengineered to repair and enhance. The crew-bred retain vestiges of privilege, but recently the cargo-bred have challenged this…
It was on planet Roseanne, in the wilderness foothills of the Wilmas, one hundred and thirty-seven kilometers north-by-northwest of Bullwinkle, that Randy Underwood and Francis Raven were fleeing the massacre.
Team Galactic had raided the rebel stronghold at kilosecond 14; which was 4 kiloseconds before summer sunrise on planet Roseanne’s 84-kilosecond day. Francis and Randy, the sole survivors of the attack, rode on stolen broom-jets. They flew low, fast and far.
Before blasting into the sky, they had destroyed the other broom-jets parked on the plaza, to delay pursuit by Team Galactic. They flew north-by-northwest, away, away, away from the smoking wreckage of their former stronghold.
They flew at rooftop level, guided only by moon-light from quarter-phase Dan and crescent Becky. City gave way to farmland, which gave way to forest, then managed wilderness, and then land dominated by native Roseanne vegetation; braintree, bitter lichen, brickel bush, snide, lorax and truffula.
At kilosecond 20, two kiloseconds after Elvis-rise, with broom-jets running out of charge, they survived a hazardous landing in rough and barren terrain. There they abandoned their discharged broom-jets and set forth on foot.
A kilosecond later they took shelter under a rocky overhang.
Randy Underwood looked around the cave and said, “Quiet… secluded… spacious… good view… defensible position… perfect!”
Francis Raven said, “What’s perfect?”
“Security!” he said. “No-one’s watching! Now, do you have that crystal?”
“What, the data crystal? The one that Rosemarie tossed to me, right before the door burst in? The one that she ordered me to escape with, to give to you?” Francis Raven took it out. “Here it is!” And she handed it to him.
“Thanks!” he said, eyes gleaming.
“For what it’s worth,” she said, “which is nothing.”
“It’s worth a lot,” he said. “I mean, I already have yesterday’s scan, but this one’s fresh.”
“Fresh, that’s a good way to put it. I got it just before they d-died.” Francis shook her head. “And what good is it? Crystals need replicators, and what do we have here?” She gestured to the cave floor, empty of all but rocks and boulders.
“We have enough,” he said.
“You’re so confident. Why?” she said. “We’re alone, friendless, without resources…”
He said, “We’ve got this.” He pointed to his backpack.
She jeered, “Will you pull our dead friends out of that backpack? And an arsenal too?”
He chirped, “Can do!”
“So you’re granting wishes now? How about breakfast?”
Francis Raven stamped a foot. “All right then, how about a- a- a pony?“ She spun around and crossed her arms.
Randy Underwood laughed. “Will a black helicopter do?”
She spun around again and glared at him. “What are you looking at?”
He said, “I was admiring your spirit.”
“You were admiring my ass!”
“Well, that too.”
“Oh great,” she said. “It’s the end of the world, total defeat, and my fellow friendless homeless hunted refugee is making eyes at me.” She stumbled over to the nearest boulder, wearily sat on it, and buried her head in her hands. “Oh gods, oh gods, oh gods,” she wailed, “what’ll we do, what’ll we do?”
And Randy was standing right beside her. He put a hand on her shoulder, and kissed the top of her head while she wept. “It’ll be all right,” he said. “Everything’s going to be okay.” He stood behind her and massaged her back. “We’ll be fine, I mean it. We have everything we need, right here. You want me to prove it? Let’s do a checklist. Do we have privacy?”
Francis Raven looked up, suddenly alert, and said, “Check!”
“Barren floor littered with gravel, rocks and boulders?” he asked.
She said, “Check!”
He said, “Data crystal full of dead friends?” and held it forth.
She said, “Check!”
He said, “Field Replicator Mark 2.5?” He walked around to in front of her, took off his backpack, and said, “Check!”
He pulled a latch at the top; it went click and the backpack started to unfold. It unfolded by linked panels into a floppy loop, about three meters around. Randy said, “Help me with this, okay?” and Francis leaped to her feet.
Together they lowered the thing around a nearby pile of rocky rubble. Standing up, the replicator formed a rough circle, about a meter across. Randy unclipped a data pad connected by springy cable to the rest of the replicator. “Okay, we’re ready!” he said. “What to start with, dear? Your wish is my command!”
“Water!” she gasped.
“Water it is!” And he tapped the data pad.
The rubble within the loop of panels vanished, and in its place a canteen materialized. The replicator settled with a crunch into the gravelly ground, its mass increased by the mass difference between the rubble absorbed and the canteen produced.
Francis reached in, grabbed the canteen, opened it, and drank deep. Then she sighed, and handed the canteen to Randy, who drank it dry and tossed it aside. “Now,” he said, “two folding chairs and blankets.”
Those items materialized. Francis and Randy took them out of the field replicator and unfolded the chairs. Francis swaddled herself in both blankets and shivered; Randy remained standing, data-pad in hand. He looked her over. “I know what you need. Coffee.”
“Thank you!” she said.
“Two sippy cups, one for you, one for me! Double-espresso, extra sugar, hot!”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried.
He took the drinks out, and gave her one, and sipped on his. “And now,” he said, “breakfast.” He looked the data pad up and down. “It’s a big menu… How about…” and he scrolled down the list, “granola bars and soda?”
Francis sipped her coffee. “No.”
Randy scrolled down the menu. “Here’s a seven-course banquet.”
“How about scrambled eggs? I scanned yesterday’s batch!”
“Yesterday’s batch? I already had it, you made it for me, remember?”
“Well, no thank you! I’ll make breakfast next time!”
“How about a free-range ludefisk? Fresh-caught from Lake Ness!”
“A ludefisk? Yuck! Only a Nessie can stomach those pests! Do you have a fresh-caught, free-range gefilte?”
“No, not here… I’ll put one in the Mark 2.6, I promise.”
“What do you have in this replicator?”
Randy said, “How about…” and he read down the list, ”crottled greeps?”
Francis said, “Okay! Fine! Crottled greeps it is!”
A silver service, mounted on a small table, materialized within the replicator. Randy lifted it out by the table’s built-in handles, and set it between the chairs. He lifted the silver cover. Inside was a large Wedgewood china bowl, filled to the brim with a steaming heap of crottled greeps. Randy doled out servings with the ladle and bowls provided; then he sat down, and they ate with the silverware, also provided.
“Mm, hm!” he said after awhile. “I love the taste of crottled greeps in the morning! They taste like life!”
“And survival,” she replied.
“Let’s get to work,” he said. “Here, dear. Watch this.”
A backpack materialized. He reached in, got it out, and handed it to her. “Your very own Mark 2.5 Field Replicator.”
“Thanks. So these things reproduce.”
“That’s nothing. This machine contains a cascade of replicators! Watch this!”
Inside the replicator materialized three large cubes, some coils of cable, and a large data pad. “This is the level two machine,” he said. “Help me set this up, OK?”
They set out the three cubes in a triangle, and connected them to each other with the cables, forming a rough circle about three meters in diameter. Within that circle they replicated a picnic table laden with food, plus coolers full of water, soda, and beer.
“Hey, what was that?” Francis asked. “What was that breeze?”
“You mean the wind blowing into the replicator just now? The machine ran low on mass, so it sucked in some air.”
“You mean it’s air-fed?”
“In a pinch.”
“No, no, no!” she said. “We need air!”
"In a pinch, I said. And there’s lots of air. Quadrillions of tons! We can run an industrial society on air-fed replication for millennia and still only lose a fraction of a percent of the atmosphere! Besides, most of what we replicate is organic matter, which cycles into and out of the atmosphere anyhow. And later we’ll make air out of rocks. I promise!"
Francis said, “What happens if your replicators, while sucking in air to turn into energy, also suck in something else? Or someone else?”
“Then that something, or someone, also gets turned into energy.”
Francis shook her head. “These things need safety features.”
Randy said, “You’re right, we’ll put some into the Mark 2.6.” Francis raised her eyebrows. He continued, “Next, the necessary room.”
They moved the level 2 replicator three meters over, to the next patch of ground; there they replicated porta-potties. They moved the replicator again, and made tables laden with weapons, along with a level 3 replicator.
The level 3 replicator, like the level 2, was packaged as three cubes connected by cables; this time forming a loop ten meters across. They set it up surrounding a large boulder. “Hey, these things are light,” she said.
“Well, they’re light when they haven’t absorbed any mass-energy,” he said. “They’re made mostly of titanium, reinforced with carbon nanotubes. Light and strong.”
“Impressive,” she said.
“We’ll want to move this one, after we set up camp, so I’ll dump ballast to reduce absorbed mass-energy to zero.”
A campsite materialized, complete with pitched tents. “What’s that?” Francis asked, pointing at a heap of yellow metal.
“The ballast,” he said. “Gold grickles.”
Francis picked up a gold grickle. “’Power of Pride’,” she read. “And that’s ol’ Malvolio, in profile.” She turned the coin over and read, “ ‘Galactic Empire, One Gold Grickle’. And there’s a cute plump tail-finned missile hooped by three ellipses.”
Randy said, “The Rocket and Atom. Sigil of Empire.”
She picked up another gold grickle and compared them. “Hey, they’re identical! They even have the same scratch marks!”
“Yup. They’re all replicas of the same coin.”
Francis said, “Time was, you could go for years without ever seeing a single gold grickle.”
“Well, here’s a pile of them!”
“It’s as high as my hip, and I’m a tall girl.”
“I like tall girls!”
“Down, boy! My point is, you’re making some kind of a statement here, aren’t you? How much is a gold grickle worth now?
“You want one? You want a dozen? A hundred? Take as many as you need!”
“I don’t need any,” she said, and tossed the gold grickles back onto the ballast heap.
“Next,” he said, “Perimeter defenses. And a pony.”
“You said you wanted a pony.”
“I change my mind. You mentioned black helicopters. How about those instead?”
It was the work of a few minutes to replicate two machine-gun nests and four black helicopters. Randy said, “Well, that’s that for now. Food, drink, shelter, latrine, weapons, defenses, and transport! If our friends need anything else, they can replicate it themselves! All we need to replicate now is them.”
Francis said, “Not yet. Let’s break for lunch first, okay? It’s kilosecond 42, high noon, and I’m famished. Our friends are dead, they can wait.”
So they sat at the food table and had lunch: crottled greeps, ahagaree, spoo, fricasseed tribble, bouncing potatoes and lime jello.
Randy cracked open a can of Tree Frog beer. He boasted, “The field replicator is a city in a backpack. It’s a portable technological revolution!”
Francis said, “Yeah.” She was studying the data-pad of the Level One. “You can find just about anything in it… for instance…”
“Two pairs of handcuffs?” Randy said, amused. She scooped them out.
“A blaster?” Randy asked. “Now why would you want another – uh, whoa, whoa, whoa, watch out where you’re pointing that thing –“
“Okay!” She pointed the blaster straight at him. “That’s better. Hands up, please.”
He raised his hands. “What’s going on?!”
“You are under arrest, mister.” She tossed some cuffs into his lap. “Cuff your ankles together. Now. Don’t try any funny stuff.”
Randy lowered his hands, grabbed the cuffs, leaned over and cuffed himself while Francis watched carefully. Then she took the other pair of cuffs. She stepped up to Randy and, blaster held to his head, cuffed his hands behind his back. Then she stepped back, lowered the blaster, and said, “Good.”
Randy said quietly, “What’s this all about?”
Francis looked over the blaster in her hand. “You know, this thing is really well made. The casing is seamless! And it’s made of nanotube-reinforced titanium, right?” Randy nodded. “Cool!” she enthused. “You can’t pick up stuff like that just anywhere! And titanium’s tough to machine! To work with it, you need some real advanced equipment!”
Randy squirmed a bit. “Well – “
“And look! This blaster has a graviton setting! Talk about cutting edge tech! And look at the logo, right here on the heel!” She pointed the blaster straight at Randy again and looked at the sigil facing her. “A cute, plump little missile with tailfins! Hooped by three ellipses!”
Randy stopped squirming. “Oh…”
“The Rocket and Atom!” she said. “Sigil of Malvolio’s so-called Galactic Empire!”
Randy moaned, “Ohh...”
Francis said, “Yeah, busted! This thing’s Imperial! And so is all this stuff! Everything encoded in this handy little field replicator! All the nanomaterials and the cutting-edge tech and the user-friendly design – “
“It’s my user-friendly design,” he objected.
“All right, that much is yours! But titanium machining? In our scruffy little seat-of-the-pants rebellion? Or wait a minute; can you machine titanium… inside the replicator somehow?”
“No,” Randy admitted. “That would require a programmable replicator. We don’t have that technology, yet.”
“’We’ don’t have it yet. Who’s this ‘we’? Tell me straight, right now, or else! Where’d you get all this Imperial loot?” She took careful aim…
His shoulders slumped. “From my partner, of course.”
“Your partner. An Imperial?”
“Oh!” she said, and twitched the blaster tip upward. “I was expecting you to lie.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, Francis.”
“Oh really? Then tell me; who’s this partner? No, let me guess. The good Doctor Nechaev? Malvolio’s pet genius?”
Randy nodded. He said, “Tesla Nechaev is the smartest man orbiting Elvis.”
“He’s also a lunatic.”
Randy shook his head. “You don’t understand, you don’t know him.”
She said, “But you do, you’ve worked with him, right?”
He said, “The field replicator is our baby.”
Francis said, “Collaboration with the enemy. Who are you really working for?”
“I’m working for Cliff. My best friend… my partner, I think, is working for himself.”
Francis snapped, “How do I know that you’re not in it for your self? And what’ll you say to Cliff? How will you explain how you got all this swag? Let me guess – you’ll say it was all stolen!”
“Actually, some of it was stolen. Like that gold grickle.”
“Yes, I know, by your friends in the Thieves’ Guild. Don’t look so surprised! I know all about your dealings with them! All your little understandings and bargains! Don’t you dare deny it! I’ve tracked you, Randy! You’ve been visiting the Wizard’s Bastard!”
Randy moaned, “Ohh…”
“Yeah, busted again! How many times has Cliff told you not to go there?”
“It’s neutral territory,” he argued.
Francis rolled her eyes. “Is that what you plan to tell Cliff?”
“If I have to, sure! He won’t like it, but Rosemarie will talk him down.”
“You’re right. He’ll even buy your cover story about the Thieves’ Guild. But you know, and I know, that not all of that stuff fell off a turnip truck! There’s some boodle that not even Tricky Dick can lift! Some of this stuff – the best stuff – came straight from the laboratory of Dr. Tesla Nechaev! Who is, may I remind you, Overlord Malvolio’s top scientific advisor!”
“All right, have it your way,” Randy said, “Of course it’s collaboration! But I did it for Science! Besides, look what I got for it!”
“Sure, look what you got for your treason! Food! Water! Camping equipment! Portapotties! And okay, a few weapons…”
“I got much more than that! We’ve barely tapped the machine’s potential! Look at the data pad, see for yourself!”
Francis Raven studied the menu on the data pad.
After awhile she said, “It’s a big arsenal…”
“Tesla insisted. But no unstable isotopes. I insisted. Or nerve gas, or germ weapons.”
“He wanted those things?”
“You wouldn’t believe what he wanted! And the technical glitches? Oh brother! He and I had to pound on this thing, hammer and anvil, just to get it into shape. You could turn the Mark 1.0 into a TC bomb with just three key-strokes!”
“TC? You mean, total conversion? Of matter to energy?”
“I mean boom. Big boom. Big, BIG boom. In three keystrokes. I pointed this out to him, and you know what he said?”
“That’s right, he said ‘oops’!”
“Your partner’s a real piece of work! I wonder what his problem is.”
“He’s a genius! He entangled the qubits in a spinor gauge field! The eigen-operator is nonlinear! Its cubic term equals the Ricci tensor, and that’s what clones the wave function!”
“Excuse me? Who’s doing what to whose which?”
“You see, quantum mechanics had a No-Cloning Theorem, but he found a loophole! Something to do with the curvature of space…”
“ ‘Something’ to do? Don’t you know how your own machine works?”
“Look, Nechaev’s the theoretician, I’m more of an experimentalist.”
Francis studied the data pad. “The top of the replicator cascade has three files. A graviton emitter?” She whistled. “A big one!”
“Incomplete,” Randy said quickly. “Nonfunctional. I insisted.”
“Then why put it there at all?”
“As a proof of concept. A warning to everyone that it’s possible.”
“I see. And what’s this? ‘Libby level’? It’s huge!”
Randy said, “A city replicator. For civil defense. It scans the city once per dekasecond, and it activates if there’s ever an energetic event.”
“An ‘energetic event’? You mean a nuke?”
“Or antimatter, or a graviton. It’s programmed to absorb the energy of the explosion, wait for secondary radiation to cool off, and then replicate the city.”
“I see. Does it work?”
“Nechaev tested it on an abandoned ice mine on Harlan. It works fine.”
“And what’s this third file? ‘His Little List’? Who’s ‘he’?”
“Malvolio, of course.”
“Let’s see now… I see, it’s an atlas! A list of settlements. And oh look, here’s an Addendum!” She scanned the list. “Very thorough…”
Randy said, “Thorough, yes, you might say call it that. I call it too thorough. But no, it’s not an atlas. It’s a target sequence.”
“Oh great. So this thing has a city-killer, a city-resurrector, and a hit list.”
“It includes your people, Francis. The Columbians! Franklin and Jefferson are on his Little List, and they need to know that! They need the city replicator! Kill me if you must, spare me if you wish, but whatever you do, get these replicators to your friends back home! Complete the mission! It’s more important than I am.” Randy struck a noble pose – or at least as noble a pose as he could with both hands cuffed behind his back.
Francis started laughing. “You smooth-talking son of a bitch…” She put down the blaster. “Alright, you I trust. More or less. It’s your partner who’s up to something!”
“Good!” Randy enthused. Then, warily; “Can you uncuff me now?”
“Can I? Sure! Will I? That depends!”
“Well,” she said. “First, there’s these field replicators. I agree, we ought to get them to my friends and family back home on Columbia. Particularly my crazy cousin Katrina.”
“Be my guest! Make dozens – hundreds of copies! Spread them around! I insist!”
“Fine!” she said. “And second, I have a… personal request.”
Francis put her hands on her hips and shot him a smoky look. Then she said, “You know, you’ve got quite a fan club, there at the Wizard’s Bastard. Lots of good friends.“
Randy smiled. “Yes…”
Francis sneered, “Including that trio.”
Randy looked puzzled.
Francis snapped, “You know, those powderpuff girls! The wenches! That ditsy blonde! That bossy redhead! And especially that tomboy brunette!”
Randy moaned, “Ohh…”
Francis raged, “Yeah, busted a third time! How often has Cliff told you to lay off the spaceport floozies? They’re a security risk!” She stamped a foot, crossed her arms, and pouted.
“Oh, Frannie… you mean you’re jealous?”
“Don’t oh-Frannie me, Randy! Of course I’m jealous! I’m sort of old-fashioned in some ways…” She picked up the blaster again, leaned close, and set the muzzle of the blaster alongside his head. “You see, on Columbia, my home world, we don’t believe in paper money, and we don’t believe in corporations, but we do believe in private property!”
Randy looked sidelong at the blaster and said, “And you’re claiming me as yours?” She nodded, and he said, “Do I get a choice in this?”
She twitched the blaster aside. “Sure you do! If you want, you can stay locked in those handcuffs and watch while I tell Cliff that you’ve been whoring and collaborating!”
“Or,” she said, “I keep my mouth shut, and you tell those powderpuff girls - especially that tomboy brunette - that your wenching days are O-V-E-R!!!”
Randy nodded fast. “Yes, dear! Those days are over, dear!”
She set the blaster down, grabbed him, and kissed him hard.
After a long while, she reluctantly disengaged. She got the keys and uncuffed his hands; he took the ankle-cuff keys and bent over to uncuff himself. That done, he sat up straight, then turned to Francis and said, “Hey, you were looking at my ass!”
“I was admiring your ass. And your spirit.”
They stood up, they embraced, and they kissed again.
Then they got to work, replicating their fallen comrades. They arranged their largest replicator around a large boulder. This proved not quite massive enough; during replication the machine took in a gust of air.
Multicolored streams of plasma converged and condensed. Human figures formed, solidified, and animated. Cliff Andover and Rosemarie Vassar materialized, as did Aang, O-B-1, Ben Ten, Ray Kwazaa, Duke Nukem, Neutron, and that newby Kirby.
All gave out their usual replications cries. As usual, Andover went “Aw fuck!”, Rosemarie went “EEEEK!”, Aang cried, “Whoa!”, O-B-1 bellowed “NOOO!”, Ben Ten hollered, “That’s not good!”, Ray Kwazaa wailed “Whaaat?!”, Duke Nukem yelled “Blast!”, Neutron yelped “Jeepers!”, and Kirby squeaked “Gleep!”
As usual, Rosemarie fell down in a faint; but Cliff calmly looked around at his friends inside the loop of the level 5 replicator; then at the two friends outside the replicator; and he said, “Debrief us!” He was always quick to get back on his feet after resurrection.
Randy Underwood addressed Cliff and the men. “Team Galactic attacked the stronghold before sunup, at kilosecond 14, with air and artillery support from Team Aqua and Team Magma. Francis Raven and I, the sole survivors of the raid, fled on stolen broom-jets, bearing nothing but a data crystal with your latest scans, and a field replicator, Mark 2.5.”
“You’ll find food and drink that way,” Francis Raven said, pointing, “weapons there – camping gear there – portapotty this way – perimeter defenses that way – and black helicopters over there.”
The men went to eat, and then to arm themselves.
Randy approached Cliff and said, “Retaliate?”
Cliff nodded. “But of course. Camp here tonight, move out tomorrow morning.”
Randy said, “Retake base Alpha?”
Cliff shook his head. “Too obvious. Do we have long-range transport?”
“Not replicated yet. I have scans – uh, stolen scans – of Imperial hypersonics.“
“You mean hop-rockets? Suborbital?”
Cliff said, “Sweet. Make a fleet, will you?”
“It’s a big job, I’ll need to organize a work team.”
“You do that, say I said so.”
“And the target? Soft, hard? What’ll I tell the men?”
Cliff said, “Tell them… to get ready for some sun and fun. In the Gilligans.”
Randy said, “Can do!”
Meanwhile, Francis helped Rosemarie Vassar get on her feet. Francis said, “You wanted the response time. The precise response time, you said, when you tossed me the data crystal.”
“Yes,” Rosemarie said, visibly perking up. “I would ask for that.”
“So I started the timer on my watch.”
“Yes,” Rosemarie said, and smiled. “You would do that!”
Francis consulted her wrist-watch. “It is now almost kilosecond 56; fourteen kiloseconds before sundown. That’s 42 kiloseconds, half a Rosie day, from fleeing survivors to a fully equipped, supplied, armed and debriefed strike force.”
Rosemarie was positively radiant. “Is that precisely 42 kiloseconds?”
Francis said, “It’s precisely 42 kiloseconds… as of… now.”
And her watch went: